UW's fight against a harmful faith

Imprint Ontario, Canada/August 29, 2003
By Mike Kerrigan

As frosh week approaches, preparations are being finalized for a theological battle that is waged on campus each year. Officially targeted as 'aggressive religious recruiters', the university utilizes the Feds, residence dons, frosh leaders, campus police and countless others to execute a multiple-front attack on those who would proselytise University of Waterloo [Ontario, Canada] newest students. Although there are always various fringe groups that pop up, increasingly most of the effort is expended to counter a single, seemingly unstoppable group: the International Church of Christ. Entire conferences are held to train university officials how to stop the growth of this church on their campuses.

One of the most important activities members of the ICC engage in is the recruitment of new members to the organization. Although there may be some sermonizing on street corners, the preferred method is to approach individuals and ask them to join a church meeting or a bible study. Recognized clubs on campus are barred from approaching people unsolicited largely for this reason. The hope is that any student that is approached will immediately recognize that the group speaking to them is forced to remain unofficial for some reason and be wary. I've spoken with new students on campus that were whisked away to an ICC church outside K-W when they unsuspectingly agreed to participate.

The organization was founded in 1979 by the firebrand evangelist Kip McKean after he was dismissed from the mainstream Church of Christ movement. His brand of Christianity spread rapidly; over 400 ICC churches now exist worldwide. The church draws from the fundamentalist protestant movement and focuses on a literal reading of the New Testament and tries to ensure that its members live proper Christian lives in accordance with the group's rules.

It's these rules that often lead people to sloppily label the ICC as a cult. There's debate over whether the term 'cult' can be used to accurately describe any group, but the label is particularly misleading to those trying to understand the appeal of the ICC. There is no hero worship of the leader, no particularly unusual rituals, no millennial apocalypses or anything else that would set off alarm bells. The church provides something particularly appealing to youth and those in a period of transition: a strong base of emotional support and the ability of its members to extract themselves from a chaotic and morally ambiguous world and engage in a structured and purposeful lifestyle with a clear set of guidelines that guarantee salvation.

Nothing is particularly insidious about this. The appeal is similar to that of any religious organization and the members of the church are as well-intentioned as those of any other faith. But the devil is in the details.

Alongside the rapid expansion of the ICC, an opposition headed by disaffected, former members has grown legions. Organizations with names such as REVEAL, RESTORED and Awakened provide support to former members of the ICC and their families and try to raise widespread awareness about the dangerous aspects of the church.

The group is a 'Chosen Few' sect that teaches that Christianity has been in a long dark period and that only those living the proper Christian lifestyle advanced by the ICC have a hope of salvation.

A tract entitled First Principles applies a selective reading and interpretation of the scriptures to develop and entrench a system of belief that maintains that submittal to the wishes of the leadership is tantamount to submitting to the will of God. As members get more deeply involved in the church, simply questioning the direction of superiors can be evidence of a lack of faith.

Former members describe being trapped in a universe where they were completely powerless over their own life, but unable to leave because they believed it would result in their eternal damnation.

Members are slowly introduced to the various obligations required by the church. Periods of prayer, church sessions, time spent evangelizing, an allocated 'date night' and various other duties slowly begin to encompass virtually all their spare time.

Many spend 30-40 hours a week simply performing the requirements they owe to the ICC. As these are slowly integrated into their lifestyles less and less time is available for family or friends, binding the members closer to the church and severing previous relationships. As well, a bare minimum of 10 per cent of one's income must go to the church, with members often donating 15-25 per cent of their earnings.

As old social ties are shed, members are forced to turn to the ICC for all social reinforcement. New members are 'discipled' and are expected to emulate and follow all directions from the person to which they are charged.

Dating is only permitted amongst members of the church and all pairings must be approved by the leadership. The confession of sins is done publicly, and previous members describe many occasions where these were used to tear down the self-esteem of people during 'breaking' sessions. Oftentimes members are blackmailed and told their admissions will be widely broadcast if they try to leave the church.

Despite the clear harm caused to its members, the ICC continues to grow because of its ability to exploit the emotional and spiritual needs of people in an unsettled period of their lives.

The church needs to have its activities publicly exposed and its recruitment curtailed on campuses to prevent it from ensnaring even more. Some people are hesitant to judge the group because of the good intentions of its members, but it is naïve to allow good intentions to justify harmful results.

Stay vigilant while the battle against the International Church of Christ's intrusion is fought once again this frosh week.

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