Epsteins Grateful For Richard Little Bear Wheeler, But Disappointed
By: Mark Epstein
Immediately after our “excommunication” from Boerne Christian Assembly, we began attending Living Water Fellowship. LWF is pastored by Richard “Little Bear” Wheeler. Little Bear is also a prominent home school leader and had a long standing friendship with Doug Phillips and business relationship with The Vision Forum.
Living Water Fellowship has long been considered to be part of the informal alliance among four churches in the area, one of them being BCA. These four churches were known to us all as “the community.” In spite of our “excommunication,” we were openly welcomed at LWF, whose elders made it known to us that they weren’t in agreement with Doug Phillips over our “excommunication” and that they desired to see it overturned and our relations with BCA restored. Little Bear went so far as to tell us that he saw many similarities between our “excommunication” and the Salem Witch Trials. LWF wasn’t the only church in the community that had serious misgivings about our “excommunication,” and for a time our “excommunication” threatened to cause a split in the community, and in some respects it did cause a split.
Little Bear asked us to remain at LWF for at least six months while he and the LWF elders worked behind the scenes on our behalf. Though we had a number of theological differences with the teaching and worship there (LWF is Arminian and very Charismatic, if not Pentecostal), we kept our theological differences to ourselves and remained there in hopes that Little Bear would be successful in his reconciliation attempts. We stayed for those six months. But even after our departure we remained in contact with Little Bear and Al, and they continued in their reconciliation attempts for a total of fourteen months.
Elders Richard “Little Bear” Wheeler and Al Mendenhall sacrificially invested a great deal of time and energy in their attempts to work through the Doug Phillips’ orchestrated Star Chamber excommunication, including examining any available records. Little Bear and Al attempted repeatedly to set up meetings with Doug about our “excommunication.” Doug evaded all such attempts. Ultimately, it became apparent that Doug would never agree to speak with them about it. Doug had communicated his message loud and clear: The subject isn’t open to discussion.
In March 2006, Al Mendenhall asked me to quit copying him and Little Bear on my correspondence with Doug Phillips because Little Bear wanted to pursue restoring his personal relationship with Doug. That couldn’t be done if there was any appearance that the LWF elders continued siding with the Epsteins. We were informed that because of Doug’s position on the matter, the relationship between Little Bear and Doug had become quite strained. Doug was extremely displeased that Little Bear had welcomed us to his church with open arms, and even less pleased that the LWF elders had worked diligently for fourteen months to reason with Doug. Little Bear’s personal relationship with Doug Phillips had been not only completely cut off by Doug, but Doug had even become adversarial toward Little Bear, as evidenced by his refusal to even speak with Little Bear when they led a Father-Son retreat together in August 2005.
In spite of Little Bear and Al’s inability to broker reconciliation between Doug and the Epsteins, had Living Water Fellowship been a church that we felt ourselves in accord with, we probably would have remained there. However, because of the Charismatic worship and the Arminian theology (as well as some other serious theological differences), we just didn’t see how we could remain long term. So we left for good at the end of August 2005. However, we did remain in regular contact with Little Bear and Al after our departure. It was important to us to depart peacefully, and we did. We were grateful for the kindness and pastoral care they’d shown us.
My own attempts to contact Doug Phillips were met with a response that I would not be permitted contact with Doug, and that any communication must be only with Doug’s attorney, Don Hart. Needless to say, coming from a so-called “pastor,” this is a very strange and unusual demand. Don Hart is Vision Forum’s attorney and a Vision Forum board member. Don Hart isn’t even Boerne Christian Assembly’s attorney. Nevertheless, I complied with Doug’s edict. When I wrote my July 2006 letter to Don Hart, which asked Phillips and BCA for the specifics of our alleged excommunicable sins, because of Al’s earlier request, none of the LWF elders were given a copy of that letter. I asked for this list of sins so that we could come to a clear understanding of what specific sins we were allegedly guilty. I’ve always held that if we were indeed guilty that we should and would repent. Despite contacting Don Hart and receiving his assurance that he would speak with Doug about the letter, we never heard from Phillips, or BCA, nor did we receive a reply from Don Hart.
In November 2006, Jen and I had lunch with Al Mendenhall to obtain the return of some papers related to our excommunication. During lunch, Al told us that the leadership of Living Water Fellowship finally met with Doug Phillips and his so-called “leadership team,” which is now calling itself a “session” — a very Presbyterian term for a Baptist church (“session” is used to give the appearance of a plurality of elders, when in fact Doug was the only elder, and an unordained one at that). Al emphasized that Doug Phillips made it perfectly clear that he felt Al and Little Bear had violated the letter of the law by taking us in when Doug had declared us to be “heathens and publicans.” In return, Al and Little Bear made it clear to Doug that if Doug ever excommunicated anyone else at BCA, that Living Water would do the same thing all over again, taking them in and loving them in their sin, attempting to restore them to both God and man.
Despite Doug’s accusation that Al and Little Bear had violated the letter of the law, Al sincerely believed they had followed the spirit of God’s law, which is actually comprised of God’s grace and Christ’s atoning work on the cross, which Christ made clear during His earthly ministry when confronting the Pharisees and their graceless interpretation of God’s Law. On the other hand, not only do Doug’s words to Al and Little Bear stand as an indictment of Doug for legalism on steroids, his actions in our unjust excommunication and the vile and vicious actions of his proxies (e.g. Matt Chancey and the Still Fed Up boys) also indict Phillips for legalism as well; the combination of those words and actions serve to demonstrate Doug’s hyper-legalistic view of Holy Scripture. Doug’s view of Scripture is the root of the problem. Doug misused Scripture to justify ravaging and betraying sheep instead of loving, feeding, and caring for us.
Almost immediately after we began to tell our story a number of folks began to contact Jen offline inquiring as to the name of the church that took us in. Some already knew it was LWF, and others accurately guessed that it was LWF. Many others have also contacted Jen to offer their prayers and words of support. Jen has received numerous emails from people who have their own “Doug Phillips stories” of abuse and harassment. As much as we’d like to see these people step forward and tell their own stories, they’ve made it plain that they’re afraid to. Phillips’ treatment of Little Bear Wheeler only serves as a confirmation for their fears.
It seems a contradiction to some that there are those who support the Epsteins, but that they do so silently. On the other hand, it has never ceases to amaze me that many publicly vocal people have demanded transparency from the Epsteins (documentation, naming names, etc.), but have simultaneously found it quite acceptable for Phillips and his proxies to remain anonymous; to engage in ad hominem attacks; to fail to provide specifics; to avoid placing any source documents on the web (despite the claim they were actually referencing these documents); and to refuse to accept comments on their blogs so that they can be questioned about their allegations. Oddly enough, such behavior displays a wanton disregard for the biblical admonitions concerning the higher degree of responsibility associated with those who teach. However, in the upside down world of hyper-patriarchs and hyper-legalism this pattern actually does make perfect sense. Hyper-patriarchs and hyper-legalists are all about hypocrisy and double standards.
Despite a desire to leave Living Water Fellowship and its leadership out of the discussion, we finally made a decision to go ahead with an article about Living Water Fellowship’s involvement in our excommunication. When Jen did write her article, she took great pains to demonstrate the difference between the unaccountable Phillips at BCA and the plurality of elders LWF enjoys. Though we do have some significant theological differences we, nevertheless, do consider Little Bear and Al and LWF true brethren in Christ. Contrary to BCA, we see no evidence at LWF of cultish hero-worship.
Imagine our surprise, then, when Little Bear’s Living Water Fellowship placed a statement on their website declaring that our email to homeschool leaders in America contained “inaccuracies” and “misleading information,” and that it “discredits its authors.” Since we have taken great pains to be factually honest and accurate in everything that we have reported and commented on regarding Doug Phillips, we were eager to correct any possible mistakes we might have made. We had also spent a great deal of time on the phone with both Little Bear and Al during the writing of our story to make sure that we had every facet of LWF’s side of the story completely accurate. So we were determined to do whatever was necessary to go about setting any “misleading information” straight.
Another issue that startled us was LWF’s statement that “The pastors of Living Water Fellowship desire that it be known that no issue exists between Living Water Fellowship, Boerne Christian Assembly or its leadership.” Although it is true that there were not as many problems among the congregants of the entire four-church community as there were between the leaders of BCA and LWF, our excommunication ultimately split the entire community. There were several churches that formed from the original BCA fellowship. These were friendly multiplications of the body of the Christ and we often fellowshipped together. At the time of our excommunication, there were four churches in what we called “the community.” We would often get together for all day picnics/potlucks and most baby showers and bridal showers and weddings were four-church affairs. In fact, the week after we were excommunicated, there was a community baby shower. Little Bear asked Jen not to attend the shower so as not to cause division at that time. Unfortunately, that was the last community-wide event, as far as we are aware. Doug Phillips asked the other churches to honor his excommunication of us and that split the community grievously.
Furthermore, one of the larger issues between Phillips and Wheeler was Little Bear’s dressing down of Doug Phillips over the phone not long after we began attending Living Water Fellowship. Little Bear’s first attempt to talk to Doug about our excommunication resulted in many hurtful words between the two of them. Little Bear talked to us constantly about God’s love and loving one another. LWF’s motto is “In honor, preferring one another,” and Little Bear truly sought to live that out. He could not possibly justify “shunning” in light of that Scripture and he made it very plain to Doug how he felt about BCA’s dealings with us. Additionally, Little Bear personally told me that he was genuinely concerned he would lose his ministry to financial ruin if his name was dragged into the public dispute between Phillips/BCA and the Epsteins that erupted when Doug’s shills outed the “Jacksons” in November 2006. Our concerns for Little Bear were one of the main reasons why we tried to tell our story anonymously. We didn’t want to see Little Bear get dragged into it if that could be avoided. As we understand it, Ministry Watchman agreed to not bring Little Bear’s name into it.
Little Bear did have good reason to worry. For years, he derived substantial financial gains from his relationship with Doug and Vision Forum. The loss of that relationship would cost Little Bear many thousands of dollars. Apparently this was not the first time Little Bear felt his ministry was threatened by Doug Phillips either, and he knew full well how tenuous his relationship with Doug was. Thus, LWF posted a statement which allows for the inference or appearance of mutual agreement and friendly relations with the leadership of BCA. Unfortunately, this is disingenuous and it shows that Little Bear Wheeler has misrepresented the facts in this matter.
As Jen has noted in her posts, Doug Phillips resorts to a fairly standard play book: Demand the name of his perceived opponent’s ecclesiastical authority, threaten the opponent with church discipline, threaten the opponent with a secular lawsuit, threaten the opponent with the loss of their job through proxies, viciously attack the opponent with false ecclesiastical and secular charges, and smear the reputation of your opponent using any and all means available, including logical fallacies. And who are Doug’s opponents? Anyone who disagrees with him for any reason, or anyone who fails to obey his dictates (such as shunning the Epsteins). Needless to say, it is not too far fetched at all to think Doug Phillips could engage in the financial ruin of Little Bear Wheeler if Little Bear publicly took sides with the Epsteins. It’s bad enough to disagree with Doug in private, but it’s quite another thing to defy Doug publicly — as our readers have witnessed.
Al called me on April 26, 2007, just after Vision Forum and LWF released their public statements about this situation. Al invited me to lunch with him and Little Bear. In several subsequent phone calls, as we were attempting to set up a date to meet, Al kept using the word “restoration” in reference to what LWF was trying to accomplish between the two churches’ leaders. Of course, as the word “restoration” conveys, something obviously bad had to have happened to bring about a need for restoration. In the case at hand, it was a restoration of the personal relationship between Doug Phillips and Little Bear Wheeler, which was damaged when Doug “dressed down” Little Bear on the phone because Little Bear refused to shun us in accordance with Phillips’ demands, and which was obviously not restored in the least by this date; and the relationship between the “leadership team/session” at BCA and the elders at LWF, which was damaged as a result of Little Bear and LWF’s leaders taking in “excommunicants.” Both of these relationships were strained to the point of being completely severed during the prior two years. When I pressed Al to clarify why he said no issue exists between their two leaderships, he evaded answering any of my questions about the rift between Doug and Little Bear personally, and the rift between the elders at LWF and the “leadership” at BCA. He simply refused to talk about it. To state that no issue exists between them is ludicrous.
Al and I talked on the phone several times in the next few days, attempting to set up a lunch date. During those phone calls, Al repeatedly raised the issue of our websites. He made it perfectly clear that he thought they should be taken down. However, as I explained to Al, we already did that once for the purpose of laying the groundwork toward seeking reconciliation, all to no avail. I repeatedly pressed Al for the specifics of the “inaccuracies” and “misleading information” that he and Little Bear had alleged that we were guilty of. Al repeatedly dodged my questions about these details and refused to give me a straight answer, or even just one example. Furthermore, I told Al that Doug Phillips had his last chance to be reconciled outside of a full public apology, and public lifting of the excommunication, and that there was certainly a lot more that we needed to write about.
As Jen has asserted before, the answer to Phillips’ dilemma is simple: Doug Phillips — a man that threatens professing Christians with unjust and unbiblical lawsuits and church discipline, and who evidently is responsible for creating the fear factor in Little Bear Wheeler — simply needs to repent of his gross ecclesiastical tyranny and the aberrant behavior of his proxies which he has sanctioned. Moreover, Phillips owes Little Bear and the leadership of LWF an apology for the fear that Little Bear suffered when he thought Mantle Ministries would be financially ruined because he previously sided with the Epsteins. Al Mendenhall personally told me Little Bear feared losing his business when we spoke shortly after Phillips’ proxies outed Jared and Mary Jackson. Therefore, it is little wonder to me that Little Bear willingly posts a statement on his church website that he refuses to back up with any specifics of “inaccuracies” and “misleading information.”
When Al and Little Bear realized that we were not going to take down our blogs again, the invitation for lunch with Al and Little Bear was suddenly withdrawn, almost as suddenly as Little Bear’s renewed interest in developing a relationship with Doug again or, should I say, Doug’s renewed interest in developing a relationship with Little Bear. After Jen wrote an article exposing Doug’s wicked treatment of Little Bear, it didn’t take long for Doug to (presumbly) contact Little Bear and profess a desire to restore their relationship. Again, if there was no known problem between them, why the need for restoration? Little Bear was forced into making a decision at that point: continue to support the Epsteins, or attempt to recoup some of that financial loss he suffered at the hands of Doug Phillips when Doug turned on him and shunned him when Little Bear did the right thing before God. It became readily apparent that Little Bear thought he could get back into Doug’s good graces by being the one person to convince us to take down our blogs. When Al and Little Bear failed to keep us quiet about Doug’s ecclesiastical tyranny, they suddenly wanted nothing to do with us again.
I fully appreciate Little Bear’s desire to have his relationship “restored” to Doug Phillips, as we, too, have had the same desire. However, I’m deeply disappointed to see that Little Bear has placed his financial interests over the very biblical principles that he had previously stood for. For the many who have yet to come forward and tell their own stories of Doug Phillips’ threats (others besides Little Bear have had their financial interests threatened, and worse), I fully understand their reluctance. However, it nonetheless is a sad state of affairs when we come to a point of fearing a man more than we fear God.
For those who want to now raise the Matthew 18 objection, let me assure you we took steps to privately confront Little Bear and Al Mendenhall, the LWF leadership’s “point man,” on the issue of their public statement, via email and snail mail. Below is the text of the email and letters sent to both men, along with the July 2006 letter to Phillips’ attorney, Don Hart. Although Al accepted delivery of the certified mail containing the letter, Little Bear “refused” delivery of the letter. It would appear Little Bear is learning much from Doug Phillips’ evasion techniques, which is tragic indeed.
May 3, 2007
Dear Little Bear and Al,
This is a follow-up email to Al’s and my conversation this morning. Since you’ve told me you don’t read our websites, I am attaching the July 2006 letter that Jen and I sent to Doug’s attorney, Don Hart. This letter was written long before we wrote one word about the Ligonier lawsuit targeting Frank Vance. Moreover, as you can clearly see from the letter, we were willing to submit to Doug despite his malicious treatment of us. However, once Doug and Don Hart refused to answer us, it became obvious Doug was not interested in our repentance or reconciliation.
Just so we all understand what is at issue, let me summarize what I was attempting to convey to you, Al.
We sincerely want to know what “inacurracies” and “misleading information” was contained in our email to the homeschool leaders. If we know what is wrong, we are more than willing to correct it. Yet, it is important we do not speak in generalities. Jen and I do not do this on our blogs; we attempt to be precise and painstakingly honest in what we write, and we will not write anything we cannot document. Unfortunately, this is not true of Doug and, just as with Doug, we cannot repent of generalities. Doug refuses to provide specifics. For example, Doug says Jen must repent of her rebellion, but he provides no examples of rebellion. As Jen has repeatedly noted, an accusation of sin by an elder or any believer should be something along these lines: “Jen, on such and such a date, you displayed a rebellious spirit (or committed the sin of rebellion) when you did such and such.” Specific sins need specific repentance, but generalized unsubstantiated accusations of sin cannot be repented of. Does God forgive generalized confessions of sin? “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9) is a call to confess specific sins that we have committed against specific people, or against God Himself. God’s Son shed his blood to cover sin and God wants a believer’s heart to be tender enough to acknowledge specific sin against Him and our fellow man, as well as being willing to confess sin and repent when confronted by other believers for specific sin (Matthew 18).
Another issue we have with your public statement is the line that could be construed to infer that there are no issues between the BCA and LWF leadership. Al, you related to me today that what you really meant to say in your public statement is that while the LWF elders have nothing personally against Doug Phillips or any other leadership at BCA, that Doug Phillips does have issues with the LWF elders and his perception of how the LWF elders handled our excommunication. If that is so, I think the statement needs to include something that fully explains the need for Doug’s recent request for a “restoration process” between the BCA and LWF leaderships. If Doug has issues with the LWF leadership, then I think it is only honest of the LWF leadership to make this clear in their public statement. Obviously, there is a rift between you two or Doug wouldn’t be now be seeking “restoration” of your relationship.
Al, before we were cut off, I heard you say that someone told you Natasha flipped-off the Vision Forum employees on Saturday, April 21, 2007. I spoke with Natasha shortly after our call was inadvertently terminated, and she denies using profanity or flipping off anyone that day. I believe her and I do not believe her accusers. Phillips has multiple lies posted on his church blog, all of which we will be dealing with in the future. Gentlemen, please ask yourself this question as dispassionately as you are able: Why didn’t Doug or his attorney respond to our July 2006 letter? We waited until November 26, 2006, for an answer. We even called Don Hart six weeks after sending the letter to see if we were going to receive a response. Don Hart stated he had failed to give Doug the letter, even though they spoke together at the same conference only a few days after receiving our letter. Therefore, we graciously offered Don another two weeks to respond since our phone conversation took place during the time Doug puts his catalog together. Little Bear, Al, we leaned over backwards, yet Doug still just blew us off.
Little Bear, Al, I think the two of you need to step back and look at what is the real issue here — Doug’s pride. When Doug humbles himself, perhaps we can be reconciled. However, just so you know up front, this will not happen until Doug repents for his gross violations of the biblical standards required of a pastor and teacher. His unjust, unbiblical, and malicious excommunication of the Epsteins and the vengeful reading of Jen’s pre-conversion sins must be publicly repented of by Phillips, his deacons (including Bob Sarratt), and the BCA congregants. If Doug humbles himself, the Lord will lift him up. If Doug does not humble himself, I am sure the Lord will deal with him accordingly.
As far as any perception that I may have unwittingly given you of an “ultimatum,” I apologize if I came across in that manner, Al. Will you please forgive me? That wasn’t my intention, and I’ll be more careful in my dealings with you to not come across that way. As I’m sure you know, this whole process has been incredibly frustrating for us. Two years have come and gone and we’ve been unable to make any headway. We’ve done our best to be patient, but it hasn’t been easy, and I’m sure there have been times where our patience has been worn thin. Would it be possible for either of you to respond by this coming Monday, May 7, 2007, with the specifics of the inaccuracies and misleading information contained in our email?
Lastly, it is far past the time for Doug to display some biblical behavior. He supposedly is an elder. Therefore, Jen and I expect him to meet the biblical standards of eldership (1 Tim 3) and take responsibility for his egregious behavior. Gentlemen, Doug Phillips abused the sheep. He is accountable for his behavior not only when he is supposed to be ministering to the sheep, but in his personal life as well. He is an elder and he must meet a higher standard of conduct in this life. The evidence clearly shows that he’s fallen far short of that.
We look forward to your reply.
In His Love,
We’re surprised by what Little Bear has done. We’re surprised by this sudden reversal because not only does it demonstrate a lack of honesty on his part, it also demonstrates a lack of wisdom. Little Bear is as aware as anyone about Doug’s propensity of turning on his own friends should they ever disagree with him. Doug takes disagreement very personally, and he doesn’t just take it quietly. He retaliates with anything he can find to hold over you. If it involves a friendship, then he’ll terminate it and even shun you. If it includes a business relationship, he’ll terminate it. Little Bear should know that if Doug did it to him before, he might find reason to do it again. From here on out, Little Bear will have to work very hard to always be in agreement with Doug about everything. Little Bear has caved in and Doug knows it and he’ll no doubt use it against Little Bear again.
Despite the untruthful and highly misleading nature of Living Water Fellowship’s public statement, we will forever be grateful for the season we spent at Living Water Fellowship under the loving leadership of Richard “Little Bear” Wheeler, Al Mendenhall, Michael Bakke, and Doug Swanson. Their original willingness to stand for truth and principle will always be an inspiring memory of godly men relying on God and His Holy Spirit. Their willingness to patiently sacrifice their personal time and invest a godly love in a marriage on the verge of divorce stands in stark contrast to the abusive manner in which Doug Phillips chose to exacerbate the comparatively minor problems affecting our marriage in October 2001.
Doug Phillips had a marvelous God-given opportunity to impact our marriage for God’s glory. Instead he chose to betray us and squander the opportunity in the most shameful manner.