THE MARKS OF A CULT
A CASE OF THE NAIROBI CHRISTIAN CHURCH
(affiliated to the International Churches of Christ or Boston Movement, ICOC)
By Joseph Owade
(Former member of the N.C.C, currently evangelist Rainbow Church of Christ [not affiliated to the ICOC])
- Introduction: What is a cult?
- Spiritual disillusionment
- The end justifies the means
- Financial dishonesty
- Psychological manipulation
- Points to consider
- Other references
What is a CULT?
- Here in Kenya most people are totally ignorant of the nature of a cult. Majority of people think that a cult is some kind of devil worship or occultism. This confusion of cult and occult is the reason that many people get caught up in cults totally unaware of what they are getting themselves into.The common definition of a cult is: Any group (religious, political, psychological, or otherwise) which exercises significant control over the thoughts, feelings, and actions of its members by use of deception and manipulation, without the knowledge or consent of its members. Hence, what makes a particular group a cult is not so much its beliefs, but what it practices. Below are some characteristics that can help define and distinguish a cult:
- a) The presence of a strong control- oriented leadership (usually an individual who takes upon themselves powers and authority beyond the bounds of normal leadership).
b) These leaders use guilt, fear and intimidation to manipulate members and keep them in line.
c) In the N.C.C. this is constantly emphasized and enforced in many ways. They teach that to disobey the leader is to disobey God and would lead one to hell.
d) they have a very strict hierarchical structure whereby the leader is able to impose authority through what they call discipling. Every member must have a discipler (appointed by leaders), normally an older member but in some cases a younger member e.g. when one “needs to be humbled.” It is considered very humiliating to be discipled by a younger member. Both Lucas Mboya and myself went through this after we started questioning the church practices. Group pressure is often employed to break a stubborn person and get him back on line. This is called being on the “hot seat”. It is a very dreaded thing to be on the hot seat. One’s self esteem can really be destroyed by the humiliation you must undergo.
e) Through the pulpit and the discipling hierarchy a leadership cult is deliberately created such that the followers are completely in awe of those above them. In N.C.C. it is considered an awesome thing be in the full time ministry (paid staff of the church). Almost all the talented people are pushed towards this end.
f) The top leader is allowed to live at a level of luxury or opulence barely dreamt of by members. Richard Alawaye lives in a house that few, if any, other missionaries in this country can afford. He lives among diplomats and ministers in Valley Arcade in a house costing about 88,000/= per month!
g) The leaders scrutinize many areas of members lives. Your marriage, sex life, finances, income, business, job, whom to date, whom not to date, whether or not to marry etc. are all scrutinized. Rules and legalism abound. People who don’t follow the rules or who threaten exposure are often dealt with harshly. Excommunication is common. Sometimes even mass excommunication like what happened in N.C.C. in June 1997 when about 150 were thrown out!
- a) Cults indoctrinate their members that they alone are right. The top leader who is portrayed as perfect and therefore beyond reproach is the bearer of God’s truth. The movement is God’s means of fulfilling his purposes on earth. It follows therefore, that all other Christian churches, groups and sects are lost and going to hell as far as the N.C.C is concerned.
b) In N. C. C. Kip McKean (movement leader) is the perfect Oracle of God. He dictates the movement’s doctrines and policies. He declares that since all denominations are wrong they are all lost. Every new member must be thoroughly grilled regardless of their religious background and must submit to the movement’s baptism before becoming fully accepted.
c) It is not easy to leave the group. Tremendous pressure is applied to those who develop doubts in order for them to remain in the group.
d) Elitism is the main reason why cults are very divisive among Christians. Anyone outside the group is suspect. Even one’s own family is no longer to be trusted. The cult leader’s word is more important than anyone else’s.
- The group becomes the center of one’s life and personality. It also becomes the center of one’s Spirituality. The motivating force. The only truth. To leave the group is therefore to reject the truth with all its accompanying consequences. Those who leave suffer a great deal of Spiritual Disillusionment. They feel an unbearable separation from God because in their minds, the group and God are synonymous. It is like divorce from a loved one. To many there is no life after the group. Guilt feelings and feelings of betrayal grip your Soul. There is a perpetual fear that God would destroy you. You are estranged from your creator. Most of those who leave never want anything to do with God or church anymore. They loose trust in God and his people. In short it is an experience of hell! This Spiritual depression can also lead to suicidal tendencies. Most people who have left the N.C.C have experienced such disillusionment to some degree. The leaders of the group use this to their advantage. A threat with expulsion is enough in most cases to keep an errant member in line
- a) Deception is often used in different ways particularly in recruiting new members. At first sight the members of the group appear very pleasant and friendly. They seem to offer a love and care that most people havenever experienced. But this only lasts until you have been recruited and then they are out to get the next victim. The new member is now quickly put to work to recruit more people.
b) The group will also employ any means to protect itself from threat. The leaders will do anything from misinformation to outright lies in order to cover up their wrongdoing. When there is a problem members are only told that the problem is with someone else outside the group. They use their pulpit to character assassinate any group member who leaves or threatens to leave. In N.C.C. this has happened over and over. For example, Richard disfellowshipped Lucas Mboya and his wife because they had challenged him on the issue of forcing members to give a tithe. They had not refused to give financially to the church. In fact that same week they had given a cheque of Ksh.3000/= towards contribution to the church. But when the issue drew criticism from several church members Richard lied that Lucas had refused to give contribution. Then the lie got bigger when he finally said that he disfellowshipped the Mboyas because they were divisive.
Another example is when I became more vocal with my criticism of the group teaching and practices they started a gradual but steady process of undermining me. All of a sudden it became a matter of policy that my wife had to be in the full time ministry in order for me to continue being in the ministry. The irony is that I had been in the ministry for 7 years and this had never been an issue much less a part of my contract!
Then in order to appear a little concerned they offered me a scholarship to enable me to pursue my masters degree at U.S.I.U. But they really did not plan to follow through with this commitment. First Mike Taliafferro, who leads the I.C.O.C Africa sector lied that it takes 6 months to get clearance from South Africa Central Bank to send money to Kenya! Two months later they defaulted.
c) When they go to a new country and find that the laws of the land are not conducive they go arround it or may even lie in order to get in. In 1990 while seeking to get registered, the leaders gave Ksh. 50,000/= to be used for a bribe to a top ranking government official who was meant to help. The money was taken but the plan failed. During the same period, the foreign leaders used deception to enable them stay and work in the country. Some came in as tourists and others as students of Swahili. Richard Alawaye lived and worked in Kenya for five years without any work permit. His missionary permit was granted about two years ago through the intercession of a high ranking government official who is a distant relative to his wife. The man whom they used for all their dirty work was the late Edwin Otieno.
d) On 26/6/97 at their Annual general meeting Richard Alawaye and the other leaders deceived the church into changing the constitution so that the leaders now have power to do what they like without accountability to the congregation. With the new constitution, it is now nearly impossible for any member to peruse the financial accounts of the church. Owing to their being exposed by the media and the press, their sister churches in New York and London have now poured out money to enable the N.C.C to spread their propaganda through press releases.
- If there is an area where the cult leaders’ double standards are exposed it is in the area of finances. This is basically the automatic result of a non-accountable leadership that believes that the end justifies the means. All too often we notice that leaders of these cults live in a luxury that is not only far beyond the reach of their followers, but that is also offensive to the world around. Examples like Bhagwa Shree Rajneesh, the Rev. Moon and a number of the charismatic cults are all too familiar. They preach wealth and health to their members who continue to pour our their wallets but the only one that is wealthy and healthy in the end is the leader.
Money is collected for fraudulent purposes unity among churches, world mission, AIDS, the poor etc and the money usually only lines the pockets of the leadership. Members themselves are given only a pittance, their labour being for the most part unpaid.
In 1996 December, the N.C.C. raised 120,000/= supposedly for AIDS’ project in Nairobi. The money reputedly ended up paying staff salaries for January! Since July ’97 the church got wind of the fact that people knew of this misapropriation,they have since issued a statement showing how the money was used. Whether this was the original money that was raised or it was quietly transfered from another account to get the project underway we cannot say. Early this year when a number of disgruntled members asked to see the church accounts, they were excommunicated. Since its registration in 1992 the N.C.C has never shown accounts statements at their Annual general meeting as required by law. When the Lead evangelist Richard Alawaye was asked why he lives in such an expensive house (rent 88,000/= p.m) he responded that it is paid for by money from New York. Now that is true, but it is also true that the rest of the staff are also paid by money from New York but they share quarters in Nyayo Esta
- This is perhaps the most important danger that cults are associated with. Cults use mind control i.e. the group exercises undue influence over its members and impairs their ability to think for themselves. All cults lie to and manipulate people – their own members and outsiders in order to further their own ends, which are rarely the same as their publicly stated reasons for existing.
Here are the techniques they use:
Cults capitalize on people’s basics nature as communal animals and the need to make a good impression, to fit in and to get along with others. Much work is done in groups, and often the individual is allowed little time on their own to think or analyze. Group members exert a powerful influence by putting excessive pressure upon an individual in situations where it is difficult to withstand. This is done with both potential recruits and members to keep them in line.
By taking people out of their normal social environment they become that much more susceptible to pressure. This is done by persuading an individual to join one of their communal houses, where independent thinking and action becomes almost impossible. With the exception of those who are married, all the leaders live in these communal houses which can have anything from 4 to 10 people. Many singles are persuaded to leave their homes where they have lived for years under parental guide in order to live in the communal houses. For those on staff this is often mandatory.
A member is made to feel that they are deeply and unconditionally loved they are hugged often, told what a great person they are, and how much they have to offer. This appeals both to an individual’s vanity and also to their insecurity. The love is very far from unconditional, however as anyone attempting to leave the group or criticizes an aspect of the group will soon realize. All pressure can be brought to bear, and life made utterly miserable for the one who wishes to leave. Love is withdrawn and replaced by an almost demonic anger.
This is exactly what my wife and I went through mid last year when we challenged the leadership on a number of the issues discussed. They cut off our financial support, my educational scholarship and finally we were violently thrown out of church meetings! Several other brothers and sisters were also ostracized in a similar manner.
In this practice every discipler is given their own disciple. This person takes responsibility for the Spiritual well being of the disciple. Such responsibility often goes far beyond the Spiritual sphere. In the N.C.C. the discipler will make decisions in almost every area on one’s life: where one should live, what job one should do, whom one should marry, how much money to give to the church, how to spend one’s leave,what to read or not to read, etc. Members are required to meet their respective disciplers at least once a week. During these discipling times sins are confessed to the discipler. But there is no confidentiality as the information is passed up the ladder to the leaders who may use it to break the member when necessary. Indeed the whole system of discipling is based on power and submission.
One brother, Joseph Kungu was fired from staff for deciding to marry the woman he loved against the advice of Richard Alawaye and his wife Sarah. Later, he was forced to drop me as his Bestman before he could be allowed to marry.
Another brother Tom Akelo was called back from leading a mission in Arusha for dating Pamela Kilaha a fellow missionary who had fallen out of favor with the woman’s leader, Anita Muthoni. They were both later fired. Albert and Ann Owino were thrown out of the N.C.C for refusing to heed the advice of the leaders that they break up their engagement because they are from different tribes and Ann’s family had some reservations.
Even Richard Alawaye’s wife, Sarah, was picked out for him by his discipler, Mike Taliafferro!
One sister was urged to marry a brother whose Spirituality was doubtful but who was highly favored by Richard Alawaye. They were separated within six months of living together. Indeed, as mentioned before not to obey one’s discipler is equivalent to not obeying God.
This practice has two effects. It is a brilliantly effective means of exercising control, and passing on lessons. But it also has the effect of rendering the individual almost incapable of making decision themselves. Even extremely able people who leave the cult have sometimes become totally unable to make independent decisions because suddenly they have had to get used to making independent choices again; It also hurts peoples’ self esteem and self respect. People who are predisposed to depression often fall into severe depression both during their stay in N.C.C. and after they leave. I know of at least three cases of people who have suffered mental breakdown as a result of their involvement with N.C.C and several who have been treated for severe depression.
Cults have a highly effective system of behavior modification. The goal of this system is to change a members’ old beliefs and patterns of behavior and to replace them with new ones as defined by the group. Old beliefs and patterns of behavior are defined as irrelevant or evil and must be eliminated or suppressed. Members get positive feedback for conforming to the group’s beliefs and behaviors and negative feedback for old beliefs and behavior. Good behavior demonstrating an understanding and acceptance of the group’s beliefs, and compliance are rewarded while questioning, expressing doubts or criticizing are met with disapproval redress and possible rejection. The church leaders so terrorize the members that they believe they have failed God when they fail to measure up to the leader’s expectations.
The N.C.C is very performance oriented. They use statistics to evaluate both individual and group performance. Weekly stats are taken for almost everything – number of visitors, attendance, those missing discipling times, contribution, number of potential recruits etc. Praise and recognition are the main rewards given to those who perform well on these stats. Those who perform poorly are rebuked and accused of being lazy, unspiritual and sinful. Guilt is usually used to get people to improve on their stats performance.
Peer pressure is very intense. A member’s relationships with their peers is threatened wherever they fail to learn or display the new behaviors. They are required to imitate their disciplers who imitate their disciplers who must imitate the leader’s behavior. Ultimately what happens is that people simply acquiesce, affirm and act as if they do understand and accept the new ideology even though they still harbor doubts and confusion. The result is a split personality with the real individual safely hid behind the scenes and the fake group mask displayed publicly. People’s basic personality types are drastically changed in conformity to the group demands to the detriment of their psychological well being. A psychological study done in 1986 among 900 members of the I.C.O.C in Boston showed conclusively that indeed psychological manipulation was going on in this movement. The results of this study were published in Flavil Yeakly’s book The Discipling Dilemma. Current reports from hundreds of ex-members indicate that this practise is still going on in the I.C.O.C
- 1. How is your church governed? The New Testament answer to such a question is clear. It is Jesus Christ who is the head of the church: “Christ is the head of the church, his body of which he is the savior” (Eph. 5:23) Equally Christ is the only mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” (Timothy 2: 5). What is the leadership structure? How accountable is it? To what authority is your church answerable? Is there placing of leaders on pedestal? Galatians 1: 8-9.
2. How is your church controlled? What sort of control is exercised on ordinary members? Are they allowed to disagree? 1 Peter 5: 2-5; 2 Corinthians 7:2
3. How is your church defined ? Does it have a fringe? Is there a sense in which everyone is clearly in or out? How exclusive/elitist is it? James 2:1-7
4. How does you church recruit? Is the gospel presented clearly, simply and without histrionics? Do the teachers attempt to deceive or distort the gospel? 2 Corinthians 4: 1-6
5. How is your church taught? How clearly is the Bible taught? Does the authority come from the Bible or from people’s interpretation of the Bible? Or from people’s personal experiences? Or from their revelations? Galatians 1:8-9. Is truth placed at a high premium?
6. How is your church advertised? Is there a note of triumphalism? A note of comparing selves with others? An element of competitiveness?
7. How does your church raise/use money? Does is show integrity and generosity? 1 Timothy 6: 3-10
8. How does your church regard/ is your church regarded by other churches? Does your church work together with other churches, or is it so exclusive that it regards all others as inferior? Is its attitude to other churches one of co-operation or confrontation?
9. How easily is your church left? Can a person leave the church without bringing down upon themselves the criticism and abuse that accompanies those leaving the cults? Is your church content that a person should join another church?
- (i) The BITE analysis by Steven Hassan.
(ii) What you need to know by REVEAL.
(iii) When a church becomes a cult by Stephen Wookey.
(iv) The Discipling Dilemma by Flavil Yeakly.
(v) Both the BBC (UK) and ABC TV (USA) have made documentaries on this group. These are available on request from the writer.
©1997 by Joseph Owade. All rights reserved. Republished with permission.