Authorities in Kenya have exhumed more than 50 bodies of congregants that have starved to death following advice from their religious leader.
A further 8 people were found emaciated. They later died in the local hospital.
The number is expected to rise further, with 112 congregants of the self-proclaimed Good News International Church considered missing.
Currently, 29 people have been found alive within the 800-acre compound within which the church was operating.
It’s believed the pastor of the church – Paul Mackenzie, who has already been arrested in connection with the deaths – encouraged his followers to “fast to meet Jesus”.
The harrowing case has led to questions about the influence potentially dangerous church leaders can have over their congregants.
Leigh McFarlane from Thirty One:Eight, an independent Christian safeguarding charity that works with faith organisations to create safer communities, explained to Premier Christian News how situations like these arise.
She said: “Very often people go on a journey. People are exploring their own spirituality exploring their own faith, they come into contact with a faith community that initially on the surface looks like any other faith community.
“But people then buy in to that culture you find community, friendship, fellowship, and so on.
“Very often, the leadership as well may not have started out in a spiritually abusive place. We know from research that very few people in church leadership start out intentionally wanting to harm people, but somewhere along the journey, it moves from being healthy, perhaps to unhelpful, then it becomes unhealthy, and then we end up in a spiritually abusive place.
“These things happen over time. They do not happen overnight.”
“Church should always be a safe, healthy space.
“There are six key areas that we would always recommend that churches, and people who attend any faith community, consider looking at good governance.
“What are the good governance structures? Is everything determined by one or two people? And if you're not sure about why something's done, the way it's done, is it okay to ask questions?”
She continued: “What are we hearing from the pulpit? And does their argument of Scripture line up with what Scripture actually says that is really quite important? How they take a piece of scripture and use it in isolation?
“I think one of the key things is how do we manage power? Does power sit with one or two people. And do they believe that power should always be given away? That's the model that Jesus used he, he didn't need to ask disciples around about him, yet he gathered people from all parts of society, and he gathered wider than the 12 as well.
“He always give people the power to do Kingdom business on his behalf.
“So if somebody is saying ‘I am the only one who can lead you to Jesus, I am the only one who's received divine revelation from God.’ That is not true.”
For those with concerns about safeguarding within their church, you can contact ThirtyOne:Eight here.