What is the UBF group? …This is difficult to answer because UBF is a loose network of chapters on college campuses around the world, bound together by specific ideology called “kingdom of priests and holy nation” (KOPAHN). As of 2014, UBF had 323 chapters, with headquarters in Chicago, IL USA. Each chapter has a chapter director, who in recent years is sometimes called “pastor”.
Out of 323 chapters, about half (159 to be exact) are nothing more than one family living by themselves near a campus, called a house church in UBF terminology. The other half of the chapters consist of two, three or more families. The largest chapters in the US outside of Chicago are in the Washington D.C. and Los Angeles areas. Day to day management of these satellite chapters is left to the local chapter director normally. The power center chapters, often called HQ or headquarters, generally have a hands-off attitude. Instead of going out to support the satellite chapters, each HQ chapter is seen as sort of a base camp, where members go to be re-charged in their faith. Monetary support is not given to the satellite chapters except in extreme cases. Instead, offering money is sent into the HQ chapters.
UBF is a private community. Rarely have outsiders seen what I have seen. Only students are allowed inside and as such only an insider like myself can describe what the community is like. Outsiders will typically see a conservative evangelical Bible study fellowship with a few strange additions that might be dismissed as just being part of Korean culture.
The UBF system is built on something called one-to-one Bible study. Every new student recruited on campus is assigned a personal, lifelong shepherd to watch over his or her life. The shepherd is to be a spiritual parent for the student. He or she is responsible for the moral and spiritual performance and growth of the student into the UBF system.
In the future, this personal shepherd will work with the chapter director to arrange the student’s marriage. Above all, the shepherd’s job is to keep the student (called a sheep) in the hierarchal system of shepherds. This hierarchy and control mechanism is called spiritual order by the group. This idea of spiritual order is similar to the classic multi-level marketing strategy of recruiting. UBF might be called a spiritual Ponzi scheme. As such, the structure of the UBF organization is constantly falling apart. Every 10 years or so, the system faces a crisis situation during which time many members leave. Every few years, the shepherds have to start all over with finding a new student as the scheme repeatedly falls apart.
After more than 50 years of existence, a valid question still haunts UBF. Is UBF a church or para-church or what? On some UBF websites and building signs, you will find UBF referring to itself as a church. Many in the group however avoid making such a clear commitment to being a church, even though they celebrate their own Sunday services and collect offerings. Sometimes UBF is called a para-church organization. UBF was comfortable with that term in the early days, but now they typically avoid that term as well. So what is UBF? Is it a church? Is it a para-church? Such lack of organizational identity causes much confusion in the local campus chapters.
Outside observations about the group are rare since the leaders intend to keep a low profile, wanting as little publicity as possible. Even so, there are some public interactions. Dr. Ronald Enroth’s 1992 book, Churches That Abuse, contains a case study in chapter 5 about UBF. Here is a quote from the book about Mr. Enroth:
“[Enroth] is a leading scholar and national resource on cults and cultism whose special perspectives are heartily welcomed by both the secular and the religious society. He is professor of sociology at Westmont College and the author of many books on cults and the new religions including The Lure of the Cults and New Religions and Evangelizing the Cults.”
Some may discount Enroth’s observations about UBF, claiming the group has changed since 1992. However, I find his work stunningly accurate in 2015. Most insiders to the group will readily recognize Enroth’s observations 23 years later. This longstanding validity of his work is a testament to the quality of his work.
The abuses exposed in Enroth’s book are often dismissed by the group. They claim that only Samuel Lee did such things and that such events only happened in the 1970’s or 1980’s. This is hypocritical because the group praises Lee so much. Is Lee to be praised or criticized? I write as a witness that not only are these events typical, they are currently happening in UBF chapters around the world. While it is true that Lee was often excessively brutal, the same methodology and ideology are in play today, often behind the scenes, hidden behind the ruse of Bible study. So while UBF leaders can no longer openly train students in today’s world, they still wish to do so. One senior Korean missionary lamented to me in 2015 on social media, “Somehow we used to be able to control students better in the past.” Indeed, in the absence of world-wide, instant communication, control was easier in the past.
In addition to Enroth’s book, there are some local television reporters who did brief investigations into some UBF chapters. This happened at UIC and Triton in Chicago. TV reports were also produced about UBF chapters in Toledo, Cincinnati, Columbus, the University of Maryland and Winnipeg, Canada. Numerous newspapers, like the student newspaper at Johns Hopkins, have also run stories about UBF. The central question of these television reports and newspaper stories is this: Is UBF a cult or just a devoted church group? The conclusion is always that UBF is a mixed bag. Some students love it; others despise it.
Outsiders cannot explain this phenomenon. But as an insider, this mixed bag perspective makes a lot of sense. The new students who are being love-bombed and who may be experiencing genuine Christian faith, think UBF is wonderful. They do not yet see the problems and the covered up abuse. The leaders of course speak glowingly of how great UBF is. This is understandable because they have invested so much of their lives for the ministry. They often are the ones doing the cover ups. This is a big reason I decided to write this book. I want everyone, both insiders and outsiders, to understand what has been going on and what UBF is currently doing. The simple answers are contradictory and do not satisfy me, so I have done extensive research and analysis to find answers.
As of 2015, these are the groups with files of information about UBF that I am aware of: the New England Institute of Religious Research, the Concern Group on Newly Emerged Religions in China, the Cult Information Services of Northeast Ohio, the Apologetics Resource Center, the Apologetics Index, the Cult Education Institute, and the Cult Commission of Germany. In addition, the now defunct CAN (Cult Awareness Network) had massive amounts of information collected about abuse at UBF. In fact, in my day, in the 1980’s, we sometimes talked about the CAN deprogramming events at UBF. Many of these sources are noted in the 2004 petition to remove UBF from the National Association of Evangelicals in the United States. Furthermore, Moody Church in Chicago has many reports about UBF. Numerous former members have studied there. I would encourage you to seek out these groups and compare their notes with my claims in this book.
The other major interaction between UBF and the outside world came when UBF leaders met John H. Armstrong, a Reformed minister, author and founder of ACT3 ministries, during their search for recommendation letters in the mid 2000’s. He was teaching a class where a high-ranking UBF director happened to be a student at Wheaton College. This is ironic because UBF leaders traditionally have preached against such seminary studies, labelling systematic theology as “godless chatter”. And yet because of this one class taken by an American shepherd leader, UBF may be forever changed.
John Armstrong’s influence on UBF has been impactful, to say the least. I commend John for his work with UBF, and count John among my personal friends. John has extensive interactions with me and with the group. John Armstrong was asked to be a kind of mediator, and temporarily joined the newly formed UBF Ethics and Accountability Committee. However John came to UBF with the primary purpose of preaching the Christian gospel. This was highly encouraging to some of us UBF leaders who had been interacting with John on his blog.
When John joined the Ethics and Accountability Committee around 2011, the UBF leaders were becoming exasperated from a flood of reports of all kinds of problems, including allegations of sexual abuse and an alleged affair by a senior UBF missionary. The Committee investigated things but as a former member, I know little about the results. I did however, come to know John quite well.
Unfortunately, most of John’s excellent Christian counseling was not welcomed by many hardliner leaders. In spite of this, John’s words and friendship were instrumental in opening my eyes to see the unhealthy environment around me at UBF. At first John gave UBF a glowing recommendation letter in June of 2007. Later, after years of working with UBF, John recommended that I read the book, The Kingdom of the Cults by Walter Martin, in order to help understand what had happened to me at UBF.
Those who are members of UBF and those outsiders observing UBF may have a difficult time seeing the cultic elements I share in this book. There is much holy paint covering up the cult lifestyle all UBF members are familiar with. So while I admit that labeling UBF as a Korean Bible cult is difficult to understand or accept when looking at the ministry from the outside, the cultic elements are very much in force in today’s UBF. When you look at the ministry of UBF from the outside, you are looking at what the leaders want you to see. When you examine the life of former members, you see the psychological fallout from the painful exist process. And then you can begin to see the reasons for the cult label. In fact, what has helped me the most to understand what happened to me at UBF has been listening to former members. It is said that a former member knows more about a group than current members. I found this to be true.
–Excerpted from Identity Snatchers: Exposing A Korean Campus Bible Cult, pg.22-24, 34-37