Those of our readers in the Midwest of the United States of America might be somewhat surprised to learn that recently, in September 2011, a Filipino religious cult bought 46 acres of land and buildings in and around the town of Scenic, located about 50 miles southeast of Rapid City, South Dakota. What will now become of the formerly abandoned town we do not know, but this news illustrates the amazing wealth that this Filipino cult has accumulated since it started in the early 1900s and its expanding presence in the world, which extends now from the Philippines to the USA and 95 other countries.

Who purchased the town of Scenic? A religious cult, aptly called by some “The Cult of Manalo,” bought the town. The Cult of Manalo is the third largest religion in the Philippines, behind Roman Catholicism and Islam. We will survey and evaluate this part of the religious landscape in the Philippines today.

Its Early History

The Cult of Manalo, more commonly known as the “Iglesia ni Cristo” (“The Church of Christ”), was a religious movement in the early 1900s that was begun by Felix Manalo. He was born on May 10, 1886, as Felix Ysagun, but following the death of his mother, he chose to use his mother’s maiden name, Manalo, for his surname. He was baptized into the Roman Catholic Church, and he remained a member until he witnessed a debate between a Catholic priest and a Protestant pastor in Paranaque, Rizal province, which was near Manila. The apologetics of the Protestant pastor impressed Manalo so much that he eventually left the Catholic Church, in 1902, at the age of 16.

His departure from the Roman Catholic Church was the beginning of a decade of ecclesiastical wanderings from one denomination or religious group to another. In 1904 he joined Methodist Episcopal Church and trained in their seminary to be an evangelist. In 1907 he joined the Presbyterian Church, and, after brief training in their seminary, became a Presbyterian pastor for a short time. In 1908 he joined the Disciples of Christ for a year, till he was forced to resign due to alleged misconduct. He joined the Christian Mission in 1910, and there became convinced of adult baptism by immersion only. Then, in 1911, he joined the Seventh Day Adventist movement. A year or so later, he left the SDA religion over his conviction that their view of the sabbath was unscriptural and over alleged misconduct, for which the SDA leaders had suspended him.

Dissatisfied with the doctrines, the practices, and the experiences of his former churches or religious affiliations, he began his own independent church in late 1913 or early 1914. He claimed in his preaching that only his teachings were based upon Scripture alone. On July 27, 1914, Felix Manalo registered his church with the Philippine government as the Iglesia ni Cristo (“The Church of Christ”), with himself as its first hierarchical leader, called the Executive Minister.

Between 1914 and today, the INC has grown impressively in members, so that there are INC locales (their designation of local congregations) and buildings throughout the Philippines. Total soul membership is estimated to be about three million today. This membership number includes only adults, no children, because membership in the INC can be obtained only through adult baptism, by immersion. What the exact number of the membership may be, we do not know, because the INC does not publish its membership counts.

After Felix Manalo died on April 12, 1963, his son, Erano Manalo served as the executive minister. Erano Manalo served in that position until he died recently, on August 31, 2009. Now, the grandson of Felix, Eduardo V. Manalo, is the hierarchical head of the INC.

The cult has spread across the globe into other countries. In its recent history, it has established locales in Rome (1994), Jerusalem (1996), and Athens (1997). In the United States of America, the INC boasts a membership of 150 locales, with the potential, now, of another locale, in rural Scenic, South Dakota.

Some of Its Significant Beliefs and Practices

What are the main beliefs and practices of the Iglesia ni Cristo? As is true of most cults, the first major teaching of the INC is that Felix Manalo was the last special messenger of God. He based this claim on the prophecy of Revelation 7:1-3. He believed that he was appointed to be the “angel ascending from the east, having the seal of the living God” (Rev. 7:2a). Although this false teaching did not appear in the INC at its beginning, it eventually became part of its official confession by the 1940s. By 1922 already, Manalo was claiming that he himself was the last human voice, chosen and sent by God, to bring the people of God the message of true salvation. For additional support, he appealed to the prophecy of Isaiah, claiming that he was the fulfillment of Isaiah 46:11 concerning “the bird from the east.” Along with his interpretation of Isaiah 24:15-16concerning the “isles of the sea,” he claimed the isles of the Philippines would be the location of the true church of God, with himself as head in the latter days.

This basic teaching of the INC is exactly what Jesus warned the church to expect to appear in the last days. There will arise many false Christs and false prophets (Matt. 24:24), and they will with their doctrines of devils deceive many. Manalo proudly and presumptuously claimed to be God’s last chosen prophet and to have exclusive gifts of biblical interpretation that have never been provided by the Holy Spirit to any others in the church world in recent history. However, his blind wanderings through various denominations, even coming in limited contact with Presbyterianism and the Reformed confessions, leaves him to be judged, without excuse before God, a false prophet.

That he was a false prophet is most clearly evident in the second main doctrinal position of the INC about the triune God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit. The INC is Arian in its theology. Although the church condemned Arianism long ago through the Nicene Creed, Manalo embraced that old heresy as the fundamental basis of the INC. As a result, the INC adamantly denies that the Son and the Holy Spirit are divine. The INC insists that Jesus Christ is only a man, and His person was created by God. Although the names of Jesus in the Bible show His divinity and that His person is the only begotten Son of God, the INC rejects that fundamental truth. They reject that the Holy Spirit is God, proceeding from the Father and the Son. Rejecting that bedrock truth of the Trinity, the INC has brought upon itself the judgment that it is a group of liars and antichrists (I John 2:22).

Although it is in reality a cult, it claims nevertheless, in its third main teaching, to be “The Church of Christ” and the only one. Denying the oneness and presence of the church in the Old Testament and the New Testament, the INC teaches that Jesus Christ instituted the church in Jerusalem in A.D. 33 with the help of His apostles. The INC claims that between the death of the apostle John and the year 1914, the true church of Christ disappeared and was completely dormant. According to the INC, all churches that existed and new denominations that were established during that period of time were and continue to be only false churches. There is no other true church, besides the INC, and outside of physical presence on the membership roles of one of the INC locales there can be no salvation.

This boastful claim of the INC is a rejection of the word of Christ that He would be with His church even unto the end (Matt. 28:20b). Christ implied that His church would always exist on the earth, no matter how small, through all ages, by His Word and Spirit. His promise was fulfilled even through such dark periods in New Testament history as the Middle Ages. Further, the INC claim is a denial of the work of the Holy Spirit to lead the church into the knowledge of the truth (John 16:13), one obvious example of which is the work of the Lord in the Reformation of the sixteenth century. Finally, to claim that there has been no faithful preaching of the gospel by the Lord throughout most of the New Testament age is a denial of the faithfulness of our Chief Prophet and Teacher, our Lord Jesus Christ, to see to it that by His Word and Spirit His eternally chosen church is gathered from the beginning of time and even throughout all of the New Testament age. We can be sure that the Lord’s white horse and rider ofRevelation 6 did not stop galloping between the death of John and the birth of Felix Manalo.

As one would expect from what has been mentioned about the INC’s view of membership, the INC maintains that salvation is conditioned on works and obedience to the teachings of the church and God’s commandments. In fact, the act of application for membership in the INC and faithful maintenance of one’s membership in the church is considered a requisite for salvation. As a result, the INC totally rejects the Reformed doctrines of salvation by grace alone, justification by faith alone, and original sin. Instead, the INC embraces fully the old heresies that promote the sovereignty, righteousness, and basic goodness of man.

One more distinguishing teaching of the INC is its eschatological view, which is similar to the Seventh Day Adventist teachings. When an INC member dies, he believes that his body and soul both die and both remain asleep or unconscious in the grave until the second coming of Christ. When Christ does return visibly, the resurrected INC members will join the living INC members, and together they will reign with Christ in earthly Jerusalem for 1,000 years. After the 1,000 years, there will be a second resurrection. Those who still remain wicked at that time will be cast into the lake of fire to be burned up and soon after be completely annihilated into non-existence. After this, the everlasting age will begin. The INC dreams of a kingdom of Christ upon this earth in old Jerusalem. These views deny the doctrine of the intermediate state, the doctrine of the final resurrection at the second appearing of Christ, the correct interpretation of the millennium of Revelation 20, and the doctrine of hell. These views stand opposed to the Reformed confession of what must shortly come to pass in preparation for the Lord’s final and blessed appearing.

Its Significance Today in the Philippines

In order for the members to know and defend its doctrines, the INC catechizes its members faithfully so that even the least educated members are well acquainted with the essentials of its teachings and practices. In a church world where there is appalling doctrinal illiteracy and ignorance of the religious landscape, this characteristic of the INC makes it a powerful and per-suasive movement in the Philippines.

Along with its zealous catechizing of the members, the INC also upholds high moral standards among its members. Members are forbidden excessive drinking, drunkenness, gambling, apostasy from INC teachings, marriage outside of the INC, immorality, and insubordination to INC authority and its policies. Outwardly the INC members appear to be decent and law-abiding citizens, which has helped to promote the popularity of the INC.

With the growth of the movement has come its growth in wealth and influence in government. The impressive INC buildings, which are all made with the same architectural style, are easily recognizable wherever their spires reach up into the Philippine sky and often seem to challenge the spires and buildings of the cross-town rivals, the Roman Catholic cathedrals. This noticeable presence and influence of the INC in the Philippines has been recognized by the Philippine government, so that it legislated in July 2009 that July 27 will be an annual holiday, known as “Iglesia Ni Cristo Day.”

Envisioning a future kingdom of Christ in the earth has had the effect of the INC becoming involved in the government of the Philippines. For example, the hierarchy in the INC dictates to its members how they must vote in national or regional elections. As a result, the INC is courted by many candidates for various offices in the country, including the presidency, since the INC represents a block vote of several million Filipino voters. This is one example that shows how earthly minded the INC actually is, even though Jesus showed plainly to Pilate how totally uninterested He was in a kingdom in this present sin-cursed earth (John 18:36).

However, for the faithful church of Jesus Christ in the Philippines, the cult of Manalo represents another powerful enemy against sound doctrine and godliness. The INC belongs to the ranks of other well-known cults and enemies of Christ that have a foothold in the islands, such as Mormonism, the “Jehovah’s Witnesses,” and a few other lesser known, home-grown varieties. From these enemies of the truth and of the kingdom of Christ may the Lord preserve and protect His sheep and lambs here in faithful Reformed churches by means of distinctively biblical and Reformed preaching, so that His saints are not destroyed for lack of knowledge (Hosea 4:6) and deceived by doctrines of devils (I Tim. 4:1).