Boston Church of Christ Movement
Study Reveals Cultic Group�s Abuses
This study, which forms part of a
series of studies my colleagues and I are conducting, investigates the
nature and level of psychological distress of former members of the
Boston Church of Christ (International Churches of Christ) movement and
their evaluations of the psychological abusiveness of that group.
(The movement has been very controversial on many campuses in the
United States, and in Europe. It
is often considered one of the fastest growing cultic groups in the
world.) The study had two
components, one in which subjects were seen face-to-face and one in
which subjects received questionnaires through the mail.
The study attempted to overcome some
serious methodological limitations of previous empirical work in this
field through the use of:
standardized battery of psychological distress and background
measures, compiled by a research team at Ohio University and
Wellspring Retreat and Research Center (only subjects seen
face-to-face received this test battery);
objective measure of psychological abuse (a kind of �cultism�
scale), the Group Psychological Abuse Scale, which my colleagues and
I reported on in Cultic
Studies Journal, Volume 11, Number 1;
measure that asked subjects to rate their personal experience and
opinions about a long list of concrete practices for which the
Boston movement has been criticized (only subjects receiving mailed
questionnaires completed this measure); and
mainstream comparison groups � graduates of InterVarsity Christian
Fellowship (a campus ministry) and former Roman Catholics.
The former InterVarsity subjects were
expected to have viewed their group experience favorable, whereas the
former Catholics were expected to have more negative views of their
group. Comparing the Boston movement group to former Catholics tests
the hypothesis that former members of cultic groups rate the group
negatively simply because they are disaffected.
If this hypothesis were true, former Catholics and former Boston
movement members should be equally critical of their groups.
My hypothesis was that, although departure from a group may bias
one�s perceptions to some degree, this bias is not so great as to
prevent former members of abusive groups from providing relatively
objective opinions on those groups.
I also hypothesized that former members of the Boston movement
would exhibit higher levels of psychological distress and would show
considerable agreement about having experienced many of the concrete
practices for which the Boston movement has been criticized.
Heightened Distress Shows
The results, which involve statistical
analyses too complex to go into here, supported my hypotheses.
Boston movement subjects scored higher (�higher� meaning the
results were statistically significant) than InterVarsity subjects on
five measures of psychological distress (general symptomatology,
depression, anxiety, dissociation, post-traumatic stress) and higher
than former Roman Catholics on two measures of psychological distress
(depression and post-traumatic stress).
Former Boston movement subjects � in
both components � rated their group much higher on the Group
Psychological Abuse Scale than did either former Roman Catholics or
InterVarsity graduates. Not surprisingly, former Roman Catholics rated the Catholic
Church as less benign than InterVarsity graduates rated their group.
I say �less benign� because the average global rating of
former Catholics on the GPA Scale was still well below the score
separating abusive from nonabusive ratings. The GPA mean (average) scores for the two Boston movement
groups were 105.60 and 46.91, respectively.
The abusive/nonabusive midpoint score is 84; that is scores above
84 indicate the subject is rating abuse items as generally
characterizing the group and below 84 as generally not characterizing
Former Boston movement subjects also
disclosed extensive personal experience with concrete practices for
which the group has been criticized (this measure included 120 ratings,
so only a small number are reported on here).
In a section of the measure that inquired into recruitment
deception, subjects gave an average rating of 1.82, with 1.00 indicating
the statements reflecting deception were definitely true and 2.00
indicating the statements were probably true.
Members� subservience to leaders/disciplers was especially
conspicuous. For example,
92.5% of subjects said they had personally been told to �trust the
group and its leaders over the members� own thoughts and opinions;�
57.5% said they had to �get permission from your discipler
before going on single dates when beginning a dating relationship with
someone� (this 57.5% probably doesn�t include those who did not date
and for whom the question was not applicable); 27.5% had been told �to
break up a dating relationship with a nonmember;� 77.5% said they had
been �admonished or rebuked for making an important decision without
seeking advice from their discipler;� 87.5% had been told that �if a
person is not being discipled he or she is not a Christian.�
82.5% had been �chastised because they fail to imitate their
discipler or other leader.�
Variation in Negative Evaluation
On the other hand, the negative
evaluation of the movement, though strong, showed some variation.
Although 45% were told that �to be especially close to their
family is to be sentimental,� 25% said they we re not told this; 27.5%
said �they changed their life goals in order to confirm to the
group�s goals� but 32.5% said they did not; 55% said that �members
experiencing any emotional or psychological distress are told that
nonmember professionals should not be consulted,� but 20% said this
statement was not true. These
variations probably reflect: (1)
the capacity of former members to make discerning judgments in
rating scales (very few paint a stereotypically negative picture of the
group); and (2) objective differences in the local environments of
different Boston movement centers.
One former leader of the movement, for example, says �We tried
not to repeat any of the abuses we had seen in Boston in Nashville and
we think we were successful. . . The newspaper articles constantly
talked about the abuses of Crossroads and Boston, but they could never
actually pin anything on us and we intended to keep it that way� (�A
Diary:� Why I Left the Boston Movement� by S. M. Condon, 1991).
This study is by no means definitive.
We do not know how representative the volunteer subjects were of
the wider population of former Boston movement members.
We have not studies current Boston movement members.
We do not know if similar studies of other controversial groups
would produce similar results. The
study�s sample sizes, though adequate, should be larger.
Therefore, I caution readers not to do what some cult apologists
have done, that is, to make more of research results supporting one�s
point of view than the science warrants.
This study is one brick in a promising edifice of empirical
research studies that are underway, planned, or dreamed about.
I hope that in a few years my colleagues and I will have supplied
several more bricks for that research edifice.
This brief essay provides a non-technical summary of the study's major finding, in part
for the benefit of subjects who requested a report on the results. I am deeply grateful to
these subjects for the time they gave to this research. I also want to thank the people
who assisted in the formulation, implementation, or reporting of the study: Drs. Carole
Bohn and Ann Kelley of the Danielsen Institute; Drs. Arthur Dole, Paul Martin, and Steven Lynn; the
Reverends Robert Thornburg and Harold Bussell; Jeff Davis, Leanne Pellegrini; Blair Smith;
Melissa Kelley; InterVarsity staff members Ming Wei, Colin Tomikawa, Rich Lamb, and the
Rev. Doug Whallon; and Jodi Aronoff and Nataliya Zelikovsky, whose own research is closely
linked to this study. I owe a special debt of gratitude to Carol Giambalvo for her help in
developing one of the measures used in this study and to Dr. William Chambers and Peter
Malinoski for their expert data analysis and assistance in report writing. Professional
journal submissions based on this study will certainly have multiple authors.
The author is Executive Director of AFF, which publishes
The Cult Observer, and
editor of AFF's Cultic Studies Journal.
In 1995, Dr. Langone received the Albert V. Danielsen Visiting Scholar Award from Boston
University's Danielsen Institute. The Award helped to support his research and writing on
Church of Christ.