The church of much dispute
Zephyr Staff, University of Nevada, March 14, 2001.
By Becky Bosshart
Like the early disciples, modern-day Christians often face controversy and persecution in their quest to share what they call the good news. But unlike the early disciples, today’s Christians have a modern-day form of protection for their activities: The First Amendment.
If you are a student at the University of Nevada, you may have been approached by members of the International Churches of Christ (ICOC or ICC) Campus Ministry, a nondenominational Christian student organization inviting you to a Bible talk. This organization has been active at the University since January 2000. Members say this is a true Bible-based church, but the group has been banned from several college campuses in the past because of charges of harassment. The University of Nevada-Las Vegas, Boston College and the University of Southern California are some schools that have removed, or not recognized, the ICOC as a club on their campus.
The dispute is over how far a person’s right to share their religion is covered by the First Amendment.
UNLV withdrew recognition for the ICOC, then under the name Campus Advance, in October 1993. The reasons for Campus Advance’s withdrawal were their “alleged activities included manipulation of the membership with regards to sleep, dating, social life and studying,” as reported by the Rebel Yell, the UNLV campus newspaper.
In 1996 the group reapplied to the Consolidated Student Union under the name of “The Cutting Edge.” After it was dicovered that the group was the same as the one which had been unrecognized in 1993, and because of problems with paper work, recognition was not granted.
Robert Ackerman, UNLV vice president of student living, said he met with counselors from campus religious groups when the controversy about the ICOC arose in 1993 and 1996.
Ackerman and the panel put together a plan to educate students about any kind of destructive groups on campus. The issue was taken to the dorms, the newspaper and faculty, all “aimed at giving students’ information.”
“Once you’re in, it becomes very difficult to get out (of the group),” Ackerman said.
The Associated Student Union (ASUN) Senate at Nevada recognized the ICOC as a club April 19, 2000 under the recommendation of Carrie Sampson, former business senator. She said the ICOC Campus Ministry wanted to use the facilities of the campus and to have the support of the ASUN. The group had funding and all privileges in fall 2000. Sampson, an active member, said there wasn’t an urgent need to update the information for the spring semester, so the group didn’t have recognition this spring. At Nevada, a club must have 12 members. The ICOC Campus Ministry had less than eight in spring 2001.
Jim Richardson, a University of Nevada professor of sociology and judicial studies and an expert in religious groups, is very familiar with the ICOC.
“The ICOC has been banned on some campuses, which raises an important question of how one might ban a religious group without violating the First Amendment rights of the group and its members,” Richardson said.
This is the same question that UNLV, and other institutions, have grappled with.
Richardson takes issue with universities acting in a “paternalistic manner toward students on the issue of whether or not to participate in a religious group.” He said that students are mature enough to make the decision to join, and that the ICOC could make parents and friends of the convert uneasy because the students become very religious when they weren’t before. Richardson feels that some students could get much meaning and purpose from the group.
“Some people join and don’t like it and leave,” Richardson said.
“Conversion career” is a term he uses to describe the way people go in and out of different groups. The ICOC history shows it has a large turnover rate. There are several Internet sites dedicated to ex-ICOC members wanting to get their story out, including an organization named “Reveal.”
In comparing the ICOC to other religions, Richardson said: “Typically there is a higher demand (in the ICOC) than traditional religions such as the Catholic Church. If you get involved it really structures your whole life.”
Richardson did personality assessments of some members of new religious groups and found that the lives of some members in the group are healed instead of harmed.
On the other hand, Michael Langone, a researcher with the American Family Foundation (AFF), a center that researches cults and psychological manipulation, did a study comparing former members of the ICOC to subjects who had been in other mainstream campus religious groups. He found that the ICOC subjects scored higher on five measures of psychological distress such as depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress.
Aislynn Madosik, a Nevada student, said her involvment in the church filled a need in her life but it also left her stressed out and dependent on the group. J.D. Cortez, a former youth leader with the church, said the demands of time made it feel like he had more of a relationship with the group than God. These two students agreeded to tell their stories to educate others about how the ICOC brought them into the movement and why they left.
“Only members of the International Churches of Christ are saved.”
This principle has haunted the church since its genesis. The ICOC minister here in Reno said that the church, and the campus ministry, exists to help make people disciples. Many ex-members say that the ICOC teaches its converts that salvation is found only in the church.
Kristine Jess, a former student at the University, left the church when she began to disagree with some of its practices.
“Right after I finished one study they’d ask me to do another,” Jess said. “And I didn’t agree with some of their fundamental principles… one was only members of the International Church of Christ are saved.”
Jess said she heard the Reno minister say this during a sermon.
The Bible studies Jess went through are called the “First Principles.” The purpose of these Bible studies are to bring a convert into church membership. They are usually conducted with one participant and two ICOC members, one who leads and the other takes notes. These Bible studies, developed by church founder Kip McKean, are called manipulative by some university officials and clergy members, but the ICOC minister says the “First Principles” exists as a vehicle to teach the Bible.
“It is no accident that they recruit on college campuses.”
Ruth Hanusa, minister with the Campus Christian Association, said the opposition the ICOC has received is not the result of people being offended by the teachings of the Bible but from “students who have complained about harassment (and from) people who want to leave the group but are not allowed to do so easily and gracefully.
“When students’ minds are messed up it bothers me,” Hanusa said. “It bothers me when people are manipulated and harassed with a form of Christianity that advertises biblical precepts but is so selective.”
Hanusa said the Christian process of discipling could be done in a way that respects the person and that Christians, mainline and new, have historically spread Christianity in ways that have been “more or less faithful to the gospel.”
Hanusa said that her long-term goal is to have a student body that is Biblically aware so that they “would not fall prey to any kind of controlling religious group.”
She stressed that friends of current ICOC members should try and maintain the friendship and the support.
“It is no accident that they recruit on college campuses,” Hanusa said. “My take is they can find a bigger bunch of idealistic people.”
Rita Laden, assistant vice president for student life at Nevada, was told that the ICOC would be sending a chapter to Reno in 1991 but it wasn’t until last January that she was aware that it was an established group.
In a recent interview, Laden said that the university cannot deny a group recognition based on its beliefs. She received a letter from two former members expressing their concerns about the group but she said they understand that the ICOC has the freedom to be on campus. Laden said five other students have come to her and said that they felt aggressively approached and harassed from an ICOC member.
Her advice? Be polite and be educated, she said.