Disciples at forum deny accusations of being cult-like

The International Church of Christ was seeking new members. Critics say the faith is too controlling.

Philadelphia Inquirer, February 28, 2000
Edited By David O'Reilly

The evangelical International Church of Christ has a reputation for being so controlling of its members as to be a cult. But the church's "Freedom 2000" women's program yesterday at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, intended to attract new members, touched only obliquely on controversy and offered no evidence of being extraordinarily intense.

Instead, the 2,000 women who attended the event were treated to motivational speeches, gospel songs, dancing children, and workshops that stressed the need to live by the Bible.

Naomi Post, wife of Mayor Street, made welcoming remarks and read a short poem stressing the need to care for children.

"Critics come at us and say we take a hard stand," said Kim Evans, women's ministry leader for the 950-member Philadelphia ICC, based in Wayne. "But we're not afraid to say Jesus is the standard . . . God is all that matters."

Some of the church's critics complain, however, that the membership, called disciples, engage in "thought reform," and demand excessive tithing and involvement in church activities.

Although the disciples interviewed here yesterday acknowledged that some members "can come on strong" and that "mistakes have been made," they dismissed any notion that they are controlling or a cult.

"We're a church with strong convictions," Kim Curtis, 41, explained.

Like many of the disciples here, she had invited a friend to Freedom 2000 to acquaint her with the church.

Her friend, Cyndi McCauley, 44, said she knew little of the church but found the day to be "a blessing."

McCauley, a bookkeeper, said she was grateful to Curtis for inviting her because she feels she is "floundering" at this time in her life and "I don't have anybody providing me with insight or saying 'this is right and this is wrong.' "

Curtis, who works for HOPE worldwide, an international provider of medical services to poor countries, said that if McCauley became a disciple of the church, she would serve as her "discipler" and study the Bible with her. Asked about allegations that some disciplers have told their disciples whom to date or marry, Curtis said she would only "offer advice" to a person whom she thought was in danger of making a mistake or engaging in behavior that was "against the Bible."

She also said she had never been asked to tithe, or donate a specific portion of her income, "but I can see why some people feel pressured. We believe in giving what we can to the poor."

And if McCauley were to join the church and later leave, Curtis said, she would "want to know why, but I would still be her friend."

Pat Gempel, wife of an elder of the Philadelphia ICC and leader of large workshop on "Deepening My Relationship With God," said the church "tries to encourage people to put the teachings of Jesus in their hearts," and said the criticisms of the church as a "cult" are based on misunderstandings or mistakes.

Steve Dubrow-Eichel, a psychologist in Northeast Philadelphia, said in an interview Friday that the idea behind the church's discipleship "is that you give yourself over to the person who acts as your 'shepherd' or discipler, and they get tremendous control over you. . . . Every minute [of your life] must be Christ-centered, and that when you give yourself over to Jesus, you give yourself over to the ICC."

But Sharon Pettaway, 34, of Philadelphia, had no complaints about her first encounter with the church.

"Oh, it was beautiful," she said as she waited at the coat check at the close of the program.

Pettaway, who is on dialysis and has been praying for a kidney transplant, said her nephrologist had recommended she attend yesterday's session. "I learned a lot," she said, referring to a workshop about experiencing trials. "I learned I have to be patient and trust God." But she does not intend to join the ICC.

"We're Baptists," she said. "I'll always be a Baptist."


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