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A persecuted church

I thought this story might be an amusing look at yet another Christian group hypocritically claiming martyrdom and persecution. It isn’t.

A decade ago, God spoke to Jane Whaley, and she says he told her to fight…

“God told me, ‘Jane, you are at the beginning of a holocaust,’ ” Whaley says. “Before … we turned the other cheek. We let them run all over us. And God said, ‘Jane, they’re going to close your doors if you don’t rise up and fight.’ ”

Sure, just another believer making extravagant claims that their “persecution” was going to be just like Hitler wiping out millions of Jews, right? I hope that’s all it is. Then again, even David Koresh had to start somewhere.

Now maybe—hopefully—the Branch Davidian comparison is overblown. Lots of cults started from similar roots, and few ended up as bad as the Branch Davidians. But it does worry me to hear church leaders getting “revelations” about a coming “holocaust,” when other parts of the story look like this:

A visit to Word of Faith on Nov. 7 revealed a diverse and close-knit congregation representing more than 15 nationalities. Smiling, immaculately dressed families, which included doctors and lawyers as well as recovering addicts, gripped their Bibles, swayed and shouted prayers and songs.

The worship style is ecstatic. Sometimes members hop. Sometimes they speak in tongues. The music and prayer booms through the sanctuary – “God has freed us” to be loud, Whaley tells her people.

The marketing of the clean, wholesome, energetic look, check.

Yet critics, from former Word of Faith members to some of its Rutherford County neighbors, describe the church as a dangerous cult. They say it breaks up families, abuses followers and wrecks lives.

“They’ve taken faith and weaponized it,” says a former member, now deployed in Afghanistan. He asked that his name not be used for fear of further involvement with the church. “Faith is supposed to be about love and grace and forgiveness. They’ve weaponized it to control people and to further their agenda for power.”

Hushed-up reports of coercion and psychological manipulation, check.

Last month, a 22-year-old man who grew up in Word of Faith said he was beaten and held against his will as church members tried to rid him of the demon that they believe makes him gay.

Michael Lowry, as with others before him, described a church atmosphere of suffocating conformity, shunnings and a deep distrust of the outside world.

Possible criminal activity, motivated by religious conviction and church authority, check.

Around the time Lowry made his allegations, three members of the Word of Faith security team

Wait, the church security team? They have their own internal police?

Around the time Lowry made his allegations, three members of the Word of Faith security team and another church member were arrested after confrontations with Lowry and a companion, Jerry Cooper. Cooper, a former Word of Faith member and critic of the church, filed the charges.

So this isn’t just rumors. There’s enough evidence to file formal charges and actually arrest church members, not for their faith, but for their conduct.

The Whaleys, in some of their most extensive comments ever to the media, say their church is the target of a conspiracy. They say Lowry’s allegations are lies and that he is being manipulated by bitter ex-members who have fallen in with the devil and now want to bring the church down.

Attributing their problems to personal, individualized attention from Satan Himself, check. But perhaps the most troubling line in the story is this:

Over one five-year period, the church says it spent more than $3 million in legal fees.

A charismatic, coercive, authoritarian church, allegedly directed by God Himself through direct interactions with its leaders, a church that has formed its own internal security team and that commands a budget big enough to cover a $3,000,000 legal bill? Definitely warrants close and sustained attention.