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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)

We Finally Go Public After Doug Phillips’ Lawyer Mouthpiece Refuses Additional Apologies and Efforts at Reconciliation

When Natasha was 15, she decided to enter the Elsie Dinsmore contest by Vision Forum in 2002. Having never written an essay before, she was excited and worked hard on it. She was very pleased when she won first “Runner-up” in her age category (13-18), and that recognition afforded her many opportunities to meet people all over the United States. Inevitably, when we would travel, or especially when we would attend a Vision Forum event, Natasha was often asked if she was the girl who won the Elsie Dinsmore essay contest. Unfortunately, however, Doug Phillips decided that our excommunication should extend to treating Natasha like a heathen and a publican, and sometime after April 1, 2006, Doug dropped her from the list of winners. You can see the cached Vision Forum page of Natasha winning here, and the current Vision Forum page here.

Shortly thereafter, upon receipt of Don Hart’s letter, Mark replied to Don on June 15, 2006, beginning with confessing whatever new sin he was aware of:

There is no doubt I owe your client [Doug Phillips] an apology for the letter sent the week following your client’s deliberate public humiliation of my wife that he, and now you, refers to as “church discipline” followed by excommunication. I should have confronted your client a second time (on a one-to-one level) before sending a letter to every covenanting member of Boerne Christian Assembly. I also owe your client an apology for my actions in November 2005, after previously learning your client, or those vested by your client, related our excommunication to non-members of the covenanting community, which is anything but the “charitable treatment of two excommunicated individuals” you reference in your letter. In each case, I was wrong, it was sin on my part, and I am profoundly sorrowed by my actions. However, though sinful, in neither case do my actions rise to the level of actionable libel or slander.

Mark then gave Don Hart a little history of our situation, giving his opinion that the underlying reason for Doug Phillips excommunicating me is my comment on his blog about voting. Here is why Mark is convinced, as he tells Don Hart:

  • Your client [Doug Phillips] refused to accept my wife’s apology for speaking about him behind his back.
  • Your client has refused to accept a written apology from my wife in May 2005 for sending out the letter of January 2005 to all of BCA.
  • Your client told my wife if I had written the political email, it would have been acceptable.
  • Your client told my wife she would “pay” for her email.
  • Your client’s “leadership team” and hand-picked “counselors” worked with me to develop the areas of counseling for my wife, none of which included adultery or the bed you mention in your letter.
  • Your client personally warned me my wife would be publicly disciplined, which preceded my inclusion in the discipline.

Your client could have been sued for his intentionally tortious conduct, as well as the violation of the counselor/counselee confidentiality relationship violated during the public reading of counseling notes, while your client and members of his leadership team (two deacons) imposed formal church discipline upon my wife and me. However, my understanding of Holy Scripture forbids a Christian from suing another Christian under all circumstances. Furthermore, I wish to underscore that I am referring to man’s lower standard of professional behavior and confidentiality in both the actionable tort-violation and privacy issue – not God’s higher standard of conduct to which an elder must conform.

Mark went on to explain that the excommunication was not only unbiblical, but that Doug Phillips was accountable to no one, and therefore there was no way to appeal the excommunication. Mark listed several verses in Scripture that deal with excommunication and showed that none of them applied to us.

Gal. 1:8 – “But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed.”

We did not preach a different gospel; at no time did I ever claim “sinless perfectionism” or anything similar. Reading Romans 6 and 8 in conjunction with Romans 7 is not a different gospel; it is the same gospel that Paul preached.

I Cor. 16:22 – “If anyone does not love the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be accursed.”

We both love the Lord with all our heart.

I Cor. 5:9-11 – “I wrote to you in my epistle not to keep company with sexually immoral people. Yet I certainly did not mean with the sexually immoral people of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner—not even to eat with such a person.”

We were not excommunicated for being sexually immoral; we were not covetous, idolaters, revilers, drunkards, or extortioners.

Mark then reminded Don Hart of II Cor. 2:6-8, in which Paul is talking about a man in the church who was previously disciplined:

“This punishment which was inflicted by the majority is sufficient for such a man, so that, on the contrary, you ought rather to forgive and comfort him, lest perhaps such a one be swallowed up with too much sorrow. Therefore I urge you to reaffirm your love to him.”

Mark also gave fair warning that Doug Phillips has plenty to lose:

Should your client avail himself of your services in a civil suit, you need to be aware that no matter the result, your client will be tainted with the public image of a pastor, a pastor who is a public figure, suing a parishioner….The media, as well as the majority of female jurors, will be quite interested in a handpicked female counselor’s comments about marital problems always being the fault of the wife.

Another issue Mark clarified for Don Hart on behalf of Doug Phillips was that it was not Mark’s intention at that time to take this story to the internet (push of a button).

If I did not hear from your client, then I would take this issue to the next logical step, that step being sending all the relevant information I had to a minion of America’s pastorate. {Mark is saying that he was going to ask for help from a couple well-known pastors.}

To show how far Mark was willing to go in meeting Doug Phillips’ terms, Mark bent over backwards to effect reconciliation:

It is my fervent prayer and hope that your client and I can be reconciled as brothers in Christ. This is my desired end state, for I love your client, I respect his devotion to God, and I appreciate his ministry to the family. To accomplish this, I am willing to take two steps backward by dropping binding arbitration from the current discussion. If your client is willing to have Rev. Bob Welch function as an intermediary between us, then I am willing to meet with Rev. Welch and your client, even though Rev. Welch gave his approval to the excommunication. I am willing to begin the meeting by humbly apologizing to your client and asking for his forgiveness for the two sins articulated in this letter. I am even willing to keep this meeting private and never speak of it, if we can come to a mutually agreeable outcome, thereby allowing your client to address this issue, as he desires, with the congregants of BCA.

Mark asked three things of Doug Phillips in return: that he drop the excommunication and restore fellowship with Boerne Christian Assembly members, but not restore our membership; that Doug write a letter releasing us to attend another church in good standing; and that Doug Phillips would give his assurance that he would never try to excommunicate someone again without an ecclesiastical court.

Mark ended his letter to Don Hart with this:

Of course, I would prefer your client and I fall upon each others’ necks and publicly apologize to one another in front of BCA.

Following a lengthy phone call with Don Hart a few weeks later, in which Don insisted that the excommunication was biblical, although he could not articulate why, nothing was resolved, so Mark decided to try one last time. This last letter of July 31, 2006, was quite different:

After much prayer and study, … we do not fully understand or comprehend what BCA alleges our offenses to be.

In the disciplinary action letter of January 23, 2005, we are both accused of:

  1. Unconfessed sin
  2. Lack of repentance
  3. Bitterness
  4. Lack of love
  5. Jurisdictional abandonment and/or usurpation
  6. Using children as weapons against each other

As individuals, [Mark] is accused of:

  1. Unforgiveness and lovelessness*
  2. Not being under authority
  3. Threats of divorce*
  4. Anger*
  5. Lack of family leadership*

Jennifer is accused of:

  1. Rebellion against her husband and local church
  2. Gossip spreading
  3. Mean-spirited treatment of others
  4. Refusing to acknowledge sins
  5. Claiming a near sinlessness

(Note: 4 of 5 of (Mark’s) personal sins are marked with an asterisk (*). I am fully aware of these sins, I have publicly admitted my guilt, and have repented to God, my wife, and my family.)

The following is what we need to know in order to begin to understand the totality of the sin BCA says we have committed, in order to confess said sin and repent:

  • What are these biblically defined unconfessed sins that we committed?
  • What verses define the behavior as sin?
  • When and where, specifically, did the sins occur?
  • Who was or were the witnesses to each specific instance of sin?
  • What did the witnesses do, for each specific sin, to confront Jennifer or Mark in the spirit of Matthew 18?
  • What counseling (by whom, when, where, etc.) was provided for each sin?
  • What are the who, where, and when of each specific refusal to repent from each instance of a specified act of unrepentant sin?
  • Which specific sins rise to the level of an excommunicable offense?
  • What are BCAs definitions of “biblical repentance, restitution, and restoration to the body,” as stated in the excommunication email?

We take this excommunication very seriously, we want this issue resolved, and we wish to be reconciled to our brothers and sisters. However, since our right relationship with God is priority number one, then we need to know the specifics of our … behavior … for which God’s representatives are holding us accountable in order to be reconciled to God and to our brothers and sisters in Christ.”

Mark asked for a reply by August 15, 2006, two weeks later.

When Mark did not hear anything from Don Hart for over a month, he was courteous enough to call him up and ask how the answers were coming along. Don Hart explained that he had been out of town and hadn’t been able to get the letter to Doug Phillips. While it was true that Don Hart was out of town, however, according to Doug Phillips’ own website, Don Hart was out of town with Doug himself, being a speaker at the Vision Forum Entrepreneurial Boot Camp during the month of August, 2006. Even though not delivering legal communications to your client can be considered malpractice, being gracious, Mark asked if three more weeks would be sufficient for Doug Phillips to provide an answer. Nevertheless, the mutually agreed upon deadline of September 29, 2006, came and went with no word from either Don Hart or Doug Phillips. And there has been no word since.

All we were asking was what would be expected in any court of law. Can you imagine a prosecuting attorney going before a judge and accusing the defendant of breaking the law? The judge would ask, “But what did he do?” The attorney would respond, “Well, he is violent and abusive.” Judge: “But what exactly did he do?” Attorney: “Well, he is violent and abusive.” Judge: “Prosecutor, he surely must have committed some crime. On what date, at what time, when, and where did the incident take place?” Attorney: “Well, I really don’t have that information, Your Honor. I just know that he is violent and abusive.” Judge: “Who did he abuse? How was he violent? What exactly did he do?” Attorney: “Well, all I know is that he was violent and abusive.” What judge would ever convict anyone based on that testimony? And yet that is exactly the kind of testimony that was used to excommunicate and discipline me. All I want is specifics. How can I possibly repent if I don’t know what I’ve done in the first place?

We were in a catch-22. We could publicly confess to broad, general sins we were accused of, both real and false, pay restitution, and put ourselves under the authority of a sole, unordained elder who had already abused us for five years. Or we could pretend that this whole situation didn’t exist and go to another church. Or we could just stay home and isolate ourselves. We prayed about what to do next.

It seemed that it was time to ask for help, so Mark asked me to call Dr. S.M. Davis, who had such an impact on our family and was a business associate of Doug Phillips. I called, but Dr. Davis doesn’t counsel people outside his own church anymore, so his daughter spoke with me. She did not understand what “excommunication” meant, so she thought it was merely a case of forgiving and going on with life. While we have forgiven all involved, however, that does not release those responsible from repentance and it does not change the fact that Doug Phillips has a track record of hurting many people and will continue to do so if he does not repent.

Shortly thereafter, a friend talked to us about our need to be in a church. We believed that we were putting ourselves under proper authority by staying home, since we were excommunicated and told that we were to be treated as heathens and publicans, but this friend gently rebuked us that since the excommunication was both unbiblical and without due process, we were in fact under no obligation to Doug Phillips regarding it and he encouraged us to find a church home. We have been attending church for a few months now.

In God’s providence, Ministry Watchman contacted us a while ago and asked if we would be willing to go public with our story, promising us anonymity. After much prayer and checking them out very carefully, we agreed to take the risk of telling our story to the public, in the hopes that we could warn fellow believers about this wolf in sheep’s clothing. As you can see, Doug Phillips immediately allowed others to expose our real names, so the protection offered by Ministry Watchman was no longer of any real use. We are grateful for Ministry Watchman’s continued support of our family, but it has been good for me to write this all out myself.

For the last two years, we have prayed every day about this situation, especially that our hearts would be right before God and that we would forgive Doug Phillips and those at Boerne Christian Assembly. We have forgiven them. We have sought to submit to their judgment even though we knew our treatment was unjust both in the substance of the accusation and in the lack of due process. Because Doug Phillips is the sole (unordained) elder at BCA, he is totally unaccountable in the church as well as outside of it, making a normal appeal to a higher church court impossible. We still tried to be reconciled as the Bible commands, working on an ad hoc basis with four elders from another church for 14 months. We wrote letters of apology for even the smallest offenses that we could think of, but Doug Phillips refused to forgive us of even those offenses. We wrote letters requesting explanations, but Doug Phillips refused to answer our questions. We offered to go to arbitration and mediation, but were met with threats of a lawsuit instead. You can see by Doug Phillips’ personal silence himself on the web that he will not answer us and that he has left us with only two options: slink away silently or go public.

We do not believe that slinking away silently is a biblical option. We are commanded to expose the evil deeds of darkness. And we are commanded to warn others of danger. That’s what we’ve been doing these past couple of weeks. Now the outcome of this situation is, as it always has been, in the hands of the Lord.

For a final analysis of one last issue, see Jen’s Response.

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Although this is where our story ends for today, this is not where this blog ends. I will be providing commentary and analysis on not only different aspects related to our story, but also responding in a Christ-like manner to my detractors, who desperately tried to get my focus off my story.

I welcome questions and comments regarding everything on this blog in my story. I pray that God will give each reader discernment regarding Doug Phillips as you read my story, and I will do my best to clarify anything that is still unclear.

Thank you for your time and consideration in reading my story. May God bless you and your family.

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