Church Near Fordham Considered A Cult

The Observer/Student voice of Fordham College at Lincoln Center/November 21, 2000
By Mary Anne Feeney and Mike Robbins

A church called the New York City Church of Christ, part of the International Churches of Christ (ICOC), which many experts have referred to as being a cult, holds its meetings near the FCLC campus.

The self-proclaimed "largest church of any kind in the New York City area" and is under intense scrutiny, according to an article in The Daily News, October 22. It meets at the Good Shepard Church, near Fordham on 66th Street, between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue.

The ICOC is a fast-growing organization known for its aggressive recruitment of college students, according to an article in U.S. News & World Report on March 13, 2000.

"The ICOC - which some ex-members and experts on mind-control assert is a cult - is one of the most controversial religious groups on campus," U.S. News & World Report reported. "At least 39 institutions, including Harvard, Georgia State and Boston University have banned the organization at one time or another for violating rules against door-to-door recruiting or harassment."

Starting in Boston as The Boston Church of Christ in 1979, the ICOC has grown to have over 130,000 members nationwide. Similar to traditional Christian theological beliefs, the ICOC believes in salvation, but how one achieves this salvation is quite different. "Discipling" is one key aspect the church advocates.

The ICOC states on its official Web site that discipling practices are simply acting as Jesus did in spreading the word of God. They say, "Jesus himself has been the object of much suspicion and criticism." However, the way that they recruit people has been noted by experts and ex-members as being harassing, manipulative and dishonest.

The beliefs of the ICOC consist primarily of the writings in the New Testament of the Bible. Members follow a strict reading of the Bible, according to ICOC. According to the church, anyone who is not a member of the church and is not a strict follower will not be admitted into Heaven.

Through initially friendly encounters, prospective members are enticed to come to a meeting by current ones who, some believe, are trying to fulfill their quota, according to The Daily News report. While the rules do not state there is a quota, former members felt extreme pressure to make others join the group.

The New York City Church of Christ, part of ICOC, could not be reached for comment for this article.

Sara Hamilton, FCLC '01, had three encounters with ICOC in the Boston area. She said all three times the people were overly friendly and persistent in asking her to give them her phone number and invited her and her boyfriend out. Her first encounter with them was when she was 15 years old. "I really felt under pressure" she said, describing when one woman from the church persistently asked her for her phone number.

The last time she encountered church members was when they bumped her father's car, when they were driving. "Nothing was damaged, but when we got out the couple who hit us invited us to their church, [which was part of ICOC]." Hamilton said. "My dad started to laugh, he couldn't believe it."

The American Family Foundation (AFF), a nonprofit, research center and educational organization founded in 1979 to study psychological manipulation and cultic groups, has much information on the ICOC, which is categorized as being a bible-based movement that, through research, has proven to participate in practices deemed cultic.

The definition of what a cult is, on their site, states that it is "a group or movement exhibiting devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or thing and employing unethically manipulative techniques of persuasion and control."

One of the studies on ICOC, was done by Michael D. Langone, Ph.D., executive director of AFF and Editor of the Cultic Studies Journal. He said that his research is not 100 percent definitive, but it is extensive. The difficulty of proving some organizations are cults can be difficult. Langone says they can only be proven when enough research yields the same results.

Langone said in his study that the ICOC is often considered to be "one of the fastest growing cultic groups in the world". 92.5 percent of the subjects interviewed said they had been told to "trust the group and its leaders over the members' own thoughts and opinions." 77.5 percent said they had been "admonished or rebuked for making an important decision without seeking advice from their discipler and 82.5 percent of the ex-members interviewed said that they had been "chastised because they fail to imitate their dicipler or other leader".

Thomas Jones, one of the leaders from the Boston Church of the ICOC explained on the church's Web site why they are not a cult. He said people misunderstand discipling - and that Jesus was ridiculed for what he called doing the "same thing". Many experts would argue that their practices of discipling are quite different from Jesus' because of their use of pressure and manipulation to get people to join the church.

Jones says that one of the main reasons his church should not be considered cultic is that there is no devotion to an ultimate human leader. In his church, he claims, the Bible is the ultimate standard.

He also says that ICOC is not a cult because there are no efforts made to weaken a person emotionally or physically.

The Apologetics Index is an online ministry aimed at providing Christians with information and resources on cults and other religious movements. They say on their Web site that the ICOC includes many of the sociological characteristics of a cult. For example, according to their site, the church is known to have an elitist attitude, dishonest recruitment practices and a heavy-handed approach to authority.

At the initial meeting with church members, the new recruit is questioned by other "disciples" regarding their past sins, which are then written down, according to an ex-member of the church named Sarah Williams, a University of North Carolina-Charlotte sophomore, and a former member of The Charlotte Church, a part of the ICOC. She spoke about her experiences in the group to the Charlotte affiliate of Creative Loafing newspapers for an article on ICOC, which has been seen recruiting members from UNC-Charlotte and Winthrop University.

Those who do decide to join with the group are "baptized." That happens after the "process", which Williams explained to be very manipulative and dangerous. Students are often invited to attend events with people who are seemingly friendly members. These members can often get people to attend one of their Bible studies and it is at the study where people often get confused and upset and then vulnerable, she said. Williams said new members are placed in Bible studies with old members who act like new members to draw students into discussion. At the end of the study, the discussion goes one way and it's the whole group's opinion versus the one new member's, which, according to Williams is an intense and intimidating experience.

Also, "sin lists" are repeatedly mentioned among former ICOC members nationwide, according to a Maryland Cult Task Force. Williams also discussed this same subject. These lists, according to critics, are used when someone tries to leave the church. The list is used to give the member guilt, if they try to leave, and show them how terrible they were before entering the church.

Another stipulation of the ICOC is that members of the church are strictly limited to dating only those other members in the church. Even if one does have an interest in another member of the church, the relationship must be approved by officials. Along with that, sex and other intimate relations are forbidden between unmarried persons, according to The Daily News recent report on the New York City Church of Christ.

Although the ICOC says they are "living their lives in accordance with the teachings of Jesus Christ found in the bible", many religious experts disagree and many universities across the country have sought to prevent church members from being allowed on campus. According to the Apologetics Index, ICOC is an "offshoot of the mainline Church of Christ denomination, whose name it has usurped."

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