- Early Days
- “Studying the Bible”
- The “You’re Not a Christian” Study
- Trying to Think Things Through
- Bible Talk
- “Naming the Car” and HOPE
- The Last Bible Study
- Sorting Things Out
I’ve waited long enough to tell this story. Hopefully, while the pain has faded, my memory hasn’t. Fortunately, even if my memory isn’t quite clear, for most of the story I have notes to go by, both ones I took and ones they took for me.
I’ve changed several names to protect privacy, but I have left the name of the preacher unchanged because I want anyone who finds himself invited to the same church to recognize him.
Also, while I can remember the sequence of studies I went through, I have apparently botched the sequence of the sermons at the church services, but the sermons and church services actually don’t reveal much about the church except its fanaticism. I’ll omit the services which didn’t have any real significance to my encounter with the International Churches of Christ (ICC). So, here goes…
This experience began in a seemingly unremarkable way. I’d gone down to the campus bookstore for something or other, but I’m not sure if I found it or not. On the way out, I held the door open for two people, one of whom was carrying a couple of bags. I didn’t even take that much notice of them, but one of them noticed me.
As I was walking away, I heard a girl call out to me. I turned around. She was a black girl, about average height and slightly above average in weight. She was wearing a blue and white nylon ski jacket and blue jeans. I recognized her as one of the people I’d held the door open for.
She introduced herself (I’ll call her “Alice”) and asked if I was looking for a church. As it so happens, I was. My freshman year at Case Western Reserve University was more than halfway over (Spring 1998), and I wasn’t feeling like I had found the right church. I’d attended a Baptist church and found them too fundamentalist, always doing stuff like denouncing evolution from the pulpit. Then I’d gone to a Presbyterian church and thought they were too liberal. For the past three Sundays or so, I’d been going to a small independent church called “NewSong” which had only been around a couple of years and didn’t even have a building; they met in a school auditorium. I didn’t see anything wrong with NewSong, but I was wondering what else was out there.
She said her church was called the Greater Cleveland Church of Christ and that it was non-denominational. I said that that sounded like just what I was looking for. She told me to meet her at about 9 the next Sunday outside her dorm and we exchanged phone numbers.
The next Sunday, she called me at about eight to ensure I got up early enough. I found this was a bit unnecessary as I’m not one to sleep through my alarm clock. But, as I later found out, her church wasn’t one to leave anything up to chance.
When we got to their church, I found that their church didn’t have a building of its own, either. They were meeting in a hotel conference room. They started the worship service off with a song they all seemed to know by heart, entitled The Steadfast Love of the Lord. Actually, it was more of a chorus than a song, as it was very short. A few parts sounded like common cliches out of well known hymns patched awkwardly together, and the phrases to the tune had a similar effect, but they sung the song with a lot of enthusiasm.
When the pastor (or, as they called him, “evangelist”) got up to speak, everyone cheered, and there were a lot of calls like, “Come on, Rueben!”. He preached a sermon that really filled the congregation with enthusiasm, and I remember telling him after the service that it seemed like a sermon that was really applicable to my life, but now all I can remember is that it was something about the necessity of controlling your anger.
It seemed like they encouraged a lot of talking after the service, and I was introduced to a lot of people. Two of the people who would become most important in my life were college students whom I will call Tim and Carl. Tim was a white guy who was about average height and kind of skinny, with very thick glasses. Carl was a fairly light skinned, bearded black man who was as tall as I am. Tim was also a student at Case, while Carl attended Cleveland State University. Carl wanted to set up a time for me to study the Bible with him that week and invited me, Tim, Alice, and several other members to his room to watch videos that night. I agreed to both.
One of the leaders also announced that since the Super Bowl was the next Sunday, they would be having the worship service later in the day than usual, followed by a Super Bowl party with a big-screen TV and a lot of other stuff. I said I’d be there too.
Tim gave Alice and me a ride over to Carl’s dorm in his beat-up old subcompact. The car stalled out several times on the way over, and it shook slightly every time he applied the brakes. When I pointed out the brake problem, he replied that he was aware of it but didn’t have the money to fix either problem. At the time, I didn’t realize the significance of Mike’s money problems, but I did suggest to him that fixing the brakes would be a very good investment.
That night would provide one of the first clues that this was definitely not a normal church which I was dealing with. I remember that we watched The Saint without incident, but the next movie, Austin Powers, caused the members a lot of concern. They decided to stop watching it about 20 minutes into the movie because of all the sexual innuendoes. I argued that the movie was actually making fun of Austin’s ideas about sexual promiscuity, and if anything, the previous movie (where the hero has sex with a woman the day after he meets her) endorsed that kind of behavior a lot more. They really weren’t able to come up with any logical argument against that, so in the end they simply outvoted me. We hadn’t reached any of the really tasteless scenes in the movie, or I might have agreed with them – a lot of the parts I saw when I watched the movie later were really dirty-minded but not particularly funny.
I seem to remember meeting Tim sometime between the night we watched videos and the “Bible Study” where I’d agreed to meet Carl at a local coffeehouse. Actually, from the first day I attended the church until the day I left, hardly a day would go by without one of the members meeting me and striking up a conversation, or calling me on the phone. Their church really doesn’t want to let potential recruits out of its sight – or let its members out of the leadership’s sight, for that matter.
When I met with Carl to study the Bible in a local coffeehouse, I was somewhat surprised to see that Tim was there too. I was extremely surprised to find Rueben, the preacher, there too! We talked for an hour during which they worked at convincing me to follow the Bible. It seemed kind of a waste of time as I had been raised as a Baptist and already believed that. They were so meticulous about it that Tim even brought a notepad and took down notes for me to study later. I never opened the notes, as they seemed to be just trying to convince me of what I already believed.
When Super Bowl Sunday rolled around, I was surprised to find that the girl who would be taking me there was one I had known from a class I’d had with her last semester. It turned out she wasn’t a member, but had been invited and, apparently, asked to help drive. I don’t remember much about the service, but I remember that she seemed confused and uneasy the whole way through. Later I found out that they hadn’t told her it would be a church service, just a Super Bowl party!
After the service, the party began. A lot of people seemed eager to introduce themselves to my friend and me. My friend decided to leave early for some reason, but I stayed because Tim said he could give me a ride home and I’d have time to see the end of the game. Later, she told me that the apparent friendliness of the members seemed unnatural and that was why she left. She never showed up at any of their services again.
That week I met with Tim and Carl to study the Bible again. This study was a bit peculiar. I believe they called it the Kingdom Study. “Studying the Bible” with these guys meant going through a particular sequence of studies, although sometimes the exact order varies, and additional studies may be added or even invented for various reasons. Usually these reasons are to increase a recruit’s commitment to the church, or because the recruit is “struggling” (refusing to accept) what was taught in the last study. I remember that they said a lot about the need to “seek first the Kingdom of God” and managed to convince me that I should rearrange my schedule so that I could attend some of the services their church held in the middle of the week.
A lot of it was just plain confusing. One ominous remark they made, however, stood out. Tim pointed to a particular verse — something about how much we’re supposed to love God in comparison to our earthly families — and said that if I followed God I must be prepared to reject my family. I replied, “Oh, my parents are Christians; they won’t have any problems with it.” Carl replied, in a voice of absolute certainty, “Oh? Don’t be too certain.”
I told them I could make some changes and attend a service they held on Tuesday nights as well as a meeting they had on Fridays at a member’s house. They again suggested I go over the Bible to study what they said about seeking the Kingdom of God, but what they had said was so vague that I wasn’t even sure what point they were trying to get across. After I left, I found out that the International Churches of Christ consider themselves to be the Kingdom. That explains a lot of what they were trying to tell me!
I can’t remember if they had told me they were a part of the International Churches of Christ at this point or not, but it was around this time that I heard them mention that they were affiliated with them and that the movement started in Boston. Carl once even said something like, “Twenty years ago it was just Boston. Now, we’ve got 100,000 members. In another twenty years, we’ll have evangelized the world.” They really liked to talk about how fast their church was growing, and considered it proof that God was with them. Of course, the Moonies could have made that claim a decade ago too, although I didn’t mention this.
The service next Sunday had a particularly weird speech presented there. Somebody — I don’t think it was the pastor — was trying to stress the importance of having a Vision. He emphasized it enough that I think it needs a capital V. To support the point, he told the weirdest story. It was about two hospital patients who shared a room, one who could look out a window and the other who couldn’t. The one with the view would tell the other patient that he saw a park and describe what was going on. The other patient became jealous of the view and let the one with the view die rather than call the nurse, just so he could get the window. When he got the window, he found it faced a brick wall.
The speaker went on to talk about how the Vision the patient with the window had was so important, even though it wasn’t the truth. It was quite a weird speech, to say the least!
They followed that weird speech with a weird study. I think it was just Carl I was talking to this time. Carl began the study with the question, “Would Jesus make His bed?” He then went over the account of the empty tomb and tried to use the account of how the linen was folded to show that Jesus would indeed make His bed. Talk about weird! I wasn’t quite convinced, but from then on I did try to keep my bed a little neater. Perhaps this was an attempt to apply the saying, “If you can’t convince ’em, confuse ’em?”
The next study was when my experience with the church went from seeming like a bizarre dream to a waking nightmare. They call that study the “Discipleship Study,” but I now think of it as the “You’re not a Christian” study. That’s because, by all accounts of former members, this study is designed to “prove” to potential recruits that they aren’t really Christians, are not saved, and are going to Hell if they don’t turn their lives around (with the help of the ICC, of course).
It began with Carl asking me to define a Christian. I can’t remember what definition he gave, but he managed to convince me that a Christian was someone who obeys Christ’s teachings. That seemed like a reasonable definition to me. Then he wrote a bunch of weird stuff in my notebook, stuff like “Water=H20” and such. Next he asked me to define a disciple. I replied with something about it referring to the Twelve Disciples or something. He asked me to turn with me in my Bible to what seemed like an obscure, minor verse in Acts. It read, “The disciples were first called Christians at Antioch.” He then wrote “CHRISTIAN=DISCIPLE” in my notebook.
He then asked me if I was a disciple. I replied that I did my best. He asked if I followed everything Christ told me to do, all the time. I replied that nobody was perfect, and quoted Romans 3:23, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Carl replied, “It’s all or nothing!” He pretty much insisted that God wouldn’t accept anything short of perfection, especially when he figured out that I had a downright horrible track record of bringing others into the Church. I said I thought God had made me to do other tasks. At one point, he even said, “Your halfheartedness is pissing God off!”
By the time the lesson was over I was crying. Carl at this point acted somewhat compassionate, and suggested that we go on a “prayer walk.” I agreed, even though I didn’t know what it was. It sounded better than sitting there and hearing Carl continue to tell me I wasn’t saved.
It turned out to be that we would go along and we’d take turns saying snippets of prayers. Ed’s were a bunch of stuff like, “God, please change Matt’s heart to do Your will,” and generally calling on God to make me something I’m not. My prayers, as you may suspect, were pretty much the same.
This time, I went home and studied the Bible to see if what he said was sound. It probably wasn’t the way Carl intended, however. I didn’t study the scriptures cited in my notes, or even open the notes. Instead, I looked up passages such as 1 Corinthians 12, about how God didn’t intend to have everyone do the same work but instead gave believes different spiritual gifts so they could work together to accomplish God’s will.
One passage they used was Matthew 7:19. What they emphasized was the part on “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” They claimed that fruit meant new converts, and that anyone who wasn’t converting would be going to Hell. Their abuse of this passage is truly ironic when this verse is taken in context. The complete passage begins at Matthew 7:15 with the words, “Watch out for false prophets,” and goes on to say that false prophets are identified by what they do. A poison sumac tree can bear a lot of fruit, but it isn’t a good tree. This verse was about quality, but they’ve twisted it to say it’s about quantity, and redefined “fruit” from actions to converts.
When I next met Carl to study the Bible, I was surprised to find that Rueben had come along. They started to go over the exact same things Carl had told me last time, only more forcefully. I tried to raise the objections I’d come up with the previous night while studying the Bible by myself, but they pretty much ignored those objections and concentrated on how I wasn’t out proselytizing and how “Our primary purpose is to be fishers of men.” I wasn’t, by their definition, and I couldn’t be a Christian by their definition until I went out bringing in others.
That evening, I went to one of their Bible studies – I think it’s what they call a Bible Talk. This was held at a member’s house off campus. I don’t know if their group had been forbidden from meeting on campus or not, but I later found out that the ICC had been banned from holding any meetings on several other campuses.
The Bible Talk was on the calling of Peter and his brothers and on how we needed to be fishers of men. I don’t know if they had planned it to fit so closely with the teachings they’d been ramming down my throat or if it was just because the ICC is constantly harping on the need to bring in more members, but it definitely reinforced what they’d been telling me that afternoon. I even made some kind of little impromptu speech about how it was a challenge I couldn’t refuse. After the study, I spent about half an hour talking to “James,” the Bible Talk leader. He seemed impressed with my dedication and told me that it wouldn’t be too hard for me to become a successful “fisher of men.”
During the ride home. James kept talking to me to keep pressing the need for witnessing on me. One thing he said that stands out was, “If you had a cure for cancer, would you keep it to yourself?” Ironically, I’m following that very advice now that I consider the ICC to be a kind of spiritual cancer.
I must not have gone to a personal Bible study the next week, but the Friday night Bible Talk stands out vividly in my mind. It was supposedly about how to spot false doctrines, but now I see how carefully orchestrated it was. For example, the people who were to defend the false doctrines were always supposed to go first, which aside from making it clear which one the leader thought was false, gave the opponents more capability to rebut their arguments. Also, anybody who has been in the ICC for more than a few months has been thoroughly indoctrinated and given specific verses to use while defending their opinions. People who believed things like “Once saved, always saved,” and so forth weren’t nearly so well equipped.
I left the meeting thinking something like, “That reassures me – I don’t think a cult would advise me on spotting false doctrines.” That raised a disturbing thought: “Did they know I’d need reassuring they weren’t a cult?” And now that I look back at the event, I realize that a cult would actually have a pretty good reason to act like they’re teaching people how to spot false doctrines. They want members to use try to spot “false doctrines” the cult’s way rather than come up with a way of their own.
Sometime that week, as I was riding with Tim back from a meeting, Tim told me he’d given a name to his car. I asked why and he replied that one of the leaders (I can’t remember which one) had said that every car ought to have a name. He then encouraged me to think up a name for my car. Tim, evidently, was trying hard to be a model of the kind of “humility” and “submissiveness” that the ICC’s leadership demands.
Most of the time while we were riding too and from meetings, all they wanted to discuss was my religion. That made me uncomfortable, but I couldn’t find a legitimate reason to tell them this at the time. Now I see all they were trying to do was prove I wasn’t saved unless I followed them.
By this time, I was also worried that they’d try to make me give up prized things in my life. For example, they might tell me that spending so much time and money working to restore my ’66 Dodge would constitute failing to seek the Kingdom of God and put it first in my life. Or maybe they’d convince me I needed to “tithe” even though I didn’t have a job. I didn’t think I could find a legitimate reason to refuse them, so I was afraid they’d bring issues like that up some day.
That Saturday, I had volunteered to work on what appeared to be a simple charity project done by the ICC’s official charity arm, HOPE International. We worked all day cleaning out the basement of a battered women’s shelter. I had assumed it was just charity work for the sake of helping others, but after we were done I found the work had been done to raise money for HOPE! I didn’t complain at the time, however, as they hadn’t told me it wasn’t to raise money. I had just assumed it wasn’t, while in truth the shelter was paying HOPE for the work. It seems like the shelter’s management had a favorable impression of us.
Sometimes I wish I could find the shelter and go back and do something about the favorable impression they have of HOPE, explain that they are really a front for a cult, but I don’t remember where they are, and they keep the location a secret for obvious reasons. I wonder sometimes if the ICC might take advantage of knowing the location, but I don’t see a way they could use that knowledge for recruiting purposes, especially without making it obvious enough to attract unwanted attention.
I don’t remember the sermon that Sunday at all, but I remember what happened afterwards clearly. James suggested that a few members and I go to a local restaurant for lunch and some time spent in fellowship. This was the first time I’d been with them for any length of time that they weren’t talking about spiritual issues. The conversation kind of died out after about half an hour, but they seemed determined to keep it alive on artificial respiration. They had to resort to telling old jokes like the one that begins “Three strings walk into a bar, and the bartender yells at the first one, ‘Ain’t you one of them strings?'” Although these jokes weren’t very funny even when new and I’d heard most of them before, all the other guys laughed hysterically. I was the only one who dared to groan.
I began to feel uncomfortable, like something horribly wrong and unnatural was going on. I forced myself to stay for a while but finally excused myself and left.
What was to be my final Bible study happened the next Tuesday. It was about sin and repentance, and a constant emphasis on confession and what they called “Godly sorrow.” James led this one, with Tim taking notes. Before the study, I had made a comment that I had been feeling gloomy that day because of the weather. James replied, “Man, we’re supposed to be content in any situation!” or something like that. I smiled kind of ruefully and replied, “Yeah, I had that song, ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’, stuck in my head the whole time!” They were pretty amused by that.
The study itself went pretty smoothly, as I already believed in the need to repent and confess sins. They had a couple of peculiar points in the lesson, like an emphasis on the term “Godly sorrow” and several remarks on how “righteous anger” is not a sin. James was impressed as to how readily I accepted what he was telling me, and asked if I’d been a Christian before joining. I said, “Not according to your definition,” or something similar.
At one point before this lesson, Tim had told me that shyness was a sin because it prevented us from sharing our faith. We touched on that briefly, with both James and Tim claiming that the ICC had helped them clear their lives of that “sin.” If that conversation on Sunday was any indication, or the way I’ve spotted Tim eating supper alone in the dining commons is, they really haven’t changed.
I remember a few details of the sermon at the mid-week service. Rueben was preaching on the need to be obedient, as the Greater Cleveland Church of Christ was apparently falling behind in that area. He said that if he told a member of the church to move to another side of town, or even another city, the moving van had better show up in two weeks’ time. All I could think was, “I’d do that if God told me that, but why should I do it if Rueben told me?” By the end of the service, I felt like I needed to vomit.
When I got back to my room, I was beginning to sort out what had happened since Alice had invited me to her church. How they’d redefined what it meant to be a Christian. The fund-raising. The lunch where the members couldn’t carry on a natural conversation. The way they spoke of ex-members as “fall-aways”. And finally, the sermon where Rueben told the congregation just how much obedience he expected. I told my roommate I was worried about this church, and why. We agreed it must be a cult and that the best course of action was to avoid them.
I decided to look on the Internet and see if anyone else had the same suspicions. Sure enough, there’s a lot of sites on the Web dedicated to listing the abuses the ICC had committed. There were tales of people who had to give 20% of their income, before taxes, to the church. Some people quoted the church’s founder, Kip McKean, showing that he believed that their church contained the only people who were saved. Former members told of how they could only go on double dates every Saturday, and only then if the church leaders gave them permission. All the accounts depicted the ICC as a strict, authoritative, and deceptive organization.
They didn’t quite take the news that I was leaving very well. Carl called me on Thursday and I had to hang up on him three times before he stopped calling. Tim pressed me for an explanation often enough that I wrote up a letter listing the various questionable teachings I’d seen. It came to about three typewritten pages, and only included things I’d seen myself, not what I had suspected or heard on the Internet. Examples included their calling themselves non-denominational, the interpretation of Matthew 7:15-23, their emphasizing the word “disciple” when the word doesn’t appear after the Book of Acts, and the degree of authority the leaders claim. I found several relevant Bible verses to confirm my views, or sometimes could simply show how the ICC has a complete absence of verses to confirm their stand.
About a week after I’d handed him the letter, Tim came to talk with me during lunch. He only succeeded in confirming what I’d already suspected. He said early on, “Well, the Bible says a lot of people will fall away from God, but why you?” Sure enough, they believe that leaving their church is tantamount to leaving God. He dismissed my objections in the letter as “misguided.” So there’s no way they will even listen to people who can come up with legitimate complaints about their teaching.
Tim also told me that only he, James, and Rueben had seen the letter, even though I had suggested they circulate it and have an honest discussion on the points I raised. I never thought that would happen, and Tim confirmed it.
Finally, I asked if I could confirm a few things I’d suspected by borrowing and examining a copy of First Principles, the guidebook they’d been following for the Bible studies. Tim replied that he couldn’t let me read the book or see what studies lay ahead. To his credit, he didn’t flinch when I replied, “Congratulations, you just confirmed my first suspicion.” That suspicion, of course, was that nobody in the ICC would let anyone see a copy of their indoctrination manual until after they’d been baptized.
He tried to come up with an explanation of why prematurely reading First Principles was not allowed. I countered by telling him I had simply seen an analysis of the studies on the Internet and wanted to see if it was true. That pretty much ended the conversation and, as it turns out, any further contact with the ICC.
Sometimes to this day I’ll see something in a church that sounds too much like what the ICC talks about, like certain used of “discipleship”, or even worse, “discipling”, which in the ICC refers to a way each “disciple” is placed under a “discipler” and has to get permission from them for a lot of activities. I didn’t find out about this practice until leaving, but even so, hearing “disciple” used as a verb makes my blood run cold. There are times when I nearly rejected all Christianity after learning more about cults, but finding a lot of former ICC members whose faith in God remained intact has helped me a lot there.
My experience with the ICC has left a lot of scars on my soul, and they’ll take a long time to heal.
©1998 by Matt Cramer <[email protected]>. All rights reserved.
Make sure to also read the open letter Matt wrote to the ICC.
Back to other articles about the International Churches of Christ.