Questioning the Los Angeles Church of Christ
Tommy Magazine (University of Southern California), November 19, 1998
by Dan Pasquini
Two former members recall their experiences with a high-pressure evangelical group.
Three months was enough for Janine Marnien.
It took her 86 days to realize that the demands from the Los Angeles Church of Christ – mandatory tithes, close supervision and even being when she could visit her family – outweighed any spiritual benefits the church offered.
But Marnien’s account is not unique. Several USC students have gone to Rabbi Susan Laemmle, dean of religious life, telling stories of how they were pressured to quickly join the group and how they were isolated from nearly everything else in their lives.
As word of these stories spread, so did the term cult to describe the LA Church of Christ. But the fires of Waco and the morbidity of Heaven’s Gate hardly seem to jibe with the aggressive evangelism of the Church. While Laemmle hesitates to use the word cult, she is convinced that the church’s practices do more harm than good.
“At first I didn’t take the LA Church all that seriously, but then I had a number of experiences last spring, with a series of students trying to pull back from the church,” Laemmle said. “Their stories have convinced me that there is a real problem.”
“The specter of harm caused by the church was enough for her to hold a forum called “Cults on Campus” in September to educate students about the tactics of the LA Church of Christ and the commitment involved. Although she was hesitant to put cult in the title, but that she’d been discouraged by low attendance at a similar forum last year when she used the phrase “high-pressure groups” instead.
John Augustine, the LA Church of Christ’s campus minister for USC, objects to the use of cult to describe his group. Speaking quickly and matter-of-factly, Augustine said, “The word cult is a scare word. It’s a word people don’t understand. We don’t fit the definition of cult. There are much more dangerous groups out there.
Laemmle said there isn’t a good definition of cult, but did outline some common elements of high-pressure or “cult-like” groups: pressure to make a quick commitment to the church, exclusivity (preaching that other baptisms or Christian sects are useless in providing salvation), strong tithe demands and a difficulty in leaving the group.
The experiences of Marnien and of freshman Charlotte Barry within the LA Church of Christ seem to mirror all of Laemmle’s descriptions.
Barry was raised Roman Catholic, but by the time she arrived at USC she was unsure if she wanted to continue with catholicism. She knew she wanted to hold on to her Christian beliefs, so when approached by a member of the LA Church of Christ she decided to give it a chance.
After five Bible studies, Barry was re-baptized into the church, which is part of the 175,000-member International Churches of Christ denomination (not affiliated with the mainstream Churches of Christ). “They want to get you through the program as fast as you can,” she said. “They say they’re the only church God accepts.”
Barry, Marnien and Augustine agreed that the church believes that a good Christian life is one lived by following the Bible strictly. Augustine said, “It’s not enough to just say you’re a Christian. You’ve got to do it on the terms the Bible lays out. We take a very serious relationship with God and the Bible.”
This serious relationship manifested itself in mandatory Bible studies, devotionals and prayer times, which Barry said usually totaled three or four events every week. And it wasn’t just the act itself that was important, but also that it be done when the church members dictated. “They made me feel like if I didn’t do this Bible study on Tuesday instead of Saturday, I wasn’t committed to God.”
But perhaps the most foreign – and one of the more disturbing – elements of daily life within the church for Barry and Marnien was the “discipler,” a member of the church assigned to watch over a new member. Marnien said church members are responsible to their discipler and that she had to ask hers for permission to spend time with friends.
“The condition set up front would be to put the church before all else. I was busy all the time. One time they wouldn’t let me go home to visit my family,” Marnien said.
Barry added, “You have to obey the discipler. I hadn’t been told that straight out, but I got the drift. They call every day to make sure you’re not getting into trouble, not going to parties, not drinking.”
It was their disciplers who made the most effort at discouraging Marnien and Barry from leaving the church. While neither expressed any trouble at getting out, they did say they got repeated phone calls and visits from other church members, who didn’t want to see them go. Finally, at Laemmle’s advice, they wrote letters explaining their intentions of leaving the church, and the ties were broken.
Augustine says time commitment is part of the church’s philosophy. And he says the discipler exists because “as a church grows, there’s no personal attention. We make sure the individual member gets the attention they need.
“Part of being a Christian is to be involved in other Christians’ lives. And within the realm of being a Christian is the element of wisdom, and people need to make good decisions.”
Augustine also stresses the good that comes from the church. “Young people who decisively led hazardous lifestyles – sexual promiscuity, moral apathy – are genuinely sharing good works. I’m very proud of our group.”
He also mentioned that the church holds Biblical discussions encouraging involvement with one’s family, and that the church helped reunite families. But Marnien said that was in sharp contrast to her experience of having to put the church before her family.
Marnien did find some good in the church, though. “There were many positive things – a strong relationship with God, which is admirable, high energy, hugs everywhere,” she said. “But a lot of the friendship, while it was genuine, wasn’t as deep as you would think. At this point, they’ve done more harm than good.”
It is that harm – both done and potential – that prompted Marnien, a sophomore, to start SOS, a program aimed not at getting people to leave the church, but to provide help for them if they do choose to leave.
Laemmle says she has no desire to try to outlaw the church on campus. She says she believes in freedom of religion and assembly and as long as the church doesn’t present itself as an official school recognition, there is little the university can do about its presence.
While Augustine said there has been no official action, he feels that the university administration is trying to intimidate the church into staying away from campus. “I feel they are making efforts to keep students from joining and aiding people to leave,” he said. “I feel it’s unconstitutional and not the role of the university to determine morals.”
So as the group continues to have a presence on campus, Laemmle says she’ll stay concerned. “I think for every person I meet [who is trying to leave the church], there are 100 waiting in the wings. “All human beings have spiritual needs, and they need to meet that appetite in a healthy way. If they don’t meet that need, they’re vulnerable.”