The soft-spoken pastor of the Maranatha Christian Church goes to God, and God alone, for advice on how to handle a newspaper's request for an interview about the controversial organization with which he is affiliated.
The church, whose Mississauga ministry is part of a worldwide charismatic, evangelical Christian group, has been probed by Christian organizations and condemned by former members.
When Mississauga pastor Ken Greene sought God's advice on whether to agree to an interview with The Star to answer some questions about the church, he says God said no.
The reason God said no is because God doesn't have to defend publicly something others feel to be controversial, according to officials at Maranatha's headquarters in Gainesville, Fla. God will deal with the controversy in his own way, but not in a newspaper, says Ted Doss, who is filling in as public relations officer at the Florida office. The same response is echoed, just as politely, by Greene.
"I hope you can understand my reasons for saying no," Greene says in a short and final telephone interview. Greene had agreed earlier to an interview but then changed his mind.
"I believe that you are sincere in your interest towards Maranatha, and I understand what you are trying to do. I have to extend my apologies to you, but it seems that every time we talk to the press, what we say comes out negatively.
"I believe in my own convictions, which are taken from the Scriptures. If Christians have differences, they should work them out together, in the church. I personally don't want to discuss other peoples' concerns with Maranatha in a public forum."
And there are concerns in the Christian community over Maranatha. Representatives from U.S. Christian groups and individuals who specialize in investigating cults and new religious orders - the Christian Research Institute, Spiritual Counterfeits Project in California, Personal Freedom Outreach in Arizona, and professors from The Denver Seminary in Colorado, Northeastern Bible College in Essex Falls, N. J., and Westmont College in Santa Barbara, Calif. - produced a written report on the group. After a year-long investigation, begun after a request from Maranatha officials who had hoped a good report would silence their critics, the group said it had serious concerns about Maranatha from a Christian perspective.
At the end of the report is this statement: "Until we have clearer understanding of the changes which Maranatha Christian Ministry claims are being implemented, and until we see more discernible evidence of change in the lives of people being impacted by MCM, we would not recommend this organization to anyone."
Maranatha officials refuse to comment on the report.
Former members from the Toronto area have problems with Maranatha, as well, because they say it assumes an authoritative role in the lives of members.
While Maranatha was labelled as a destructive cult by the Citizens Freedom Foundation, a U.S. organization that gathers information about new cults and religious sects, it does not employ the tactics many people associate with mind control or mind abuse groups. Members do not live communally, and if they become disillusioned with the church, they are free to leave. In fact, members are often kicked out of the church for going against the Maranatha way, former members say.
Former Canadian and U.S. members have reported, however, that they were discouraged from contacting their families, or from giving their families details about the church.
Kathy Myatt, a former member who now lives in Colorado, wrote an open letter that was circulated to groups and individuals concerned with Maranatha. In the letter, she describes a lifestyle so repressive that it left her with little if any freedoms.
"Submission to the leadership was essential," she wrote in the letter. ". . . Soon after joining Maranatha I discovered I was to hear from God on every area of my life. No area was considered neutral in regard to God's will. If I wanted to visit relatives out of town, I was to submit that to my sheherdess who would take it to the pastor for confirmation. If he agreed it was from God for me to visit, I was then permitted to do so. If not, it was out of the question."
In Canada, the church was asked to leave the campus of the University of Waterloo in 1982. According to Sonny Flannigan, president of the Federation of Students Union at Waterloo, the church was asked to leave after misrepresenting itself as a campus club while openly promoting itself as a church.
In that same year, Maranatha received an encouraging letter from U.S. President Ronald Reagan, who sent a letter to the founder of Maranatha in 1982 congratulating him on doing good work, according to a recent story in the Wall Street Journal. Maranatha members had campaigned for the Republicans during a 1982 primaries, the story said.
While Greene felt he shouldn't talk to The Star about the group, or let members talk to The Star about their involvement in the church, Doss agreed to a telephone interview about the structure and purpose of the church.
There are 55 Maranatha churches in the U.S. and an unknown number in 13 other countries. In Canada, Maranatha has ministries in Vancouver and in Mississauga, where it operates out of the Meadowvale Community Centre. But university and college campuses are where new members are sought. Doss says young people are the primary interest of the church, because "we are geared towards teaching future leaders."
Maranatha was started in Kentucky by Bob Weiner in 1972 after he spent a summer helping his Methodist minister father-in-law work with young people who had drug and lifestyle problems. That summer, Weiner saw more than 400 young people "give life to Jesus" and he was impressed with the commitment the young people showed, Doss says.
Because of his interest in helping young people embrace the church, Weiner moved held meetings to encourage young people to join local churches. The students came back to Weiner, Doss says, because they weren't getting what they wanted from the churches.
"So Bob started his own church," says Doss. "It's a church for today that believes in the Bible. We take the Bible literally, and don't see the stories as just stories. We feel we must live by the word of the Bible."
As the high school students Weiner converted graduated and went on to college, so did Maranatha. Campus ministries were set up to recruit new members. In Toronto, Philip David, a Ryerson Polytechnical Institute business student, was one of those members two years ago.
"I was looking for Christian things to do," says David, 23. "I wanted to go to as many Christian things as possible.
"I saw a poster for a rock seminar, and even though I listened to rock music, I thought it was bad. So I was glad to see this poster, and then I saw that it was being sponsored by the Maranatha Christian Church, so I thought, great, because I wanted to do Christian things."
Though he was unimpressed by what happened at the meeting, David kept going back to more meetings. He was treated with warmth and friendship. Lonely and seeking more religious involvement in his life, he found the whole thing appealing.
He remembers a meeting at which someone hugged him.
"He was really caring and loving," David says. "I told him, "You've got something.' He said I could have it, too, but I would have to be baptized and receive the holy spirit."
Though David wasn't sure why, he agreed to the baptism.
"It seemed to mean so much to the guy, so I thought, "Why not?' I mean, they were practically begging me to be baptized, with tears in their eyes."
Right after the baptism, David says, Greene asked him if he smoked. He said he did, and Greene said they would have to purge the demon of smoking from him, David says. They prayed to get the demon out.
"There were demons for everything," says David. "And slowly, but subtly, Maranatha started to run my life."
Personal decisions became Maranatha decisions. When David wanted to take a navigation course, he says, Greene told him God didn't want him to take the course. Maranatha members are not allowed to date, David says, because that only invites in demons of immorality. When members want to marry, they must first pray to God to see if they have chosen the right person, and then let their local pastor know their choice. The pastor will pray, and let the member know the outcome.
Instead of devoting his life to Jesus, David says he realized he was devoting his life to Maranatha.
"I knew I had to get out," he says. "But that sounds easier than it is."
David did finally leave - after he was asked to. He wrote a letter to all Maranatha members last year, asking them to look more carefully at the Bible, and see the things he saw after a summer of studying the Bible without the aid of Maranatha guide books. He says he realized that summer that Maranatha took quotations out of context, giving them altogether different meanings.
"Ken Greene at first wanted to talk to me about the letter I'd written, but then decided not to. Instead, he told me I couldn't come back to the church unless I publicly apologized to all the members. Then he called all the members and told them to destroy the letter I'd written them before they even opened it. That was the end for me."
David estimates he gave thousands of dollars to Maranatha while he was a member.
"At each meeting everyone gave money," David says. "I was going every day for the first two weeks, and every day I gave $10 or $20. We were told to pray to God to find out how much money we should give. Then you'd give what you thought God had told you to give.
"Once I believed that God had told me to give $40, but I didn't give it all. I felt so guilty that I went to Ken's house that night with the money in an envelope."
Doss says that members of Maranatha are asked to give money to their church, just as members of every church are asked to make offerings. "We are a mainstream church," he says. "I don't see us operating any differently than anyone else."
Though David says he was made to feel that other Christian churches were not as good as Maranatha, Doss says Maranatha does not preach hatred or intolerance of other churches.
"I remember that I was made to feel that we were much better than the other churches. My old church looked pretty bad to me then. I started to hate it," David says.
One incident that bothered David happened shortly after the trial of Dr. Henry Morgantaler, who was acquitted of a charge of conspiracy to procure a miscarriage.
"We prayed for the death of Henry Morgantaler," says David. "I thought that was terrible. When I asked if it was right to pray for the death of a man, I was told that he was an evil man, so it was okay."
Dr. James Bjornstad, academic dean of Northeastern Bible College, was involved in the study produced by the six Christian organizations.
According to Bjornstad, Maranatha contacted a number of U.S. Christian ministries to get their endorsement. At the time, in the fall of 1982, Maranatha was being labelled a destructive cult by the cult information group Citizens Freedom Foundation, Bjornstad said, and by former members who had expressed publicly their concern with Maranatha.
"In November, 1982, I and others met with MCM leaders in Santa Barbara, Calif. to evaluate their ministry. The panel pointed out many problems with MCM, and representatives from the church assured the panel that they would make some changes," Bjornstad told The Star. "We agreed to meet again a year later to assesse the progress made by MCM, regarding those concerns and those problem areas with potential for problems which we had noted.
"It was only a week or so later that Rose Weiner (the wife of Maranatha founder Bob Weiner) received a vision telling her that the committee was all under the spirit of deception, and that there were no problems," Bjornstad said.
The panel did not meet again with MCM representatives, but they did prepare a report. One was sent to MCM headquarters, and another was made public.
In the report, the committee points out concerns with the church's doctrine. The report says:
"From our examination of MCM materials and communication with both former and current members, we, first of all, could not detect a complete system of theology. There were some essential areas of theology for which we could find little or no teaching."
The panel considers Maranatha an evangelical Christian ministry, but had problems with its methods. Marantha's practices concern the panel as well.
"It is our opinion that MCM has an authoritarian orientation with potential negative consequences for members. It has been reported that leaders have used personal revelation from God to exert strong influence over the decisions of individual members, decisions regarding their academic careers, their spritual life, and their personal affairs. Former members have indicated they were discouraged from raising questions or exhibiting dissent . . . Less than total commitment to the goals of the leadership was sometimes interpeted as spritual weakness or the result of demonic influence," the report says.
Though Greene refused to let The Star interview members of the church, a former member who was asked to leave the church described what she saw.
"Most of the members didn't have family in the city," says [Ms. B.], 26. "Half of them were students, and half of them were young people working. They are lonely, and committed to being Christians."
She was asked to leave when she began questioning Maranatha's authority over her life. She wanted to have a relationship with another Maranatha member, and was told she couldn't.
They both left the church, and got married, but she says her life is still a little shaky.
"I still have friends in Maranatha, but I feel I was used, psychologically. Emotionally, I was destroyed for a long time," [Ms. B.] says.
"When you are made to believe that you have no right to think on your own, or make choices on your own, it can turn into a pretty weird thing. When I got kicked out, I was afraid."
A year after the report on Maranatha was submitted by the group, Robert Enroth, a professor of sociology at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, who worked on preparing the report says he stands by the conclusions, and still has concerns over Maranatha practices.
"Though they (Maranatha officials) seem to be trying to adjust their mask, I feel strongly that they still have a major problem," Enroth says in a telephone interview. "Not much seems to have changed."