Peddling Legalism as “Reformed Theology”
“For judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.” James 2:13
God has been using many of my commenters to help push me into becoming a Berean. I still have a long way to go, but I’m excited about the things I’m discovering. As a direct result of this blog, I’ve also made some dear friends. By studying the Word together, those friends have also provoked me into looking deep into the perfect law of liberty. I especially want to extend my sincere thanks and appreciation to our Bible study teacher, Mike, whose teachings have exposed a number of harmful, unbiblical and extra-biblical doctrines in my own life. I haven’t made Mike’s life easy. I know there are many times that I have frustrated and annoyed him. But Mike has always shown himself to be a gentleman and a scholar. I will always be indebted to him. Thanks, Mike.
In the past several months, I’ve found myself having to confront many of the beliefs that I had long held dear. I’ve come to recently recognize that some of my beliefs are rooted in legalism. Patriarchy is an example of this. Other examples include homeschool-only, dresses-only, etc. This has been hard for me to confront. I’ve had to admit to myself and to some close friends that I’ve not only been a legalist, but that I even like legalism. Legalism for me is safe. It provides me with a sense of comfort. Having a list of dos and don’ts to live by has kept my life orderly and structured, and given me a sense of security.
Being a legalist is something that I’ve long lived by. This is why I was drawn to a life of military service. Everything about the military is structured and regulated, a veritable legalist’s paradise. It’s also why I was later drawn to Boerne Christian Assembly. Legalistic churches attract legalistic members. I don’t blame Doug Phillips and BCA for turning me into a legalist. I was a legalist long before I arrived. Personal liberty and freedom have long been alien concepts to me. In the last month, in particular, confronting my own legalism has been a gut-wrenching process. God has been revealing to me, on an almost daily basis, new areas of my life He wants me to face head-on. This story is one of those areas where I had previously not seen anything amiss. Now I can plainly see it.
God has recently shown me how deep into legalism Doug Phillips and BCA are. Having been such a legalist myself, I couldn’t see it before. It’s no wonder God has so much to work on in my own life as I attempt to leave all my legalism behind. It hasn’t been easy. It’s also cost me nearly every friend I’ve had in San Antonio. We tend to make friends with people who are much like ourselves, which means that many of my local former friends are also legalists. Losing all my legalistic friends has been the hardest part, and even though they’re legalists, I still miss them. My public exposure of Doug Phillips’ ecclesiastical tyrannies is, for my former legalistic friends, far more than what I had intended it to be. I thought it was just about exposing Doug Phillips’ ecclesiastical tyrannies; but for them it was much more. For them, it’s an assault on the legalistic worldview that Doug Phillips represents, a legalism that they personally hold very dear.
Doug Phillips is revered by many legalists because he’s such a smooth promoter of legalism. No legalist, however, wants to see their own legalism as legalism; and so we never call it “legalism.” We call it other things. Doug Phillips is a very slick promoter, and so he dresses it up and disguises his legalism in noble-sounding pseudo-biblical terms like “Patriarchy.” It sounds even more biblical when he calls it “Biblical Patriarchy.”
Doug Phillips doesn’t stop there though. In some ways Doug is truly ingenious when it comes to promotion and marketing. It doesn’t get any more ingenious than to repackage legalism as “Reformed theology.” As one of my commenters, “T. Reformed” put it recently:
The very cornerstone of the Reformed faith are the doctrines of grace, rooted in Ephesians 2:8-9, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast.”
John Calvin called Ephesians 2:8-9 “the hinge of the Reformation.” Martin Luther called it, “the doctrine by which the church stands or falls.” These leading lights of the Reformation also used the terms “Sola Fide,” faith alone, and “Sola Gratia,” grace alone. In other words it is only by faith, and only by God’s grace that we are saved, and nothing else, ever.
Doug Phillips claims to be Reformed, and his church blog says, “Boerne Christian Assemnbly Affirms the London Baptist Confession of 1689.” The LBC was taken largely from the Westminster Confession of Faith.
However, I don’t see how Phillips could be Reformed while also embracing Gothardism… Doug Phillips appears to be a very mixed bag of “Reformed,” and some other things like Gothardism, which would be incompatible and even a contradiction to the Refomed faith. It sounds as though Phillips holds to a pseudo-orthodox soteriology, except when it comes to “the perseverance of the saints.” If this is true then he doesn’t really qualify as being Reformed.
It never dawned on me until this week what a major coup it’s been for Doug to portray himself as “Reformed,” yet for all practical purposes deny the doctrines of grace. There’s a major disconnect between what Doug Phillips professes to believe and what he actually practices. I’m amazed that he’s been able to get away with it all these years. Doug Phillips appears to live in some sort of a theological parallel universe where legalism = grace, man-worship = honor, bondage = freedom, and ecclesiastical tyranny = church discipline.
Repenting is often hard, and my legalism is something that I’ve recently had to repent from. The fruit of my legalism has caused great harm, especially to my own family. I’m just now beginning to see its magnitude. I need to repent to my family, and especially to my husband, for my legalism. I’m not ashamed to do so, and I’m not ashamed to do it publicly, right here. Mark, children, I confess my legalism and I repent of it. Please forgive me, and please be patient with me as I continue to work through the process of walking out of legalism into a life of grace.
Because of my blindness to my legalism, there was a significant part of my story that I had earlier failed to tell. I didn’t perceive when I was originally telling my story months ago just how significant this part of the story was. I not only thought it was insignificant, I didn’t even see it. Now I recognize just how significant it is. As God continues to convict me of this and other things, there may be other issues and events that come to mind that I may need to go back and tell, things that I had earlier missed. I’ll add these to the sidebar in chronological order, e.g. “Chapter 4-B,” etc.
And now to the story.
Most people at BCA didn’t seem to want much to do with our family outside of regular church activities, so we were thrilled when the Shorts decided to befriend us after we moved nearby in the summer of 2003. We quickly got into a weekly routine of having dinner together at our home nearly every Friday evening, with their family often leaving around 3 a.m. We would enjoy a nice meal together and then Mark and Richard almost always took a long walk together. Richard soon volunteered to mentor Mark. As Mark and Richard walked and talked, the rest of us generally played board games together.
I appreciated Richard’s willingness to counsel Mark, as times were pretty tough then. However, it seemed to be a rather superficial relationship. Because we were having marital problems, I ultimately asked Richard and Reba to be witnesses for me when I confronted Mark in step two of Matthew 18. At this point, our relationship with the Shorts noticeably changed. Richard began to focus on deeper issues with Mark, and Reba proceeded to tell me that “the problems in marriage are always the woman’s fault.” This later became the very basis of the three counseling sessions I had with Beall and Reba. The entire focus on every meeting was on my “faults.”
“The woman is always at fault for all of the problems in every marriage” is a belief held strongly in many Patriarchal churches, like BCA. However, since leaving BCA, I’ve discovered that there are Patriarchal churches which also teach just the opposite. “All of the problems in every marriage are always the husband’s fault” is taught by R.C. Sproul, Jr. Neither position is biblical, nor are they even logical or consistent with the reality of any Christian marriage. Because husbands and wives are both sinners, the truth falls somewhere in the middle. However, Patriarchy, being an extremist belief system, lacks the biblical balance necessary to correct marital problems. In too many cases, Patriarchy just exacerbates marital problems. Telling a husband that “All of the problems in your marriage are your wife’s fault” is every bit as harmful as telling a wife, “All the problems in your marriage are your husband’s fault.”
In our own case, the Shorts approached our marital problems with the unbiblical presupposition that all of the Epsteins’ marital problems were “the wife’s fault.” Not only was this untrue, it only served to make our marital problems much worse. Whereas before, Mark had started to recognize that he had areas in his life that needed to be repented of, now he was being told that it was all my fault and, therefore, he had no need of repentance at all. When I was told it was all my fault, I knew this couldn’t be true. This only made it harder for me to begin to take responsibility for those things that really were my fault. This is the fruit that comes from such extremism. To this day, Mark and I are both still struggling with the aftermath of this.
For approximately eighteen months, we’d been having dinner together with the Shorts, on a fairly consistent weekly basis. One Sunday after church in January 2005, Mark and Richard took a long walk. But when they returned to church, something seemed quite different. Richard said he wanted to talk to both of us, which was quite unusual. He then informed us that he had come to the conclusion that neither Mark nor I were true believers. In his view, we were unsaved. I was quite taken aback, as I knew that I deeply loved the Lord and desired nothing more than to please Him. But that was essentially the end of the conversation and we went home from there. I was also confused over the fact that Richard and I had spent very little time talking. Most of Richard’s time had been spent with Mark, and I couldn’t understand how Richard could come to the conclusion that I was unsaved when he’d never even asked me about my faith.
That Thursday morning, January 20, 2005, Mark had what I would describe as very broken spirit and a contrite heart. He desired to repent and seek futher counseling, with a focus on marital counseling. Mark was convicted by the Holy Spirit that there were important areas in his marriage that he needed to work on. He emailed Richard Short asking if they could meet and talk about Mark repenting. Mark also emailed another man at church who was known for giving good counsel in difficult marital situations and he agreed to counsel us. The Shorts live only about a mile or two from us and Mark works only about ten minutes away from Vision Forum, where Richard Short works. The two of them could have easily gotten together at a moment’s notice. Distance never posed a hardship. However, on this occasion, Richard said that he would not be able to meet with Mark before Monday. He wasn’t even willing to talk to Mark on the phone.
I could not understand this because, at the time, I assumed that this repentance was the fruit Richard had been working toward all these months. In reality, it was entirely the work of the Holy Spirit, in spite of Richard’s counsel to Mark. Looking back on it now, I can see that Mark’s repentance wasn’t at all what Richard was looking to accomplish, just the opposite. Remember, “All of the problems in every marriage are always the wife’s fault.”
Later that day, we received a request from BCA “leadership” to meet with them an hour before church began that Sunday. They did not tell us what the meeting was going to be about, so I assumed that since Richard Short had told Doug that I wasn’t a converted Christian. I assumed that I was going to need to defend my testimony and offer a credible profession of faith. I looked up a plan of salvation and made sure I had all my verses ready to show that I understood and could explain why I knew I was saved.
When we showed up early on Sunday morning, however, they did not ask me to defend my faith. They didn’t ask me to give a credible profession of faith. That didn’t even come up. Instead, we were read the disciplinary action statement, which I’ve described before. Although we do not have proof, we are almost certain that Richard Short is the one who recommended our discipline and excommunication. Doug has stated that he did not initiate our disciplinary action himself. Someone was responsible for that, so it’s reasonable for me to assume that the party chiefly responsible for our “counseling,” the Shorts, were the responsible party. The other people present who agreed to discipline us knew nothing of our situation, save one man, whom I know did not recommend this discipline, but who went along with it in the end.
Richard Short spent many months with us, mostly with Mark, and then he comes to the conclusion that neither of us is saved. Immediately after Richard comes to this conclusion, we find ourselves together at church on a Sunday afternoon, but Richard doesn’t bother to share the gospel with us, nor even ask us if we understand it. Mark then tells Richard that he wants to repent, but Richard suddenly doesn’t have time for Mark, when he always has before. Although Richard has stated that he doubts our salvation, he pushes for us to be disciplined and eventually excommunicated. That Sunday morning before church would have been a good opportunity to share the gospel with us, or to at least ascertain if we were true believers at that time. But even though Richard doubted our salvation, and even though Mark offered to repent, Doug chose to discipline us instead of sharing the gospel with us.
And what gospel would that be? I am just now learning that it is the gospel of grace. Grace. That is an almost foreign word to me. I did not hear the doctrines of grace preached at BCA — ever. I never heard the gospel preached at BCA. I am not saying that they preached another gospel, but that they simply didn’t preach the gospel at all. What was preached at BCA? For the most part, the Old Testament was preached at BCA — the law. We spent years studying the Samuels, Kings, and Chronicles, patterning our lives after what we found there. And what did we find there? For one thing, Patriarchy. We spent an inordinate amount of time studying Patriarchy. For a legalist like me, it never really surprised me how often and how easy it was to find Doug’s version of Patriarchy in the Bible, even in the “non-normative” stories. Looking back on it now though, it does surprise me how many years of Sundays we spent studying nothing but the law, but never anything about the doctrines of grace. Now I can plainly see that Doug Phillips is not a Reformed Bible expositor, nor is Boerne Christian Assembly a Reformed church.
We did have topical preaching. It just was never about the doctrines of grace. Those sermons were long on vision and short on Scripture and practical application. Legalists are big on dos and don’ts. However, this doesn’t mean that legalistic preachers are always helpful when it comes to practical application. This was one of our biggest frustrations with Doug. He would never hesitate to tell us what to do, but he seldom ever had any suggestions on how to practically do it. If you asked for practical examples he usually couldn’t offer any. Doug’s sermons and teachings that are sold through Vision Forum reflect this as well. Doug Phillips is a pie in the sky visionary, a warm and fuzzy motivational speaker; but when it comes to practical application he’s got little to offer. Now combine that with the legalism and you’ve got a formula for disaster. “Do this, don’t do that. However, you’ll have to figure out all on your own how to do it. Don’t expect any help from us. If (and when) you fail, you’ll be filled with guilt and shame, and we’ll do what we can to help reinforce your guilt and shame. We might even tell you that you’re not even saved. Then we’ll discipline you.”
Why aren’t the doctrines of grace preached in a church that states they “affirm the Second London Baptist Confession Of Faith” and that Confession itself so strongly affirms the doctrines of grace? Actually, I never once heard the term “grace” used at BCA. As I come to examine the teachings of patriarchy, I am coming face to face with more and more legalism. Legalism doesn’t have room for grace. Legalism doesn’t have room for mercy. Mark begged Doug for mercy that particular Sunday when he asked him not to read the part of the disciplinary statement about my sins prior to my becoming a Christian. No gospel that Sunday. No grace. No mercy. Just the sound of the hammer falling. Judgment. Condemnation. Shame. Guilt. Legalism.
Legalistic churches are all about image. It’s all about maintaining appearances. The Epsteins posed some major problems for BCA. We didn’t fit the image. We not only arrived with marital problems, we were just foolish enough to believe that church is the ideal place to confront marital problems by receiving competent, biblical counsel. No doubt there are other BCA couples that have marital problems, too. However, even with their marital problems they still fit the image, and in a legalistic church that’s really all that matters. They maintain the image by keeping their problems to themselves. We weren’t smart enough to know how to do that, and we weren’t good at pretending. Mark and I are still useless when it comes to pretending. (Natasha is no better)
Our marriage posed a huge threat to the image that Doug was trying to maintain. I’m quite confident that the thought crossed Doug’s mind more than once that we might be headed for a divorce. Such a thought would terrify a man like Doug Phillips. A divorce in his church would have been devastating to his image, especially when he held the “Uniting Church and Home” conferences. Doug decided that he needed to get rid of us. The expediency with which Doug dumped us, and the unbiblical and unjust way he went about it, only confirms that the only thing he was interested in was maintaining his image of the perfect church — a church where every marriage is perfect — or at least a church where there is the appearance that every marriage is perfect. Doug couldn’t risk the potentiality of a divorce happening on his watch. The Epsteins were expendable, and so we were expended.
I’m now baffled, though, over how a church can excommunicate a couple shortly after they just said that couple wasn’t even saved.
I pray that as God continues to lead me on His path of grace that He would also show His grace to all those at BCA. May God deliver them as He’s now delivering me. God wants us all to be free from the bondage of legalism and condemnation.