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Jennifer Epstein of Jen’s Gems tells of her experiences during her time in Doug Phillips’ church, Boerne Christian Fellowship. Originally published here. Please remember that while the contributors to this website are united in our belief that there are problems with the teachings of Vision Forum, we come from a variety of perspectives and this is just one of them.

(Start with chapter one)

Elders From Another Church Wash Their Hands of Him for His Refusal to Repent

The elders of this other church were quite eager to help us and quickly set up a phone call to Doug Phillips on Wednesday of that week, February 9, 2005. Although Doug Phillips talked on the phone with these four elders, it was only to accuse them of violating Matthew 18. Despite the fact that Matthew 18 is a passage about how Christians should seek to resolve personal offenses and does not prevent elders in one church from trying to reason with an elder in another church over a disagreement about a church disciplinary matter, Doug Phillips was insistent that this church was sinning by harboring “heathens and publicans.” Doug Phillips insisted that these four elders should have come to him alone first, then to some larger group apparently, and then to all of Boerne Christian Assembly. Since these other elders were not the ones offended, but were merely trying to be peacemakers between brethren, Matthew 18 clearly did not apply in this situation. Although some of these elders were long-time friends with Doug Phillips, Doug was willing to break off these precious friendships rather than work together on this issue of our excommunication. He was only interested in them admitting that they had sinned by allowing “heathens and publicans” into their church. These four elders worked hard to get an appointment to actually meet with Doug Phillips but, as usual, Doug was too busy and could not meet with them for eight or nine more months. One of the elders expressed it this way: “A priority issue of this nature did not receive the attention it should have.”

Meanwhile, a dear friend suggested that I write a letter to Boerne Christian Assembly asking forgiveness for anything I could think of, so I prayed about it and decided to apologize for defending myself in writing, when Mark had already come to my defense by taking full responsibility at the congregational meeting for discipline. While I still maintained the truthfulness of my original letter, I did apologize for inadvertently hurting the five men involved and their wives by writing about them, but emphasized that my main intent was only to help prevent others from being hurt. I offered them my forgiveness, my love, and my fellowship, asking them to forgive me in return. This letter was written under the authority of the four elders as well, and sent with their blessing.

The next morning, May 20, 2005, the Boerne Christian Assembly “leadership,” which consisted of one unordained “elder,” Doug Phillips, and two deacons, sent an email to us (and copied to the whole congregation), reminding us that we were excommunicated and stating, “The excommunication took place according to Holy Scripture” {I’m still waiting for the verses that say I did something serious enough to warrant excommunication}, “with the 100% approval of the household heads of BCA” {I know this is not true, because at least one family didn’t know about it for months. Of course, even if it were true, it wouldn’t mean much, as fully half of the families who are members of Boerne Christian Assembly are employed by Doug Phillips, creating quite a conflict of interest}, “and only after the church which loved you and cared for your soul had demonstrated tremendous longsuffering and patience to you and Mark after five years of working with you, and in the midst of your longstanding and grievous sin” {For some reason, I think Doug Phillips truly believes he did the right thing, but I hope seeing it all here in writing will prick his conscience.}

“As you know, the Bible requires that excommunicants are to be treated and understood as ‘heathens and publicans.’ This is your status. All faithful believers of the Lord Jesus Christ will honor Christ’s command neither to eat nor fellowship with you as long as you remain excommunicant.” {Note what he is saying between the lines about the other church that took us in, as we had a potluck meal with them each Sunday. He is also warning the members of his own congregation that they will be regarded as faithless if they have any interaction with us.} “Though you may not understand this, your formal disfellowship and excommunication is an act of true love.” {In cases of true rebellion, this would certainly be true. But I was now in a lose/lose situation, and rebellion did not factor into it at all.} “Your life will in large part be defined by the way you respond to God’s discipline in your life through His local church.” {This is very true; our lives have in large part been defined by this situation, especially the lives of our children, who had every friend suddenly taken away from them.}

“When a person has been formally adjudicated ‘a heathen and a publican,’ and cast out of the body in the hope that they will flee to Christ under His kind discipline, the only way for such a person to be restored is to demonstrate true repentance by humbly returning to the local church, publicly and genuinely repenting for all sins which were the basis of the excommunication and seeking restoration under the oversight of the church leadership…” {In other words, my letter wasn’t good enough; I had to come in person and confess to all the false accusations in the original excommunication, and do whatever Doug Phillips wanted me to do. My husband has a favorite saying: “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” I had already foolishly gone into that second meeting with Doug Phillips when I knew what had happened in the first meeting with him. Doug Phillips refused to forgive me when I asked for forgiveness, both for gossiping the first time, and now for this very letter. Doug Phillips called me names, lied about me, falsely accused me, preached against me, refused to protect my children and me, and looked down on me just for being a woman, in addition to not allowing me due process in any stage of discipline, and now he expected me to seek restoration under the oversight of the church leadership, which I know means Doug Phillips. Not only do I have no desire to be in an abusive situation like that again, but I hope to warn others of the potential abuse of Doug Phillips if they find they ever need help from him or they even disagree with him. I do not think it would be in anyone’s best interest to be under the oversight of Doug Phillips at this time.}

Something else that Doug Phillps’ comment here reveals is the claim that the local church is an absolute authority in matters of church discipline and that the leaders of that local church need not themselves be under any authority or accountable to anyone else. This is in direct contradiction to what Doug Phillips, Scott Brown, and others teach at the Vision Forum Uniting Church and Family Conferences. But imposing limits on others that he refuses to submit to himself is something Doug Phillips does all the time.

“Today, members of our local church received a letter which claims to offer some qualified repentance.” {I was extremely careful to ensure that my apology was without excuse, summarizing it thus: “I am sorry for responding when I should have kept quiet. I am sorry for saying hurtful things about others, especially the leadership. I am sorry for responding in less than a gracious manner. I was wrong to fight back in the manner in which I did, even though my intentions were to help others. Will you each forgive me?” I think that is a completely unqualified apology. However, what Doug Phillips is probably referring to here is when I say, “I will not be apologizing for the accusations brought against me. I am not seeking to be in covenant with BCA anymore…” Rather than accepting what I do apologize for, he is expecting me to apologize for things that I did not do.} “The letter continues to justify your sinful behavior” {doctrinal differences?} “and fails to address the issues for which you were excommunicated.” {I am still waiting for Doug Phillips to specifically address these issues as well.}

“Moreover, the fact that you would bypass the local church leadership and urge members of the local church to disregard the judgment of the local church is evidence of continued unrepentance.” {I said in my letter to them: “I consider each one of you brothers and sisters in Christ and have already forgiven everyone involved. I hold no bitterness nor grudge toward anyone and pray for you often. I hope that when we see each other, which we will, it will be with open arms and joy! … I know that Christ would be glorified if the world knew we were Christians by our love for one another.” And this is how Doug Phillips believes that I urged BCA members to disregard the judgment of the local church, by extending an offer of Christian love to them. Even though I knew that they were turning their backs on my children and me in public, I was offering them love instead.}

This is another example of Doug Phillips trying to have things both ways. He claims that the excommunication was decided by a unanimous vote of the heads of household at Boerne Christian Assembly. That means they exercised the disciplinary authority. Now he says I cannot repent to them and they cannot consider my repentence because they aren’t the church leadership? Make up your mind, Doug: If you want democratic church government (i.e., the heads of household voting for discipline), then they also get the right to independently evaluate a letter of repentance. But if you believe in republican church government (i.e., as in a presbyterian church where the elected and ordained plurality of elders decides on discipline), then the “leadership” at Boerne Christian Assembly needs to stop avoiding responsibility by hiding behind a heads-of-household vote. That kind of abdication of masculine responsibility goes straight back to Adam. It is unworthy of any self-respecting patriarch, let alone anyone who claims to be a church shepherd.

“Since defying the church discipline” {I still don’t know what that refers to}, “you have continued to lie and to slander as well as cause division within the community of believers, thus adding to the sins for which genuine repentance and restitution would be necessary.” {I have not lied or slandered, but I did tell the truth of the situation to the elders of the other church. I guess that attending another church is causing a division. Actually, it was Doug Phillips himself that was causing division within the “community,” by requiring the other churches to treat us as “heathens and publicans,” and coming against them when they refused to treat us that way, embracing us as Christians instead.}

“Should you truly repent for your sins, turn to the Lord, submit yourselves to Christ’s authority, and in humility seek restoration through the proper channels of the local church, we will welcome you with open arms.” {In other words, if I agree with everything Doug Phillips says, and I admit to doing things which I didn’t really do, and come crawling back to BCA and pay restitution (see above), and keep my mouth shut forevermore, then I can get back into this spiritually abusive church.} “Until that time, no true believer is to treat you as a Christian.” {For anyone who has treated me as a Christian, I fear for your soul, as Doug Phillips would say that you are not a true believer. I wonder how Jesus would treat me, if He were here.}

The timing of Doug Phillips’ email was somewhat significant, again, as it was sent at 12:32 a.m. on Friday. That particular weekend was the annual homeschool conference in San Antonio and we both knew that I would see many BCA members that weekend for the first time since the excommunication. I had a booth there selling an algebra program, which is the only homeschool business activity I have ever engaged in. My booth was very close to Vision Forum. The day before the conference (the same day I sent the letter to everyone at Boerne Christian Assembly), while we were all setting up for the conference, Vision Forum deliberately blocked my truck so that I couldn’t leave for an hour. Some teenage boys who used to attend Boerne Christian Assembly came over and helped me unload my truck and carry boxes to my booth. Upon seeing this, some Vision Forum employees made some very snide comments to these teenagers about helping a “heathen and a publican.”

The next day, several of the Vision Forum young ladies, when they had to go past my booth during the conference, would start running at full speed in their long skirts when they reached one edge of my booth, and then sprint to the other end of the booth, where they would then resume walking. That was my comic relief for the day. Most others would just turn their head away as they passed so they wouldn’t have to see me.

Due to significant doctrinal differences, we left the church at which the elders tried to assist in dealing with Doug Phillips after the requested six months, yetwe willingly remained under their authority in the area of the excommunication as they continued to try and reason with him. These four elders had requested that we let them take the lead in dealing with Doug Phillips on behalf of the Epsteins. Having a true desire to submit to authority, we both felt that since we were excommunicated, by biblical standards the church was to treat us as “heathens and publicans,” so we thought the best way to submit was by staying home on Sundays, as unbelievers would, while the elders of this church continued pursuing reconciliation with Doug Phillips and Boerne Christian Assembly. We recognize now that such submission was not necessary, but I point this out to stress that we were willing to go to great lengths to try and submit to church authority, even when we believed it was wrong.

We were blessed to be able to watch sermons each week on video from Dr. SM Davis, who deals extensively with solving family problems. Not long after beginning to watch these videos, Mark decided to fully repent from his sins toward our children and me. The more counsel we received from Dr. SM Davis’ sermons, the closer we began to grow as a couple and as a family. Even though we do not recommend home video or TV sermons as a legitimate substitute for church membership and regular attendance, we do believe that God honored our intentions in doing the right thing in our special circumstance, and He used the biblical teaching in the SM Davis videos to transform our family for the better.

In the fall of 2005, Doug Phillips and some other Boerne Christian Assembly “leadership” finally met for the first and only time with these four elders from the other church. Doug Phillips’ main concern still appeared to be that he wanted these four elders to admit they had sinned by taking excommunicants into their church and that they had violated the “letter of the law” of Matthew 18. Even if Matthew 18 had applied in this situation, which it did not, the “spirit” of Matthew 18 was never violated. These four elders were gracious and patient with Doug Phillips, going to him privately to work things out. By the close of the meeting, these four elders told Doug Phillips and the others present that they still love the Epsteins and would do the same thing if they had it to do over again. In fact, they told Doug Phillips that they would do the same for any other person from Boerne Christian Assembly if they were hurt by Doug as well, taking in the wounded family and loving them as Christ would.

Unfortunately, this resulted in severed long-term relationships on the part of Doug Phillips and the other elders, and between Boerne Christian Assembly and this church. There are now many divisions in what used to be a very tight-knit community. This is probably what distresses me most about this whole situation – that other relationships had to be torn on our account. I would never have wanted that. Of course, the division was not my choice but that of Doug Phillips, after he insisted on maintaining his autonomy and refused the loving admonition and wise counsel of elders from another community church.

In March, 2006, nearly 14 months after this other church began attempting to work with Doug Phillips and Boerne Christian Assembly on our behalf, and having repeatedly pursued reconciliation with Doug, they finally gave up and washed their hands of any further responsibility in attempting reconciliation on our behalf, leaving us free to now pursue the matter ourselves.

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