The Critics Ask:
What Do You Say to the Charge That You Are a Cult?
The International Churches of Christ are no more a cult than was the Church that Jesus started, as described in the Bible. The word "cult" is a prejudicial label. Read how three noted authorities describe it:
"All the major religions started out as cults," said the late Dean Kelley of the National Council of Churches.
"Cult has become a buzz word," said David Bromley, a sociologist at Virginia Commonwealth University. "What disturbs me is any group that is unorthodox in any way starts to run into 'cultic' or 'cult-like' labels."
Robert Ellwood, Professor of New Religious Movements at the University of Southern California, said, " 'Cult' always is a term people use when they want to stigmatize another in a pejorative way... It inclines you to see what you already expect to be there... But over the centuries numerous religious movements first viewed as cults survived and are no longer perceived as extremist. 'Cult' has proven to be a very subjective word."
One of the best definitions of "cult" that we have found was given in an article in the March 13, 2000 issue of US News & World Report. The piece identified three traits common to cults in general: 1) Charismatic, authoritarian leaders. These require absolute devotion and dictate how members should think and act. 2) Mind control and manipulation. Use of controlling methods, including physical and/or psychological isolation from family and friends. 3) Misleading recruitment tactics. Use of "love bombing," or showering prospective members with attention; the use of front names that mask group affiliation
Let us compare each of these three traits to teaching and common practice of the ICOC.
1) Charismatic, authoritarian leaders.
There is no person or group of people to whom the International Churches of Christ require absolute devotion. There is no person or group of people to whom the ICOC would even allow to be given absolute devotion. Only God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit deserve and are given that. The acknowledged human leader of the ICOC is Kip McKean. While he certainly is spiritual (as we expect all of our church members to be) and a very talented leader, he is not infallible, he is not an apostle, and does not claim to have a sense of being supernaturally led or inspired by God. He, like all of us, believes in the power of prayer, in the guidance and wisdom derived from study of the Bible (2 Timothy 3:14-17) and from the Holy Spirit who indwells each disciple of Jesus (Romans 8:9), and in the collective advice of those around him.
Only God, through his inspired written word, the Bible, should dictate how we should think and act. Our leaders simply call us to follow the teachings of the Bible and the example of Jesus Christ, which will determine our thoughts (2 Corinthians 10:5) and actions (1 Peter 2:21).
2) Mind control and manipulation.
Mind control and manipulation imply intent to cause a person to do something against his or her will. This is exactly the opposite of our goal and purpose. Jesus calls each disciple to love God with all of his/her heart, soul and mind (Matthew 22:37). Following God must be a decision made from the heart, and not because one has been manipulated into blind obedience. Before a person makes a decision to become a disciple, we study the Bible together so that he/she clearly understands what God expects. Included in the study is God's expectation that every disciple honor his/her parents (Ephesians 6:2). Quite often a dysfunctional relationship has previously existed between the parents and child which needs to be rebuilt or repaired in order to become what God wants it to be. Non-Christian friendships are encouraged, unless those friends tempt the disciple into his/her pre-Christian lifestyle of immorality, drugs, partying, selfishness, etc. (1 Corinthians 15:33).
3) Misleading recruitment tactics.
Deceit is a sin, condemned by Jesus (Mark 7:20-23). We are proud to be disciples of Christ and members of the International Church of Christ. We do not use "front names" or try to hide who we are. (Our campus groups will often have a name for their club on campus, such as "Campus Advance." This is not an attempt to hide who we are, but is what religious clubs normally do on campuses. In each case it is our policy to clearly identify that the club is associated with the International Churches of Christ; this association is included on all printed material, such as invitations or programs.)
"Love bombing" is selectively loving someone to manipulate them. It is wrong on two counts: it is selectively loving (a contradiction in terms) and it is manipulative. Christianity is the religion of love; and we believe in showing love to everyone, member or non-member (Matthew 22:39). When people attend our meetings, they are impressed with the racial, ethnic and social diversity of the membership. We believe that the gospel of Jesus Christ needs to be offered to every person, everywhere. That gospel is the power of God for the salvation of anyone who would put their trust in him (Romans 1:16), and it should not be cheapened by manipulation or deceit.
What, then, do we say to the charge that we are a cult? If the charge is the same that was leveled against the early church, then we are glad to be identified with them. "But we want to hear what your views are, for we know that people everywhere are talking against this sect" (Acts 28:22). If, however, the charge is the same as that leveled against destructive extremist groups in our day, then we say, "No!" We, the members of the International Churches of Christ, are nothing more than disciples of Jesus Christ who are attempting to restore the movement that God began in the first century. That movement turned the world upside down in its day, just as we expect it to do today.