"Toxic Christianity," or God's modern-day movement?


BC Christian News/September 1998
By David F. Dawes

"BY GRACE are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast" (Ephesians 2:8-9).

"One of my disciplers called that false doctrine," states James Fam. The University of BC student was speaking to BC Christian News about his experience with the Vancouver Church of Christ (VCC). The church's extreme emphasis on human effort, he says, was one reason he left. Currently a member of Westpointe Christian Centre, Fam now helps bring people out of the VCC.

VCC was established in 1991; it is a branch of the International Churches of Christ (ICOC), also known as the Boston Movement, founded by Kip McKean in 1979. ICOC split off from the mainstream Church of Christ, which disavows any connection with McKean.

Starting with 30 members, ICOC has experienced extraordinary growth, and is now in over 100 countries, with an estimated membership of over 85,000. According to critics, however, the surface appearance of growth masks an equally astonishing rate of defections, which the church attempts to counterract with high-pressure recruitment. A wide variety of media reports have painted ICOC as an enslaving and destructive organization.

Universities prime targets

Darwin Dewar, campus director of Ambassadors For Jesus, says groups with problematic spiritual views tend to target universities. There is a Mormon club at UBC, as well as one modelled on the teachings of Witness Lee, head of the Local Church; however, these groups are fairly low-key.

He says ICOC is notorious for extremely aggressive proselytizing, and a rigidly controlling discipleship process. Dewar asserts: "Often 30 people a day are approached at UBC, and invited to Bible studies designed to recruit the prospect into the group." In 1995, Fam was one such prospect. After several Bible studies and other activities, he was close to being baptized. "I was asked to make a sin list. When I showed it to them, I was told it wasn't detailed enough. They wanted specifics -- when I did these things, the names of the people involved. I said I would redo it." He never did. A friend introduced him to Dewar, and Fam soon quit the church.

After many complaints, UBC denied ICOC permission to run a club; the sect has also been banned from at least 20 other campuses worldwide. As of last semester, however, the church had an active club at Simon Fraser University; it has also attempted to recruit students at Langara College.

VCC holds Sunday worship services at the Michael J. Fox Theatre in Burnaby. BCCN visited recently, and found a multiracial congregation full of enthusiastic people; many of them took notes during the sermon and shouted encouragement to the dynamic young charismatic preacher, Peter Kwong. BCCN later made several attempts to contact Kwong. The calls were returned by a VCC administrator who would only speak off the record; he said the church dealt with all criticisms on its website.

McKean's true church

The website features an article by McKean, which calls ICOC "God's modern day movement" and "the restoration of the New Testament church." McKean says ICOC's approach to discipleship has been misconstrued. "We each so desperately need discipling relationships in which we talk about the issues that are on our hearts . . . People who do not understand spiritual unity attempt to explain it away by calling us 'cultic' or 'brainwashed'." He further states: "As for those who oppose us, they are lost . . . To leave the family of God, the true church, is to leave God."

Critics contend that ICOC makes salvation dependent on how well a person performs, and whether one is baptised. McKean writes: "Everyone must hold on to and follow the teachings of Jesus to be a true disciple . . . Only disciples will be saved . . . Who is a candidate for baptism? Disciples."

Dewar counters by citing the conversion of Cornelius in Acts 10, and states: "Either Paul, who wrote half the New Testament, didn't know what it meant to be saved, or the ICOC view is erroneous."

Rick Ross, a cult specialist from Phoenix, calls McKean "an absolute dictatorial ruler," afflicted with "megalomania." He perceives a "cloning effect" among the leader's subordinates: "They want to dress like him, cut their hair like him, talk with the same accent. They assume that the Kipster is the person on earth closest to Christ, that he holds the keys to heaven; I would say he has a skeleton key, to some other place." The end result of ICOC discipling, he contends, is "a lot of depression, people feeling they can never be good enough. It's led to a lot of suicides."

Breaking sessions

Erol Dogan concurs. He is a former member of ICOC, who now attends the mainstream South Burnaby Church of Christ. He believes the group was originally a worthy attempt to promote biblical discipleship, but that it is now dominated by people who measure spiritual fruitfulness by the number of baptisms. One tactic used to control members, he says, is a "breaking session," -- a harsh interrogation usually conducted by "zealous young up-and-comers."

Dogan experienced this first-hand, when he went to Los Angeles in 1991 to discuss concerns about ICOC with McKean and "sector leader" Mark Mancini. "What was supposed to be a friendly chat ended up being a two hour breaking session. They said I was no longer a disciple, that I had to prove my discipleship. I didn't prove it, and they took away my citizenship from the kingdom." Dogan says this has happened to entire congregations in a process called "reconstruction," during which "a church ceases to exist, until the people are reconfirmed disciples."

Toxic Christianity

Rick Bauer, a 15-year member of ICOC, turned his experiences into a book called Toxic Christianity (1994). He presents compelling evidence that some ICOC disciplers have revealed "sins and other embarrassing information" to leaders who use the information "for the purposes of controlling the behaviors of members." His transcripts of ICOC tapes feature leaders admitting mistakes, but also reveal authoritarian tendencies.

Speaking about tithing, McKean states: "When you get baptized, you start paying . . . Someone doesn't give, we ask why . . . Someone doesn't give, they got some attitudes." Regarding ICOC leadership, he says: "They are not guys you vote on to be over you. These guys are of God . . . To not have a discipleship partner is to be rebellious to God . . . You are a disciple of someone else until you die."

Broken families

Such views worry Chao-Min Chung of Coquitlam, who attends the mainstream Surrey Church of Christ. His daughter Ti joined VCC over two years ago, and he says communication with her has been ob-structed by the church. Chao-Min Chung

Rick Ross, who tried unsuccessfully to reunite the family, asserts: "Ti Chung was an accomplished student, devoted daughter, and integral part of a devoted family. She's now a college dropout, and disrespectful of her parents."

"We believe she wants to study hard and be a good daughter," says Chung. "They put strange things in her mind and heart. They tell the members that if they hold onto their family, then their relationship with God cannot grow."

In January, the Chung case brought the VCC adverse publicity, to which Peter Kwong responded in a statement: "We are not only open to members visiting families, but encourage it." A letter to Ti from her father tells a different story: "I asked myself, could I die peacefully? I feel the sadness, the hollowness and disappointments . . . I asked God, would he let me talk to my daughter face to face before I die?"


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