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Disciples; doctrine-Obey, bear fruit, be happy

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analysis

By Seth Gordon

(Second in a four-part series)

Like all disciples of the Boston Church of Christ, Ose Manheim has to go to twice-a-week church services, a weekly Bible Talk, and occasional devotionals and seminars. She must read the Bible daily. Also, she has a "discipler," who gives her one-on-one spiritual guidance and hears her confession every day.

But Manheim doesn't tell non-members about these duties when she first "shares her faith" with them; she said they would think her "weird" or "stupid" if they didn't understand other church principles first. Also, "it's a spiritual understanding. God allows us to understand."

The BCC, which recruits heavily at MIT, says it is based on the Bible only, yet some of its sharpest critics come from other conservative Christian sects. They applaud the church for exposing so many people to the Bible, and concede that the church's basic theology is valid. However, they say, some of the church's techniques are un-Biblical.

The BCC's leaders reply that other church leaders are jealous of its high growth rate, and are not committed enough to following Jesus. Since Jesus was persecuted by religious leaders of his day, they argue, if the BCC is arousing controversy, it's a sign that the BCC is on the right track.

Thou shalt obey

All BCC disciples must have disciplers. Critics say that the disciplers, and other church leaders, exercise dictatorial control over their disciples' lives.

Manheim denies that church leaders even give orders; rather, they're suggestions or guidelines. She says she follows those suggestions because she trusts that the leaders have her best interests in mind. "The outcome will be good if the [follower] is faithful ... [The suggestions are] often misinterpreted as controlling, because the person develops attitudes of bitterness."

According to church bulletins and sermons, disciples must obey their leaders, unless the leader's command violates the Bible or the disciple's conscience. (Manheim said she has sometimes refused to follow a leader's advice for this reason, but would not give any examples.) The relationship between disciplers and their disciples should mirror that between Jesus and his apostles. Furthermore, disciples should be best friends with their disciplers, according to church literature.

"Criticalness of leaders" is considered a sin. One disciple explained that there is a difference between "constructive criticism" and "criticalness;" it depends, he said, on the critic's attitude. Ron Gholston, a former BCC House Church Leader, says all critics are told they have bad attitudes.

The BCC justifies its leaders' authority with Hebrews 13:17. In the translation used by the BCC, this verse reads, "Obey your leaders and submit to their authority." However, in the original Greek, the word for "authority" -- exousia -- does not appear in this verse. Gholston wrote that exousia appears 102 times in the New Testament, but never refers to any church leaders except the apostles.

By contrast, in Matthew 20:25-27, Jesus said: "You know that the ... high officials [of the Gentiles] exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave...."

Gholston wrote to the BCC's elders, critiquing the BCC's practice on Biblical grounds. He said that a few days after they received his letter, the elders fired him from his position as House Church Leader; they forbade other disciples from talking to him or reading copies of the letter.

Marty Wooten, a BCC evangelist, complained that religious critics of the church interpret passages like Matthew 20 "through the eyes of materialistic, self-indulgent Americans rather than through the eyes of disciples willing to go anywhere, do anything, and give up everything [to save souls]."

Thou shalt make converts

In one sermon, Rob Green, the BCC's campus minister at Boston University, said that if a given disciple is not making converts, it is because of unrepented sin in that disciple's life. No other excuse, he said, is acceptable.

To make converts, in the BCC's argot, is to "bear fruit." The consequences of "bearing fruit" and "fruitlessness," disciples say, are described in John 15: "If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit.... If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned."

One Biblical concordance lists 31 references to "fruit," and not one of those defines it as making converts. Rather, Galatians 5:22 says "the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control." The BCC hardly ever uses "fruit" in that sense.

Associate Dean Robert M. Randolph, head of MIT Student Assistance Services, has two graduate degrees in theology; he claims the first-century Christians were not as "fruitful" as the BCC preaches. "Jesus could not have gotten 12,000 people together for a service in the Boston Garden. If he had, half of them would have been informers and Roman soldiers."

Flavil Yeakley Jr., head of the Church Growth Institute at Abilene Christian University, observed that Noah preached for a century and only converted seven relatives.

Buddy Martin, a former minister in the Church of Christ in Cape Cod, wrote, "I fear some of the greatest preachers in the Bible could not make it as a [BCC] House Church Leader."

Thou shalt commit thyself

"As a disciple," Manheim said, "you give up your life. Your life is not your own.... Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, is for God."

Ron Lovejoy '90 joined the church in his freshman year. He says that he spent so much time with church duties that he had hardly any time left for problem sets. He left the church and took a leave of absence from MIT after failing Unified Engineering. According to Lovejoy, his Bible Talk Leader argued that Lovejoy flunked because he was not committed enough to the church.

Peter Simon (not his real name), another former disciple, concedes that the church motivates some individuals to study harder. However, he says, most disciples will get lower grades, switch to easier classes, or find ways to get good grades without actually learning.

Robert Watts Thornburg, Dean of the Chapel at Boston University, said that when he expressed concern about disciples' academic problems, Baird gave him a list of the BU disciples' grades. Thornburg claims that those grades were inaccurate. "Either the students were lying to [Baird], or he was lying to me."

In sermons and bulletins, leaders urge disciples to give the BCC all the money they can afford, if not more. Some, Simon recalled, were making $30,000 a year in computer jobs, but they had the same standard of living as students making a third of that.

In August, the BCC held its "World Missions Contribution." The elders encouraged disciples to give 20 times their regular weekly donation for this contribution. A month and a half before the contribution, one BCC Zone Leader wrote: "In the very short time left some will take on temporary extra jobs (like paper routes), have garage sales, and sell diamond rings, second cars, houses, and/or other valuables, and perhaps sentimental items. Some will skip meals, delay significant purchases, or dip into savings."

Disciples gave $2,520,554 for the World Missions Contribution. On the following Sunday, with 10,000 disciples present from all over the world, Baird preached that they should give even more.

There is no evidence that any BCC leaders are personally profiting from these donations.

Thou shalt be enthusiastic

Some critics say that because of all it demands of its disciples, the BCC is "works-oriented;" i.e., that it holds people are saved by their good works, and not by God's grace. Most Protestant sects believe in salvation by grace.

The church's real theology is more subtle. Disciples believe that if you commit yourself to being a disciple of Jesus, and are appropriately baptized, the Holy Spirit will give you the desire to perform the church's duties.

Hence, in the BCC's view, disciples who do not want to go to church, make converts, and so on, have problems with their relationship with God. If they are chronically unmotivated, their leaders will say they must not have received the gift of the Holy Spirit at baptism. Therefore, they must not have really committed themselves to being disciples of Jesus, and their baptism is not valid. Such church members are not really saved from Hell, according to BCC doctrine, and must be baptized into the BCC all over again.

Disciples say that they are happier now than before joining the church.