There is a simple formula for serving God. It was provided by Jesus Christ himself in the following words: “Follow me.”
“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me,” he says in Luke 9:23.
Christ is always very clear about the standards of the Cross. In his template on how to pray, the “Our Father,” he is similarly eloquent. It is a prayer indexed on forgiveness: his followers are to praise God, and then present their requests, including praying for forgiveness and protection from sin and evil.
Notice, in particular, “lead us not into temptation.” Christ knew the nature of man, and that he will always be challenged by temptation. Five words that are both an appeal and a warning. An appeal for strength when we are tempted; a warning not to underrate the challenge.
The trouble with temptation is that it has unlimited form and remarkable persistence. It returns again and again, perhaps wearing a fresh face or a different smile; an indifferent phraseology or a changed taste or color. Or it may retain one irresistible form with which it tries to wear its subject down.
But human beings often yield. For which Christ urged mutual confession of sins, and repeated forgiveness “not just seven times, but seventy-seven times”, he told Peter. Furthermore: “If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.”
High standards that recognize the nature of human beings, but also provide practicable solutions. Christ provided for the forgiveness of sin, but not for changing of the standards he laid down.
I am speaking about the Word of God, not politics, particularly Nigerian-style politics. I make this distinction because, as we all know, the pulpit and the political stomp are now sometimes indistinguishable.
Politicians steal from the poor and give to pastors, who—fully aware the money is filthy—accept it and enlist in the politician’s front lawn. The pastor joins in the politician’s false lifestyle to which the outsider is the poor believer, who continues to contribute to the church—as he should—in the faith that he is supporting the work of God.
There is no question some rich pastors are genuine, or some genuine pastors rich; their mission and their pockets enriched beyond measure by their faith, and their faithfulness. We’ll never be able to tell by the ordinary eye who is whom, except perhaps, through some knowledge of how they deploy their wealth in the service of their fellow man, especially strangers.
But good pastor or bad, inspired or fake, even they will at some point come eyeball to eyeball with some form of temptation or another, including greed, lust, insensitivity, and arrogance.
For some reason, during this Christian season of Lent, one rising Nigerian pastor has been accused of a few of those. Lent is a solemn 40-day observance characterized by prayer, fasting, and abstinence, in preparation for the resurrection of Christ at Easter. Somehow, fate chose this season for Mr. Johnson Suleman, the General Overseer of the Omega Fire Ministries, to battle allegations of lust and serial adultery.
It began with one Stephanie Otobo, a Canada-based singer, alleging that between 2015 when they met and 2016, they slept together in three cities on three continents: Naples, New York and Lagos. But when she became pregnant, the married Apostle Suleman, who had also promised to marry her invited her to Lagos, she alleged, where he personally and forcibly aborted the baby.
Mr. Suleman has denied the story, but at least one other woman has made a similar allegation. “I dated Apostle Suleman while I was a member in his church, he was my pastor, spiritual director and mentor aside being a boyfriend, from August 2013 to 2014 April,” one “Queen Esther, chambers,” told Premium Times.
On March 9, the pastor asked Festus Keyamo, the widely-known lawyer whose chambers in Lagos is representing Ms. Otobo, to apologize publicly and pay him N1bn for alleged blackmail and injuries.
He said Mr. Keyamo and his unidentified “paymasters” were plotting to kill or cause bodily harm to Ms. Otobo and blame him for perpetrating the act. They were also plotting to “clone” his voice in a forthcoming video on the scandal, he alleged.
Keyamo's Chambers warned Apostle Suleman the following day to focus on the facts, not conspiracy theories. Stressing that their principal, who was in Abuja at the time had nothing to do with the case, it said, “Other unfortunate victims of this same self-proclaimed “Man of God” are also in touch with us now and are also itching to tell their story, with proofs.”
Another published story appeared to demonstrate that an expensive car belonging to actress Daniella Okeke was registered to the pastor.
Last week, social media outlets were reporting that Mr. Suleman has sued Ms. Otobo and SaharaReporters—but curiously not Keyamo—for N1billion.
What does Ms. Otobo, who is already being prosecuted by the police on such charges as blackmail, terrorism and intent to steal from Mr. Suleman, want? A public apology to her and to his congregation, she said. “I want him to publicly accept his sins, and beg for forgiveness from God.”
That seems to be fair enough. In fact, it seems to be what Mr. Suleiman or any pastor might have counseled in the circumstances. But that would mean admitting guilt, a notion the pastor clearly abhors.
The church’s website suggests Mr. Suleman’s birth was akin to that of Christ. “...Few days after he was born, some Prophets came from Warri to Benin (the place of his birth) with a message [saying] God told them “a prophet who would minister in God's presence has been born...”
“God gave His choice servant, Apostle Johnson Suleman a divine mandate to: “wipe out tears, restore people to their destinies by the revelation of the word, manifestation of power and reality of the Holy Spirit.”
There is evidence that Mr. Suleman is a gifted, generous pastor. And is not difficult to see the dilemma his accusers have placed him. But even if Ms. Otobo has lied against him, the challenge before him as a Christian is to forgive and pray for her, leaving vengeance to God. Christ’s standards have not changed.
If the pastor has sinned—and only Christ did not—Ms. Otobo is right: only through confessing his sin can he find forgiveness and that strength which only humility can bring. Through fire is iron forged. Christ does not regret a sinner because he sinned; he rejects only those who persist or who refuse to take responsibility. Christ made it clear he did not come to save the perfect, but the sinful.
And if Mr. Suleman sinned, he was not the first; he was a man before he became a pastor. But it would be his choice to enlist with those who, having been given the special spiritual gift to which he lays claim, devalues it by assuming superiority to that gift, and suggesting he is impenetrable to sin.
And we must never forget how fondly Christ sees himself in the little man: “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me."
Because that personal cross is a daily commitment.
In last week’s column, I inadvertently referred to Mamman Daura as chief of Nigeria’s Department of State Security (DSS). That is wrong; I meant to say Lawal Daura.
Mamman Daura plays an informal but powerful role in the presidency. The mix-up is regretted.