I appreciate the productive email dialogue that I’ve been able to have with you. You strike me as a very reasonable person. This isn’t to say that we’ve always agreed on things, but where we’ve disagreed you’ve always done so cordially. In fact you’ve taught me some valuable lessons about the proper way to disagree with people.
I’ve had some ongoing dialogue with a number of Presbyterian Elders about your excommunication case. Even though many of them aren’t particularly familiar with Doug Phillips, some of them had been following your case closely, even before I mentioned it to them.
I’m in the PCA, so that’s been the primary extent of my discussions. We Presbyterians tend to take a lot of pride in our penchant for “Let all things be done decently and in order. ” (1 Cor. 14:40) All of the PCA Elders I’ve spoken with are in agreement that had you been in a PCA church this sort of thing probably never could have happened to you. This isn’t to say that PCA Sessions aren’t capable of doing some really foolish things, including pronouncing unjust excommunications. However, Presbyterian churches always guarantee your right of appeal to a higher court, all the way to the General Assembly, if necesary. This in itself often serves as a strong deterrent to ecclesiastical tyranny at the local church level. The only unjust excommunications that I’ve ever heard of in the PCA have occurred because the excommunicant didn’t promptly appeal their case to Presbytery. In other words they lost by default because they failed to appeal.
Presbyterian churches are also governed by a Book Of Church Order. BCO’s do a lot in the way of guaranteeing certain important rights to both church officers and members. This isn’t to say that Elders always follow their BCO. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they don’t even bother to read it. But at least if they get out of line they can be called to account for it. The problem is that many church members don’t know their BCO any better than their Elders do. How can you hold your Elders accountable if you’re ignorant? You can’t, and this just serves as an invitation for ecclesiastical tyranny.
I’ve heard many people complain about Presbyterian polity, but the problem isn’t Presbyterianism but ignorance of it. Presbyterianism is a good system for holding everyone accountable, but it doesn’t work any better than the knowledge of the people functioning within it. It’s a lot like our U.S. Constitution. Most of our government officials are very ignorant of the Constitution, and the people are even more ignorant. Our constitutional system is a good system for holding our government accountable, but it’s only as good as our knowledge of it, and our willingness to hold our government accountable.
One of my main interests in talking to various church Elders about your case is to try and figure out what kind of a remedy there could be for you. Their responses to me have been dismaying. None of them have a solution. Most of them have just said, “Too bad they weren’t in the PCA.” Then I point out the fact that you briefly attended a PCA church earlier this year (Faith Presbyterian Church), and that FPC did nothing but “honor” the unjust “excommunication” of BCA and threw you out the door. Is this a problem with the PCA, or is this just a problem with one local PCA church who botched up giving you a review of your unjust excommunication? Hopefully it’s the latter. I can tell you that had the Epsteins applied for membership in my own PCA church there is no way you would have been treated like that. My Elders understand justice and they understand grace. They bow the knee to no man, least of all Doug Phillips.
In reviewing many of the comments on your blog, I’ve been amazed by the simpleminded statements that so many have made to you. But they’re far more than just statements. They’re advice. This advice has often been offered up as solutions, but the reality is that no one has offered you a viable solution at all, a viable alternative to what you’re already doing. What you’re doing now, and what you’ve been doing for months, may be your only real option, and even what you’ve been doing may not be a real solution. However, it’s a lot better than doing nothing. It’s a lot better than sweeping it under the carpet.
To paraphrase your detractors, “Get a life. You’re wasting your time. This is just dragging you and your family down. You need to just move on. Get over it. Stop being bitter. Just forgive. If Doug Phillips refuses to be reconciled with you, there’s nothing more you can do. Take down your blogs. Just put it behind you.” These statements are statements of denial, a denial of your predicament. Moreover, they appear to be intended to beleaguer you into taking your blogs down, which is of course exactly what Doug Phillips would like to see happen.
You’ve been censured with the most severe censure that a church can impose, excommunication. You’ve been censured and punished and, in my opinion, unjustly so. Phillips claims to have given you “due process,” but that’s clearly not the case. By definition, a Kangaroo Court is incapable of exercising due process. Due process would never permit a trial in absentia. Due process guarantees the right of self-defense. Due process guarantees the right to examine witnesses. Due process guarantees you the right to defend yourself, and a reasonable amount of time to prepare your defense. Due process guarantees the right to appeal. Due process guarantees the right to have specific, enumerated offenses presented with evidence and testimony, not vague unspecific categories of offenses that the accused can’t comprehend.
Phillips claims you were excommunicated on biblical grounds, yet he can’t specifically identify even one excommunicable offense, let alone provide the evidence to back it up. Phillips himself is the final court of appeal. Yet he won’t even permit you to even talk to him. “You’ll have to talk to Doug’s attorney” is an entirely unacceptable response for a pastor. No real pastor would ever refer an ecclesiastical matter to his attorney. As I understand it Don Hart isn’t even BCA’s attorney. Don Hart is Vision Forum’s attorney and a Vision Forum board member. Your excommunication has nothing to do with Don Hart. Phillips is hiding behind his attorney, using Hart to run interference and prevent you from speaking with him.
Phillips has rejected all offers of reconciliation. Where else are you to go to have your case reviewed? To whom can you appeal? You tried Living Water Fellowship. Apparently they were sympathetic and they tried to intervene, but Phillips refused to meet with their elders. Then you tried Faith Presbyterian Church. They, like LWF, initially welcomed you in, but their elders refused to examine and review your case. Because of this blot of “excommunication” you not only couldn’t be considered for membership, they told you to leave. This is the dilemma you face, and that you will continue to face until Phillips lifts his censure.
Your story reminded me somewhat of Hester Prynne in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Many have said that Hawthorne got the inspiration for his novel from the Puritan trial of Anne Hutchinson. Like Hester Prynne you’ve been accused of adultery, only in your case it happened fifteen years before you came to faith in Christ. Anne Hutchinson was excommunicated and exiled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for “blasphemy” and “lewd conduct.” No one could ever show how Anne was guilty of blasphemy, and her “lewd conduct” was over her having men and women in her house at the same time during her Sunday meetings (talk about “hyper-patriarchy”!).
Like Anne Hutchinson you’ve been accused of many vague and general things that your Pharisaical hyper-patriarchy accuser can’t provide any evidence for. Hester Prynne was ordered to wear a large red “A” on her chest, signifying “Adulteress”, a form of public shaming and humiliation. Little did anyone know that the child she was carrying was conceived by their own beloved pastor! Rather than allowing herself to be publicly shamed by a cadre of self-righteous Pharisees, Hester not only wore her “A”, she decorated it with ornate lace and ornamentation.
Jen, next time you go to a home school conference, whether Doug Phillips is there or not, I think you need to sew a big ornately decorated red letter on your chest. In your case make it an “E” for “excommunicated.” Just like with Hester Prynne, the Pharisees would like nothing more than to shame you into silence. Don’t let them do it.
Is there a remedy for your predicament? Justice demands a remedy for injustice, but Phillips refuses you one. He holds you in a form of spiritual bondage. Those who say, “Just get over it,” are living in denial of the serious implications of excommunication. Perhaps you could start attending a church that doesn’t have membership. That would be the easy way out. There are probably many non-membership churches where you’d be welcome. The problem is that there probably aren’t any Reformed non-membership churches, and it sounds like you’re Reformed. You need to be in a church that shares your theological beliefs. That excludes all the broadly evangelical, charismatic and certainly Pentecostal churches that don’t have church membership.
You already know what to expect if when you try to even just attend another church, let alone try and join another church, just as soon as they find out that you’ve been excommunicated. And they will find out because you’re just honest enough to tell them. LWF already knew of your excommunication. Apparently FPC didn’t. You did the honest thing by informing FPC, and no doubt any church in the future that you attempt to join you’ll also be honest with them too.
One of the church Elders that I’ve been dialoguing with epitomizes why I’m so frustrated. I’ll grant you that some PCA Elders are ignorant men. This particular Elder (I’ll call him “Gene”) isn’t. Gene is a very educated and thoughtful solutions-oriented man. I also believe him to be a man of strong personal integrity. But it’s also obvious to me that he’d just like to see this all go away. That’s probably the sentiment of the vast majority of Elders who know anything about your story. Few of them are likely to be sympathetic to you. They can’t help but be sympathetic to Doug Phillips. Many of them are guilty of making some major blunders themselves, and the last thing they’d want to see is one of their members blogging about their blunders, especially if it goes beyond mere blundering and includes outright tyranny. What you’re doing, Jen, scares them. So don’t expect to make any allies with church Elders. I can tell you that you haven’t with Gene my PCA Elder friend.
Although I’m frustrated by my dialogue with Gene, I also appreciate the fact that he’s at least been willing to dialogue at all. Many others have not been so willing. I’ll include below some of our dialogue (I’ll paraphrase some of his own statements, since he may not appreciate me giving you direct quotes). Because Gene had also made some comments in defense of FPC I had to address that issue with him too:
Gene: I don’t see any good coming out of the war of words between BCA and Mark and Jennifer. Both of them have forgotten Jesus’ words in Matt 5:11-12. They both sin as they refuse to be glad and rejoice at what the other party is saying about them.
Me: Wrong verse to apply to Phillips. Here’s the correct one: “For what glory is it, if, when ye be buffeted for your faults, ye shall take it patiently?” (1Pet. 2:20) Matt 5:11-12 doesn’t apply to Phillips because no one is speaking “evil against [him] falsely, for my sake.” Phillips is not suffering “falsely,” and he’s not suffering for Christ’s sake. He’s suffering for his own tyranny and duplicity. Perhaps Matt 5:11-12 applies in some measure to the Epsteins, but I think you’re oversimplifying things. I wish there were a simple answer, but I don’t think there is one.
This isn’t just a matter of the Epsteins being able to cease exposing Phillips’ ecclesiastical tyrannies. If they’d just been told to leave BCA, without being censured, none of this would probably be happening now. But Phillips is responsible for their present “excommunicated” status. That goes far above and beyond “men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.” If we’re going to be consistent with our Reformed theology, Gene, then being excommunicated has eternal consequences.
Gene, you’ve told me that, as a Reformed Presbyterian, you subscribe to the Westminster Confession. Do you believe what it says about church discipline and censures? (WCF, Chapter 30):
I. The Lord Jesus, as king and head of his Church, hath therein appointed a government in the hand of Church officers, distinct from the civil magistrate.
II. To these officers the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven are committed, by virtue whereof they have power respectively to retain and remit sins, to shut that kingdom against the impenitent, both by the word and censures; and to open it unto penitent sinners, by the ministry of the gospel, and by absolution from censures, as occasion shall require.
BCA placed the Epsteins in a catch-22, and FPC only confirmed the catch-22. Their only way out is “to return to the elders of Boerne Christian Assembly to express your true repentance with broken spirits and contrite hearts, including recognition that matters rightly belonging in the Church should not be aired in public via the Internet.” But what are they to repent of? From the time of their “excommunication” they have pleaded for a specific, detailed list of excommunicable offenses that they are guilty of, and they have continued for over two years to make that request. None has been provided, and I don’t believe one ever will be. The fact is it can’t be provided, and the reason why is self-evident.
Adding to the catch-22 is the fact that Phillips refuses to sit down and talk with them. Even if he could identify any specific and detailed unrepentant sins, he won’t permit them to talk with him about it. Every time they’ve attempted to talk with Phillips his reply has been, “Talk to my attorney.” Pastors don’t hide behind their attorneys, Gene. This isn’t a civil legal matter, it’s an ecclesiastical matter. How could such a man even be considered to be a pastor? Phillips has misappropriated the keys of the kingdom to consign the Epsteins to Hell. He’s tyrannically “excommunicated” the Epsteins, he’s refused to meet with them, he hides behind his attorney, thus making it impossible for them to ever be restored. Catch-22. FPC tells the Epsteins, “Go and repent.” Double catch-22.
If ever there was a plan devised that had the highest potential for causing a Christian to abandon the faith, this would be it. In fact it’s worked! Natasha Epstein has rebelled! FPC had a golden opportunity handed to it to restore some battered sheep and nurse them back to health. No one can with certainty make predictions about what would have happened in Natasha’s case had FPC done it’s Christian duty, but it’s reasonable to expect that she wouldn’t be where she’s at today.
Even a secular law court would never do to the Epsteins what Phillips has done. No secular law court would charge and convict anyone of general, unspecific, and ambiguous offenses. That would be unjust. Even a pagan judge wouldn’t be a party to that (at least not in America).
Gene, I’m in agreement with FPC that “matters rightly belonging in the Church should not be aired in public via the Internet.” I doubt that the Epsteins would argue what should be the proper way of resolving this dispute. This matter does rightly belong in the Church. The problem is that the Church has completely screwed this up. The Church unjustly “excommunicated” the Epsteins (if we agree that BCA is “the Church,” and based upon BCA’s cultish behavior, I don’t necessarily agree that it is “the Church”). BCA completely failed in its duties, and broke all promises to the Epsteins. So Gene, what are the Epsteins to now do?
Is this a case where they can merely apply Matthew 5:11-12? Does that resolve things? They’ve been “excommunicated,” and Phillips won’t permit that censure to ever be lifted. How are they to ever be restored to fellowship in any church while they’re under the censure of excommunication when there’s no circumstances under which Phillips will ever lift that censure? It’s ludicrous for FPC to tell them to return to the brute who unjustly “excommunicated” them and “repent” to him of things that they’re not guilty of, and things that are so broad, vague and ambiguous that they can’t even comprehend the charges. The Epsteins have no court of appeal, other than the court of public opinion.
Gene, the issue has never been about the Epsteins’ blogging, and I think you know that. They weren’t “excommunicated” for blogging. They were excommunicated because Phillips had it in for Jen. She disagreed with him that it was a “sin” to vote Republican, and Phillips threatened, “You’ll pay for this.” He’s certainly made them “pay.” The Epsteins didn’t start blogging until they’d spent two years exhausing every other possible remedy. They showed their sincerity in seeking reconciliation, and they showed good faith in submitting to the FPC session, by taking down their blog articles. What did that earn them? They got thrown out by the FPC session. Even if they now permanently took down their blogs Phillips will probably never lift the censure.
Gene, I don’t like the Epsteins’ blogging any more than you do. There’s got to be a better way. The problem is I can’t think of one. If I knew of one I would have written the Epsteins myself and requested they consider doing it a long time ago. The Epsteins strike me as very reasonable people, and I think they listen to reason. Give me some reasonable advice, Gene, and I’ll pass it along.
Gene: And that is my major problem with what Jennifer and Mark are doing — they do so from the position of individuals (excommunicated ones at that, completely without ecclesastical authority).
Me: Gene, the Epsteins were more than willing to stop the blogging, and they did, per the request of the FPC Elders. I doubt they’re blogging again because they want to. They’re blogging because FPC, the guys with the “authority” that they submitted to wouldn’t exercise it. You can blame the Epsteins about this all you want, but with authority comes responsibility (Jam 3:1), and a much higher standard.
Gene: Although I have serious doubts about the way BCA handled the Epsteins, I recognize that the excommunication was rightly in their court and that FPC could not pre-empt their decision.
Me: No way Gene! It was not “rightly” in their court. It was an absolute sham of a trial, a Kangaroo Court. One of the three marks of a true church is “the rightful exercise of church discipline.” How can you view one of the marks of a true church in such a trivial fashion? Study your history of the Reformed Church, Gene. Unjust excommunications and censures served as a significant catalyst for the Reformation. Doug Phillips is as big a tyrant as any 16th century Catholic bishop. Phillips has had far more influence than you’re aware of in his circle of “family integrated churches,” and his influence is tyrannical. There wasn’t a thing “right” about this excommunication. The FPC session, due to reasons and rationale which I can’t even begin to comprehend, sanctioned an unjust excommunication. The FPC Session could have elected to examine the facts in the Epstein case. They could have stood for the principles of the Reformation. They could have been champions of Christian liberty, but instead they turned a blind eye to injustice.
Gene: So, if blogging about sinful men as undershepherds brings glory to Jesus, blog away. If blogging about their failure to protect them brings honor to the King of Kings, blog away. I will stand up and admit that I am a sinner. The cross has already given us all a horrible reputation — the only critique of me is that I am so bad that only death can deal with it. But, the Cross says the best that anyone can say about us. It says that God chose to place His love on us at the cost of His Son and that His Son’s righteousness was enough for Him. Our own righteneouss is as offal and filthy rags.
Me: Yes, Gene, you and I and the Epsteins and Doug Phillips are sinners, and the cross condemns us as such. The cross condemns us all, and the cross can condemn us just on the general principle that we are fallen and have a sin nature. But when it comes to human affairs of justice, none of us are condemned for general sins. In the human realm we are judged and condemned for specific transgressions of the law. A consistent application of your logic would dictate that no civil court judge, and no church session, could ever sit in judgment against anyone, because they’re not perfect men themselves. However, they’re not sitting in judgment of any man’s “fallen nature.” They judge specific transgressions of the law.
The Epsteins have been absolved of their sins by the cross, but Phillips has “excommunicated” them for general and ambiguous sins, thereby repudiating the work of the cross for them. That’s not justice, it’s tyranny, but you seem to be rationalizing their “excommunication” on the basis that because they’re sinners they deserve to be excommunicated. In principle we all deserve death and Hell. While that may be a valid theological statement, it is not a statement about justice, nor does it trump ecclesiastical tyranny. The keys of the kingdom are not entrusted to the officers of the church to capriciously lock out sinners out of vengeance — “You’ll pay for this.” The keys of the kingdom should never be entrusted to tyrants, and when a tyrant appropriates the keys he is a thief.
Phillips is playing God, and FPC has confirmed Phillips’ tyranny by telling the Epsteins that they must return to BCA and “repent” of sins that they can’t even comprehend because the charges are so broad, vague and ambiguous that they don’t know what they’re supposed to repent of.
Jen, I don’t think Gene and any of the other church Elders that I’ve talked to even fully appreciate how foolishly and vindictively Doug Phillips has handled your “church discipline.” Perhaps you and Mark deserved some form of church discipline. I don’t know that. I’ve never been a BCA member to be able to witness how the Epsteins conducted themselves there. But one thing I’m confident of is that the way that you were “disciplined” was unpastoral, unjust, malicious and excessive.
Doug Phillips’ blogging response to your blogging (which you didn’t start doing until two years after your “excommunication”), both directly, and through his proxies (Mrs. B, SFU, etc.) has meant that he’s become his own worst enemy. I can’t imagine that any of the Elders that I know of would ever retaliate as Phillips has, if they found themselves in a similar situation. Yet, many of those Elders condemn you, even though none I have talked to can offer you a viable solution. They criticize you and yet they can’t offer even one viable alternative to what you’re now doing. If any of them ever do come up with a viable alternative, you can be sure that I’ll pass it along.
May the Lord bless you and your family,