By Tom Khoury
- A New Kind of Church
- The Bible Studies
- Taking the Plunge
- The Campaigns
- General Life in the Church
- My First Conflict
- Journey Down the Slippery Slope
- A. Special Contributions
- B. Stats Take Precedence Over People
- C. Unnatural Control
- D. Cranking Up the Pressure
- E. A Call From The Other Side
- Wake Up Call
- My Escape
It has been over five months since I left the Washington, D.C. Church of Christ (Montgomery County Region). I have finally gathered up the courage (as well as the time) to write my story about my experiences with this church. I am writing this because of my personal convictions to share my story for the possible benefit of others so that they may find the wisdom and the strength to either avoid or break their involvement with this abusive group. I have gained tremendous benefits from the stories of other former members who had the courage to make their information public. These stories have helped me during the last days of my involvement with this group as well as during my recovery.
I have been raised by a Christian family in the Baptist tradition all of my life. Although I have always believed in all of the fundamental teachings of evangelical Christianity, my living example and dedication always left much to be desired. Although I went to church regularly, my Christian life rarely extended beyond the church walls. My devotions and bible studies on my own time were virtually nonexistent.
At the age of 28, I have reached some crossroads in my life. I have just completed graduate school, and was about to begin a new career that I have been pursuing for more than five years. Throughout my life, I was working toward certain goals concerning my career. Now that I have achieved them, all of the ambitions that kept me going before have diminished. Nothing else was left in my life besides an existence replete with mundane routines. At this point, I felt a certain emptiness that I needed to fulfill, and I had a conviction that a stronger relationship with God would achieve this.
It was about this time that I began to casually attend the Washington, D.C. Church of Christ to which a friend of mine from work had invited me. I saw a church that was completely different from the traditional churches that I was used to. The services were very alive and charismatic. The sermons were very entertaining and humorous and managed to keep me captivated (I have had a problem fighting off heavy eyes and dosing off during sermons in other churches). All of the members displayed such tremendous enthusiasm and kindness toward me that seemed so refreshing at the time. Besides the friend of mine who have invited me to church, another member who was pretty close to him was also trying to get me into Bible studies.
It has been a few months that I was attending Sunday services occasionally. For this period of time, my new job required a tremendous amount of travel that left little time for any additional involvement with the church. After the travel and the holidays have died down, my new friends were becoming more active in getting me into some bible studies. At this point, I had developed a firm desire to build a stronger faith in God. I wanted to become more like the other members that surrounded me. For this reason, I have agreed to begin studying the Bible with the guys in order to gain greater enlightenment.
The first study that was done was the Word study which covered principles that I was already familiar with at the time. This study did remind me that I need to begin having devotions again, and I gradually began to do this. I was then led into the discipleship study with both of the members that I have been in contact with. This study was much more disturbing since it made me doubt my salvation which is something that has never been challenged before. After this study, I wanted to take some time to think about whether I wanted to plunge into the commitments that were being demanded of me. A week later this same study was covered again with one of the leaders of this church who became more harsh with me about wanting to make a commitment to Christ. Once again, I left that study without making a decision, but I promised that I would continue to study further with him.
A few days later, I went to a superbowl party held by the church and had a tremendous time. The group seemed so lively, charismatic, and loving towards each other. After this party, I was convicted on my own to make a commitment since I had so much desire to become a part of this group. As I prayed on my own, I felt this great peace and comfort overcoming me. I was excited that I was now ready to commit to Christ again, and could not wait to see my friend at the church and the leader that I have studied with and announce this great news to them. When I met with them again for a study and told them what I had done, the leader did not seem to show much enthusiasm (he expressed that this was only the beginning), but he proceeded with the Sin and Repentance study.
This study went on for more than three hours where I had to confess to him the sins that I have committed in my life. During this confession period, I found it unusual that the leader was going through a laundry list of sins that I simply had to respond to with either a “yes” or “no”. Included in this laundry list, he specifically asked me whether I was involved in homosexual affairs or child molestation. Part of me was offended that he would ask me such things, and another part of me was hurt that he would even anticipate these types of acts from me. As this study went on, my enthusiasm had died down, and I just wanted to get this session over with so I held back any resistance through questions or objections that I may have had. The other studies went much more smoothly than this, although they were also kept pretty long so that I would retreat from objecting or questioning him in order to get the bible study over with as quickly as possible. I found out that I had to allay my resistance because whenever I raised any objections or did not answer the leader’s questions the way that he intended, he would reciprocate with a long, drawn out argument where he went over carefully selected biblical passages out of their context and accompanied them with long-winded prose while allowing me little or no chance to respond.
During the course of the bible studies, I anticipated that they would eventually want me to be baptized again. Even though I was baptized before at the age of 13 and have always believed that it was a valid baptism, I have decided that I would go ahead and become baptized again in order to avoid any ugly conflicts, and to show my rededication to Christ. On a Wednesday night after a midweek service, we went to one of the elder’s home where I was baptized in a hot tub (this is definitely a nice way to carry out this ritual). There were all of these people present who have attended that I did not even know at the time rejoicing in this event. The person who originally invited me to the church and accompanied me throughout the bible studies was the one who dunked me under the water and was later assigned as my discipler (a mentor who acts as the coach and always provides “advice” to help build a stronger commitment). Although the members have been trying to convince me that this is the point where the holy spirit is truly received and my sins are forgiven, I did not feel anything different after this event. I felt this spirit when I first confessed to God in private and expressed my dedication to him.
After this event, I was now considered to be a full-fledged member of the church. Members were constantly showering me with praise and affection for this which I certainly have enjoyed for a while. I was thrilled to have so many new and sincere friends and to have finally gotten those dreaded bible studies over with. Regardless of certain shortcomings that would sometimes hamper my enthusiasm, I felt that I was in bliss with this new church, and I was so proud of it.
The first week of my full membership with this church was the kick-off of a new “March Madness” campaign which stresses mass-evangelism. The first week, each one of us had to invite at least 100 people to church services handing them flyers advertising the upcoming services for the month. As we would wander throughout busy street corners, subway stations, and shopping centers inviting people to our church, we would keep a count of how many people with whom we have “shared our faith” and how close we were to meeting our quota of 100. During the midweek service, many members would stand up boasting about how many people they shared their faith with, and even leaders would get up on the pulpit to boast for themselves. I found all of this quite unusual and even silly, but others have advised me that thoughts such as these indicate a lack of dedication and obedience to Christ.
As other goals have been set for other weeks, my discipler and I would go out together to work toward these goals. Between all of the activities (Sunday and mid-week services, family group bible talks, leaders meetings, discipleship meetings, and bible studies with potential recruits) that we were expected to attend as well as having to work toward all of these group goals, most of my free time was consumed by this church. I continued to feel that setting these numeric goals was quite silly. But I had to repress these thoughts and continue to adhere to these goals since I believed that the good achieved by them more than made up for their absurdity.
Adding to the unusually demanding lifestyle, I was one of the unlucky members who owned a pickup truck. This made me very popular in the group since members are always moving from place-to-place. Whenever someone asked me to help them move something, I felt that I was virtually obligated to comply since refusal had created very uneasy relations at times. In fact, they began putting me to work with my truck before I even got baptized during a community service day for HOPE worldwide.
Besides the heavy demands of my time and money, I continued to believe that this church was on fire. I felt that it was a type of grassroots form of Christianity similar to the church of the first three centuries. I began to perceive all the other “mainstream” churches as being weak and saturated with lukewarm devotion. I had a great desire for all of my friends to visit this church and experience grassroots Christian living the way Jesus had originally intended it (at least that is what I thought it was). At the same time, I did not want my friends and family to undergo the long, painful indoctrination process that I have experienced.
My first disagreement then came between me and the leader who had indoctrinated me during my recruitment. At times I would also visit another church with my father in order to keep contact with the members there who I also considered as family. Since these services had not conflicted with the mandatory services with the ICC, I thought nothing of this. On the other hand, my discipler and the leader were completely against this when they found out.
One Saturday, I had another indoctrination session with the leader and my discipler where the leader once again covered several biblical passages out of their context and accompanied them with his own sermons. He was preaching to me about how we must be unequivocally dedicated to living the true Christian life without fear of persecution. He then proceeded with stories about how some Christians have suffered tremendous oppression for their faith and that I must have the courage to do the same. For this reason, he instructed me that I must stop going to this other church. I failed to see any connections between these stories and my involvement with other churches. Whenever I had raised any kind of objection, he would simply preach some more in order to wear me down. I finally left the session without any further objections to his instructions, but still continued to go to the other church from time to time behind their backs.
One part of me felt guilty that I was disobeying their instructions, but I continued to believe that there was nothing wrong with this. This conflict would consume my thoughts from time-to-time where I held great animosity towards their exclusive claims to spiritual legitimacy, but I also loved the lively worship and fellowship within this group. I therefore dismissed most of my doubts as temptations from Satan to fall away from Christ. I attended this other church less often over time as my devotion to the ICC continued to grow.
The first few months after I was baptized into the group, I had been subject to a “honeymoon” period. Although this was quite a rocky period where I had already been experiencing excessive demands and control, I soon found out that they have actually been going easy on me during that period. The next few events began to disturb me and continued to raise doubts that I was constantly trying to fight off.
The month of May presented another campaign where each member was expected to raise large sums of money in order to fund ICC churches in third world countries as well as to plant new churches throughout the world. The pastor announced that each member is expected to contribute 18 times the amount of the regular weekly contributions (offerings or tithes to the church which were mandated at 10% of the member’s gross income). I found it quite peculiar that the pastor proposed such an arbitrary number. I have always thought that donations for these types of causes should be completely voluntary. Of course, most members do not have this kind of money to spare due to the financially demanding lifestyles within the church (large contributions, frequent social outings and dates, excessive travel). In order to meet their personal goals, members took second jobs, worked extra overtime, sold their valuable possessions, cooperated in medical research studies, or participated in fund-raising events because the church had required them to contribute more money than they had (if this does not characterize a cult, I do not know what does).
Some members also boasted in front of the congregation about how much they have sacrificed in order to meet their goal, and leaders were boasting on the pulpit in the same manner. It seemed that they were doing this for their own self-glorification. As some would testify as to how they sold an extremely sentimental and valuable possession of theirs to work toward their goal, I would sometimes think to myself what are they going to sell to meet their goal next year.
One Sunday, a friend of mine that I met at the gym had visited the church. I was thrilled that I finally had a visitor (there was always a push to get visitors into the Sunday services which created a great deal of guilt to members such as myself who had not managed to bring in a visitor for a while). After the service, my discipler had met my visitor and immediately began to badger him into participating in a bible study right after the service by stating that he is so “fired up” about studying the bible. I did not like the way that my discipler was putting such high pressure on my friend, so I simply reassured my visitor that he can defer this bible study till another day while my discipler continued to badger him into studying that same day. My visitor had then decided not to partake in the bible study after my discipler had left (even though he had succumbed to the pressure by initially agreeing to study that day).
When my discipler had found out that the visitor backed out, he became angry at me and informed me that we were required by our family group leader to participate in a bible study by 5:00 pm that day so that the stats for our group that get closed out for the month will reflect better performance. This is when I began to realize that numerical statistics was their primary concern. Members of this church will stop at nothing to make their quotas and report good numbers to their disciplers and higher authorities above them. My discipler had even lied to my visitor by telling him that the primary reason for wanting to study that day was his enthusiasm.
Later that week, I had been required to attend a men’s discipleship meeting at the home of our family group leader. My enthusiasm for this church was seriously being challenged at this time, and I did not want to attend this meeting, but I had no choice in this matter. The family group leader confronted each one of us about what we are doing well and what needs improvement. He lectured to one member by criticizing how he was not performing all his proper duties within his marriage. The family group leader then proceeded to urge another member to find a credible career then he promised to work on finding him a wife. All of this seemed so absurd to me since I felt that the family group leader was overstepping his bounds trying to exercise authority over every aspect of the people he led. I quickly began to realize that this is the way that virtually all leaders within the church operate.
My discipler and family group leader began to make it clear to me that I was to keep in contact with them on a daily basis and had to phone in every Sunday with my week’s stats (possibly having to explain why my stats are not up to parr for a particular week). This began to distress me considerably since I do not respond well to such intense control and pressure. I tried to fight this by simply neglecting to make these required calls. Whenever I did this, I would usually receive a call from either my discipler or my family group leader reminding me of my duties and rebuking me at times for not obeying. This posed a serious problem with me since I had to comply with this mandate that I despised.
One day (before these events just described occurred) I had a little time to surf the Internet and came across some literature criticizing the ICC alleging that they are a cult. I have read numerous news articles and a couple of stories from former members. This information made me very angry. Although I refused to believe this information, it did disturb me a great deal stimulating doubts that were racing through my mind. After a few days being surrounded by members of my group for numerous activities, I was eventually able to keep the raging doubts and conflicts under control and forgot about them for a couple of weeks until some of these disturbing events took place that I have described in previous sections. As my enthusiasm became sluggish, I occasionally peeked at this anti-ICC information and showed less resistance towards accepting it.
One evening when I came back from this disturbing discipleship meeting that I described earlier, my family had confronted me about how they did not like this church because of the different beliefs and my excessive commitment. As one criticized some of the beliefs, I adamantly defended them and confirmed them that true Christianity requires a great deal of commitment. For most of this confrontation, I had taken on the mind set of the group until I finally realized that I was in a losing battle trying to defend something that I did not truly believe in any longer (I was simply acting out of my resentment for this confrontation that was taking place). At the end, I assured my family that I was having doubts about the church, and would re-evaluate my commitment to them.
The week that followed included some of the most intense inner conflicts that I have ever experienced. As I went to some of the church meetings, I felt alienated from the group as if I was an outsider. With this new perspective, the absurdity behind the manners and actions of the members became very clear to me. I realized that this is, indeed, a cult! After realizing this, there no was longer a question of whether I wanted to leave or not, but how. I was contemplating trying to become outwardly rebellious and disobedient or simply missing services so that I could get “disfellowshipped” (kicked out). Since I could not picture myself doing such things, I decided that I needed to confront my discipler and family group leader about my decision and to absorb any accusations and judgements that anyone tosses at me. From stories I have read from former members, I realized that I had to emotionally prepare myself for a great deal of persecution for my decision by hardening myself towards these issues.
After planning my escape from this church for about a week while keeping it a secret from all of the members, I met with my discipler and finally informed him about my decision. My discipler was very disturbed and did not know what to say as I poured my heart out to him concerning the emotional turmoil I was experiencing. All this time, he remained silent. At the conclusion of our meeting, he allowed me to think about my decision for a few days. After our discussion, I felt like a massive weight has been removed from my shoulders. I was about to escape, and now I must withstand the persecution about my decision before it was final. Two days later, I called back my discipler and told him that my decision to leave was final. He was very disappointed, since I began to feel guilty about this burden that I placed on him, I agreed to meet once with him and the family group leader for a final discussion session the following weekend. After I had done this, my mind was finally at peace from the agonizing stress that I have undergone for the past two weeks.
I have received a couple of calls from other members who basically reminded me that the Christian life required tremendous dedication to Christ as well as suffering through persecution about my beliefs. They reminded me of the extremely radical and intense lifestyles of the new testament church and how Christians must be willing to endure the same demands and hardships in our own lives. These discussions did stir up some regrets, but after thinking about their arguments, I had realized that they were simply creating a diversion to appeal to me emotionally while failing to address the issues at hand. When I met with my discipler and family group leader that weekend, the leader addressed the issues more directly trying to convince me that this group is not a cult. At the close of our session, he challenged me to find biblically sound reasons for why I decided to leave the church.
After the session, I realized some false claims that were made such as the existence of elders that oversee Kip McKean — I later found out that elders existed in the Crossroads movement but disappeared when the ICC officially broke off over twelve years ago. I also realized that some highly subjective definitions were employed such as equating a cult with service in the military, being in college, participating in team sports, and even marriage. With all of the “sincere” love between all members and leaders, the group could not possibly be bad.
I did not buy into all of the arguments proposed by my family group leader. After some research and consideration, I reached the conclusion that, although there were many positive aspects of the group, there were too many negative aspects. I have realized that no legitimate religion uses such deception and mind control on people because this is in violation of the scriptures. A week later, I have sent a letter to my family group leader taking up his challenge about finding a biblical basis for my departure. After this, there was infrequent communication between us that eventually died down after a couple of months. I still keep in touch with my former discipler occasionally since we still consider each other as friends.
Before my involvement with the ICC, I perceived cults as extreme and outlandish groups such as Heaven’s Gate and the followers of David Koresh. I have always considered members who were drawn into such groups as people who lack intelligence or are mentally or emotionally unstable. In contrast, members of the ICC included several doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers, managers, therapists, counselors, and several other types of professionals. I have learned that normal, healthy, and very intelligent people can also be drawn into cults, and those that are ignorant towards cults and view them the same way that I did are actually the most vulnerable.
There are some positive aspects that came from my involvement with this group. They have managed to bring me closer to God and to build a greater commitment to Him. I visited the other churches afterwards with much greater enthusiasm. As I reflected on my lack of enthusiasm with these traditional churches in the past, I realized that nothing was wrong with the churches, it was myself that was at fault. Since many cults today disguise themselves as bible-believing Christians, I also have learned the importance of a Christian studying the Bible on his own and remain sharp in biblical knowledge and prayer. As the bible states in Ephesians 6:10-18 Christians must wear the full armor of God through faith, understanding of the Word, and prayer in order to protect themselves from the forces of evil that are present in society.
I have learned my lessons the hard way, but I testify about these experiences so that others will not have to do the same. Although I would like nothing more than to put this whole experience behind me and go on with my life, I felt the need to write my testimony and do whatever I can to help others who are still trapped in these groups or prevent themselves from being drawn in.
©1998 by Tom Khoury <[email protected]>. All rights reserved.
Other reading: Be sure to read the open letter Tom Khoury wrote to the ICC after he left.
Back to other articles about the International Churches of Christ.