Nashville, USA -- Two former members of The Nashville Church have filed a lawsuit claiming the church uses cultlike tactics, manipulation, peer pressure and guilt to force members into tithing and making other financial contributions.
In their lawsuit, which was filed Friday in Williamson County Chancery Court, Jack and Kay Pelham of Red Boiling Springs say they joined The Nashville Church in 1998 and were required to contribute a portion of their earnings each year in the form of tithes and offerings. The Pelhams claim they were threatened with the "loss of their eternal salvation" if they didn't submit to tithing and fundraising efforts.
The Pelhams are seeking to recover more than $93,000 in tithes and offerings they made to the church, the International Churches of Christ (the denomination's headquarters in Los Angeles) and two affiliated charitable organizations. The couple had been members of the ICC for 17 years.
"These contributions, which were solicited under the guises of 'contributions for the poor' and 'special missions contributions,' respectively, were instead treated by the defendants as 'unrestricted funds' and diverted by them for the personal (gain) and benefit of several high-ranking employees and officers of the defendant corporations," the lawsuit states.
The Nashville Church holds services at the Stardust Theater on Music Valley Drive, near Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center.
Officials at the church would not return a reporter's phone call yesterday but sent an e-mail stating, "We have not been served with any papers and have no knowledge of whether a lawsuit has actually been filed. If it has been filed, we do not know what the allegations are yet, and therefore are not in a position to respond at this time."
The Pelhams allege that The Nashville Church, the ICC, Hope Worldwide, and Central and South America World Sector jointly participated in a scheme to defraud church members, who are not allowed to inspect the church's financial records.
Reached by phone yesterday, Jack Pelham declined to comment on the lawsuit, saying he wanted to wait until all defendants had been notified.
This isn't the first time The Nashville Church and the ICC have been called a cult. The denomination has been characterized on national television shows as manipulative, hyper-authoritarian and intolerant of dissent. The church was banned from Vanderbilt University eight years ago for overzealous recruiting practices, which include approaching strangers to recruit them for religious reasons.
Several Web sites are devoted to helping former members break away from the ICC. On one such site, Reveal.org, Debbie Campbell, a former member of The Nashville Church, stated that the ICC monitors members' finances and requires them to tithe 10% of their weekly income. She said each new member is assigned a "disciple partner" or spiritual mentor who is supposed to provide friendship and guidance.
The ICC takes a strict, literalist view of the Bible. The church has been accused of micromanaging its members' choices in friends, dating relationships and finances.
Hope Worldwide was founded by the ICC in 1991 as a way to help disadvantaged children and the elderly. The organization relies on donations from ICC churches as well as individuals, companies and government grants.
Tom Briscoe, chief financial officer for Hope Worldwide, said the church provides money to support a medical clinic in the country of Colombia and to pay for administrative expenses. "Of course, we have administrative costs," he said. "We do have to pay the light bills."
Hope Worldwide collected nearly $43 million last year, Briscoe said. About $2.5 million of that went to administrative costs.
Officials at the International Churches of Christ headquarters did not return a reporter's phone call.