The Philippines


The Philippines were named after Philip II of Spain (husband of ‘Bloody Mary’ and the king of the Spanish Armada). This group of islands was discovered for Spain during the ill-fated journey of Ferdinand Magellan, who set out to find a westerly route to the spice islands, which were then controlled by Portugal. Magellan was the first European to sail round the southern tip of South America and into the Pacific Ocean. He and his men arrived off the island of Cebu in the Philippines in 1521. This was the same year that Martin Luther stood before Charles V at the Diet of Worms and uttered his famous words, ‘My conscience is captive to the Word of God. . . here I stand!’


By 1565 the Spaniards had sent Miguel Lopez de Legaspi from Mexico to conquer and hold the Philippines for Spain. The population of Malays, along with some mountain negritos, were largely animist. Islam had also arrived and its influence was felt in the south, in places like Manila. As they had done in the Americas, the Spaniards sought gold, glory and God, probably in that order. However, the atrocities they committed in Central and South America were not repeated in the Philippines. It seems that the Spanish conquerors met little resistance and the native population soon turned to the religion of the white men. The idols and superstitions of past religions gave way to the idols and superstitions of Roman Catholicism. The Philippines remained under Spain from 1565 until 1898. During that time no Protestant missionary work was allowed, although there are nineteenth century records of smuggled Bibles being read avidly by the few who had the ability to do so.

American rule

As a result of the Spanish-American war of 1898, the Philippines were seceded to the USA. Admiral Dewey had sailed his battleship into Manila Bay and sunk the obsolete Spanish fleet. With the aid of the Filipinos, who were already in revolt against the Spanish, he was able to capture Manila. The Filipinos at first welcomed the Americans as liberators, but they soon found they had shaken off one colonial power only to come under the dominion of another. The struggle for independence from foreign colonial rule now continued against the Americans and only ended after several years of bloody conflict. The Americans prevailed by virtue of their better equipped and more disciplined war machine. However, the Americans proved to be a better colonial power than Spain. They began to include Filipinos in the running of the country, preparing them for eventual self-government. Nevertheless, it is true that paternalism and self-interest permeated American policy. This state of affairs continued until the Japanese invasion of 1941.


The arrival of the Americans in 1898 had two effects. Firstly, it opened up the Philippines for the preaching of the gospel. It is believed that the first public proclamation of the gospel was by an American army chaplain in August 1898. American missions later divided up the islands in a comity agreement and planted ‘evangelical churches’ (called just that – with the denomination in brackets). Many of the early missionaries were obviously true Christians and laboured greatly for the gospel of Christ. However, this was also the period when modernism was invading the mainline denominations, and its harmful impact was soon felt in the Philippines. More emphasis began to be placed on social concern than on the gospel, and it was not long before the Bible began to be doubted in the churches.

Roman Catholicism in retreat

Secondly, Roman Catholicism suffered a serious setback with the overthrow of Spain. The Americans were free to implement separation of Church and State. Gregorio Aglipay led a revolt against the Roman Catholic Church, which was associated with the old Spanish Conquistadores, and set up the Philippine Independent Church – a Roman Catholic look-alike, but without the pope and Spain. At first this church grew rapidly, but the Roman Catholics won a long drawn-out court battle for the church buildings taken over by the Independents. These buildings now reverted to Rome, and most of their congregations went along with the buildings.

Slow progress

During the twentieth century, Protestantism made slow progress throughout the islands, with the major evangelical work being carried on by the Christian and Missionary Alliance in the south, and then by the mission arm of the Regular Baptists during the 1930s. After the Pacific war, and the defeat of Japan, there was a new influx of evangelical missions. Some of these, like the China Inland Mission (Overseas Missionary Fellowship), had been forced out of China by the communist take-over there. Others were the result of American GIs located in the Philippines at the end of the war. Some who were Christians returned to the United States and then returned to the Philippines as missionaries. They came with new interdenominational mission boards or as part of new evangelical groupings recently broken away from the modernism of the mainline denominations. Today the Philippines has a large number of foreign missionaries, predominantly from the USA. These reflect every shade and opinion of the American religious scene.


What is the true nature of Philippine Christianity? Filipinos have a word for their national character (based on the name, Fili-pino). It is ‘Pinoy’. Well, the character of Philippine Christianity is ‘very Pinoy’. It is :

  • P – Politically competitive
  • I – Inclusivist
  • N – Neglectful of doctrine
  • O – Ocular in its focus on miracles
  • Y – Youthful in its emotionalism

From the perspective of biblical Christianity, all is definitely not well.


The intrusion of the Roman Catholic Church into the political arena is taken for granted. Since the overthrow of Marcos in 1986 that intrusion has increased dramatically. It is now normal for the chief prelate, Jaime Cardinal Sin, to issue pastoral letters criticizing government policies. There is also a large cult called the ‘Iglesia ni Cristo’ (Church of Christ) which denies the most fundamental of evangelical beliefs and whose members vote according to the instruction of its leader. Again, politicians seek its endorsement. Evangelicals and charismatics are new to politics, but have quickly been assimilated into the political culture. In the 1992 elections, Eddie Villanueva, leader of the ‘Philippines for Jesus Movement’, the largest group of evangelical charismatics, openly supported the candidacy of the Protestant Fidel Valdez Ramos. It was not just an endorsement in political terms, but one in which ‘prophetic’ revelation was invoked. From a field of seven candidates Ramos won, and gratefully afforded Villanueva and his group a taste of political power. Encouraged by this, Villanueva and his charismatics took part in the 1998 presidential campaign with even greater vigour. Prevented by the Constitution from running for a second term, Ramos designated the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Jose de Venecia, to be his successor. Sure enough, charismatics and fundamen-talists joined forces and threw in their support behind de Venecia. In a huge rally, they announced, ‘Jesus’ Declaration of Victory’ (the initials of their candidate, JDV). Prophecies were once more invoked. God’s cause was identified with the cause of the candidate. Alas, when the dust settled, it was not JDV but another man, Joseph Estrada, who won the elections! In the aftermath of this embarrassment, no one suggested that the whole idea of a church as a political force was wrong. While the church is to be obedient to the government and seek to uphold lawful authority, Caesar cannot be an ally of the gospel. As long as Christianity is a tool for politicians, it will fall far short of its calling. But there is something addictive about the taste of political power.


To stem the leakage from its ranks, Roman Catholicism has now adopted ‘evangelical’ methods and vocabulary. Bible-study groups have mushroomed among its laity. Evangelical hymnody is used. Imagine John Newton’s ‘Amazing Grace’ being sung by a Catholic congregation! It seems that Roman Catholicism is becoming ‘born again’ and that ‘gospel faith’ envelops Catholics and evangelicals alike. But appearances are deceptive. The largest charismatic group is the Catholic ‘El Shaddai’. Its leader, Bro. Mike Velarde, is a Catholic layman. Yet his language closely resembles that of evangelical charismatics. He has provided the Catholics with a charismatic identity, without requiring them to renege on Catholic loyalties.
This failure to draw clear lines of demarcation is observable at all levels. Church leaders, seminary professors, and Christian organizations all share an overriding concern to unite whatever their particular distinctives. Liberation theology is widely accepted, the continuation of miraculous gifts is assumed, the Calvinist-Arminian debate has hardly even begun, and now the Catholic-Protestant divide is set aside. Traditional evangelicals and evangelical charismatics have found justification for their inclusivist approach in the document Evangelicals and Catholics Together. No longer are Catholics seen as the objects of gospel-mission; they have become fellow missionaries.

Neglectful of Doctrine

Apollo Quiboloy is one of the most popular Filipino preachers today. His campaigns draw thousands of people in search of the miracles that he never fails to promise. His crusade slogan says in big letters, ‘Jesus, the Name above every name!’ And in that name the preacher intones to his congregation, ‘All your debts will vanish, your sicknesses will be healed; the unemployed will find five job alternatives; and, in proportion to the measure of your faith, so will be your cash rewards!’ The hearers respond with loud applause. Because of his popularity, he is sought after by politicians, eager to gain his endorsement in elections. Quiboloy is one of many such preachers in the Philippines who have defined the nation’s Christianity in the last two decades. The apparent growth of Bible-holding Christianity has been nothing less than phenomenal. The zeal of Philippine ‘Christianity’ is the envy of other countries. The numbers of professions of faith, church planting projects, and para-church movements have increased many times. On the media, evangelical and charismatic religious programmes outnumber traditional Catholic programmes. Roman Catholic bishops have been so alarmed at the loss of their members that, in 1989, they issued a public warning to their flock. In the past every-one’s religious slogan was ‘Catolico cerrado ‘(closed Catholic); today it is, ‘I’m born again!’ In its neglect of doctrine, Philippine Christianity demonstrates its American roots. Most missionaries in the Philippines are Americans. Filipino Christians read American authors, with their fixation on the psychological and inspirational. Harold Sala is a favorite author. His ‘insights’ on self-esteem and inner healing are tailor-made for Filipinos, who detest intellectual exercise. What captures the attention of the Filipino is the bombastic, jocular and melodramatic; indeed, anything that gives him a good feeling. ‘The cross’ still seems to be a favourite theme in the churches, but it is not proclaimed as the place where God declared his righteousness in justifying believers by punishing a sinless Christ. Rather, the message of the cross is obscured in the ‘governmental’ and ‘moral influence’ theories of the atonement. But nobody cares – a heretical cross still makes people feel good! As for the doctrine of justification by faith, pulpit and pew alike are ignorant of the issues that were at stake in the Reformation. The feel-good factor is substitute for the assurance of sins forgiven. The terminology of deliverance from guilt and condemnation through Christ’s propitiatory work is strange to the average Philippine Christian churchgoer. ‘Speaking in tongues’ has become more familiar than the vocabulary of the gospel.

Ocular in its Focus on Miracles

The Filipino idea of faith is belief in the visibly miraculous. From his Catholic childhood the average Filipino is brought up on stories of Mary’s apparitions, miracles connected with icons, and wonders occurring during religious festivals. When this same Catholic is ‘converted’ to an evangelical or charismatic faith, he often carries his baggage of ‘miracle-faith’ with him. The appetite for what is visibly sensational can lead to the ugly spectacle of competition between rival crusades. Which group can lay claim to the most spectacular miracles? Who is the best miracle-working preacher? One crusader challenged all his fellow preachers to expose themselves to being riddled with bullets – the one who remained uninjured would be the true man of God! Such emphases, purporting to exalt the power of God, have become a pretext for limiting the Almighty. Gone is a vibrant doctrine of God’s providence, that God works his purposes out through the ordinary events of life. Gone too is a Christ-focused faith that submits to God’s dealings, believing that the most important thing is not my temporary happiness, but conformity to Jesus Christ.

Youthful excitement

Christian meetings have to be exciting and emotional to be well supported. Music must be prominent. A crowd in the Philippines means youth, for young people comprise over 60% of the population. Show biz personalities, actors and actresses are all represented. It is this excitement that is sustaining the ‘gains’ of many churches. This writer recently spoke in a conference on the need to make the Word of God central to worship. During the open forum, a local Christian radio anchorman protested that, if this were done, no young people would remain in his church! One wonders how many of those who now pack churches and crusades would be there with joy if the doctrines of grace were expounded.


Without a solid faith, that rests on a faithfully expounded Word of God, the paraphernalia of excitement, emotions and miracles are worthless husks. But there are small beginnings of a movement for true reformation in the Philippines. The full flowering of this awakening may lie in that distant future when the charismatic movement is spent. Even now there are questioning minds; and good Reformed literature is helping in this direction. A number of churches, founded on the doctrines of grace, have been established in the past generation. Several Reformation Conferences attended by church leaders have taken place over recent years. Those present have demonstrated an inquiring spirit and openness to the truth. Could this small cloud, some day, become a shower of blessing?