In a file photo, members of the Iglesia ni Cristo mark the church's 100th anniversary in 2014. The church's unity has been threatened by an internal rift between high-ranking ministers. (Photo by George Moya)
The "Iglesia ni Cristo" or "Church of Christ" is among the fastest-growing indigenous Christian churches in the world today. From its humble origins in 1914, the church is now touted to have more than 2.25 million followers in more than 100 countries.
The church espouses a restorationist ethos as it claims to be the one true church called to take Christianity back to its original character and form of worship. It has several distinctive elements, among which is the absolute oneness doctrine that pits it against the Trinitarian mainstream in the Philippines.
Its founder, Felix Y. Manalo, is believed to be the fulfillment of a biblical prophecy that in the last days, an Angel from the East will arise. The church has therefore effectively sacralized the Philippines as a nation that plays an instrumental role in the last days.
The church's unity is also one enduring source of pride for its members.
Unity manifests itself in different ways, such as doctrinal uniformity and submission to the leadership. Members are expected to heed their ministers, for example, on matters of faith and interpretation of Scriptures.
Members also fall in line during national elections, voting as a bloc for whatever candidates church leaders tell them to support. Members cannot take each other to court nor can they marry nonmembers. Even the predictable neo-gothic architecture of its churches is evocative of Iglesia ni Cristo’s institutional unity.
While the church’s sense of unity may be restrictive to an outsider, it points back to the church's integrity and divine calling for many of its members. In societies characterized by conflict — religious and otherwise — one may take comfort in these palpable expressions of unity.
While these claims are perhaps contentious for many Catholics and the international community, Iglesia ni Cristo continues to expand around the world. Their expansion is driven by an institutional ethos that wants them to be recognized not just as an indigenous religion, but as a credible religion in the world.
Although their growth is mainly among the Filipino diaspora, conversions among other nationals also have taken place. The church has in fact invested in various properties to secure their ever-expanding congregations in Europe and North America, for example.
To commemorate their 100th anniversary in 2014, Iglesia ni Cristo built the Philippine Arena, which is the largest indoor stadium in the world.
The church, in other words, is no longer an isolated indigenous church. It is aggressive, expansionist, and influential.
Church at the crossroads
But in recent weeks cracks have started to reveal themselves. High-ranking ministers, including the brother and mother of the group's "executive minister," Eduardo Manalo, were expelled by the church. But not without twists that render a prime time TV drama dull in comparison.
Church leadership has accused these ministers of sowing disunity. And yet renegade ministers were reportedly being illegally detained. The whole incident began when a video of Angel Manalo, brother of the current executive minister, went viral in July claiming that his life and his family's were under threat from church leadership.
In a next-day show of force and swiftness, the church released an official statement expelling Angel and his mother from the fold. Several other ministers also were expelled, but were reportedly being detained to keep them from worsening the situation.
These cracks have long-term consequences on a church that presents itself as a solid and credible institution. The leadership of Iglesia ni Cristo argues that its swift response in expelling apostate ministers was necessary to keep the unity of the brethren intact.
Public as it might have been, the church’s institutional response was primarily meant for its own flock to see and recognize that if great sacrifices were necessary to preserve the brethren's unity, they had to be done. And done they were, but not without the scrutiny of a greater public that remains skeptical of the church and its credibility as a religious institution.
So while the issues at stake were all internal to Iglesia ni Cristo, the institution can no longer proceed as if nothing happened.
The church therefore is at a crossroads not because it has crossed the 100-year mark. But because cracks to its supposed unity have started to reveal themselves.
On one hand, church leadership may assume it can move on with confidence now that that the apostates have been removed. It is a quick and potent response that simply reflects the church's preoccupation with unity and submission to authority.
But Iglesia ni Cristo has to confront another reality. While it might be a church with a divine mandate in the last days, it is still an organization run by human beings vulnerable to making mistakes.
Expelled ministers and many other disgruntled members have now taken to social media to express their disapproval of what they say is the leadership's corruption and extravagance. In other words, the video that started it all has now become a watershed moment for many disenfranchised members.
And yet many others have mustered the courage to confront the leadership, their actions are also driven by their love for the Iglesia ni Cristo.
The church has crossed its centenary and there is no doubt it will remain strong in the years to come. After all, Iglesia ni Cristo has overcome many other obstacles before it finally built its city of spires on Commonwealth Avenue in Quezon City and the magnificent Ciudad de Victoria in the province of Bulacan.
But the future may not be as optimistic anymore. The church has entered the world stage and should therefore expect its own members and the public to take a closer look. When a divine institution is now at fault, who then becomes accountable? And to whom?
Jayeel Serrano Cornelio is a sociologist of religion and director of the Development Studies Program at the Ateneo de Manila University, Philippines. He writes on religion, youth, and the city. Follow him on Twitter.