by Lucas Mboya
I hope this brief story will illustrate how legalism can rob Christians of their ability to respect and have compassion for others.
Saturday, July 11, 1998, a brother from the Nairobi Christian Church (an affiliate of the International Churches of Christ, or ICC) wakes up. It’s set to be a momentous occasion — the day of a lifetime. His wedding day has finally dawned.
Tom (a pseudonym) goes to the Buruburu Church of God the venue for the event and together with Evangelist John Kilaha and the invited guests they await the arrival of the bride. The wedding is to begin at 1.00 p.m., with a reception at the same location immediately afterward.
There is a hitch, however. The Nairobi Church has a policy — they will fine you for any delay in your wedding schedule resulting in a late start. This day the bride is an hour late. Evangelist John Kilaha says he will not conduct the wedding unless Tom pays a fine of Ksh 3,000 ($50). Though John had warned him not to delay the proceedings the night before, Tom had thought the fine would be much less. The Lead Evangelist, when first introducing fining (for wedding lateness), had said that it would amount to Ksh 1000 ($16.60).
Tom is unemployed — fifty percent of Kenyans live below the absolute poverty level. Kenya is the sixteenth poorest nation in the world. For those who are employed, the average monthly pay is ksh 3,000.
Nevertheless, John insists that the fine must be paid or the wedding will not take place. Tom is left with no room to manoeuvre. He is not allowed the option of paying the fine later. He asks John whether any of the other Church members may then join him. John remains silent. Though extremely upset he gives John the money and the wedding proceeds.
Before paying John, Tom had with him Ksh 5,400 ($90). He had intended to use this money to pay for a hotel room the same night. In addition he had a number of other minor services to pay for. After paying his fine he remained with Ksh 2,400 ($40). Despite the fact that he made his situation very clear to John, there was no respite. Church policy was Church policy and the fine had to be paid.
Tom and his bride were resigned to ‘sleeping in’ on their first night of marriage when God stepped in. They received cash gifts among many others and were able to continue with their plans.
The church (when I was there) taught that they fined their members because the Evangelists were very busy and could not afford to have their time wasted, their schedules interrupted. It was a way of instilling discipline and organisation into all the members wedding plans. If your wedding was well organised, then you’d have no problem. If not, then you’d pay the price.
The fines though were levied for every half hour delay. The Church taught that their members were getting off lightly; in other Churches the fines were much stiffer. Talk about convenience — when it comes to fining their members the Nairobi Church is suddenly in agreement with other churches. Mind you, the Church building that Tom got married in had been booked for the whole day. The one hour delay would not have inconvenienced any other users.
I find it strange that in all the discipling times (meetings with their Church appointed disciplers) that go on in the Nairobi Church as well as for their other activities, to the best of my knowledge nobody is fined for being late. Rebuked — yes. Corrected — yes. Forgiven — yes. Fined — no.
How is it, then, that members will only be fined for lateness on their wedding day. I’ve not come across any Christian being fined in scripture. I would think the reason for this is that fining would probably produce the right result (being on time), but from the wrong motivation and hence would prove an inappropriate practice for Christians.
I can only speak for myself — the whole concept of fining Christians in order to get them to improve certain aspects of their lives I find quite off. It just doesn’t strike me as Christian. I can understand being fined for lateness because one has inconvenienced another user of the same premises, but to be fined by your evangelist to teach you not to waste people’s time is absurd. By extension, it would then be quite reasonable to fine Christians for the commission of any sin, assuming that by wasting people’s time they are sinning.
In Tom’s case, did he still deserve the fine if the delay was caused by factors beyond his control? (A car they had been using to finalise their preparations broke down several hours earlier, leading to the delay).
Also, how is it that all those present at the wedding could happily give up their time to be with Tom and celebrate the joyous union, but the Evangelist who later sat down with the guests to tuck into the reception lunch had to be paid for his. (John stayed at the wedding venue up to 6.30 p.m.). He claims to be a brother and friend to Tom, but did not seem willing to give up his day for him!
I also wonder how they arrived at the Ksh 3,000 per hour fine. They claim these fines are used to help the poor and needy. The fine (a month’s salary for most Kenyans) is certainly not a representation of the value of John’s time. I estimate John’s monthly pay-cheque at Ksh 20,000 ($333). If his time was worth Ksh 3,000 an hour then he should theoretically be earning Ksh 24,000 a day or Ksh 720,000 ($12,000) a month, which he’s not. This fine was clearly punitive. Even in the most pagan of worlds, does it sound reasonable to fine a man one month’s wages for being an hour late? Yet this was one Christian fining another on his wedding day!
Doesn’t the Bible teach “Mercy triumphs over judgement”! (James 2 v13). Doesn’t the Bible teach us not to do things that will cause our brethren to stumble? (Romans 14 v 21). I put myself in Tom’s shoes and I would certainly have stumbled.
Wouldn’t it have been more Christian for John to have forgiven Tom for his bride’s lateness, or at the very least allowed him to pay the fine at a later date so he could enjoy his first day of marriage?
Call me a wimp, a dweeb, call me uncommitted, sentimental — I don’t care. I would not fine my friend because his bride turned up an hour late for their wedding and I do not say this self-righteously. I would celebrate it with him, be glad that his bride eventually came and give him all the help I possibly could. I would not make any appointments that day, so that — late or not — I would be able to celebrate that day with my friend. I have this feeling that the Jesus I know would have done the same.
Copyright (c) 1998 by Lucas Mboya. All rights reserved.