‘The Body’ Loses Its Earthly Head
Sam Fife, founder of the small “Body of Christ” sect, often traveled in his own airplane throughout the Western Hemisphere to visit groups of his estimated 10,000 adherents. On one such trip, April 26, Fife, 54, and three followers died. The Piper Commander that Fife was piloting crashed in bad weather into a Guatemalan hillside 120 miles west of Guatemala City. The victims were on a visit to the group’s Quiche Theological Institute and one of two dozen “wilderness” farms scattered across Canada, the United States, and Latin America.
Despite Fife’s death, the group itself, which also has been called “The End Times Ministry,” “The Movement,” and simply “The Body,” is expected to live.
“The local groups are autonomous,” explained an elder of a rural Greentown, Ohio, Body of Christ unit, organized after Fife conducted Bible studies in the north Canton area in the late 1960s. The elder told Akron Beacon Journal religious newsman Peter Geiger that the church would survive because “we don’t follow a man.… We follow Sam Fife only as he follows Christ.” Fife reportedly taught dependence on the Bible as a guide for life and on his teaching as an apostle of the group. The Body of Christ affirms a belief in continuing revelation, as spoken through the leaders, or apostles, of its various local units.
Little is known about the group, mostly because members shun publicity and live in remote areas. Several cult-watching groups, such as Spiritual Counterfeits Project in Berkeley, California, keep files on the Body—indicating that it is regarded as cultic by some. In certain respects, the Body of Christ resembles Pentecostalism, the Miami Herald noted, since members practice faith healing and speaking in tongues. But what made the group distinct was a bizarre event involving Fife soon after he started his ministry.
A former Miami contractor and country singer, Fife reportedly was converted during his late twenties in a Baptist church. Later he attended New Orleans Baptist Seminary and started his ministry in a New Orleans suburb. Soon after, he returned to Miami, where he lived until shortly before his death, and professed seeing visions that showed he would father a great prophet. He would bring forth this child through a woman who had brought to him her deaf son for healing.
With the consent of his second wife, Lee, and his church, Fife “set aside” his marriage for a year to produce the child. None resulted from the union, however, and Fife returned to his wife a year later, saying his visions had been a “deception of Satan.” He described his error in a tape-recorded message to Body initiates. And in a 1975 Miami Herald interview, he said, “Things I learned the hard way through that experience have helped me counsel other young ministers and helped them avoid the snares of the devil.”
Members live primitive lives on their “wilderness” farms, some of which are profitable, such as a turkey farm in Tuscarawas County, Ohio, and a British Columbia ranch where Belgium draft horses are raised. Members reportedly practice selfless, austere lifestyles in order to present themselves as the perfect remnant of the church upon Christ’s soon return.
Fife was quoted as teaching physical immortality. Joseph Santomen, a Greentown, Ohio, United Methodist pastor who said he’d lost several church members to the nearby Body of Christ group, concluded that Body members believe they still will be living at the “end time.” He told the Beacon Journal, “In the material I’ve read, there was very little evidence of Christ regardless of the name. There was strong evidence of the ‘end time.’ ”
The primitive farm existence reportedly spawned family splits when a husband or wife would move to the farm without his or her mate. At one time, reported the Beacon Journal, the Greentown group was alleged to have had a hand in the breakup of 15 marriages in Starke County, Ohio. A Greentown elder refuted that charge, saying, “We became the excuse needed by husbands who were running around, drinking heavily, and beating their wives. Some of the women wound up here instead of the insane asylum and we got the blame.”
Several child abuse and desertion cases reportedly have wound up in court, including some over withholding children from secular schools. Concentrations of Body of Christ followers are in rural Ohio, Florida, Mississippi, and Alaska. C. E. (“Buddy”) Cobb, a National Airlines pilot and leader of the Hollywood, Florida, Word Mission, has been mentioned as a possible successor to Fife as a speaker at Body meetings.
When local concern regarding the Greentown group—known as Christian Ministries—peaked in 1974, an Ohio United Church of Christ pastor, Robert Welsh, investigated its theology and style.
One of his conclusions, as reported in the Beacon Journal, was that “Christians are hungering for just the kind of challenge to faith which Christian Ministries provides.” But he added, “Those who are presumed to have spiritual authority [in] interpreting the Scriptures and applying principles of doctrine to daily life may, themselves, unknowingly be in error and be misrepresenting the truth.
“Faith,” he said, “has its vulnerabilities.”
Chumming to Dispel the Jonah Syndrome
General assemblies of the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (UPC) and the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. (PCUS) last month gathered under the same roof for the first time. And reunion of the nation’s two largest branches of Presbyterianism, split ever since the Civil War, was on the minds of many of the delegates. They met in separate sections of the Bartle Convention Center in Kansas City, although some joint meetings—such as a shared Communion—were held.
Officials from both denominations agreed that a formal merger is still some distance in the future. No major proposals for reunion were considered by either body, although each debated issues that would affect merger considerations.
The PCUS, popularly called Southern Presbyterians (congregations are found only in 18 southern states), and the UPC, sometimes called Northern Presbyterians (a national body, with many congregations in the South), have considered formal union for many years. But opposition to merger has come most noticeably from certain evangelical and conservative groups in both denominations. It was generally agreed in Kansas City that the evangelical-conservative wing of Southern Presbyterians, for example, had sufficient strength to veto any proposal for an early merger.
In a rare attempt to placate conservatives, each assembly authorized its newly-elected moderator to add two persons from “conservative circles” in his denomination to the Joint Committee on Presbyterian Union, which has submitted three plans for union to the general assemblies during its ten-year existence.
Delegates expected those representatives to be picked from evangelical caucus groups: the Presbyterians United for Biblical Concerns (UPC) and the Covenant Fellowship of Presbyterians (PCUS). These caucus groups have expressed concern that merger talks be based upon a “single, definitive statement of faith,” rather than on the variety of confessions held by both bodies.
A Covenant spokesman said, “We want to know before marriage of the two bodies what is the operative statement of faith.… I would prefer one something like the National Association of Evangelicals has, for example.”
Merger progress reportedly is stalemated in the Southern body, and one Joint Committee official blamed the hesitancy on Southern Presbyterians’ fear of “the Jonah syndrome … that they’re going to be swallowed up and not spit out.…”
Officials of both denominations expect merger will be witnessed through “grassroots” involvement before it can ever be formally adopted by the general assemblies. The Southern Presbyterian body requires a three-fourths vote of its 59 presbyteries (regional subdivisions), while United Presbyterian bylaws require an approving vote by two-thirds of its 152 presbyteries for adoption of a merger plan.
Already, eleven “union presbyteries” have formed. These are UPC and PCUS presbyteries in the same area that merge voluntarily into a single governing unit.
The drive for reunion appeared stronger on the PCUS agenda than on the agenda of the larger 2.6-million-member United Presbyterian body. The Southern Presbyterian assembly approved several measures—which require a vote by the presbyteries—that were seen as conducive to merger. For instance, a policy for “weighted voting” was adopted, meaning that presbyteries with larger constituencies would have greater voting clout in constitutional issues. Southern presbyteries last year voted down this controversial plan, which would reduce the voting power of smaller presbyteries that might hold up a favorable vote on merger.
The PCUS assembly rejected a proposal that would have redefined a “presbytery” as an area having either 15,000 members or 15,000 square miles of territory. This measure would have reduced the number of PCUS local units and, as pro-merger spokesmen point out, the number of votes needed for adoption of a merger plan.
A proposal to merge all overseas missionary work into one sending agency failed, but the two denominations will have a combined work in Mexico and will attempt to join future statistical reports.
As the titular heads of their churches, newly-elected moderators Howard L. Rice of the UPC and Albert C. Winn of the PCUS indicated their support for union of the two bodies.
Rice, a pietist-activist professor of ministry at San Francisco Seminary, won the hearts, as well as the votes, of the United Presbyterian assembly. A wheelchair-bound victim of multiple sclerosis, Rice is seen as being able to unite the various conservative and liberal wings of his church.
Winn, a Richmond, Virginia, pastor and former Louisville Seminary president, handily won election as Southern Presbyterian moderator. He defeated the more conservative Andrew W. Bird, Jr., a Norfolk, Virginia, pastor.
United Presbyterians again faced the issue of homosexuality. Last year the UPC assembly in a stormy session refused to endorse the ordination of practicing homosexuals (June 23, 1978, issue, p. 38). This time it voted to reaffirm that stance by a wide 10 to 1 margin. The Long Island Presbytery had sought to reduce the 1978 ruling from a binding to an advisory status. Avowed homosexual and pastoral candidate William Silver expected a judicial challenge by homosexual Presbyterians of the ordination prohibition.
The United Presbyterians did grant official status to, while not necessarily approving of, a gay caucus group within the denomination, Presbyterians for Gay Concerns. This reportedly encouraged the gays, as did softer opposition in the Southern Presbyterian body, which adopted by a closer three to one vote a position paper identical to the United Presbyterian decision of 1978 against homosexual ordination.
Meanwhile, both assemblies focused on a variety of social concerns.
The Southern Presbyterians narrowly voted down a bid to call off the church boycott of Nestlé company products, begun because of the company’s sale of infant formula to Third World nations. The United Presbyterians adopted a paper that approved the boycott method of pressure, spurred, perhaps, by a proboycott statement by Gordon-Conwell Seminary professor Richard Lovelace. The UPC also voted to boycott products of J. P. Stevens, the southern-based textile firm that has been criticized for its negative position on collective bargaining.
The United Presbyterians gave unqualified support to the World Council of Churches and its controversial $85,000 grant to the guerrilla-backed Patriotic Front in Zimbabwe Rhodesia. And Southern Presbyterians expressed “misgivings” toward the grant—prompting WCC general secretary and visiting speaker Phillip Potter to blame the press for “prejudice and misinformation” regarding the grant.
Feminist groups were an influence in both assemblies, and women’s concerns surfaced almost daily. The UPC adopted legislation to ensure fair representation for women on local church governing boards. It adopted statements favoring the Equal Rights Amendment, and government financing of abortion.
For evangelical caucus groups at the Kansas City gathering, one saving grace amidst “liberal” causes was a guest appearance by Ron Sider of Evangelicals for Social Action. During a breakfast speech, Sider linked social justice to commitment to the authority of Scripture.
Sider’s remarks prompted one caucus member to comment, “If only these Presbyterian churches could so balance faith and works, the world would pay more attention to their solemn assemblies.”
HARRY S. HASSALL
Unapologetically and Enthusiastically
Pending results of a ruling by a civil court in Bristol, Tennessee, King College will be “under evangelical management” next fall.
The 112-year-old Southern Presbyterian college was on the brink of financial collapse early this year when an ad hoc committee of evangelical Presbyterians offered financial rescue. Their condition, however, was—in the words of one of them—“to make the school unapologetically and enthusiastically an evangelical institution of higher Christian education.”
The existing board of trustees accepted that condition, and engineered a transfer of school control to a new board of trustees that had as its nucleus the ad hoc committee: Pastors Clayton Bell, of Highland Park Presbyterian Church in Dallas, George Long, of Lookout Mountain (Tennessee) Presbyterian Church, and Cortez Cooper, of First Presbyterian Church in Nashville; and businessmen Tom Cummings, a member of Cooper’s church, and Hugh Maclellan, an elder in Long’s congregation.
The proposed transition took place May 31. The old board of trustees stepped down, as did the school president, Roy Patteson. He resigned, he explained, to the Presbyterian Journal, saying, “I accept the fact that new leadership will be required to carry the college forward in this new direction.” All faculty were offered one-year contracts, but with a loss of tenure; 20 of 27 decided to stay on.
The new board selected Donald Mitchell, formerly the vice-president for academic affairs at Wheaton College, as new King president. His first task was to replace the school’s two Bible professors and one philosophy professor, who resigned after the change toward a more conservative, evangelical stance was announced.
Mitchell moved to the Tennessee campus June 1, but, as Lookout pastor Long noted, “He [Mitchell] is not in charge yet.”
Instead, a court-appointed proctor, D. P. Culp, a former president of nearby East Tennessee State University, has been overseeing business at the liberal arts college awaiting resolution of legal matters involved with the change in management. Long compared the current situation to marriage: “You ask if anyone knows any reason why there should not be a marriage, and if there are no reasons why there should not be, then the marriage is consummated.” Specifically, Long explained, “The court is to give a verdict on the legitimacy of the transfer and other questions associated with it and perhaps on the tenure question.”
At least one representative of the controlling Synod of the Mid-South was said to prefer to see the school close, rather than be turned over to the new trustee board of evangelicals. The Presbyterian Journal described a “counterattack” by persons opposing the transition.
But Long said he does “not anticipate” a blocking of the transfer. If the transfer does not go through, said one Tennessee Presbyterian pastor, the “college will disappear—being sold to whoever buys the bricks.” That would be a shame, say observers, in light of the surprisingly successful salvage effort by the five evangelical Presbyterians and their supporters.
The school was more than $1.5 million in debt earlier this year when the former administration began seeking help. School officials first intended to sell school property to the state, merging the college with East Tennessee State. When those negotiations fell through, President Patteson contacted Bell, who, along with others, expressed interest in the school when its financial plight became known.
A meeting with Bell, Cooper, and Long was arranged by Patteson and two of his board members. They met in a Nashville airport, where Patteson stated a desire to see the school remain alive and asked the evangelicals to “make an offer.” Bell said their offer, which later was unanimously accepted by the old board of trustees, was to pledge $300,000 to $400,000 over the next three years.
They would provide those funds (as explained in the terms of their proposal) if they could: secure faculty and staff who are “committed Christians,” make the Christian climate “the most distinctive feature of campus life,” and have required Bible courses, required chapel, and “Christian insight and perspective throughout.”
Bell commented in a telephone interview that something had “happened at the school in the last ten to twelve years that has caused evangelicals to lose confidence in it.”
The new board reportedly has indicated that the Southern Presbyterian presbyteries and synods will have less control over selection of school trustees. Otherwise, Long told a reporter, the board would have difficulty obtaining financial support.
The new board has procured a substantial portion of its capital from foundations, including one under the name of board member Maclellan. It had raised $900,000 in pledges by late April, believing the college will succeed because its increased evangelical emphasis is what Southern Presbyterians want.
“I believe King can become a very fine liberal arts college,” said Bell. “We have no dreams of trying to make it anything big—just to make it quality.”
ANDREW E. HELLEGERS, 52, Roman Catholic layman who was a pioneer in biomedical ethics, and founder of the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University, whose prolife views were reflected while he served on the late Pope Paul VI’s special commission on birth control; May 8, Uithoorn, the Netherlands, of a heart attack.
North American Scene
The Pope as antichrist remains a doctrine of the 400,000-member Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod. The conservative body reaffirmed that position in its official publication, the Northwestern Lutheran, as a critical response to recent dialogues of reconciliation between Lutheran and Roman Catholic scholars. An editorial cites in support a Lutheran statement of faith of the sixteenth century, the Smalcald Articles, which describes the Pope as “the very antichrist who has exalted himself above and opposed himself against Christ because he will not permit Christians to be saved without his power.”
The United Methodist Church as a denomination can be sued, according to a ruling last month by the California Supreme Court that let stand an earlier state appeals court decision. Elderly residents of the church-related Pacific Homes Retirement Complex had sued the United Methodist Church and several of its member units for $366 million in damages, which they said resulted when they bought lifetime care memberships and were later asked to pay more.
Campus Crusade has $60 million toward its $100 million goal for the first phase of the group’s international evangelism project, Here’s Life, announced project chairman and Holiday Inns cofounder Wallace Johnson at a Dallas, Texas, fund raising conference last month. But these are small amounts compared to the $1 billion total that Crusade President Bill Bright hopes to raise by 1982 for Here’s Life. Johnson told the gathering, mostly Texas businessmen unfamiliar with the Here’s Life strategy, that more than 200 Here’s Life campaigns are “in various stages of development abroad,” and that there is an “urgent cash need of $2 million to keep those campaigns going.”
International Christian Broadcasters has fulfilled its “original objectives,” said executive director Abe Thiessen, and for that reason the 25-year-old service organization for missionary broadcasting will cease all activities over the next two years. ICB helped establish many radio stations and served as a resource center for Christian broadcasting. Its extensive research and information files will be donated to the new Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College.
A new telephone “hotline” is keeping tabs on the pornography traffic, and clarifying misconceptions. Morality in Media, a New York-based interfaith group, hopes that greater public awareness will encourage more vigorous enforcement of obscenity laws. The 24-hour hotline number, (212) 870–3265, provides a three-minute recorded message that is updated weekly.
Graham Crusade Lifts Down-under Church
Billy Graham was the best bet for thousands of spectators who jammed Randwick Racecourse in Sydney, Australia, last month. Although the betting boards were lit and the parking lot was full, the horses were not running. The race was for souls, and the lights read, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”
The horse track served as the site for the evangelist’s Sydney crusade—the first three-week crusade for Graham in 13 years. Crusade organizers had not really expected Graham to accept their three-week invitation: Bishop Jack Dain, chairman of Graham’s Australian board, had said, “The letter’s not worth the stamp.”
However, Graham responded in the affirmative and returned for his first Australia crusade in 20 years. He told the crowd of 85,000 at the final meeting on May 20, “I knew that the invitation came only after thought and prayer.”
Ironically, the length of the crusade became its salvation. Extremely cold, wet weather in the first ten days kept away many potential attenders—and worried crusade organizers. Archbishop Marcus Loane, who organized the crusade, had expected an aggregate attendance of at least one million. (As it turned out, 500,000 persons came.)
But halfway through, Graham felt that “this crusade took a different course than I anticipated. Something deeper is happening that is beyond my understanding.”
A supporting parish clergyman from Miranda, Peter Watson, expressed a similar view, saying that “something wonderful is happening.” His wife responded to Graham’s altar invitation. “I didn’t want her to,” he said, “because it was not just accepting Jesus as Savior, but obeying him. It’s a very big decision.” Watson later went to the altar himself.
Prior to the crusade, there had been a controversy over Roman Catholic involvement. Some anti-Catholic sentiments were expressed within the Anglican Diocese of Sydney, of which Loane is archbishop, when the crusade executive committee announced that inquirers would be referred to participating Catholic churches. There were rumbles of discontent and threats of withdrawal of support within the diocese, which takes pride in its reformed and evangelical stance, and two local Protestant district newspapers editorially criticized the decision. Finally, a compromise was reached: any Catholic inquirers would be directed to nondenominational nurture groups, where they would be encouraged to make up their own minds about church membership.
The substantial influence of the charismatic movement probably encouraged Catholic involvement in the crusade. The movement, which has to varying extents affected all Australian churches, earlier revealed its strength with a turnout of 10,000 at a national conference in the Sydney Opera House in January.
Within the conservative Roman Catholic Church of Australia, charismatics have introduced Bible study for the first time. Hundreds of parish groups are participating, and some predict a second Reformation. Observers noted strong charismatic support—both Catholic and Protestant—during the crusade.
During the three years of crusade preparations, the involvement of the Uniting Church also posed a problem. At the time that Archbishop Loane informed a group of church leaders for the first time of his decision to invite Graham, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Congregational denominations still were agonizing over losing their identity in forming “The Uniting Church of Australia,” and they were edgy about committing themselves in advance: even if there was an official synod agreement to a Graham crusade—regarded by most as a logistical impossibility—who would determine representation at the committee level?
Many evangelicals believed a liberal theology would result from the merger, and as a result, some withdrew. In one state, more Presbyterian clergy stayed out of the union than went in. The result is a continuing Presbyterian church more evangelical than the Uniting body. This evangelical influence was revealed on the platform on the final Sunday of the crusade. New Presbyterian moderator, Campbell Egan, led in prayer. And Archbishop Loane referred to union, saying, “We would like to tell the world that there is a very real sense in which we are one because of the common faith we share in Jesus Christ.… We want to demonstrate our essential unity on that basis.”
The crusade was built primarily on a close working relationship between Anglicans and Baptists in this city of four million, although the Salvation Army, the Church of Christ, the continuing Presbyterian Church, and sections of the Uniting Church, provided some support. Anglicans were chairpersons of most of the significant working committees.
Some observers expect the Anglican Church will benefit most from the crusade, as it did after Graham’s visit in 1959. Some estimate as many as 1,000 converts entered the Christian ministry or the mission field following the 1959 event.
Church leaders are speculating how the 500,000 attenders and 22,000 inquirers will affect the church in Australia. Archbishop Loane said, “We hope that somehow this crusade may possibly set the tone for the closing years of the twentieth century in Australia.”
For crusade follow-up, participating churches have geared themselves to nurture group ministries; there is a willingness to involve the unchurched in Bible study and worship. Many church leaders see the crusade as providing new blood for the church: more than 52 percent of the inquirers made first-time decisions. For church leaders who felt they were fighting losing battles in evangelizing youth, and with politicians in maintaining community standards, the crusade may provide a boost in morale.
An unexpected consequence of the crusade will be the screening on 66 television stations of three videotaped Sydney meetings.
News media coverage of the crusade was sympathetic and generous for the most part: the Sunday Telegraph ran a four-page souvenir supplement on the crusade, and television interviews with Graham were numerous. Graham appeared on the national “Mike Walsh Show,” where he prayed for the conversion of Australians to Christ. This marked the first time he had been asked to pray such a prayer on television, Graham said.
Graham expressed no disappointments with the crusade, but it may raise questions in the minds of some local church leaders who consider future evangelistic projects. Although a committee under the direction of Bishop John Reid, a member of the Lausanne Committee on World Evangelization, worked hard to provide translation facilities and counselors in ten languages, some portions of the ethnic community in Sydney were not reached. (The ethnic population in Sydney numbers about one million—the result of massive post-World War II immigration.)
The crusade did bring together for the first time the ethnic parachurch groups with the mainline churches—that in itself, some observers point out, is a significant achievement.
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