Factions in SA’s churches are an old problem

The split in the International Pentecostal Holiness Church follows a pattern that has long shaped the flowering of Christian churches in Southern Africa and beyond.

The Christian church is made up of thousands of denominations, all diverse in their symbolism and teachings. This diversity can be traced to events and patterns of leadership over many years, from the time of Jesus’ death. It is a pattern of leadership that defines the Christian church to this day, in every region of the world. 

In Southern Africa, as elsewhere, the church’s organisations have been shaped by powerful personalities willing themselves to be anointed prophetic leaders – by birth right or spiritual inspiration. Think here of the quarrel in the bible between Saint Paul and James, Brother of Jesus. There was a new iteration of this last winter at the International Pentecostal Holiness Church (IPHC) in the West Rand.

In July, South Africans woke up to reports of gangs and devotees caught with bombs and guns in a foiled bid to take over the IPHC headquarters in Zuurbekom. The episode left five people dead – four shot and burnt in a car, and a security guard shot in another car. Six others were injured. 

The attack was part of a protracted contest for pastoral power over the pulpits of one of the largest African-initiated churches. The feud, which has split the IPHC’s nearly four million tithe-paying membership into three factions, began with the death of the church’s sole and supreme leader in 2016. It is complicated by the rule of primogeniture – an unwritten tradition that is still the custom in many African households, where the first-born son inherits the father’s powers, position and possessions. 

12 February 2016: Tshepiso Modise, son of the International Pentecost Holiness Church leader Glayton Modise, during his father’s funeral in Zuurbekom. (Photograph by Gallo Images/ Sowetan/ Veli Nhlapo)

The IPHC was founded in 1962 by Frederick Samuel Modise, a former minister of the Zionist Christian Church (ZCC). He remained the church’s supreme leader until his death in 1998. During his reign, Modise grew it into a flock of 165 branches throughout Southern Africa with parishes as far afield as Namibia, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. The IPHC became the second largest church initiated by Africans in Southern Africa. In the top spot is the ZCC. 

In the wake of the founder’s death, his only son, Glayton Modise, rose to replace him as supreme leader, like an aristocratic secular ruler’s heir. This set a precedent and a seed of expectation for a similar succession. Glayton died in February 2016 without having settled the succession question, which plunged the IPHC into bitter contests for the right to reign over its pulpits. 

The feuding factions are principally formed behind the late founder’s respective sons and church elders. Some back Tshepiso, while others stand with his younger brother Leonard. Then there is a third grouping that backs Michael Sandlana, often alleged to be Modise’s son out of wedlock. 

An ancient problem  

What is happening at the IPHC is not new. In the wake of Jesus’ death, one of his most zealous followers, Paul, squared off with James, brother of Jesus, over church doctrine. James had been the de facto leader of the nascent movement by inheritance.

Their squabble concerned the power of Hebrew law in the new movement, and the place of non-Jewish converts versus Jewish congregants. Paul renounced the law while James affirmed it. In his teachings, James dwelt on the importance of deeds, not just faith. Paul proclaimed that salvation is by grace through faith alone, and not through good works. Exercising his right to rule over the burgeoning church as heir and brother of its founder, James imposed his will over Paul and his faction.

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The nature of this foundational feud has become archetypal. Church denominations have risen and faltered over the founder’s family squabbling over leadership, with each faction advancing its own interpretation of teachings.

The ZCC story

Long before the troubles took hold at the IPHC, a contest for control of the ZCC had seen it split into its two iconic branches. It is a story that began in 1924 when Engenas Lekganyane emerged from the Zion Apostolic Church (which was a part of the Apostolic Faith Mission) to launch his own church, the Zion Christian Church. It is said he was guided by a sacred inspiration in a vision. Lekganyane grew his new church across what was then the Transvaal, with a strong urban base in the Pretoria, Wits and Vaal areas. 

By the time of his death in the winter of 1948, he was presiding over 50 000 followers. His failure to plan for succession set his two sons and their supporters on a collision course over inheritance and leadership of the church. His eldest son Edward had left home against his father’s will to work and live in Durban. Like the Biblical prodigal son, he would return home after Lekganyane’s death with ambitions of becoming the church’s supreme leader.

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Edward challenged his younger brother Joseph for the position. Their rivalry split the church and the family into two. Edward was supported by the urban base and his uncle Reuben while the late founder’s brother, Paulus, supported Joseph. 

Sometime in 1949, Edward stormed the church headquarters with a horde of supporters bent on bulldozing their way through and installing him as leader of the church. They succeeded. His younger brother initially embraced him, albeit not for long. Joseph and his supporters were eventually forced to leave. Thus Engenas Lekganyane’s flock came to be factionalised. 

Edward’s faction would retain the symbol of a five-pointed star on a green-and-black badge. His brother’s breakaway fold became known as the St. Engenas Zion Christian Church. Their symbol is a dove and laurel leaf on a green-and-black badge. The two folds have grown alongside each other over the years. Today, the two branches of the ZCC collectively account for about 10 million members across Southern Africa.

20 April 2016: Members of the International Pentecost Holiness Church march outside the high court in Pretoria in support of elders who wanted the executive committee led by Tshepiso Modise removed. (Photograph by Gallo Images/ Sowetan/ Veli Nhlapo)

The Church of Shembe

The ZCC story is mirrored by that of the Nazareth Baptist Church, also known as the Church of Shembe. During the lifetime of its founder Isaiah Mloyiswa Mdliwamafa Shembe, it was the second- largest African-initiated church on the continent. After Shembe died in 1935, the church has been split multiple times. The first bout of conflict ensued when Shembe’s son by his third wife, Johannes Galilee (JG) Shembe, was named as the successor. The conflict remained latent until 1976 when JG died without having named an heir. This sparked violent clashes that resulted in the death of several people, and split the church of Shembe into three factions.

JG’s brother Amos Shembe tried to assume leadership of the largest group. JG’s sons wanted the throne for themselves and therefore opposed him. In the end, Amos and his larger group would be the Ebuhleni faction. Londa and Nkanyezi led the Ekuphakameni and Ohlange factions respectively. 

In 1995, Amos died and the church found itself in another leadership battle – a new generation of sons, uncles and nephews vying for power over believers.

Who will emerge victorious in the IPHC’s three-way feud? History points to a litany of splitters leading to new churches formed, and the rise of new dynasties. Newly minted sacred families might one day be subject to divisions and divergence too. It’s an epoch shaping tradition seeded into the nascent Christian movement during the historic quarrel between Paul and James over pulpit supremacy.

19 March 2020: Leader of the Zion Christian Church Bishop Barnabas Lekganyane reacts during a meeting with President Cyril Ramaphosa and religious leaders in Pretoria. (Photograph by Gallo Images/ Phill Magakoe)

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