Tuesday, March 22, 2005

What Makes a Cult? My Own Story


When I was a new freshman at the University of Georgia, by all accounts my life looked great: I was an A student with a stable home, I came into the University with college credits and a partial scholarship, and I had friends from home who were attending UGA.

But I became involved in a cult, and strangely enough, I can't untie completely the threads of that cult and my very real salvation. That cult was the International Church of Christ (ICOC or Boston Movement).

*Let me hasten to say here that ICOC is NOT the same thing as the mainline Churches of Christ. I grew up in a church similar to that (from the same Restoration Movement) and there are many people who love the Lord in those churches. Right, JP?

I have mentioned in previous posts that my B.C. days were not good; suffice it to say that I was headed to hell in a handbasket. However perfect the honor-student veneer was on the outside, the inside was crumbling. The ICOC stepped in at exactly the right time: I was vulnerable, somewhat alone, and I had a realization that my life was NOT what I wanted it to be. I was not the person I wanted to be. I felt soiled and depressed. When I looked at my own life I didn't recognize myself.

Just at that time, I met Kimberly. Actually, I'd already met her. We went to a professor's party together, and I remember her trying to tell me that the Bible was true. I spat, "The Bible is full of CONTRADICTIONS!" (Mind you, I couldn't have named one. I have no idea why I said that.)

Soon after that conversation, though, I changed my mind, because God reached down and helped me see myself: I saw clearly that everything I'd done was a big dungheap. I deserved nothing and was sullied and broken. I knew, beyond a doubt, that Jesus was real and I needed Him, or I'd never be clean.

Kimberly invited me to study the Bible with her just at that time. I was very excited, but a little trepidatious. I knew nothing of the ICOC; I assumed she went to a "normal" church and that our Bible study was going to be a one-on-one dialogue. Instead, I was met by both Kimberly and the woman who discipled her, the college pastor's wife. Over the course of the next week or so they took me through eight studies that everyone goes through who becomes a member of the church (that's another post in itself).

I became enthralled with the church and its people. They were so loving to me and excited about me. (I later learned this is something done to new recruits called "love-bombing".) The guys in the group showed their interest and asked if I was yet a "disciple" (so they could date me; you are only allowed to date within the group). Something was always happening. I finished the studies and was baptized, a requirement to become a disciple. The ICOC believes you are not saved unless you are baptized with them.

I began to notice how very tired many of the brothers and sisters were--they faked an energy and enthusiasm that, for some of them, was strained. They rose very early to meet or pray, and were required to stay up late evangelizing or fellowshipping. There was a drive to all of it that was exciting...but it wasn't the Holy Spirit.

Meanwhile, my parents were quite frightened. Even my phone demeanor had changed to a fake, monotone voice that scared them. They went to the local TV station to do research on my group and discovered that the ICOC was gaining wide recognition as a cult, particularly on college campuses.

My leaders told me they were my new family, and they gave me instructions about what to do if my parents tried to kidnap me (they would come and get me if I could escape and call them from a pay phone). I began to feel uneasy, but they said that my parents were instruments of Satan since they were not a part of the church. They told me my parents would try to get me to leave the church. If I did that, I would no longer be a Christian.

I had been in the church about two or three weeks at this point.

My parents did indeed try to convince me of the danger the church presented, but to me this seemed to be evidence of what my leaders had warned about.

This is where the "stable home" did have a reward. I am an only child, and my parents and I had always been extremely close. It was so painful to think of them as Satan's unwitting minions. The church had warned me that I would have to cut ties with my parents: fewer, if any, visits would be chaperoned by another church member. For my safety.

Finally, the week after my parents' visit, I left the ICOC. And went back. And then left for good. The pull on my heart that the church had was palpable--I felt physically affected by the separation. I wondered if I was going to hell. It was a long, long time before I could look at certain verses that they had falsely interpreted and understand them correctly.

I want to look at the idea of cults again in another post, but I wanted you to know my story first (this is quite an abbreviated version). Maybe you can see why it's hard for me to tell people about how I got saved: it's so complicated!

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