Julita Reyes Sta. Romana, in her seminal study of the INC, said that by the 1950s, the church was recruiting from 10,000 to 15,000 converts a year. The 1990 Census of Population and Housing places the number of Iglesia members at 1.4 million, three times more than its membership in 1970.
The INC has members among overseas Filipinos as well and says it has churches in 66 countries, including 39 in the United States, 23 in Asia, 15 in Europe, 11 in Australia and Oceania, and eight in Africa.
But it is not numbers alone that make the INC such an influential church today. The Iglesia commands strict obedience from its members. It votes as a bloc, and its leaders are wooed by politicians eager for support.
As explained in the May-June 1986 issue of the INC's official publication, Pasugo: "The Church of Christ observes unity even in electing public officials (Philippians 2:2:3; I Corinthians 1:10). This is not to interfere with politics, but in obedience to God's commandment. This unity is never betrayed by a true member of the church of Christ, even if some would be displeased."
INC claims to have 2 million members of voting age, although pollster Felipe Miranda believes that the actual figure is closer to 1 to 1.5 million. At the national level, this bloc is a strategic swing vote, especially in multiparty electoral contests for the Senate. It is a swing vote for the presidential race as well, but only if there are multiple candidates. At the local level, especially in Luzon, the Iglesia command vote could determine the fate of a candidate.
Lito Banayo, Estrada's ex-political affairs adviser, said, "In areas with 100,000 voters, 15,000 INC voters is your margin of victory." Banayo joined Estrada's campaign team in 1998 and he notes that the INC bailiwicks were also Estrada's—the Tagalog-speaking regions.
Who the INC votes for depends in large part on what these candidates can do—or have done—for the church, even if they are not exactly paragons of the virtuous life that the Iglesia proclaims as ideal.
Thus, unlike the Catholic Church, the INC supported President Joseph Estrada even if he had several mistresses. The Iglesia also did not raise moral objections to the excesses committed by the late strongman Ferdinand Marcos.
The INC's approach is more pragmatic. "The leaders say that for a long time, these guys have been helping us," explained a senior member. "They give the kapatid (brethren) jobs, they protect the church's interest. And then they ask, 'Who in politics is without sin or vices anyway?'"
Caloocan City's former mayor, Macario Asistio, for instance, is a long-time INC ally. When Asistio, Estrada's buddy, lost to Rey Malonzo, the favored candidate of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, many INC members also lost their jobs at the Caloocan City Hall.
The INC exercises its clout outside the realm of politics as well. In 1998, a big commercial bank sued the church in a dispute over property that had been offered for sale to both the bank and the INC.
The bank had acquired the land earlier, but a relative of INC Executive Minister Erano "Erdie" Manalo brokered its sale to the church, unaware of the earlier transaction.
"The church felt insulted it was being sued in court," an influential INC member said. "You don't go to court or go public at once. Usually, you call up the Iglesia first."
Stung by the lawsuit, church leaders ordered all their members employed by the bank to resign and called on all the faithful to pull their money out of the bank. The bank lost P1 billion. In time, the case was settled amicably, with the bank properly advised never to cross the INC in public or in court again.
Sen. Panfilo Lacson, a non-Iglesia, knows this lesson well. Some years ago, as a senior police officer, Lacson faced a dilemma over what to do with controversial police Col. Romeo Maganto, a kapatid. "Lacson had to go to the central (INC headquarters in Quezon City) to secure permission to fire Maganto," the member recalled. "The permission was given."