Boston Church of Christ Movement Study Reveals Cultic Group’s Abuses
Michael D. Langone, Ph.D.
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:
- a 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);
- an 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;
- a 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
- two 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 (65.26) than InterVarsity graduates rated their group (46.00). 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 105.00 and 108.50, 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 the group.
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.