As leaders of the shepherding movement have re-evaluated some of their beliefs and practices, so have some of the groups those leaders influenced. One such organization is the Gainesville, Florida-based Maranatha Christian Churches, an umbrella organization of about 70 churches located primarily on or near college campuses in the U.S. and abroad.

As of November of last year, Maranatha dissolved as an international federation of churches, though about 45 churches in the U.S. (representing about 5,000 people) and an additional 25 or so abroad will continue to function independently. An associated organization, Maranatha Campus Ministries, will continue as a service organization to college campus ministries.

According to Lee Grady, managing editor of the Maranatha publication The Forerunner from 1981 until the organization disbanded, all the major personalities associated with the shepherding movement at one time or another addressed Maranatha gatherings. Grady said the concept of shepherding—that believers were under the authority of a spiritual shepherd—was widely accepted within Maranatha as a natural aspect of the Christian faith. “Maranatha was a revival movement,” said Grady. “Any revival movement will usually be characterized by excesses.”

An ad hoc committee of Christian scholars reached a similar conclusion in a 1984 report (CT, Aug. 10, 1984, p. 38), which stated, among other things, that Maranatha “has an authoritarian orientation with potential negative consequences.”

Maranatha spokespersons said the breakup of the federation of churches had nothing to do with the problems cited in the 1984 report, problems Grady and others said had, for the most part, been solved. They said that many local church leaders had come to regard a denominational-style structure as encumbering to their local ministries. The decision to disband was widely supported, including by the organization’s president, Bob Weiner, who himself made the formal proposal.

Different Interpretations

Weiner told CHRISTIANITY TODAY that he stands with his original assessment of the ad hoc committee’s report, alleging that the committee was biased against charismatics. Weiner labeled the CT report “yellow journalism.” “Ninety-nine percent of what we did was right,” he said. “It was the 1 percent that got reported.” He lamented that secular media have used the report to allege that his group is a cult and to imply that he exploited the ministry for his own financial gain.

It is widely agreed that Maranatha’s past problems were largely attributable to the youth and inexperience of its pastors. Some, in their early 20s, and having had no formal training, were in charge of entire flocks. In some cases, lives were closely controlled by these pastors, who received a “word from the Lord” about seemingly minute details of members’ lives: whether they should visit home for a weekend, or whether to switch jobs. Members were forbidden altogether to date, and could not marry without submitting the matter to pastors or elders.

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Many former members have reported fearing that leaving the group was tantamount to leaving God’s will and that this could result in retribution of some kind: a heart attack or car accident—even the loss of salvation.

Some high-ranking Maranatha officials, including Bruce Harpel, long-time pastor at the University of Minnesota campus church, disagree with Weiner’s assessment of Maranatha’s critics. Harpel said the negative publicity the organization received five years ago helped some individuals realize the group had problems it needed to address.

Harpel, who said he was “somewhat of an architect of the disassembling of Maranatha,” said that between the years of 1978 and 1985 there were “a lot of abuses.”

Harpel portrayed Weiner as a leader with good intentions and with virtually boundless enthusiasm for serving the Lord, who “got caught up in a revival” that grew beyond his capabilities as a manager. Said Harpel, “I think of the proverb that says, essentially, that the kingdom suffers when a slave becomes king. His rule is not tempered by wisdom; he rules by … intimidation or by force of personality instead of by the peaceable will of God.”

Though Weiner was mature in his handling of spiritual authority, according to Harpel, some of his followers who took their cues from Weiner were not. Harpel emphasized, however, that Weiner’s motives were never less than totally pure, and he categorically denied allegations of the secular media that Weiner exploited the ministry for financial gain.

Growing Up?

As young pastors matured and as the organization took outside criticism seriously, abuse began to wane to the point where it is extinct at “95 percent of Maranatha churches,” Harpel said. Some who have left Maranatha churches in recent times feel this assessment is too positive, though they generally acknowledge that each church must be evaluated individually, especially now that all formal connections have been dissolved.

Former Maranatha member Diane Fowlkes expressed concern that some Maranatha churches, now that they are on their own, could get worse instead of better. Fowlkes is part of a group of former members from churches at various campuses in the state of Michigan who have started to meet every few months to support each other in quests to overcome spiritual and emotional damage they suffered. She said, “A lot of people felt guilty about talking negatively about the group, because that’s the way we were taught to feel.”

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Joyce Cole, one of the members in the support group, left Maranatha last year not long after she was rebuked by someone in authority over her for not seeking permission before going home for the weekend.

Cole also said that counseling she received in the group led her to shun health insurance and give the money to the church instead. An accident in 1985 led to $13,000 in medical bills. She said she was not concerned about her expenses because of the ministry’s teaching that an individual’s need was everyone’s need. But as the years went by, she received no financial help.

In an apparent effort at reconciliation, she received a $1,000 check as a “love offering” from her former church late last year. It was accompanied by a request for her to sign a statement that she would never take legal action against the church, something she said she never planned to do.

End Of An Era

Harpel said there was no chance whatsoever that individual churches would one day decide to reassociate. Commenting on what he sees as the end of this era for the group, he lamented that criticisms of the group, many of them legitimate, have overshadowed the thousands of people on which Maranatha has had a positive effect. Regarding his colleagues, he said, “I’ve never seen people who would sacrifice more for the kingdom of God than the people I’ve been working with.”

Harpel said individual churches should confess their mistakes, apologize, and move on. He added, “I’ve seen an awful lot of immaturity, which has led to abuses. But I can honestly say there was never anybody out there who was out to deceive or defraud or hurt anybody or dominate somebody’s life. Everybody’s heart was pure toward the Lord in ministry.”

By Randy Frame.

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