"Church or Cult?"

Channel 2 Action News/April 26, 2001
By Pam Martin

It's being called one of the fastest growing Christian movements in the nation.

The International Church of Christ claims to have members all around the country, even the world. And just about everywhere the church goes, controversy follows.

"At first, I fought it," said Ronnie Martin, a former member. "But after they hammered it in, I accepted it. I said, 'Okay, my mom's going to hell."

Martin, an ex-member of the Atlanta branch of the International Church of Christ, faced some tough decisions. He says Bible study sessions had convinced him about his family's fate. "The relationship was strained because I was going to heaven and they weren't and I wanted to help but they wouldn't listen to me."

Kip McKean's fiery sermons formed the foundation for the International Church of Christ, which he started in 1979 with a group of about 30 people.

The movement hit Atlanta in the late 80's, attracting a diverse group of people to its services. Today the church claims to have 3,500 members in north Georgia and millions worldwide.

Asked what the church's guiding principles are, the Rev. Ben Barnett said, simply put, "the Bible. And I know that may sound like the religious thing to say because everybody has a Bible, but it really boils down to really putting the scriptures into practice and taking it very, very seriously."

Each church member has a discipler, or a spiritual mentor, who critics say gets into every aspect of the member's personal life.

"I knew who I could ask out [on a date] and who I couldn't," Martin said. "They told me, 'We'd like you to give your checkbook over to so and so and when you need money go to him.' "

Longtime members, handpicked by the church for this report, say their disciplers don't mandate money or relationships but rather, the Bible does. "You can look in the scriptures, it teaches you about the sexual relationship. You can look in the scriptures it teaches about money, not some person," says Deb Furlong, an active member of the church.

"What [the disciplining relationship] really is I guess is a best friend," Furlong said. "It is helping somebody live out and solidify their convictions."

But the ex-member Ronnie Martin said the church's practices started to concern him after a while. "What makes it a cult -- it's not what they believe. It's not who they are. It's how they act. Its what they do."

Anchor/reporter Pam Martin notes that the church was called a cult ten years ago when she did a story on it and that charge continues to be made.

"I think that anybody that is doing what Jesus wants them to do, more than likely will feel the same effects that Jesus was affected by," the Rev. Ben Barnett said. "Ten years from now we'll be doing the very same thing, trying to get people to obey the Bible and I think you'll always run into the same criticisms."

See Part 2 of this story

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