Towards the end of the 1980s I was at Aston University in central Birmingham to speak at the Christian Union. Before I was introduced to speak, a member of the University chaplaincy team gave a brief warning concerning this cult which is known as the ‘Central London Church of Christ’ (CLCOC). It had been banned from the campuses of King’s College, London, the London School of Economics, and Birmingham, Aston and Manchester Universities. As early as 1986 the ‘Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship, (UCCF), issued a statement clearly disassociating itself from the CLCOC group. The cult monitoring group ‘Family Action Information and Rescue’ (FAIR) found that over a recent twelve-month period of time, the third most mentioned group amongst its calls for help was the ‘Central London Church of Christ’. The two groups above it were Scientology and the Unification Church (Moonies). It has been described as ‘the fastest growing cult in Britain today’, though this might have recently changed as it has expelled 400 of its members supposedly in an attempt to aid spiritual cleansing.
1. HISTORY AND BACKGROUND
The church has no connections with long established churches of the same name. There are traditional Baptistinspired Churches of Christ, which have nothing to do with this group. This cult arose in America largely due to the work and influence of Kip Mckean. He was converted at ‘The Crossroads Church of Christ’ in Florida, USA. There he came under the influence of Charles ‘Chuck’ Lucas who developed the technique of holding on to converts, which became known as ‘discipling’.
Mckean and his wife Elena moved to Boston in 1979 and set up the ‘Boston Church of Christ’ using the techniques of ‘discipling’. The growth rate in Boston was staggering with as many as a thousand converts being baptized each year. In 1982 teams were sent to London and Chicago and from these other centres have been evangelized. The two Americans sent over to London in 1982 were Douglas Arthur and James Lloyd. The former was given responsibility for the ‘Commonwealth Ministries’, which included Britain, Australia, Hong Kong and India. Fred Scott, on the other hand, a young English concert pianist, became leader of the ‘London Church of Christ’.
There are now over seventy different centres worldwide, with plans for more to come.
2. THE ORGANIZATION
It is an hierarchical organization with a very strong leadership principle. Obedience to the leadership is allimportant and questioning is strictly discouraged and independent thought is not easily tolerated.
The essential structure is one of ‘discipling’. Each recruit is put under the one-to-one supervision of a discipler, who is an established member of the congregation. Everyone has a discipler: new recruits are discipled by ordinary members, ordinary members are discipled by Bible study leaders, these are discipled by elders; elders by evangelists and so on up to the top small group who are discipled by Kip Mckean. The structure is very similar to a pyramid-selling operation.
The structure itself is not the problem, but the way in which it works produces disquiet. There has to be immediate obedience to the discipler who makes decisions about nearly every aspect of the life of the one being discipled.
Leaders cannot be questioned and their word is final. This leads to a strong authoritarian system with the discipled being unable to think or make responsible decisions for themselves. This is what has caused the deepest concern to Ian Howarth of the ‘Cult Information Centre’. He says: ‘The Central Church of Christ is a sinister and dangerous cult which can affect people psychologically, spiritually, financially and even physically. It uses brainwashing and mindcontrol techniques. If I were in a position of influence with any university infiltrated by these people, I would do everything in my power to safeguard the welfare of students. They are at considerable risk’.
3. BELIEFS AND TEACHING
In many ways the movement appears to hold with traditional Protestant teaching. Their teaching about Jesus, the trinity and the authority of the Bible appears to be correct. They resent the designation of ‘cult’, stating, ‘We are not a cult, we are a Christian church, which is attracting young people, because we are a lively exciting group. There is nothing sinister or underhand about us’, (Tim Dannatt, leader of Birmingham Church of Christ).
We have no doubts that Mckean’s original motivation was altruistic and evangelistic and that he truly believed that he was helping those who followed him to find Christ.
This then is the dilemma, for we accept that the leaders are very sincere people, that their teaching is very close to that of evangelical Christianity and in many ways sound, so like the true faith that it becomes very difficult to distinguish it from the truth. There is no better counterfeit than that which is very close to the true currency.
The main features of CLCOC are:
i. Exclusiveness. Mckean and his followers now believe that they are the only true Christians in the world. This is a very powerful lever against any members who show signs of wavering.
ii. How to be Saved. ‘We do not teach that salvation comes by faith alone … it should be noted that “salvation by faith” is in no way identical with salvation by faith alone’ (Douglas Arthur). Essentially, they teach that salvation is by faith and works which includes their baptism. This salvation they believe can be lost if followers do not persevere. They emphasize what people do rather than what God does, believing that they gain acceptance with God by their own efforts. So they teach that it is not so much what Christ has completed for us on the cross but what we do ourselves, which brings about salvation.
iii. Baptism. They teach that baptism is the moment of conversion, and has to be understood and practiced correctly for it to be effective.
iv. Assurance. Since salvation is not through faith alone, but involves works, assurance is only possible by having one’s commitment checked by the church. Thus it makes the members try hard, but leaves them guilt-ridden and without hope when they fail. This is of particular concern for the four hundred who have been told that they have failed and have lost their salvation. Such people need particular care from concerned Christians.
v. Authority. The CLCOC claims that the Bible is their only authority, but in practice the teaching of the leaders has replaced its authority. No one is allowed to question the teaching, independent thought is prevented and all responsibility for thinking is handed over to the leaders.
vi. Leadership. The leaders require almost total obedience. The Bible portrays leaders as being the servants of others. CLCOC leaders are tyrannical, demanding obedience and determining the lives of the members.
vii. Pressure. The leaders maintain discipline by keeping the members busy, so busy that the church totally dominates their lives and they have no time to think. Groups are manipulated to pressure people to conform by public praising or rebuking. For those who live in the houses owned by the church sleep deprivation and frequent fasting maintain the pressure to fully conform.
viii. Guilt. If questioned, the leaders usually answer in such a way as to induce guilt. They usually refuse to answer or suggest that the questioners, by virtue of asking questions, have something wrong with them. This could be being too proud, having a bad attitude or failing to make real progress. An ex-member writes: ‘Whenever I questioned these things, the following responses were most commonly given: “That’s not the issue: the issue is that you’re not broken”, “It’s in the Bible”, “I'm disappointed in you, how could you be questioning now?” or “Brother, you just need to change"’
ix. Control. The intensity of the relationship between discipler and discipled helps to control the members. Each one is encouraged to report all areas of life, confess sins and uncritically accept advice. Male/female relationships are rigidly controlled, with rules concerning the frequency of seeing each other and chaperoning.
x. Deceit. This cult has been known to use deceit to gain entry and acceptance. It has masqueraded in various forms. At the LSE it was called: ‘The Historical Literature Society’, then ‘The Biblical Literature Society’, while its congregation in North London was called ‘North London Christian Fellowship’.
xi. Money. Members are asked to donate 10% of their income and are constantly exhorted to contribute generously to other special appeals.
xii. Youth. Members and leaders are mainly young people, usually recruited from higher education establishments. Many of these, who potentially were career and academic high-fliers, have had their future blighted by involvement with CLCOC. Some have dropped out of university studies, or ended up with poorer qualifications than expected.
4. WHY DO PEOPLE JOIN?
Steve Wookey in his book As Angels of Light suggests four reasons:
i. The appeal of commitment is very great when compared with the apathy and general indifference of many churches.
ii. Many are involved when they are away from home for the first time and are vulnerable to the friendship and concerned interest from members of the sect. This may particularly apply to overseas students.
iii. Those who are uncertain about what they really believe may be attracted to the cult with its certainties and firm answers from leaders.
iv. There are many genuine Christians who are sucked into this cult because they have never been fully taught in the word of God.
In view of these four reasons it will come as no surprise that many of those caught up in this cult are genuine believers in Christ. However, the reality of their faith will be weakened and their effectiveness for God could be destroyed by on-going contact with it.
5. OUR RESPONSE
1. We need to engage in serious and concerned prayer for people caught up in this cult.
2. We need to know what we believe and why. This means genuine and prolonged study of God’s word, the Bible.
3. We need to realize that severe psychological damage can be caused in those caught up in the movement for any length of time. They will desperately need to experience the compassion of Christ from true believers as the Lord delivers them.
4. We need to be well informed. If CLCOC can show that there is no truth in our allegations their cause is only helped. One former member said that the reason he had to listen to his family when they questioned him about his involvement with the church was that they knew so much about it.
5. We need to be deeply sensitive and very patient with anyone we meet who has been involved with this cult. Prayer and wisdom from the Lord will be needed if we are to lead them to the Saviour.