January 7, 2007 8:58 AM

The Doug Phillips controversy

Since I published Doug Phillips' excellent New Year's piece on forgiveness, several people have emailed me asking about the controversy surrounding the excommunication and shunning of a couple from his church, as well as attempts to discredit them in the wider Christian community. How does that square with the wisdom he has shared on forgiveness?

While I don't have time to get involved in a big controversy, I do have some experience with this problem which I felt compelled to share with the couple who have gone public with their testimony.

I am not judging Doug Phillips. I understand the weakness in Christian leaders which can contribute to this problem. This kind of event takes place on a regular basis all over the United States in aggressively religious churches. What I mean by aggressively religious churches is churches that have forgotten that Jesus said we must come to him as children, that we are not to lay heavy burdens on people, and that we are to love one another.

What seems to happen is that a couple with good ideas for conducting their spiritual life or raising their family begins to teach others. At some point the sharing of principles which worked for them crosses over the line into moral superiority, judgment of others and legalism. There are so many people I can think of that this has happened to - the Ezzos and the Pearls come to mind. On the other end of the spectrum is Dr. Dobson, who dispenses help for parents with a helpful spirit and without the overlay of moral superiority. Do you see what I mean?

From our own devastating experience in 1990 with an out-of-control Christian leader, Tripp and I learned that Christian leadership can never succeed (yes it can succeed in the world's terms, but not in Christian terms) unless it is built on servant leadership. The picture I keep is Jesus washing the disciples' feet. When a leader's platform begins to be about elevating his/her own ministry and having people serve it, there is something wrong. A Christian leader should come under the people who are learning from him and lift them up to release their potential, not use them to release his own.

Also, sometimes in these "perfect" Christian congregations, a couple who doesn't fit in perfectly can cause great discomfort and things can rapidly spin out of control. Tripp and I saw it happen over and over in the "cutting edge" "remnant" church we were in: if a couple was not in lock step with the leader's thinking, they were counseled with the purpose of getting them to conform. A big delay in their immediate "healing" (meaning coming into conformity with the group model) brought out the worst in the leadership. Next thing we knew, they were drummed out of church and private things they had discussed were used for sermon fodder. We were told to shun them.

My response to this kind of behavior is that it strikes me as being more like the Pharisees than like Jesus. When we pick Bible verses to back our strategies which are at variance with what Jesus said, I'm gonna go with Jesus every time.

While I don't want to be presumptuous (and I refuse to get in a big debate about this) -, my guess is that God is trying to get Doug's attention through the couple who has taken their story public (which they certainly have the right - and also the Christian responsibility) to do. My feeling is that the truth is stronger than falsehood, so if Doug has nothing to be ashamed of, he should not be so threatened by this. After all, these people are alone (thanks to Doug's church) and he has thousands of defenders.

Perhaps Doug could submit to some mediator to sit down with this couple and work this out. Randy Alcorn of Eternal Perspective Ministries comes to mind as he has so much integrity and has a history of working on reconciliation. There are also several good Christian conciliation services.

Anyway, this is the comment I left at Jen's Gems (I'm providing this link for the very small number of my readers who might be interested in this - it took me several days to read through the material, so this isn't really of interest to anyone who hasn't already heard about it). I publish it here to answer the email I'm receiving asking for my opinion:

Dear Jen:

It has taken me several days, but I have read through your testimony - yes, it is a testimony, and an important one for other Christians to read - and I am so sorry for the pain you have suffered.

My husband and I were involved with a church which we originally thought was morally superior to other churches (we were from a similar background as you and your husband and I think that was part of the package) but which we gradually became aware had many cult-like characteristics. Like you and your husband, we had had marital difficulties before surrendering our lives to Christ in 1987, but by the time we entered the church in 1989 there was peace in our home.

The church nearly destroyed our marriage. When we realized that we needed to move on, we were denounced from the pulpit and shunned. We later worked with Dr. Ron Enroth on one of his follow-up books to Churches that Abuse. I also wrote a pamphlet for Plain Truth Ministries (yes, the Worldwide Church of God which had operated as a cult until the leader died and his son sought reconciliation with the body of Christ and was received by a Who’s Who summit - a rare happy ending for this kind of aberration) which I have reprinted at my blog and you may be interested in reading. It’s called Legalism and Christian cults. At the end there are several books my husband and I read which helped us understand and process our experience. Plus – just for laughs, because laughter helps – the old ‘50’s film Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

There is really so much I want to say to you. I see a kindred spirit in you – or at least a similar calling – as I was also called to document our experience. It’s been 15 years since we left the church. Because we were high profile people and I became a Christian writer a few years later, the pastor stalked me through the Christian community – calling Focus on the Family if I published an article or a TV studio if I had an interview to tell them I wasn’t a real Christian.

The worst aftermath though was the damage inflicted on our marriage. I won’t go into too much detail, except to say that my husband had been flattered and told he was more spiritual than I – it was even hinted that he would be justified in divorcing me – all because I refused to go to 5am prayer meetings when we had six children under 10 at home (I was told they could sleep in the car!) and because I didn't engage in their form of spiritual warfare. It took years to reestablish the mutual trust we had found as new Christians.

Because my husband and I had met in recovery, we had been through a 12-step program, and I found that “working the steps” had become so much a part of me that after a couple months of crying and reviewing the wrongs of the church, I began to wonder what was wrong with me that I would be attracted to such an organization. I realized that spiritual pride was a big part of the appeal of the church (you can read more detail if you like in the pamphlet I linked) – they were superior to other Christians because of extra expectations. I realized that was something that God wanted to root out in me.

Then how I thanked God for the experience I’d had! When I saw how ugly the behavior of Pastor H was, I did not want to become like that myself. Both my husband and I have strong leadership tendencies (although I am actually opposed to women in church leadership and would refuse such a position) and I felt that through this terrible ordeal, God had delivered us by showing us what Christian leadership is not supposed to be.

Since then we have understood Christian leadership as servant leadership – encouraging and equipping others to reach their potential rather than holding sway over a group of people who will help you reach yours.

This is actually a common problem in the United States – enough so that there are many books on the subject. One of the things I read that helped me also was the idea that God uses these imperfect churches to perfect us as individuals. Looking back on the experience now, I know that as painful as it was, I would not trade it for the world because through it God was able to teach us some very important lessons. And what if we hadn’t learned them? Why, we might be hurting others in his name ourselves!

Jen, I know that God must have great plans for you and your husband to have brought you through this experience and to call you to document it – not out of spite, as some people might accuse you of – but out of love for the Body of Christ. While it’s difficult to be misunderstood and wrongly accused, I see the love that motivates what you are doing – and God does too.

I will be praying for you and your family.

Barbara Curtis

Please know that I am not making any judgment on Doug Phillips. I just think there is a better way to work this out. Since I was once accused myself by a former pastor of not being a true Christian, "marked" and shunned - and since I know that all along I was a Christian and it was not the pastor's call to make but God's (John 10:14 - also somewhere there is a verse "The Lord knows who is his" but I don't have time to find it right now because I've got to cook dinner :), I feel qualified to speak on this couple's behalf and say there is probably some truth to their claims.

Doug Phillips will have thousands of people who blindly defend him. The fact that this couple is willing to do the difficult task of trying to call a larger-than-life figure to account when they are people of relatively small consequence and thus easily discredited and discarded (I always hated that in elitist churches and religious systems) should be taken seriously. Rather than rushing to Doug Phillips' defense, his followers should be urging all parties to submit themselves to an independent reconciliation service.

I realize that this might not sit well with some people in my own church who think very highly of Doug Phillips. But we cannot put people on such high pedestals that we think they are incapable of human error. We can't just dismiss the claims of someone who has been harmed. Otherwise we become idolators ourselves.

PS: I found this list of cult characteristics. While anyone may go through this list and say, "Well, my church doesn't do that" about some more extreme forms, I think answering yes to anything at all should be cause for concern. Christian leaders should be constantly vigilant about any such tendencies and ready and willing to root them out of themselves and their congregations.


Posted in Religion, Spiritual abuse | Permalink


Excellent commentary and advice, Barbara.

Posted by: Kim | January 7, 2007 5:31 PM

Thank you THANK YOU Barbara for this great perspective. It is full of wisdom and the respect.

Posted by: Jennifer | January 7, 2007 7:30 PM

Excellent, balanced, loving, reasoned commentary, as always Barbara.

Posted by: Rocks in my Dryer | January 7, 2007 7:48 PM

Wow. I am so thankful for the ways that God took what satan obviously meant for the bad and used it for your good. I cringe that anyone would ever have to endure such treatment from a "church" as you and Tripp did, but I marvel at how God can use such things not only for your growth, but also so that you can minister to others going through similar circumstances. God is good...all the time.

Posted by: Shelley | January 7, 2007 8:31 PM

These kinds of stories make me praise God for our little church -- where our preacher got up this morning and said something like "I think there is an area where we are failing, and I think it's largely my fault", then proceeded to confess the wrong thing he thought he'd been preaching and how he could have said things better. I praise God every day for his humble heart and servanthood.

Posted by: Gem | January 7, 2007 9:46 PM

Barbara (this is Molly who used to blog on Choosing Home a while back), THANK YOU. This is an awesome post and I plan to link to it.

Posted by: Molly | January 7, 2007 9:57 PM

I think you have a very fair perspective on my story, Barbara. Thank you for seeing that I do have a responsibility to take this public. I am in the unique position of being willing to risk everything for the purity of the church, as least as it relates to those who listen to Doug Phillips' teachings. I have noticed that most people are not willing to risk going public, when they should, even if it means it is for the greater good. I pray that God would use our situation for His ultimate glory.

Posted by: Jen | January 7, 2007 11:30 PM

What a wise commentary, Barbara. Thank you! Before I rolled out of bed this morning, I was praying for my 15 year old daughter because she (with her dad and I) has been hurt more than once by adult leaders in the church and these situations and the lingering pain have been something she and I discuss almost daily. As I was praying this morning before I got out of bed, it occured to me that I need to tell Emily how fortunate it is that as painful as these experiences have been, I KNOW that God will use them in her life to His Glory as she matures and continues on the path He has placed her on and I am excited to see how and where that might unfold. For now, I can't wait for her to read your post. I know that it will bless her abundantly. Thank you, Barbara, for being an answer to prayer!

Posted by: Patricia (of Pollywog Creek) | January 8, 2007 7:36 AM


Your commentary is the best I have read on this sad story. Those of us who have walked a similar path at some point in the past, know full well how the truth, as it comes out, sometimes sounds absurd, especially to those who follow their gurus blindly. I am reminded that Satan is the author of confusion. Your measured comments were greatly needed in this ongoing situation. Thank you.

Posted by: Prairie Girl | January 8, 2007 8:29 AM

Excellent and balanced. Gracious and kind. I want to be you when I grow up!:)

Posted by: Misty | January 8, 2007 9:26 AM

One thing I have noticed is that people who have been spiritually abused are very quick to recognize it when it pops up again. Frankly, most hegemonic leaders look pretty much the same underneath the gloss. I don't know if it is becoming more prevalent or the Internet is just allowing more things to come to light.

I also appreciate that you recognize it was your own spiritual pride that made you vulnerable to a hegemonic leader. That was also the case for my husband and I.
We sat quietly for 8 years under that sort of rule and vowed we would never just keep our mouths shut again.

Posted by: Cindy | January 8, 2007 9:32 AM

Excellent, well-reasoned and balanced response. I appreciate your self-restraint and lack of inflammatory commentary. You held closely to the point and made it very well. Well said.

This post goes hand in hand with one I've done which encourages all of us to be thinking Christians. We cannot exchange our own reasoning for that of Christian leaders, no matter how well respected.

Posted by: Everyday Mommy | January 8, 2007 10:08 AM

This is a very nice and fair article!

Posted by: h | January 8, 2007 10:10 AM

Good comments! It would be a great day if Doug Phillips ever agrees to some kind of mediation. It sounds as though the Epsteins are (or at least were) more than willing for mediation. I have read a couple of times Ron Enroth's book you mentioned, and think it is a "must read," among others, for those who have suffered from spiritual abuse.

Posted by: Lynn | January 8, 2007 10:23 AM

A very fair and charitable take, Barbara. Thank you for your perspective. I am keeping all parties in my prayers. One of my concerns with this so publicly shared in the blogsphere is the message it sends to those who don't know the love of our God. But posts like yours remind us that, while this has been quite a debacle, it was borne out of good intentions. As long as our churches are formed in this fallen world, we will continue to have problems. But that does not change our central gospel of hope, joy, faith, forgiveness, and healing which is in the blood of Christ.

Posted by: AnneBasso | January 8, 2007 11:08 AM

Great advice and I couldn't agree more. I have been encouraged by reading through some of the stuff that you went through and I am sure it is encouraging to many other believers.

Posted by: Corrie | January 8, 2007 12:12 PM

This was a great post. While I was married to my first husband, an unbeliever, I attended a church in which I found myself separated from many activities because of the church's view of women in the church. I quickly found another body of christians to support me, mentor me and hold me accountable.

I linked to this post today on my blog ~

Posted by: Julie | January 8, 2007 12:37 PM

Thank you, thank you, thank you for writing this!

Born of pain, your words speak volumns.

You will never know how many people you are helping to see the truth.

Posted by: judy | January 9, 2007 6:04 PM

I grew up in a very legalistic church, and I have also been subject to church discipline when I left that church, 15 years ago. However I have also been in a church recently where peace at all cost was taught. When I was viciously spoke against and brought up for church discipline by two of my "friends" the church did nothing. The leadership acknowledged that I was not wrong, but they did nothing about the other ladies involved. The elders did not want to address the problem so they just ignored it. I was specifically told to not even talk about what had happened with these ladies. These other ladies just went on to their next victim. Their actions and gossip have resulted in multiple families (including mine) leaving the church, and yet peace at all cost is still taught. I agree that people are wrongly brought for church discipline, and that I have been. However church discipline is there to protect the church also. I feel like my leadership did not protect me and my family. This is why finding a church with Godly elders is so important! We choose what authority to put ourselves under, and it is a CHOICE.

Posted by: Lisa | January 11, 2007 2:34 PM

Jen and Mark Epstein recently posted that they have requested membership at a PCA church; they write that one of the conditions of membership is that they "demonstrate a willingness to be reconciled with our brethren at BCA." They say that "in order to lay the groundwork toward reconciliation, the Session has requested we take offline any of our blog articles, links and feedback comments on any website of our creation, or under our control, that contain accusations against Doug Phillips, members of his family, or BCA."
As a result, everything on Jen Epstein's blog concerning this matter has been removed, with the exception of the first and last postings.

Frankly, I am appalled.
It looks to me like it's Phillips and Co. who need to repent. The fact that PCA is willing to consider these people as Christian brethren at all is unsettling; moreover the Epsteins are not the only ones who have been hurt by Phillips and their like. The Epsteins "outed" Phillips, and did the Body of Christ a favor by doing so. They have certainly done nothing wrong. IMO, the Epsteins deserve a medal, and PCA ought to be ashamed of themselves for sweeping this back under the rug instead of addressing the problem for what it is.

The Bible says,

2Cr 6:14 Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness?

Posted by: Cynthia Gee | January 15, 2007 10:22 PM

You blog post sent me on quite a journey this morning Barbara! lol I've been curious about the Sproul - Philips allegations for some time, but didn't want to get wrapped up in slander.

After spending 3+ hours reading both Mrs. Epstein's writings as well as Matt Chancey's, I just want to remind everyone that there are always, always, always TWO sides to every story.

GOD KNOWS the truth and that's what counts. WE don't know the truth. And we need to be very careful and discerning about what opinions we toss out. Gossip is still a big no-no.

That said, I appreciate your thoughts Barbara!

Posted by: Janel | March 16, 2007 12:49 PM

You're far more charitable than I, Barbara. As far as I'm concerned, Phillips is a wicked hypocrite who craves power and has not a single heart cell devoted to Christ, nor charitable bone in his body.

Posted by: Jennifer | January 10, 2009 5:30 PM

I'm confused, very confused - I'm fairly new to this Doug Phillips controversy...I don't like hearing slander anywhere. Personally, I haven't seen anything wrong with his teachings yet - in fact I'm grateful that someone out there is willing to go against the cultural tide of mainstream evangelical Christianity.

As an above commenter said - there are 2 sides to every story. There are very valid reasons for some people to be excommunicated from a church. We had one such situation no more than 2 years ago.

I am more concerned with debunking ideals and hypocrisies themselves - not slandering the people that supposedly teach them. Both people and their ideologies are fallible and neither are perfect. I trust the Holy Spirit to help me discern what is truth and what isn't.

Posted by: Michelle | April 23, 2009 6:29 PM

Gracious, beautiful, peaceful and comforting words!! Thank you Barbara. This so blessed my heart. I would love to hear Doug Phillips talk like this. I could resonate with everything you said in your letter and it was done so eloquently and smoothly that I know Christ prompted you to write it. Thanks for your obedience. Blessings to you,


Posted by: Melissa | September 23, 2011 9:05 PM

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