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BCC tactics raise questions about "mind control"



By Seth Gordon

(Third in a four-part series)

According to the Cult Awareness Network, the Boston Church of Christ is a cult if it uses "mind control" techniques.

Al Baird, the BCC's lead evangelist, denies that he even knows how to control people's minds. "I have three daughters that lived at home for 17 years and I never was successful there." Citing Romans 7, he preaches that everyone's mind is either controlled by God or by Satan.

Baird and Kip McKean, his leader, claim that the first-century church suffered similar accusations. In Acts 24:5, they observed, a lawyer called the apostle Paul "a ringleader of the Nazarene sect." Sect, according to the BCC's leaders, is another word for cult.

Some psychologists also reject the concept of "mind control." According to Thomas Szasz, "A person can no more wash another's brain with ... conversation than he can make him bleed with a cutting remark."

Psychiatrist Robert J. Lifton, and many of his colleagues, disagree with Szasz. Based on his research of American prisoners of war who were "brainwashed" during the Korean War, Lifton drew up eight criteria for mind control which are commonly used in the anti-cult movement. Critics charge that three in particular apply to the BCC.

Mind control?

Milieu Control: This refers to control of communication, especially communication with the outside world. Psychological research shows that even outside of a cult, unanimous peer pressure will lead many people to lie about their own perceptions.

Unless it is for the purpose of evangelism, contact between BCC disciples and non-disciples is minimal. (Family members may be an exception to this rule.) BCC members are discouraged from talking to ex-disciples who have resolved not to rejoin the church. Byron Stewart '89, the leader of the MIT House Church, would not refer me to ex-disciples at MIT. Ose Manheim, a disciple who used to work at MIT, fears that some ex-disciples could manipulate new converts into "thinking critically."

Mystical Manipulation: Lifton also calls this "planned spontaneity." For instance, according to ex-disciple Peter Simon (not his real name), BCC leaders tailor Bible talks to suit prospective disciples. Some prospectives would then take this as a sign that God was working in their lives through the Bible Talks.

Simon described the following scenario for a BCC dating relationship. A man and a woman in the church will be matched by church leaders. "You get the female discipleship partner to say, `Hey, that brother really likes you.' " The male discipler will allegedly do the same. After a date, the man's discipler will tell the woman's, "My younger disciple says that your younger disciple needs to wear these kind of high heels..." The female discipler will then advise the woman on how to act. "With that kind of control going on," Simon concluded, "it's no wonder there are no divorces in the church."

Asked about "Christian dating" in the BCC, Manheim described no such process. One church bulletin article, "Dating to Glorify God," does say, "The right way to advance your relationship is advice ... [especially] from your house church leader and discipler."

Confession: BCC disciplers do not only give their disciples commands, but hear them confess their sins. Furthermore, this confession is mandatory; disciples should have no secrets from their disciplers. They also write prayer requests, distributed to others in their House Church, asking that their brethren help them overcome specific sins.

Critics say that these confessions are used against disciples who are thinking of leaving the church. For example, if a disciple has confessed to masturbating, and later becomes critical of the church's doctrine, other members would ask, "Have you been tempted to masturbate lately?"

Personality changes

In 1985, the BCC's elders invited psychologist Flavil Yeakley, Jr., head of the Church Growth Institute at Abilene Christian University, to study the BCC. Over one fourth of the disciples in his survey misspelled their disciplers' names. "That does not sound like the kind of relationships where intensely personal self-disclosure would be appropriate," he remarked.

Disciples say that since joining the BCC their personalities have changed for the better. They are grateful that the church has made them more loving, more outgoing, and more open about their feelings.

But Yeakley holds that the BCC's effect on members' personalities is not completely positive. The pressure to conform within the church, he said, is so great that many disciples falsify their "basic personality types," like left-handed children who are forced to use their right hand.

For example, of the over 800 disciples surveyed, 35 percent felt they were extroverted five years before they took the test, while 95 percent felt they would be extroverts after five more years of discipling. In general, he said, disciples were converging toward personality type "ESFJ" (extroverted, sensing, feeling, judgmental), one of 16 possible types.

McKean argued that since the BCC is trying to make its disciples imitate Jesus, Yeakley's research proves that Jesus was type ESFJ. Yeakley disagrees; he thinks people of all types can imitate different aspects of Jesus' life.

Later, Yeakley gave the same test to members of six mainstream religions, including the mainstream Churches of Christ, and six alleged cults, including the Church of Scientology, the Hari Krishnas, and the Unification Church ("Moonies"). Similar personality changes occurred in the alleged cults, but not the mainstream sects.

Simon claimed that there is a "group dynamic" in the church which is partly independent of the church leaders. For example, he said, imagine that you are a BCC disciple. You might decide, without being prompted, that you are eating too much. Overeating, according to church doctrine, is a form of the sin of debauchery. So you skip a meal and pray instead. In doing so, you'll be held up as an example in church, inducing others to do the same.

Simon lost 20 pounds when he was in the church. A former prospective, who wishes to remain anonymous, said that in some church meetings, girls would spontaneously break down and cry because they overate that week.