ON THE SLOPES of Montalban, Rizal, a short distance form the low-cost government housing project that has been named "Erap City," the Iglesia ni Cristo (INC) is building 1,300 two-bedroom houses on a 29-hectare property it has christened Pamayanan Ng Tagumpay or Victory Town.
In Dasmariñas, Cavite, INC members are living in 500 two-story townhouses that the church built in 1996.
In Barangay Culiat, Quezon City, INC ministers, deacons and deaconesses are moving into three newly constructed buildings that house 120 condominium units.
INC members and ministers pay subsidized rental—about P200 a month for the Montalban houses. That is, as long as they remain faithful to the church.
These constructions give an indication of how a small, minority church can command the obedience of at least two million people and propagate itself despite the ostracism of bigger churches.
At the most basic level, the INC provides for the welfare needs of its flock, such as jobs and housing for its poorest members. The INC is run like a tightly knit family, where members look out for one other. It also offers the rewards of the other life, promising that as sure as the soaring turrets of the Iglesia's Gothic-style churches pierce the sky, salvation will be granted believers.
At the same time, the 88-year old INC is a shrewd political and business operator. It parlays the votes of its members for political and financial concessions to the church.
Iglesia doctrine is based on the Bible and the "prophetic interpretations" of church founder Felix Y. Manalo, who left both the Catholic and the Protestant churches before founding the INC in 1914.
Manalo's son Eraño is now the powerful executive minister of the church, while grandson Eduardo is deputy executive minister. They and 11 other senior ministers compose the "Central Administration," which issue edicts that church members are compelled to follow.
Pasugo, the church's official publication, asserts the church's fundamental article of faith: that INC members constitute "the elect of God" and that God listens to them alone. To them, there is no salvation outside the Iglesia.
As Fernando Elesterio wrote in a dissertation submitted to De la Salle University: "It is this exclusivist attitude, generated naturally by the teachings of the ministers, that bestows on the members a sense of security and even of pride in their organization."
"It does not matter that they are few, compared to those in the Catholic Church, or if they are viewed as unlettered; after all, they will go to heaven while the rest of mankind will go to hell."
The church's Internal Constitution lays down strict rules of behavior for its members. Drunkenness, adultery, and disobedience of church teachings are punishable by expulsion. Church members are also not allowed to join unions, making them ideal recruits for certain business establishments. "The church itself is a union, a most powerful union," said a senior INC member.
The INC was founded on the eve of the World War I with only four ministers and 12 disciples. By 1936, it had grown to 300 ministers and evangelists with 500 churches and 350 chapels on Luzon island, according to the Encyclopedia of the Philippines.