Op-Ed: What People Magazine “Investigates: Cults” Failed To Say About Word of Faith Fellowship

By Butch Maltby, Member, Word of Faith Fellowship, Spindale, NC

We live in a nation where lying is sadly accepted, exaggeration assumed and readers and television viewers often love to be shocked—even if the content is clearly distorted or even fabricated. 

Cover credit: People Magazine

A magazine article this week featured a dramatic story retelling of a set of allegations from a former Word of Faith Fellowship church member who claims in 2013 he was beaten, choked, held against his will and feared for his life during a violent prayer session to expel homosexual demons. 

 A second former member, who was his girlfriend at the time, paints a picture of fearing for his life and her own personal safety. Together, they now want to help vulnerable members of the church “escape” and “fight for justice.” None of the allegations have been proven nor corroborated outside known attackers of the church.  

This national magazine article also morphed into a television episode on the [Ed.— on the ID channel] as an installment on featured “cults” thus putting a Rutherford County church in the company of historically confirmed killers, leaders of mass suicides, sexual assaults beyond description and a host of aberrant groups nowhere close to orthodox Christianity nor to an Evangelical statement of faith. 

The guilt by association train has made Word of Faith Fellowship a caboose  pulled a long by the complex and often tainted agendas of others. The drama has a family of disaffected former members, Pulitzer Prize winning investigative reporter with the Associated Press, local media and a crowd of regional residents afraid and angry of what they have never seen up close. But, they react like incited mobs online and elsewhere to the unknown. The retelling of lies by certain self proclaimed megaphones of truth is the fountainhead of fury and the fact the church is termed “controversial” strikes at the heart of religious liberty.  

It’s important as a starting point to say two things. First, I’m a grateful member of Word of Faith Fellowship. With my own broken life which in the eyes of the world was “successful” I struggled with depression and deep personal pain borne out of traumas. These challenges which were eventually self-medicated with addictive behaviors that needed more than a self-help program. 

God miraculously and improbably brought me to what is arguably America’s most persecuted church. Standing firm on the bedrock of Biblical foundations isn’t normative these days especially when having convictions is perceived as making you hateful. 

 I’ll go on record (with an offer of a polygraph test) that in my time at the church I’ve never seen any abuse of any kind. Never. Children are cherished, elders are supported in every way, the disabled find acceptance with genuine encouragement and anyone with a last gasp for a new hopeful path finds a practically minded community of faith bound with the unconditional love espoused by Jesus. 

I’ve been to hundreds of churches of every flavor here and abroad as a byproduct of my global consulting work and will say without reservation there isn’t a more loving place I’ve ever been. It’s a community of flawed yet still being redeemed human beings pursuing fearless faith as they understand it illuminated by the Bible and inspired by more than 2,000 years of God’s miracles.

Both my unlikely journey and a careful detailing of the tumultuous saga of a vibrant, multi-ethnic church sitting shadowed in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains are stories that will be fully told someday. Whatever fake news and weaponized media reports may be loaded, cocked and fired at First Amendment freedoms—we know religious liberty and its protection is at the epicenter of America’s greatness.

The battles my church faces today are at the core of the early reverberations for an even greater spiritual war in the days ahead. This is a religious minefield where personal convictions based on Biblical truth and a lifestyle honoring those beliefs is sorely under dangerous and often random fire. It isn’t popular nor seen as “progressive” to suggest that there are clear boundaries between right and wrong, ethical behavior isn’t a product of context, there are moral absolutes and communities of faith who take the Bible as God’s infallible word. 

A second observation is that a person’s story—or at least their perceptions of events in their life—needs to be heard, weighed and considered. We shouldn’t just dismiss allegations out of hand. That is why our nation’s judicial system and form of jurisprudence is a model to the world and inspiration to many emerging democracies. If abuse occurs and that is proven it goes without saying that is serious. So is not telling the truth when people’s character, lives and well being are assassinated by drive-by-shootings of reckless accusation. 

We have been and thankfully continue to be a shining light with legal doctrines such as “innocent until proven guilty” and the powerful principles of the right to a speedy trial, jury by peers and various forms of legal redress. These proceedings all occur under the overarching watchful eye of a living, dynamic constraint and liberator we respectfully call—The United States Constitution.  

But the new world order of unbridled social media, conjoined twins of “news  & entertainment” along with deep and insatiable appetites for lewd, rude, ridiculous and extreme stories, has altered the landscape of what was once reasonable print and televised content. 

The world has changed and with it have emerged slippery rules for the media ecosystem driven by readership, subscriptions, ratings and profits. Truth often becomes “inconvenient” and is manipulated to fit a story line or aborted completely in the end. 

It happens every day in front of people dulled by the steady stream of written and broadcast content pushed along muddy rivers of exaggeration, titillation and deception. America’s media consumers are frequently the proverbial “frog in the kettle” not realizing how everything around us is changing and today facts and fantasy casually coexist. This is one of the reasons the Washington Post launched a formal “fact check” function for front line news stories. 

The reason is that both communicators and recipients have grown accustomed to reckless claims and incessant lies as a way of life. Social media only exacerbates the problem as some studies have shown that only 50% of the time an article is “shared” has the individual actually read the article. They simply are drawn in by headlines like, “A Cult Survivor’s Fight For Justice.” In this case the marketplace would be well to posit three questions: 

1. Is the church a cult and if so, using what definition? It embraces orthodox, Evangelical Christianity as defined by any common, ecclesiastical standard or interpretation.  

2. Is the accuser a “survivor” and how has that been empirically proven? 3. Is a “fight for justice” the motivation with these now exhumed accusations from years ago?

Reality television, tabloid journalism, profit-driven media conglomerates and individuals wanting their “fifteen minutes of fame” have conspired into the mess we often see on the covers of magazines painting pictures of just how depraved a culture can become. All the senses are bombarded with messages of despair, depravity and a denigration of truth. There are notable exceptions but the trajectory is sadly downward. 

The allegations made by Matthew Fenner and Danielle Cordes  are very serious. Now going on six years after allegedly occurring and with no court case ever deciding on the merits, facts, basis or standing of what has been a prolonged period of memories fading away, the story now has been transferred to the loose and no holds barred “court of public opinion.” 

 People Magazine is impossibly attempting to adjudicate the matter. The writer—never having attended the church nor spoken to a pastor or member—recounts stories as facts. There is clearly no understanding of the dynamics of what he is reporting on. 

For example, the code words used to paint a sinister backdrop for Word of Faith Fellowship have all been emptied out of a thesaurus pulled off the shelf of generalizations, stereotypes and prejudicial reporting. These invectives are easy to spot because of their caustic dimension even to a casual reader.  

Secretive. Compound. Beatings. Controlled. Regulated. Rules. Screaming. Blasting. Scared. Slapped. Schemes. Abuse.   

None of these words seek truth but are instead dynamite designed to detour reporters and inquisitors from simple questions like:

  1. “Why hasn’t there been any corroboration of the alleged beating that night at church?” 
  2. ”Has the magazine or program producers really pursued the agendas of the people who are sources?”
  3. “How does a secretive church go on local radio and use news platforms to invite the whole community to a yard and consignment sale?”
  4. ”Why do some hundreds of non-members regularly come to weddings and graduations from around the county and across the country?”  
  5. “How do abused children at the Christian school consistently score in the top percentiles of competitive standardized testing?”
  6. “Why is it that no court case has in the history of the church ever ultimately convicted anyone of physical or psychological abuse?”
  7. “Was the People Magazine writer for this story ever given a briefing on the church, what we believe, why and the history of media attacks?” 
  8. ”How do individuals like Nancy Burnette or John Huddle end up becoming “experts” on a church they have little connection to anymore?” 
  9. ”Is it plausible to believe as Danielle Cordes intoned in the magazine article a pastor “beat her for five hours?” 
  10. “For a church that celebrates children is it reasonable to suggest as in the article they’d “kill a child” through prayer?”  
  11. “Since the doctrine and practice of the church to love everyone how can it be said we target homosexuals?” 
  12. “Did someone other than Matthew Fenner push for a federal“hate crime” designation with West Coast LGBTQ advocacy groups?”  

Social media is anything but kind on these matters. In the past year there have been many comments made like “Burn down the church, run people out of town, boycott parishioners businesses, slap them, gather a group with pitchforks and confront them,  pray for their deaths and behead the pastor.” The list is long and some comments are not worthy nor safe to retell. 

Anger, prejudice, hostile, suspicious and in some cases psychologically unstable people who believe everything they read and even more so what they watch on a television broadcast have now been given a match on the dry tinder of their terrified ignorance liberally doused with the gasoline of personal, journalistic self interest. We live in a world where the exaggerated story, outlandish claim and reckless accusation have an audience. That’s true for the same reason people in a shopping check out line may be drawn to a headline on an issue of National Enquirer declaring… “Elvis is Alive & Living With A Martian Wife.” 

If—God forbid—misguided “seekers of justice” sought to make Word of Faith Fellowship an object of their ire and smoldering hate we run the risk of a church in our county filled  with 500 neighbors to everyone reading this heartfelt missive being another statistic in a sad season of targeting churches, synagogues and mosques. Pick up any national publication in the past year and you’ll find that houses-of-worship have become favorite targets for the angry and psychologically unstable people who are driven by hate fueled by content they read and see. 

Words matter. Reckless words can kill in many ways. The damage to people, reputations and human spirit of those sprayed with the machine gun fire of unsubstantiated claims is increasingly being taken up in the court system. Defamation, incitement and lack of regard for personal and corporate reputations have become increasingly the focus of legal action.  Just ask Oberlin College about the recent $44 million judgement against them for defamation against a local bakery. 

That’s why this sole congregant (not counsel nor spokesperson for an amazing church God is using to heal my life) is left with one final penetrating question for a cable channel and national magazine. 

“What did A+E know that you don’t when they made a decision to shelve their ill-advised series on World of Faith Fellowship in November, 2018 which tapped into the same tainted pool of attackers you use as primary sources?”

I guess we’ll see. We do know there is a growing tide of community voices mitigating against the froth of what have been common attacks through the years. These are simply stated as “We don’t like the way you live, worship, pray, dress, interpret the Bible and have community with each other.” These sentiments, prejudice and stereotypes make their way into social media declarations almost daily, into blog content and now have found their way into tabloids and television. 

What we do know in the end is that against these frequent and predictable attacks the unshakable and abiding ethic espoused by my pastor Jane Whaley and all the ministers at Word of Faith Fellowship is reflected in the simple words of Luke 6:27 (Amplified):

“But I say to you who hear (Me and pay attention to My words): Love (that is, unselfishly seek the best or higher good for) your enemies, (make it a practice to) do good to those who hate you, bless and show kindness to those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”

These aren’t just hollow words on a thin page in an old, dusty book. They drive every decision in each day for those of us in community in our simple church and have guided the often clumsy two-fingered typing from this grateful man so thankful to call Word of Faith Fellowship—my home. 

 

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