Shembe pastors' anti-gay edicts split church's followers

Shembe pilgrims at a Nazareth Baptist Church ceremony. The church has introduced new rules that ostracise gay and lesbian members.
Shembe pilgrims at a Nazareth Baptist Church ceremony. The church has introduced new rules that ostracise gay and lesbian members.
Image: Tebogo Letsie

Senior pastors of one of Southern Africa's most powerful African churches have adopted controversial new rules that include ostracising gay and lesbian members.

The rules have been adopted by 14 pastors of the Nazareth Baptist Church, also known as the Shembe Church. The decision by the 14 has led to an outcry by some congregants.

The 14 pastors belong to the Ebuhleni faction, which is regarded as the biggest and the most powerful among the 4.5-million members.

The Shembe Church combines Zulu tradition and Christian values. Followers believe their leader is the equivalent of Jesus Christ and insist that female followers be virgins at marriage.

The new rules include that:

  • A female member of the church married to a gay man must return to her home to be cleansed by her father through the slaughter of a goat;
  • A lesbian member of the church who marries a man will be permanently stripped of her right to be a wife; and
  • A woman who leaves her husband will be subject to a hearing. If she is found to have been in the wrong, she should not be allowed to marry again.

The rules applying to men are vague.

The rules say a widow needs to find a new husband among the family of her late husband. If no-one is available, she is allowed to choose someone from the church. In such a case, the new husband must pay two cows to her previous husband's family.

A wife rejected by her husband will have to be cleansed with a goat by her father before she is allowed to marry another man.

A spokesperson for the Ebuhleni faction, Thokozani Mncwabe, said some church members rejected the pastors' new rules.

"They can propose the rules but they must check if those rules are in line with the policies of the church. For example, the policy of the church is that a woman cannot marry twice.

"We have heard that some have already introduced them in their congregations but members of the church are up in arms about this," he said.

Chancy Sibisi, a spokesperson for the Thembezinhle faction, said members were surprised by the rules.

"Shembe [church founder Isaiah Shembe] said we must not cut our hair, we must not eat pork and not drink alcohol and we still abide by that. People can choose to make rules and make them what they want but you can't touch what Shembe has said."

The Thembezinhle faction was declared the rightful leadership of the church in court following a five-year battle by the Ebuhleni group, led by Mduduzi Shembe.

The rules were criticised by Gender Links CEO Colleen Lowe Morna, who said they were unconstitutional.

"SA is the only country in the world whose constitution recognises the right to same-sex relationships. The Shembe Church, whatever its beliefs, cannot violate the constitution. Therefore, it would be well advised to recant its position immediately."

Commission for Gender Equality spokesperson Javu Baloyi said the rules were discriminatory on the basis of gender and sexual orientation.


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