Universal Church of the Kingdom of God

For nearly 50 years, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God has been preaching a gospel of miracles and prosperity. While experiencing global growth, though, the church has been a lightning rod for controversy, facing charges of criminality and at times feuding with other religious groups. Nonetheless, the church has built a worldwide membership of millions.

The UCKG, as it is known, is an Evangelical Neo-charismatic denomination, a branch of Protestantism that emphasizes the “gifts” of the Holy Spirit, such as faith healing and the casting out of demons. The denomination is led by Bishop Edir Macedo, a billionaire whose wealth is central to his church’s “prosperity gospel.”

The church has faced scrutiny for its emphasis on mandatory tithing, particularly in light of UCKG’s largely impoverished membership. Moreover, the UCKG has been accused of fraud, money laundering, child abuse, and more, all the while assailing other religious groups, including Christian denominations, as false religions.

Despite these controversies, the UCKG remains influential in the global Charismatic movement and is one of the largest non-Catholic denominations in its home country of Brazil.

The Origin of the UCKG

Edir Macedo founded the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God in Rio de Janeiro in 1977. Macedo was raised Catholic but, at the age of 20, converted to Protestantism. He and his brother-in-law, Romildo Ribeiro Soares, initially started a church known as the Crusade of the Eternal Way, which eventually birthed the UCKG. However, Macedo and Soares fell out, and Soares left the ministry, eventually founding his own church and becoming a popular televangelist in Brazil.

Macedo has repeatedly appeared on the Forbes Billionaires List, though not since 2015. Much of Macedo’s wealth comes from his ownership of Record, Brazil’s second-largest commercial television station. Though the UCKG has numerous bishops and pastors, Macedo remains the face of the church. Macedo is also an ally of Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s hardline right-wing former president who has frequently been compared to US President Donald Trump.

In the late 1980s, the UCKG began expanding beyond Brazil, initially establishing churches in Portugal before branching out to countries in Europe, Africa, and throughout the Americas, including the United States, Mexico, and Chile. The UCKG website states the church currently operates 5,000 churches in Brazil and has a presence in 100 countries.

The Tenets of the UCKG

The UCKG is an Evangelical Protestant church. More specifically, it is a Neo-charismatic church, an offshoot of the Pentecostal and Charismatic movement. In addition to standard Protestant beliefs, Macedo’s church teaches that a believer should be baptized in the Holy Spirit, thereby awakening the spiritual gifts of prophecy, speaking in (and interpreting) tongues, faith healing, wisdom, and more. The UCKG practices the exorcism of evil spirits as well.

The UCKG also embraces the prosperity gospel. This theology teaches that physical health and monetary wealth are promised to those who practice faith in Christ. Accordingly, it is believed that if a Christian gives even when they have little, God will reward that act of faith. As an extension of this belief, the UCKG emphasizes that its members should tithe 10% of everything they possess or receive, even child support.

The UCKG’s founder has been criticized for flouting his great wealth while many of his followers are poor. Macedo rejects this criticism, though, arguing that his display of riches only reinforces the truth of the prosperity gospel.

Macedo also holds the divisive view that women should not receive higher education, because, he believes, a wife should never be smarter than her husband. He says that such situations lead to unhappiness and the destruction of the marriage.

resident Zuma flanked by Minister Nomvula Mokonyane and Bishop Marcerlo during the singing of the National Anthem at the Good Friday Church Service).

(In the pic - President Zuma flanked by Minister Nomvula Mokonyane and Bishop Marcerlo during the singing of the National Anthem at the Good Friday Church Service). President Jacob Zuma addressing the Good Friday Service of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God held at Ellis Park Stadium in Johannesburg. 25/03/2016, Elmond Jiyane, GCIS

The UCKG’s Controversies and Conflicts

The UCKG’s theological teachings have their critics, but most of the condemnation of the church regards its alleged illegal activities and abusive practices.

The United Nation and Brazil’s Committee Against Religious Intolerance condemned the UCKG for its persecution of other religions, particularly those rooted in Africa. Challenging its supremacy in Brazil, the UCKG has called Catholicism demon worship. The church has also denounced other Protestant denominations as “false Christians” and vilified both Jews and Muslims, labeling the former “killers of Christ” and the latter “demonic.”

Of course, most religions are exclusionary and condemn other faiths as false. What sets the UCKG apart is the vehemence of its attacks and its reach, particularly in Brazil, where Record TV spreads its message. 

Then there are the accusations of fraud and abuse within the UCKG. In 2008, Macedo was charged with fraud by the Brazilian government, accused of using church donations for personal gain. Subsequently, other church leaders have been charged with money laundering, with the UCKG alleged to have misappropriate billions given by church members. Macedo, who has also been accused of tax evasion, was ultimately never convicted of fraud.

The UCKG has been found liable in a number of lawsuits brought by church members, including in the US. The suits have contended that the church used coordinated pressure campaigns to make members “donate” money.

Furthermore, the church’s teachings on demon possession have caused considerable outrage. In the name of casting out demons, children have been abused by church members. The most notorious case was Victoria Climbié, an eight-year-old girl in the UK who died after months of abuse and neglect by her caregivers. 

In 2022, the Guardian published an exposé featuring accounts from former church members of abuse and coercion. One story involved a 13-year-old boy who, upon confessing to being gay, was told he was possessed by demons.

As a result of these controversies, the UCKG’s divisive reputation often precedes it as it expands in new countries. When the church opened a location in Belfast, local media branded the organization as a “dangerous cult.” In Africa, where the denomination has often had a contentious relationship with local religious groups, the UCKG has been banned in multiple countries, including Madagascar and Zambia.

Though UCKG’s scandals could ultimately hurt its growth, for now Macedo and his church remain defiantly unbowed.