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Christians on Campus cult rumor

When I began my graduate work at the University of Texas at Austin, I encountered a wonderful Christian group called Christians on Campus (I’ve mentioned this in my very first blog post entitled “Christians on Campus”). I learned so much about the Bible every time I met with them, and my experience of Christ grew. However, I was advised by an acquaintance to beware of this group. She said she had heard from someone else that Christians on Campus was a cult. That one word “cult” evoked in me all kinds of negative feelings and thoughts. I even stopped meeting with the group for a period of time in order to sort through this matter. I compared what I heard from this “concerned” person with what I had experienced of Christ and learned from the Bible during the previous six months of fellowship. In the end, I realized that what I had heard from this acquaintance did not match with what I had actually experienced with Christians on Campus. I decided to dismiss the so-called warning as a rumor and continued to fellowship with the group. Yet that one, little word “cult” nearly caused me to miss out on real and meaningful Christian fellowship. Unfortunately, many young Christians have been totally derailed in their pursuit of Christ because of some loosely tossing around that one word, “cult.”

The story behind the rumor

The word “cult” is a powerful, emotionally-charged buzzword. It evokes suspicion, fear, and distrust. How could a Christian group which rendered me so much help be casually referred to by others as a cult? How could a Christian group which has been on a major university campus for over 30 years come to be called a cult?

Although “warnings” like the one I received may be innocently passed on by fellow Christians with a good intention, it turns out that the source of these rumors is intentionally harmful. These rumors about Christians on Campus being a cult originate from an article published by Rachael Alterman in a UT magazine entitled UtmosT in 1991 (which went out of business a couple of years later). I was a graduate student at UT then, and was very much aware of the situation. Prior to this, a friend of hers (L. Wimberly, a member of Campus Crusade for Christ), had published in The Daily Texan campus newspaper on May 1, 1990, a very damaging article about Christians on Campus being a cult. Within a week, both the editor and managing editor published an apology, stating that they deeply regretted the many errors in Ms. Wimberly’s story, especially the use of the word “cult” (The Daily Texan, May 7, 1990). After the apology was printed, Ms. Wimberly, intending to get revenge for being “called on the carpet” for seriously unprofessional journalism, prompted her friend Rachael Alterman to publish an article in UtmosT magazine.

Persecution among Christians

The sad truth is that name-calling and mudslinging often occur between fellow Christian groups. Obviously, this is extremely detrimental to the unity of the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 1:10; John 17:21). What’s worse is when this happens without any attempt to meet face to face and discuss perceived issues. Or still worse, when it is purposefully done despite knowing the facts are different. It turns out this is the case with the article that was written about Christians on Campus. All of the information in Rachael Alterman’s 1991 UtmosT article was a rehashing of material from the 1970’s when the cult frenzy in America was at its heyday (please see http://christiansoncampus.us). The original material itself was judged false and libelous on June 5, 1985 in the Superior Court of the State of California. Judge Leon G. Seyranian concluded that every single accusation in that material was false, defamatory, unprivileged, and therefore libelous. Thus, the charges Alterman levies against Christians on Campus are simply unwarranted.

Christian Research Institute claimed “We Were Wrong”

In contrast to the UtmosT article, Christian Research Institute (CRI) took the time to reassess Christians on Campus and their supporting churches and reached a very different conclusion in 2009. They decided to look into these rumors for the same reasons I did—things just weren’t lining up. President of CRI, Hank Hanegraaff, put it this way:

“What happens when someone looks you in the eye involved in a ministry and tells you point blank, ‘No, what you say we believe is not really what we believe?’ So we started six years ago, now almost seven years ago, a primary research project, and out of that we ended up doing an article in the Christian Research Journal which ended up encompassing the entirety of the journal. The words on the cover of the journal were ‘We Were Wrong.’ The reason that we overtly communicated we were wrong is because truth matters.”  (Watch Hank Hanegraaff speaks at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uZ6GUTbkHkE)

CRI was the original source of the research that was used to write the material back in the 1970’s. However, after six years of primary research and extensive dialogue they concluded that Christians on Campus and their supporting churches are not only not a cult theologically or sociologically, but have much to offer. At a club meeting at the University of Southern California in October 2011 where he was a guest speaker, Hank Hanegraaff stated that “in the case of Christians on Campus, for example, this is an organization that holds to essential Christian doctrine.” (For the whole video see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ws0zrzWp2Qo.)

Gretchen Passantino, who participated in this dialogue, described the group in 2009 as “orthodox but startlingly vibrant” and that Christians who meet with them will find “sound theology, enriching worship, challenging discipleship, and enthusiastic evangelism opportunities.” This resonates with the deep joy and meaningful fellowship I experienced from my own years at UT with Christians on Campus.

More on CRI’s assessment can be found in the entire issue of Christian Research Journal they devoted to the topic entitled, “We Were Wrong: A Reassessment of the ‘Local Church Movement of Watchman Nee and Witness Lee,” 2009, Vol. 32, No. 6.