IGLESIA NI CRISTO began in the Philippines in 1914 with the vision of founder Félix Manalo syncretized with aspects of Christianity. Manalo, disillusioned with both Catholicism and Protestantism, started the group with his own revelations and interpretations of Scripture. He became the INC’s first executive minister.
“They are a significant unreached people group for which the evangelical community has no intentional evangelistic strategy,” wrote Anne Harper, a longtime missionary with Action International in the Philippines, in her book Understanding the Iglesia ni Cristo.
The INC does not believe in the Trinity or in Jesus’ divine nature, and it considers itself the only church that offers salvation. It considers Félix Manalo to be the “angel of the East” (referenced in Revelation 7) whom God appointed for the last times. Zabala, explaining the executive minister’s role, quoted Romans 16:25, where the gospel is a “mystery,” and the only ones who understand it are the “messengers” (Mark 4:11), including current executive minister Eduardo Manalo and the New Testament apostles.
Thanks to its centralized authority under Manalo, the INC also has political power in the Philippines that rivals the much larger Catholic Church. During every election, the group’s central administration releases a list of endorsed candidates, and millions of INC members vote as a bloc. (The political endorsements and bloc voting do not extend to other countries like the United States or Canada.)
The last four candidates to win the presidency of the Philippines had the backing of INC, including current president Rodrigo Duterte. Last year Duterte appointed Manalo as the special envoy for Overseas Filipino Concerns.
The group’s theology focuses on a works-based salvation, with a strict commitment to the executive minister’s interpretation of God’s will. On threat of expulsion, members must submit to the executive minister’s decisions, attend worship services consistently, live a holy life as defined by the INC, and never do anything causing disunity in the group. Members are discouraged from posting negative things about the INC on social media, for example.
“Factions are of the devil,” said Zabala. “So how can we remain a church if we allow factions inside the Iglesia ni Cristo?”
To be baptized and join the group, a prospective member must study 28 lessons over several months, then complete a probationary period to prove commitment to INC principles.
Eunice Raposas, an evangelical originally from the Philippines and now in college in New York, once visited the headquarters in Quezon City. She noticed the beautifully maintained gardens and the huge, immaculate building in the midst of a poverty-stricken neighborhood. The group evangelized her, but she did not join.
In the Catholic Church, she said, “it’s just like you go to church, do your prayers, do what you got to do, and then leave,” she said. “But when you go into Iglesia ni Cristo, it’s different. … People feel like they are a part of a really big family.” But she found the commitment level unnerving: “Their mission is to try to make people be perfect. … If you want to be a part of their church you have to be dedicated.”