A Team of Cult Watchers Challenges a Growing Campus Ministry

Christianity Today/August 10, 1984
By Randy Frame

Bobby and Jan Bonner found out in 1981 that getting out of Maranatha Campus Ministries (MCM) is not as easy as getting in. Maranatha is a charismatic Christian campus ministry based in Gainesville, Florida. When word reached MCM headquarters that Bobby wanted to leave the organization to return to school, on of Maranatha's top leaders prophesied that the departure wasn't God's will. The leader, Joe Smith, told the Bonners they would face death and destruction if they left.

"I was terrified," remembers Jan Bonner, and they stayed. But in the last two years the Bonners and some 30 other full-time Maranatha staff members have resigned, in large part due to perceived heavy-handed tactics in the group.

MCM was founded in 1972 by Robert Weiner, who serves as president. Weiner was reared in a legalistic church home. As a young man, he dropped out of Trinity College in Deerfield, Illinois, to join the air force. There he became a Christian through the ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ. He and his wife, Rose, have since dedicated their lives to reaching young people with the gospel.

In 12 years, Weiner's organization has grown from a single ministry at Murray State University in Kentucky to some 100-campus chapters in the United States and in 16 foreign countries. Maranatha came to the attention of cult-watching organizations in 1981. Inquiries were coming in from parents worried that their children had unwittingly become part of a cult. They reported that their sons and daughters had undergone radical personality changes. Typically, their grades were failing, and they were giving Maranatha large sums of money that had been earmarked for education. Some were refusing medical and dental treatment, believing it demonstrated a lack of faith. Members told parents who questioned Maranatha that they were being used by the devil.

To address these concerns, MCM in 1982 asked the El Toro, California based Christian Research Institute (CRI) for a letter of endorsement. Weiner says he was shocked when CRI responded with reservations about some of Maranatha's beliefs and practices. CRI has monitored cults and aberrational Christian groups for more than two decades under the leadership of Walter Martin, one of the foremost evangelical authorities in the field.

In November 1982, several cult-watching specialists met with the MCM leadership in Santa Barbara, California. Maranatha brought along a team of theologians representing a charismatic viewpoint, including Charles Farah of Oral Roberts University and CBN University's Jerry Horner. Maranatha's leaders acknowledged there were problems. As a result of the meeting, a six member ad hoc committee was formed to help MCM address its shortcomings.

More than a year later, frustrated at Maranatha's lack of progress, that committee issued an evaluative statement highly critical of the organization. It was signed by James Bjornstad, academic dean at Northeastern Bible College; Steve Cannon, a regional director of Personal Freedom Outreach; Ronald Enroth, sociology professor at Westmont College; Karen Hoyt, executive director of Spiritual Counterfeits Project; Gordon Lewis, theology professor at Denver Conservative Baptist Seminary; and Brian Onken of CRI. Together, committee members have more than 50 years of cult-watching experience.

In its report, the committee says Maranatha employs faulty methods of biblical interpretation, questionable practices, and deficient theology-including an unclear view of the Trinity. The committee expressed skepticism about the regular revelations or "words from the Lord" that Maranatha leaders and members claim to receive. "It appears to us that there is at least the potential for the final authority to rest more with the 'revelations' of MCM leaders than the Bible," the report states. "MCM has an authoritarian orientation with potential negative consequences for members."

Unlike other major campus ministries, which operate as parachurch organizations, Maranatha functions as a denomination. Campus chapters are called churches. Local leaders are pastors, typically in their early-to mid-20s, with little or no formal theological training.

Pastors exercise authority over members. They have controlled the selection of marriage partners. (Maranatha members are prohibited from dating. According to Weiner's "dating revelation," dating is a worldly method of selecting a mate). Some pastors have kept detailed records of members' financial contributions. Those who don't give enough have been admonished for having a "spirit of stinginess." In an extreme case at the University of Kentucky, there was a revelation that women were not to use tampons. To members, disobeying a pastor is tantamount to disobeying God.

In turn, former pastors report having felt intimidated by the leadership in Gainesville. After Robert Pierce and his wife, Teena, were married, they wanted to take a few weeks off. Instead, they were told to start a new ministry at the University of Arizona. "We hardly saw each other for four months," Robert Pierce says. "I was afraid to disagree (with the leadership). There isn't a pastor in Maranatha who isn't scared to death of Bob Weiner." Pierce says his wife suffered an emotional breakdown; they are now going through a divorce.

Although the ad hoc committee calls Maranatha an evangelical Christian ministry, the report concludes, "Until we have clearer understanding of the changes which MCM claims are being implemented, and until we see more discernible evidence of change in the lives of people being impacted by MCM, we would not recommend this organization to anyone." Committee chairman Bjornstad says the language would have been harsher had it not been for concerns about legal reprisals.

Weiner says his ministry has done all it can to address the problems raised by the committee. "We've learned a lot, especially in the area of doctrine and Bible interpretation," he says, "We spent more than $46,000 to bring our (Bible study materials) up to perfect theological standards." However, committee members say the changes did not reach the heart of their objections.

Weiner says these objections are best explained by what he calls the committee's anticharismatic bias. "Two of the gentlemen on the theological committee (Bjornstad and Lewis) teach at schools that forbid speaking in tongues," he says. He also is skeptical of the claims of two committee members who say they are charismatics. In addition, Weiner charges that the committee based its report on interviews with a few disgruntled former members.

CBN's Horner says Maranatha has made "great strides" since the Santa Barbara meeting. "I don't agree with all their theology, but Maranatha is within the mainstream of orthodox Christianity," he maintains. However, he says he isn't qualified to comment on MCM's practices.

Enroth, author of four books and a frequent lecturer on cults and aberrational groups, asserts there are clear parallels between Maranatha and the cults. Many who leave Maranatha are plagued by depression and feelings of guilt, he says. They are spiritually disillusioned, and have trouble adjusting to life, especially in the area of decision-making.

"Being out of Maranatha was harder than being in it," says Kathy Myatt, who left in 1981 after three years in the organization. She says she was led to believe that to leave was to risk her salvation. "I felt lost without a shepherdess to tell me if what I was doing was of God or of the Devil." She spent several months in psychological counseling, and more than once considered suicide.

The committee faults Maranatha for discouraging critical thinking. Former members report that when they questioned Maranatha's beliefs and practices, pastors attempted to deliver them from spirits of rebellion or "mind idolatry." "There is clearly the possibility of exploitation in the guise of spirituality," says Bjornstad, "and I doubt they're even aware of it." Enroth adds, "What we call control, they regard as caring for the flock."

Several former pastors say they recognized problems in MCM and hoped the Santa Barbara meeting would lead to reform. But not long after that meeting, word circulated that Rose Weiner and Maranatha leader Walter Walker had received a "word from the Lord." According to their revelation, those who had gathered in Santa Barbara were under a "spirit of deception." CHRISTIANITY TODAY spoke with six former pastors who confirmed this. Weiner says he knows nothing about it.

Despite the controversy, MCM appears to enjoy a good reputation among many Christian leaders. Among those scheduled to speak at its national conference next month are Pat Boone, James Robison, Pat Robertson, Dee Jepsen, and Richard Lovelace. None of the speakers contacted by CHRISTIANITY TODAY were aware that Maranatha was being examined by the ad hoc committee.

Some of the tactics Maranatha has used to garner apparent endorsements are questionable. A picture of Billy Graham and a statement by Graham about evangelizing international students appeared on a Maranatha fund-raising pamphlet without the knowledge or permission of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

An impressive list of endorsements-including one from President Reagan-helped Maranatha gain membership in the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE). The NAE did question Maranatha about a problem on the campus of Ohio State University. MCM explained that there was a conflict with a leader there who had since left the organization. Weiner says there was no need to tell the NAE about the ad hoc committee. "The committee has never said there was anything wrong with our Christianity or our evangelical status," he reasons.

The MCM leader in question at Ohio State was [Mr. J.], 27, formerly a regional director of elders. He had doubts about what was going on in Maranatha. He got into trouble for approving the actions of a pastor who had pulled his church out of the organization. [Mr. J.] was flown to Gainesville, where the leadership accused him of being a betrayer, and attempted to cast demons out of him. Finally, he says, after Smith-one of Maranatha's top leaders-told him they were going to have to "take control" of his life for a while, [Mr. J.] resigned.

Despite the criticisms, few doubt the sincerity of Maranatha's leadership. Many have been brought to Christ through Maranatha. Members display an intense desire to follow God and live holy lives. But in practice, this has translated too easily into an obsession with being perfect. Critics say things may be changing, but that Maranatha has a long way to go. Former pastor Stuart Small, who left about a year ago, says the recent changes are mostly for public relations purposes and that the "wheels of authoritarian control are still turning."

Even charismatic theologians who have represented Maranatha to the committee do not support the ministry uncritically. Farah and Horner believe the committee overstated its case, and they have called for Maranatha's acceptance by the Christian community. Yet both affirm that the committee's concerns are legitimate. Farah says Maranatha has demonstrated "extremist tendencies" in theory and in practice. He says the organization should submit itself to mature Christians capable of providing guidance.

At least for now, however, further dialogue between Maranatha and the ad hoc committee appears unlikely.

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