A baby’s tragic death. “Strange” behavior by church members. Townsfolk concerned. The Media flummoxed.
In the East Texas town of Wells, a recent event highlights the danger of elevating one biblical teaching out of proportion to the rest of scripture. It shows why a church can be biblical and yet unorthodox.
The Death of Faith
On Saturday, May 26, three-day-old Faith Shalom Pursley died in the town of Wells after suffering respiratory complications.
According to local news reports, investigators with the Cherokee County Sheriff’s department discovered that Faith’s parents had followed the advice of elders in their church to pray over the baby rather than taking her to the
hospital for treatment. After Faith’s death, members of the church continued to pray over her for fifteen hours before notifying authorities, hoping that God would raise her from the dead. Few outsiders would disagree that the church acted unwisely by disallowing medical intervention and instead focusing solely on prayer to heal the child.
Media coverage focused on the “bizarre” and “strange” practices of church members, though one reporter from local station KTRE noted that “On the surface, the church’s website doesn’t appear to be too radical compared to other Christian denominations.”
Townsfolk consider the church cultic and say it is unwelcome in their town.
A look at the church of Wells’s own website and an audio sermon from Faith Pursely’s memorial service provide a clearer picture of what the church believes and how they went astray. It also provides a warning to other churches that an imbalanced view of the Bible can promote unorthodox practices.
Adding Sorrow to Sorrow
On June 1, Sean Morris, one of three elders in the church of Wells, conducted Faith Pursely’s memorial service. The church posted Morris’s sermon on their website, “You Must Be Born Again,” [Update, 12/6/12: The Church's website has now changed to "The Church of Wells"] along with the accompanying note:
To whom it may concern,
We are not ignorant of the slander of many, nor are we desirous to answer all of the accusations which have been cast in our teeth, adding sorrow to sorrow…. We have nothing to hide, and yet we did not (neither do we plan to) make a statement to our earnest inquirers (the news reporters)… We find it inconsistent with holiness to thus join hands with backbiters and talebearers in their fabulous tales. Thus have we refrained our feet from this way, and have declined open communication with such reporters.
We desire the sermon preached at the memorial service of Faith Shalom Pursley to suffice as a response to the many reports given (public and private). This sermon was preached to the purpose to answer the questions surrounding the the [sic] death of Faith, and various beliefs of the church which have been deemed (by the general public) everything but moderate. This is our humble stance upon these matters.
In his message, Morris addressed concerns from church members who fear that they might be part of a cult and that they should have sought medical treatment for the sick child. “As to the charge that we sinned as elders or as a church,” he said, “when that child died, we believed that it was God’s will to raise her. We don’t think that was a presumptuous thing. We’ve seen many miracles as a church and as individuals: demons cast out, healings. We weren’t just being foolish; we wanted God to be glorified.”
Indeed, explained Morris, church elders feared God and responded to scripture when they made their decision.
“In 2 Chronicles 16:12,” Morris said, “King Asa sought not the Lord but the physicians, which means he put the physicians in a preeminent place. We are not against hospitals or the medical field. What we’re against is putting any of those things supremely over Christ, not giving him his place as God to heal, or to submit to the leadership of the Holy Ghost. In James 5 and Mark 16, Christ says that it is his will for his people to heal to his glory. Those scriptures have inspired us in the past, and they inspired us in the life of Faith. Sadly, we did not have [enough] faith to see the child healed.”
By Their Fruits You Will Know Them
Most of the rest of Morris’s 50-minute sermon provided a summary of the doctrinal beliefs of the church of Wells. His message—packed with over thirty biblical citations—focused prominently on discerning the fruits of genuine salvation and determining by words and deeds whether someone is truly saved. Though unorthodox for a memorial service, Morris’s sermon highlights the focus of the church of Wells: zealous spiritual fruit-bearing and separation from lackluster professing Christians (Pharisees) through clear discernment.
Such discernment, Morris said, is commanded by Jesus Christ and is the reason why the church of Wells has separated itself from the world and the large mass of hypocritical professing Christians. It is also the reason why most church members have ceased to be in relationship with family members who are outside of the church. Members don’t want to be polluted by the leaven of the Pharisees, said Morris.
“Pharisees” in Morris’s terms are hypocritical Christians who don’t evidence the fruits of salvation, namely good works. Instead, said Morris, “The grace of God works because it takes work, because God has ordained work for us to do (Eph 2:10), and we want to be pure since only the holy will see God. We judge between those who are saved and those who are not by their fruits, since their words and deeds manifest what is in their heart. By their fruits you will know them.”
When the Cost of Fruit is Faith
Morris’s sermon helps explain why church members could sit and pray over a deathly sick—and then dead—child when medical services were readily available: they believed it was an act of faith which honored God and followed his word. Such fruit, they believed, is part of genuine Christianity.
While the church of Wells subscribes to faith in Jesus Christ and studies the Bible with zealous devotion, their extreme focus on “fruitfulness” and separation from the world has actually caused the church to become off-balance, and therefore unorthodox, in its practice. Sadly, this off-balanced approach to Christianity led—unintentionally—to the death of Faith Pursely.
At the risk of over-simplification, let me explain the three unorthodox steps as I see them:
- Excessive fear of contamination by culture. Morris’s sermon reflects an extreme fear of being polluted by culture and thereby not measuring up to God’s standards and not evidencing the fruit of true salvation. One reason the church moved to Wells from Arlington, Texas, was to find a remote place to live holy lives. While the Bible does warn against friendship with the world (James 4:4) and being polluted by the world (James 1:27), it also reminds us that God loves the world (John 3:16) and sent his Son incarnationally (in the flesh) into the world to live amongst sinners in the humdrum areas of life. “To the pure, all things are pure,” (Titus 1:15) and so believers do not need to live in paranoid fear of contamination from the world.
- Separation from other churches. The tight-knit church of Wells has severed ties with other churches, believing those churches to be full of hypocrites who do not evidence the fruit of salvation. The result of this separation is—inevitably—an environment of information-control, group-think, and fear of outsiders. Biblical passages are interpreted by the elders without outside input, and church members live in a world where information is filtered through the grid of the leaders’ interpretation. Not incidentally, the elders also place great stake in revelations from God, which in the case of Faith Pursely led to the decision to pray over the child rather than to take her to the hospital.
- Unbalanced biblical belief, uncorrected by external input. Since the church of Wells is led by several elders and promotes community life, the focus on fruitfulness (that is, works) and extreme commitment becomes a mantra unmoderated by other biblical commands.
Consider a horse and rider. If the rider holds both reins in his hands, the horse runs straight, or we might say, the horse is “orthodox.” “Ortho” is Greek for straight, like orthodontia makes your teeth straight. However, if the
rider pulls more heavily on one side of the reins, the horse turns in that one direction.
I believe that the church of Wells has probably veered off to one side by its single-minded devotion to “fruitfulness” and separation from the world. In the case of Faith Pursely, the elders believed that to avail themselves of medical treatment was a lack of faith, i.e. a lack of spiritual fruitfulness, and that if they believed hard enough the baby would be saved. Their “faith” in God was actually a misplaced sense of duty to believe, i.e., a work they had to perform. This is shown by the fifteen hours of corporate prayer devoted to the child after her death in hopes that God would respond to their great faith and raise the child. As Morris tellingly related in his memorial sermon, “Sadly, we did not have [enough] faith to see the child healed.”
Whether the church of Wells is a cult—as townspeople claim—or not, is beyond the scope of this post. But what seems clear is that an exaggerated preoccupation with one biblical truth to the exclusion of others has led to off-balance, unorthodox practices. A church can be biblical but still not orthodox. The small church of Wells seems to have lost hold of a healthy faith by focusing almost exclusively on fruit.
And in this case, the price of such fruit was the death of Faith.
Update, 10/16/12: The Church of Wells recently posted a series of articles on their website defending their beliefs and rebutting their critics. In the interest of full-disclosure and to promote critical thinking, I am including a copy of Sean Morris’s “Open Response to Steve Smith and Liberty for Captives” here. I still believe that the post above is fair-minded. Any errors have already been pointed out in the comments section below.
I do not claim to be anything other than what I am: a seminary student, cult survivor, and follower of Christ who desires to see other people set free from legalistic and controlling religious groups.
I encourage readers to compare the contents of Morris’s letter with the contents of this website and to draw your own conclusions. I also encourage readers to recall that at the end of the day, this group’s prophecies and predictions proved false and a baby was allowed to die. Saying there is a problem does not make me the problem.
Update, 2/20/14: In a similar case, a Pennsylvania couple was just convicted of third-degree murder and sentenced to prison time and probation after they withheld medical help from their children: “Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Benjamin Lerner told the couple that it was not their son’s time to die. ‘You killed two of your children … not God, not your church, not your religious devotion — you,’ the AP reported.” Here’s the link to the HuffPost article.
Update, 5/15/14: There’s a helpful new website about the Church of Wells which questions its doctrine and exposes some of its harmful practices. You can find it here: http://www.thechurchofwells.org/
Does the Church of Wells Teach a False Gospel?
Faith Healing? Trust in God, but See a Doctor
Why People in Cults Don’t Think They’re in Cults
Wisconsin Faith-Healing Case May Set Precedent
Ten Ways to Reach the Unreachable
Fixing a Frankenstein Faith: Ten Distortions of Scripture and How to Correct Them
Frankenstein Faith: Love Thy Neighbor But Hate Thy Parent
10 Questions A Church Should Ask When it Receives Bad Press
To Train Up A Child… Abuser (Part 1)
To Train Up A Child… Abuser (Part 2)
Eight Ways to Identify Religious Brain-Washing (Part 1 of 8)
15 Signs of False Humility
Ten Major Symptoms of Spiritual Abuse