Is SCOAN a cult?
“Cult: an unorthodox, extremist, or false religion or sect who often live outside of conventional society under the direction of a charismatic leader”
On this site we have shown many of the controversial and worrying aspects of TB Joshua’s church, the Synagogue Church of All Nations (SCOAN). It is clear that TB Joshua is a charismatic and powerful leader who has a great number of devoted disciples as well as his numerous detractors. It is also clear that the church has a number of strange and unorthodox practices. But is it fair to suggest that SCOAN is a dangerous and extreme religious sect? Is TB Joshua a cult leader?
The International Cultic Studies Association (website) are a worldwide authority on cults. They have drawn up a checklist of 14 criteria to help identify a cult. In this post, using testimonies from ex-disciples and relatives of current disciples, we show that SCOAN fulfills the vast majority of these criteria.
NOTE: Not everyone who attends SCOAN or admires TB Joshua is a cult member. There are thousands of people who follow the teaching of TB Joshua without being exposed to all of the cult-like aspects of SCOAN. This article primarily refers to the most dedicated followers of TB Joshua, most of whom live periodically within the SCOAN compound in Lagos.
Our main testimonies are from Giles and Madelaine. Giles was a disciple of TB Joshua from 2005 to 2006. His written accounts of being a disciple (which you can read here) echo many existing accounts online. Madelaine has also been directly impacted by SCOAN; her close family have devoted the last ten years of their lives to TB Joshua, taking their children out of education and moving to Lagos to serve as disciples. Her name has been changed to protect her identity and that of her family. Remember, there are numerous independent accounts that back up the testimonies on this page; many can be found linked here and here.
1) The group is focused on a living leader to whom members seem to display excessively zealous, unquestioning commitment.
Madelaine: “Conversations I’ve had with family members (on the very rare occasions that they occur) have been peppered with the phrases “the prophet says” or “our father in the lord””
Claire: “One of my friends died of cancer after being ‘healed’ by TB Joshua. At her funeral her son declared her as his ‘sister’ (what happened to honour your mother and father?) and TB Joshua as his father.” (from the comments section on this post)
Giles: “I have seen him (TB Joshua) in a fit of rage hit a woman, hard on the face. It wasn’t a fist, it was open handed. But it was really hard, and I remember looking around at everyone’s reaction. I was pretty shaken by that, but one of the disciples explained it with me afterwards- the need for discipline, how he does this cos he loves us, etc. That’s what they do. They defend him. They explain things. They protect him.” (see original article)
2) The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.
Madelaine: “My family have never tried to recruit me because I think they know that I am a lost cause. But they have put huge amounts of effort into publicising SCOAN”
3) The group is preoccupied with making money.
Madelaine: “Members of my family no longer own property in England . Property sales information is in the public domain so I know the amounts involved. I do not know what they have done with the money, but I suspect that it has been given to SCOAN.”
Giles: “When tithes are collected, the person collecting tithes would put a tick next to your name to show you have payed your tithe, appropriate to the salary you are marked as earning. Everything is recorded. So a good member would have an unbroken string of ticks beside your name to show you’re a good tithe-paying citizen of heaven. One of the benefits of this is getting considered to have a Prayer Mountain pass and be allowed onto Prayer Mountain at certain times… (to be a member of Emmanuel TV) you needed to make a contribution of at least $50 … and in return, you get the pass, and certain nights of the week would be for that group.” (see original article)
4) Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.
Madelaine: “I remember being told “doubt your doubts and not your faith” which made no sense to me as my faith has strengthened because I have examined doubts. But that argumentwas met with no response.”
Giles: (describing a minor incident which led to his leaving) “I was ostracized by the foreign disciples, and banned from the dining room. A few of the newer disciples obviously sympathised with me, and secretly told me how they were made to gather downstairs against my mother, even though they wanted no part of it. Apart from that, the message was clear. They wanted me to leave.” (read the full story)
5) Mind-numbing techniques (such as meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, debilitating work routines) are used to suppress doubts about the group and its leader(s).
Giles: “One of the things you would notice in the (dorm) room was that the lights were always on. White light would be on during the day, and darkened blue lights would come on at night. They never switched them off, even when most people were sleeping. I guess it would contribute to the general tiredness I always felt when I lived there.” (see original article)
Madelaine: “When members of my family were first involved they talked a bit more about the place. I was told that they had disciples meetings in the middle of the night. At the time I did not challenge them so did not ask the question ‘Why?’. But I thought it.”
Giles: “Reporting each other’s wrongdoings is a way disciples will tell you of correcting each other. “Receiving correction” is what they call it… However, the more I noticed how the disciples don’t love each other, the more I began to question their motives for ganging up on an individual and reporting them. The problem is that people report each other for things that have nothing to do with sinning, and everything to do with not conforming to SCOAN, like not calling females Sister so-and-so.” (See original article)
Madelaine: “I visited Lagos and hoped that I would have an opportunity to spend some time with a member of my family who was there as a disciple, but they were always so busy and had no time to stop. On the very few occasions that I have met my family members the brief time that we have had together has been interrupted by mobile phone calls which clearly have complete priority over anything else. I once asked a question about whether they took a Sabbath but the question was not answered.”
6) The leadership dictates sometimes in great detail how members should think, act, and feel (for example: members must get permission from leaders to date, change jobs, get married; leaders may prescribe what types of clothes to wear, where to live, how to discipline children, and so forth).
Madelaine: “I heard that a member of my family was getting married to another disciple and when they came to visit England I was contacted to meet with them. That was different as contact of any sort generally came from my initiative. I thought at the time “I wonder if someone has commented that it seems odd that the disciples do not get married, and the ‘prophet’ has responded by arranging some weddings”. I later discovered that the marriage had been ordered by the prophet.”
7) The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s), and members (for example: the leader is considered the Messiah or an avatar; the group and/or the leader has a special mission to save humanity).
Madelaine: “I was told that this was “A superior form of Christianity””
Giles: “(After leaving SCOAN) I was still brainwashed in thinking that TB Joshua’s sermons were unique and no one else’s preaching would do. I have never, not once, heard anything positive about a single other ministry from disciples. When I finally went to another church, I got a bit of a pleasant surprise. The sermons weren’t all that bad, in fact some of the messages taught the same things that TB Joshua’s messages did. It went a long way to show that TB Joshua wasn’t as unique as I had been taught. Disciples depend on TB Joshua’s message, and I’ve been told by a few that their personal fear in leaving was that they wouldn’t get such quality stuff anymore, that they’ll “shrivel up and die” spiritually. It’s just not true.”
8) The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality, which causes conflict with the wider society.
Giles: ““Blasphemers” is the term given to people against SCOAN and TB Joshua. Prominent supporters are known as “friends of the ministry”. I don’t know of any other church that categorises people like this. I guess now I’m a blasphemer” (see original post)
This collection of SCOAN-produced videos denouncing ‘blasphemers’ who have spoken against the church (Beware of Blasphemers) shows that this kind of knee-jerk slandering of critics is integral to SCOAN.
9) The group’s leader is not accountable to any authorities (as are, for example, military commanders and ministers, priests, monks, and rabbis of mainstream denominations).
The standard response to criticism of TB Joshua is that “what people don’t understand, they attack” and that “All men of God face false accusations” (this post talks about how misguided this argument is). This goes some way towards showing how unaccountable TB Joshua is within SCOAN.
Madelaine: “All information about TB Joshua that I have read from the Internet indicates that he is not accountable. I have also met a Nigerian church leader visiting England who has said exactly the same.”
10) The group teaches or implies that its supposedly exalted ends justify means that members would have considered unethical before joining the group (for example: collecting money for bogus charities).
Giles: “I was never as fanatical about TB Joshua as other disciples. Not by half. But when I was confronted with a straight question and had to give a yes/no answer, I chose to lie. I have no doubt that the same thing happens all the time.”
11) The leadership induces guilt feelings in members in order to control them.
We are confident that this is an important factor within SCOAN; guilt is certainly essential for keeping sexual abuse victims quiet. If any ex-disciples have anything to say about guilt, comments are welcome.
12) Members’ subservience to the group causes them to cut ties with family and friends, and to give up personal goals and activities that were of interest before joining the group.
Madelaine: “I have had no contact with some members of my family for many years. I have sent Christmas and Birthday cards and never received any acknowledgement that they have been received.”
Giles: “Families are seen by disciples as a hinderance. When you go there as a disciple, you are strongly encouraged to cut all links with your family and friends. They will tell you that you are here in the first place shows that your family was unable to help you in what you are looking for, and that maintaining contact with family would only hinder you and make you lose your focus.”
Madelaine: ” I know of a number of young people who have given up on their education to become disciples. Some from only 16. This is in contrast with the daughter of “the prophet” being educated at The London School of Economics.”
13) Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group.
Madelaine: “Many members of my family have given their every moment of their time for nearly 10 years.”
14) Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members
Madelaine: “A disciple who has recently been in London has contacted an old school friend and they met up. However, on meeting her, the old friend realised that it was only to try and persuade her to come to the SCOAN Church in London. Since they were at school together, the disciple had been in Lagos and the friend had completed A Levels, and a Degree and is now working. They had not been in contact once for all of that time.”