Church evangelists’ approach to MU students stirs concern

Church evangelists’ approach to MU students stirs concern

The Milwaukee Sentinel / Saturday, April 16, 1988
By Mary Beth Murphy

It’s been almost a month since Anne, a Marquette University student, left Milwaukee Church of Christ, and she still wonders if she’s going to hell. “It was very hard to leave,” she said in a soft, sometimes emotional voice. “There’s an immense fear that you’re going to go to hell because you left.”

The church took up most of her time during the week, she said, and cutting back on her involvement was not an option. “I couldn’t take the commitment anymore.”

If the church’s commitments can’t be fulfilled, she said, “you’re challenged about your relationship with God.”

Anne was one of several Marquette students who talked about their experiences in the tightly controlled “Bible believing” church, which holds its Sunday services at the Grand Cinemas, 214 W. Wisconsin Ave. Since some of the students expressed fear of repercussions or harassment from the church, they are identified by fictitious names.

The church’s evangelists have been banned from the Marquette campus as part of a general policy that prohibits proselytizing by any faith. In addition, the student members have been warned about proselytizing on campus. The university particularly was concerned about the “manipulative approaches” used by the church, according to Father Haschka, director of campus ministry. A support group for ex-members has been formed by the campus ministry.

Eric Mansfield, a minister of Milwaukee Church, said his evangelists would obey Marquette’s requests. However, Mansfield said he has encouraged the students to continue to share their faith even though they might be subject to disciplinary procedures, telling them the disciples obeyed God rather than man when ordered to speak in Jesus’ name.

Rick, another former member, came to Marquette this year from a small Wisconsin town. He said he didn’t have many friends so when he was invited by a student to attend one of the church’s Bible-study sessions in his dorm, “I thought it was kind of nice that they took an interest in me.”

For the next three months he was paired with one or two male members who checked on him “constantly” and studied the Bible with him. During those sessions, they counseled him about his personal life, questioned him about his parents and his Catholic beliefs and encouraged him to “confess” to them any sins he might have, he said. At one point, they urged him to get his parents out of the Catholic religion, telling him that “you should not conform to your parents’ religion…you should try to bring your parents with you, because you want to save them, too.”

Both he and Anne were pressured to become friendly with other students and bring them into the church. After he told his two study partners that he was dropping out of the church, he said he received calls or messages for the next week from them or other church members attempting to change his mind.

The tactics employed by Milwaukee Church of Christ to bring members into the fold and keep them there have been condemned by several ministers of local Churches of Christ as “insidious,” “mind-controlling” and “destructive.”

Milwaukee Church has been descrived as part of a “dangerous movement” within the nationwide nondenominational group, by local and national church observers. The Boston Church of Christ is regarded as the “mother church” for this movement.

Called the “discipling movement,” it has spread across the country among the 13,000 Churches of Christ and has become especially divisive to these churches within the last year. Under the highly structured system, each person in the congregation has a discipling partner, who not only provides “heavy-handed counseling in the spiritual realm” but tells people how to conduct their personal lives, said Monroe Hawley, minister of the South Side Church of Christ, 1933 W. Grange Ave. “On the surface, it seems to be something positive – to help people who are undisciplined or lonely….But in the process of doing that, it takes away their independence and freedom,” said Bob Epperly, a minister at Northtown Church, 7000 N. 107th St.

Although members are allowed to ask questions “ultimately you can’t disagree,” Hawley said.

Mansfield, who said his congregation was part of the nationwide movement, maintained that discipling relationships were mandated by the Bible, which commands Christians to teach and counsel each other. Disciples should examine a member’s personal life, from marital relationships to personal finances, since scriptural teaching applies to all areas of one’s life, he said. “People who call it control are people who are unopen to challenges in those particular areas,” he said. Mansfield denied that his church was using any form of manipulation.

Asked if he thought those who left the church would go to hell, he said, “If that means going back on their commitment to Christ, then yes. If they join another church with compromising doctrines and lifestyle, yes.”

The Discipling Dilemma,” a newly published book, quoted an editorial from a Churches of Christ publication that said the leaders of discipling congregations believe “they have the right to go beyond the Scriptures and create commandments that members must follow.”

Rob McRay, another minister at Northtown Church, said local congregations were concerned that Mansfield’s approach could cause “people to become bitter toward all Churches of Christ or Christianity.”

“It is no longer fair to us to say the Milwaukee Church of Christ is part of our fellowship of churches,” he said.

The other churches cannot interfere since each congregation is autonomous, he said. All they can do is try to help those people who come away from the movement disillusioned and traumatized, he said.

Back to other media reports about the London/Boston Church of Christ.