Late Friday night, June 16th, a bishop of the Church of Nigeria called to ask me to write up formal charges against the Reverend Canon Dr. Augustine Unuigbe who has been elected suffragan bishop in the Church of Nigeria.
Anne and I had been discussing the bishop elect’s ministry and teaching on the Preventing Grace Podcast and Anglican Ink picked up my discussion of his Pentecost sermon in which he claimed that Christ expects all Christians to do greater miracles than he did, including raising the dead. If Christians are not doing such things, he said, then they are not living the normal Christian life.
This was not my first interaction with the Rev. Canon Dr. Unuigbe. I’d had an infamous exchange with him on facebook the year before, in which he declared “poverty banished” from his home “in Jesus name” and recommended that Anglicans look to Benny Hinn for theological guidance. The Rev. Canon. Dr. Unuigbe has taught the Prosperity Gospel along with the Word of Faith teaching for some time now. If you do not know what these are, you can read about them here, along with the formal charges I sent to the Church of Nigeria.
Yesterday I learned that the Church of Nigeria had issued its response to my allegations. You can read their response here. The consecration will go forward as planned. The Rev. Canon Unuigbe has, the Church of Nigeria states, apologized for his “inadvertent error” and he has promised not to teach the Prosperity Gospel or the Word of Faith doctrine again.
I’ll begin with the positive aspects of the statement. If our goal is the reformation of the Church (and it is and always has been and always will be) then we are playing a long game. We must be willing to recognize and capitalize on small victories even when, especially when, they come with defeats. There were some good and important gains made in this statement. The bishop-elect has promised not to teach the Prosperity and Word of Faith doctrines ever again. He made this promise to his primate, the Most Reverend Dr. Nicholas Okoh, who is, himself, a stalwart opponent of the Prosperity Gospel. That is significant. It is a line, a clear line. The Rev. Canon Dr. Unuigbe will be watched, his sermons reviewed, his teachings overseen and not just by me. The Rt. Rev. Felix Orji, another strong defender of the Gospel over and against these two counterfeits, is the bishop who presently oversees the Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA) within which the bishop-elect will serve. I have every confidence that should soon to be Bishop Unuigbe fall into error again, Bishop Orji will take action.
Secondly, though the wording is inadequate, suggesting an inadvertent fall into error, despite the fact that the Rev. Canon Dr. Unuigbe has been warned for over a year in both private and public that he preaches these two false doctrines, the statement indicates that he has acknowledged his errors and apologized. He cannot now claim that his former teachings were correct. He can, at most, claim that he was formerly teaching out of ignorance, but that now he sees the truth. This is another line that, should good and faithful bishops and leaders in Nigeria wish to hold it, can be held. The Church of Nigeria, as a condition of the bishop elect’s consecration, has required that the Rev. Canon Dr. Unuigbe apologize for errors that heretofore he and his supporters have, to this point, refused to acknowledge as errors. If he or anyone else teaches these errors again, they do so against the explicit disciplinary ruling of the Church of Nigeria. Everything, of course, depends on the willingness of good Nigerian bishops and leaders (and there are many) to defend the faith.
There are, of course, deeply troubling aspects of this statement. First, I do not believe that anyone who has recently embraced the Prosperity Gospel or Word of Faith doctrine is biblically qualified for any ordained office. A layperson who steadfastly and unrepentantly embraces these teachings is subject to church discipline. How much more an ordained presbyter? How much more a bishop? The blood of Christ is sufficient to cleanse every sin and wash away even the stain of heresy, but the ordained minister must “hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it”(Titus 1:9). There is no evidence the Rev. Canon Dr. Unuigbe will be able to do this. I have no problem with the ordination of sinners (I am one), nor even former false teachers, but there must be proof that heresy has been recanted and repudiated. Until and unless the church sees the fruit of genuine repentance manifest in a commitment to sound doctrine, and there has been no time for that, how can this consecration go forward?
Secondly, the word “inadvertent” makes it sound as if the Rev. Canon Dr. Unuigbe innocently and without warning or knowledge simply fell into these false teachings. Those of us who have been engaging with him for the last year know that he has been told, taught, warned, rebuked by many “senior” clergy. Dishonesty never heals, and the truth glossed over cannot bring freedom. How much better it would have been for the Rev. Canon Dr. Unuigbe and for the Church as a whole if he had simply come clean as we all must do when we sin or err. Had he confessed, not only to his Primate, but to all the church, publicly (for he erred publicly), and said “I have sinned. I have taught what is false and led many away from the true Gospel. I now know that I was wrong and how I regret my words and actions. I pray that you, and most of all, my Lord might have mercy on me and forgive me for my sins.” To such a confession, setting aside the question of ordination and consecration, the Church would throw open her arms in joyful welcome. And that earthly welcome is only a shadow of the blood-bought mercy, forgiveness, grace, and compassion, that flows from our Savior’s kind heart to all who repent and cry to him for help. To mince words, to fail to acknowledge sin in its depths, to stop short of requiring full confession, while it may seem a great kindness, dams up the rivers of cleansing and mercy that would otherwise flow unhindered.
Finally, as for the bishop-elect himself, I wish him well and pray that God will bless him with every good blessing. I think the evidence speaks for itself. I do not think he should be consecrated. He has clearly has taught heresy. And yet, love believes all things. In the absence of contrary evidence, we must believe that his apology was sincere and that his commitment to faithful preaching in the future is genuine.