by a panel of Christian leaders to the Christian Community
We, representatives and members of Christian communities (evangelical and ecumenical), met in Pietermaritzburg on March 24th, April 23rd and June 23rd in order to make inquiries into and deliberate on issues surrounding the Kwa Sizabantu Mission (KSB). We met on request by Christian leaders in South Africa and abroad who expressed their deep concern about the alleged teachings and practices of KSB. We also met to listen to those whose lives and families have been severely affected by KSB and who sought our counselling. Again and again, we listened in shock and alarm to story after story, which suggested a situation of serious spiritual, physical and psychological abuse at KSB.
We acknowledge that there are individuals who have indeed experienced God’s transforming power through His Word while visiting KSB and recognise that many devoted Christians seek to serve the Lord at this mission. However it has been with great concern that we have listened to close on twenty testimonies first hand across the cultural, linguistic, and age spectrum, and representing family members, former colleagues, and former members of KSB’s leadership. These testimonies, from a wide variety of people randomly selected by ourselves for time constraint purposes, from a significantly larger group willing to testify, had such a consistency to them that we felt the matter could not in good conscience be ignored, and needed to be taken further – hence the need to hear KSB’s response to these allegations. Failing any response from them, there would be need for some sort of disclosure and declaration of concern to the wider Christian community.
The meeting recognized the imperatives of Matthew 18:15-17 in resolving situations of this nature, and tried to ensure that our Lord’s directions had been, and would be, followed in seeking the healing, reconciliation and rectification of provable wrongs. The concept of “the church”, as described in Mt 18 and understood by us in the present context, refers to the church at local, regional, national and global levels. We have gathered, therefore, as a panel of Christians from the wider Christian community to consider the matters affecting a section of the Body, to discern a pastoral way forward, and to share this with others in the Body, who have a vital stake in these matters.
In this whole process, our panel of leaders sought by the grace of God to approach the issue in self-critical humility and in the awareness of three key biblical questions put both to KSB and all of us:
1. “Where are you?” (Gen. 3:9) – All of us have to ask in sincerity where we are before God.
2. “Where is…your brother?” (Gen. 4:9) – KSB and all of us in Christian ministry have to ask: Where are we in relationship to brothers or sisters with whom we should be in fellowship?
3. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen. 4:8) – The answer to this question is yes. This meant for our panel a deep sense of brotherly concern for Kwa Sizabantu itself and for those who profess to have been hurt by it. KSB needs likewise to assume this concern for those who claim to have been wounded by it.
I. Events leading to the involvement of the panel of church leaders
New reports of abuse, etc. at KSB came to the attention of Christian leaders from a variety of sources in January- February 2000. Former members of KSB approached certain Christian leaders, sharing their experiences with an urgency that something needed to be done about the situation. Co-incidentally over this period, the alleged abuses at KSB were reported in the secular press, which continued to give coverage to KSB stories for many days. These tragic reports revealed the KSB leadership to have an appearance of evil, which we supposed they would have wanted to avoid.
The nature of the reports, and the evidence of suffering and abuse, motivated some leaders to take the initiative to contact the head of KSB, Mr Erlo Stegen, in hope of establishing dialogue and facilitating communication and reconciliation between the KSB leadership and those with grievances (see Matt. 5:23). We also wanted to encourage reform within KSB, if this were deemed necessary. However, KSB leadership declined. A meeting of widely representative church leaders was then called, with the knowledge of KSB, where former members shared their testimonies.
Because of the gravity of the reports, the panel felt it was imperative to address the issues with members of the KSB leadership to gain their perspectives.
The KSB leadership declined to meet these church leaders, alleging that the panel was being used by “dissidents and enemies of KSB Mission”, but invited individuals to visit KSB to see the work there for themselves.
The panel replied to KSB to explain the importance of meeting as a group of Christian leaders with the KSB leadership, and requested to meet at KSB and discuss the issues. KSB again declined, stating that the leadership would be overseas at the time.
Two more dates were offered, and another request to meet at KSB was made by the panel. The KSB leadership declined yet again, this time giving as their reason that the parties to whom the panel listened had acted in bad faith, in that KSB saw them as those who publicized information about KSB in the secular media and the Internet. KSB seemed unwilling to acknowledge the role of Matthew 18, despite the panel’s emphasis on this text being the guiding principle in the process.
KSB’s last word to us was a final refusal to receive us as a panel of church leaders for discussion of the issues but again they invited individuals in their personal capacity to visit KSB Mission, though putting out of bounds any discussions of the issues and problems under purview saying in their letter dated 13 June 2000 “We again extend our invitation to you and your colleagues to visit the mission (but not to debate the matters mentioned above).” The panel regrets that, because of these refusals it was not permitted to operate the “audi alteram partem” (hear the other side) principle, and therefore this documents lacks input from KSB which we would have coverted had we been granted the opportunity.
II. What the panel learned from its failed efforts to dialogue with KSB
1. KSB’s refusals to engage in dialogue cast a shadow of doubt on the organisation’s commitment to the evangelical community, and the wider Body of Christ, at a time when openness on the part of KSB leaders, for the sake of their credibility with other Churches, seems most vital.
2. KSB’s written responses included a significant degree of defensiveness and haste to claim conspiracy by people the KSB leadership referred to as “enemies of KSB”, who KSB believed were manipulating the panel. KSB refused to meet with the panel on the grounds that the panel’s sources were those who had unfairly publicized information to the media, despite the panel’s detailed explanation that only one of those giving testimony had contributed to the media, (this individual incidentally having played no part in assembling or directing the actions of the panel). KSB’s refusal to meet on these grounds, and the leadership’s haste to speak of “enemies of the Mission”, suggests the possibility of a significant concealment which gravely concerns the panel.
3. The denial by KSB of the need for discussion on the grounds that “there are no internal divisions” came as a surprise to the panel, as the events within KSB Germany (verified by European Christian publications) and the exodus of leaders and parts of congregations in recent months and weeks (e.g. Tugela Ferry Congregation) clearly prove this claim to be inaccurate.
4. In conclusion, KSB’s refusal to discuss vital issues, the leadership’s tone, the grounds and rationales for refusal, together with the evidence provided by those who testified before the panel, leads us to believe that the internal structure of KSB is functioning in defensive ways. It is as if the KSB leadership does not want to deal with the issues, some of which we outline in IV below. These factors are unacceptable to the Christian community at large, which we feel now needs to assess its relationship with KSB.
III. Why the panel has decided to share its finding with the wider Body of Christ
1. We recognise that KSB Mission interacts with the evangelical and the wider Christian community through interdenominational organisations and activities such as Christians for Truth, Doctors for Life, True Love Waits, Radio Khwezi, KSB Choir tours, Annual Ministers Conferences, Bi-Annual Youth Conferences and frequent preaching engagements in other churches.
2. We are also aware of KSB’s public endorsement of evangelicalism as evident on its homepage, documents KSB has produced and distributed, and statements on radio by KSB leaders.
3. We are also aware of KSB’s frequent invitation to prominent church leaders to speak at the Mission. Their innocent acceptance of such invitations is used by KSB leadership to claim endorsement by them of everything that happens at KSB.
4. Because KSB to some degree associates itself and interacts with the evangelical community, we deemed it reasonable to expect a degree of accountability and open communication on the part of KSB. This responsibility is even greater in light of KSB’s outspokenness and efforts to exhort and call for reform in the body of Christ, the government, and society at large. It is therefore in the interest of the wider Christian, and especially the evangelical community to know what is going on. This is particularly important when reports of serious abuse within this organisation surface which, because it publicly identifies itself with the evangelical community, can eventually directly or indirectly affect and reflect on the credibility of all evangelical leaders and their organisations. At the same time, Christian leaders have a duty to ask themselves whether, by associating with and endorsing KSB, they might allow KSB to jeopardise the physical, emotional or spiritual safety of those entrusted to their guidance.
5. Furthermore, in terms of Biblical justice, pastoral care and social responsibility, reports of abuse cannot be left unattended. It is important for the wider body of Christ to come to an understanding of the truth about the actual causes of conflict in a crisis situation, and to care for and rehabilitate the abused, to work to arrest abuse when and where it occurs, and to prevent it from recurring, or climaxing in a greater catastrophe. As leaders with scriptural and Holy Spirit commissions to defend those God has entrusted to us, we have felt it is not wise or correct that we be selective in what we have a duty to discern, and only praise the positive aspects of the ministry of Kwa Sizabantu, while choosing to ignore this extensive and repeated evidence of grave imbalance and error. Rather, it is within our interests, and those of KSB, as well as the wider Christian community to apply the principles of Matthew 18:15-18, to resolve crisis and conflict in the church and the wider body of Christ.
6. In light of the tendencies observed in the alleged beliefs and practices of KSB, we feel obliged to issue a word of caution to the Christian community in general regarding the fact that what begins as genuine revival can in time degenerate into a serious distortion of a real work of God. The Christian community should be aware of dangers which can emanate from:
i. a lack of accountability.
ii. a lack of openness with the wider body of Christ.
iii. a lack of willingness to face and dialogue about perceived problems.
iv. a lack of willingness to face the reconciliation imperatives of Matt. 5:23.
v. an elitist spirituality and lack of servant leadership.
vi. perceived or actual alignment with oppressive systems.
IV. Evidences of perceived abuse and wrongdoing on the part of the KSB leadership
1. Unbiblical teaching
Though the panel is aware that Mr Stegen has stated publicly that “KSB teaches no new doctrine and does not believe that it alone has exclusive ownership of the truth,” many testimonies suggest severe inconsistencies between KSB’s public policy and its private practices. The panel has received testimonies suggesting that Mrs. Hilda Dube has historically acted as a person who, in trances, has conveyed messages from “God” to Mr Stegen, which he is reported to have relayed to the community as especially authoritative. The panel viewed this, if true, as inappropriately subjective and biblically questionable.
Testimony provided insight that KSB’s self-concept as a centre of revival, together with its extreme emphasis on “revival” experiences based on events beginning in 1966, have often been allowed by the leadership to supplant the authority of scripture and circumvent New Testament restrictions on pastoral authority, to a serious degree. KSB has functioned too much as an exclusive group with its own “special” revelation to which the leadership appeals to exercise its authority. This results in an abuse of power and a subculture of fear-based control that is dangerously manipulative.
One prominent example of this has been that when people have voiced concern or disapproval regarding perceived problematic behaviour, policy, sin, or abuse and even at times alleged criminal activity on the part of KSB leadership, the leadership condemns those bringing forward these concerns in such a way that they who see problems and voice them are made to feel guilty for “being the problem”.
Testimony was given that to question the KSB leadership in the internal culture of KSB, is seen as questioning and disrespecting God Himself. The result is a situation where the KSB leadership operates too often as being beyond challenge or question.
2. Unbiblical role of fear
Testimony has led the panel to the conclusion that Mr Erlo Stegen operates within a structure in which he enjoys an extreme reverence and submission from adherents, without proper ecclesiastical and wider accountability. This would appear to have opened the door to abuse of power.
While we realise that many entrust themselves to Mr Stegen, testimony suggests that he and other KSB leaders too often enforce their authority by manipulation and control of people through fear. We listened to testimonies and accounts of various people who were a part of KSB over a 30 year period and we were amazed at the consistency of the role fear plays in their stories. To this day, in the perceptions of the panel, this fear remains tragically real in many of those who gave testimony.
Repeated statements were heard such as: “Erlo had complete control over us”, “When Erlo was happy everything was good”, “If Erlo wasn’t happy then we weren’t happy. We made him our God.” The panel also heard the repeated theme in testimonies of people having a concept of a forever-wrathful God, a “God who is always angry…” This confirmed to the panel its conclusions relating to the fear factor at KSB. Some of those who have left KSB and had fellowship in home churches have remarked how the doctrine of the Love of God came to them as an entirely new revelation. While they were at KSB, they had not thought of God as loving. This was seen as a serious deficiency in the KSB doctrine of God. In their view, He was only an angry God bent on punishing sinners.
3. Physical brutality
The panel heard a long history, almost a pattern, of harsh and brutal beatings (one of which allegedly resulted in death), from the time of the KSB Kranskop meetings of 1975 to more recent years. There were eye-witness testimonies of arbitrary beatings of young children, and older youth, severe wounding and severe trauma, solitary confinement of young children in cupboards for menial and arbitrary mistakes, and pervasive terror and brutality. This remained strong and still damaging in the memories of several who gave testimony. There were also more recent eyewitness reports of excessive and violent beating of school children in the 1980s and early 1990s. Beyond them, there were even testimonies of the beating of adults at KSB in recent years. Many of the beatings were administered in the presence of others, which traumatised them and kept them in the bondage of fear. The panel learned that there are ongoing traumatic consequences to this time in the lives of some of those thus affected. This, in the panel’s view, puts a constraint on the KSB leadership to set these things right.
4. Psychological abuse
Testimonies provided evidence of much manipulation through psychological pressure on the part of the KSB leadership. The panel heard incidences of frightening curses being pronounced or curse threats being made by Mr Erlo Stegen towards those who err, those who challenge his authority, or those, even including family members, who leave or might leave KSB. Statements could include words used such as “I now place God’s curse on your life.” Some testified to how they had been shunned and censured but not given explanations, while others were told to stay away from the Mission but simultaneously accused of withdrawing from the fellowship.
Several other desperate stories were heard which left the panel shocked: the panel was made aware of two or three incidents where suicide followed as a result of the type of abuses mentioned above.
5. Breaking of confidentiality
Reports came from those whose private and confidential confessions were shared openly among co-workers as a means of sustaining control. Some of these confessions were strategically released to the fellowship. Others elaborated on their victimisation through the KSB leadership’s humiliation and shame tactics, and of how members had been expected to report on each other to prove their allegiance to the leadership. This was perceived and felt by some of those who gave testimony as a damaging and total betrayal of trust and confidentiality.
6. Splitting of families, including marriages
The panel heard repeated testimonies of the KSB leadership’s active involvement, even at this present time, in the splitting and division of family members. The panel was made aware of the history and disruptive consequence to families of sudden banishment of people from KSB for no disclosed reason, even back in the early years of Mr Erlo Stegen’s ministry. Seemingly endless alienations, even amongst mature and devoted Christians, were reported as consequences of this kind of rejection and shunning.
Some testified to extreme cases, sharing how husbands were encouraged by the leadership to divorce their wives on grounds of a wife’s unwillingness to submit to the leadership. Others shared of how wives had been expected, if not encouraged, to separate from their husbands. One tragic case was mentioned where the KSB leadership supported a certain woman’s decision to separate from her husband and stay at KSB Mission. She eventually divorced him on the grounds that he had left “the Way” of KSB, though he had been and remained a devoted Christian and had earnestly sought for her to join him and thus spare the marriage. The panel was made aware that a similar situation prevails currently with another couple.
Testimony was also given of the practice of expulsion from the mission school for infractions such as correspondence between boys and girls, resulting in mandatory expulsion of children from their families. In some cases the children were banned from their families, abandoned, and subjected to danger. There were accounts of how members had been discouraged from and, at times, threatened with expulsion for interacting with former members and leaders.
The panel heard testimony of how the KSB leadership has in some instances even banned members from attending the weddings of former members with a threat of “expulsion”. One case was current at the very moment the report was made (March 24th , 2000).
7. Alleged untruths and deception
A number of former members and some who have left in recent months testified to a practice of the KSB leadership, which justifies lying and deception in the name of “wisdom.” One former leader testified to Mr Erlo Stegen’s stated belief that “a lie spoken in Christ, for the sake of protecting His work, is not a lie.” There were multiple reports of KSB leadership’s practice and condonement of the spreading of untruths and rumours about those who leave, even in recent months.
8. Leadership’s apparent protection of own ranks, and even of alleged abusers
The panel heard accounts of contradictions in KSB’s policy of discipline. There were grave reports of members being harshly censured or expelled for relatively minor infractions of KSB rules and customs while, on the other hand, some KSB leaders who appeared to have committed serious sins, and in some cases, alleged criminal acts, have been sheltered and protected, even at the price of morally imperilling mission members. One incident was reported in two mutually confirming testimonies. There were allegations that top KSB leadership irresponsibly allowed one of their leaders to remain in a key and prominent position for nearly five years, though they were fully aware that he was taking sexual advantage of girls who looked to him as their counsellor.
9. Exclusivity – KSB practices presented as “the Way”
Most testified that when a member leaves KSB, it is said of that person that he or she has left “the Way”. It was explained that at KSB for a member to leave “the revival” is to leave the arena of God’s greatest blessing. Leaving or disagreeing with the KSB organisation is seen at KSB as leaving revival. It was explained to the panel that while the KSB leadership allows men to marry women that leave other denominations and join KSB, but for one or two cases in the past, KSB women seem not to be permitted to marry men from outside the KSB fold, if through marriage they follow their spouse into another denomination. Some who have sought to do this have been hindered from being married by the KSB leadership. All these policies suggest an improper exclusion on the part of KSB which has unjustly dis-fellowshipped and severely denounced people as a result.
V. Conclusions by the panel of church leaders
1. The evidence brought before us in the past few months has led us to believe that KSB is not in totality what it might claim or might appear to be at face value to the Christian public. Extensive testimony points to the existence of a questionable system “within” Kwa Sizabantu; a system which seems to revolve inappropriately around the personalities of KSB leadership and its exclusive beliefs.
2. The panel has reluctantly drawn these conclusions in light of the testimony of many unbiblical teachings and harmful practices which have seriously hurt many ex-KSB members. The panel has been profoundly alarmed and deeply concerned at hearing these repeated stories of excessive reverence of man, apparent authoritarianism and abuse, psychological manipulation, the breaking of confidentiality, and serious family and relational disruption.
3. The panel did not feel that it could, in good conscience, stand back and ignore or overlook the situation presently prevailing at KSB.
4. The overwhelming evidence leads us to believe that Kwa Sizabantu is in danger of developing a cult-like behaviour, in seeing itself as an exclusive way, in seeking control over people by misusing authority, and manipulating people through confession and other questionable practices which has created an environment of unquestioning submission to the KSB leadership.
5. We know that many committed and dedicated Christians are part of the KSB Mission, and they should receive our compassion rather than our judgement. Yet in terms of the instructions given by our Lord Jesus Christ in Matthew 18 we feel compelled to conclude that because the KSB leadership has “refused to listen even to the church” (verse 17) and some of its leadership which has heard these testimonies, it should be declared to be in serious breach of Biblical principle and open to correction.
6. However, in the grace of God this verdict is not final. We call on the KSB leadership to involve itself in serious examination of these extensive allegations with the view to repentance and reform where appropriate. This will bring not only the forgiveness of God, but a renewal of confidence from the Christian community.
7. In facing and acknowledging some of these problems, and where necessary making restitution and confession without tokenism, the KSB leadership will significantly serve the cause of reconciliation within their ranks and within the wider Christian community, including those who have left them (See again Matt. 5:23).
8. Our heart goes out in pastoral concern to the many who have been hurt physically, emotionally and spiritually, not only those who left KSB but those who are still with the mission. We pray especially for those in KSB who, out of misplaced loyalty, forfeit proper discernment. It would seem that some of these have given themselves over to an improper and exaggerated trust in their leaders. This has caused an inability to discern and uphold the word of God in sound conscience. This seems to have led the KSB leadership into self-deception and abuse.
9. We ask those who might find it difficult to believe the facts and concerns shared in this letter nonetheless to take them with all seriousness. We have done our best to verify and corroborate what we have heard and we have no reason at this stage to doubt the matters listed above. Nor should judgements be put upon those who left KSB because they could no longer live in what they felt to be an abusive and sectarian, if not cult-like environment. These testimonies should not be lightly dismissed.
10. We furthermore urge Christian leaders from all denominations to pray not only for those who have left KSB and are in need of pastoral care and fellowship, but also for KSB itself, that out of these times it should come to a new and honorable place of restored life and health within the Body of Christ. Through some of the testimonies, the panel was also made aware of other matters which are under investigation by higher authorities. But we have not made any extensive comment on such matters.
Signed in Pietermaritzburg on 23rd June 2000 by
Rev Moss Nthla
General Secretary of The Evangelical Alliance of South Africa
On behalf of the following members of the panel:
x Dr Michael Cassidy (International Team Leader: African Enterprise)
x Prof Calvin Cook (Prof Emeritus of Ecclesiastical History, Rhodes University and Minister Emeritus Uniting Reformed Church)
x Rev Martin Frische (Executive Director: Trans World Radio – South Africa)
x Bishop Phillip Le Feuvre (Bishop Emeritus Church of the Province of South Africa, Anglican)
x Mr Mike Odell (South Africa Team Leader: African Enterprise)
x Rev Daniel Ngubane
x Rev Moshe Rajuili (Former Principal of Evangelical Seminary of South Africa, Emfuleni Missions Church)
x Mr John Schroeder (Christian Businessman and trustee of ACAT)
x Rev Sipho Sokhela (Provincial Executive Officer of the Kwa Zulu Natal Christian Council) representing the KZN Christian Leaders Group
x Rev Georg Scriba (Evangelical Lutheran Church in Southern Africa)
x Mr Abiel Thipanyane (African Enterprise)
x Rev Hugh Wetmore (Representing the Baptist Union of Southern Africa)
x Rev Noel Wright (General Secretary: Church of England in South Africa) representing the Church of England in South Africa
x Rev Albert Xaba