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HAMMOND - The Rev. Jack Hyles, a man branded by ex-followers as another

David Koresh, told a solemn congregation at First Baptist Church of Hammond

that he is no closer to God than they are.

He told roughly 4,000 people in the church auditorium Wednesday night that

while outsiders may believe his fundamental Baptist believers are being led by

a "dictator," he is merely their adviser as an elder, pastor and bishop of the


"It's easy for someone who only goes to church one hour a day each week to

have a hard time understanding those who give everything to Jesus," he said.

Hyles told the congregation he has no vote in the church, and could be voted

out as their pastor at any given moment. He said Jesus made it possible for

people to have access to God without an intermediary. The New Testament tells

believers that we are "all priests," Hyles said.

"You can come to God for yourself. I have no more access to God than you

do," he said. "You can study the Bible for yourself ... you can get forgiveness

for yourself, as much as I can.

"Nobody can absolve your sins except God. That's why I wear a business suit

instead of a robe. You can decide your lifestyle by yourself - you have as much

a right to decide your standards and convictions as I do."

Hyles' sermon came within a week of television broadcasts in Detroit that

depicted the church as having cult-like tendencies.

WJBK-TV reported on a confrontation involving newsman Vince Wade outside a

Lake County courtroom where A.V. Ballenger, a church deacon, was being tried on

a charge he fondled a 7-year-old girl attending Sunday School at First Baptist

Church on June 2, 1991.

Ballenger has been convicted and his sentencing is set for June 10.

The station also recapped a sermon in 1990 in which Hyles pretended to pour

poison into a glass and asked an associate pastor, Johnny Colsten, to drink

from it. Colsten said he would. The WJBK report said the sermon has the "ring

of Jonestown to it - the mass suicide in Guyana in 1978 by followers of cult

leader Jim Jones."

WJBK also reported that Hyles, though never claiming to be God, has

convinced a lot of people he is the next best thing to Him. It alleged the

church is stockpiling weapons.

Hyles, who has said in interviews with The Times that the so-called poison

sermon was said in jest and was taken out of context, has said the reports have

maligned his church. He has called them a "pack of lies."

On Wednesday, he ridiculed the broadcast.

After pointing out that every member of the congregation is, in a sense, a

priest, Hyles asked, "What am I here for? I take care of the arsenal. I run the

snake farm."

Hyles said that as the church elder who came to First Baptist 33 years ago,

he feels he has gained the confidence of the congregation to advise its

members. Many people heed that advice, he said. "Does that make me a dictator?"

he asked. "No. I advise you what to do ... the decision is yours."

Hyles said that as a pastor he is obligated to take care of his "sheep" and,

as such, sometimes extends warnings to members of his congregation so they are

not hurt.

"By the way, you won't get my advice if you don't ask for it," he said.

As bishop, he said he does have a say in the operation of the church, but he

added that he has no vote on the deacon board. "You know, I hold no official

title at First Baptist Church," he said. "So, what am I supposed to do? Advise

you where to walk and warn you of those pitfalls. Not dictate."

He concluded that the only power he has is the power of influence. He said

he has never ordered anyone to do anything, and always has advised. None of

that advice, he said, has been unsolicited.

"It means I am a leader. It doesn't mean you have to follow," he said, then

later added, "You can defrock me anytime you want to. It is your decision. Your

path to choose."