“Bishop” Brian Tamaki

It’s not common to find a well resourced and organised, well presented, enthusiastically socially proactive, theologically conservative (for the most part) and outspoken Christian church in New Zealand. The combination of all four is a rare commodity. So in recent history when Brian Tamaki’s Destiny Church showed up, it naturally attracted a lot of attention, both good and bad. It was all of those things – plus a few other things. But in part because of those four things all together, it was like a lighthouse for a number of disenfranchised Christians who felt that other churches really weren’t going to make the kind of difference they wanted to see.

Added to this package, however, were a few other things – things often seen as the darker side of some Pentecostal churches. There had always been an intense focus on the church’s leadership, in this case just one man, Brian Tamaki, who took the title “bishop” in spite of the church not having an episcopal leadership model. All of the church’s publicity, including its own television broadcasts, were centred on one individual. Mr Tamaki was at the centre not because of any qualifications that made him knowledgeable or especially skilled at anything in particular, but rather because of the belief that he is God’s chosen man. A very strong emphasis in Mr Tamaki’s teaching on submission to church leadership (I’ll never forget – “If you don’t have a pastor, you’re heading for disaster”) was also a concern for many, as it raised the spectre of unquestionable authority, or at very least the sustained focus on such submission suggested an unhealthy imbalance towards human authority. It’s also a common feature in charismatic movements like this – and Destiny is no exception – that a great deal of authority to teach the Christian faith is vested in those who at times almost seem to flaunt the fact that they have no theological training. Such, we might be told sometimes, is the stuff of old stuffy religious people in ivory towers, all we really need is a strong leadership above us, a leadership that is in touch with God. In the eyes of many, it’s like a 16 year old boy with no licence being given the fastest car in town. A respect for one’s teaching that has not been earned, but which is taken very seriously by the flock.

How strong is the commitment to abiding by leadership decisions? Here’s an example: In my city of Dunedin there used to be a branch of Destiny Church. Higher leadership from elsewhere in New Zealand decided that this branch should no longer exist, and that they would move their resources elsewhere, to Christchurch (about 5 hours’ drive north), so they gave a simple instruction to the members of the church down here: The minister is moving north. Follow him. You move too. What’s even scarier is how many of them actually did move.

Another worrying trend over the years has been the strong emphasis in Destiny – also a theme in many Pentecostal churches – on financially giving to the church. Don’t get me wrong; churches have expenses and somebody has to meet them and to fund the projects that the church wants to be involved in. But – to put it bluntly, the impression has accumulated over the years that here is a movement that fleeces the (willing) flock. The leader very obviously lives what by anybody’s standards is a very rich lifestyle (wardrobes of imported suits and shoes, expensive houses, expensive Harley Davidson hobbies, the income of a CEO, you get the idea), messages about “tithing”to the church (see my article on how the idea of tithing to the church is based on flimsy biblical foundations) are prominent and fairly frequent, and the association of ministry with money seen in Destiny is just a bit much for most.

Now there’s this.

Honestly, at first glance it looks like Destiny Church and Brian Tamaki are trying to confirm the very worst suspicions that people already have. Brian Tamaki has had 700 men of the church swear an oath, entering a covenant with him as their “spiritual father.” The article summarises:

At a special service during the church’s annual conference in Auckland at the weekend, about 700 male members of the church swore a “covenant oath” of loyalty and obedience to Mr Tamaki and were given a “covenant ring” to wear on their right hands.

A church document describes the covenant as “a solemn oath of commitment that is binding, enduring and unbreakable. You are bound to covenant … Covenant is an irrevocable, undissolvable oath of commitment”.

The document, entitled Protocols and Requirements Between Spiritual Father & His Spiritual Sons, contains the text of the “covenant oath”, the guts of which is that “Above all, we stand here today in the presence of God to enter into this sacred covenant with our man of God, Bishop Brian Tamaki”.

So what exactly does the covenant oath say? The pledge reads: “”To you Bishop we pledge our allegiance, our faithfulness and loyalty. We pledge to serve the cause that is in your heart and to finish that work. Success to you and success to those who help you – for God is with you.”

The document explains that the proof of how men live up to a covenant with God is how they “submit to God’s chosen man,” who is, you guessed it Brian Tamaki. The proof of how committed a man is to a covenant relationship with God is how he submits to Brian Tamaki. Driving the point home, the document contains the simple instruction that literally silenced me with disbelief (not easy to do!) – “Honour the king (Bishop Brian Tamaki).”

Yes, the king.

Have a read through some of the protocols that these men have vowed to follow at the link above. Included are such gems as promising never to speak critically of their leader, of always mentioning him when you receive an honour (whether inside or outside the church), they must act with the utmost reverence around Mr Tamaki because “Bishop is the tangible expression of God” (and here was me thinking that this role was already taken by some guy who was crucified 2000 years ago), so they must stand when he and/or his wife enters the room, at a meal they must never eat until Mr Tamaki has started eating. They must “be careful not to become familiar (which can lead to contempt)” with him “due to his friendliness and openness.” Not only must they never criticise anything their leader says or does, but they must actively try to stop others from doing so as well. “You are not only to stop them in their tracks but warn them that they criticise you when they criticise Bishop.”

I won’t labour the point by quoting more. Here’s the thing: Destiny is filling what many see as a vacuum in New Zealand Christianity. People have, over the years, been attracted to this dynamic movement because of the way in which it contrasts with a number of other churches; churches that don’t seem to be “achieving” much, churches that may be a bit coy about their conservative values at times, churches that have simply dropped such values altogether to keep abreast of the times, churches that appear to lack passion, etc. But like all vacuums, people can get sucked into this without realising ahead of time what they are getting into. In taking the bait (bait which I’ll say is very good stuff in itself, and frankly needs to be present in more churches), they’ve swallowed the hook. The attractiveness of the positive features of Destiny have enabled more sinister features to become gradually stronger in their own faith, to the point where they’ve ended up in what any normal observer would be quite justified in calling a cult. Yes, I used the word.

On TV1’s “Close Up” show tonight, Brian faced one of his critics. See the video here. His reply to the claim that the church is a “cult” is that his church is no more a cult than any other because Destiny holds to the main orthodox beliefs that other churches do: Baptist, Presbyterian, Catholic etc. His other major reply is that Destiny has done much to improve the lives of many members.

That Destiny has done things that improve the lives of some people is not in dispute – it never was. But a key thing to say about Mr Tamaki’s reply is that nobody is calling his church heretical. Nobody is saying that they do not affirm the basic statements of Christian faith. No doubt they do. But that does not stop the movement from becoming a cult, in this case a “cult of personality.” Cults are defined largely by their conduct and their authority structures, not necessarily by their theology. What’s more, implicit in the conduct and structure of the leadership of Destiny is some unstated theology that is borderline at best: theological beliefs about the kind of religious devotion and attachment that it is appropriate to show your fellow man, beliefs about the demands on peoples’ livelihoods a church may make – to name a couple of things. These are not theologically neutral, but are theologically dubious additions to orthodox theology.

The fact that Destiny is seen by some of its members as the redeeming influence in their lives is, I suspect, partly what enables Destiny to have the kind of influence on them that it has. Destiny – Brian Tamaki – has reached into their lives like some sort of superstar and turned them around. Now he is their man and they will follow him to the ends of the earth.

I don’t know how much good it would do to someone in that position to offer any sort of plea, but for what it is worth, if by some chance you’re a part of this movement, leave. Leave without delay, and don’t look back. For those Christians outside of the movement, it’s never easy to know just what approach to take, but I think it should be something along these lines: These people are our fellow Christians. They are family. They also believe very much in doing what they are convinced God wants from them, and they are not doing anything that they believe is at odds with following Christ. In other words, they aren’t against us, they are (in principle) for us. However we approach them, we’ve got to show patience and grace, realising that they genuinely want to do the Christian thing in all this. By all means pray for them. We want to see them out of controlling and harmful situations like this as soon as possible. It’s not something we can be passive about, because those in control of their movement are anything but passive, and we certainly haven’t seen the last of what they are doing.

Lastly, the Christian churches in general need to capture something of why people are getting caught up in Destiny Church in the first place. We need to think hard about why some people are drawn there, and what they see lacking in our own churches. Are we getting a bit shy about our commitment? Are we perhaps a bit too afraid of rocking the boat in this country? Do we perhaps not want to make noise in case people notice these terribly old fashioned things that we believe? For my part, I think the answer lies, not in the glamour and glitz of Brian Tamaki’s empire (he is, after all “the king,” so I guess he sees his domain as an empire or kingdom), but in a more engaging, intellectually rigorous and socially engaged Christianity at home.

Glenn Peoples

EDIT: Destiny church has issued this reponse. Unfortunately, in it they do not respond to a single one of the concerns raised above.