I have always been a little reluctant to call the ICOC a cult, for many reasons: I loved the people with all my heart, and most of them are incredibly sincere; and they do teach a lot of truth about the gospel, more than many modern churches (it's just that little "we're the One True Church and We're Here to Control You" thing that gets in the way). Regardless of my reluctance in the past to name them as such, though, they are a cult.
Rick Ross, an internationally known cult expert and watchdog, describes a cult below.
Webster's Dictionary defines a cult as:
'1. A formal religious veneration 2. A system of religious beliefs and rituals also its body of adherents; 3. A religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious: also its body of adherents; 4. A system for the cure of disease based on dogma set forth by its promulgator; 5. a: A great devotion to a person, idea, thing; esp.: such devotion regarded as a literary or intellectual fad, b: A usually small circle of persons united by devotion or allegiance to an artistic or intellectual movement or figure.'
This definition obviously could include everything from Barbie collectors to old 'Deadheads,' 'Trekkies' to diehard Elvis fans. American history might also include within such a definition the devoted followers of Mary Baker Eddy the founder of Christian Science, or the Mormons united through their devotion to Joseph Smith. Both these religious groups were once largely regarded as an 'unorthodox or spurious.' However, the most important concern today is not simply who might be somewhat 'cultic' in their devotion now or historically, but what groups might represent potential problems regarding personal or public safety. That is, groups that are potentially unsafe and/or destructive.
Psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton, who wrote the definitive book about thought reform (often called 'brainwashing') also wrote a paper about cult formation. Lifton defined a cult as having the following three characteristics:
A charismatic leader, who increasingly becomes an object of worship as the general principles that may have originally sustained the group lose power.
A process [is in use] call[ed] coercive persuasion or thought reform.
Economic, sexual, and other exploitation of group members by the leader and the ruling coterie.
Frankly, the ICOC has all of this down pat, and more.
A Charismatic Leader: Well, the church didn't believe in spritual gifts (ho HO!! I am a crackup!), but Kip McKean was definitely a charismatic leader--people in the church talked about him like the was the very next thing to God. He and his wife were regularly featured in the church's magazine, Inside Out, and from what I could tell, we were all supposed to be in total, slack-jawed AWE. Kip McKean started the church out of the old, dead COC, and now we are alive! We're so thankful we're not like all those dead churches! Our own leaders (each person has an individual "discipler," and there are many other leaders over them) were to be revered and strictly obeyed. Disobeying an authority was disobeying God. I loved my discipler beyond words...she symbolized to me all the love, beauty and purity that I had not had before I was saved, but now did have in Jesus. It tore my heart out to have her friendship taken away when I was "marked" (church members have nothing to do with non-members unless the non-member is interested in "doing the studies" and "becoming a disciple").
Coercive Persuasion: In other words, how the cult convinces you to do things you would never do otherwise. This reminds me of one of the incidents that really opened my eyes to what was going on. Our youth leader, Kit, was "challenging" us about evangelism. The ICOC is VERY, VERY big on walking up to people you don't know and trying to get them to come to church with you. Kit was trying to get us to kind of "pledge" a number of people we'd promise to talk to the next day, and people were throwing out numbers ("30!" "50!" "100!") in a little game of spiritual one-upsmanship. I was frightened...the numbers kept going up. I honestly didn't want to be obligated to walk up to 100 people and try to get them to come to church. There was a small silence after a few people had pledged, and then Kit looked around the room, clearly disappointed. "Well, I see how many people in this room have faith," he said. Something in me snapped. How many have faith?! I have to talk to 30, 50 or 100 people tomorrow or I don't have faith? Something was awry. But the pressure was there, and constant.
Exploitation of Group Members: I saw some of this myself, and some I heard about from other former members. I myself saw the coersion (a form of exploitation, IMO), the sleep deprivation, and the housing situation (many disciples were required to live with several other disciples and give the rest of their money to the church). The disciples were all so, so tired. Many of them were college students not doing well in classes because they were constantly involved with church-REQUIRED activities. Sure, no one would beat you up if you didn't attend something or weren't involved in something, but you'd be seen as someone who is "falling away" and in need of help or discipline. Involvement was non-negotiable and as demanding as a hungry newborn. Other ex-members describe being told when they could and could not have relations with their spouse and how they could spend the money in their checking account. MANY ex-members report being "encouraged" to give almost all of their money to the church. Kip and his ilk lived like KINGS. My question was and still is: where is room in all of that for the Holy Spirit to do His work? The disciplers did all of it for Him.
In my post-ICOC years I made my way to organizations like REVEAL, whose name is an acronym: "Research, Examine, Verify, Educate, Assist, Liberate." Resources from REVEAL and posting to newsgroups helped me understand what had happened to me, and the magnitude of what was happening to others.