In Arms' Way

Phil Arms once saved Ron Garner from a life of sin. Garner tried to return the favor when confronted with evidence of the preacher's drug use. But Arms viewed it as just a Judas kiss.

Ten days after his "confession," Arms took the pulpit again. He updated the congregation on his medical condition (apparently God had inhibited any liver damage) and wrote a postdated check for the missing $41,805. He said that there was no way he would have "personally procured that kind of money for anything [he has] ever done" but that he would take "personal responsibility for having done it," just in case. (Much after the fact, Shine clarifies Arms's quote. Arms, he says, disputes the amount of the shortfall in the church offerings account. Any money withdrawn from the account, Arms argues through his attorney, was used for expenses such as hospital visits, gas, parking, gifts for troubled families and other legitimate ministry needs. There is no way, Arms contends, that those expenses could add up to $41,805. Unfortunately Arms didn't keep a detailed record of his expenses. In his church address, he was merely taking responsibility for "maintaining the church accounts," which apparently falls under his job description.)

No amount of lawyering could have placated Jim Miller, who rose from his seat in the crowd and said, "I will not stand for more lies." Taken aback, Arms threatened to have the dissenter removed. In a passively resistant protest, Miller threw himself on the green carpeted steps below the pastor and prayed for him to repent. When Arms had finished his speech, he crawled down onto the steps with Miller and spoke to him harshly under his breath, like a parent scolding a child in public. "Now, God's told me to wash your feet," Arms said. "I want you to get up here right now."

But the forced foot-washing did little to bring Miller back into the fold. From the altar, he pointed out that Arms's repayment of the money didn't negate the fact that he stole it, and this sparked shouts for truth and repentance throughout the congregation. Finally Suzanne Arms took the stage to try to help her husband defend himself, but she ended up just giving the crowd more of the blood they wanted. "Yes, he took too many drugs, he's confessed that," she said. "Yes, he took money, and he shouldn't have -- it was drug-driven."

The shorter Arms (left) made the taller Garner squat down in their photos together.
The shorter Arms (left) made the taller Garner squat down in their photos together.
The shorter Arms (left) made the taller Garner squat down in their photos together.
The shorter Arms (left) made the taller Garner squat down in their photos together.

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"The authority of this church," said Arms, trying to calm things down, "ultimately, spiritually and legally is still in the hands of this pastor." But he couldn't maintain control for much longer. After the foot-washing debacle, the interim ministers, Arms's brother and friend, told Arms that he needed to step down from the pulpit of Houston Church. It looked for a moment like Ron had won, that for the first time an underling had taken on Arms and managed to remain standing. Ron Garner thought of the story of David and Goliath.

But on the same day that Arms resigned, the interim ministers asked Arms's accusers, Garner, Miller and Francis, to resign as well. Things had become too messy in this biblical battle for anyone to survive. Arms had publicly maligned the men as the enemy in a spiritual war and as jealous liars trying to destroy God's church. In Arms's April newsletter, the pastor wrote of "the ludicrous, nonsensical rantings of foolish, unenlightened hearts" and penned the following verse:

When the jeering voice of darkness hisses at the end of day,

And the hounds of hell are howling, and none are held at bay;

When fiery darts from demon's slings have pierced the heart within,

And devils dance with glee and mock, as night and pain descendŠ.

Ron's charges were further tainted by the appearance of self-interest. As Shine points out, Garner could have expected a significant pay increase and a dramatic jump in visibility if he had succeeded in taking the reins of the ministry. He could have walked right into the cushy situation Arms had worked for decades to create. In a letter to the Press, Shine summed up his client's position: "The simple fact is that no one has brought forth any credible evidence that Phil Arms has acted improperly in regard to his pastoral role at Houston Church. Phil Arms suffers from a rare blood disorder that causes him to suffer extraordinary pain. The severe pain began to limit his ability as the Pastor of the very large Houston Church, and Pastor Arms voluntarily resigned." Shine also told the Press that Ron Garner suffers from manic depression and has problems with alcohol that cause him to act "irresponsibly."

Sheila takes the smear campaign in stride, saying that "anytime you try to do something against the norm or against the system, you're going to get accused of all kinds of things that you're not doing." Ron angrily denies any problems with depression or alcoholism. "It's like [Phil is] supernaturally energized, and it's not by God, so you figure out who it's by," he says. "It ain't the tooth fairy."

Bob Francis and Jim Miller both say that they stand behind the evidence compiled by the Garners.

When Arms left Houston Church, he didn't leave empty-handed. As the congregation realized during the scandal, Houston Church was a mere outreach program of the nonprofit organization run by Arms and his wife. Phil Arms Ministries owned the church building, the land the church had purchased for expansion, the bank accounts, everything. Houston Church was never its own legal entity, and because the church is nondenominational, it can seek no help from a higher religious authority. It seemed that if no one wanted to play by Arms's rules anymore, he could just pack up his toys and go home. All the money that the congregation had tithed to the church over the years they had actually donated almost directly to Arms's ministry. "It wasn't set up like a church," says Sheila. "It was set up like a mom-and-pop business."

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