I WAS SCARED FIRST TIME I MOUNTED THE PULPIT
Rev. Okotie and wife
Senior Pastor of the Household of God Church, Reverend Chris Okotie is not your everyday minister of the gospel. A popular pop star in the 1980s, Okotie shocked millions of Nigerians when he announced that he had become born again and received God's call to quit secular music.
He abandoned his career and founded a church, The Household of God Church, in February 1987. The church clocked 23 this month.
In this interview, Okotie speaks on his church and its growth, his foray into politics and many other issues.
Your church is now 23 years old. How has the journey been in the last two decades?
The church was 23 on February 1, and it's been a journey of grace, of mercy. We have engaged the plenitude of God's grace, his power, his provision, his wisdom. Household is a testimony to the fact that the scriptures are immutable. God has said in His words that the gate of hell will not prevail against the church of Jesus and I think Household is exactly a true pointer to that reality.
When you just started, did you really believe that the church was going to get this far?
No, I didn't. I didn't think I would be considered a serious contender in the Kingdom of God. I didn't think so. But Jesus our Lord kept encouraging me. You know time has a way of resolving issues and in time people have come to see the dedication, the commitment, the level of wisdom and understanding that have come from our pulpit ministry and the way the church has been structured and the innovations that we introduced within the structure of the New Testament church in Nigeria. I think these have been some of the reasons why the Household has become almost like a cynosure in Pentecostalism now.
When you came, your church brought so many innovations to the New Testament church. Didn't you think some of your fellow pastors would see you as some radical?
Yes, they thought I was a maverick of some sorts. But the guiding principle has been the reality, the truth of the word of God because we are very sound in the teaching of the scriptures. Jesus said you will know the truth and the truth will set you free from traditions of men, from the expectations of men, from the narrow perspective and the rigidity of ignorance.
So, it is the knowledge that we have received from the teaching of the scriptures that gave the boldness, the impetus and it is true because the Bible says the righteous man is as bold as a lion. So, that has been our guiding principle and that is what has helped us. And once you have that liberty, then the spirit can become even more innovative with you because the Bible says where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty and that is what Household has become.
Your church also does this Karis Award. Is that a personal thing or is it a part of your calling?
It's part of the responsibilities of the church. We are the salt of the earth. That means your geographical space, which is Nigeria. Leadership is of God because He's the one who determines who leads a nation and who will not and we submit to that authority. The relevance of a church in any political setting is described in the scriptures.
It is well enunciated in the Bible. And following those principles of recognising virtues, qualities of leadership of nationhood found in the scriptures… because God controls the nation through prophecy and policy. Policy belongs to the state; prophecy belongs to the church. An amalgamation or nearness of both will determine how blessed that church is.
So, we have got involved in our nation as part of that nation and what we can do to be a blessing to that nation for the development of our people. So, it's part of our ministry. So we still continue. We've been doing that for quite some time. It used to be N500, 000
We increased it to a million.
Why is the award not restricted to your church?
Because the teaching of the scriptures is that you do things to benefit others. The modus operandi of the spirit is to give you something for somebody else. It is always altruistic; it never centres on yourself, it's for other people. So, if you are benevolent to yourself or kind to yourself, that is not true benevolence according to the scriptures but when you do it to somebody else, then it is more appreciated.
We feel that there are people within the nation whose virtues must be extolled because they will become role models for the younger generation. They will create an atmosphere for people to strive for the general good of the nation. We encourage that kind of thing. God is a rewarder . And that is what we are trying to do.
How do you determine those who win the award?
Nominations are made and we investigate the nominations and then we choose some.
You must have had some high points since the ministry started and you must have had some low points to, Could you let us into them?
I think at the beginning, we were not very sure of what was going to happen because I didn't have the confidence that Nigerians were going to take me seriously. So, one was very apprehensive in those days. But as time went on, it became clear that I was given a chance to prove myself. And the difficulties we had were in the areas of innovation.
For instance, when I introduced certain things that have not been in the church before, getting involved in politics, or even in our charity, giving money to people who are not Christians, who don't belong to our own denomination and things like that, creating an atmosphere of liberty for young people to embrace the faith and still be trendy, to be a Christian and still enjoy your life. And the teaching on prosperity, being prosperous as a child of God and still maintain your spirituality. These were some of the things because a lot of people did not understand them at the time. So, we came under a lot of criticism and vilification, you know. But all that have changed now really because knowledge has increased and people have become more aware.
There are a lot of churches these days setting up schools and people are complaining that these schools are too expensive. What's your opinion?
I think you need to investigate the reasons for the establishment of these schools. For instance, a church can enter into an investment scheme where they set up a university basically just as an investment. And if that is the reason why the school was set up, it will be probably out of the reach of some members of the congregation because it is primarily to generate income for the church. So, they have to set it up purely as a business. You need to find out why the school was set up because sometimes you don't set up a school just because you want your members to attend.
But the argument against that is that those who brought Christianity to Africa came with the Bible, set up schools and made them free, brought free hospitals and so on. That was how many people got converted…
That is why I said you need to find out why those schools were set up. If you are trying to set up a school for your congregation, definitely it will be within their economic reach. But if it is purely as an investment, to generate income for the church to do other things, maybe evangelistic work, then it will be priced. So, the example you gave, those missionaries came with that intent.
They wanted to set up public schools; that was the purpose. But I do not think, in my view, that that is what these churches are doing. They are just doing business. It just happens to be the school that is doing business because it is profitable and then the income from that endeavour can be channelled to some other cause.
Why the name Household of God?
That's the name that the Lord showed me from the scriptures. Because since He's the owner of the church, when we were going to start, I started enquiring, what do you want me to call the church? And he showed me from the scriptures. So I picked it straight out of the scriptures.
Where is that in the scriptures?
Ephesians chapter 2, verse 19. It goes thus: 'Now therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.'
Where did the church start from? Obviously you did not start from here.
We started in my sitting room at Obasa, somewhere off Oba Akran. We were like eight families. We were friends before I went to school and when I came back, we used to meet to share the word of God and all of that. I was attending a church at that time and when I was ready, I went to see the pastor to say that the time has come for me to do this work. Then, we put out advertisement and we started.
Advertisement for what?
Advertisement to say that we were going to start a church so that people would know.
How did you feel the first day?
I was very apprehensive. I was scared.
Were you jittery? (He laughs)
Very, very jittery.
How did they feel, your congregation?
Well, I think they responded. They thought I did well. I didn't think so because I was very nervous. And the first sermon I preached was 'Joseph's coat of many colours.' Eventually we moved to this place in Oregun in 1992.
How did you acquire all this large parcel of land?
It is a blessing of the Lord. He's our provider. It took a while. It's been 23 years now. So, we thank God for that.
Many people say you are very good at teaching the word of God. Is that your main calling?
Yes. That is the pastoral office because a pastor is a shepherd, so he feeds his flock. That is why our pulpit ministry is that deep because it is the only place you can find pasture. That is what we are known for basically.
So it became some kind of passion for you?
You know, if you are a servant of the Lord, your passion is your responsibility, that is the responsibility he gives to you. It's obedience that determines how far you are going to go with your creator, with the Lord. So, the wise man will focus on that which the Lord has committed to him and will do it with all his might because it is only that that will determine whether you have pleased your master or not. For me, it is the most important thing.
You used to preach on television…
We still do but not in the Lagos area.
Why not in the Lagos area?
Well, it became difficult to get the time. I feel that if we are going to be on television, we should be ministering at a time that people can watch it. We began to have problems as to the airtime that is available because we used to minister on television on Sundays at about 5 o' clock. But because of sponsored programmes and different things like football and some other things, they wanted to move this time and they were not comfortable for me.
That is why we have remained on radio because we have maintained the same time for several years now. But we haven't been that fortunate with television.
What is it that attracts youths to your church?
I think that what we have done in the Household which many other ministries are beginning to emulate and we thank God for that is creating an atmosphere of liberty. That you can be who you are in the sight of God and be accepted by God and not try to be somebody else. That liberty, you can be a born again Christian and dress well and be successful and beat contemporary. Those are some of the things that we introduced, that were resisted at the beginning but now have been embraced. So, we're giving that liberty to young people to be the best they can be before God within the contemporary Nigerian society. And I think it works.
Sometimes, don't you think those young men and women can overdo some things to the extent that they might even get confused and eventually end up committing sins with the way they take the liberty?
No. The word of God says you will know the truth and the truth will set you free. The guiding principle of God to us is what stabilises us. So, we have demarcations or parameters set by the word of God for us. Within those parameters, you can do what you are supposed to do as a Christian and be successful. So, the strength is not dos and don'ts but understanding the word of Almighty God, the liberty that is in the word of God, the love that you have for Jesus. It is that love that constrains us.
How come the church has no branches?
We are not that kind of church. We do not believe in branches. We believe that a man is appointed directly by Jesus to be a pastor and that pastor cannot appoint another pastor. Only Jesus can appoint a pastor and that pastor is responsible directly to Jesus. So, on account of that, I can't appoint a pastor and say 'you go and take care of my branch in Aba or my branch in Abuja.' I am not competent to do that. But for administrative reasons, other churches might want to do that but we just don't do that.
So, how then do you take the gospel to other areas apart from your immediate vicinity?
There are methods. You can do crusades, you can do a tape ministry where you sell, you distribute your messages. We are looking at the future where we are going to have what we call benevolence and teaching centres. We'll have a centre in a place, maybe in Kano, where people can go to and listen to my messages and where we can feed the poor. They are like outlets but they won't be churches.
Is it that you don't like the title, General Overseer or something?
No. The reason, I told you, is because it's Jesus who appoints a pastor. He appointed me and I don't have the competence to appoint you. If he appoints you as a pastor, he'll not subject you to me. He will give you your own vision, he will give you your own responsibilities and you will go and do your own work. Now I can come to Aba and help you start your work. But you will be the pastor, it will be autonomous, it will be independent.
So why do we have Bishops, Archbishops and such other titles presiding over churches with many branches?
There are some systems, certain churches that apply those rules. You have the Episcopalians. They are the ones who do this Bishop thing. The Presbyterians and so on. But we are called the word churches. This is what we believe in. I've looked at the scriptures and I believe that I cannot appoint you into any office. Only Jesus can.
So those who have churches here and there and call themselves General Overseers, Bishops and so forth, have they gone against the scriptures?
We believe that that is what they have chosen to do for administrative reasons. That is what I'm telling you.
When you preach or talk, your language is highly bombastic…
It's true that the diction is elevated.
Why is it that way?
It is not like that anymore. It was just to get your attention at the beginning.
Even during this interview, you've used some high-sounding words…
I'm sure it's not forbidden.
But is it a personal choice? Is it a conscious thing?
I think it was a personal choice that I made from when I was in school. I remember there was a time when my father was reading one of my letters to my brothers at home. I was at Edo College then and he was reading all the grammar. I remember when I came home he told me, why do you have to speak like that? So it was just personal choice. But it was deliberately to get your attention at the beginning. And I think I succeeded.
But it continued…
But not as elevated as it used to be. It's been mellowed down.
As a former musician, why haven't you been applying that gift to win souls for Christ? I mean through singing, maybe releasing a CD of Christian songs once in a while?
Well, I just haven't had the time, truly. And I haven't been that motivated. But I believe that in future, I would do so.
It's amazing that you just turned totally around from singing secular songs and you became a Reverend…
With God, all things are possible. It is the life of Jesus that I am living now, that we are living now. The Chris Okotie you used to know died a long time ago. But the life that I live now is the life of Jesus. And he's our maker. Jesus Christ created us, according to the scriptures. So he can touch us and he can turn us round. When you look at it truly, it's just a question of understanding. My understanding then is different from the understanding that I have now. It's still the same physical person. But I just think different. I act different.
Has that lifestyle, that music, affected you in any way now that you are a pastor?
I use my talent to sing in church, and I write music for our worship. It's a natural ability given by God and you can use it whichever way you want to. And then, like I said, I'm still hoping that someday I will use it. I used it in 1990 for my sister Lorine when she did 'Love Medicine'.
Then you veered into politics.
So, we'll be right to call you a politician now?
Well, it will be misunderstood. Let me put it this way. I am a leader who uses politics as his instrumentality. You see, politics is the science of government. Government is a scientific concept. Science is a body of systematised knowledge that is based on experiment, observation. So for you to lead a country, there are certain things you need to do.
And these things come under politics because that is how the state is organized. But when we use the word politician within the Nigerian context, it is a derogatory term. It paints the picture of being corrupt and being uncaring and motivated selfishly. So I wouldn't want to classify myself as such. I would call myself a leader who uses politics because it is necessary to achieve the position of leadership. So I look forward to the time when the politics of Nigeria can be refined within the context of leadership.
I was here in 2003, and you told me very clearly then that God told you that you would be president.
Yes. I said that the Lord told me that I would be president of this country.
And I remember I also asked you this question then: So what if you are not sworn in? And you said I should wait till May 29, 2003.
Well, May 29, 2003 came and you were not sworn in. May 29, 2007 came and you were not sworn in. So what happened? Did God really speak to you? Or did God lie?
I'm sure you are familiar with the Bible a bit. You remember that when the Lord sent Moses to Egypt, he said, go and tell Pharaoh to let my people go. And you would take the children of Israel out of Egypt. Now Moses went and the king refused. Many, many times. If you were an observer and you saw Moses walking into the place and tell the king and say, thus sayeth the God of the Hebrew people, let my people go. And he said, who is your God? It took a while. But God didn't change what he said to Moses. He just waited for Moses to demonstrate his faith that if God said something to me about this people, it's going to happen. So, because people don't know
Christianity, they don't understand the principles of faith. Because when you are talking to someone who doesn't understand faith, it's difficult to explain it. You understand? So faith talks about something as though that thing has happened even though it has not. So the scriptures would say faith calls the things that be not as though they were.
When God spoke to Abraham, he said I have made you a father of nations, yet he didn't have a child in 25 years. See? So people don't understand the concept of faith. So they would say, if God said it, will it happen tomorrow? Will it happen the day after? So they don't understand that. The mandate has already been given. As for the timing, that is in the hands of God. We will fight every election with the same zeal and enthusiasm that we fought the very first one until it crystallizes in victory. So, as far as I'm concerned, God's word has been spoken. It's just a matter of time.
If I didn't come in 2003, or if I didn't show up in 2007, you wouldn't know anything about my political ability. You would have no idea. So that, if the opportunity presented itself, maybe in 2009, you can't say, oh, let's use Okotie for this. Because there is no antecedent. But all I'm just saying to you is this. For us who have been protagonists of faith, when God says something, it doesn't matter how long it takes. It will definitely come to pass. I believe that Nigeria will never attain its full greatness until Reverend Okotie has been positioned in that place. Take a look at the governance of this nation and see the confusion and the inherent ineptitude. And you will know that it's just a matter of time.
A lot of people say you are controversial. Do you agree?
Depends on what they mean by that. But I will say that my ways are not … I'm very unorthodox; let me put it that way. So maybe that might be construed as being controversial.
So you will even go to the newspapers to condemn what you feel is not right even in the house of God?
Yes, I will do that anytime. I believe in truth.
Years ago, you had some issues with Pastor Chris Oyakhilome and Prophet T.B. Joshua. How is your relationship with them now?
I think they were just issues. And the issues, as far as I'm concerned, have been resolved. It was issue-based; it was not a personal thing. It was based on issues which we disagreed upon. And those issues have been resolved.