Strings Attached

Former members of The Charlotte Church say the group is a cult that preys on the young and lonely

Creative Loafing/October 28, 2000
By Julie E. Townsend

When you meet the friendliest people you have ever known, who introduce you to the most loving group of people you've encountered. . . and then you learn that the cause of the group is something you never dared hope could be accomplished, and all of this sounds too good to be true, it probably is too good to be true! -- Jeannie Mills, former member of the People's Temple of Guyana.

Billy Graham is going to hell. There will be no stopping at "Go," no collecting $200 from Jim Bakker's misappropriated funds. Yes, the most famous evangelist that never stepped into the netherworld of infamy, Charlotte's native son, is going to hell. . .at least according to the beliefs expressed by members of The International Churches of Christ (ICC), known in the Queen City as "The Charlotte Church." According to numerous former members, and contrary to the church's official position, the ICC routinely tells members that unless they're baptized into the ICC, they're doomed to hell.

The group has a bigger problem than that, though. Around the country's colleges, they've earned a reputation as a cult, or at the very least a group that uses cult-like techniques to recruit -- and keep -- members. The ICC is very active locally, with recruitment efforts at UNC-Charlotte and Winthrop University, as well as regular services at Spirit Square. The controversial group "has been barred from recruiting on many campuses because, critics say, it blackmails those who try to leave the sect," according to Newsweek. These bans have even extended into Great Britain.

The ICC has been successfully recruiting new members for years, reaching tens of thousands of high school and college students who've been attracted to "The Church" with friendly smiles and promises of friendship, all under the auspices of God and the "truth." The ICC seems to have tapped into a new market, a Jesus market, marketing Him like the greatest of all commodities, offering converts new friends in Jesus, and more hugs and smiles than you'd normally get in a lifetime.

Maybe they never thought about witnessing to Billy Graham, but you can spot ICC members at UNC-Charlotte and Winthrop University, inviting students to potluck dinners and church services, offering a brand of overt, and some say overbearing, love, Bible study groups, and fellowship -- lots of fellowship.

Organizations have formed around the country to warn students about the group's high pressure methods and their purported cult-like tactics such as dominating members' spare time and discouraging members from associating with friends who aren't part of the church. Former members have established organizations and websites in which they unabashedly call the church a cult, saying that the ICC tries to exert control over many aspects of its members' lives.

Former members told us that the ICC teaches that it is the only true church. However, Ron Drabot, the head of The Charlotte Church, explains their position that "[Jesus] never intended for there to be hundreds of denominations, but rather that each Christian be a part of His church that is based solely on the teachings of the Bible. We believe that anyone who obeys the teachings of the New Testament is part of the one true church regardless of its name or title."

Drabot also denies that the church teaches that unless one is baptized in the ICC, he or she will not have salvation. "We have had individuals who were baptized outside of the ICC who have become disciples on their own," Drabot states, "but they are always eager to unite themselves with a group who is teaching and practicing what they have found to be Christianity according to the Bible. We believe that any person who is baptized for the biblical reasons listed in Matthew 28:18-20 and Acts 2:38 is a saved individual."

One of the constant themes in former members' stories -- nationwide, not just in Charlotte -- is what they say is a huge gap between the ICC's official positions and its actual practices. Indeed, one of the most common complaints encountered in anti-ICC literature is that the group tries to hide its real methods and beliefs from outsiders. Former members say it's to avoid being seen as a cult.

The ICC denies that it is a cult. On their website, they state, "The International Churches of Christ are no more a cult than was the church that Jesus started, as described in the Bible. . .If the charge is the same that was leveled against the early church, then we gladly agree to be identified with them. . .If the charge is the same as leveled against destructive extremist groups in our day, then we say, 'No!'"

But according to Christina Gardner, an ex-member, and a rising junior at UNC-Charlotte, the ICC is proud to be called a cult, because "they say that Jesus and his disciples were called a cult too."

Reaching Out, Bible Study, and Sin Lists

Colleges aren't the only place you'll find the ICC proselytizing; I was approached at a Harris Teeter. The late-20-something woman in front of me in line spoke up:

"I'm new to Charlotte," she said, and as she did, she eyed everyone in her range -- the checkout clerk, the person in front of her waiting to write a check -- but as her words rolled off of her tongue, she zeroed in on me.

"Welcome to the Queen City," I said.

"It's great to be here because even though I'm new, I've found a wonderful church."

How do you respond to that? Why should I be excited that she's found a church? There's one on every corner.

"Do you go to church?" She asked.

"Sometimes," I answered, but I was wondering if anything is sacred, such as my privacy.

"Where?" she asked, smiling like she'd just won a million dollars.

"When I go," I said, "I go to a Catholic mass."

"We accept everybody," she said, still smiling. "We even have some of those."

Those what? I thought.

"Why don't you give me your number and you can go to my church with me," she offered, still smiling.

"What church is that?"

"The Charlotte Church. Ever heard of it?"

I lied. "No."

OK, so maybe I should have been honest, but she caught me off guard. Why should I tell her that I had heard about "The Church" and questioned their zeal; questioned what I had heard were their cult-like activities.

She quickly took a pen and pad out of her purse, poised and ready for my unlisted number.

I declined. I told her that if I were interested, I'd call her. So she gave me her number and walked away, still smiling.

I suppose I was part of her witnessing quota for the day. Or rather, I should say "evangelizing." "Witnessing," according to Christina, is considered "pagan" by the ICC. "They call it 'evangelizing,'" she says. "I was told that I had to talk to 50 people a day. Look for the sad and lonely."

How was she "recruited"?

"It's not 'recruitment,'" Christina says. "They call it 'reaching out.' I was working out at Gold's Gym and this woman there invited a bunch of people to go downtown to a Final Four function. Free food. Fun. So I went. I found out that it was a church function."

"They can smell new blood," says Ira Brown, a Winthrop University freshman who is also an ex-ICC member. Brown says without wavering, "They are definitely a cult."

Brown, who says he is prohibited from stepping onto any of the ICC's property because he tried to expose them as a cult, shrugs, leans in closer, and says, "I wanted to expose them for what they are. Get my friends that are in it, out. The friends that I," and he shakes his head, "the friends that I mistakenly got in. They are worth saving from the 'discipling process.' I started it. I got them going; got them studying. I regret that now. I'm sad that I lost two of my good friends over the whole process."

What is "the process"?

"It's about the Bible," says Sarah Williams, a UNC-Charlotte sophomore, and another ex-member of ICC. "They put their spin on it."

Williams claims that "the Bible studies are the most dangerous. . .imagine accepting an invitation to go to church with a new college friend. Wouldn't mom and dad be proud that you're actually going to a church service? A Bible study? Well praise God! Miracles happen."

According to Sarah, the Bible study groups are intense, and the members often use deception during the group meetings in order to "hook" new members.

She describes a Bible study group she attended during her introduction to the ICC, a meeting which she says is typical of how the groups often operate: "After the high-energy church services are over, the members had lunch, and then there was another Bible study -- with friends that I assumed were new, too."

At the Bible study meetings, according to Sarah, someone whom you don't know is a "disciple" seems just as confused as you are about a certain Bible passage. You share what you think it means. . .maybe they then turn to someone else who seems "new," and they say what they think. Others concur. Soon you're being hounded into seeing the passage their way. Can't you see what it means? After all, five other people got it.

You find out later that everyone else in your Bible study is a full-fledged member.

"They lied," Sarah says, "acting like they were learning all of the passages for the first time. That's why the Bible studies are the most dangerous. Sometimes I'd leave crying because I felt so guilty, so afraid. . .of going to hell. Until you've completed all of the Bible studies to their satisfaction, and have been baptized in the Church, you are going to hell."

So what happens if you die before you complete the process?

"You go to hell," explains Sarah. "That's the rush. That's the hook.

"They'll deny this," she continues, "but they also keep sin lists. During those Bible studies -- not the first ones, but later -- they get you to confess all sorts of things. One of the discipling partners writes all of it down and keeps it for later if they need it."

According to the ICC's critics, they keep a list in case someone tries to get out. The list might help that poor soul to see that Satan is after them again. They remind the person how they were tempted before; how they sinned before joining the ICC.

According to one of the primary anti-ICC websites, REVEAL, "information is collected. . .and passed along like a giant game of 'Gossip.' Past situations magically end up being the focus of a Sunday Sermon."

The Charlotte Church's Ron Drabot says that "The church does not teach, encourage or condone the keeping of any sin list of any member or non-member of the church."

Sin lists are, however, repeatedly mentioned among former members who tell the story of their days in the ICC. These members' claims are not unfounded, according to a Maryland Cult Task Force. Ronald Loomis, Education Director for the American Family Foundation, told the Task Force, "The new member is anxious to become better spiritually, and so they jump at the opportunity to try anything. They start listing things in their past that they're embarrassed about or ashamed of, awful things they did to their siblings during childhood. . . Who knows. And what they don't notice is that their discipler is writing everything down. And what they don't know is that their discipler, after the process has been completed, goes back and meets with the other leaders and they discuss the information and they use it to strategize other means."

Ira Brown only nodded in agreement when I asked if he had heard of sin lists.

"They're persistent as roaches," he said. "They'll use whatever it takes."

Christina says, "I kept my sin list. My discipler told me to read it everyday so I'd see how far I'd come. See, you'd write down all of your sins. . .sexual thoughts, mean thoughts. . .people you didn't like."

But what, according to Brown, makes the ICC deserve the category of "cult"?

"They impose things on you. There's no worshiping of God. It's all about imposing their views on you. I know Christ didn't intend for any church to be run like this," Ira says, and shakes his head again.

"They don't reveal the intensity," Sarah says.

"If someone had told me how intense it was, I never would have joined," Christina says.

The "intensity" is largely in how much time and energy you'll invest. For the lonely and new-to-town, the ICC will make sure that you won't be alone.

"There's too much to do: potlucks, quiet-time (this means at least one hour of self-study a day); lunch, after a three-hour Sunday service; Wednesday night services; Bible studies; social events: teen activities, campus activities, singles and married group activities," Sarah says.

And if you miss a meeting or a service?

"Your discipling partner will find you. There's too much to study for you to miss any church activities," Sarah says.

Ironically, the most insidious thing about the group, says Sarah, is "how friendly everyone is. They are genuinely friendly. I was new to North Carolina and my first friend was a member. She and the church filled a void. But I have to tell you, I felt tricked and lied to when I found out that she was much further along in the Bible studies than she let on. I thought that was odd, but I let it go at the time. Now it all makes sense to me. It's how they get you."

Pyramids, Aliases and Bans

Sarah, Christina, and Ira aren't alone in their experiences, nor in their thinking. Log on to the REVEAL website and you'll find countless ex-members who share their same disillusionment -- a disillusionment that turned into an enormous disappointment when they contradicted or confronted church members about anything. According to these former members, there's no use confronting church members anyhow, as they will respond with a Bible passage for every occasion -- and then, according to their critics, they will shun you for being a detriment to the Church.

According to the ICC's own website, "the requirements for membership are no different from those of the first century Church. Every member must hold the Bible to be God's inspired word (2 Tim. 3:16). Every member, relying on the grace of God, must accept Jesus, not only as personal savior, but as Lord of every area of his/her life (Luke 9:23). Every member must be born again (immersed in water as a believing, committed adult for the forgiveness of sins) (John 3:1-5; Acts 2:38)."

It sounds like standard Protestant doctrine, but there is a difference:

"The International Churches of Christ are not interested in adding another denomination to the already cluttered landscape of dying churches. We are not trying to start a new church. We are calling as many people as possible to become a part of the one and only church that Jesus founded nearly two millennia ago."

ICC's critics say that if you dig a little deeper you'll find the fine print: you must be baptized in "the church" in order to have salvation.

Another aspect of the ICC that is similar to other religions and organizations is their hierarchy. Their organization, though, seems pyramidal, a la Amway or similar groups. Every potential ICC newcomer is "assigned" a disciple. In turn, this disciple has a disciple who has a disciple who has a disciple, etc.

This pyramid started in 1979 with Kip McKean and a few faithfuls in Boston. Since then the church has grown. According to a report from, the ICC's goal is to have "a church in every nation with a city of at least 100,000 people by the end of the year 2000." No one can say how close they've come to this goal, but the ICC claims to have close to 200,000 members in 393 churches worldwide, mostly in the United States. With churches in the Carolinas alone including The Charlotte Church, The Triangle Church, The Columbia Church, The Fayetteville International Church, plus churches in Charleston and Greenville, SC, the ICC's version of Jesus could be coming soon to a location near you.

ICC members told Sarah Williams that her parents were being used by Satan to win her back and that they (the ICC) would take care of her.

Research by REVIVE, an anti-cult organization based in California, indicates that the ICC has been temporarily or permanently banned from around 20 American universities because of its aggressive recruiting techniques -- schools including Brown University, DePaul, Emory, George Washington, Georgia Tech, Harvard, Marquette, Northeastern, Stanford, West Point, University of Arizona, University of Kansas, Southern California, Vanderbilt and others.

According to Don Rogers, retired Chaplain at UNC-Charlotte, the ICC was banned for one semester in 1996 because of harassment.

Chuck Lynch, Vice-Chancellor of Student Affairs at UNC-Charlotte, says that the ICC has previously met with the University because of the numerous complaints about their recruitment tactics.

"The problem is" he says, "if you ban one group, you have to ban them all. But as a result of our interaction with the ICC, we did rewrite the Code of Student Responsibilities. This means that if a student or an organization misrepresents themselves as to who or what they are, they can be brought up on charges."

Critics of the ICC say the group routinely goes by an "alias" when registering as a college organization -- a practice many critics say constitutes misrepresentation. At UNC-Charlotte, for instance, the ICC group is called "Alpha Omega." At other colleges, the group goes by names such as Campus Advance, Christian Advance, Club Triumph, Impact, and others.

"I've dealt with this group for about 18 years," says Rogers. "I've met with their leaders, and attended their meetings. It's not their theology that I question; it's their practices. Deceptive practices. 'Fly your flag,' is what I say. But they don't. They purposely hide who they are under names other than the ICC. They should be banned from colleges and universities until they announce openly in their advertising who they are, like other groups do. But most administrations, like at UNC-Charlotte, are afraid of lawsuits."

Lynch says that colleges are, indeed, afraid of lawsuits, because they see outright bans as a possible infringement of freedom of speech. However, says Lynch, the school is aware of possible problems with the ICC and "if and when a student accuses them of deceptive practices, they would be brought up on charges, just like any other group that deceived students."

So Are They A Cult or Not?

Despite all the codes and the bans, the ICC seems likely to maintain their market share of souls. However, the question still remains: Are they a cult? And why do former members accuse them of being one?

Many experts have different definitions or interpretations of what constitutes a cult. Most of them, however, agree on a few things. According to several sources, all of whom have done a great deal of research on the subject, some of the most common traits of cults are:

  • The group is manipulative, dictating the behavior, thoughts and emotions of its followers.
  • Insistence on financial support of the group by members.
  • Use of deceptive and high pressure techniques, such as "love bombing," to recruit new members.
  • The group insists you put their activities ahead of all other commitments.
  • Isolation of members from friends and families, often by invitations to continual group activities.
  • Use of guilt to manipulate members.
  • Allegiance to a charismatic leader.

Except for the last trait (ICC founder Kip McKean doesn't claim to be a divine figure), the former members we spoke to say the ICC fits the mold described above. In particular, the group is known for its "love bombing," an overwhelming friendliness. Christina, Ira, and Sarah all agree that when it comes to being friendly, the ICC members are the warmest around.

NC State University's official website, also warns students about cults, cautioning them to look out for someone "who is unusually charming, appealing, and friendly. . .skilled at getting personal information such as addresses, telephone numbers, personal interests, religious beliefs. . ."; and they urge students to look out for the following: those "who frequently invite you to dinner or a meeting or to a weekend away, usually without being specific about the location or purpose."

Sarah says, "I had more invitations than I knew what do with. There was always a get-together somewhere." And then there's Christina's invitation for the Final Four party that, as she says, "was really an invitation for their upcoming church service. Hey, I did the same thing too [when she was an ICC member]. I tried to reach out to students. I invited them to everything. The more it looks like a party, the easier it is to get people to come."

As far as the "cult criteria" of insisting that members financially support the group, Christina and Ira say the ICC was very persistent about getting a regular weekly contribution from members.

The Charlotte Church's Ron Drabot denies that tithing is a necessary part of joining the ICC. He states, "Contribution to the church is a personal decision that an individual makes based on his or her own income. Tithing is not required in order to be a member of the International Churches of Christ."

Ira and Christina, however, insist that the opposite is true -- and that doesn't even count what they say the group calls "special contributions."

"It was Mother's Day, 1999," Christina says. "A month after I was baptized. I was told that I needed to be more sacrificial, so my discipler came over at 1am [at Christina's mother's house] and we went through my 900 CDs, my clothes, and jewelry. She took my CD player and sold it; I took everything else to a pawn shop. Between the two of us, my donation was $1500.

"But it was never enough." Christina sighs, "For instance, I tithed $20 a week, but one week I could only afford to give $15. I was told that I needed to make it up. As soon as I could, I needed to take it to the church office. They said I was too materialistic."

"Oh yeah," Ira says, "the special contributions. That's when they'd ask you to live poor for a week and refrain from luxuries. Sell something that is important to you and give them the money. I was way too young and too poor for them to get much from me, but in the teen ministry, they kept track of every penny. One week I gave two dollars, but the next week I could only donate $1.50. I got a lecture."

Not everyone is ready to pin the cult label on the ICC, however, nor on anyone else for that matter. Dr. James Tabor, a Professor of Religious Studies at UNC-Charlotte, and a recognized expert on "fringe" religions, says that the criteria used to call a group a cult is subjective.

"No one in our culture, whether it be the government, or the media, or any other organization, should be able to judge another religion and put this very negative label upon them," says Tabor. "In the American Academy of Religion, we have argued for a moratorium on the use of the word 'cult' because it's a negative stereotype that's slapped onto a group by the government or media, without any clear idea of who's doing the labeling and on what basis."

Tabor says, "The ICC is a 'high-demand' group, that's all, so the indiscriminate use of the negative label 'cult' can be akin to religious racism."

Nancy Williams, an Instructor of Philosophy and Women's Studies at UNC-Charlotte, concurs with Tabor and believes that the label could be equally applied to many more accepted groups: "When you think about it, the word 'cult' is just a micro-manifestation of culture. If we investigate the dynamics of our culture and compare them to a classic definition of what constitutes a cult, we may discover some eerie similarities. For example, if 'cults' demand 'absolute loyalty,' what do you call the hazing incidents at military institutions? Fraternities? If a cult demands 'exclusivity, the we-versus-them attitude,' then where does this place the Baptists? The Catholics?"

"I can see their point," Sarah Williams says. "But, what I mean by 'cult' is something that is dangerous and destructive. The ICC is dangerous and destructive. So even if you don't think they're a cult, it's never OK to lie to the members. Even if 50 years from now people don't consider them a cult, it's still not OK to lie."

Ira says, "You'd have to be in the group, live it, and then leave it to know what we're talking about. You can tell by your own instincts, by just attending the church, that it's not 'normal.' I think it's all in the perception. Those who haven't experienced it just don't know. I see it as a cult no matter what. In fact, the definition of a cult speaks for that church!"

Breaking Free

All the controversy and discussion surrounding the ICC is further complicated by the right to worship as one pleases, until laws are broken. So far, unless you consider that the ICC "broke" numerous universities' policies, and hence the "bans," it (the ICC) doesn't resemble the followers of the People's Temple. Not yet.

The ICC isn't asking its members to move to South America. They are, however, "suggesting" that if your current friends don't understand your newfound excitement in Christ, then you need to let those people go. And if your family seems worried that you're isolating yourself from old friends and family -- or if your parents say, "We don't want you to go to this church" -- the ICC has an answer, despite the fact that one of the Ten Commandments tells everyone to "honor your father and your mother." Sarah was told that "God has made a provision for this. He only meant that this scripture applies if your parents are Christians. . .we mean, baptized in the Church." She says ICC members told her that her parents were being used by Satan to win her back and that they (the ICC) would take care of her.

Being "taken care of," however, can apparently be very conditional. For instance, Ira Brown had friends whose parents were ICC members. Those friends were kicked out of their house because they didn't want to be members. Talk about tough love.

"We," says Ira, "my 'brother' and 'sister' in the ICC, admitted to each other that something wasn't in sync with the church. We suspected that this wasn't just any ordinary church, so we risked telling each other that we thought it was a cult. Our email was intercepted. See, our plan was to expose the ICC as a cult. Until we did it though, we had it down to a science; we acted exactly like they did. We had to, until we could expose them. And they bought it. They're really not that hard to imitate. They all say the same things, have the same demeanor. I can spot them all a mile away."

Ira and his friends were caught. "Big Brother was watching," Ira says. By this time, his expulsion from the ICC was a mere formality; he says he never wants to be a member again. His distance from the group, though, began long before he tried to expose the ICC for their practices.

What made him begin to think the ICC was a cult?

"I didn't at first," says Brown. "But then my friend's mother told my father that the ICC had been called a cult before and that this accusation was false. Something started clicking. The studies, the time, the demands. I didn't see them the same as before. But I wasn't ready to get out yet. I know this sounds bad, but my best friends were in it. I liked the activities, so I pretended to be a part of it for a long time. I was young."

Ira was in the Church for seven years, until 1998. This was close to the time that Sarah also left. Three members from two different states, North Carolina and South Carolina. One of its members black; two white. But the commonality was that they were young, naive, and needing friends. All of them felt an enormous loss.

Sarah's parents confronted her about the ICC being a cult. She denied it at first, and with the ICC's support, she thought that Satan was working through her parents: the closer she was growing to God, Satan, through her parents, was trying to thwart her spiritual progress. Somehow though, through months of horrible arguments with her parents, she began to get little doses of insight: "When my friends in the church sensed that I was questioning things, they pulled back. They weren't quite the friends they were before. That hurt."

Christina choked back tears as she said, "I thought that I was going to have a heart attack. They piled on so much pressure. First to come to church, then join. Talk to 50 people a day. And besides taking 15 hours at UNCC and working 30 hours, I went to activities every day, every night. I became exhausted, sad, and broke. Broke because they told me to move away from my mother, that she was going to hell. She wasn't a Christian. How I needed to be away from her influence. She's my mother! And yet they told me this. And the worst part is that I believed them. So I took out a $3000 loan so that I could live on campus and be with them instead of my mother. I didn't see my mother for six months even though she only lives a few miles away. Anyway, when I realized that I couldn't handle all of their pressure, I tried to talk to my discipler. They have this way of making you always feel that you're wrong. How couldn't I see that Satan was working against me? But by then, I'd had it. I feigned having something to do one night when I knew they'd be away at church. I packed my bags and went home to my mother."

These kinds of experiences can be seen in countless stories from former members on the internet. According to them, once dedicated members realize that you're not part of them, you're seen as being against them. If you're lucky, those once-friendly folks might nod in your direction. What happened to all those invitations? Or as Christina says, "You're either in, or you're not. When they realized I wasn't going to be a member any longer, I was bombarded with emails about how I was going to hell. I still don't quite know what to think."

Today, Ira's faith still seems intact, but his distrust of anyone or any organization is strong. Christina wants to believe, but is very wary now of organizations; she simply doesn't know what to think. And Sarah's faith? She's no longer a believer; the god-pendulum has swung and is presently on the side of nothingness. However, before Sarah's pendulum swung, she was diagnosed as being clinically depressed -- something that former UNC-Charlotte Chaplain Don Rogers says he has seen numerous times when counseling ex-members of the ICC. It's grief in its ultimate state: a loss of soul. . .compliments of the ICC or any organization or individual whose methods of dominance and persuasion make you think that you were wrong and they were right. . . especially if Billy Graham is going to hell.

Julie E. Townsend is a full-time Lecturer at UNC-Charlotte in the English Department. Additional research for this story was conducted by John Grooms. Special thanks to Lisa Wright of the UNC-Charlotte English Department.

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