What's Iglesia Ni Cristo, The Church That Bought An Abandoned Connecticut Village?

WNPR News, Connecticut/July 13, 2017

By Ray Hardman

After years on the market, the abandoned 19th century Connecticut village called Johnsonville was purchased last week. The Philippines-based international church Iglesia Ni Cristo scooped up the property for $1.8 million.

According to the Iglesia Ni Cristo website, the group has churches in 110 countries, including the U.S. The group has three churches in Connecticut: Bristol, Windham, and Stamford.

The church is highly structured, with all authority coming from the INC’s Executive Minister, Eduardo Manalo, the grandson of the church’s founder. Many of its teachings are considered outside of mainstream Christianity. Some people even consider Iglesia Ni Cristo a cult.

Anne C. Harper spoke with WNPR. She was a professor of intercultural studies in the Philippines for 15 years, and wrote the book Understanding the Iglesia Ni Cristo. She contends that the religious group is not a cult, but admits there are cult-like aspects to the church.

Anne C. Harper: They have many of the characteristics of that type of group. They're very clannish; authority flows from the top down. It's very controlled. They don't marry outside the group. Things like that.

WNPR’s Ray Hardman: You write that there are teachings within the church that place it outside of the realm of traditional Evangelical Christianity. What sticks out to you?

It's not just Evangelical Christianity, but also Orthodox Christianity. The big difference would primarily be the teaching on the Trinity. They don't believe that the Trinity exists. They believe in God the Father, and that Jesus is a created being. The Holy Spirit has a special power, but it's not God. They also teach that their founder, Felix Manalo, is a special being. He's the “last angel” to come before Christ returns, and the whole world goes away and the New Jerusalem comes.

So to them, Jesus is not as high as God. He’s not part of the Trinity. Jesus is not considered God incarnate.

That's correct. He is the one who has called the flock. He is one of a series of messengers that have come from God to human beings, like Moses, to bring people into right relationship with Him -- what they perceive as a right relationship.

When I think of evangelicals, I think of this notion of being “born again.” Does the Iglesia Ni Cristo have that as part of their teachings?

No. They have something that’s maybe is a little similar. Their teaching is that you can only be saved if you're a member of their church, because they consider themselves the last remnants before Christ returns. But if for any reason they're expelled from the church, they lose their salvation.

Because the church is believed to be the one true church, and followers believe that as well, I guess excommunication from that church is a pretty big deal.

It is. And there are a number of reasons that can happen. One of them is if you marry outside the church. And so, when Filipinos go to other countries and maybe they start dating somebody who's an American or European, they cannot marry them. Now, there's pressure on them to get married, and that they can't marry that person unless that person converts and joins the church.

They also have a unique view of the Bible, and more importantly, interpretations of the Bible.

Yes. They believe that they only have the correct interpretation. And of course, this is true of a number of groups. They believe their interpretation is true. Felix Manado, the founder of their group, he was considered the last messenger from God, and the teaching of the church can only come through the people who've taken on his role. Those are his son, Erano, and now his grandson, Eduardo. The teachings can only come through him, and they only have the correct interpretation.

The church has been pretty successful since its inception in 1914. It has spread to 110 countries, according to their website. What makes them so successful? What brings in the people?

It's largely a church of the diaspora, the Philippine diaspora. There are Filipinos all over the world. It does emphasize stewardship. It is largely a church of the poor in the Philippines, but they give incredible amounts of money to build these beautiful, beautiful buildings that really stand in stark contrast to the poverty all around, and that's attractive to people. It's also a group that has political clout. They have enough clout that they will approve different political candidates. They can tell their members: “don't buy stuff from them -- go to a different store because of how they treat our workers.”

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