The General Overseer of Holy Spirit Mission, Bishop Charles Ighele, is a respected servant of God and one with sound knowledge of the scriptyres. He demystifies the arguments advance in favour of continued lockdown of churches while markets, malls and others are allowed to do business in this interview with TAI ANYANWU
What’s your reaction to the indefinite suspension of the reopening of places of worship which was recently announced by the Lagos State Governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu?
It is quite unfortunate. The main reason that the government gave is that the number of Covid-19 cases are increasing; and that it is not good to open worship centers. Government is afraid that if worship places are opened, perhaps it will bring about more infections.
The governor spoke as a governor based on the advice given by medical doctors. Unfortunately also the advice he got from some Christian leaders. Medical doctors will normally speak based on what they observed and they will give their genuine advice to the governor. I don’t blame them for that. But what surprises me is that some Christian leaders gave silly advice that churches should not be opened because of coronavirus. Operators of luxurious buses and many other groups are pressurising government to reopen their businesses. In some states, these requests have been granted; in two or three the pressure is not fully granted. But it surprises me that while all these groups are putting pressure on government to reopen their business some Christian leaders who should operate at their capacity as spiritual leaders are saying government should not reopen churches.
The governor is then blameless because he acted on the advice of medical experts and some Christian leaders. But I call tell you that majority of Christians, at least pastors, so many of them are not happy about that. When I tell you that Christians are not happy about it, I mean they are very angry about that. The number churches of 100 or 200 members and below combined in Lagos, are more than the number of mega church combined. The number of members who attend churches of 200 members and below combine are more than the the members who attend all the mega churches combined. Pastors of most of those churches of 200 members and below are very angry. I need to say this so that the governor and government is also aware of the feelings of people.
They are not happy at all and they are disappointed with people like me and other leaders. They are angry that we have not spoken on behalf of the church. Some of them are even happy with what the Catholic Archbishop of Lagos said recently about reopening of churches; and are now disappointed that their pentecostal leaders have abandoned them.
That is the mood, It’s the mood of anger. If some people should speak to government, that does not reflect the view of so many people down there. I am someone who obeys the law and it’s good for people to understand that law are made for the greatest good of the greatest number of the people.
The argument of some Christian leaders is that churches can be closed and Christians can exploit opportunities to fellowship via online churches. But you see; members of mega churches have smart phones and can afford data to worship via online churches. Majority of Christians don’t have these facilities, they can’t buy data and they can’t do all those things. They are being spiritually starved.
When it was announced that churches were going to resume June 21, from reports I heard from some of our people, there were jubilations and dancing. But when they heard again some were crying. Now let me add this. Online serves can never replace physical service. The church was not designed for online service. The church is ecclesiastic.
The word church means ‘Assembly,’ ‘Ecclesia, congregation. Church is not a personal thing. Some of our Christian leaders have miseducated some governors, I hear some of them say church is a personal thing, God is in your heart; they are far from the truth.
Yet God is in your heart but Christianity was never designed for one man to worship in isolation. Hebrew 10:25 says, we should not neglect the assembling of ourselves together as the manner of some is. What God hates is people not meeting to worship. Any human being who is going to stop the gathering together of God’s people, as far as I am concern, that is not the will of God. They say it’s because Covid-19 is killing people. Now I ask, if Jesus Christ is physically here today, will he close down his church because of a disease when he has given us power over diseases. I know that not all of us exercise this power; but there are some who exercise this power. Two things I have said here, the church is not designed for personalised worshipping, we are to congregate. That is the hallmark of Christianity, that is the censer. Anything that takes these away, then you are harming the church. Again let me say that Jesus said give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. We obey government’s rules. Caesar represents government, God represents the church and things of God. In this case, I see some governors over stepping their spiritual boundaries, into the territory of God. It is not good for any human being at all or their descendants. I see the Lagos State governor as one of the wisest governors in this country. He is a coolheaded, an intelligent and wise man. I have been observing him and I don’t see him making errors here and there, he is cool tempered. I know that in this case, he has not acted singlehandedly. He has been advised; and I am also offering my own suggestion that being the wise man I think he is, that he should please, in the fear of God, because the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom, let the church be reopened immediately. It appears that you don’t recognised the potency of large church gatherings in spreading coronavirus faster. Or are you saying that Christian leaders who supported the closure of churches chickened out in the first place? Since the pandemic started, I have noticed different types of leaders. Some reacted out of fear.
Both spiritual and political leaders reacted out of fear. When you react out of fear, it is lockdown everywhere, nobody moves. You could see that some react out of panic because the news on CNN already was as if the whole world was going to end this year. I don’t blame them for that. Some religious leaders also reacted out of fear. I know that some of them have the healing anointing but some do not have.
Even the ones that have are afraid that even if they have the faith not all their members have the faith. So while some have the faith that this disease will not infect them, some have no faith, some have weak faith some have great faith. They looked at the scenario and say I don’t want them to be afflicted. Some Christian leaders may have acted out of that point of view of fear and out of love. But that is not the spiritual height they should act from.
The should act from a greater spiritual height than these because we are seated in heavenly places with Christ Jesus. God calls us spiritual overseers over His flock, that we should feed His flock of which he has made us overseers.
As spiritual overseers, we build up the people’s faith, give them hope while we tell them in the church, please keep the social distancing, at home do this and in the office comply with the requirements.
What would be your comment on the restrictions which prohibit aged people of 65 and above as well as younger ones below 15 years from congregating, in fellowships?
Perhaps this is the only place that it’s happening.
For instance, I know that in US, people that are above 70 go to church, they are not prevented and the deaths are more there than it is here. And I know that the government saw that death of people of 65 years and above is high.
I am a little bit above 65. I am the bishop of this ministry. Does it mean that I shouldn’t go to church. For me it depends on how healthy one is.
On the young ones, before the total lockdown, we did social distancing, we closed down all the children churches in our ministry all over the country.
We know that children cannot do social distancing, they will play amongst themselves in the children’s church. We made them to sit with their parents in the adult church, family by family. If the family is eight in number, the nearest eight seats are for that family based on social distancing. That is what we did and that’s what I will suggest. Not keeping children at home. Let the children be in church, at least they will be happy.
Even if they don’t understand adult teachings, pastors will break it down to their levels. I want government, even as the churches reopen urgently, to remove those two clauses. Those that are sick normally can stay at home.
Others can come, the children should be made to sit together with their parents so patents can prevent the children from running about. That’s my suggestion to government. I am a law abiding person and this is my suggestion for good government.
What in your opinion are the implications of denying the aged and youngsters opportunity to congregate?
There is spiritual hunger in people, there is a vacuum there that must be filled, just like the vacuum in the body that must be filled with food in the stomach. There is also the soul, the brain that need to be fed with knowledge. Because man has three parts, the spirit, soul and body. And the body must be fed with good food; the soul, brain or mind has to be fed with knowledge. Bible says that it is not good for the soul to be without knowledge.
That is the essence of knowledge and instruction; but the real man is the spirit. The Bible says that the spirit of man is the candle of the Lord.
That is where the Lord instructs us, from there the mind gets instructions, from there the body carries out the instructions. When the spirit is not fully served or is served by online service snacks. I do online services but to me,it’s like snacks. When it is not properly served then there is a problem for the Christian. It caused spiritual poverty which now affects society, because armed robbers come to church for salvation, we serve them free. Murderers come, prostitutes come and when they are not properly fed spiritually what happens?
They can fall back because the power of staying spiritually individually is never as strong as that of when you staying collectively at a place.
Do you see Christian leaders complying with the terms of reopening churches that prohibits the administration of Holy Communion, as prescribed by government?
No! No! No! I have never seen any pastor who said he will comply with that. I have never come across any. I know that government gave that instruction based on how the Catholic Church do Holy Communion. They drink from one cup and then wipe it. I think government thought that’s how all the churches do it. No. In our church over the years, our pastors wear gloves, the wine and the bread are prepared and they use gloves to give the wine and bread to people individually. They line up one after the other, they take and go back to their seats. While there, it is prayed over before they are told to take body of Jesus and the blood of Jesus. That is how many churches I know do Holy Communion and in a case like that, social distancing can still be maintained. For me whenever government says no Holy Communion, and Jesus said do Holy Communion, it’s government is crossing its spiritual boundary by not giving to God what is God’s. And government taking over the place of Jesus by canceling his commandment. Jesus said do it often, so if corona virus will last for one year what do we do? We do it often, provided we keep to social distancing and all the hygienic conditions. There is a misconception by one of my colleagues, one of the CAN leaders issued a statement quoting some scriptures that government is ordained by God, so government should be obeyed. They believe that God put them there, but I know that some public officials put themselves there, I also know that some used money power, connections, violence, charms and godfatherism to get there.
The thing is that no matter how you get there, God expects you and every government to have a semblance of justice, to maintain law and other until the real government of God comes. When these governments are there, this is what the Bible says, help them to maintain law, order and peace. But when any government is lawless or rises above God, then the people have the right to oppose such a government. This was what happened in the Old Testament and Elijah and Elisha could challenge governments. In New Testament also you see Jesus talking about Herod saying ‘Go and tell that fox,’ when he arrested John the Baptist. But you see Jesus paid tax, his disciples paid tax.
That is being obedient to government. On the other hand, when Peter, James and John were arrested, the Jewish authorities said don’t preach in this name again as in close down the church. Peter said we rather obey God than man. At that level, generally when any government goes above God, goes lawless against the people or does things anyhow, that government is already in the bad books of God. This is what I want our leaders to know. By virtue of what I read at school, I have read about plagues, I have read about governments’ reactions to plagues. I have read about the plagues of 1336, about how people were dying like chickens all over the world.
Despite that, King George the third said bishops pray, pastors pray, please pray and pray. Some people wrote then ‘ God have mercy on us.
So the government then drew people to God. I want government to please bring themselves under God not only when they want to contest elections. Say please pray, church open, do social distancing, advise your people because it is from church that we have that authority.
The people obey us more than the government Let government give us that leverages so that we pass all these things to our people.
Government says that Pastors who are 65 and above should stay away from church. You fall within that classification. Are willing to retire prematurely so to say?
No! That’s impossible.
There are certain things which cannot be practiced. This is one of them. It is impossible, it cannot be practiced. I am 65 years and few months old. It’s like saying that Pope should not go to church, the Prelate should not go to church and the General Overseer should not go to church.
That is impossible, except on medical grounds.
Could you tell us if closure of churches has taken a toll on servants of God socially?
Let me also add this. Every two weeks, we supply food stuff to poor families, because many are dying of hunger, since this lockdown started. We also have to minister to pastors from smaller churches. whose incomes are not even enough to cater for the needs of their members who can no longer go out to earn daily living because of the lockdown. These people are in their tens of thousand. This is an area of social problem being created for these people who are doing spiritual work. I am not talking about myself because I am not on salary as the bishop of the ministry. I am saying that many young pastors are dying of hunger because of the lockdown. I’m not talking of the crooks among them, who sale anointing oil, handkerchiefs, those ones are surviving.
But many genuine ministers of God are dying of hunger because of government imposed lockdown on churches.
Many people who look up to your ministry’s unique annual free medical outreach are wondering if they can access that this year considering government’s restrictions on travels. Would you like to address their fears?
For the past five years, we give free medical care to 2,000 to 5,000 people. We do it in conjunction with our medical partners from the USA, who bring brand new medicines worth millions of Naira from the factories, which they source. They have been doing it in some parts of Africa.
They heard about us and decided to collaborate with us. In the process they said we are honest enough to minister free health services to the needy; and do not sell their drugs for money as others have done.
They have been coming every year and each time they come the crowd comes in their thousand from different parts of Lagos. We organised the crowd in an orderly manner so that smaller groups are are assigned specific days when they will be attended to. At the end of the day, each person goes home with quality medicine to last them one year till the next time the medical will visit again.
With the lockdown and travel restriction, we only hope that government will facilitate the medical teams visitation. Already, the team has informed me that they are already sourcing quality medicines include 5,000 medicated glasses for those with eye problems. I believe that government and the church should partner each others to create a paradise of service for the citizenry.