One of the top trending stories last night and today morning is about a pastor in Nakuru who interrupted a wedding ceremony because he wanted the couple to undergo undisclosed medical tests.

After months of planning and saving up money for their wedding, Joyce Waithera and Paul Waithaka invited friends and family to witness an celebrate their wedding last Saturday (3rd November 2018) at the Mizpah House of Prayer in Nakuru County.

However, the head of the church, Apostle Jesse Karanja, summoned the couple to his office on the wedding day and reportedly told them that the wedding would not proceed unless they underwent a HIV test.

Mr Karanja also instructed the bride-to-be, Joyce Waithera, to take a pregnancy test. The couple quickly took both tests and returned to the Apostle with the results — which were both negative.

But the Apostle kept them waiting until past 4 pm, only for him to ask that they get another medical test at a health facility of his choice. This time, to the dismay of the couple, the test results reportedly came back positive.

By this time, however, it was already late in the day and long past the legally allowable time for conducting weddings in Kenya.

Legal authority from heaven

Apostle Karanja explained his actions during the Sunday service the next day, and argued that the couple failed to meet the set Christian church standards.

“Basic principles of our Christian Pentecostal ministry were not met. As an apostolic leader I have the authority to tell you, ‘you must go this way. If you don’t do it I have a legal authority from heaven to ex-communicate you.

“Yesterday, we were supposed to have a wedding but it did not happen. The main reason is that our standards as a Christian church organization were not met. Every member must adhere to some basic christian standards. Any deviation calls for the church not to perform any christian ordinance.

“We had given the couple up to Friday to fulfill some standard requirements of this ministry because we proclaim living a life of purity. We advocate sex out of marriage for young people. We have set our own biblical standards that everyone must meet. There are other personal reasons that we cannot give you,” he told KTN News.

Defining and defending the local church

Predictably, the story has sparked a lot of outrage and debate amongst Christians as well as among critics of religion in general. It is the latest example of spiritual abuse by church leaders in the name of God, and has (sadly) validated much of the criticism that Christianity continues to receive around the world.

However, I believe this incident also presents a good opportunity for Christians to examine their faith an religious practices. While I would never advocate for the extreme measure of throwing out religion altogether (neither would I advocate a similar unexamined rejection of secularism), I believe Christians should be ready and willing to confront evil wherever they see it, especially within the walls of the church.

A good place to begin is by examining our understanding of the church: What is the local church? What is church membership and what are the responsibilities of members? Who is qualified to lead a church? How should the church leadership be constituted? And probably the most consequential question in this particular instance: Who is your church leader, pastor, Apostle accountable to?

The church (including the Pastor) is a body

Apostle Karanja made a bold statement while defending his actions and decisions. He said, for instance, “As an apostolic leader I have the authority to tell you, you must go this way. If you don’t do it I have a legal authority from heaven to ex-communicate you.”

The Bible speaks directly to many of the declarations made by the Apostle, and it contradicts him on every point. For instance, Matthew 18 outlines a clear step-by-step process for excommunicating a member. Jesus leaves the final decision to the congregation, not the pastor.

The church (including the Pastor) is a body. Only Jesus is the head. Only Jesus reserves the right to make any unanimous decisions about the church. The rest of us must live, move and have our being as a body.

Congregational authority

But Apostle Karanja was probably appealing to the passage in 1 Corinthians 5 where Apostle Paul instructs the church in Corinth to throw out a man who was involved in gross “sexual immorality… of a kind that even pagans do not tolerate: A man is sleeping with his father’s wife.”

Yet, even with such an extreme case, Paul does not make a unanimous decision. He wants this to be a decision made by the congregation. He says:

So when you are assembled and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord.”

I should also point out that Paul did not address his letter to the Pastor of the Corinthian church, he addressed it “to the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be his holy people, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ—their Lord and ours.” (1 Cor 1:2)

Apostolic accountability

Someone may ask, but did the congregation have any choice but to obey Apostle Paul? And the answer to that is found in how Paul and the other Apostles lived their lives. They were always accountable to the church — even when there was no need to.

For instance, in Galatians, we see Paul reporting how he went out of his way to “check” with the Apostles in Jerusalem just to make sure he wasn’t preaching a false gospel.

 I went in response to a revelation and, meeting privately with those esteemed as leaders, I presented to them the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles. I wanted to be sure I was not running and had not been running my race in vain.” (Galatians 2:2)

Later in the same Chapter of Galatians we see Paul confronting Apostle Peter when he acts hypocritically in front of other believers. Clearly, the Apostles were accountable to other people besides God. Is this the way the Apostle in your church behaves? Is he accountable to anyone besides God?

If he is not, then you have reason to be very worried. For the sake of the Gospel, for the sake of the name of our God which is being blasphemed because of such rogue Apostles, for the sake of your own soul and the souls of the people you love, I implore you to leave such a church immediately.

The atheists and other critics of the Christian religion are right when they describe such a pastor as dangerous. They are right to warn the world to steer clear of churches if this what happens there. Whether or not they are right to use this example as a representative of the core of Christianity largely depends on how those of us who choose to still follow Christ respond to these accusations.