Hey friends, I’m posting this a bit late, but here’s a podcast I recorded with Tommy Estlund and Dan Sterenchuk for The Curiosity Hour Podcast, discussing big questions about life, art, and power dynamics. I’ll unpack some of the latter a bit more in an upcoming post, but for now, enjoy!
A follow up post to “I might get excommunicated for this.”
It’s been one month since I went public about my indictment from Faith Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Watkinsville, Georgia for contempt toward the church and its leaders for speaking out in various ways about my experience of abuse in the church. The last several weeks have been overwhelming on multiple fronts. I’ve been thankful for the love and support I’ve been shown by family and friends outside of Faith, folks who in many cases have known me well since childhood and college, speaking up about what they know of my character and reaching out to me with words of encouragement. The post has been viewed thousands of times and reblogged by some of the organizations I’ve found most helpful and insightful over the last several years for expanding my own understanding of abusive dynamics, including A Cry for Justice and The Wartburg Watch. As a result, I’ve been contacted by dozens of women who have had similar experiences in the PCA and other denominations. They tell me, “I wasn’t in a position to stay and fight– thank you for speaking up for the rest of us.” They say, “Standing up and telling your story gives me courage to speak up about mine.” I’ve known, in the abstract, that these women exist– in the PCA alone, statistically, there are tens of thousands of abuse survivors. Sadly, it’s not uncommon for abuse victims to be excommunicated or fired from church jobs for reasons surrounding their experience of domestic violence. It’s even more common for women to be misunderstood, pathologized, shunned, or to experience various pressures to return to their abusers or shut up about their experiences. Being on the receiving end of that in a closed group is isolating and demoralizing, and when those in the group insist up and down that you’re the problem, it’s easy to feel like you’re the only one. But there are many of us, and we’re finding one another and giving voices and faces to this phenomenon.
I attended a Session meeting on October 3rd to formally answer the indictment. Before I discuss the meeting, it will probably be helpful to define some terms and describe how PCA polity (i.e. church government) works. The Session is the governing body of a local Presbyterian church, comprised of teaching elders (ordained clergy, the pastors of the church) and ruling elders (regular church members who are elected to become elders.) Faith has two teaching elders and three ruling elders, all men. In the PCA, women aren’t allowed to be elders, so not only are women not allowed to preach or become clergy, but women also can’t occupy decision-making, governing leadership roles in the church. This means that when a disciplinary case like mine is put on trial, there are no female jurors; only male elders can be members of the court and render a verdict. “Presbyterian” refers to a hierarchical system of courts. The Session is the lowest court. The next rung up the ladder is the Presbytery, which is all of the elders from the churches in a particular region, and above that is General Assembly, which is all of the elders from all of the Presbyteries in the denomination. All three courts are required to follow a church constitution called the Book of Church Order, or BCO.
So, back to the Session meeting on October 3rd: I prepared a formal response to the Session’s indictment, which you can read here: formalresponsetosession The Session read their indictment to me out loud and I read them my response. About 20 minutes of discussion ensued, during which they told me that the trial would be decided by the Session, that nobody could attend except witnesses the Session approved in advance and only while giving their own testimonies, and that witnesses could only be members of Faith. None of this is mandated by the Book of Church Order. The pastor had spoken with an assistant in the denomination’s office who had said this was how it had to be; I challenged that. I invoked a section of the BCO requesting a “reference,” i.e. asking the Session to give original jurisdiction to the Presbytery due to clear conflict of interest or “manifest prejudice.” I said they needed to appoint a different prosecutor than the attorney who mediated my divorce. I insisted on an open, public trial (which is the default position of the BCO unless the court takes a special vote to make it a closed trial.)
I received an email from the Session a few days ago indicating that they had not acceded to my request for a reference and were planning to move forward with their proposed trial date at Faith. In reply, I cited the following rules from the BCO:
The response of the congregation at Faith has been mostly silence– a lot of tense politeness or avoidance, a few folks being friendly, one or two subversive Facebook likes– peppered with a couple of instances of savage rejection. The church’s only public response after I posted my blog was the following statement on its Facebook page:
Hi everyone! You may have seen Faith Presbyterian Church’s name mentioned on social media lately in regards to an internal, church discipline matter that the person involved made public. Unfortunately, there is much more to these issues than what has been publicized but our position is that social media is a very poor forum to engage with this matter. Out of respect for the people involved and the Rules of Discipline established by our church’s denomination, we will not be commenting publicly any further on this matter. If you have questions or concerns regarding this matter, we welcome you to set up a time to speak with one of our pastors who could discuss the views and policies of the church with you, as well as any parts of this specific matter that are of public record. Thanks for your understanding!
Issuing a formal indictment to put someone on trial is an inherently public act, especially when the church indicts someone who works in ministry. In this statement, the church postures as though it’s taking the high road by objecting to social media as a forum for discussing these issues. In reality, the church has ignored or deflected multiple attempts over several years to meaningfully address these issues in any open, accountable forum. Disallowing any forum where an issue can be openly discussed and then criticizing someone’s choice of forum is an example of the “no talk rule.” In a dysfunctional system, nobody is allowed to talk about the problem. If you talk about the problem, you become the problem. I reposted the church’s response on my Facebook page and asked in what forum they’d prefer to engage these issues. I was again met with silence. Nevertheless, commenters on various threads said that I was not giving the church a chance to tell their side, therefore I was the bully.
One member of Faith’s ministry staff went on social media and bizarrely accused me of carrying a gun around in my bag. When I made it clear that this was categorically untrue, he withdrew the comment, but wouldn’t say whether he had repeated that accusation to others in the church. During the Session meeting on October 3rd, several friends showed up and stood outside holding “Justice, Not Abuse” signs in a show of solidarity. The same staff member walked out of the church and confronted them all, making negative insinuations about my character. When I messaged him about these incidents privately, he refused to speak with me and blocked me on social media.
Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” There’s a lot that could be said about bystander dynamics and moral reasoning that elevates conformity to a group as an overriding principle in practice, even as the results of the group’s actions become increasingly grotesque and out of line with its purported values. Ultimately, these are what the apostle Paul referred to as fleshly, rather than spiritual dynamics. “But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way?” (1 Corinthians 3:1-3)
The church can’t proclaim the Gospel to the world credibly if it doesn’t follow the teachings of Christ in its own ranks. When the church doesn’t effect justice for the oppressed, it renders its corporate worship unacceptable to God (Isaiah 1:13-17). When individual Christians ostracize and refuse to make things right with other Christians, they render their individual worship unacceptable to God (Matthew 5:21-24). Whether the righteousness you’re practicing is real or fake is ultimately demonstrated by what you do to people. It’s especially evident in how the church treats widows, orphans, and foreigners, i.e. those who are most susceptible to being on the losing end of power dynamics in a group. I could argue PCA constitutional principles all day long, but this is ultimately a spiritual issue that cuts to the core of what the Church is. Are we the authentic, visible presence of Christ in the world offering good news to downtrodden people, or are we a self-serving bastion of power and control that tells people outside of a particular demographic and life experience to “conform, shut up, or go away?”
The first time I brought my “Justice, not Abuse” sign into worship, the sermon was on Isaiah 56.
This is what the Lord says:
and do what is right,
for my salvation is close at hand
and my righteousness will soon be revealed (Isaiah 56:1).
May it be so. Come, Lord Jesus.
A Modern Parable.
A woman is raped on the New York City subway, and nobody intervenes.
Three of her close friends and several mutual acquaintances are in the subway car when it happens. They are chatting with one another and having a lovely time, other than the unfortunate rape business. They all feel bad about the rape; they really do, but it’s not like THEY raped her or anything. The guy who raped her was psycho. Everybody agrees.
After the rape, the poor girl is crying hysterically. Her makeup is ruined. Her skirt is torn. Her hair is messed up. She needs medical attention and help filing police reports. Her friends rally around her. They tenderly embrace her and accompany her to the hospital. After that, they take her out for a fabulous day of shopping and spa treatments, and generously pay for all of it. They take her out to dinner to affirm their friendship and engage her in sympathetic conversation– some about the rape, sure, but also more positive topics. Talking about the rape is awkward, negative, and draining, and the most important thing now is to move on from that terrible experience, enjoy the wonderful outing they’re having, and focus on positive future plans.
After a while, the woman asks why her friends didn’t intervene. How could they just sit there chatting and do nothing to stop the rape?
This question of hers is tremendously unfair, almost like she’s accusing them of being rapists, which they definitely are not. What kind of a friend could ever imply such a thing, especially when they’ve all been so supportive? Some of them hadn’t been facing in her direction and didn’t even see the rape. One or two kind of suspected that a rape might be happening but weren’t sure, and a couple of them saw it taking place, but didn’t know what to do. One stood up for her after the fact, and angrily chased the rapist down the subway platform. In a perfect world, sure, they all might have responded better and averted harm to her, but for heaven’s sake, it’s in the past now. People make mistakes. Rapes happen; it’s part of the fallen world we live in, and besides, this was a very unusual situation that will probably never happen again.
The woman can’t seem to let it go and move on. She has become a twisted, selfish, emotionally unstable person because of her bitterness. Her friends have gone out of their way to love her the best way they know how. They have supported her and condemned the actions of the rapist, but somehow that’s still not enough for her. She is ruining their trip at this point, although nobody wants to be unkind and say that. They realize she’s been through a lot and they truly don’t want to add to it. Mostly though, they don’t want to keep enabling her unhealthy interpersonal behavior and mental dwelling on the past by continuing to entertain this discussion. The most loving response is to set boundaries so that she will establish a healthier, more independent life and move on from all of this.
Standing on the subway platform again, her friends regretfully turn their backs on her. They wish her well, and leave her sobbing in the station. It is a difficult but noble act of tough love. They will pray for her, and they will miss her terribly, the wonderful friend she used to be. But they’re also right about her having been the problem, because once she is gone, everything is pleasant and copacetic again in the subway car.
The preceding story is fictional except for the premise of a woman being raped on the New York City subway and nobody intervening. That has happened on a number of occasions, and has been cited as a glaring example of the “bystander effect,” a common phenomenon in social psychology in which many people are present to observe someone being harmed, but no one does anything to stop it.
People who experience abuse and its aftermath, including victim blaming and secondary victimization from those they turn to for support, learn harrowing things about human nature and behavior. We all like to think that we would stand up for someone who was being harmed, but there are all kinds of social dynamics and thought processes that tend to combine so that most people, even good, well intentioned people, don’t actually do so, and can even end up blaming the victim.
In Scripture, widows and orphans provide an excellent parallel for abuse survivors– those who are socially and financially vulnerable and in need of embrace and protection. Effecting justice for them is one of God’s strongest mandates. Failing to do so carries His harshest condemnation. Whether or not the church does so is a litmus test for the sincerity of its worship.
You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child. If you do mistreat them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry, and my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless. -Exodus 22:22-24.
Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations— I cannot bear your worthless assemblies. Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals I hate with all my being. They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands in prayer, I hide my eyes from you; even when you offer many prayers, I am not listening. Your hands are full of blood! Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow. -Isaiah 1:13-17.
When abuse happens, good churches often treat not talking about it and not taking sides as points of honor, and as the correct spiritual response. Just be kind and sympathetic to all parties, do whatever you can to quietly serve those who are hurting, and don’t discuss it out of respect to those involved.
But that’s a woefully inadequate and even counterproductive response when someone has experienced life altering harm. It’s not enough to be nice to the widow. You have to plead her case.
Pleading her case includes believing her, intervening to stop the abuse, openly taking her side, standing up to others who don’t, eagerly listening to and learning from her experience, and fully validating the extent of the damage done to her without judgment. It means empowering and respecting her, allowing her be the arbiter of her own choices and needs, and seeking to care for her needs as she defines them. In cases where a church has mishandled an abuse case, even unintentionally, pleading the widow’s case means comprehensively examining and relentlessly correcting all factors that contributed to the injustice that was done so that nothing similar is allowed to happen to anyone else in the future.
There is no place for making light of an abuse survivor’s perspective. There is no place for telling her to get over it. There is no place for elevating one’s own discomfort and inconvenience in hearing about the abuse over the actual injustice that was done to the person who experienced it.
Abuse is a common life issue– as common as prostate cancer in men, and 2-3 times as common as breast cancer in women. Nobody gets a pass on developing basic understanding and sensitivity surrounding this issue. If you don’t understand, or if you think you understand but a survivor is telling you that you don’t, please learn.
Here’s a great list of vetted resources to get started over at A Cry for Justice!
I am a survivor of domestic violence, and I just got formally indicted by the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) for not cooperating with various instructions about speaking out regarding my experience of injustice surrounding abuse in the church. Indictment is the first step in a disciplinary process that can lead to excommunication, and it’s meant to be employed only when someone is committing heinous sin. My crime? Holding this sign, among other things:
Below is the indictment issued by Faith Presbyterian Church in Watkinsville, Georgia (with non-officers’ names redacted.) My response follows.
September 22, 2016
To Whom It May Concern:
This is in response to Faith Presbyterian Church’s formal indictment of me for “contempt toward the Church and its leaders,” dated September 12, 2016. First, I will summarize the events leading up to the indictment to the best of my recollection: I was hired as Faith’s worship leader in the fall of 2008. I was married to an abusive spouse at the time. My husband’s abuse escalated and became known in a dramatic way with copious evidence over the course of several months in 2009. Audio recordings, photographic evidence, police reports, psychological evaluations, and eyewitness testimony by various elders and church members corroborated his abuse, lying, and criminal activity. Nevertheless, the church predicated me keeping my job on reconciling and cohabiting with him, and ultimately fired me for remaining separated. I was already in a vulnerable financial situation and was plunged into poverty for the next three years. Had it not been for the help of friends and family, I would have become homeless.
After I recovered, I confronted the Session about what it had done. In 2013, after much arm twisting, the Session issued a public apology for its lack of “shepherding care” when I experienced a “series of extremely painful events.” Abuse was not mentioned. The Session never expressed repentance for firing me, never set the record straight with the congregation that I was a victim of domestic violence, and never pursued any kind of restitution. I have seen no substantive change in the Session’s attitude toward abuse in the church. I have not seen the Session deploy any new churchwide policies or leadership training that would improve the church’s response to abuse victims in the future. On the contrary, as I have continued coping with the fallout from all of this, the Session has taken new adverse actions against me. In 2014, the Session affirmed my closest friends shunning me in response to me trying to resolve a related grievance with them. In 2015, the Session brought a Licensed Professional Counselor, a church member, into a Session meeting to advise on my mental state and what was best for me in absentia, without my knowledge or consent, based on the testimony of the opposing parties in the grievance. In 2015, the Session launched a formal disciplinary investigation into the grievance that consisted of having one called Session meeting with the opposing parties and then issuing written conclusions and directives at me. In 2016, the Session attempted to limit my fellowship in the church without due process by instructing me not to attend a Gospel Community Group which I had previously attended faithfully for several years.
After many patient attempts to address these issues privately, I sent an open letter to the whole church via email in July 2015 and a follow up letter in May 2016, and I escalated a formal complaint which is currently pending before the Georgia Foothills Presbytery. I attended my Gospel Community Group and said that I would keep attending in defiance of the Session’s attempt to restrict me without due process. In the last few months, I have kept a sign propped at my feet during worship which reads “Justice, not Abuse.” The sign is my personal expression of lament in worship, and a visual reminder to everyone that these things are happening and the Session still hasn’t repented. So now the Session has decided to formally indict me, the first step in a process that can lead to excommunication, not in response to me committing any immoral act, but simply for not “submitting” to the elders. Elders told me not to send my letter, not to attend my small group, and not to hold my sign; I did it anyway. The Session issued the indictment on my birthday and appointed the attorney/elder who mediated my divorce to prosecute the charges.
Here is my response: when I joined the church, I agreed to submit to its government and discipline as constrained by the Word of God and the PCA Book of Church Order. The Session is in violation of both as delineated below and in my formal complaint before the Presbytery. The Book of Church Order affirms individuals’ inalienable rights of private judgment on all matters which are not explicitly in violation of God’s law, and prohibits church leaders from making any additional laws to bind the conscience, as discussed in the following BCO Preliminary Principles:
- God alone is Lord of the conscience and has left it free from any doctrines or commandments of men (a) which are in any respect contrary to the Word of God, or (b) which, in regard to matters of faith and worship, are not governed by the Word of God. Therefore, the rights of private judgment in all matters that respect religion are universal and inalienable.
- All church power, whether exercised by the body in general, or by representation, is only ministerial and declarative since the Holy Scriptures are the only rule of faith and practice. No church judicatory may make laws to bind the conscience.
In other words, the authority of elders is limited. Elders don’t get to issue edicts to adults and punish noncompliance just because they’re elders. If an elder instructs me to do something that is contrary to God’s word or unaddressed in God’s word but violates my conscience, neither God nor the BCO require me to submit to that. The burden of proof is on the Session to show that a specific action (sending an open letter, saying I would attend a Gospel Community Group, or bringing my “Justice, not Abuse” sign to worship services) is a violation of the law of God according to Scripture in order to present it as an offense for church discipline (BCO 29-1.) None of these actions violate God’s law; they’re just inconvenient for the Session. My conscience requires me to bring issues of injustice surrounding abuse in the church into the open and to insist they be meaningfully addressed. I believe God has called me to do this. I will not allow what I’ve experienced to be shoved aside and buried in bureaucracy so that church leaders can maintain power and control.
The purpose of church discipline is to address gross unrepentant sin or immorality that endangers someone’s soul. It’s not to exert control over conscionable behavior that you don’t like, put a woman in her place for challenging you, silence someone who is speaking up about injustice, or engage in whistleblower retribution when you are being held accountable for wrongdoing. If what I’ve said about the Session in my open letters weren’t true, the church could indict me for lying. If I were engaged in immorality, the church could indict me for that. But since you know perfectly well that I’m telling the truth, and am a genuine Christian acting in good conscience, the strongest thing you’ve come up with to indict me for is not “submitting” to your control. Spinning my noncompliance as a mortal sin against Jesus Christ is a petty, frivolous power play, and this whole situation is the most shameful failure of leadership I’ve ever personally witnessed in fifteen years of vocational ministry.
Jesus Christ is my Lord, and I will obey Him. I am a sinner and far from perfect, but my conscience is clear before God on the essential points of this matter. There are two ways the Session can get my sign out of the Sanctuary. The first is a sea change pertaining to abuse in the church, with abject, unequivocal public repentance for the issues I’ve raised, accompanied by churchwide abuse and domestic violence training for all leaders. This is how the Session should have responded to this whole situation long ago. The second is a spurious excommunication with our whole community and the wider body of Christ watching, followed by appeals all the way up to PCA General Assembly. I’m fine either way. If you put me on trial, it will be the proudest moment of my life thus far, in the company of my heroes, and in the company of Christ.
Jessica Fore, The Accused