Claims of cruelty, brainwashing and excessive control dog church at FIU

When Emmett Kellogg emerged from the waters of the baptismal pool – actually a Los Angeles swimming pool – he was surrounded by the cheers and chants of his friends. He felt like he was home. 

It was March 2013, and Kellogg had just become a member of the International Christian Church (ICC), L.A. Chapter. A self-described Protestant, he had always yearned for a student organization where he could practice his beliefs while studying at California State University, Fullerton. However, he couldn’t have known that his almost-two-year experience with the ICC would forever change his understanding of the faith. 

“It was a high-pressure environment,” Kellog said. “Not only was my salvation put into doubt, but how I dressed, how I behaved, and my relationships with friends and family. I felt like I was in a pyramid scheme about to collapse.”

Kellogg is not alone in feeling this way. According to in-depth interviews with three ex-members as well as published reports from the Washingtonian magazine, the Daily Mail, The Miami New Times and the Boston Globe, scores of former members have claimed abuse, brainwashing, and excessive control of their personal lives —- in at least one case, a former member attempted suicide.

The International Christian Church is a controversial religious movement with over 10,000 self-proclaimed members motivated by the divine mission of bringing as many unbelievers as possible to the true and only church. 

It was founded in 2006 by the late evangelist Thomas Wayne “Kip” McKean II with the goal of converting the whole world within a generation. This sharp expansionist doctrine has allowed the church to quickly spread across America and the globe, maintaining a presence in 48 countries. This growth is especially evident on college campuses where the ICC heavily targets college students like Kellogg by presenting itself as a non-denominational student religious group. Yet, its methods have not always been well received.

“If people don’t hear the message, they don’t have the hope,” said Pastor Matt Sullivan, leader of Metro Miami Church — the South Florida branch of the ICC, located at Florida International University’s Biscayne Bay Campus in the Wolfe University center. “Jesus loved God more than he loved any other relationship. So I’m called to do the same. Jesus went and made disciples, he laid down his life for the people; thus, if I’m going to be a disciple, I’m called to do the same. If I’m not a disciple, then I’m not with him.” 

The ICC preaches a complete abandonment of one’s lifestyle in service of the church. According to McKean’s own book published in 2020, “First Principles and Follow-Up Studies,” the doctrine of the church is characterized by a strict interpretation of the New Testament concepts of “discipleship” and baptism. 

In particular, the ICC emphasizes “heavy shepherding” — an organization method that requires every member to submit to a fellow “discipler,” confess all their sin to them, and follow their spiritual advice with almost unquestionable loyalty. Furthermore, the ICC actively rejects any outside interpretation of the Bible and sees all other religions as unsaved; even other Protestant denominations are not considered valid. This is also reinforced by the ICC’s belief that they are the continuation and restoration of the primitive Christian church.

“This cult has destroyed many people’s lives financially, emotionally, and spiritually,” Jenny Hunter, a former true believer, told Miami New Times in a story about the son of a former Florida governor who joined the ICC. “People have committed suicide.”

Hunter, who now helps counsel individuals trying to escape cultish organizations, joined a previous iteration of the ICC known as the International Churches of Christ (ICOC) while a senior at Georgetown University in 1993. 

According to her testimony in both the Washingtonian and The Hoya, Georgetown’s student newspaper, she was approached by ICOC through small Bible study groups while she was vulnerable and struggling with depression. Like all new members, she says, she was first welcomed with open arms into a family of fellow believers. 

However, as time passed, the charm slowly disappeared. She was not only forced to declare that her family was going to hell, but also she had to write lengthy “sin’s lists” which were given to her “discipler.” The initial expressions of love the ICOC showed her quickly became legalists’ moral mandates that made it impossible to focus on anything else but the church. 

According to her, the ICOC made her break off almost all contact with family and friends, relocate to San Francisco, and wed into an arranged marriage. She eventually left the group 12 years after joining when the church publicly shamed her for not having converted her dying mother-in-law. 

“Basically, for four to six hours, as I was grieving this woman’s death, I was told that I was responsible for her burning in hell,” Hunter said.

Hunter’s story is far from being an isolated case. The ICC’s doctrines have led other Christian organizations and newspapers to accuse it of being a cult. Founder Kip Mckean vehemently rejects such accusations. 

“Some call us a cult and accuse us of brainwashing and mind-control,” said McKean on the last page of one of his many Christian manuals. “Yet, the facts are that lives have been radically changed, marriages have been healed, drug addicts have been freed, and the poor have been fed. This rapidly growing movement is spreading around the world just like the first century!”

Emmett Kellogg didn’t know about this debate when he stepped out of the Baptismal pool in Los Angeles in 2013. For him, it was just another congregation doing its best to spread a message he also believed in. Yet, it was not like anyone was ever going to tell him; the ICC avoids disclosing any hard doctrine or history to its new members. According to Kellogg, the ICC does everything it can to prohibit its members from discussing any of its past controversies — even banning references to cases like Hunter’s or Kip Mckean’s history.

Indiana native McKean converted to Christianity while studying at the University of Florida and was baptized in 1972 in the Gainesville Church of Christ. He started his ministry as a college pastor, preaching a remastered version of the Restoration Movement — an early 19th-century religious revival that sought to return to the “New Testament basics.” 

McKean moved to Boston in 1979, where he took over the struggling Lexington Church of Christ and renamed it the Boston Church of Christ. Before long, the charismatic young pastor was drawing thousands to his services with his powerful preaching style. The explosion in membership was so large that “discipling churches” began to appear throughout the country. This, in turn, led to friction with his old congregation. McKean and the Churches of Christ split ways in the late ‘80s, and the Boston movement became the International Churches of Christ (ICOC).

“When people are dissatisfied, you have a member of the church who usually feels that he understands the Bible better than the pastor and decide to create his own group,” said FIU Professor Daniel Alvarez, an expert on American Protestant theology. “That by itself does not make a new movement a cult. Yet, it can be called a cult in the pejorative sense when the leader starts attributing to himself special powers or a special inspiration that gives him divine authority to demand his followers only listen to him.” 

Time magazine ran a full-page story in 1992 referring to the ICOC as “one of the world’s fastest-growing and most innovative bands of Bible thumpers.” The once 30-member Boston church had transformed into a global empire of 103 congregations from California to Cairo, with a total Sunday attendance of 50,000.

At this point, McKean organized the church around the rigid “discipleship” system, reaffirming his control over the growing congregation. 

“This idea of total submission is a hallmark,” said Alvarez. “That’s when a separate group evolves into a cult. You will soon have individuals who feel that their special anointing endows them to do whatever they want.” 

 McKean also gave into the idea of evangelizing the world in his generation, making recruitment an indispensable part of his church’s doctrine and establishing weekly baptism quotas as an de facto requirement for its members. This emphasis on numbers and authoritative methods led to growing opposition within the ICOC and subsequent public condemnation. 

Around this time, stories like Jenny Hunter’s broke out and revealed the church’s darkest side, leading to increasing scrutiny. The religious empire that was the ICOC started to collapse as members began to leave, and colleges to ban its teachings. Soon the church found itself in financial and legal troubles, having to shut down missions abroad and cut down expenses. 

This culminated in McKean’s resignation in 2002. However, within a year, he took over a struggling church in Portland, Oregon, and started his movement all over again, founding the International Christian Church (ICC) in 2006. This latest reiteration of McKean’s vision of Christianity is the one Kellogg belonged to and the one currently present at FIU. 

“I didn’t feel comfortable with everything they were saying,” Kellogg explained. “But I couldn’t leave. I would ask myself, what’s my purpose in life now? The church had become everything to me.”

The ICC threw everything it had to Kellogg within a few months of joining. He was expected to attend not only Sunday service but also midweek service, Friday night devotionals, leadership meetings, weekly Bible studies, worship nights, and any other events the church may come up with. Moreover, the ICC also asked for not just a sacrifice of his time but also of his pocketbook.

“If you didn’t give or started falling behind in some events, you would be put under church discipline,” Kellogg said. “They’d take you in front of the church and confront you. And the main issue with that is that to be put out of the church is to lose your fellowship with God.”

One ex-member of the Miami ICC who was with the church for a year, claims the church slowly started exerting control over life decisions such as job opportunities, trips, classes, and even the clothes he wore. The church even asked him to consider putting aside a new job and instead devote himself to Christ. He declined to be named because he claims members followed him around after he left.

“Sometimes I wouldn’t make it to Bible studies because I was sick and the very next day they would start acting weird,” he said. “They would bombard me with calls and even show up at my house and job without letting me know. It was scary.”

Kellogg suffered a similar scare. He was told that any activity or relationship that took too much time away from God needed to be cut off.

“They did, obviously, tell me your family is not saved, that they were going to hell,” he said. “I was told not to associate with certain people and to not even speak to them.”

But the burden was becoming too much for the then college senior. Kellogg was fully immersed in the church and had ascended the ranks to the point he was evangelizing others through his own bible studies.

“I felt I was deceiving people by trying to basically get them to a study where I was going to spring on them the fact that they’re not saved,” he said. 

Kellogg slowly stopped going to the ICC. He read books and watched videos from other denominations to better understand his faith. One day, the church cut him off. His old friends were banned from speaking to him and Kellogg was asked never to reach them again. A year and a half after he was baptized, he officially left the ICC.

“The church severs ties emotionally and psychologically with any ‘unbeliever;’” he says, “I couldn’t deal anymore with the legalism and the lack of grace in their gospel. I just needed to break it.”

Steban Rondon is a digital journalism student at Florida International University and a member of the Honors College. One of Steban's defining traits is his profound academic dedication, accompanied by his infectious charisma and his genuine interest in giving a platform to all stories. Steban is also well-known for his intellectual curiosity that extends to multiple domains, encompassing the arts, humanities, politics, philosophy, and the law.