Group accused of cult status

The Eagle (American University)/October 12, 1998
By Jen Liebman and Ryan Igbanol

Students Advocating Christianity Today, a Bible-study group on campus, has met with controversy since its founding last year. Critics call the group a cult, but members insist that they are only a Bible-study group. Students ACT is comprised of members of the D.C. Church of Christ and other AU students ranging from freshmen to graduate students that are not officially with the Church.

Steve Randall, a senior in the School of Communication, has been vice president of Students ACT for two-and-a-half months.

"It helps put the Bible in my life," Randall said. "[Student ACT] gives me insight to be a better Christian."

"I always get a spiritual lesson," said fellow Students ACT member Renee Messier, a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences.

However, not everyone shares in the students’ enthusiasm.

"I think it is dangerous," said University Chaplain Joe Eldridge, who has been largely critical of the group. "I would like to see the AU student body become aware of religion that is destructive. If that were to happen, these folks wouldn’t have a chance."

Eldridge also said that the Kay Spiritual Life Center started receiving complaints from Residential Life and Housing Services last year about the group.

Eldridge’s criticism is directed more pointedly at the D.C. Church of Christ, a branch of the International Church of Christ. The ICC, originally called the Boston Church of Christ, was founded by Kip McKean in Lexington, Mass. The Church is based on the Christian beliefs of the Holy Trinity and the baptism for the forgiveness of sin.

McKean was dismissed from a local church near Eastern Illinois State College, which prompted him to look for another spiritual outlet. In 1979, McKean took over the Lexington Church of Christ and changed its name to the Boston Church of Christ, according to information from Web sites about the Church.

At the time, the Lexington Church of Christ was part of the Churches of Christ, an American denomination that originated in the early 18th century. It was started by Alexander Campbell, a preacher who wanted to organize churches whose worship and life were patterned after the New Testament.

Since its origin in Boston 19 years ago, the International Church of Christ has opened roughly 350 churches in some 140 countries and plans to have a church in every nation with at least 100,000 people by the year 2000, according to the Web sites.

Students ACT was founded on AU’s campus in September of 1997. "I wanted students to feel they could be a part of something," said Brandon Thorpe, an AU graduate student and one of Students ACT founding members.

Raised as a Baptist, Thorpe said that while he was in Baltimore, there was a void in his life. After being invited to a Bible discussion held by members of the D.C. Church of Christ, Thorpe said he was compelled to study the Bible more closely.

After a month with the group he underwent a baptism that was "accompanied by a heart change." Thorpe continued to attend the Bible discussions but the group was not officially recognized by the Student Confederation.

The group was eventually recognized by the office of Student Activities, giving them legitimate organization status.

According to Thorpe, there is also a branch of Students ACT on the George Washington University campus. But when reached for comment, GW officials denied any knowledge of the group.

While Students ACT maintains that they are a reputable student organization, there are some in the AU community that would disagree. In a 1996 book "The Boston Movement: Critical Perspectives on the International Churches of Christ," the American Family Foundation denounces the church as a cult.

There are also those on AU’s campus who question the motives of Students ACT and the International Church of Christ.

"There is a verbal aggression that is very frightening," Eldridge said. "Once you get in it is very difficult to extricate yourself from the group."

Thorpe bridled at the notion that Students ACT has been referred to as a cult.

"I think that with any group, especially a religious group, if it’s called a cult there needs to be good reason. Cults are very small, they are lifeless and they tend to follow a person. They tend to do absolutely outrageous things, take all your money, take all your possessions, change your mind toward a doctrine that is man made," Thorpe said.

Cherise Malm, a freshman in the School of Public Affairs, said she was approached by members of Students ACT. After Malm attended one of their church services she summarized her feelings as upset and confused.

"They questioned whether I was ever a Christian. It was implied that the only way I could be a Christian was their way."

Malm said that she has not been harassed in any way by the group ever since.

Annette Langdon, a senior in the School of International Service, was also approached by two female members of the D.C. Church of Christ last spring in regards to attending a church service.

"They were very persistent," Langdon said of her experience.

There have been incidents when the International Church of Christ’s motives have been called into question. In the summer of 1987, the International Church of Christ’s Boston University branch came under inquiry from the school’s administration over what was perceived to be over-enthusiastic proselytizing.

Since then, BU has adopted a policy that restricts non-student leaders from being present at any of the group’s meetings or functions held on campus or campus facilities. Former members of the International Church of Christ have shown their displeasure with the Church through a Web page dedicated to leaving the group.

Among the other complaints lodged against the Students ACT group on campus is its perceived aggressiveness.

Eldridge said that the group seeks out international students and freshmen as new converts.

In response, Thorpe pointed to the group’s diversity and said that there are members in every class from freshmen to graduate students.

"Our group is fairly international because that’s the way it’s ought to be. God does not want us to seek a homogeneous crowd," Thorpe said. A significant amount of conjecture continues to revolve around Students

ACT and the International Church of Christ. The Students ACT organization on AU’s campus maintains that they have done nothing outside the code of conduct.

Their critics continue to contest that they, along with the International Church of Christ, are a cult. Of the sources interviewed in this story, none would reveal names of former members or provide specific instances of wrongdoing by Students ACT or the International Church of Christ.

Students ACT continues to function on AU’s campus with the same rights and privileges as other student organizations.  

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