The differences between Tony Alamo Christian Ministries and several local churches are distinct.
Unlike Alamo, the Rev. Doug Anderson of St. James Episcopal Church in Texarkana must answer to church leaders, bishops and his congregation.
"Where we see little oversight of a religious leader, often that leader will end up getting in trouble because there's that lack of accountability," Anderson said.
Alamo was sentenced to 175 years in federal prison for his misconduct with five women he wed as children.
Anderson advises individuals considering membership in a spiritually oriented group to ask themselves questions.
"Is the leader the main public face of the organization or is God working through the people the main focus," is one such query Anderson said. "Do they answer to anyone other than themselves? A bishop, a convention, a board? Does the movement belong to something larger than itself?"
Jessica Scarcello Cooper was raised in Alamo Ministries. About 10 years ago, she and her husband left with their seven children, moved to another state and joined a church.
Cooper described Alamo Ministries as, "... an organization formed under a biblical pretense, but really is a place of control and manipulation meant to selfishly further someone's ... egotistical ambitions by using a group of people's desires to do good ..."
Pastor Craig Jenkins of Texarkana's Beech Street Baptist Church had similar thoughts.
"For me, I think of a cult as personality centered. Their work rises and falls on a dominant, controlling person and in a church, at least the one I serve, we work real hard to make sure the example we follow is Jesus Christ," Jenkins said. "Cultic groups usually base a lot of their beliefs on isolated parts of scripture while we believe the scripture is all of God's word and it has to be taken in context, paragraph, chapter and book. You have to see the big picture. A church isn't based on one verse."
The Rev. Vincent Flusche of Texarkana's St. Edward's Catholic Church, said attending a Catholic Mass every Sunday for three years will expose a congregant to scripture readings from the "whole Bible" because priests all follow the same cycle.
Cooper said she experienced a "twisting" of scripture effected to serve a need of Alamo or the group.
"One of the things you see in cults is that the scriptures and the tradition-with a capital T-aren't enough," Anderson said. "They've got to have some kind of revelation, another source."
During a tour Gazette staff members took of Alamo Ministries' Fouke, Ark., compound last summer, a copy of "Polygamous Families in Contemporary Society," was among texts shelved in Alamo's bedroom.
Alamo's belief that polygamy is "condoned by God" comes from references to such in the Old Testament, Alamo said in a jailhouse interview in July 2009, a few days after his conviction.
"Polygamy has never been a part of mainstream Christianity," Flusche said.
Anderson mentioned other self proclaimed leaders similar to Alamo.
"What we see in some cults, and in Alamo's case, is great sexual immorality," Anderson said, mentioning Jim Jones.
"(David) Koresh took it a step farther and said only he was divine and only he had the right to procreate with his followers," Anderson said.
Alamo loyalists have said their communal lifestyle is based on the Book of Acts and most espouse a belief that the apocalypse is imminent. Members live on church property, hand over all assets to Alamo, depend on the church for food, clothing and shelter and rarely work outside the ministry.
"Cults tend to place a lot of value on works or deeds and a belief that what you do makes you loved by God," Jenkins said. "In an evangelical church, we believe salvation is a gift that God gives. Jesus Christ died for that. It is a gift given in God's grace and it's based on faith, not labor."
Two fathers with children in foster care claim in a civil lawsuit that acquiring housing and employment outside the controversial Alamo Ministries would equate to the loss of their salvation. Circuit judges in Miller County have included such requirements if the parents of seized children desire family reunification. Neither man has followed the court's directives and their youngsters remain wards of the state.
"It's obviously a very sad situation. I especially feel for those children who were born into that religious expression because they're truly innocent, Anderson said.
"Christian leaders ought to have good character, not to say they're perfect, but in cult leaders, you see a disturbing arrogance, not only personal, but theological. We should be suspicious of those who believe they're the only true Christians."
Flusche said the Catholic faith accepts that heaven is filled with souls who worshipped differently.
"I was taught that the Catholic church contains the fullest revelation but that it doesn't mean there isn't truth in other religions," Flusche said. "People have the freedom of conscience to practice whatever faith they choose."
Cooper said she was surprised when she ventured skeptically into a church at the openness of the leader to her concerns and criticisms.
"Nobody fears him and if I don't go to church for a few weeks, I don't get a call saying, ‘You realize you are headed down a bad road and hell awaits at the end of that road,'" Cooper said, adding that she left Alamo Ministries with the notion that "all churches were bad."
"If the leader does not portray a servant-like attitude and seems to be ‘feared' or regarded higher than the rest of the congregants, you should run because trouble is definitely looming," Cooper said.
Alamo Ministry members aren't allowed to socialize with nonmembers except when they are trying to convert them.
"Cults tend to be very exclusive," Anderson said. "There is a restriction on freedom, asking questions, they forbid doubt, and remove the right to choose with whom they spend time. Exploration of other ways of thinking and living is prohibited."
Jenkins invited Alamo Ministry members to attend a service at the church he pastors.
"We would not treat them differently than anyone else," Jenkins said. "There's a place for you here no matter what your background is."
Flusche hopes current or former members needing help will seek it.
"I hope we can reach out to these people that are left behind and help with their financial and day-to-day needs and let them know Christianity isn't what they've been experiencing," Flusche said. "It's something different."
Cooper said she now has a different view of what a religious leader should embody.
"A church is not supposed to be run the way a kingdom is. Tony used to say he was a king," Cooper said. "Respect should never be shown by fearing someone or the leadership, but rather like a respect you may have for good parents."
In the July interview with Alamo, he spoke harshly of his members and of outsiders.
"It amazes me," Alamo said. "The stupidity of men."
Anderson said individual thinking shouldn't be discouraged.
"Jesus did not ask us to check our brain at the door when we enter a church," Anderson said. "He died to take away our sins, not our minds."
Anderson lamented that cults can cause members to lose faith altogether.
"Their ideas of God, love and religious liberty are so skewed. I don't doubt many are so religiously traumatized they will never have anything to do with religion again," Anderson said. "John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, said false prophets murder the souls of men."