This story is an account of my involvement and experiences in and around the International Churches of Christ (1994-1996):
I first became involved with the Greater Philadelphia Church of Christ (GPCC) in March of 1994. I had grown up in a Christian home and, upon moving to Philadelphia to attend graduate school, I looked for a church for several years. Between 1989 to 1994, I attended many churches in Philadelphia, but became discouraged by the lack of zeal, commitment and warmth in the congregations that I had visited. Needless to say, I grew weary of "church shopping" and drifted from the Lord. However, the Lord continued to tug at my heart and helped me to realize that I needed to give my life to Him and become involved in a local Christian church.
So in 1994, I renewed my commitment to Christ and began to once again look for a church. At that time, I was working at a hospital in Philadelphia, and I had a friend at work who had become involved in the GPCC. She was not the churchgoing type, but had recently gotten very involved with this group. I was curious about her church, and I asked her if I could come visit her church on Easter. She was very excited and invited me to a Bible study group (called a Bible Talk or BT) that week. The BT was interesting and informative and I met many friendly people there. I did not feel any kind of pressure or sense that anything was "weird". Therefore, I proceeded and attended the Easter service on that Sunday.
On Easter Sunday the evangelist preached a powerful and dynamic message about the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. Although I had been raised in a Christian home and grew up going to church every Sunday, this was the first time that the true message of the gospel was preached to me in an understandable manner. I had always thought that God was not interested in my daily life, and that I could only "bother" Him when important things came up that required His attention. However, after attending this service at the GPCC, for the first time in my life, I was able to understand that Jesus died so that I could receive forgiveness for my sins. It also helped me to realize that it was possible to pursue a personal relationship with our Savior.
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I was initially impressed with this church due to the dynamic preacher, the zeal of the congregation and the number of young people that I met who seemed devoted to the Lord. I decided to continue attending this church to see if I wanted to become a member. I continued going to Bible Talks, and soon my friend asked me if I wanted to become involved in a personal Bible study. I was thrilled to study the Bible more in depth and quickly agreed. What I did not realize was that this was a method used by the church to indoctrinate people into their group. I became engrossed in the Bible studies and was excited about the things that I was learning. I was surprised that these things were never taught to me while I was growing up in a Baptist church.
My first personal Bible study took place at a Denny's on a Sunday following church services. I had never studied the Bible in a public place before and I felt rather self-conscious. A girl named Michelle led the studies using notes from a flip chart, while my friend Denise took notes for me. I wondered why she was using a flip chart. I had been under the impression that we were just going to meet and read the Bible together.
Michelle proceeded to teach me scriptures about the "Word of God". She showed me through various scriptures that the Bible was the inerrant word of God and that we had to obey everything that was written in it. I agreed with the scriptures that were shown to me, but I was disturbed by Michelle's matter-of-fact, dry, and somewhat harsh manner of delivering the scriptures to me. I felt judged by them, that they thought that I was less of a person than they were for not knowing the Bible as they did. Nonetheless, I tried not to let that bother me and I continued with the studies.
For the next several studies, we met at Michelle's apartment and Denise was also always there. We studied "discipleship", "sin", "repentance" and the "cross". In the discipleship study, they told me that I was not saved because I was not a "disciple" according to the Scriptures. I agreed with them that I was not a disciple, because although I believed that I was a Christian, I had not been living the "Christian life" in previous years. When I acknowledged to Michelle and Denise this realization, they exchanged a certain glance and smiled at each other.
After this, I quickly flew through the sin and repentance studies. I was told that I had to write out a list of all my sins and share this list with them. I did not feel comfortable sharing this information with two people I did not feel particularly close to, but did as they asked. When I confessed my sins, Michelle and Denise seemed cold and distant. I had expected understanding and compassion. But what I got was something totally unexpected. They told me that I needed to keep praying for God to show me my sins that I might have forgotten about so that I could confess them.
After I completed these several studies, Michelle and Denise took me to meet with a woman who was a leader in the church. This woman (I'll call her Margaret), whom I had never met before, seemed to know all there was to know about me. She was not very friendly, and was actually rather rude. She told me that I was unteachable and that I needed to be broken. She continued to speak to me in a rather harsh tone of voice, and I was completely at a loss as to why she was being so rude. I decided not to take this personally though and pondered in my heart the things that she had said.
At another time, I was also taken to a "chariot ride" which was led by a women's leader. The purpose of this chariot ride was to let those who were "studying the Bible" know that we were lost and needed to be baptized in order to be saved. The leader told us that we needed to have a sense of urgency. This woman (Kim) was also rather cold and harsh and I began to wonder if all the leaders in the church were this way, or if I should just overlook it.
A day or so after this session, I decided that I wanted to get baptized into this church. Michelle and Denise took me to Margaret's house for a meeting. Margaret seemed nicer than when I had first met her. She asked me if I had committed certain sins that she named. I answered her questions and confessed to doing certain things that I had not considered "sin". Michelle and Denise became angry and accused me of being "proud" for not having confessed these sins. I was appalled that they would blame me for not confessing things that I did not realize were "sins" according their qualifications. If anything, I thought that they were the ones who were being proud and inconsiderate.
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I got baptized that night on April 24th of 1994, and I felt committed to being a member of this church. The next Sunday, I had a meeting with Denise and she told me that she was going to be my "discipler." This was news to me! She told me that she was going to be responsible for helping me to grow as a Christian. Since I had known her for a while and felt comfortable with her, I agreed to this arrangement. What I did not know at this time was that the "discipler" would try to take over all areas of my life.
At this time, I was a member of Michelle and Denise's zone (the church was divided into "zones" based on where your lived). This zone was not close to where I lived, but I had agreed to join this zone because I was friends with Denise. I had thought about moving into this zone; however, after being baptized, I wanted to move to the zone that was closer to where I lived. When I approached Denise about this, she became speechless. She tried to talk me out of changing zones and also became quite defensive about the whole matter. I didn't know what the big deal was. After much discussion, she agreed that it would be best for me to attend zone services that were closer to my home. She introduced me to a girl in the "center city zone" so that I could become involved in a Bible Talk in there.
The first time that I attended my new Bible Talk, the leader pulled me aside and told me that I would now be tithing 10% of my gross income. She asked me how much money I made, and she figured out the amount that I should be giving to the church. She told me that I needed to bring this tithe to Bible Talk every week. I was surprised that I had not been told this prior to getting baptized. Since I grew up in a Christian home, tithing was something that I was familiar with. Therefore, I agreed to tithing 10%, but inside, I started to question the motives of this church because they had failed to tell me the requirements of membership before I got baptized./P>
I liked my new Bible study and I quickly became friends with the people in my zone. I became involved in song leading and was enjoying my membership. After I got involved, I began to learn things about the "requirements" of this church. They expected me to evangelize and bring new people to church. I did not disagree with this because I wanted to tell others about Jesus Christ. In the first few months following my baptism, I brought many people to visit the church, and the evangelist of my zone asked me to come to a leadership meeting.
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After I had been in the church for about 4 months, I was asked to co-lead the single women's ministry. I accepted and I started co-leading with a woman named Ruby, who was an intern with the church. I also changed Bible Talks and was now in a women-only group with Ruby.
Ruby had many expectations of me -- none of which she had told me about. Apparently she wanted me to call her in the morning and at night to give her an account of my day, the people that I had met and invited to church and any other facts. I did not know that I was supposed to "report" to Ruby. And even though I was never told what the requirements were, I was still "rebuked" for not having followed the rules. I soon found out that there were many other "unspoken" rules...
I became quite discouraged and angry with this group of people. But when I got angry, I was rebuked even more. I was not allowed to question the leaders or disagree with what they told me. They used scriptures to tell me that I was to submit to my leaders and obey them. Since I was new in the church and didn't know the scriptures well enough to respond to them, I quickly shut up and did what they told me. I had also learned from my parents that I should respect those in authority above me, so I decided to watch and pray.
But as time went on and as I learned the scriptures better, I realized that there was something really wrong with this church. I sensed a lack of love in the leadership. There was great pressure to bring people to church and to evangelize. Bible Talks were rearranged many times and I changed groups at least 9 or 10 times within the two years of my involvement. I also found out that BT's were to recruit visitors, and on the days that we did not have any visitors, Bible Talk got cancelled so that we could go out and evangelize. Before I had gotten baptized, the BT's that I had attended were informative and enjoyable. Now that I was a member, BT became a ground for recruitment.
Aside from the Bible Talks, there were many events and meeting that I had to attend almost every night of the week. Even on Saturdays, there were meetings and then dates. On Sundays, the day began with getting up early to call my visitors to make sure that they were coming to church. We had to let our disciplers know how many visitors or "commitments" we had for that Sunday. I had to get to church early for songleading practice. After church, we had lunch with our visitors. After that, there might be a Bible study to attend. And then after that, we had to attend leaders' meeting for anywhere from 2 to 5 hours. There were nights when meetings went to about 1 in the morning.
My time was strictly regulated, and there was little time to attend to personal issues such as paying bills. They had also considered me for an "intern" position, and I was discipled briefly by the women's ministry leader. The requirements became more stringent, and I was told that I had to meet 10 new people each day. I was also assigned other duties such as babysitting the evangelist's kids and cleaning their house. Every week, different people were assigned to clean the leaders' houses, and this was considered a form of service.
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As a leader, I was given women that I had to "disciple". I was responsible for keeping track of their activities, checking on them to see if they had "met" new people daily, if they had people coming to church on Sunday, if they were involved in any Bible studies, and to meet with each of them weekly to "disciple" them and to make sure that they were on the right spiritual path.
I, as well, was discipled by someone who was "above" me. In addition to personal discipling, I had to attend discipling groups (or D-groups) that were attended by anywhere from 8 to 20 other women. We were discipled as a group by one leader who usually rebuked each of us for not being involved in personal Bible studies and not being "fruitful" (which meant recruiting people).
This leader also criticized character traits in each person that needed to change. For example, she told one person that she was too independent and needed to be more accountable. To another person, the leader told her that she was proud and needed to be more submissive. And yet to another, the leader told her to cut her hair, wear makeup or get a better wardrobe so that she could be "relatable." We all left the groups more depressed than when we had come. And week after week, there was more of this torture to endure. It even became an acceptable thing to get "laid out" (which means being harshly rebuked), and many people believed that they deserved it!
We were not allowed to complain or criticize the leadership in any of these meetings. I made the mistake of bringing up complaints and concerns. I was quickly rebuked not only by the leader but from every person in the group. The leader deemed that I had a spiritual problem and asked all the other women in the group to give me advice. So, they took turns telling me what was "wrong" with me and how I had to change it.
Needless to say, I could not put up with this. I became very disillusioned with this church and their methods. I also saw how the leaders mistreated other people who were "weak and struggling". Instead of reaching out to those who were "weak" with love and compassion, these people who needed the most attention were rebuked and shunned aside. I was told not to hang out with these people and that I should hang out with "stronger" disciples and imitate them. I saw many people leaving the church thoroughly disillusioned with Christianity.
The church made little effort to help people with their concerns and questions. If you didn't "fall in line", you had to get out. And according to the church, they were the only saved people on this planet. Therefore, leaving the church meant that you were walking away from God and that you would lose your salvation.
This doctrine about the ICC being the one and only true church really bothered me. I agreed with them that there were few churches out there actively evangelizing and studying the Bible with people, but I did not agree that they were the only people going to heaven. I thought that perhaps, a few of the leaders were misled. But as time went on, I realized that this was the doctrine of the whole system.
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In the summer of 1995, I was co-leading a Bible Talk. From this BT, 2 brothers "fell away", 4 were considered "weak" and one sister did not show up for BT all summer. And on top of this, my mother "disowned" me for my involvement in the church. It was a rather stressful time in my life. I had serious doubts and questions about this group, but I did not know where to turn. I had been to many other churches that I did not find appealing, and I liked many of the things that I saw in the ICC. I wanted to stay and make things work, but I wasn't sure how to to that.
At this time, I was kicked out of leadership because I was not being "fruitful" according to the church's standards. Not being "fruitful" probably had a lot to do with the stress that I was under and because I was more concerned with meeting the needs of the people in my BT than in bringing more people in! But getting kicked out of leadership was the best thing that could have happened to me because it finally gave me a lot of free time for myself! I took advantage of this time to dig through the scriptures from the beginning of the Bible to the end. I read the Bible several hours a day and entered into deep prayer with God. Having been kicked out of leadership, a lot of the pressure was now off and I was able to enjoy being a basic member without all the responsibilities.
Unfortunately, I was then assigned a new discipler who was spiritually immature and harsh in the way she dealt with me. She had a bad habit of "discipling" me in areas that were not relevant to my life. She wanted me to tell her about everything that I did during my day, and if I did not "submit" to her, she went to her leaders and "told" on me. She became intolerable to deal with in a very short time. I could not talk to other leaders about my discipler, because in their eyes, I was the one being "unsubmissive." Even if my discipler was wrong in many issues, I still did not have the right to complain in their view. I needed to be "humble" was the answer that I got.
I'll give you some examples of what this discipler did:
I had faithfully attended all the meeting of the church up to this time. However, one day, I was spending time with a friend who was not in the church. It was her birthday and she was upset that her surprise birthday party had gotten cancelled due to the bad weather. I felt badly for her and I told her that I would take her to dinner. This meant that I would have to miss a midweek service. Since I had been very faithful up to this time, I thought that it would be ok to miss just one service.
Well, my discipler did not think so! Not only did she rebuke me, but she told other church leaders, who rebuked me as well. One guy even told me that he was concerned about my salvation! It was more important for me to be at a meeting of the body of Christ than for me to show love to my friend on her birthday. One person told me that birthdays were "traditions of men" and that I should not have put that above a church meeting.
In another instance, I had a male friend in the church come visit me briefly late at night. He was a close friend and I had some issues that I needed to talk about. My discipler (who was my roommate at the time) saw him coming and she went upstairs to her room. My friend and I talked for a short while (about an hour). It was nearing midnight and I knew that he had to go soon (because midnight was a curfew set by the church).
At 5 minutes past midnight, my roommate came huffing and puffing into the room and she ordered my friend to leave. He quickly got up and left but then a serious discussion with my roommate ensued. She was quite upset that I had "broken" the rules. She then told me that she was too upset to talk and then went to bed.
The next day, she had told the other leaders in the church what had happened. The evangelist of the church then called my friend to have a talk with him about why he was at my apartment past midnight. The evangelist then approached me after a Sunday service and told me that this "brother" was "weak" and that I should stay away from him.
In yet another instance, I was at Bible Talk and we were waiting for the other people to arrive. I decided to make myself some tea. So, I put some water on the stove. My discipler quickly approached me and asked me what I was doing. I told her that I was making some tea. She became angry and told me that I could not do that. (The sector leader had called a week-long fast and we were to drink only water and not any other liquids, and I think we could only eat fruits and vegetables or something to that effect).
I did not see what was wrong with drinking tea. What is tea but mostly water? My discipler did not agree with me on this. So, she asked me if I had been fasting that week as we were ordered. I told her that if I had been fasting or not was none of her business, and that if I had been fasting, that was between me and God. The Bible Talk leader who had been observing us up to this time, then came over and defended my discipler. He told me that I was being "prideful and arrogant" and that I needed to give my discipler an answer.
At this time, I was standing up against the hot stove and the water was boiling. And my discipler and the BT leader were standing in front of me, cornering me against the stove. I wondered what they would do if I did not obey them. But I decided not to risk it at that time. I just said, "I can't answer you right now because I don't want to say anything while I might be being emotional. But I will pray about it and get back to you on that." And I turned off the stove and decided to forget about the tea. Somehow, that answer worked for both of them. And as I stepped forward, the BT leader stepped aside and I walked between them away from the stove.
Oh, what other great memories can I share?
One time at midweek, the evangelist decided that he was going to wash everyone's feet. It was in the middle of winter by the way. I was wearing a short skirt with heavy stockings. And I did not feel like taking off my stockings because it was cold and I did not want to bear my legs. I was approached by a women's leader who urged me to get my feet washed. When I told her my predicament, she agreed that it was ok for me not to get my feet washed. However, many other people approached me that night and told me that I should get my feet washed. Everyone got their feet washed except me and this one other girl.
That Sunday, the evangelist preached a sermon saying that those who did not get their feet washed were proud and arrogant and unsubmissive to leadership. Great. Everyone knew that there were only 2 people who did not get their feet washed. So, was this sermon directed towards me? My discipler found out about this and confronted me later about it. She pulled some scriptures and told me that I was being proud and disobedient to leadership for not getting my feet washed. Then, I told her what had happened and that I had talked to a leader who said that it was ok for me not to participate. I would have just appreciated it if she had asked me what had happened before jumping to conclusions and rebuking me about something that she had little information on!
And yet on another occasion, there was a big snow storm and we were buried under several feet of snow after Sunday service. My friend who lived in New Jersey could not get home. I told him that he could sleep in my living room and that I would spend the night with some other people. I spoke to other people about this arrangement and they were in agreement that this would be ok. The next day, some other people found out that my friend was staying in my apartment. And although he was the only person who was there, this was not acceptable. This issue was quickly taken to many leaders as well as the evangelist who rebuked me as well as my friend. According to them, it was not appropriate for him to stay in my apartment. It became sort of a scandal in our zone.
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With all this love and compassion going on, how could I not think about leaving the church? I continued to pray and I sought counsel from pastors and Bible scholars outside of the ICC. They gave me a much different perspective on what it meant to be a Christian. Through a friend's father, I gained access to many news articles that had been written about the church. I was appalled by what I read! The leaders of the church had done such a good job of making us believe that all these "claims" and "persecutions" against the church were lies, that I had believed the leaders. Yet, when I read the stories for myself, I found a lot of truth and I was able to identify with what was written.
I also spoke with many ex-members who told me the "real" story of why they walked away. (Usually when a member left the church, the leadership would give their version of why this person left -- which was at times very far from the truth. I had noticed in the time of my involvement that upper level leadership would find out things about me through the grapevine. And by the time this information reached the top, it had been changed in many ways.
What was interesting to me was that none of the leaders came to me to get the truth about things. Therefore, much of the information that they had about me was from a third, fourth or a fifth source and was highly inaccurate. This form of information transfer occurred from the bottom of the pecking order to the top. And if you've ever played the game "telephone", you know that lots of information can get changed as it is tranferred from person to person.)
In one newspaper article, I found a quote by Rick Bauer, who had once been a leader in the ICC and had left. I was intrigued as to why this man left. So, I did some investigating and found his phone number. I called and left several messages but he did not return my phone calls.
Finally, when I was serious about leaving the church, I tried calling him again. This time, I got his wife on the phone. She talked to me for several hours and confirmed all the things that I had been feeling for over a year. I went to visit her and stayed in her home while she showed me on video tape interviews with church leaders. I was then completely convinced that I had to leave the church. I was also able to obtain literature that talked about the history of the ICC.
It was after reading this that I realized that that problems that I saw in the church had been in the church since the beginning of the movement. I knew then that my staying in the church would not make a difference. My goal now was to tell others and to help them to see the truth. I talked to many people. Some of them agreed with what I said. Many rebuked me and told me that I was being critical and devisive. When I left the church, 4 people decided to leave with me. And several months after I left, a few more people ended up leaving.
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When I left, I wrote a letter to the church describing the things that I did not agree with. In response to this letter, the leaders brought in Doug Jacoby and called a churchwide leaders' meeting. I did not attend this meeting, but some friends who attended called me and told me what had happened. They had put my letter up on an overhead and Doug went about refuting the points that I had made. They also told the group that I had seen a deprogrammer (Rick Bauer) and that this was the reason that I left the church. This information was completely false! I had met Rick briefly but I had spent most of my time with Sarah (his wife) who was responsible for helping me to make the decision to leave.
One may ask why I stayed in the church for 2 years. It's easy for me and many other ex-members to write about the things that are "wrong" with the church. But the reason that it took so long for me leave was that there were many great things about the church. In the 2 years of my involvement, I saw many people come to faith in Christ. I did not know any other church that was actively involved in evangelizing on a daily basis. I also enjoyed studying the Bible with people that I met and seeing them come to a knowledge of the truth. I made great friends in the church and we were really close. People were generally very open about their lives and this enabled close friendships to form.
We also spent a lot of time together praying and were involved in church activities as well as social functions. I got to meet "disciples" from all over the country as well as from abroad. We were involved in immunizing children in Philadelphia once a year for HOPE. Our church also sponsored a free medical clinic for the low-income population in North Philly. Through HOPE, I saw that the church was involved in reaching out to the community in Philly as well as around the world.
I was also involved in a children's drama group and in the gospel choir and saw that these groups were making a difference. I was also helping to counsel women with eating disorders as well as other issues. This was a group of people that I had given my heart to. It wasn't easy to just walk away, but I knew that I couldn't stay because I disagreed with their doctrine.
When I finally left the church, I knew that I could not stay in touch with my friends in the church. I fell into depression because I had to cut contact with my friends that I cared about. Many of them called me and told me that I was going to hell and that I needed to repent. I realized that they were not in the right frame of mind to listen to what I had to say. So, I cut off contact with them. However, I continued to run into church members day after day in my neighborhood and around work, and I felt like I needed to get away. I prayed that God would show me what to do.
One day, after praying for a while, I felt like God was telling me to move to California. I thought that this was rather strange, so I asked several of my friends about what they thought. All of them agreed that it would be great for me to move! So, then I started looking for jobs in California, but became very discourged. At this time, my curent job was laying off people and they offered an incentive program for people who voluntarily quit. I decided to take this offer, and I quit my job with 10 weeks of pay.
I then decided to move to California and find a job when I got out there. I had a yard sale and sold or gave away most of my belongings. I packed some books and some clothes and I was getting ready to drive cross country. I did not know where I was going to stay. I had intended on staying at a motel for a week or two until I found an apartment. I had called a really old friend from 9th grade who now lives in California, but she had not returned my phone calls.
However, 2 days before I left, she finally called me back and she told me that I could stay with her until I found an apartment! This was great confirmation that I should go ahead with my move as planned. After I got to California, I quickly found a job and started working within 2 weeks. I then started attending a Christian school to become a Christian therapist. I also became involved with a support group for people who had been involved in the ICC. And through all this time, God was so faithful!
It's been 2 1/2 years now since I left the GPCC. It's taken a while to settle in a new place and make new friends. But it's been worth it. I've been involved with helping people to leave the church and have helped people to adjust to life outside of the church. It hasn't been an easy road, but I've learned great lessons along the way and have grown closer to the Lord.
I understand now that there are many other "Christian" groups who teach false doctrines and lead people astray. My aim is to encourage every believer to have his/her own convictions, to know the truth from the Bible, to pursue a deep and personal relationship with our Lord and to be able to give a reason for what he/she believes without having to lean on others to support the reason for their faith. We are accountable to Jesus for the way we live our lives. We need to follow Him in the direction that He leads us and not be led astray by men who have their own agendas.
God has a plan for each of us and we need to seek the Lord about His will for us. It's important for us to know ourselves, to know what we want, to know our convictions and boundaries and be firm about what we believe in so that we are not easily led astray. Our quest for truth needs to be reflected in a daily walk with our Lord. We need to be able to question the things that we were taught and closely examine ourselves and our beliefs without taking knowledge for granted. Just because your parents or your teachers or your pastor or someone that you respected told you something, don't just take it verbatim. Examine it. Question it. Think about it and what it means to you before you make the decision to accept it as your own belief.
Think about all the things that society tries to tell us. Think about what you think. Have your own opinions and know why. It's sometimes easier to go along with the crowd than to have to give your reason for why you believe what you believe. But have the courage to think for yourself and to stand up for your beliefs. And above all, acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord and pursue a deeper relationship with Him for He will lead you into all truths.
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