The Rest of the Story About “Word of Faith Fellowship” in Spindale, NC
The secular press is limited and unreliable in how it covers fringe groups with some of Christianity’s trappings but little of its substance. Worse, the press often uses such fringe groups to tarnish Christians more broadly. That’s why it’s important to tell the whole story behind an Associated Press investigation of a congregation in a small North Carolina town, Word of Faith Fellowship.
The AP nightmarish description, sprinkled with Christian terms and sensational language like “years of terror — waged in the name of the Lord” in its lede, has been run by the New York Daily News, the left wing website Jezebel and other media outlets. It’s generating plenty of buzz in anti-Christian circles as an example of faith gone wrong.
In the first of likely several reports, the AP called the Word of Faith Fellowship, of Spindale, N.C., an “evangelical church.”
As part of its investigation, the AP reviewed hundreds of pages of law enforcement, court and child welfare documents, along with hours of conversations with Jane Whaley, the evangelical church’s controlling leader, secretly recorded by followers.
But surely a troubled group with a controlling leader, locked behind a chained gate with 24/7 security, may not fit the general definition of “evangelical.”
What Word of Faith Fellowship Is, and Isn’t
Pastors Sam and Jane Whaley founded the church in 1979, before joining Kenneth Hagin’s Rhema Ministries. I spoke with former member John Huddle, author of Locked in: My Imprisoned Years in a Destructive Cult, whom the AP interviewed twice. Huddle was a member of Word of Faith Fellowship from 2002 to 2008.
He said the Whaleys were “disfellowshipped” by Oklahoma-based Rhema in 1984 or 85 for some of their more controversial doctrines and practices. That’s when they moved back to Spindale and restarted Word of Faith Fellowship (WOFF).
Many of the original couples who moved from Tulsa are still in leadership. Pastors Gerald and Linda Southerland were familiar with the Whaleys from Hagin’s ministry. In their Greenville, S.C., church, as they took up some of the Whaleys’ “blasting” practices of shouting and casting out demons, their congregation dwindled.
AP writer Mitch Weiss called Word of Faith Fellowship a “sect.” A more powerful word would be “cult.”
In 2002, the Southerlands and many of the remaining congregation moved to Spindale. Huddle and his family were among them.
WOFF has a detailed faith statement and describes itself as a “Protestant, Non-Denominational church,” though it isn’t part of organized denomination. The Whaleys have no ordination or licensing from any religious authority that Huddle is aware of. The church calls itself “Word of Faith” but it would be misleading to place it within that brand of Charismatic Christianity generally associated with the prosperity gospel.
In any case, we are known by our fruits, and the fruits of this group are far from the fruits of the Holy Spirit. AP writer Mitch Weiss called Word of Faith Fellowship a “sect.” A more powerful word would be “cult.”
A History of Controversy and Extreme Control
Word of Faith Fellowship and Jane Whaley have been under public scrutiny before. In 1995, the television show Inside Edition profiled the group — hosted by a much younger Bill O’Reilly — and laudably distinguished the group from mainstream Christianity. The video is still available on YouTube.
Those who have left WOFF have given up family, relationships and their sense of what it means to follow God.
The newest accusations against the groups are serious. Five current and former members, including Brooke Covington, a leader in the group, have been indicted on felony charges ranging from first- and second-degree kidnapping, to first-degree assault and attempted strangulation.
My conversation with Huddle was tinged with sadness. As we recounted the years, he told me he was only able to reconcile what happened looking back long after he left. “Nobody joins a cult,” Huddle said, explaining the difficultly in overcoming “cognitive dissonance” inside controlling groups.
Those who have left WOFF have given up family, relationships and their sense of what it means to follow God. It is very difficult for those inside to swallow the truth when we use severe terms like “cult.” Yet, the signs are there. In 2014, I researched cults, and found eight signs of cult-like behavior. The Spindale church exhibits many — if not all — of these.
Huddle realized that WOFF was unhealthy and damaging when, in a church meeting, he was told to quit his part-time job or be fired from his full-time job working for another member. He refused to quit, and was fired. (This is all documented in his book.) Then he learned that his wife was reporting his conversations with her to Jane Whaley, through Linda Southerland.
“A husband and wife were required to tell leadership everything the other spouse did wrong. I realized, my relationship, the transfer of allegiance between husband and wife,” Huddle said, “had been removed from … between us. That allegiance had gone to Jane Whaley.”
His wife began limiting his contact with their children. Eventually, she left him. She and their children, including a daughter who will give birth to his grandchild in July, are still inside the group.
The Story We Need to Tell
While Word of Faith Fellowship controls its members using its outward appearance as a church for camouflage, we must remember that the genuine Gospel, and the power of God, is fully able to redeem and rescue those inside dangerous and damaging groups. Leaving the group almost always causes a severe crisis of faith — an examination of everything the survivor believes. Only a genuine faith in God, and real, compassionate encounters with the Gospel, can rebuild that broken spirit.
For those still inside, we must continue to pray and reach out with compassion.
Huddle related a story from January 2009, after he left Word of Faith Fellowship. WOFF’s doctrine doesn’t allow its members to celebrate Christmas or Easter holidays. He said he walked into a different church with not one, but two Christmas trees flanking the platform.
“What settled me down and allowed me to continue … I saw them doing the work of the Gospel … reaching out to anybody who had an interest,” Huddle said. “It wasn’t big houses, big cars, fine jewelry. It wasn’t the outside appearance, it was the inside yearning to know God.”
“Seeing people reaching out to people, without the requirements to obey their doctrine to the letter, was a resolving point for me to be able to continue.” Huddle founded the Faith Freedom Fund to help survivors deal with rebuilding their lives and faith after the devastating experience of separating from groups like WOFF.
For those still inside, we must continue to pray and reach out with compassion. Huddle concluded, “I don’t want people to think … that I don’t have the sensitivity for those on the inside that are struggling. It’s not just their personal freedom, they’re struggling with their relationship with God.”
They’re struggling with whether to place their relationship with God in a person, or to take it back to themselves. “That’s the struggle,” he added.
And for the unchurched, we must tell the story of the authentic, loving God who works through His people, the authentic church — a story the AP and secular press are unable to tell.