They Were Saved
Denver Westword, June 17-23 1999.
By Julie Jargon
While Donald got out after only three months (see “Too Much Church”), Anne Schweikert was involved in the International Church of Christ for almost seven years. More than twelve years after she left the church, she’s still deeply bothered by what she experienced.
Schweikert, who became a member after she graduated from college in Boulder, helped John Chisholm form the Denver church. Before she left in 1987, Schweikert was engaged to another member of the DCOC. When the couple’s discipler was kicked out of the church for questioning its practices, Schweikert and her fianc sought guidance from other church leaders. A married couple set up a meeting with Schweikert and her fiance, but when they showed up, every leader in the church was present. “That really blindsided us,” she recalls. “One by one they told us we shouldn’t marry each other.”
Schweikert and her fiance were in their early thirties at the time and had never had sex, although she says their strong physical attraction to one another made it a struggle. “We showed them the Bible verse that says if a man burns for a woman, it’s better that he marry her. But they said that Bible verse didn’t apply to us!”
Later, when one of the church leaders got a negative response when he asked Schweikert’s fiance if he was going to cancel the wedding, the church leader told him, “‘You just want to get in her pants,'” recalls Schweikert, who believes that their friendly relationship with the dissenting discipler is the real reason the church wanted to split them up.
The bridesmaids and groomsmen — all of whom were friends from church — had been chosen for the wedding, but each one backed out. “All of our friends abandoned us because the church leaders told them not to have anything to do with us after we left,” Schweikert says. “These people were our best friends for seven years!”
The church’s efforts to interfere with Schweikert’s marriage was what finally made her leave, but it wasn’t the first time she had questioned the church. She could never visit her parents in Ca¤on City without her discipler’s permission–most times, another church member was assigned to accompany her home. “They even tell people whether they should go to school or not, what to major in and what job to take,” Schweikert says.
Dating is also heavily controlled, according to Schweikert. Hand-holding is about the only physical contact allowed, and couples are chaperoned on dates until they’ve been together several months, she says. Although no one came out and told Schweikert she couldn’t spend time with family and non-church friends, they made it virtually impossible by consuming all of her time. She was busy working and attending church activities from five in the morning to midnight. “I always questioned things, but you see that people who openly question get chastised and shunned. You learn not to rock the boat,” Schweikert says. “I was a discipler to others for four years, and I did plenty of chastising. I still kick myself for that, but at the time, you think you’re doing what’s best for your disciples.”
Schweikert isn’t the only former member in the Denver area. She’s thinking of joining RESTORED, a local support group for people who have left the ICOC. Last fall, Lakewood resident Cricket Harris searched a Web site containing a registry of former Denver International Church of Christ members and found someone who was interested in starting a support group with her. Harris developed a Web page and had it linked to www.reveal.org, an Internet site containing testimonies from former ICOC members worldwide. Since November, six former local members who found the RESTORED Web page (www.geocities.com/Athens/Atlantis/5445) have been meeting each month to discuss their experiences in the church. Harris formed the group because she wanted “a healthy way to discuss my experiences, process my thoughts about them and ultimately heal from being involved in a group that I felt was spiritually destructive to me.”
After Harris joined an online discussion group on the R.E.V.E.A.L. Web site, she says, she “realized for the first time that I wasn’t alone out here and all that needed to be done was [to] find others wanting the same opportunity to share their experiences like I did.”
Schweikert, who is grateful that she left the church and married her husband, says recalling her experiences is still traumatic. But if she was so unhappy, why didn’t she leave sooner? “On the one hand, you have these questions, but at the same time, you have lots of good friends.”
To an outsider, the church is like any other. On a Sunday, the sanctuary of the Littleton Christian Church is filled with the harmonious strains of worshipers singing “Holy, Holy, Holy.” Inside, short sermons are followed by communion and fellowship. People shake hands, smile and greet one another like family. But it’s deceiving, Schweikert says. “When people go to the services, they’ll feel warm and welcome and they’ll think, ‘What could be wrong here?’ But it’s just a way to suck you in.”
The promises of friendship, love and eternal life can be alluring to people who are lonely, she says, and it takes a long time to realize how destructive the group is; every method of control the leaders exert is subtle and builds over time. And Schweikert knew what members said about people who left the group. “It didn’t matter if you left and went to another church,” she says. “If you weren’t one of us, you were going to hell.”
Further reading: “Too Much Church”