Leaving a church is a difficult affair.
Sometimes it’s for happy reasons, a couple from two different churches wed and need to choose a congregation to belong to as a family. Work, school or another opportunity leads you elsewhere causing happy, tearful farewells back home and a joyful welcome at your new place of worship. More often than not though, it’s a struggle. A hard-thought, hard-fought decision that leaves you with no other choice but to leave old friends behind and hope they understand. It can be from not being comfortable with the direction your church is headed which moves you to take your family elsewhere. It could be a decision from the synod causes a mass-exodus that you feel you need to take a stand on and take part of. In the worst cases it’s that the leadership is corrupt and abusive, or covers up a member’s corruption and abusiveness to the detriment of the rest of the congregation, and you need to depart for your family’s safety: mental, spiritual and physical.
These latter churches especially will do everything in their power to squelch dissent or prevent you from leaving. Doug Phillips‘ church, Boerne Christian Assembly required a letter of transfer before you left. A requirement he didn’t see fit to follow himself when he departed amid shame and scandal. Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill Church would fire you if you showed the slightest whiff of concern or disagreed with the leader. When this came to a head, one man’s ego and unwillingness to submit himself to the same spiritual authority he had demanded of others led to the dissolution of one of the largest church networks in the Seattle area.
This is not the way Christians, Christian leaders especially should behave themselves. To speak from personal experience, when a couple families from my congregation left for other church bodies, the elders instituted annual family visits. These were conducted not to exercise authority, but humbleness. They asked, time and time again, if the teaching and leadership of the elders and pastor held up to our discernment; if we thought there were areas they were failing in. The elders honestly wanted to know if we saw issues with the church that could be corrected and they wanted to encourage us to use our gifts to assist in the growth and sanctification of the church as a whole. These were not inquisitions to ferret out confessions, to root out dissent and squelch our voices, it was a time when they held themselves accountable to us, as individual members.
This is not how Wilson and Christ Church operates. For over a decade now they have been on a hunt to root out the FOG, the Fellowship of Grievance, from within their midst. Members of the FOG are those who disagree with Wilson and his methods and have spoken with others, family, friends and fellow church-goers, about the issues they have with him. Wilson and his fellow Moscow CREC leader, Toby Sumpter, speak of FOG in this Canon Wired video where they describe them as members of the church whose disagreements are motivated by bitterness and envy. They ‘charitably’ grant that someone can disagree with them on the interpretation of a Bible verse, but what they do take issue with is someone who wants to speak truth to power (or in the case of the FOG, speak truth to their friends). This is what they cannot tolerate, those who would question their leadership, specifically formerly fanatic followers.
It was in this spirit that Doug Wilson approached Gary Greenfield, proprietor of Bucer’s Coffee House. Fresh off the “rebellion” of Duck Schuler a month ago, Doug was in a mood to make sure that anyone else he considered to have an outsized influence in his congregation would fall into the ranks.
DW: But I wanted to get a larger context and these are just general questions — do you consider yourself among the disgruntled?
Doug dives right in and asks Gary if he would identify himself as a member of the FOG. This is a useful tactic on many levels, it immediately puts Gary on the defensive for he now has something he needs to safeguard himself from and it engenders what Doug claims to hate: gossip and suspicion. Gary is not the only one who has been asked if he is disgruntled and bitter with the church leadership and when this question is posed to loyal kirkers they will naturally inquire who is secretly a member of this FOG cell. This line of questioning pits the congregation against itself, wary of the person they’re worshiping next to out of concern they’re part of a cabal seeking to undermine the church.
DW: Have you been careful to not talk to people about any concerns, grievances, complaints, whatever they might be, until you know the whole story?
This is obviously a ridiculous request. How can one know the whole story unless they’ve spoken with the parties involved? By using an imperative question here, Doug is demanding silence. This is the same line he has resorted to when it comes to his mishandling of Natalie Greenfield’s abuse. He perpetually insists that no one knows or is equipped to tell the whole story but himself. Yet while Natalie is willing to share more and more about her experience, Doug has only been able to resort to threats about releasing court-sealed journals (Natalie has already spoken of the journals’ contents anyway) and using his lackeys to dig up something embarrassing to try and belittle and diminish her.
DW: Are you confident that you have been able to take catch of things you’ve heard? We know for a fact that some of the unhappy people in the church who have talked, have misrepresented, lied about us, sometimes in dramatic ways, and when you hear something have you been careful to discount anything like that? You’ve not talked to them about particulars?
Anyone following the current controversies is familiar with this tactic. It’s not dissimilar from when Canon Press accused Rachel Miller of dishonesty when she revealed the plagiarism in Wilson and Booth’s book ‘A Justice Primer‘ Doug says that he knows for a fact that people who are unhappy are lying about him and we need to take his word for it. More than that, Doug doesn’t want people talking to anyone about the particulars of what they’re unhappy about. How is a kirker supposed to know if someone is lying if they can’t hear them out? Liars usually reveal themselves as liars when they elaborate, or are unable to do so, liars like Doug.
DW: So you are careful to be quiet?
One again, being quiet, keeping your head down and not questioning Doug’s authority is paramount.
GG: I mean, I not going to come to you as an individual, I’ll just give it to the Lord.
DW: Actually, that’s perfectly fair; but if it doesn’t have two or three witnesses, not only should it not come to us, it should not come to you.
GG: Well, sometimes situations are such that in order for it to develop into two or three witnesses, people, the sheep, have to discuss it, and then if it’s not something that’s warranted among two or three — I mean, they have to engage in dialog to determine these things because one sheep isn’t adequate enough to look at a situation and say — “Oh, this is what?” — and assess it properly. They typically need to engage in dialog among themselves because that’s normal fellowship to talk about issues and things, and if it doesn’t develop into something that warrants coming to an elder, then you just leave it in the hands of God.
DW: No, no, if it doesn’t warrant — if you don’t have two or three witnesses where you bring it to me or to the elders or to someone who can rebuke to everyone who discussed it.
GG: But in order to get to the point where you determine if it’s appropriate or not, there has to be a dialog and then, I mean, if a person in their own, you know, before God was gossiping instead of sincerely trying to understand the situation, well, then they have to deal with that sin. But if it’s a situation where they’re just trying to understand what’s going on, and they’re sincerely seeking the Lord and they’re seeking counsel, you know, in their fellowship and things and their interaction results in something beneficial, well, then that’s good. But if it’s because of gossip, or they’re slandering and if there’s hatred and revenge — you know, if there’s sin involved, then, yeah, they need to deal with that and then shut up.
This exchange is basically a summary of the entire conversation, Gary comes across as nothing if not humble, he wants to keep his head down, avoid problems that people speak to him about as a visible member of the church community and lay the burdens of that on the Lord. Doug meanwhile, holds Gary responsible for what other people say to him, for not rebuking them for having troubles with the way Doug operates. Gary is very reasonable throughout the whole thing, because for two or three witnesses to come together, to emerge and bring a case to Doug or the elders, they necessarily have to discuss it. Doug denies that completely, somehow two or three witnesses need to come together without speaking together of their troubles. In Doug’s world, if one witness speaks to another witness to see if he has seen the same problem, the second witness should rebuke the first. That’s how you keep the peace in Christ Church.
Finally, there’s the bit where Doug advises Gary to sell his business:
DW: Do you mind if I lurch into another subject? That’s basically what I wanted to tell you.
GG: Go ahead.
DW: Okay, this might seem like it’s coming out of the left-field bleachers — and this is not hypothetical, this is not a hypothetical — would you be interested in selling Bucer’s?
DW: It — well, it’d be — that would have to be divided into two reasons — I’m not speaking for me individually, but I’m — I’m in a position to possibly broker, broker something. I could bring you and a possible buyer together. So the answer to the question “Why?” would be — would vary — “Why?” for a buyer is a very different question than “Why?” for a seller.
GG: Yeah, well, I mean, hey, a, I guess I’m — what’s up?
DW: Okay, this is my — let me just — piecing things together basically — your — this is not from fifty yards, this is from a hundred yards.
GG: Uh huh.
DW: Okay, so I’m not certain of anything here.
DW: And what I’m doing is I’m asking you here. Here are some possible, here are some possibilities. You are in — going back to the first part of the conversation about different people who are disgruntled in the church — you know, unhappy with different things. I know, for example, that Duck was one of the people who talked to you, and your position — whether you feel this way or not — your position objectively on paper is very much like Duck’s, where you’ve got a grizzly bear by the ears and you can’t hold on and you can’t let go. You have a very important position in Christ Church because of Bucer’s, because of how the students congregate there, the students from our church congregate there, because a lot of churches and so on. Consequently, let me run a hypothetical thing, suppose someone opened up a coffee shop — most churches don’t have things like this, don’t have a setup like this — but suppose someone opened up a coffee shop or restaurant or pub like you have done and for one reason or another became unhappy with how things were going in the church, but whose livelihood depended upon continuing with the church in some way, if a, if — and I’m not suggesting that you’re going to do this or that you wanted to do this or anything like that — I’m just saying that if there were some sort of rupture between you and the elders or you and the church or some sort of rupture between someone else and the elders connected to you — there all sorts — there are all sorts of scenarios that I can imagine that would, that would affect your business dramatically; like I said in the email, this Ball and Cross thing already did.
GG: Uh huh.
Doug wants to remind Gary where his bread is buttered. He compares Gary to Duck Schuler, who was just burned the previous month for not voting to promote Nate Wilson to the position of fellow at NSA, saying that Gary is in a similar position. A falling out between Gary and Christ Church would dry up the traffic from kirkers and NSA students (and anyone who frequented Bucer’s after such a falling out is a likely candidate of the FOG). Doug is issuing the threat that Gary’s business and his livelihood, depends on his loyalty to Doug and Doug’s church. To emphasize this, he brings up the falling out between Ball and Cross Books and Bucers, an incident that Wilson himself helped engineer. I doubt this was lost to either Doug or Gary.
DW: It — well, it’d be — that would have to be divided into two reasons — I’m not speaking for me individually, but I’m — I’m in a position to possibly broker, broker something. I could bring you and a possible buyer together.
If Gary doesn’t plan to fall in line, he’d better sell, and sell to someone Doug can deal with. Doug doesn’t view Bucer’s as a blessing, a business owned by a congregant frequented by his flock, he see’s it as a threat. It’s a part of his empire that’s not under his thumb yet. He couldn’t fire people from Bucer’s like he can from NSA or Logos and that’s a problem he has to fix.
Why does Doug view Gary and his coffee shop as such a threat? I personally believe the answer to that lies in an open letter Gary wrote to Doug earlier last year:
For all of my life up until the age of fifty, I’ve had an aversion to organised religion institutions and when Doug Wilson sent me a document that would make the church I attended an official religious organisation like all the others I had known, everything in my being told me to flee and to have nothing to do with it, but yet, this was my family, these were my brothers and sisters in Christ, these were the people with which so many rich memories had been created over the years, not bad memories like from my past.After the formation of the Confederation of Reformed Evangelicals, I began to quietly distance myself from the leadership of the CRE while at the same time seeking to raise my family in the church, develop friendships and to be involved in selective ministry that was not an official part of the church.
This might seem hypocritical but it’s not. I know paedobaptists who attend credobaptist churches, paedocommunionists who attend credocommunion churches, Calvinists who attend Methodist or Episcopalian churches.Gary did the responsible thing which was to remove himself from having a leadership positions within the CREC while remaining a part of the life and body of the church. This is not the same thing as “being cranky” with the leadership, it just means he wasn’t 100% on the same page with the theology of the church and so he didn’t feel it would be good for him to present and serve as a leader of it.
But Gary wasn’t fully on-board with the formation of a new denomination, a move which has cemented Doug as the head of a nationwide body of believers, not just those in a small town in Idaho. I believe that’s one of the primary reasons Doug went to Gary so soon after he began cleaning house (Duck Schuler was the first). Gary was a visible and prominent member of the church even if he held no official position of leadership and Doug knew he wasn’t committed to his vision. That’s why Doug felt he had to be replaced.
This is not how church leadership should operate. A pastor should not warn against gossip regarding himself while planting the seeds of gossip throughout his congregation. The leaders of a church need to hold themselves accountable to the sheep, to honestly ask if they are lacking in some way, if the church could be serving the congregation and community better than it is. Wilson’s concerns in this conversation, his line of questioning, reveal where his true loyalties lie; with his reputation and power in and over the body. Katie Botkin has taken the testimony of 21 households who have been contacted by CREC elders for voicing concern about the actions and behavior of Doug Wilson and the CREC leadership. Sometimes these people aren’t even under the authority of the elders that approach them. Like Doug Wilson interjecting himself into the personal business of his congregations, they see no limit to the sphere of their influence or control. A true leader of the church is someone who views themselves not as a leader first, but as a servant. Someone more willing to wash the feet of their flock than exert their authority. Just as a husband is supposed to have a sacrificial love for his wife, so the pastor and elders of a church should view their loss as gain for the church. If your church leaders are primarily interested in retaining their own authority and control versus sacrifice for the peace and purity of the church, then it’s time to leave.
Gary knew what was happening:
GG: No, I love Bucer’s. This is my home. And I love it here. And I love my church, I love my community, I love my business, I love my family. My attitude is it’s not if I could go to such-and-such city and make a profit; it’s more if you want to pick me up by the scruff of my neck and take me out of here, then I’ll go wherever you want but otherwise I’m here.
Disclaimer: The original title of this post was “For Peace and Purity” I changed it when I realized I may have gotten that idea while reading Katie Botkin’s post I linked above where the phrase is used several times and as a header.
I also changed the original picture I used when I realized it was the same photo used by the very amusing Truth About the CREC site in their Crammer’s Coffee Shop Scandal post. I highly recommend you visit both sites.