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One Man’s Christianity is Another Man’s Cult

christian cult
Cult or Christianity? Who decides? By what standard?

James “Jim” Bellar pastors Dove Outreach Church in Waverly, Ohio, a church considered by many local Christians to be a “cult.” An article in The Athens Messenger, written by Cole Behrens, calls Bellar a “self-proclaimed minister and apostle.” The not-so-subtle implication by Behrens is that Bellar is the wrong kind of Christian, a cultist. Behrens evidently is not aware of the fact that countless Evangelical preachers are “self-proclaimed” ministers. There’s no main Evangelical headquarters, no governing or ruling authority. Anyone can become an Evangelical pastor/apostle/bishop/evangelist/missionary. Anyone can start an Evangelical church. Want to see capitalism and entrepreneurialism at work? Visit an Evangelical church. If giving men and women important-sounding titles is a sure sign a church is a “cult,” then tens of thousands of “Bible-believing,” Jesus-loving, gospel-preaching churches are “cults.”

Apostle Bellar is busy “retranslating” the Bible to a “faithful” rendition of the gospels for English-speaking people. When asked by what (or who’s) authority he was retranslating the Bible, Bellar replied:

God. The Holy Spirit. I don’t have to answer to any man. God. You have to answer to God yourself.

Valerie Trainer, a member of Dove Outreach, said:

He’s doing translations as God gives them to him, to be more perfected by the Lord — praise the Lord — but that’s a good thing. He’s an apostle, yes. Praise the Lord.

Oh my, Bellar is putting his own words into the Bible. Isn’t that exactly what Christians have been doing for 2,000 years? The Bible has always been an evolving book — often radically so — especially when you take into account the individual interpretations of billions of Christian clerics, church leaders, teachers, and run-of-the-mill congregants. If a cultist is someone who puts his own spin on the Bible or changes its words to suit him, why EVERY Christian is a cultist.

Athens Messenger writer Behrens found a cult expert, Stephen Kent, professor at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, to label Dove Outreach a “cult.” Kent stated the church doesn’t look like a “standard” Christian church. A “standard” church? As opposed to an “automatic” church? (Car joke, for those trying to figure out what I mean.) What, exactly, is a “standard” Christian church? By whose standard are we making this judgment?

Christian sects are, by nature, individualistic. This individualism continues at the congregation level. Sects have official statements of doctrine and practice. Yet, visit any of the churches in said sect, and you will find a diversity of beliefs and practices. There is no such thing as “standard” Christianity. There are endless Christianities. For as many Christians there are, there are Christianities. No two Christians agree on anything.

Kent went on to say:

This group appears to be way off the charts in relation to normative Christianity.

….

One has to be very careful about religious figures who claim unique godly authority because in doing so they place themselves above secular law. When people grant themselves extreme religious authority — then one has to wonder if that person is delusional or narcissistic.”

“Unique Godly authority?” You mean like pastor, deacon, evangelist, missionary, bishop, elder, prophet, priest, or king — all of which are found in the Bible, all of which are found in Christian sects and churches today.

I would think a news reporter and cult expert would know that countless American churches are patriarchal and authoritarian; that Dove Outreach is not special or unique in that regard.

Bellar denies Dove Outreach is a cult:

We are not a cult, I don’t run people’s lives. I preach the truth. And certainly, if I saw anything illegal, it would have been dealt with.

as does Trainer:

As far as I know, it’s a church that believes the gospel of Jesus Christ, and that’s all Jim has preached as long as I’ve gone there. So whatever you’re hearing out there about whatever — it’s not true.

I spent a few minutes today reading Dove Outreach’s official doctrinal statement. Everything in what the church calls The Foundational Principles of the Doctrine of Christ, is believed by American Christians everywhere — with a few quaint oddities concerning baptism. If this is the doctrine of a cult, every Evangelical church in America is a cult.

The church’s website defines “salvation” this way:

Romans 10:8-13
8 But what saith it? The word is nigh thee, even in thy mouth, and in thy heart: that is, the word of faith, which we preach;
9 That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.
10 For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.
11 For the scripture saith, Whosoever believeth on him shall not be ashamed.
12 For there is no difference between the Jew and the Greek: for the same Lord over all is rich unto all that call upon him.
13 For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.
KJV

If this statement is cultic, every church I ever attended and pastored was a cult.

Based on my investigation, Dove Outreach promotes Bible literalism. Again, scores of Christians interpret the Bible literally, so such a practice is not unique. Cultic? Nope.

Dove Outreach is a Bellar-owned and operated church. Troubling? Sure, but not unusual. Lots of churches, Evangelical and mainline alike, are controlled by certain families. Sometimes, it’s the pastor’s family that controls a church — often for multiple generations. Other times, it is powerful families within a church that wield control.

Several Dove Outreach church members were recently indicted on sexual and physical abuse charges. According to The Athens Messenger, the Athens County Prosecutor’s Office argued in their indictments “that the font of their alleged behavior may have been “cult”-like beliefs stemming from what was being taught at Dove Outreach Church.

The Daily Mail reports:

An Ohio couple and two of their 19 children, who are adults, have been charged after their daughter who escaped the family came forward with a string of allegations against them.  

Robert Bellar, 54 and his wife Deborah Bellar, 49, face charges in connection with an ongoing sexual abuse investigation concerning their children. Two of their sons Jonathan Levi Bellar, 26, and Josiah Bellar, 24, have also been charged.

That came after one of Robert and Deborah’s daughters told The Athens Messenger she was forced to attend a ‘cult’ church run by her uncle, James Bellar, who would tell them their siblings would have to have children with one another in order to prepare for the apocalypse. 

Serah Bellar said: ‘All the kids would have to go, whether they wanted to or not— even if you were sick, you had to go, it didn’t matter. [sounds like every church I attended or pastored]

‘Anytime he’d say anything, I’d just kind of repeat it in my head, like, how messed up it kind of sounded. He’d always talk about the end of the world and how you’d reproduce with your siblings.’ 

That uncle denied the claims in a statement to Law and Crime, calling it a ‘complete lie’. James Bellar said: ‘I am a Minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and stand as witness to the Truth. How people react to that is on them.’

….

Serah had been missing since April last year after escaping the alleged abuse; after turning 18-years-old she then posted to Facebook under a fake name detailing all of her allegations. 

They center on incidents said to have occurred between 2008 and 2016. Child services are said to have received reports but no formal action was taken. 

Athens County Prosecutor Keller Blackburn said: ‘There was an absolute systematic failure in handling these accusations. 

‘Serah was turned away by authorities every time she tried to report this abuse.’

Chief Assistant Prosecutor Liz Pepper accused her mother Deborah of ‘refusal to accept the fact that there was sexual abuse going on in the home and the conspiracy she then entered into to conceal that’.

She said she ‘has concealed witnesses…tampered with evidence and…continues a conspiracy to hide sexual abuse that has occurred in her home’.

Robert and Deborah are believed to have 18 biological children and one adopted child. 

They have each been charged with one count of engaging in corrupt activity, and two counts of endangering children, according to Athens County Prosecutor. 

The couple have each pleaded not guilty and were given $1 million bonds.  

Jonathan Levi Bellar is charged with gross sexual imposition. He is being held at the Southeastern Ohio Regional Jail. He has pleaded not guilty. 

Josiah Bellar is charged with three counts of rape and two counts of gross sexual imposition. He is yet to be arraigned. 

Again, the “C” word. Readers of this blog would agree with me when I say that beliefs have consequences. Anytime appeals are made to a divine religious text such as the Bible for justification, it’s possible to have bad or harmful outcomes. Apostle Bellar is accused of promoting incest, a charge he denies. I wouldn’t be surprised in the least if he was. Just read the Bible. Take it literally, and you can easily conclude that God, in some circumstances, approves (demands) incestuous sexual behavior. Evidently, The Athens Messenger reporter has not pondered where Cain and Abel got their wives? Hint . . . they married their sisters. They had children with their sisters. And on and on the incestuous behavior went. If you buy into the Evangelical Adam and Eve story, all of us are products of incest. And then there’s Jesus — the product of the Holy Spirit having forced sex with a teen virgin named Mary. If incest and perverse sexual relations are signs of cultism . . . well, you know where I am going with this.

One man’s Christianity is another man’s cult. Who decides which is which? What is allegedly going on sexually at Dove Outreach is abhorrent. However, as the Black Collar Crime series makes clear, such behavior does not make a sect/church a cult or a pastor a cultist. Bad people, do bad things, and use the Bible to justify their behavior.

I typically do not use the word “cult” in my writing. Sometimes, as I do with Bethel Church in Redding or the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church movement, I use the word for effect. In the strictest sense, all Christian sects and churches are cults. Whether a church is a cult, or pastor is considered cultic depends on perspective or deviance from a perceived norm. Thus, for the people at The Athens Messenger, the aforementioned cult expert, and the County Prosecutor, Dove Outreach is a cult, but First Baptist Church on the corner of High Street and Main is not.

One website explains the difference between a cult and a religion this way:

*Sigh* Really? I mean, really? Isn’t that Jesus, Abraham, Allah, Moses, Paul, or Buddha standing before worshipful devotees? The Abrahamic religions are, by definition, cults, founded by charismatic men. Apostle Bellar is just one more cult leader in a 2,000+ year line of cultists. To suggest Bellar or his church are unique in any way reveals a shallow, lazy understanding of Christian church history, doctrine, and practice.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

You can contact Bruce via email, Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube.

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22 Comments

  1. Avatar
    BJW

    Well, calling this man’s church a cult means that the community can point and say, “Oh, they are bad and they aren’t like us.” When the reality is more, “Yes, they are actually a lot like us.” But then other evangelical Christians would have to take care of the beam in their own eye. Not that sexual abuse isn’t a huge red flag, and maybe none of that is happening elsewhere in that community? Except it does also happen elsewhere in other churches, as you just pointed out. And I’m starting to wonder how I was ever able to look up to most pastors. I do actually have several pastor friends, and they are lovely Christians. But I’m beginning to think I was blind to evil going on around me in my church over 30 years ago. sigh

  2. Avatar
    William

    If the bible is led by the Holy Spirit why does the bible record Christians arguing if Gentiles had to obey OT tachings of circumcision, should they be married, If they were led by one spirit then surely they would all be in agreement without the need for debate. Even the bible records disagreements of interpretation of the bible so if they had to argue then (again arguing isn’t a fruit of the Spirit) then pray tell what chance people have in agreeing almost 2000 years laters. I would say none and that unless you submit to the will of your individual Pastor then Christians will always argue with each other.

  3. Avatar
    Etienne van Heerden

    Dear Bruce

    There is only 1 Jesus Christ , 1 Crucifixion , 1 Resurrection thus 1 Christianity which scriptures and doctrines might be very differently interpreted by various individuals. It is OK for people to want to translate the Bible whatever their motivation, so long they don’t deviate from the original meaning meant by the Arameek or Hebrew scriptures.

    When you allege that it only takes one errand word to destroy the legitimacy of the Bible you are not being objective, for example:

    During the Battle of Blood river ,war secretary Jan Bantjies claims that 464 boer combatants was attacked by around 36 Zulu regiments (900-1000 warriors per regiment) equating to more than 30000 Zulu warriors whilst other witnesses and historians account around 10000 to 15000.
    Sarel Cilliers the chaplain , claims the boer combatants to be 407.
    Gustav Preller the grandson of Stephanus Schoeman a combatant and eye witness recorded 64 ox wagons forming the laager whilst Bantjies claims 57 wagons.

    Historians claim Zulu casualties of around 3000 whilst some suggest more than 3500 whilst there were no casualties on the voortrekkers side Led by Andries Pretorius

    Just because the numbers of Zulu warriors involved and discrepancies in casualty numbers, ox wagons involved and various other inerrancies occurred does not detract from the fact that the event did in fact happen as recorded by historians

    .( NOTE THAT NUMEROUS INERRANCIES OCCURRED IN AN EVENT THAT HAPPENED AROUND 200 YEARS AGO RECORDED BY HISTORIANS AND WITNESSES IN DUTCH, A LANGUAGE SPOKEN BY US IN THE PRESENT) .

    The point is that the messages in the Bible ,like the battle of blood river and many other historical events, shouldn’t simply be dismissed as myths because of different accounts of the events.

    Have a good day

    , .

    • Avatar
      clubschadenfreude

      historians aren’t claiming to have the TRUTH from some magical being. Your analogy utterly fails.

      “There is only 1 Jesus Christ , 1 Crucifixion , 1 Resurrection thus 1 Christianity which scriptures and doctrines might be very differently interpreted by various individuals. It is OK for people to want to translate the Bible whatever their motivation, so long they don’t deviate from the original meaning meant by the Arameek or Hebrew scriptures.”

      it’s Aramaic. And funny how each Christian decides on their own what the “original meaning” is, which parts to just ignore, which parts to claim as literal or metaphor, etc.

      you all have your own magic decoder rings to invent your own religion in your image. Most of you call that the “holy spirit”, but it’s just you.

      • Avatar
        Etienne van Heerden

        Dear Clubschadenfreude

        Christian religion is based on events that occurred around 2000 years ago not inventions in our images.The fact that annually, there are thousands of NDE’s (near death experiences) with a substantial number having OBE’s (out of body experiences) is testimony that human beings do possess a spirit

        .Have a great day

        • Avatar
          Bruce Gerencser

          Please provide actual evidence for your claim that NDE/OBE proves the existence of the soul. I don’t know of one scientific study that makes this claim. This is just you making shit up because you want it to be true. Come on, Etienne, do better.

        • Avatar
          Astreja

          Key word: Near- death experiences. People who experienced them did not experience total, irreversible death; they experienced a hallucinatory state due to trauma, and the NDE was created by the still-alive physical brain. OBEs are also a neurological phenomenon rather than a “spiritual” one.

        • Avatar
          clubschadenfreude

          Christian religion is based on stories of events that cannot be shown to have happened 2000+ years ago. No day with a major earthquake, the sky darkening, and the Jewish dead wandering around Roman-occupied Jerusalem on a Passover.

          There is no evidence that there is a soul, and NDEs and OBEs have never been shown to have been true. IF there is a soul and it interacts with the brain, we would be able to detect it since it must be able to interact with electrochemical things.

          We can’t.

    • Avatar
      Astreja

      Zulu warriors were real people. The number discrepancy can be very easily explained: It’s hard to get an accurate count when everyone is rushing around attacking one another.

      Contrast this with Christianity. Believing that people can come back from the dead is pretty fucking childish, and it has always baffled me why any adult believes such nonsense. Dismissing all the Bible’s supernatural claims is, in my opinion, exactly the right thing to do. The Bible isn’t even a good guide to real history, as it describes many things that simply didn’t happen – no Exodus, no worldwide flood, no Adam and Eve.

      • Avatar
        Etienne van Heerden

        Dear Astreja

        Israelis, Palestinians and Egyptians weren’t “real people” and don’t have a history????? Corpses lie pretty still as far as i am aware so they then theoretically, should be relatively easy to count and what about a discrepancy in ox wagons (less than 100 to count) and before any attacks took place discrepancies in the amount of voortrekker soldiers(less than 500 to count)?

        • Avatar
          Astreja

          Etienne, either your ability to comprehend English is very, very poor or you are deliberately misrepresenting what I said in order to puff yourself up. At no point did I say, or even imply, that Israelis, Palestinians and Egyptians were not real people.

          You believe stupid things. Very stupid things indeed. I believe with 100% conviction that not one person has ever come back from the dead and that none of them ever will – including you. Stop wasting your life on mythology.

    • Avatar
      William

      There are key verses in the bible which rest on which way you translate it from Greek and these vagaries cause people to argue about whether you need to be baptised to be saved, if you need faith and works. This isn’t a numbers game.

      Here is a better analogy. Supposing in the UK you agree a price of 300 pounds Unless you agree specifically on 300 pounds being 300 pounds sterling in the contract then someone could deliver to you 300 pounds (meaning weight) in manure.

      The devil really is in the details.

    • Avatar
      Bruce Gerencser

      There are many Christianities. This is a historical fact, whether you believe it or not.

      Inerrant means without error. Show one error in an inerrant Bible and that means it is not inerrant. Again, words have meanings.

  4. Avatar
    Karen the rock whisperer

    Bruce,

    slightly off-topic, but in my community, the opposite of “automatic” is “stick”. We still own and sometimes drive my 1999 Mazda Protégé, though I had to abandon it personally in 2013, when my left knee couldn’t manage the clutch throw any longer. Our housemate has an even more ancient Suzuki Sidekick that is also a stick. I really like my current car, a Subaru, but damn, sometimes I miss driving that Mazda.

  5. Avatar
    thatotherjean

    Is that “Apostle” Bellar’s list at the top of the post? If it is, he seems to have it in for Pentacostals and Jehovah’s Witnesses, just for starters. Also: “God” is helping James Bellar do a new translation of the Bible? Really? There aren’t enough already? The Bellar clan sound more than a little messed up.

    • Avatar
      Autumn

      The other thing with cults is they sometimes have an in-group with “extra requirements” so you could be attending services for months before you get approached by someone in the in-group and get love bombed. If you said “no thanks” you might get frozen out or shamed, or just ignored. The advantage to this is the cult then has a few tens of people who vouch for it being an ordinary church.

      This stuff is creepy and fascinating at the same time.

      Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, Belonging needs are so strong!

  6. Avatar
    Yulya Sevelova

    My exposure to cults was not long in coming, a nasty Pentacostal sects( Apostolic) in a small mountain town in Northern California. They ran things in that town,we later found out. It’s usually the cult- of – personality every time. Though they did lose faithful member here and there, once these ex- members grew a brain. Oh, the damage they caused in people’s lives ! About a year into my conversion from Tengerism, we were roped into attending that screwy place. ” Heaven’s Hell” was their nickname in that hamlet. Clearly,the Bellars are outright criminals, not just a dysfunctional clan !! Van Heerden, I hope you aren’t defending those monsters,those Bellars ! If you are, what does this say about YOU ?? As for the Zulus vs. Boers, the Dutch were there to colonize S.A. To take over land that isn’t theirs ! I KNOW how they treated the native people there. It’s pointless to bring such immoral, Nazi- types into this conversation. Use an example that makes sense. Can you do that ?

  7. Avatar
    atomgram

    First comment here. Thanks for this place. This is a local issue for me. The story was a headline in our local paper. What a sick bunch of people. This poor girl was passed around this group and abused everywhere she landed. I just fell apart after reading about the Georgia couple who took her in after luring her with a video game. As a lifelong Atheist, it has always bothered me to see the width of the acceptance Christians are allowed by using Jesus as a shield. If this were Satanists, it would have been shut down years ago and many abusers jailed. Where is the empathy in these people?

  8. Avatar
    Yulya Sevelova

    Exactly ! Forget the fueling pastors there in Ohio for a minute, and get those Bellars arrested. Crimes against children were çommitted by those people and they should be dealt with accordingly. They crossed the line once they attacked the kids.

  9. Avatar
    DoctorDJ

    I firmly believe the aphorism: “A religion is a cult with a university.”

    A “cult” begins as the mental and verbal spewing of one kook. (“Golden plates? Seriously?”) The university legitimizes the cult in the public eye. (“BYU is ranked as the best undergraduate accounting school in the country.”) It trains up its next generation of leaders. Once in place, it perpetuates the cult as a socially acceptable “religion.” (LDS.)

    …until it mutates and we get a new cult (e.g. Warren Jeffs.)

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Bruce Gerencser