One of the tragic facts about religion is that true believers have been known to go off the rails. Sometimes they take groups of people -- large or small -- with them into various degrees of oblivion. When this happens, it is common for people outside of these groups to use the word "cult" -- one of the most abused words in the religion-news dictionary.
Long ago, I took a course in contemporary religious movements and "cults" as part of my graduate work in the Church-State Studies program at Baylor University. It was easy to see that the term "cult" is like the word "fundamentalist." One person's cult is another person's "sect" or another's freethinking religious movement.
But here is the crucial point I need to make, before we look at that massive Washington Post Magazine feature that ran under this headline: "The Exiles -- Former members say Calvary Temple in Virginia pressures people to banish loved ones. What happens to those who leave?"
People who study "cults" use this term in one of two ways. There are sociological definitions, usually linked to the work of prophetic figures who hold dangerous degrees of control over their followers. Then there are theological definitions linked to religious groups in which a leader has radically altered core, historic doctrines of a mainstream faith.
You will find all kinds of "cult" talk if you plug "Calvary Temple" and the name of its leader, the Rev. Star R. Scott, into an Internet search engine. However, veteran freelance writer Britt Peterson avoided this term, for the most part, in this feature. I think that was wise.
Has this congregation in Northern Virginia evolved into a pseudo-cult operation? I don't know. What I do know is that it appears to be a perfect example of a trend in American Pentecostal and evangelical life that causes all kinds of trouble for journalists. I am referring, once again, to the rising number of independent churches -- large and small -- that have zero ties to any denomination or traditional faith group.
Many of these Lone Ranger churches are perfectly healthy. Many others go off the rails and, tragically, there is no shepherd higher up the ecclesiastical ladder to hold their leaders accountable. Thus, here is the crucial passage in this first-person magazine feature:
When the Azats joined Calvary in the mid-1980s, its charismatic pastor, Star Robert Scott, had been there for over a decade, starting as youth pastor at what was then the Herndon Assembly of God in 1973, according to former congregants. Within a couple of years, he became head pastor. In June 1984, the church moved to a larger building in Sterling and changed its name to Calvary Temple. Over the next two decades, Scott turned Calvary into a mini-empire. According to former members, Scott’s grasp on his congregants tightened so gradually that many who were loyal to the Assemblies of God were able to ignore it. ...
In the early 1980s, membership was at its peak of more than 1,000, former congregants estimate, and Calvary’s annual income exceeded $1 million, according to a 1983 church newsletter written by Scott. The church built a new sanctuary and school buildings. And Scott started a racecar ministry that, to this day, holds shows to display his collection of expensive cars and motorcycles. Around the same time, he led the church leadership to vote for independence from Assemblies of God, which had required that pastors tithe to the umbrella organization. Scott then rewrote the Calvary constitution to eliminate the traditional voting process and end financial transparency, according to several former members. “The church constitution was changed to meet Biblical standards,” Scott wrote in the newsletter.
Who gets to decide these "biblical standards," after the church went Lone Ranger? That would be Scott, of course.
Now, the Assemblies of God is a pretty freewheeling denomination, in terms of the freedoms granted to member congregations. However, it's leaders have been known to take action, after hearing allegations of abuse or corruption. Ask televangelist Jimmy Swaggart about that.
This leads me to my major criticism of this Washington Post report.
As you would expect, Peterson was able to talk to legions of ex-members of this church and they had all kinds of stories to tell. Some of the allegations are linked to sexual abuse and the pastor's rather rapid remarriage to a very young woman, immediately after the death of his wife. These kinds of sources are par for the course, in a report of this kind.
As you would expect, Scott and his associates at Calvary Temple were not anxious to talk to the Post (or, I would assume, other members of evil news organizations). Thus, the story includes passages such as this:
Scott did not respond to emails or phone messages seeking comment for this story. In March, I visited a Sunday service but was politely asked to leave before I could speak to him. In April, the church held a well-attended car show in its parking lot, featuring several vintage Corvettes that are part of a larger collection Scott has assembled for his Finish the Race Ministries. Christian rock played on loudspeakers and kids played cornhole as church members in neon-yellow shirts signed in visitor after visitor, collecting names, phone numbers and email addresses. When I approached Scott in the parking lot, he told me I wasn’t “welcome” on church property. I asked for comment on the sexual abuse allegations, and he snapped, “Did you just hear what I said?” and walked away. Two men wearing earpieces hovered nearby as I talked to Scott, then watched as I walked off church grounds.
No surprises here, either.
So what is missing? For starters, there is no evidence that anyone at the Post tried to talk to leaders in the Assemblies of God.
Yes, I realize that the break with the denomination happened a long time ago. Yes, the odds are good that AG officials might -- repeat "might" -- decline to talk about Calvary Temple. However, there are lots of people linked to the Assemblies and its institutions who are experts when it comes to analyzing these kinds of congregations and their leaders. In other words, they know the difference between a Bible-preaching pastor and a Bible-twisting pastor. They have experience drawing the line between "Spirit filled" and "rogue."
As you would expect, there are also people in mainstream academia -- secular and religious -- who have spent their lives studying these kinds of Lone Ranger preachers and their flocks.
For example, it would have been interesting to hear what solid, experienced evangelical theologians and historians would have to say about the contents of crucial Scott sermons and missives to his followers. This kind of research would have added substance and credibility to some of the stronger allegations in this story.
One more thing: This story contains stunning material linked to (a) the church's private school and (b) the requirement that families "shun" their own loved ones, if they resist the authority of the church. This passage will give you a hint at what's in this story.
Under Scott’s leadership, former members say, Calvary Temple also began requiring that they send their children to the church school, a non-accredited K-12 institution in a brown building attached to the church. Virginia banned corporal punishment in public schools in 1989. But at Calvary, “spare the rod and spoil the child” ruled.
Once again, here is my main point. There are academics who specialize in studying what is, and what is not, solid and responsible Christian education. Would it have helped to have talked to experts in the education or children's ministries departments at, oh, Evangel University -- a well known Christian University linked to the Assemblies of God?
The bottom line: When people start using the word "cult," journalists really need to call in some experts -- secular and religious -- to help readers evaluate what is going on. Reporters need to dig deeper than the stories of angry ex-members, in part to take seriously the content of these kinds of allegations.
In other words, this very gripping and serious story would have been improved if Post editors had added some serious religion reporting.