Getting involved in a cult is surprisingly easy.
You think you would never be so gullible, but trust me: you can be converted in next to no time at all.
If you missed it, read Part 1: How I joined the ICOC Cult.
Everyone wants to be a part of something bigger than themselves, right?
Things Cults Say
In fact, that’s one of the lines we would use a lot in the International Churches of Christ.
Here are a few more that years later make me laugh… or make me cry. It depends on the day.
- “If you’re not on the edge, you’re taking up too much space.”
- “Your indecision IS your decision.”
- “You can’t run from God.” (This is true, by the way, but we tended to use it as a weapon.)
- “Shy isn’t in the bible, sister. But pride is.”
After being in the ICOC for a few years, I found myself married to my spouse, with a couple of kids. This was not exactly thrilling to our disciplers, who had tried to keep us apart for a while, and then begrudgingly gave us permission to marry.
Well, first they finally gave us permission to date, then marry. Dating in the ICOC was similar to a lot of churches at that time (mid 1990s): the purity culture was all the rage.
Some of our friends even saved their first kiss for the alter, but us being the rebels we were, well… we definitely didn’t! Mainly because we sick and tired of the leaders not wanting us together, but cheerfully pairing up other friends with one another.
I was furious at our pastor for announcing to the entire wedding during the ceremony how we were saving sex for our wedding night. He hadn’t told me he was going to “announce” that, and quite frankly, 25 years later, I’m still pissy about it!
But that is another thing about being in a cult: your health and happiness aren’t a priority: “saving” people is. If someone in the attendance thought that was neat and wanted to know more about my church, then who cares that he embarrassed me publicly at my own wedding?
We went through pre-marital counseling and the couple leading it had been married (and I’m not kidding) a whole year.
We were expected to sit at their feet and glean their knowledge when they hadn’t even opened all their wedding gifts yet.
This was the first time I seriously almost left the church. I had told them I wasn’t comfortable taking oral birth control and had some questions. Why it was any of their business anyway I’ll never know, but I didn’t even think to question that. The man looked at me and bellowed, “Get on the Pill or you’ll have twelve kids in ten years!”
Besides being bad at math and biology, he didn’t have a real great bedside manner.
I didn’t leave though, and I did what I was told. The Pill was a nightmare to be on and my new husband didn’t mind at all when I told him I was done taking it six months into our marriage. Of course, nine months later, our first daughter was born.
In the ICOC, kids are definitely a setback, something to be put in “Kid’s Kingdom” (children’s church) as soon as possible.
They were not thrilled we were having kids soon (our second daughter came along 18 months after the first), but they were fiercely pro-life (with the exception of anyone questioning the mechanics of the Pill) so what could they do?
Parenting was addressed in the ICOC in a similar fashion to all of their other theologies: do A, B, and C, and you’ll get D.
A lot of rules and legalism, a lot of “seek first the kingdom” (the kingdom meaning the church), and books like To Train Up A Child and Growing Kids God’s Way (I do NOT recommend these books, BTW).
Having a husband who worked incredibly long hours in retail and dedicating our lives to the ICOC took a toll on me.
My first pregnancy and birth weren’t too bad, but the second threw me for a loop. I felt like a single mom. Every last evening and weekend was full of work or church activities.
I was the only new mom I knew who was breastfeeding so I was always getting banished somewhere to feed the baby, while the other moms stayed in services and groups with their bottles.
I suppose the church didn’t want any males eyes wandering to an accidently exposed boob? Who knows. I just know I sat on a lot of dirty public restroom floors with tears in my eyes as I nursed my daughter.
I kept getting mastitis, and I was trying to get through a blur of post partum depression. Still, I never missed anything the church asked me to be at, from Mid-week to Sunday services to Bible studies to door knocking to Discipling times.
We were drowning in debt and yet never even considered lowering our tithe. Our disciplers knew exactly how much money we made (or didn’t make) and anything less than 10% would have been a grave sin.
And then there was something called “Special Contribution.”
Special Contribution came once a year (sometimes twice) and it was a huge deal. You were encouraged (i.e. required) to tithe 40 times as much as usual, or even more.
It became a bit of a competition to see who could give the most. Leaders encouraged us to take out loans and credit cards if we had to, because after all, “God invented them.”
The money went to overseas missions, strictly ICOC based (after all, no other religious group could be trusted. We had cornered the gospel, remember?) or at least they TOLD us it went to overseas missions. More on that later.
I’ve been out for a long while, but I’ve heard that current members were told to give their COVID-19 relief money to the church as well. That definitely wouldn’t surprise me.
The allegations and lawsuits that have recently come to light also don’t surprise me. The problem with forgiveness and unconditional love is, abuse can run unchecked.
At this time (around 2003), we had a new pastor and his wife taking over our Boise location. They were incredibly young and inexperienced, but honestly, 99% of the ICOC fit that mold, at least in our Idaho location.
Maybe anyone over 40 could smell what was rotten? We rarely could convert anyone of a grandparent age.
After our new leaders had been leading the church for a bit, they had their first baby. Everyone clamored to bring them dinners and gifts and spoil them.
I remember distinctly when it was my turn to bring them a homecooked meal, I had to go get a Payday loan to buy the groceries. I roasted them a whole chicken with homemade barbeque sauce, a from-scratch potato salad, drinks, and a homemade dessert. I brought it all over to their house with a gift and a card, and our family ate popcorn for dinner.
A week later, the pastor told me they had received so much food they threw away everything I had brought, uneaten. He thought it was hilarious. I went home and cried.
Eventually, cracks began appearing in the surface of the ICOC. Things were happening that I was suddenly more aware of and questioning.
Things like, a woman I had been studying the Bible with was so eager to be baptized, but the leaders kept saying no. Sometimes it was because her house wasn’t clean enough (so she wasn’t repenting of her sins fast enough), and sometimes it was because they really liked “saving up” all the baptisms for a big weekend when the higher-ups from Denver were visiting because it made us look super successful.
I was getting really frustrated and so was she, especially since we had told her explicitly that she was in danger of hell if she wasn’t baptized.
She ended up leaving. I still think about her sometimes.
Other reasons for refusing to baptize someone would be: not having completed every last study, being a smoker, being a drinker (moderation was okay), not living in a town with a “true” church (i.e. an ICOC church), being sexually active outside of marriage, having a boyfriend/girlfriend who wasn’t interested in the ICOC, holding back sins, and I’m sure there were more.
Another weird thing the cult did a lot was re-baptizing people. This was done if someone frantically remembered a sin they had forgotten (so apparently God didn’t know about it either and thus it had gone unforgiven? Unsure.) or if they had “fallen away” and then came back and were “restored.”
It was a little tiresome seeing the same people getting dunked over and over.
Another time we were told to sign papers or we would basically be excommunicated. The papers were called The Evangelization Proclamation. I don’t remember a lot of what was said but every member had to agree, sign their name, and then they were plastered on the church wall.
I was the last person to sign; me and my friend, Genesis, who had been a member even longer than I had been. She always had a rebellious streak! I miss you, Gen, and know that you are partying it up in heaven, probably watching trashy reality TV reruns with Jesus.
While most of the cult was a blur of busy work, bad theology, dangerous situations, and legalism, there were some good things about it. (Or is that my trauma talking?)
Our closest relationships that we still maintain to this day came out of walking through those years together. When you are absolutely transparent about your sins, your struggles, your past, your hopes, your dreams, your marriages, your sex life, your kids, your finances, you can’t help but get very close to those people.
We treasure some of the friendships we made at that time, and to be frank, have never been that close to anyone ever since.
In Part III we’ll discuss what it took to topple Kip McKean and his higher-ups, how our little family decided to leave for good, our spiritual journey thus far, and where we are now.
Thanks for reading!