[Editor’s note: This print article is an update to an online article published January 13.]

The surprise resignation of Nigeria’s highest-profile pastor has exacerbated a debate among West African Christians on the merits—and limits—of pastor tenure.

Enoch Adeboye began 2017 by resigning as general overseer of the 5-million-member Redeemed Christian Church of God in Nigeria. (He remains overseer of its international presence in 192 nations.) He cited the nation’s Financial Reporting Council (FRC) and its newly introduced Governance Code as reason for his action.

Section 9:3 of the code stipulates that leaders or founders of nonprofit organizations—including churches and ministries—must hand over leadership to a non-family member after age 70 or 20 years of being in charge. Adeboye is 74 and has been leading his megachurch since 1981.

The law, which is designed to promote financial accountability, went into effect last October. If fully implemented, an estimated 90 percent of independent evangelical church founders in Africa’s most populous nation would be required to step aside, according to the Nigeria Evangelical Fellowship (NEF).

Affected prominent pastors would include William Kumuyi of Deeper Life Bible Church; Daniel Olukoya of Mountain of Fire and Miracles Ministries; David Oyedepo of Living Faith Church Worldwide; Mike Okonkwo of The Redeemed Evangelical Mission; Chris Oyakhilome of Christ Embassy; and Sam Adeyemi of Daystar Christian Centre.

Much of Nigeria’s evangelical community responded with outrage over both Adeboye’s resignation and the FRC’s financial rule, setting off heated debates over pastoral succession, a pressing issue in the United States as well (see “Putting ‘Success’ in Succession,” CT, Nov. 2014).

Mainline, Anglican, and Catholic churches were largely indifferent, already having established plans on pastoral tenure and succession (between 65 and 70 years of age).

The outcry prompted President Muhammadu Buhari to fire the FRC’s leader and suspend the financial code within 48 hours of Adeboye’s resignation. But the actions didn’t stop debate among Nigerian believers.

Musa Asake, general secretary of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), the nation’s largest Christian umbrella group, said the code was “ill machinery targeted at the church.”

“[Government] has no business interfering in a church’s affairs because it is a no-go area,” he said. “If they attempt it, it will bring confusion and could trigger religious unrest in the nation.”

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Felix Omobude, president of the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria, one of CAN’s five blocs, agreed. “How long a spiritual leader remains in office is never the purview of government,” he said. “A leader stays for as long as God and the church permit.”

Ezekiel Bogunjoko, general secretary of the NEF, argues the code should be completely thrown out because it could be used against churches by future administrations. (Nigeria traditionally alternates its presidency between a Muslim and Christian, given that the nation is equally divided between the two faiths.) “You may render financial accounts, and it might bounce back on you,” he said. “The next government might come and use the information you have provided to fight the church.”

On the other side, Francis Bola Akin-John, president of International Church Growth Ministries, believes that God can use the government to correct churches if they fail to do the right thing.

“Fundamentally, government shouldn’t regulate tenure. But pastoral succession is biblical,” said Akin-John, citing how Jesus handed his ministry over to Peter. “When church leaders refuse to leave even when they are old and tired, God can use government to send them packing.

“No one is indispensable, and God can work through others,” he said. “Staying on even when you are old or indisposed kills churches. The idea that only one person can do God’s work is not biblical.”

Mike Adegbile, executive secretary of the Nigeria Evangelical Missions Association, backs the financial regulation of ministries. “The [FRC] is needed for churches because of abuses in financial accountability,” he said. “To have a body like that is not out of place at all.”

However, he does balk at the attempt to regulate pastoral tenure. “Financial regulation is enough,” he said. “Attempting to determine how and when churches change leadership is overreaching the boundary.”

Cephas Tushima, a respected Bible scholar at Jos ECWA Theological Seminary, researched pastoral succession in Pentecostal churches for a peer-reviewed paper published last summer in a theological journal. He agrees that government regulation should stop at finances.

“The government has no business interfering in the succession processes of churches or nonprofits,” said Tushima. “Every organization has the right to set up its own [rules], provided the provisions do not subvert the state or impinge on the human rights of others.

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“The government’s responsibility is to hold ministries accountable to their own mandates, rules, and regulations,” he said, “but not to dabble into their private affairs.”

But Tushima also believes that churches should have plans in place to make pastoral succession “less chaotic and traumatic.” “The New Testament does not teach dynastic succession, but it does not oppose it either,” he said, citing how James became leader of the church in Jerusalem after Peter. “Its primary model is succession through discipleship and mentoring. If the successor who is well-discipled and mentored happens to be a relative, so be it.”

However, handing over ministries “willy-nilly to relatives, who may not necessarily have the calling or the capacity to lead as their predecessors, is ruining or derailing many ministries today,” he said.

Gideon Para-Mallam, regional secretary for the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students, believes that government should not dictate tenure terms to pastors. However, he also believes that self-imposed succession is in the best interest of churches.

In his view, the FRC code is “a wake-up call for churches to quickly embrace self-regulation” so that pastors can implement succession plans that will preserve their works decades after they are gone. “It is good if our leaders prepare and mentor others to take over from them,” he said. “Pastors should give successors space to become leaders, and not wait until super old age or after their death.”

Para-Mallam believes churches should avoid the stagnant leadership often seen in African politics, which violates biblical principles. “There are deep concerns about sit-tight African leaders, and the church should not add to its headache,” he said. “It is part of our prophetic role to show a better example in leadership succession. How can the church play this role without being a model itself in such areas?”

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