Maranatha Campus Ministries gathers for convention under cloud of cult allegations

Dallas Times Herald/September 4, 1984
By Lisa Ellis

Several thousand young people who call themselves "God's Green Berets" are packing the Dallas Convention Center this week, hearing the gospel according to Maranatha Campus Ministries. But the gathering of Maranatha disciples for the groups biennial, national leadership conference comes as controversy about the organization is building, stirred by allegations from former members that the 12-year-old, college-based church exercises cultlike control over followers.

Former Maranatha followers charged in interviews last week that the organization's authoritarian system has led to abuses in which members were pressured to follow the will of their church pastors, even in personal matters, and were told they were "out of God's will" or unspiritual if they complained or wanted to leave the church. At least 30 disgruntled pastors or elders of the church, including many of its founding members, have left in the past three years, said Bob Bonner of Houston, a former Maranatha pastor who quit in 1983.

An official of the Christian Research Institute, a cult-watching organization in El Toro, Calif., that has kept track of complaints about Maranatha since 1982, said the organization has made no significant efforts to correct problems pointed out by the institute almost two years ago. Among other things, the institute says, Maranatha has strongly discouraged dissent, put heavy emphasis on the authority of "revelations" by God to leaders and has often interpreted scripture in odd ways to reinforce those revelations - including one that denounced dating in favor of church-approved or arranged marriages.

In some cases, church pressures crossed the line into intimidation, said Bonner, who joined the organization so after it was founded in 1972 in Paducah, Ky. After serving as pastor of several Maranatha churches in the United States and Canada, Bonner told church officials in 1981 that he saw problems and wanted to leave the organization. A top Maranatha official, Joe Smith, "prophesied over me," Bonner recalled. "He said, 'You will be destroyed because you want to leave.'" Others who tried to leave Maranatha "have been told if you leave you're going to be out of God's will, you're going to be out of the elect of God," he said.

Bonner said he stayed in Maranatha two more years after receiving the warning because he thought some changes were being made. But in 1983 he left the pastorate of the 150-member Houston Maranatha church when Smith and Robert Weiner, president of the organization, told him "you can leave or do it our way." he said.

Neither Weiner or other Maranatha officials who are in Dallas for the conference would respond to charges against the organization, which were published recently in the magazine Christianity Today. "The eldership (church leaders) have gotten together and decided that the way to handle that article is not to respond," said Nancy Blalock, secretary to church vice president Bob Nolte. "They feel like what God's told them to do is not to respond to those accusations."

A former Maranatha pastor who lives in Dallas, Stuart Small, said however, that many accusations have been exaggerated. Some authority over members is necessary, he said, because "you're working with college kids that come out of every lifestyle you can imagine. Some are doing drugs, going to gay bars and they don't have any direction."

Maranatha, based in Gainesville, Fla., was founded as a campus ministry program but since has grown into a church with 100 campus-based chapters in the United States and 16 foreign nations. Its members, estimated at several thousand, are charismatics - that is, believers in such gifts as speaking in tongues, prophecy and faith healing.

Many prominent charismatic leaders have endorsed the group, and speakers at the Dallas convention include singer Pat Boone; the Rev. M.G. "Pat" Robertson of the Christian Broadcasting Network; the Rev. James Robison, a television evangelist from Euless; the Rev. Kenneth Copeland, a television preacher from Ft. Worth; and the Rev. Bob Tilton, pastor the Word of Faith World Outreach Center in Farmers Branch.

Parents, concerned about children who dropped out of school or went through other behavior changes after joining Maranatha, have been raising questions about the group for several years.

Seeking to "expel the lie," a Maranatha pastor in 1982 asked the Christian Research Institute to issue a statement giving the organization a clean bill of health. But the investigation just strengthened the institute's questions about Maranatha, said Brian Onken, senior research consultant for CRI.

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