Widow of Dove World Outreach Center says church turned into a cult

When Don Northrup founded Dove World Outreach Center in 1985, his widow says he never envisioned it becoming what it is today, the Gainesville Sun says:

Then, it was a growing evangelical church with a congregation of almost 200 members.

Now, a handful of people attend services in which ministers carry handguns and rail against Islam.

“It certainly didn’t start out with this in mind,” Northrup’s widow, Dolores Northrup, said in an interview this week with The Sun. “I don’t feel it’s really a church anymore. I feel it’s turned into a cult.”

Dolores Northrup said she stopped attending services two years ago because the direction had changed under the leadership of Terry Jones, who took over as senior pastor soon after Don Northrup died in 1996.

Terry Jones is the attention-seeker who, despite his promise not to do so, burned a Quran recently.

His un-Christian behavior was then used by crowds of Muslim extremists in Afghanistan to savagely murder innocent people.

But is Terry Jones’ tiny group of followes indeed a ‘cult’?

The Washington Post earlier this week reported that

Long before the Rev. Terry Jones threatened to burn a Koran, former parishioners say he presided over a church that he treated as a personal fiefdom, imposing a strict orthodoxy that tore apart one Gainesville family after another.

Congregants at the Dove World Outreach Center, who have dwindled to 30 or so in number, are required to vow allegiance to Jones — a pledge that places restrictions on their diets, their ability to hold jobs outside the church and their personal relationships.

For Chris Nassoiy, 25, and for most members, the last restriction is by far the most painful. He has seen his parents only once since they left the church in 2009, when he gathered his belongings from his childhood home.

“I had to tell them that we won’t be able to communicate until they apologize, until they accept the Gospel,” he said, his voice cracking. “It was a little bit wrenching.”

Of course Jones, 59, denies that the church is a cult or that he abuses his authority in his role as Dove’s leader.

The Washington Post:

Jones said he doesn’t mandate that parishioners sever ties with their families, though it can be hard to maintain connections with those who aren’t giving their lives to the church.

Those who leave Dove do so, he said, because “their faith just wasn’t strong enough.”

Jones knows personally how his strict edicts and unconventional leadership can divide families. Two of his daughters have left the church in disgust.

Her father said her decision to walk away from the church “was the biggest betrayal.”

For most of the young congregants, membership requires participation in Jones’s three-year “academy,” which preaches discipline and adherence to the Bible. It also requires hours of work, much of it unpaid, in the Dove World Outreach Center’s used-furniture business, which is run out of the same building as the church.

Jones defended that arrangement, saying that members of the academy are provided with food and housing to compensate them for their work.

The young congregants live in church-owned housing in one of Gainesville’s roughest neighborhoods.

Willie Irving, who lives in the neighborhood, used to attend services at the center. He stopped going in 2009, he said, when he realized the church was “trying to make a living on people’s faith.”

But some of those who have extricated themselves from the church describe just how difficult the process can be in this tight-knit community, where roots run deep.

The term ‘cult’ means different things according to the context in which it is used. For instance, the term can be defined theologically and sociologically.

Sociological definitions concern themselves largely with behavior, while theological definitions for the most part address doctrine.

Even then the term carries different meanings depending on the perspective of the person who uses it. For instance, Christians consider the Mormon Church to be, theologically, a cult of Christianity. They are correct in doing so since the Mormon Church has rejected and/or re-interpreted several of the key doctrines considered essential to the Christian faith — thereby placing itself outside the boundaries of historic, orthodox Christianity.

However, most Christians do not consider the Mormon Church to be a cult in the sociological sense of the term.

That said some groups can be considered cults both theologically and sociologically. Such was the case with the International Churches of Christ — theologically a cult of Christianity, and a movement that turned into a high-control cult sociologically.

Christian cult experts point out that from a Biblical perspective bad doctrine produces bad fruit behaviorally. While some churches have a ‘Statement of Faith’ that appears to be orthodox in nature, their behavior is such that the must nevertheless be considered to be, theologically, cults of Christianity. In our opinion the Dove World Outreach Center — which, by the way, does not have a Statement of Faith online — is such a group.

Given the experiences reported by ex-members we would also view Dove World Outreach Center as an abusive church.

Incidentally, the Washington Post also published a guest opinion piece titled, “Is Terry Jones’ Dove World Outreach Center a cult?

It was written by Lauve Steenhuisen, a scholar of American theologies and religious movements who teaches at Georgetown University.

Steenhuisen writes:

Whether the group is a ‘cult’ however remains to be seen. Using definitions by sociologists of religion, the group wound more likely be termed a ‘sect with cult-like tendencies,’ that is, a break-off group from Christianity which asserts that they are more authentic to the original teachings of the host religion, more purged of cultural accretions, and use a high degree of tension with the ‘established’ manifestations of the religion and with the surrounding society in order to create their own organizational identity.

The Dove World Outreach Center has dwindled down to 30 members, several of them family members of Terry Jones himself. Like Fred Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Church, public recognition gives them the significance they crave, even if highly negative. They use positive recognition to legitimate their authority within the group, and use negative attention to demonstrate to members that they are indeed the ‘pure and righteous’ showing a corrupt and lawless world the right way to go.

Calling the group a ‘sect with cult-like tendencies’ is a marked improvement over the misguided efforts by a handful of religion academics to banish the term ‘cult’ altogether. Fortunately in recent years these cult apologists have been quoted far less frequently in the media.

Finally, note this statement by Dr. Philip Zimbardo:

A remarkable thing about cult mind control is that it’s so ordinary in the tactics and strategies of social influence employed. They are variants of well-known social psychological principles of compliance, conformity, persuasion, dissonance, reactance, framing, emotional manipulation, and others that are used on all of us daily to entice us: to buy, to try, to donate, to vote, to join, to change, to believe, to love, to hate the enemy.

Cult mind control is not different in kind from these everyday varieties, but in its greater intensity, persistence, duration, and scope. One difference is in its greater efforts to block quitting the group, by imposing high exit costs, replete with induced phobias of harm, failure, and personal isolation.

See his article, What Messages Are Behind Today’s Cults? to see the quote in context.

Cult FAQ – Frequently Asked Questions about cults
Cult of Christianity
Abusive Churches and Spiritual Abuse
• Online book: Churches That Abuse
• Online book: Recovering From Churches That Abuse
Need a cult expert?

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Religion News Blog posted this on Thursday April 7, 2011.
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