A leader of a campus Christian group called Solid Rock Fellowship says his church has a positive influence on the university. But some ex-members charge the group relies on psychological intimidation for its strength.
One ex-member, Michael S. Neutzling, says the group is repressive.
Neutzling, a registered nurse at University Hospitals, said he was a member of the group from 1978 to 1981. He says he left after realizing how the group regimented members.
"Their style of discipleship puts people in lockstep," Neutzling said. "It makes people afraid to be different."
'Group seems to be in lockstep with God'
Neutzling said he joined the group because "they had a lot of answers. If you believe it, it seems like the group is in lockstep with God."
It's that belief, he said, that gives the group power over its members. Once a person is convinced the group has an inside track on God's will, it becomes a sin to question the group's methods and goals, he said.
"It's a control method and these men exercise too much control with impressionable young people," Neutzling said of Solid Rock's leaders. He said Solid Rock members equate the will of Solid Rock's leaders with the will of God.
"I thought Solid Rock would help me grow in my faith, but took me away from the simple and childlike faith I started with. Instead of focusing on God, people concentrate on how they look in the eyes of the leaders and other members," he said.
Neutzling said members are made to feel any commitments outside the church detract from their ability to serve God. These outside distractions include time spent with family, going to college, holding a job or pursuing a career.
"You were encouraged to direct your energy inward, to the group," Neutzling said. He said the pressure to conform was subtle, not overt. Members are made to feel guilty about outside commitments, as if they are cheating God, and delaying the arrival of the kingdom of God, he said.
Neutzling said that acts as a powerful means of controlling people who are mostly young, uncertain, inexperienced and anxious to be good Christians. Using guilt as leverage, Solid Rock's leaders coerced members into cutting off contact with their families and dropping out of school, he said.
"It's an organization that attracts the young. In their zeal to serve Christ, members would quit school and get in trouble with their folks," said Neutzling, "That's what happened to me."
He and other ex-members say leaving the group can produce a religious crisis in a person's life. After the intensity of the commitment to Solid Rock, an ex-member is likely to feel he or she does not have what it takes to be a Christian.
But, church elder Tom Schroeder disagrees. "There's no concept in my mind that we try to tell people how to live. One of the things we try to teach people is to think for themselves, but to think for themselves the right way, with the Bible's teachings."
Schroeder said the church is vulnerable to attack simply because it is bigger and more visible then most other campus religious organizations.
He declined to respond to specific charges because he wanted to protect the individuals who made them. Schroeder said if people had problems with the church, they should talk to the church about them, not to the press.
Schroeder disputed the charge that he or any other leader in the church exercises undue authority over members.
"It's not tyrannical rule. I share the leadership of the church with six or seven other people," he said.
But Anita M. Gilbert, 30, rejects Schroeder's view of the church and has no qualms about calling it a cult.
"When there is no freedom for an individual to be an individual; when they control your personal life, including your friends, money, family, and even the food you eat; when they set their organization above every other Christian group; that's a cult," she says.
Gilbert, who converted from Judaism to Christianity, joined Solid Rock in 1976. She left the group in 1981 and at first was afraid to talk about Solid Rock for fear of harassment from the group.
Gilbert said she was driven out of the group because she asked too many questions and opposed the church's methods.
Ex-member warned to be silent, she says
She says Schroeder warned her never to talk about the group or he would label her a 'factious person' before the membership. This is a particularly effective way of silencing dissenters, Gilbert said, because friends in the group shun you. The assumption is that if the leaders are displeased with you, then God is, too.
"What they teach their young members is, 'God has left it up to us to reach the world. If we don't do it, it won't get done. No other group is doing it' they say, and this causes Solid Rock members to distrust all Christians except those in Solid Rock."
However, Schroeder says, "We want to work together with all other Christian organizations. We're trying to help people make something of their lives. We're trying to help the person that other groups wouldn't touch.