My Reply to Fisher’s Story
It is late; I need to spend some time with my wife. So here’s the rough draft. I’ll edit a little bit tomorrow:I want to now make preliminary comment to the new story at Ministry Watchman about Doug Phillips and Jen Epstein. Unfortunately, I am very busy at the moment and do not have much time to labor at analyzing what we have so far. However, given how good the Watchman has been at working up a lynching, I feel that I must begin making comment.
I am very saddened to see the kind of reporting only degenerating from the first post – as found in the thread of the first post and now this second lengthy post. I was assuming that the first post was just some kind of provocation to get Phillips to file a law suit, and then present careful reasoning, humble argumentative appeal, and rigorous argument. However, this is clearly not what the Watchman had in their arsenal. What we see is a mischaracterizing of their opponents response, many mischievous rhetorical maneuvers, general emotional hype, and a startling absence of confirmatory evidence. There has also been complete silence on a number of issues that have already been addressed by their opponents, such as strong denials of particular allegations from BCA (e.g. whether Doug Phillips had any communication with Ligonier about the law suit). Whatever credibility gained in the Ligonier issue is quickly eroding, and my association with Ministry Watchman will certain be harmful to many of the very different kinds of labors here in the Wood the last year. Because of this last reality, I wanted to apologize for those who have been vindicated by Pooh’s Think and who share our worries about Doug Wilson. If I would have foreseen this coming I would have closed down commenting on Pooh’s Think two months ago. There were no doubt weaknesses and blind spots that contributed to where we find ourselves now; although I do not know precisely where they are at the moment, and want to let you know that I desire to discover what they are and confess them. For the time being however, please expect this post and what might follow as my attempt to continue our desire for sincere truth seeking and accountability via just, equitable, and rational standards. We certainly are not perfect in this respect, but the chasm between those who labor in the Wood and Ministry Watchman’s new soap opera about what happened to an abused woman many years ago is two great to remain silent about our stance.
Please know that there were no off-line factors preceding this new story that have motivated my direction in this. In fact, I was attempting to hope for the best while offering my sincere worry once the first post went up. I even attempted defending Ministry Watchman to a friend of mine here in the Wood. However, the facts are too consistent and glaring at this point. It was no doubt a shrewd move for Frank Vance to distance himself from this story in order to preserve whatever respect might be left for his work on the Ligonier law suit:
As I’m sure that most of our readers now know Ministry Watchman is now actively exposing another ecclesiastical tyrant, Doug Phillips. I’m not doing any of the writing on that story, just assisting where I can. Charlie Fisher is handling that story, and there promises to be a lot more significant things to come. But I want my readers to know that if and when anything significant arises regarding Ligonier I won’t neglect to report on it.
Vance was at the right place at the right time, and dealing with a shamelessly corrupt corporation. He was able to report in real time in his blog about the very story his blog was creating. We had many important primary documents, to which Vance stuck to fairly closely. Vance operated like a truth seeking journalist, eager for discovery. His very practice of reporting the story was his way of finding out just how corrupt Ligonier was. Certainly, there was a bit of unfortunate moments of shrill emotion and unfounded claims within the comment threads; but by and large the reporting attempted to be judicially careful and stick to facts. Because of this, I was able to sort through the issues in a fairly subtle, thorough, and argumentative manner.
And so I am saddened to see Vance partake in the emotional hype on this new story. A more judicial judgment was made by an eyewitness to all of this, the Epstein’s daughter:
The truth on both sides will one day be revealed, and I seriously doubt it’s what anybody expects.
(I do not recall any party denying that this was in fact the Epstein’s daughter; correct me if I am wrong)
Indeed. The kinds of claims made against Doug Phillips and his wife, along with countless of ugly innuendos running in every which direction, are very serious. And there are laws in place to protect each and every one of us in a perfectly equal fashion. The smell of intentional libel is written all over this story and this time around most of the allegations have been either explicitly or implicitly denied in a very firm and judicial fashion from BCA. Given the hype and lack of evidence presented from Ministry Watchman, and given the severity of some of their claims, the BCA was certainly under no obligation to offer anything further than the statement they put out. If the Watchman is unable to present strong evidence against the claims made in the BCA, and if the Watchman is unable to present strong evidence for its own allegations, then that is where the judicial facts stand. Further, the response blogs “Fed Up” and “Still Fed Up” were not set up to simply ridicule the Epstein’s daughter, contra Vance’s convenient claim, and they have offered some very serious challenges to Ministry Watchman, challenges better grounded than the Watchman’s allegations against Doug Phillips.
For those of you who have gotten caught up in Fischer’s manipulative story, please just stand back and ask yourself what reasonably established facts you are grounding your judgments against Phillips in. I think you will find that most of your judgments, if in fact you have formulated some judgments, are in fact grounding in very little if in nothing at all. Period. I really shouldn’t need to say anything further than that. If you find yourself saying, “but how can you justify Phillips saying X or doing Y,” I’m afraid you are simply going to have to stop yourself and ask what grounds you have for thinking said X or did Y to begin with. If you boil out the actual facts that have been reasonably established, or those facts apparently not disputed by either party, you are not left with much to tell any kind of story at all. In fact, once left with these facts, I think you have prima facie evidence for the truth of BCA’s point of view. This is particularly noteworthy in their consistent and professional communications over the period of many years. They have a general story – albeit a bit of an implicit story – that is both plausible and highly coherent.
But this leaves us with the only hope for Fisher’s story as is. If there are little established facts then we can perhaps consider the plausibility and coherence of the Fischer’s story. I don’t think Fischer has a right to leave us with just this, but let’s grant this as a way to find warrant in Fischer’s story telling. Unfortunately, the story is in many places prima facie implausible and at times woefully incoherent – and I will illustrate this a bit in what follows. The rhetorical force found in this reporting, is I’m afraid, grounded in mild forms of deception and appeal to the emotional hot buttons of the crowd. The techniques are little different from what you might find when a leader whips up a lynch mob or when the bad guy gets the village men to peruse the Beast who stole the beauty. It is little different from the Mayor’s sermons in Chocolat, or even Wilson’s attempt at generating fire against me. As I have time, I hope to explore examples of this at the Watchman.
There is one particular discussion that occurred that could have been an example of helpful, argumentative discourse. However, what happened here is I think just further illustration of the problem. Corrie asked Fischer whether the requirements he posted where meant to be static principles for all time and all ladies in the church or rather emergency requirements given the highly volatile nature of the Epstein’s household. There are many curious things that have followed this good question. First, Fisher had to do investigating for an answer to this basic question, which seems odd for a journalist who has just prepared a series of posts on this story. And then the only tangible reason he gives for his conclusion that they were in fact meant for all time – after a vague reference to a number of sources—is likely testimony directly from Jen Epstein. Fischer informs us that after excommunication was lifted, Epstein was again to make her “promise to not ‘Speak ill of her husband or family matters to third parties,’ even if her life was in danger.” But this is evidence that all the requirements were not permanent (!), since “to third parties” is clearly not the problem you were questioning, but rather “any questioning” “to her husband.” If this was all she had to promise, then the requirements Corrie was primarily referring to were temporary – from the evidence we have in any case. And I think it is pretty standard in counseling that a woman in this situation is not supposed to go talking to third parties about gripes against their husband. Further, why is the “if her life was in danger” not in quotation marks? Was this just somehow implied in a way other than direct verbal statement? More importantly, she was supposed to call Beal at anytime. How does this one fact from Fisher line up with the former? I think it simply doesn’t. She can call Beal anytime but she can never speak to a third party even when her life is in danger?
Finally, consider what happens in this second post. Now we come to find out that there was a list of guidelines that came later, clearly supplanting the original guidelines Fisher has already directed us to. But even in this later document, the statement attached to a similar guideline that Jen Epstein chaffed under stated explicitly “for the present time.” And based on even Fischer’s story, and what I’ve seen of the Epsteins’ myself, this new guideline was not outrageous advice. Didn’t Fisher already have this primary document? If he didn’t, why didn’t he? If he did, then certainly he would have had clear evidence to answer Corrie’s question far differently than he did. This is just one item folks; my claim is that this sort of strangeness is strewn throughout the reporting and following anonymous comments.
I’m out of time and space, so let me leave you with an example of how I think we should all be reading this kind of stuff. Here are some various comments I made while skimming this second post for the first time. This was written as an email to a friend today. First I deal with the primary documents and then with the body of the post:
1. Jen’s freely initiated and very bold letter to Doug over voting was surely not a sign that she was an abused woman in a patriachalist cult.
2. Later guidelines: I’ve already addressed this above.
3. The last two BCA documents. Very solid. Their case is highly coherent and it makes far better sense out of the story Fischer is trying to tell.
BODY OF LETTER
(Fisher’s story is in italics. My comments are in brackets: [ ])
it is now time to allow our real names to be used for the remainder of the story. We think this step is important
[The other web site has already revealed their names, but look at the intended rhetorical effect here.]
even if it increases the likelihood that Doug Phillips will carry out his repeated threats to sue us.
[Doug Phillips has repeatedly threatened to sue Ministry Watchman? Why is an allegation made like this without supporting evidence when this would be such a crucial fact to ground their story? Does the Watchman want blind assent even when they have simple evidence? Or do they not have any evidence at all?]
Now we will no longer be “Jared and Mary Jackson,” but “Mark and Jen Epstein.”Although Boerne Christian Assembly has issued a statement that attacks Ministry Watchman and the Epsteins for reporting their story, while also urging the public to ignore it, neither Boerne Christian Assembly nor Doug Phillips has denied any of the essential facts of the narrative as summarized above. Futhermore, Doug Phillips has declined Ministry Watchman’s invitation, extended over a week ago, to supply corrective information if needed,
[He was given eleven minutes by one person’s calculation and under two hours on another; and further, there was a quick response from the BCA. This is a false charge. Never denied “any of the essential facts of the narrative”? Their statement implicitly denies almost all of it.]
as well as supporting documentation. So we continue our narrative today, while emphasizing that we continue to welcome input from Doug Phillips if he sees the need for any corrections to this or future articles.
[Still Fed Up has raised numerous problems already that they refuse to address; rather, they just slander the nature of the content of Still Fed Up. And as I have argued above, given the unsubstantiated nature of this narrative and the BCA’s otherwise presumed innocence, nothing further than their strong denial of allegations was necessary.]
Jen agreed to meet with Doug and Beall Phillips after church one Sunday, even though that presented a hardship with Jen’s disabled daughter needing to be in the meeting as well.
[This tripe is for junior high; after church is a hardship? Disabled? And where’s the husband? Wasn’t it the “couples” that were to meet? It took 8 months for Jen to find an opportunity to speak to a member in her small congregation? Does this seem even possible much less plausible?]
Jen reports that one of her first questions to Beall Phillips was why she had continued taking communion every week during the last six to eight weeks, knowing that Beall had offended Jen.
[This confirms the character sketch of Epstein from the BCA’s reply; Beall dare take communion when she knew that Jen had a complaint? Didn’t Beall initiate this process to begin with? And why would Beall already know Jen had gripes before hearing anything directly from Jen? So Phillips wanted Jen to tell them everything? Isn’t this another initiation on the Phillips’ part and not Jen’s? And again, where is the husband? Also: Jen is writing strong emails to her pastor about tangential political issues while Phillips is attempting to save her marriage even on Fischer’s story? There are many incoherent themes running here. Women have to have their husband say everything for them and yet Fischer continuously presents Jen as dealing directly and alone?]
She also had no real access to Doug Phillips to talk with him, even though Boerne Christian Assembly was just over 100 members at this point.
[Is this a joke? Certainly, this is the kind of implausible statement that needs substantiation in at least the form of explanatory narrative.]
After the initial greetings were over, Doug Phillips asked where they should start, so Jen politely asked why Beall Phillips was present. Doug Phillips replied that she was there to help Jen. Beall Phillips also assured Jen that she was only there to help, and Jen agreed for Beall to remain. As a gesture of peace, Doug Phillips asked Beall to leave anyway.
[This is once again consistent with BCA’s reply; the tyrant is Doug but Jen can’t stand the thought of meeting with Beall, another woman but is fine meeting with Doug? What did Beall do? The only thing we know of is what happened in the first meeting; but the first meeting was rhetorically presented as Doug abusing Jen, Doug the patriachical one man show isolated for attack; but here Jen is fine being in the room with Doug but not Beall? Further, Doug kindly grants her request, a request that appears highly unreasonable even on Fischer’s story? This is further evidence that he is a tyrant?]
such as how Mark had nearly killed his whole family almost two weeks prior, how he talked constantly of killing people, even showing an email he had written with specifics of how he was fantasizing of killing someone in a particular group, how he talked of killing in general on a daily basis, and how he taught the children specific methods for killing certain people. Jen also related how he would shove her and the children out of his way, especially when they tried to greet him when he came home from work, as Doug Phillips so strongly encouraged families to do.
[What? This is getting creepy, and has no safe place in this narrative. They were a nice Christian family entering the church and a nice Christian family a couple years after excommunication, but Mark tried to murder his family and talked all the time of killing people in the interim? And it is BCA that is responsible for their daughter’s problems? Is there anything coherent with this narrative? I have demanded evidence and they promised. But still, no evidence. Rather, they give an incoherent story. The BCA’s story on the other hand is very coherent and typical.]
the only follow-up she received from Doug was an email the following Monday, signed by unordained “elder” Doug Phillips and Deacons Mo Gill and Bob Sarratt, directing Jen to undertake mandatory counseling sessions with Reba Short and Beall Phillips, who were to counsel Jen about a list of specfic sins, mostly directed toward her husband, at the offices of Vision Forum.
[A list of specific sins? Did they make them up out of thin air? The rhetoric elsewhere is that they never had a list of specific sins.]
It was immediately apparent that the theme of these three counseling sessions was that since it was always the wife’s fault when there were problems in the marriage, it must, therefore, be Jen’s fault that Mark was so angry.
[This is not clear even within Fischer’s story. They were independently addressing Mark the entire time, which is one fact that the first post deceptively covered over in the preliminary rhetoric. Further, according to Fisher, other leaders where already asking Jen if it was a mental health/physical problem. And Mark was the constant object of counseling and accountability.]
Another issue arose during the first two-hour session — a doctrinal difference between Beall Phillips and Jen. Jen stated that she fully believed in verses that talk about keeping God’s commandments if we love Him, and that God wouldn’t tell us to do something He didn’t really expect us to do. Beall Phillips then stated that the doctrine of total depravity meant that we couldn’t help but sin all the time, and that Beall herself sinned at least every half hour, if not more often. Jen stated that she believed that sin no longer had any power over her, that she was no longer a slave to sin. In other words, a Christian is capable of sinning, but never has to give in to that sin; provision is made for victory of the new nature over the old nature through the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit
[She is arguing with Beall over doctrinal verbal disputes at this stage now? What happened to her unwillingness to be in the same room with her? And what happened to the specific list of sins? ]
Beall Phillips expressed fear for Jen’s soul, and Jen wondered why she was being counseled for “sinning” if she couldn’t help but sin all the time anyway.
[Beall’s doctrine even stated here seems typical and straightforward; this suggests that Jen was arguing unnecessarily and contentiously. Mind you, I say “suggests.” I am speaking on an objective evidential level through here and none of this should imply what I have concluded about Beall or Jen.]
From her perspective, Jen believed that she had never claimed sinlessness or perfection, but was not able to persuade Beall, who continually haranged Jen for her “heretical” beliefs.
[But they just quoted an entire paragraph. Where is the “heretical” word? Isn’t this story evidencing the fact that Jen is claiming a kind of perfection related to the sins she is confronted with based on a doctrinal stance she is apparently zealous to defend? If Beall had any evidence at all that Jen helped provoke Mark at all, Beall’s argument here would have been very standard and evangelical. And where is Mark in all this? Did he never suggest that his wife ever did anything that helped provoke his anger? Is that plausible? Is Jen human or walking on water?]
By the third meeting, tired of what she felt was Beall Phillips’ harsh and critical attitude
[They just presented there primary document, the second citation thus far, and it gives almost no credence to this allegation. This full quote does not evidence a harsh attitude.]
She began to wonder if maybe Beall Phillips was the one who needed marriage counseling.
[This is an unfortunate inference at this stage, and further evidences the BCA’s statement about Jen’s character trait. Even in Fischer’s story, we have no evidence of marital dysfunction in the Phillips’ household – outside of the fact that Beall caries a cell phone in her traditional role of stay at home wife(!) Of course, Beall’s cell phone was also for counseling purposes we come to find out.]
Jen states that, although she didn’t really feel what she had said was gossip, she agreed to apologize anyway, to keep the peace.
[Then what was it? Wasn’t this an informal setting and an unnecessary reply about Phillips’ abuse? Wouldn’t there have been a more natural setting to continue expressing concern? And again, the context is Jen teaching others – recommending a book to someone who said they had experience in a particular area. This story is simply incoherent and highly implausible as is.]
Jen immediately went up to him and asked if she could speak to him before they took communion, as she believed the Bible commanded one to resolve differences if possible before partaking. Doug Phillips initially refused to speak with Jen, but when she stood her ground, he saw that the service could be disrupted and finally agreed to go outside for a minute. Jen then apologized for “gossiping” about Doug Phillips and asked if he would forgive her.
[What? She does not believe she gossiped, but she is going to interrupt a formal worship service, demanding that Phillips’ hear her apology for doing something she didn’t do? And she is going to do this based on her private theological opinion about communion, implicitly debating the issue contentiously with her pastor in practice? If this was a story of a man or if Phillips was not already known as patriarchalist, it is hard to believe anyone would be left listening to this.]
Jen reports that Doug Phillips then replied, “No, I will not forgive you then” (for gossiping), threatening her: “You’re going to pay for this.”
[Oh yes. That is believable Fischer. Jen just tells another woman at the church that her pastor is an abuser and the pastor merely hopes for an apology for gossip. Then, he threatens her over a private email about politics: “you are going to pay for this”? Not a likely story. We need evidence to believe something as wild as this.]
For example, Section B of the statement reads that Mark and Jen “collectively received hundreds of hours of counsel from leaders and brethren,” when in reality, Jen received six hours of “counsel” from Beall Phillips and Reba Short and four hours of being told how wicked she was from Doug Phillips — in all her five years of attendance at Boerne Christian Assembly. Mark, on the other hand, at his own initiative, had been in a personal accountability relationship the previous year with Richard, and he also received one hour of counseling weekly from Bob Welch the first year they attended Boerne Christian Assembly. You will see as you look at the document that there are many such instances in which Mark and Jen are lumped together, although the facts should have applied to one or the other.
[I am not sure about the importance of this point. However, it seems very clear here – and consistent with the BCA’s statement – that Jen was not marked out as the problem. Most the time and attention was given to Mark with formal and regular meetings. Again, the story is incoherent.]
Mark reports that Doug and Beall Phillips were so moved by this letter of repentance that they both had tears streaming down their face. They also both assured Mark that this was evidence of Jen’s true and full repentance. Despite this interaction, Doug Phillips still chose to include Jen’s pre-Christian sin in the disciplinary statement.
[Once again, Fischer gives evidence of the Phillips’ emotion and sincerity, not their cruelty.]
Section C of the disciplinary statement also rebukes Jen for “broad charges about Mark’s propensity to harm his family … and refus[ing] to cease and desist from such behavior even when doing it in the presence of BCA elders who have confronted you for such.” Of course, at the time, there was only one BCA elder, so the statement could not have been true. But even if there had been two elders, it would still be a case in which Jen was disciplined for refusing to cease and desist from asking her elder for help when she felt her family was in imminent danger. Although the Statement includes a laundry list of charges of sin against Jen such as “lack of love,” it did not include any specific examples of the alleged sins. Jen immediately asked, “Can you give me even one example of any of these broad charges? How can I change if I don’t know what it is I am doing wrong?” There was no answer.
[But Fischer quotes one of the charges in this very paragraph; and he claims that it is inaccurate due to the number of elders referred to? So it “can’t” be right?]
In other words, Mark and Jen were allowed to attend the worship service, but could not talk to anyone, and had to leave immediately afterwards.
[“in other words”? I’d say. This does not follow at all.]
After the judgment was announced to the Epsteins, Doug Phillips then asked if either Mark or Jen wanted to “appeal” this discipline. Recognizing that many of the charges made against him were in fact valid, Mark stated that he just wished to confess his sins before the congregation, but Jen said that she would definitely “appeal.”
[Her husband wanted to confess his sins to the congregation and Jen wants to take the opportunity to prove how blameless she is? She wants her husband to change and be held accountable, and this is the nature of her response?]
The story was essentially the same as Jen’s, but it was presented as though Jen had jumped at the opportunity to be a gossip.
[“as though”? Jen didn’t jump at a chance to tell this story about Phillips’? Phillips wants this story read to the congregation, accurately reflecting Jen’s point of view? This certainly doesn’t make it sound that Phillips wanted to cover up the truth of Jen’s point of view.]
Again, I am not “taking sides” here but simply trying to analyze the evidence Fischer has given us, the evidential and the narrative forms. I am not claiming that Jen is clearly wrong; I am claiming she needs either a better prosecuting attorney or else needs to pull her blog and seek pastoral counseling.