I’ve been asked several times about the well-being of the Epstein family. Some have assumed that since we were kicked out of Boerne Christian Assembly that our lives would be the better for it and our family problems would be over. How I wish that were true. The fact is that the ecclesiastical abuses and tyranny that we experienced at BCA, under Doug Phillips’ heavy hand, have left deep wounds. Those wounds are still in the healing phase and the fallout from all this has had serious adverse consequences to the well-being of the Epstein family.
As I’ve stated before, we came to BCA not a perfect family, but at least our problems weren’t severe. In fact, our marriage was the best it had ever been. Our marital problems could have all been worked through and resolved, if only we had had a loving and compassionate pastor.
The problems with our children in particular were mild and could have been easily addressed. Those problems were the result of the issues in our marriage and the fact that we had only recently learned biblical parenting skills and techniques. Children know when things aren’t going well between dad and mom, and when those problems aren’t dealt with in a healthy manner, then the risk is high that one or more of the children will rebel.
We came to BCA with some baggage, but then that’s how a lot of couples come to church. It’s also one of the reasons they come to church in the first place — to get rid of their baggage. Many people come to church not because they epitomize the “perfect family” that desires to fellowship with other perfect families, but because they know they’re not perfect. They know they need help. What better place to get help than from the church of Jesus Christ? At least that’s what we thought. Some have likened the church to a hospital, a place where the sick come for healing and to convalesce. Once they’re made well, they’re that much better equipped to relate and minister to others in similar predicaments.
We come to church to be healed, not harmed. When we’re harmed by our own brethren, and in particular by men in ecclesiastical authority, men in positions of trust, men we place our confidence in, the consequences are often devastating. Many who have written about ecclesiastical abuse liken it to being raped. It may not be a literal raping, but it feels much the same.
“It took several years to understand and label the deep devastation and trauma I was experiencing. My symptoms were identical to the symptoms of those who suffered from sexual or physical abuse. How could this possibly be? Was I abused?” Ken Blue, a pastor in Southern California, explains very simply that abuse of any type occurs when someone has power over another and uses that power to hurt. Physical abuse means that someone exercises physical power over another, causing physical wounds. Sexual abuse means that someone exercises sexual power over another, resulting in sexual wounds. And spiritual abuse happens when a leader with spiritual authority uses that authority to coerce, control or exploit a follower, thus causing spiritual wounds… It was so difficult to understand what was happening to me emotionally, physically and especially spiritually. I didn’t understand that I was having the same reactions as someone who had been raped.” Toxic Churches, Marc A. Dupont, pages 34, 37.
A woman who has been raped will very likely have a hard time trusting men again. She can be terribly confused about sex. She may equate sex with her own husband as being hurtful and even evil. She’ll have difficulties with trust in relationships. Just like with a literal physical rape, ecclesiastical rape destroys trust in church leaders. It can be very difficult to ever trust church elders again. This is what we faced when we subsequently came to Faith Presbyterian Church. It was extremely hard for us to trust those elders, but we knew that it was important for our healing and spiritual growth to do so. After that failed attempt, it will now just be that much more difficult to ever join a church again. It’s not that we’re not open to it. It’s just very hard to even consider trusting elders again.
Our BCA experience feels like we were raped, but it can also be summarized as “betrayal.” Betrayal by someone in authority can have devastating and long term consequences. We’re now living daily with the consequences of Doug’s betrayal, and those consequences have been devastating to our family.
“[Ecclesiastical abuse] is not only wrong because of the misuse of authority and immediate harm to the victim, but it is deeply wrong because basically it is betrayal. It is betrayal of… the follower, who by the very nature of the relationship is usually very trusting and somewhat dependent on the one with power. In such cases the long-term effects of betrayal can, in fact, be ruinous to the overall mental and spiritual health of victims for the rest of their lives if healing is not found. Subsequent relationships with friends, loved ones and potential friends and loved ones can often fail ever to reach the true potential of love and trust. This betrayal and hurt can rob the victim of the freedom of trusting and choosing to be vulnerable again. Toxic Churches, Mark A. Dupont, page 14.
We came to BCA with some marital issues in the past, although things seemed to be going rather well when we first began attending there. We had had similar issues that many Christian couples have. Our problems weren’t in any way unique, nor were they complex or insurmountable. But after Mark started hearing Doug’s “vision” on how the man was to be the head of his family, Mark became quite frustrated. Every week, he would hear something about men leading, but he was never taught what that actually looked like. He attempted to work that out for himself, but it ended up that our marriage was taking 2-3 steps backward for every step forward in this “vision.” We thought we could trust Doug Phillips, so we shared, in confidence, our problems. We trusted Doug to keep those things in confidence. Isn’t it a given that a pastor will keep things in confidence, particularly sensitive family matters? Doug betrayed our confidences. Rather than using the information we shared with him to provide us with wise, biblical counsel, Doug used everything we told him against us. In his hyper-patriarchal framework, I was the bad guy. According to Doug, I was a “whore,” a “Jezebel,” a “nag,” and a “dripping faucet.” All the fault had to be mine. Doug Phillips is not known to have ever asked a wife, “Does your husband love you as Christ loved the church and gave Himself for her?”
This is the presupposition of the hyper-patriarch. Doug ignored all the evidence to the contrary, including the very testimony of my husband. This isn’t to say that I was without sin. It is to say that I was never guilty of the things that Doug accused me of, and that he tried to convince my husband that I was guilty of. Unfortunately, for a time at least, my husband did start to believe those things about me. Later he repented, and I’ve forgiven him for that.
Our relatively minor marital problems were severely exacerbated by Doug’s “counseling.” Rather than confronting Mark’s anger problems, Doug justified Mark’s anger by blaming me for allegedly being “unsubmissive” and even “rebellious.” Doug never provided any evidence that I was unsubmissive. It was just assumed that I was. Rather than working to resolve our problems, Doug immediately looked for someone to blame, and a hyper-patriarch will always blame the wife. Rather than diminishing Mark’s anger issues, Doug only fueled the fires of Mark’s anger. Abusive pastors just breed abuse in the home. Rather than helping our marriage, Doug sabotaged our marriage.
Looking back on it now I can plainly see that we made a major mistake in ever sharing our hearts with Doug. What we didn’t understand at the time is that Doug has a certain image, a “vision,” of what BCA must be. BCA isn’t a church for the wounded and hurting. BCA is a church for those who already have their act together, and if they don’t have their act together, they’d better keep their problems to themselves. They’d better just do their best to act like the vision. Disclosing family problems is a threat to Doug’s “vision.” It upsets Doug’s image of the perfect church. By disclosing our problems we became a threat to his vision. We had to be condemned and removed.
The trust that Doug violated with us has bred distrust in our own home. One of our marital problems was trusting one another. Doug only fanned the flames of distrust. Since then it’s been just that much more difficult for Mark and me to trust one another.
Perhaps the single greatest consequence to our family is how it’s affected our eldest daughter, Natasha. Prior to coming to BCA, I had a reasonably good relationship with Natasha. Natasha and I spent countless hours talking together and sharing our hearts. As a stay at home, home school mom, I always had lots of time for Natasha. Doug’s betrayal made a deep and lasting impression on Natasha, and the subsequent consequences to her, in particular, have been devastating. Natasha trusted us with our decision to join BCA. That decision proved to be one of the biggest mistakes of our lives. We have to accept responsibility for our decision, and we do. We were the ones who made that decision, and I grieve every day over what that’s done to our family, and her in particular.
When Mark and I were “excommunicated,” BCA shunned us. But they didn’t just shun Mark and me, they shunned our entire family. Overnight, Natasha lost all of her friends. What sin was she guilty of? Nothing, other than being an Epstein. In some ways, Natasha has been even more betrayed than Mark and me. Natasha was an obedient and godly young lady, a young lady that even Doug was proud to have as a member of his church. She was even the runner-up for a Vision Forum writing contest, but shortly after our “excommunication” Doug removed her name from the Vision Forum web site. He punished her for no other reason than that she’s an Epstein.
Doug now bears much responsibility for causing a Christian teenager to stumble. Natasha became so disillusioned that she left home and has turned far away from Doug’s extreme teachings ever since then. We pray for her every day, but we also understand why it’s happened. It’s hard to blame her after everything she’s been through. Doug bears a heavy liability for what’s become of her.
“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea.” Matt. 18:6
Putting the pieces back together again won’t be easy. For one thing, we know that we need pastoral help. But after everything we’ve been through, how are we to ever trust another pastor? Yes, we know that all pastors aren’t like Doug. The problem for us is in being able to accurately identify a pastor we can trust (our subsequent FPC experience hasn’t helped). Thankfully, we do have a few godly and faithful Christian friends who have been compassionate and understanding toward us. The Lord does provide.
Our family isn’t better for our BCA experience. It’s been a nightmare that we’re still suffering the consequences from. Our family problems haven’t been resolved, but we pray every day that they will be. We’re not going to give up and allow the Enemy to have the victory.
Some have assumed that our blogs are about “vengeance,” motivated by “unforgiveness” and bitterness.” They are not, and that’s not what we’re about. Our objective is motivated entirely by our great concern that if we’re silent, Doug will be given the opportunity to just continue abusing other Christian families. I couldn’t live with myself knowing that I had an opportunity to speak out and possibly prevent it, but because of cowardice I remained silent. From what I’ve read about ecclesiastical abuse, that’s what most people do. They just walk away from it without saying a thing. That’s the easy way out, but it just leaves the tyrant in a position to harm others. My conscience won’t allow me to do that. What I’m doing isn’t popular, and it’s certainly not making me many friends, but I believe it’s the right thing to do.