art 1 (See July 1990 issue) of this two-part series includes a brief historical overview of the Churches of Christ discipling movement and an explanation of the movement's self- understanding. As previously stated, this information is based on my experience in and with the movement from 1972-1987. While painful as well as disillusioning (it's always painful to be liberated from one's illusions, especially religious illusions), this experience has shed valuable light on the relationship of churches to cults, both in terms of their differences and their similarities.
The roots of the Churches of Christ discipling movement are firmly planted in the traditional Churches of Christ institution. The Fourteenth Street Church of Christ was a traditionally organized and directed congregation, having two "elders", several "deacons" and a staff of "full-time ministers." There was nothing obvious about it that would have made it any more likely to launch a movement that would become a religious cult than any other church, except possibly the strong desire on the part of the church leaders to see the congregation grow through conversions. This commitment to church growth coupled with a "prime mover" who had charisma, outstanding organizational ability and a highly authoritarian style of leadership seem to have been the central elements in the Crossroads formula.
Given an "eldership" that is committed to church growth and a "preacher" who has the personal ability and ambition to build a religious empire, the organizational and the psychological structures necessary to produce a cult already exit in every Churches of Christ congregation (as is the case with most "conservative" or "fundamentalist" Churches). These external and internal structures remain latent, in regard to their cultic potential, in the vast majority of churches because of the lack of commitment to growth and the lack of "leadership" resources within congregations. But churches are ready-made launch pads for cults, given the necessary attitudes and individuals.
The organizational structure of Churches of Christ congregations (in common with congregations in general) is authoritarian in nature. The eldership institution is a corporate model of leadership in which a board of directors presides over the membership, making (with or without congregational input) the decisions for the organization. In this model the preacher may be merely a spokesman, or public relations (PR) man, for the eldership. But, under certain circumstances, he may become something much more like the chief executive officer (CEO) of a corporation, given the authority by the board of directors to accomplish their agenda (which they assume is his agenda as well). When the preacher exchanges the PR role for the role of CEO, with the passive or active support of the board of "elders", the only constraint upon the expansion and exercise of his personal and political power comes from within himself or it doesn't come at all until it's too late. In the case of the Crossroads scenario, it didn't come until 1985 (see Part 1 ) long after the movement was out of Crossroads' hands and beyond its reach.
Since 1985 Crossroads has been struggling to regain a semblance of its former "glory", unwilling to learn the true lessons from its past primarily, the lesson so well expressed in the words: "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." In 1987, the Crossroads power structure refused to surrender its authority to the "powers that be" in Boston and be "reconstructed", as all congregations that were not "planted" by the Boston Church of Christ were required to do in order to remain in the movement. The Crossroads decision to refuse "reconstruction" was not because of any fundamental disagreement with the Boston methodology (the roots of which are firmly planted in Crossroads soil); instead, Crossroads withdrew because of the unwillingness of the Crossroads "powers that be" to subordinate themselves to Kip McKean, and to whomever he would send to do the reconstructing. The organizational structure so conducive to the cultic phenomenon remains intact at Crossroads
Just as important as the organizational structure to the cultification of a religious group is the psychological structure that is imposed on the minds of church members. The psychological structure corresponds to the organizational structure in that it is one of subordination to the over-lord-ship of the board of directors, or the eldership. Members who are unwilling to subordinate themselves, at least passively, to the decisions and directives of the eldership will find it difficult, if not impossible, to fit in. In congregations in which members wish,, for the most part, to just passively attend "services" and have no strong commitment to the church, this psychological subordination is easy to accept these members simply don't care. But the more actively members wish to participate in congregational affairs, the more they find themselves forced by the structure into active subordination to the ruling powers. If they are willing to accept the subordinate posture for the sake of their commitment to the church, they become comfortable taking orders, asking permission and being used. They develop a psychological structure of passive compliance with and active subservience to forces external to themselves. This psychological atmosphere is ready-made for cultification.
The psychological structure of subordination to religious authority not only corresponds to the authoritarian organizational structure of the Churches of Christ, but also corresponds to the legalistic and sectarian theology that the Churches of Christ share with all fundamentalist religious institutions. Legalism is simply a religious word for behavior-modification under the pressure of religious rules and regulations. Secretarianism, similarly, is a religious word for the "group-think" that characterizes every closed social system, in which people conform their thinking to the "party-line" of the organization ("what do we believe about this?") rather than thinking for themselves. In Churches of Christ congregations, the staff of ministers consists, to one degree or another, of law enforcement officers who impose the traditional rules and regulations on the members and tell the members what to believe and how to behave. How far they take the process of behavior-modification and mind-control depends on the seriousness with which they, and/or the eldership, take their responsibility to produce "committed" church members who will contribute to church growth.
In the Crossroads scenario, the organizational and psychological structures of subordination to religious authority were combined with an increasingly authoritarian, legalistic and sectarian message and methodology communicated and implemented by forceful and charismatic personalities. The predominant emphases of the Crossroads message were subordination to religious authority (called "submission to God" and "one another"), compliance with religious rules (called "obedience to the Word of God") and conformity of thought, speech and behavior (called "unity" and "oneness of spirit and purpose"). The traditional church structure was fine-tuned into a hierarchy of "relationships", a pyramid through which the "Evangelist" could exercise control from the top down. This control of both mind and body ranged from manipulation of the desires for recognition and approval to coercion through the passions of guilt an fear. And it was all done, very sincerely, in the name of the Church of Christ and the Kingdom of God. The Boston Church of Christ model is a fine-tuned and intensified version of the same system.
During the Crossroads years, the movement was tied into the Crossroads power structure through the relationship of Crossroads-trained campus ministers with the Crossroads staff. This proved to be too tenuous a connection in that by the early 80's the movement was on the verge of splintering into several sub-movements headed by different leading personalities. It is a testimony to the tactical genius of Kip McKean that he was able, through a gradual and arduous political process, to consolidate the movement under his headship by 1987. And rather than allow history to repeat itself, he has imposed a hierarchical structure on the movement that is designed to virtually insure its uniformity of activity and direction for many years to come. The pyramid has simply been projected from the local congregational level to the international level of the entire movement.
At the top of the pyramid sits the Boston Church of Christ, reinforced in its position by sayings like: "As Boston goes, so goes the movement." McKean spends varying periods of time supervising the next level of the pyramid, called "Pillar Churches". These branch organizations preside over the church "plantings" and "reconstructions" in their respective regions of the U.S. or other parts of the world. Their "Evangelists" are accountable to the Boston power structure, embodied by McKean, and are subject to removal from office and recall to Boston or transfer to another field of labor at any time (and they are continually on the move). The financial accounting for the movement is centralized in Boston. The Evangelists of the regional church plantings are accountable to the Evangelists of the Pillar Churches which oversee their respective regions. The Churches of Christ discipling movement has become a multi-national religious corporation, the power and authority of which reaches not only around the world but also down into the depths of each of its member's hearts.
The Churches of Christ discipling movement is only one illustration of the "progress" of a religious group from church to cult. And it makes clear that the difference between the two are merely differences of degree - quantitative not qualitative differences.
"Church" generally represents a kind of box in the lives of religious people; it is one box among other boxes, such as job, family, hobby, etc. Each box contains a portion of a person's life and each box competes for the largest portion. For most religious people the church-box contains a relatively small portion of their lives, and this is viewed by some church leaders as indicating a spiritual problem, a lack of "commitment to Christ". This, of course, assumes that there is a direct correlation between how active a person is in church activities and how committed he is to Christ.
When church leaders decide that God has called them to produce committed church members, they proceed to "challenge", "command", "exhort" and "admonish" their people to increase the level of their commitment, in time and energy and money, to church programs and activities, in the name of obedience to God's Word. This amounts to persuading people to stuff more and more of their lives into the church-box. A religious cult is simply an organization, the members of which have been covertly manipulated and overtly coerced into stuffing virtually all of their lives into the church-box. While most churches will never go to the extent of the Churches of Christ discipling movement in their methods of producing commitment, it remains true that total commitment on the part of the total membership represents the ideal, or model, church. Consequently, it would seem that the ideal church is a cult.
While God never intended for his people to divide their lives between the religious and the secular, it is clear that the Church does exactly that. By attempting to organize the Christian faith into a religious corporation (corporate officers, corporate treasury, corporate assemblies, corporate programs and activities), the Church has demanded that one's faith be measured by how much he puts into the religious box, as opposed to the other boxes of his life. In contrast, rather than creating an additional box to compete with the others, God wants to fill each box, or role, with his love by coordinating and harmonizing the contents of each in the faith. Accordingly, Jesus' ekklesia (literally, "assembly" but mistranslated "church" in most English translations of the Scriptures) is not an institution consisting of organizations; instead, it is a community consisting of individuals. And these individuals interact with one another not in religious organizations that remove them from the world but in spiritual relationships in the very midst of the world relationships that are in the world but not of the world (see Jn. 17:13-19).
Jesus, while in the flesh, rejected the temptation to impose his lordship on the world (Mt. 4:8-10) and later refused to be the kind of king that the Jewish people wanted (Jn. 6:14-15). People of the twentieth century, no less than those of the first century, are looking for a "messiah" who will relieve them of the difficult responsibility of self-government, which is the meaning of freedom.
Some are even willing to surrender total control of their lives to a messianic group that promises security and identity in the name of God. This explains the cult phenomenon. But even the risen Christ (unlike the Church of Christianity) refuses to take control of our lives. Instead, he offers the spiritual wisdom of salvation to anyone who will believe the testimony of the Scriptures about him. This is the spiritual wisdom that empowers us to govern ourselves according to the will of God, who loves us and calls us to love one another as he has loved us in Christ.