Disciples with a devotion to discipline

The Times (London)/September 14, 2002
By Tara Holmes

First met Matt on a hot Saturday afternoon at the beginning of June. He had approached my husband in St Ann's Square in Manchester, while we were out shopping with our two young daughters. Dressed casually, with a baseball cap and trainers, he had introduced himself to my husband as a "vicar" of a local church. He said he ran a Bible-based church that worshipped in old factory premises in north Manchester. The choice of venue was meant to appeal to people with no religious background who would feel uncomfortable attending church in the more traditional environment favoured by the mainstream Churches.

"Oh, so you're an evangelical church," I remark. He doesn't correct me. He explains that his church, known as the Church of Christ, originated in the United States. He was brought up a Roman Catholic, attended a Catholic school, but soon drifted away from his faith. As a teenager, he had been in trouble with the police.

He points to a taller, older looking, blond-haired man, who seems to have appeared out of nowhere. "I found God thanks to my brother here," he says. I am struck that Matt and his brother bear little resemblance. But I am so engrossed in his story that I don't realise until much later that he may have meant "brother in Christ."

When I reveal that I am a journalist and would be interested in writing about him, he is surprised but seems genuinely excited at the prospect. He hands me an invitation card with a watercolour painting of a purple Cross, sur- rounded by hills of various shades of green, red, orange and yellow. On the back is a little map of how to get to the church, with his name and number written at the bottom.

It is only when Matt cancels our meeting that I begin to wonder whether the Manchester International Church of Christ may be something other than evangelical. I trawl the ICoC website and discover that Matt, whose full name is Matthew Taylor, is an evangelist. His wife Sara is a women's ministry leader.

An Internet search for ICoC is more revealing. Websites set up by ex-members describe ICoC as the fastest growing religious cult in Britain and accuse it of using mind-control techniques to recruit vulnerable, young people. It is claimed to be an offshoot of the radical American Churches of Christ and believes that only its members are true disciples of Jesus. It is said to revile particularly the Roman Catholic Church and Church of England.

The ICoC maintains a strict internal discipline. Baptism is seen as the true moment of conversion and every member is assigned a "discipler", who acts as life coach and confessor. Romantic attachments are discouraged unless endorsed by the Church. Married members are required to report to their "discipler" every time they have sex.

One former member claims that she suffered psychological trauma as a result of her involvement with the Birmingham branch of the church, and is now taking anti-depressants and seeing a counsellor. Another claims that he was assaulted by fellow members and suffered mental illness. He also maintains that one former member of the London church was driven to suicide.

However, Damian Thompson, a journalist who spent a week with the London Church of Christ for the filming of a television documentary, says: "During my brief encounter with them, I did not get the impression that they were a sinister group.

"They are disciplinarian, sectarian and there's a lot of fanatical behaviour. They do spend a lot of time trying to attract students and young people. They can, on occasion, be dishonest about revealing their identity.

But he goes on: "A lot of the people I met were extremely selfless in their pursuit of what they regarded to be the truth. They worked very long hours with no pay in charitable activities for the Church. I saw no evidence that they engaged in financial or sexual scandals." Thompson, who is completing a doctorate in sociology of religion, explains that a member of a sect will normally find "tremendous fulfilment" in the disciplinarian lifestyle.

"There's a lot of evidence to show that the more demands a group makes on you, the more rewards you get from it. It directs all your energies towards the goal of spiritual fulfilment and provides an instant network of friends."

Jeff Smith, a leader of Gleadless Christian Fellowship, an independent evangelical Church in Sheffield, is less sanguine: "Any group that lays down strict rules about social behaviour runs the risk of becoming a cult," he says. "In a genuine Bible-based church, the only restrictions you can lay upon people are moral ones - the biblical ones that virtually all Christians would adhere to."

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