By Martin Sitefane
Shepherds’ Seminary Graduate
The Bible defines what constitutes a church, a biblical ekklesia. Every gathering that classifies itself as a “church” must be tested against the grid of Scripture to determine whether it is truly what it puts itself out to be. This is a key question because of the identity, the role and the power that Scripture ascribes to the church. The church’s significance spans not only in this lifetime, but carries eternal consequences for those who attend it and are part of it.
Grace Bible Church is one of the biggest churches in Soweto, reportedly with over than 70 branches in various provinces in South Africa. As someone who grew up in a township, and is serving there currently, testing the biblical veracity of this large, influential “church” is an important issue given their prevalence in Soweto, and the influence in the broader South African township context.
In this paper, I briefly exegete three select texts from which I derive three marks of a truly biblical Ekklesia. Following which I use the three marks to as fairly as possible critically evaluate Grace Bible Church.
Admittedly, an article of a mere 6 pages cannot do full justice to this topic. Only a PhD thesis involving some field work (interview of members etc.), listening to tons of sermons, and evaluating all the New Testament (NT) marks of a church would do full justice. However, I believe the selected three marks carry sufficient weight from which I can arrive at a non- biased, biblical, and conclusive judgement of Grace Bible church’s standing against God’s blueprint. To this end then the paper will first provide a high-level exegesis of three NT passages about the marks of the church. This will be followed by an evaluation of Grace Bible Church against these marks. I close off with a brief conclusion that summarises my position based on the data analysed.
BACKGROUND AND THE FOUNDER OF GRACE BIBLE CHURCH
Grace Bible Church was founded by Senior Pastor, Musa Sono (known to many as Bishop “Musa Sono”). Sono is considered by many as being influential and missional. As such, he presently serves as president, board member, and executive in more than five church organisations. The organisations include the Federation of Charismatic and Pentecostal churches (IFCC), the South African Council of Churches National Council of the Leaders forum, and Soweto Ministries Fraternal. He is considered missional for famously declaring that he aims to establish 1000 church branches in his lifetime.
From a distance, Grace Bible Church looks rather impressive. Grace Bible Church has a relatively established history. It was constituted in in the 1980’s, meaning that its doors have been open for just over 40 years. Over this 40-year span, it has opened over 70 branches, in four provinces in South Africa, namely Gauteng, Western Cape, Limpopo, and Free State. It is well-known for its outreach ministries which serve various poor communities with food, clothing etc.
If one considers Grace Bible’s church credentials from a distance, one might be tempted to conclude that Grace Bible Church is an excellent example of successful church planting in the townships. However, since God’s definition of successful church planting and ministering in any setting for that matter is not purely gauged by impressive external statistics, it is critical that one evaluates Grace Bible church soberly, using scripture as the grid for truly assessing its ways. Using the Word of God sets all personal opinions and preferences aside, and instead elevates God’s standard as preeminent.
The grid of Scripture must determine the nature of Grace Bible Church as whether it is indeed a blueprint of township ministry, or whether it is one of the many false, unbiblical churches that are wreaking havoc all over our nation.
MARKS OF A BIBLICAL CHURCH ACCORDING TO THE WORD OF GOD
The New Testament has a plethora of texts that provide insight on the question, “What constitutes a biblical Ekklesia?” Instead of tackling them all, I’ll focus on three: 2 Tim. 4:1-2, Matt. 18:15-20, and 1 Tim. 3:1-13. From these I’ve derived three marks of a biblical Ekklesia.
(1) The first mark is found in Paul’s famous letter to his beloved son in the faith and Minister at the Ephesian church, Timothy. 2 Tim. 4:1-2 reads, “I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.”
In these mere two verses we learn much about what should take place in a local church. First, Timothy is called to preach. Preaching is the act. Second, Paul not only defines the act, but also lays out the content that must be preached. Paul says Timothy, preach not your opinion, or stories that tickle itching ears. No! Preach “the word”. Paul then goes further to show that preaching the word should not be driven by culture or convenience. We see this at end of 2 Tim. 4:1-2 when Paul says, “be ready in season and out of season”. Timothy as a preacher at the church of Ephesus was to preach the word whether in season (that’s favourable times), and out of season (that’s unfavourable times). Unlike the grace-filled, ‘You have great potential’, non-offensive preachings of many preachers, Timothy’s spectrum of messages was to involve the whole spectrum of “reprove, rebuke, and exhortation”; with “complete patience and teaching”.
If these were Paul’s words to Timothy in what was probably his last words in 2 Timothy, then surely, he (and indeed his master Christ) expects the same from any church today? Faithfulness to the mandate of preaching the word, in season and out of season, is a distinguishing mark of true biblical ekklesia.
(2) A second mark of a biblical church is derived from Jesus’s own words in Matthew 18:15-20. In this passage, Jesus described a crucial process of how a local body should lovingly deal with sin in its midst. The ideal situation is if the transgressor acknowledges their sin and repents, thus terminating the church discipline process in step 1. However, in the unfortunate event of the transgressor’s refusal to repent, even after being confronted by the church, the church is left with no other option but to excommunicate the member. The hope is still that now that they’ve been pronounced as an unbeliever, they’ll eventually repent and be restored to the assembly. Church discipline then can be rightly described as an exercise of uncomfortable Christ-honouring love. It is uncomfortable because the process involves a confronting sin. It is Christ-honouring love because in obedience to Christ, its chief aim is restoration and maintaining the purity of the body.
Some churches, thinking they know better than the Master, refuse to practice church discipline. Contrary to Christ, they consider it unloving, harsh, and merciless. The reality though is that since church discipline was Christ’s and not man’s idea. Any church that fails to exercise church discipline in the so-called name of grace and love, is disobeying the word of God. To disobey God’s word is to reject Christ’s authority over the church. Faithful churches have always been obedient churches, especially in crucial issues.
(3) A third and final mark of a biblical church is taken from 1 Tim. 3:1-13. In this passage the apostle Paul gives a long list of essential characteristics of the two office bearers of the church, the elder and the Paul makes it clear in verse fifteen of chapter three that these are not mere recommendations or some good to have characteristics. These characteristics are none negotiables for every church. Any truly biblical church should be exemplified by a commitment to appoint leaders who meet the characteristics set out in this passage. Failure to do so is unfaithful, unbiblical and is not a true mark of a biblical church.
In summary, from the passages surveyed we have established three marks of a biblical church. Admittedly these are not all the marks, others could be added, for example those in Mark Dever book, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church – marks such as a biblical understanding of conversion, good news, church membership, evangelism amongst others. However, these three mark are weighty enough as biblical essentials in the assessment of whether Grace Bible Church is a biblical church. To summarise, the three marks are:
– A biblical church is marked by faithful preaching of the Word
– A biblical church is marked by faithful practicing of church discipline
– A biblical church is marked by faithful placement of church officers
IN LIGHT OF THE SCRIPTURES, IS GRACE BIBLE CHURCH A BIBLICAL EKKLESIA?
Having established the three marks of a biblical church, the question that remains to be answered is how does Grace Bible Church match up to these marks? Grace Bible church will be evaluated against each mark below.
(1) Mark 1, a biblical church faithfully proclaims God’s word: Admittedly, no church is perfect – only heaven will reveal how we might have erred on tertiary, and even some secondary convictions that we held on strongly. Nevertheless, the true test of faithfulness to scripture is whether churches are especially faithful in upholding the clear, non-ambiguous, non- negotiable, primary, and orthodox doctrines of the Grace Bible church is evaluated using this category. Their statement of faith is a good starting place.
With the exception of the obvious endorsement of the charismatic gifts, Grace Bible church statement of faith is pretty orthodox. Some statements are undoubtedly a little uncomfortable e.g., when they say “we strive to be relevant to our generation”, but even these are balanced out by the next phrase “whilst remaining scripturally pure”. At face value none of their doctrinal affirmations are heretical and I’d be at ease to adopt a large percentage of these in any church.
But as is often the case, the statement of faith is a dusty, forgotten or neglected piece of paper. The true statement of faith is observed in practice. When one interrogates the preaching, as I have done, a completely different picture emerges. I’ll use three different excepts from recent sermons at the church’s headquarters to demonstrate the underlying theology and teachings of the church:
– Last month, on Sunday 15 October (2023) in a sermon on three main texts 1 17:33-36, Songs of Solomon 3:6, and Numb. 13:27 the speaker by the name of Bishop Bernard Nwaka, amongst other bizarre statements, said the following: “God has called you to silence every voice that has told you that you cannot do it. Nations are awaiting you”.
– Another example from last month (8 October 2023) another pastor, known as Dr. Elijah Maswanganyi, preached a sermon titled, “The Hindrances that Challenge us from Beholding New Things”. He listed seven obstacles. The list of hindrances included historical factors such as apartheid and slavery; fear of change; denominational factors which he said are a form of racism and tribalism; and perhaps most shocking, he said ‘Hermeneutical Bible Interpretation’. In other words, following the old age application of what protestant consider as sound Hermeneutical Bible interpretation is a hindrance that challenges Christians to behold new things. Given their openness to new revelation, it makes sense why an orthodox application of hermeneutics would be seen as a hindrance for beholding new things. No wonder why then their preaching embraces eisegesis not exegesis.
– A third example is from a visiting preacher, Don Philips, who was preaching recently from Ezekiel 37:1-4. This is what he concluded from the text. I quote, “God is taking us through a dry valley and he is asking us “will these bones live?”. We need to speak to the dead dry bones in our nation. Let us declare to the dry bones in this nation; hear the word of God. South Africa will emerge as a mighty army, this is our season and time to arise. The season for the church is here”.
– How bold? How self-assured? How awfully unbiblical? This is the weekly diet of members at Grace Bible church and no-one can dare challenge this because as one of the speakers by the name of Reverent Thandanani Savhasa said at a recent event, “We need to understand that utterances that are said during this week don’t come from Bishop Sono or any of the speakers, but from the oracles of the Lord. The great I AM Who remains faithful”. That is an unashamed claim of divine revelation emanating from Sono and others leaders.
From these excerpts and other sermon notes that I evaluated, my summation of Grace Bible church’s preaching is that their preaching is man-centred, unfaithful to the text, flawed with positive confession, often vague and confusing, a perfect example of eisegesis, equivalent to motivational speaking and the teaching does not centre on Christ and him crucified for depraved sinners. This is a far cry from Paul’s commission to Timothy to, “preach the word rebuke, reproof, and exhort with all patience”. In all earnestness, the sermons sound more like those emanating from the false puffed-up teachers of Jude, than the faithful lovingly confrontational preachings of Paul, Peter, and James.
(2) Mark 2 deals with church discipline. My summation is that a truly biblical church is committed to the faithful practice of church discipline. Here, I rely on secondary information from former members of Grace Bible church. According to these sources church discipline is not practiced, let alone known to exist in the church. Sources report of how sin among the youth, and even the highly esteemed leaders is often brushed aside with no formal disciplinary steps taken. In fact, from at least one couple and a former youth leader in the church, one of the abhorrent things that finally pushed them away from the church was just how loose the church’s grip was on dealing with sin. They report how Youth leaders would often be engaged in drunkenness and fornication the one weekend, and then continue to lead, so-called ushering people to God’s presence in song and bible teaching the next Sunday.
It is no-wonder why many unbelievers whose lives are no different to the non-churchgoers feel absolutely comfortable in the church. It is no wonder why someone as scandalous as South Africa’s Deputy President Paul Mashatile feels at home in the church, and was even classified as one of the VIPs at a recent church event.
(3) The final mark explored is that a truly biblical church protects the office of elder and deacons by only appointing qualified candidates, and sharply dealing with disqualified office. Here I find two faults with Grace Bible church. First, the NT makes allowance for only men to serve as elders. This is clearly taught in 1 Tim. 3 and Titus 1.
Grace Bible church clearly and quite proudly violates this clear NT teaching by having various women serving as elders throughout their branches. In fact, Mosa Sono’s wife, Gene Sono, is herself a Pastor of the main Grace Bible church branch in Pimville. She bears several elder titles such as ‘Ma Bishop’, ‘Pastor Sono’, ‘Overseer’ which the church unashamedly highlights on the church’s website. This is not the only issue in terms of protecting the office of an elder.
Another issue, again highlighted by former members is that the appointment of elders and deacons is not always according to the clear criteria set out in the 1 Tim. 3 and Titus 1. According to former member, there have been many instances where elders are selected based on their giving ability, influence, giftedness, celebrity profile, charisma, and popularity. Some disqualified men are still today serving as elders even though they have been divorced several times or have displayed a love of money, or have failed in managing their household.
This brief paper has sought to biblically evaluate Grace Bible church credential as a true Ekklesia. I have done so by looking at three NT marks of a truly biblical church. Having evaluated the marks, namely, that a biblical church is faithful to the word, faithful to church discipline, and faithful to upholding church discipline, I conclude that based on these criteria, Grace Bible church is not a biblical Ekklesia. As such, I will endeavour where appropriate to warn in my preaching and in personal communication to warn people of its ills. I pray that many people will take heed, and avoid the poison of churches that in their efforts of being relevant to this generation forsake preaching the word, fail to apply church discipline, and appoint elders and deacons based on man and not God’s standard.
Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, by Mark Dever
Personal communication with former members of Grace Bible Church, Soweto