“For many others, too, it seems, expediency and maintaining the status quo outweigh the suffering of any one individual and the need to challenge those responsible for abuse. The previous post mentioned other ways in which this manifested itself in Jessica’s case. Casting Jessica in the role of deviant oppressor, for example, certainly allows the status quo to go unchallenged. And this often has the effect of forcing the vulnerable person out of that community, leaving the problematic culture intact.”
Please check out the link below for part two of Dr. Valerie Hobbs’ three part article about me on The Aquila Report.
Rather than asking, what could have possibly happened to Jessica to lead to her actions, people instead asked, what kind of perverse person would do this? See the difference there? The portrait of a vulnerable person as deviant allows us to avoid examining our actions towards them. It means we can point the finger. That person is crazy! Nothing she says can be trusted! These portrayals serve the purpose of self-protection and, we hope, expulsion of the vulnerable and problematic person. We can then carry on as we were.
A woman was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when she was attacked by her abuser. He stripped her of her clothes, beat her and went away, leaving her half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the woman, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw her, passed by on the other side. But some PCA elders, as they traveled, came where the woman was; and when they saw her, they took pity on her. They felt that it was really unfortunate that she had been left beaten and bleeding like that, and that ideally, her wounds would be bandaged and she could recuperate in an inn somewhere. They committed to pray for her and consider what they could do to help. However, they had taken vows to uphold certain rules and processes when they became elders, and simply didn’t see a judicial avenue in the Book of Church Order for dealing with this kind of situation. They decided they would appoint a committee to respond at their next stated meeting in four months. Robert’s Rules of Order were followed, and their actions were properly recorded in the Presbytery minutes. The woman bled out and died on the side of the road, but nothing could possibly be argued as out of order at next year’s Review of Presbytery Records (RPR) meeting.
I attended Tuesday’s meeting of Georgia Foothills Presbytery to hear what action they would take with regard to an RPR decision that had passed at General Assembly. RPR had cited the Presbytery for throwing out two formal complaints I filed regarding my experience of abuse in the church. Tuesday’s meeting was the sixth Presbytery meeting I’d attended since filing the first complaint over two years ago. As is typical at these meetings, I was one of just two or three women in a sanctuary full of male elders– the only other women in attendance are often the wives of men who are there to be approved as candidates for ministry. I was warmly welcomed by several elders who have been kind to me through the course of these events. My own elders did not speak to me or acknowledge me at all.
When it was time for the RPR deliberation, the Presbytery called a closed door Executive Session and kicked all visitors and non-officers out of the room. I stood up and asked to be allowed to stay. After all, I had already sat quietly through five of these meetings. The Presbytery is in trouble for “denying [me] the ‘watchful care, instruction and government of the church’ to which [I am] entitled,” and the elders were about to discuss my personal life and my direct communications with the Presbytery. I’m aware of defamatory statements having been made about me in the past by some of the officers that were present. Lee Lovett, the chair of the Shepherding Committee, who previously tried to obstruct both formal complaints, stood up and said that I had not been recognized and was not allowed to ask a question or speak at all. The moderator then asked me to leave.
After the Executive Session, the moderator announced that a committee had been appointed to respond to the RPR citation. The current Stated Clerk (not the guy in the recording I posted earlier this week) came over to me and said he and a couple of the other elders would talk with me during the lunch break about what that would entail.
During lunch, one of the elders appointed to the committee emphasized to me that RPR is purely administrative and has no authority to make the Presbytery reopen the case. I learned that the four person committee includes Dr. Roy Taylor, Stated Clerk of General Assembly, who was present in the Review of Presbytery records meeting and was one of the few dissenting voices against the nearly unanimous RPR decision. Roy has taught adult Sunday School for years under Rev. Charles Garland, the former Stated Clerk of Georgia Foothills Presbytery, who is the subject of one of my formal complaints. Another committee member is Jack Wilson, who served on the commission of two that dismissed my formal complaint against Charles Garland in a report riddled with factual inaccuracies, then ignored Dr. Valerie Hobbs’ email attempting to correct the report. General Assembly minutes show Roy Taylor, Charles Garland, and Jack Wilson working together on Assembly business over multiple years. One of the two remaining appointees is a ruling elder at Charles’ former and Roy’s current church. I asked how the committee appointees were chosen, and was told they were suggested by the moderator.
I spoke very frankly with the three elders who met with me during lunch about the details of what I’ve experienced and the time sensitive, life altering high stakes for some of the other women dealing with similar situations in the PCA. These three elders are some that I think well of, and at least one I know to be a strong advocate for social justice. They listened to me, and I believe them to be sincere in wanting a healthy resolution to the case. But the elder who had been appointed to the committee said we need evolutionary rather than revolutionary change in the PCA’s response to abuse. I disagreed and asked what benefit there was to evolutionary change when so many women are suffering so horribly right now. I couldn’t get an answer. I said straight up that the committee appointments were political and that the Presbytery was going to try to make this go away administratively again. The elder said he didn’t think it was political. I said that if he didn’t think this was political, then nothing would ever convince him that anything in the PCA is political.
So now, once again, we wait. The committee will propose a response at the next stated meeting in January. Meanwhile– dead silence from Faith PCA.
Below is a link to the first part of a three part article by Dr. Valerie Hobbs about the PCA abuse debacle I’ve been chronicling.
On the one hand, Jessica was encouraged. This was the first acknowledgement from a church court that her church leaders had wronged her. The RPR Committee had officially (for the second time in two years) cited her presbytery. Perhaps members of her church might begin to question the ways Jessica had been characterized and treated by her session and presbytery.
On June 15th, 2017, I attended PCA General Assembly in Greensboro, North Carolina to witness the passing of a measure that rebukes Georgia Foothills Presbytery for repeatedly throwing out and failing to investigate my formal complaint concerning Faith Presbyterian Church in Watkinsville, Georgia. The complaint pertains to multiple adverse actions by Faith’s Session against me over a six year period from 2009-2015. During that time, the church predicated my continued employment as a worship leader on reconciling and cohabiting with an abusive spouse. They fired me from my job when I remained separated from him. They subsequently took additional unjust actions that included authorizing a shunning by former close friends, removing me from my small group, and secretly bringing a licensed professional counselor who never met with me into a Session meeting to advise on my mental state without my knowledge or consent. While my complaint about these matters was still pending before the Presbytery, and as I continued to speak out in the face of obfuscation by two layers of church hierarchy, Faith’s Session indicted me for “contempt toward the church and its leaders” as part of a formal disciplinary process that, to me, appeared intended to either shut me up and bring me under their control or dispose of me via excommunication. The Session told me that they were going to put me on trial behind closed doors without observers, appoint themselves as the judges, require me to submit my witness list to them for their approval in advance, and only allow members of Faith Presbyterian to testify. When I leveraged Book of Church Order rules that would have compelled certain relevant testimonies and necessitated the appointment of outside judges, the Session tabled the indictment, telling me that I had “made it impossible” for them to prosecute it.
I attended five consecutive Presbytery meetings from September 2015 through January 2017, submitting and resubmitting my formal complaint, waiting months each time for a response, and having it dismissed each time for minute procedural reasons. The reasons given for dismissal were as trivial as one of the resubmissions being done in an email copied to the Session and Presbytery simultaneously, rather than first to the Session and then to the Presbytery. Another submission was thrown out because I submitted by email rather than by physical mail. One submission received no response because the commission appointed to handle it failed to convene at all.
My first contact with the Presbytery occurred in late July, 2015. I copied Rev. Charles Garland, at the time the Stated Clerk (highest officer) of Georgia Foothills Presbytery, on an open letter to Faith’s congregation detailing and providing documentation for the abuse I had experienced and the actions the Session had taken against me. Charles called me a few days later and berated me so severely over the course of the nearly two hour phone call that I decided to start recording about 45 minutes in. I hadn’t planned to record but I was aware that it was legal to do so, since my divorce attorney had previously advised me to record abusive communications from my ex. Georgia is a one party consent state, meaning that one can record any conversation that one is a party to and is not required to notify the other parties. Here’s a clip of the phone call. (This may be upsetting or traumatic for those who have experienced abuse.)
During the hour and fifteen minutes I recorded, Charles interrupted and talked over me more than 60 times, compared me to my ex husband, called me “crazy,” implied a threat of suing me with his comment about calling a lawyer, described me as “childish” and deserving of condescension from pastoral leaders, said that my story was “crap,” and called me an assortment of other names including “pariah,” “crazy,” “tormentor,” “manipulative oppressor,” “odious,” “off-putting,” causing “revulsion” and “deep dislike,” “violent,” “frightening,” “aggressive,” “the abuser,” and, repeatedly, “a problem” that needed to “go away.” He told me to “let it go or go yourself,” i.e. drop the complaint or leave the church.
I spent two months trying unsuccessfully to find out who Charles was accountable to within the Presbytery. I called PCA headquarters but was unable to find out who I could speak to. (The Presbyterian Church in America happens to be headquartered about 45 miles away in Lawrenceville, Georgia, an Atlanta suburb within the bounds of Georgia Foothills Presbytery. The Stated Clerk of the entire denomination, Dr. Roy Taylor, is a member of our Presbytery and teaches Sunday School at the church Charles Garland pastored during these events.) Finally, I heard from the Shepherding Committee that was appointed to adjudicate my original complaint. I shared the recording and a transcript of the call with the committee and requested no contact with Charles. Two days later, Charles emailed me with a non-apology apology that I had been offended, saying that his intent was “to offer a rebuke that would persuade [me] to change course.” Over the next year and a half, there was no acknowledgement from any of the Presbytery officers dealing with my case nor any of the elders at Faith Presbyterian that Charles had sinned, been abusive, or done anything seriously wrong at all. In one meeting I attended with two friends present, one of the Shepherding Committee officers compared Charles Garland’s tone to that of Jesus and the prophets in Scripture calling out those who were self righteous. The chair of the committee said he couldn’t be sure the recording was even real; perhaps I had digitally altered it. He joked, “Maybe Charles was having a bad day. Maybe his wife threw a frying pan at him.” I was repeatedly told to accept Charles’ apology and meet with him to reconcile with him; there would be no accountability.
Reviling, or verbal abuse, is one of the most serious sins in Scripture. 1 Corinthians 5:11 lists it as one of six egregious sins (alongside sexual immorality, greed, swindling, idolatry, and drunkenness) that result in someone being immediately put out of the church. The PCA Book of Church Order delineates the commission of “base and flagitious” sins “such as drunkenness, uncleanness, or crimes of a greater nature” as matters which require a pastor to be suspended or permanently removed from the ministry, irrespective of repentance. Certainly, speaking to a vulnerable church member in this manner is damaging and out of keeping with Biblical character requirements for church elders. Common sense infers that this was no anomaly: a man in a position of considerable church power who verbally eviscerates a woman in their first conversation under the circumstances I’ve described is a man presumably accustomed to dominating and controlling others through verbal abuse. This time he just happened to get caught.
Prior to the next Presbytery meeting in January 2016, the chair of the Shepherding Committee, who was acting as my point of contact in lieu of Charles at the time, received a full transcript and academic analysis of the phone call from Dr. Valerie Hobbs. Dr. Hobbs is a Senior Professor in Applied Linguistics at Sheffield University in the U.K. who studies and writes about issues affecting women in Reformed churches. She is one of several respected, published authorities on abuse in the church whose feedback I’ve sought in dealing with this situation. She has read much of the correspondence pertaining to my case and communicated directly with various involved parties, and her letter expressed her concerns as an outside observer.
Dr. Hobbs’ analysis was addressed to and intended for all officers of the Georgia Foothills Presbytery. The Shepherding Committee chair confirmed its receipt prior to the meeting, but then did not pass it through to the other officers. During the meeting, he made a motion calling for Charles Garland’s reelection as Stated Clerk. It passed unanimously, and I sat and listened as various elders commended Charles for his service.
Prior to the next Presbytery meeting in April 2016, with Dr. Hobbs’ permission, I emailed her January letter and the recordings of Charles to every Presbytery officer whose email address I could find on a church website, and attended the meeting holding a 15″x20″ sign in my lap that reads “Justice, not Abuse.” (It was the first occasion that I displayed the sign, which has gone on to become a primary bone of contention for leaders and members at Faith: the very most important issue in all of this is that I am bad and wrong for holding a sign.) During the meeting, an Executive Session was called and all non-officers were asked to leave the room. The Executive Session lasted for 20-25 minutes. Afterward, Charles remained at the front of the sanctuary, glibly cracking jokes when speaking to the gathering, with most of the elders laughing appreciatively. No action was taken, and the Presbytery offered no response to me or to Dr. Hobbs.
Before the next meeting in September 2016, I filed a formal complaint about Charles Garland with the Presbytery. I cited the relevant passage in the Book of Church Order pertaining to “base and flagitious” sin, making the argument that by doing nothing, the Presbytery was either making the statement that Charles hadn’t committed the sin of reviling or that reviling wasn’t a base and flagitious sin. I pointed out the dangerous precedent this sets for anyone experiencing verbal or emotional abuse, since it demonstrates that the church considers these to be, at most, very trivial offenses, or even tacitly approves of them.
Then I painted a dress with Charles’ quotes from the phone call and wore it to the meeting.
With Charles presiding, the Presbytery appointed a commission of two to respond to the complaint. The Presbytery also, for the fourth time, appointed a new commission to respond to my original complaint against Faith PCA. I was never contacted by either commission.
When I arrived at the January 2017 Presbytery meeting, both commissions had, unbeknownst to me, already ruled to throw out both complaints. All of the elders in the Presbytery had received copies of the rulings, but no one had contacted me. The Presbytery voted unanimously, with no discussion, to pass the commissions’ rulings without saying what the rulings were. I stood up and asked the moderator to summarize. He did not. While he requested that someone provide me with a paper copy, Charles Garland emailed me the rulings himself (despite my request for no contact.) Here they are:
I’ll draw attention to a couple of quotes:
“The reason [the Faith PCA complaint cannot be put in order] is that the Session of FPC acted in accordance with the Holy Scriptures and the Book of Church order (BCO) with regards to Jessica Fore and the other members of FPC who are mentioned in Jessica Fore’s charges.”
“We further find that the Clerk attempted to rebuke Ms. Fore for what he perceived to be her litigiousness and refusal to be reconciled with her church and its officers. We find the Clerk’s conversation to constitute an attempt at rebuke, rather than “reviling.” We find that the allegations do not raise a strong presumption of guilt.”
In other words, everything the church and the Stated Clerk did was fine. Amazingly, the commissioners didn’t even bother disputing whether the things I alleged at Faith PCA really happened, or defining “reviling” versus “rebuking”; they just said that the Session’s and Charles Garland’s actions were OK. Neither report bothers to offer any substantive biblical or factual support for its positions. The Charles Garland report contains at least six factual errors (inaccuracies and critical omissions) that Dr. Hobbs attempted to correct in an email to its authors, since she was mentioned in the report. Her email was ignored. No Presbytery officer objected to any part of either ruling. Charles Garland, an Elder in good standing, has just moved to Arizona to head up Grace Tucson, a brand new church plant with strong ties to RUF campus ministry.
Once the rulings were passed, only an officer of the Presbytery (i.e. only an ordained male PCA elder serving a church in Georgia Foothills) would have had the right to bring these matters before a higher church court. None did so. “The system” had successfully cut me off at the knees, as it has done to so many others. The PCA offers zero judicial agency for a layperson seeking accountability for abuse or wrongdoing if her Presbytery decides to close ranks and shut her up. Since I started blogging about my situation, I’ve been contacted by other women with similar experiences in other Presbyteries. I’ve heard from women excommunicated for fleeing marital abuse, or simply struck from the rolls of their church through disciplinary erasure and denied a trial even as they begged their elders to look at evidence of domestic violence. The few who press the issue with their Presbyteries instead of quietly disappearing find that justice is slow at best, but most often nonexistent. Abused women are disposable.
Providentially, out of the blue, I was contacted in May 2017 by a PCA elder in another part of the country who knew about my situation. I learned that the 2016 minutes for Georgia Foothills Presbytery had landed in front of someone on the Review of Presbytery Records committee who cares about abuse in the church, and this person had flagged the minutes for review. RPR voted to cite Georgia Foothills Presbytery with an “exception of substance” on three consecutive sets of minutes covering every presbytery meeting in 2016. It passed something like 50-2 in committee and was then bundled into an omnibus vote on the floor of General Assembly, where it passed without public discussion. The exception states:
The court did not address the substance of the complaint thereby denying a member the ‘watchful care, instruction and government of the church’ to which the member is entitled. Although the complaints were ruled administratively out of order, they constitute reports affecting the Christian character of those subject to the presbytery’s authority. Therefore, the Presbytery ought to have instituted the procedures in BCO 31-2.
BCO 31-2 is a passage pertaining to church discipline:
It is the duty of all church Sessions and Presbyteries to exercise care over those subject to their authority. They shall with due diligence and great discretion demand from such persons satisfactory explanations concerning reports affecting their Christian character. This duty is more imperative when those who deem themselves aggrieved by injurious reports shall ask an investigation. If such investigation, however originating, should result in raising a strong presumption of the guilt of the party involved, the court shall institute process, and shall appoint a prosecutor to prepare the indictment and to conduct the case.
So, if I understand correctly, the Presbytery is being instructed by the denomination to investigate Faith and hand out indictments (which can lead to various consequences including excommunication and loss of leadership positions) wherever there is wrongdoing pertaining to my case. If the Presbytery doesn’t answer the exception satisfactorily, then the case is supposed to go before the Standing Judicial Commission (SJC), the highest court in the denomination, in 2018.
There are some who see the RPR citation as a victory and an example of the system working, and in one sense that’s true. There’s finally an official acknowledgement that my case has been mishandled. It was a nearly unanimous decision by dozens of pastors from all over the country looking at a sparse outline of the facts. The failsafe by which Presbyteries are held accountable kicked in. And it was completely out of my hands that it happened, which I believe is from the Lord. My hope is that it can lay a foundation for broader change so that churches stop revictimizing abuse survivors.
On the other hand, it’s taken eight years of egregious wrong to get to this point– five since I started raising longstanding issues with my session privately and two since I brought my situation before the Presbytery and the congregation. In the process, I’ve been pushed out of Christian community for all practical purposes and defamed at multiple levels of the church. When I have talked about abuse publicly, my ex husband has repeatedly contacted an elder at the church to threaten me. The investment of time and mental energy necessary to document everything, attend meetings, and jump through hoops is like having an unpaid extra job. General Assembly has lobbed my case back into the Presbytery’s court, where there has been no demonstration of repentance or internal accountability working thus far. There will be no external oversight or accountability for another year. The Presbytery is in no hurry to right wrongs: they will pass out the RPR ruling at the September 2017 meeting and respond to it at the January 2018 meeting. I have no direct right of appeal before the Standing Judicial Commission: my case is at the mercy of the Presbytery and whoever reads the minutes at next year’s RPR. Should I attempt to directly contact anyone with influence, I will be accused of “circularizing the court.” With regard to the impact on my own life, it is far too little, far too late.
We need a national conversation about these issues– not just about abuse and domestic violence, but about the systemic cover up, silencing and disposing of victims in the church. In the PCA, it must begin at the Presbytery level, with men who are willing to engage in meaningful advocacy for women who have no voice, even at the possible risk of their own standing with their peers. If you’re a PCA elder and stories like mine bother you, do something real about it. Learn about abuse. Listen to survivors and their advocates. Bring their stories to the floor of your Presbyteries and General Assembly. Advance overtures and constitutional amendments that protect them. Bring real accountability and real consequences to churches and church officers that oppress abuse survivors.
Georgia Foothills Presbytery convenes tomorrow, September 19th. I will be in attendance and appreciate your prayers.
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