CIS – Religion

Chapter 8.

The Church in Samoa has been the target of sustained complaints and criticisms going back centuries. Political leaders are quick to repeat the marketing meme that Samoa is Founded Upon God. This is a piece of corporate arrogance if ever there was and a technical impossibility at the same time, for Christianity is always a personal matter, a relationship between an individual and his Creator through Jesus. Corporate Christianity is an impossibility and a [deliberate] deception.

Samoans are in a quandary when it comes to church and as far as I can see always have been. They WANT the meme to be true yet they know only too well that as a rule the Christian church is and always has been anything but godly in its conduct. It’s a well-known fact here that “the Missionaries gave Samoa God, but took the best land”. Resentment is real, although well conditioned and largely hidden.

The primary complaint is that the church leaders are selfish, greedy and use the people for their own benefit. While there are certainly a few exceptions it is true that the lifestyle of the typical church Minister is right at the top of the social order. Palagi guests can easily identify the home of the village Faifeau1 through the size of his house/buildings and the quality of his transport.

The corruption though is not as simple as personal greed. All corruption is born of pride. The three basic forms of human corruption (ungodliness, anti-social and self-destructive) are all rooted in pride. The tricky thing though is to identify HOW that pride is manifested in the church in Samoa.

This then is the challenge, for the outsider who has no understanding of the cultural influences it is hard to pass informed comment.

Most Palagi I know, simply turn their heads away in disgust and criticise the church for abuse of power, most rejecting the Gospel message at the same time, quite naturally too, I might add.

For the Samoan though the corruption that is happening is normal. They believe that they have no power to affect change and that this is ‘fate’. They have been taught for centuries that independent thought is culturally inappropriate when it has the potential to undermine the status quo, especially through the ‘shame factor’.

As I say, those who do have any real get-up-and-go have in the large part got up and gone.

In this chapter I will share some stories of HOW the corruption is outworked in the church in Samoa with the aim of teaching Westerners how the worship of Samoan culture is the key issue at stake.

I will then share the process of how the Bible actually teaches that systemic change can occur. It’s actually quite simple, though maybe not easy.

The Samoan culture is built around the principles of saving face – call it diplomacy, extending respect to others, or more crudely trying to look good or doing it all for show, the principle values are that absolutes, such as good/bad; right/wrong are less valuable than retaining relationship. This means that white lies (even black lies) are the social norm, they are expected, understood, accepted AND defended if they are used to protect a family/village honour.

This requires Cognitive Dissonance in order to cope with biblical teaching not to lie, but that’s readily apparent when Samoans are challenged on this matter. They can easily agree to the illogical state of affairs but they still ALL defend and continue this practice.

This idea of the supreme importance of relationship runs throughout all aspects of Samoan life and living but in a religious sense can be understood from the thinking process of one of the few Samoan Islamics I’ve met with.

I had the opportunity to discuss his beliefs once and found little comprehension of core Islamic beliefs. I asked him how he became a Muslim and found that he had befriended a (visiting) Muslim man. This friendship was cemented in his conversion to Islam and the boy will never change or be able to change at any time in the future without destroying that relationship that he had with his Muslim friend.

The cultural pressure to stand beside his friend, even at the risk of losing his soul (according to biblical teaching) meant that he was prepared to convert to Islam, probably causing all manner of trauma for his family in the process.

To the Western mind this is incomprehensible, to sacrifice truth for a relationship, or even just looking good in or with that relationship is insanity, but many a time Samoans will choose death over other alternatives if it involves shame or a need to step outside of cultural norms. The power behind this corruption BTW is the spirit of fear, specifically the fear of man, the overarching ruling spirit of Samoa2.

I was chatting with a very senior leader in a mainstream denomination once and he explained why he was not going back to a certain church – the Minister had fabricated his donation. I forget the details but he had donated maybe $50.00. The Minister though had doubled this (or more) on the giving sheet making it appear as maybe $150.00. The Minister wanted to look good and lied to try to hike the giving of others. My friend has the integrity to avoid such corruption, and refuses income even though he is entitled to it.

This is rare in Samoa. Corruption however is not.

In one of the villages I lived in there were seven churches – one Catholic and six protestant variants. There could be no more even if someone wanted to. The village was proud of this rule, as they were of their personal adherence to their own denomination.

The reason for attending their denomination was always the same – they took on the faith of their father. It was exceedingly rare to see anyone change. Escape from church attendance was costly (a $20.00 fine if you didn’t attend church). Weekly and monthly and ‘special’ donations were determined by the village leaders in consultation with the Ministers. The village had essentially a business cartel. Requirements were onerous.

This is corruption of the essential message of Christ for the VERY reason that He came was to set the captives free from religious rules and regulations that enslaved. Samoa requires very similar religious enslavement.

I’ve discussed matters with many pastors and people here for years and the message is the same as it has always been – the people serve, love, respect and honour their spiritual leaders because their society expects it of them. Period.

One of the first Pastors I interviewed, an Assemblies of God Pastor, proudly told me the he had half a dozen boys working for him up in the foothills of the village. He had about 7,000 tiapula he claimed, and depending on the markets and the season that’s a value between $5,000.00 and $10,000.00 WST. Enough to buy a small car and probably the entire annual income for an average village family, that’s if they had someone working.

I’d come off the back of more than a decade of AOG involvement in New Zealand with the general impression from AOG pastors being that the Samoan pastors were incredibly generous, loving and special people.

I can assure you that none of them will have heard the local Samoan pastor’s validation of this slavery . . . “It’s to teach them discipline!” was his heartfelt explanation when I dug a little deeper.

The boys had the ‘honour’ of serving the Pastor. The Pastor got the goods and the money. This is a cultural norm here but according to Jesus it’s actually a corruption of the heart and intent of the Creator who seeks a direct empowering relationship with His people – NOT a middleman who enslaves.

The money thing really winds people up, both Samoans and Palagi. I have a photograph of the giving sheets posted on the wall of a Moamoa church. I’ve seen them in many others as well. Listing and comparing peoples’ weekly giving is normal in many Samoan churches, but to outsiders it is an obnoxious peer-pressure technique to shame people into compliance.

Again using manipulation to control peoples’ conduct is a clear corruption of the essential message of Christ, which is that God requires us to give freely and without coercion. The social aspects of giving and comparing the giving is well established in Samoan culture well back before the missionaries first arrival so this is competitive giving is perfectly normal in Samoa. It is however an ungodly practice.

There are people I know who resent this corruption but they appear to be powerless to affect change. One high-ranking Orator once expressed his outrage to me that his church committee had allocated more money (in his absence) than they originally agreed and could reasonably afford to sending their Pastor first-class air travel to an Australian church conference.

Clearly doing things underhand to look good and curry favour with their pastor, and probably strongly hinted at by the Pastor himself, my friend was livid but powerless as the money was spent.

And the reason he was powerless was because he was not prepared to pay the price . . . he wanted to retain his very high Matai title; didn’t want to embarrass his Pastor and so said or did nothing that could affect meaningful change.

This is the reason why change is highly unlikely to occur here too – people all have vested interests in the status quo and do not want to pay the price to do things a better way.

Anger is another trait of corruption within the Samoan culture and is again triggered by pride. I used to take my guests to an English speaking church in Apia. Over a few years I got to know the Pastor and his wife, well respected leaders in the community. A mutual friend from New Zealand who conducted annual training in their bible school issued gushing testimony . . . however I stumbled upon stuff behind the scenes that was a little ugly, the Pastor’s wife didn’t want me to share certain things with her husband, “because he will get angry”.

What was happening was the same thing that happens when people fear not giving enough – cultural expectations transcend truth and love. Of course I destroyed any friendship with this Pastor and his wife by calling them to account on the matter – if a Pastor’s wife wants me to enter into deception out of fear of her husband doing whatever then there is something VERY seriously wrong in the leadership of Samoa’s ‘Christian’ society. I avoided that situation by speaking it out to those involved.

Using anger to control others, especially children, is normal in Samoan society. Tolerance for violence is MUCH higher than in the West, so the sensitivity and love that comes from godliness is replaced by a brutality that sickens those of us who are ‘a little more tender’ in our approach to challenges or conflict. Although talking has been and still is seen as the true Samoan way, violence is actually the default setting for conflict resolution in Paradise.

This here is the key that must be understood . . . it is specifically the worship of Faa Samoa (the Samoan ways) that is the sin and thus the problem. When we place ANY cultural practices over the instruction of the bible we make an idol of our culture – and that’s the nature of the corruption in the church in Samoa – worship in the wrong place.

I wish to make this perfectly clear – it is not Faa Samoa that is the core problem, it is the worship of Faa Samoa when it overrides or runs contrary to biblical teaching that is the sin/problem.

Samoan pride has to a large extent prevented Samoans from facing reality – that the church has been adroit in capitalising on the respect afforded it by a people conditioned for centuries to honour and respect it’s leaders and elders.

Do not expect any career Minister to voluntarily admit that things are wrong; that God’s word has been corrupted and that they should pass up their ‘divine right’ to first class air travel to offshore conferences; the first-fruits of all seasonal labour income; income from weekly gambling in the church halls; a church building of enormous size and glory; ownership of the best of vehicular transport or the prime seat at feasts and social events. It will not be happening!

There is though a deeper corruption of the Christian religion in Samoa that is more significant yet not as easy to accept or understand. It is that the entire concept of a church with a religious leader is a man-made construct, and misses God’s best intent for His people.

Of course He has worked in and through and with the organised Christian denominations for 2,000 years but a denomination is not a biblical concept and the quintessential role of a spiritual leader like an ordained Minister or Priest embraced so readily by the Samoan church is totally unbiblical.

A shallow popularist reading of Scripture; a people all too willing for others to do the thinking for them and an organised Christian church all too ready to move in and take advantage of the Samoan opportunity afforded them have combined to make chronic Churchianity the norm here.

Corruption has entered into the church from the earliest stages of its existence, with the perceived requirements for leadership, centralised organisation, church ownership of land, buildings and assets. This is global corruption of the message of Christ and not just a Samoan thing. Samoa has just taken the corrupted model to ridiculous extremes!

What has happened is that the lifestyle of the earliest Christians that mimicked that of Christ so closely [and that turned the known world on its head] has been corrupted into a system of institutions using ‘ownership and control’ business models. While it’s only just becoming obvious to the discerning, in the fullness of time this denominational pyramid business structure will be seen more clearly as the apostate church.

It is my experience that a genuine Christian leader will love, give, bless and mentor others through sacrifice in direct obedience to the calling and leading of the Holy Spirit, rather than leading others through any system of religion, officialdom and religious ‘appointments’.

This concept is foreign to the Samoan mind that seeks others to lead it, and to expect those leaders to tell it what to think and believe however the corruption is all the more clear in a country that does blindly do what it is told to do by self-proclaimed ‘religious leaders’ than in a more subtle, sophisticated Western church environment.

The answer to those wanting a biblical solution is to refer back to the Scriptures and research teaching in light of the possibility that denominations of ANY sort and church buildings and church leaders with ‘authority’ over their subjects are not the Lord’s intent. Jesus taught and demonstrated primarily one-on-one ministry, working where the people were, where they were at, and brought the Kingdom of God as a result of His obedience and faith.

Likewise with the power of the Holy Spirit – with the destruction of the Temple and the new dispensation we have been given a personal relationship with Jesus to affect His purposes in the direct power of the Holy Spirit. Submitting to any intermediary (such as any denomination or leader within a denomination) reduces the effectiveness of ministry to the vision of those we submit to.

While there is widespread tacit agreement here that the Christian church of Samoa is corrupt, understanding that it is actually the entire denominational church structure that is the base of corruption is to my current knowledge totally absent.

Attempting to affect change with the current church systems in Samoa is akin to polishing and rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. True Christian believers who abhor corruption from God’s perfect ideal will be seeking His perfect will OUTSIDE of the systems that are currently in place.

For those that struggle to see the validity in this concept, simply recall the exponential growth of genuine Christianity in China when the church structures were forcibly closed down and Christians persecuted. The pattern has repeated throughout history around the globe too.

Samoa has a very long way to go before it can legitimately claim to be a genuine Christian country!

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