Tom Nation is accustomed to outsiders criticizing his church, calling it a cult.
Since the earliest days of Christianity, he said, true believers have taken heat from the society around them.
“The people that lift their voice and persecute you the most are the people that don’t know nothing about you,” said Nation, a fourth-generation elder in the General Assembly and Church of the Firstborn. “Maybe some of them would stone us if they thought they had a chance.”
The church, which operates from a solid but modest brick building on a winding country road near the Morgan-Brown county border, does not deliberately call attention to itself. Members are not aggressive about recruiting new followers, Nation said, preferring to let loving attitudes and personal integrity speak for themselves.
“That’s what draws people to our church, is the love that they see within us,” he said.
What repeatedly draws attention to the church is a controversial stand against modern medical treatment that periodically results in a loss of health or life that most people would consider tragic.
That belief — rooted in elders’ interpretation of specific Bible verses — is under scrutiny again after the recent death of a 2-day-old infant whose parents avoided medical care during the pregnancy and complicated birth, investigators say.
Nation and his wife, Jo Ann, said their sadness for the family’s loss did not sway their belief that faith is the only true cure for any ailment, spiritual or physical. The result, whatever it may be, reflects divine will, they said.
“How many babies die in the hospital every day?” Nation asked. “I don’t feel like doctors ever save a person’s life. They think they do, but how do they know?”
“If it comes a person’s time, they’re going to go, no matter what’s done,” Jo Ann said.
A growing number of church members are beginning to seek conventional medical treatment, Nation said, but according to his beliefs, they are making the wrong choice and should not expect God’s help.
“It’s weakness,” he said. “If they had enough faith, they wouldn’t need to.”
Such beliefs can be troubling even to other people of faith, said David Carlson, a professor of religious studies at Franklin College who has a unique interest in Maleta Schmidt and her deceased child. He had Schmidt as a student at Franklin College and remembers her as exceptionally bright and open-minded. He and his wife even attended her wedding at the Morgantown-area church.
“I have great respect for Maleta and her husband, and I honor their commitment to Christ and the church,” Carlson said. “I am also saddened by any group that takes a position that God cannot work through medical technology.”
The issue of religion versus science is a complicated one, however. Most faiths call on their followers to show some respect for the mystery of life, Carlson said, and most people face some struggle in balancing their faith in God and their reliance on technology.
Few 21st-century Americans share the extreme beliefs of the Amish, who shun automobiles and electronics, he noted, but the world’s top scientists and politicians debate the wisdom and the ethics of cloning, genetic engineering and stem-cell research.
Likewise, many people sympathize with the notion of limiting life-support procedures for the very elderly or the terminally ill, Carlson said, but the issue is far more complex when a child is involved.
The General Assembly and Church of the Firstborn should not be dismissed out of hand because it chooses to draw the line at a different point, he said.
“I think one of the misperceptions of groups like this is that these people are ignorant,” he said. “They’re struggling with what all religious people struggle with, which is, at what point do we cross over and just play God?”
The Morgantown church’s position on medicine is based primarily on a verse from James 5:12-16. The citation reads in part: “Is any sick among you? Let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.”
Nation, a respected leader in a congregation that deliberately avoids having full-time ministers, said the church does not shun members who seek medical treatment. Their actions must be judged by God, he said, not by other humans.
“As far as we’re concerned, they’re in violation of the word of the Lord,” Nation said. “They’re going to have to answer for it.”
But the church’s stand should not be mistaken for a lack of compassion, the Nation said. Church members gathered to pray and provide food, comfort and other support as the Schmidt family of rural Franklin faced its ordeal this week.
“When we have sick people, we take care of our own,” Jo Ann Nation said.