Watchdogs Troubled By Member Controls

TAMPA – The last time Deeper Life Christian Church made the news, its rigid control of its members’ movements led some to call it a cult.

It was 1997. A number of church leaders had been arrested on charges of food stamp fraud. It soon emerged that Deeper Life rules restricted new members to church grounds and prohibited them from approaching, speaking to or touching Bishop Melvin B. Jefferson.

Some of those rules have since been relaxed. Members still are closely controlled, but they can choose to leave, notes Ole Anthony, president of the Dallas-based Trinity Foundation, watchdog organization. That signifies that Deeper Life is not a cult, Anthony says.

Still, he is troubled by the manner in which Deeper Life uses followers to raise money.

“Where in the world is it ever justified to beg for money in the name of Scriptures?” he said. “If this is what [Jefferson] is telling people, he’s in error and it’s misleading.”

Rick Ross of The Ross Institute, another watchdog organization, says three characteristics typify a cult:

* Followers unable to think independently and critically.

* A leader whose personality dominates the group.

* Destructive behavior leading toward violence.

Deeper Life seems to meet the first two criteria, Ross says.

It appears to target people who are “vulnerable and easily manipulated,” he said.

Then “they’re told, `Through us, you have been saved. You now know God, and if you leave, you will probably stumble.’

“When the group starts having that kind of influence,” Ross said, “you’re in dangerous territory.”

No evidence suggests Deeper Life engages in destructive behavior.

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