I have gone back and forth whether to write anything after the Presbytery of the Southeast (PSE) trial on January 15 &16th, regarding the charges against Michael Spangler. There could be multiple motivations in doing so, and I needed time to consider what it would actually accomplish—or more accurately put, I have no expectation that it will accomplish anything. The officers of the PSE have made their ruling. I have no agency in that. I still am wondering how in the world I have gotten in such a situation, and that/if/why God would have me to follow through with it. And frankly, I am just weary. This whole process and experience with ministers and elders in Genevan Commons and with the PSE has been so devaluing: the fact that I had to publicize it for it to be addressed, that only two church officers were held accountable, the committee’s actions and report, the charges they took over and reduced, the trial, the contempt they had for me there, to this outcome. The message they sent was clear.
After reporting on the way this has been handled, an internationally known expert on abuse reached out to me saying that I am under gross spiritual abuse, and that is putting it mildly. This is my motivation in writing about it, the underlying question that needs to be in the forefront: what message has the church sent to any woman who speaks truth and looks to the officers in the OPC for help?
This is a plea for reform that has little hope behind it. And yet I feel compelled to use the voice that I do have to say what is painfully obvious to me. Sure, this is about justice; but it is about more than that. A few questions that arise reveal that what is really needed is reform:
- Why do I need to ask for justice?
- What theology about men and women is being taught, promoted, or tolerated by officers in Reformed denominations?
- How important are the qualifications for elders and preachers?
- How do those in power respond to the vulnerable?
- How are victims impacted by the decisions and process of the system?
Charge #1 against Mr. Spangler is for offenses against his brothers, for “sowing discord in the church by publicly disparaging the governance of the Presbytery.” In the charge, it notes that he violated the 5th commandment. The specification was the letter that Mr. Spangler and Mr. Anderson wrote to the congregants of their church, written about in my last update.
Charge #2 against Mr. Spangler is for his offense against me and Rachel Miller (reduced from the original charges which included the names of others, particularly absent was Valerie Hobbs, the third named woman in the “feminist army” that Spangler called out) for “publicly reviling and detracting from the good names of Mrs. Aimee Byrd & Mrs. Rachel Miller.” In this charge, it was noted that he violated the 9th commandment. The specification reduced the years of reviling, the harassment, the plotting, the sermons, and the 5 articles written against me and others to merely two words which Spangler wrote: “ruthless wolves.” That’s it. They had piles of evidence of abuse. That sets the course of the trial.
In both charges, it stated that these offenses “seriously disturb the peace, purity, and unity of the church.”
No one overseeing the charges in the PSE reached out to the victims when forming their charges or to prepare for the trial. However, mine and Rachel Miller’s sessions were contacted and asked that they cite us as witnesses in the trial for the defense. Both of our sessions declined.
During the trial, Spangler plead guilty for charge #1. He gave an apology with his plea.
He plead not guilty for charge #2. And I was informed by several who attended the trial that my name was continuously detracted on the presbytery floor, as if I was the one on trial. There was momentum building that the real problem is me and my “teaching.” Few men objected to this (but I am thankful for those who did, against the tide). Some were actually shaken about how this is even acceptable behavior during a church trial. Reading about it is horrible enough, but being there and seeing it makes you feel the filth.
16 church officers voted “not guilty” on charge #2. 23 voted guilty. And yet, I heard that much of the consensus revealed in the speeches and testimony of the trial was that Mr. Spangler was fighting a good cause and a real danger in the church (me and my so-called feminist teaching, “the biggest evil of our time”). Many of those who voted guilty thought Mr. Spangler was right about me and Rachel Miller, but he crossed a line. This recap given by one of the officers there to his Sunday School class concurs.
Now for the censures: For charge #1, Mr. Spangler received a definite two year suspension from office for two years. His fellow brothers exhorted him to show fruits of repentance on charge #1 during his 2-year suspension.
For Charge #2, he was admonished, the mildest option of censure available—not even a rebuke, which is the second mildest out of 5 options (the others are definite suspension, indefinite suspension, and excommunication).
The difference between these censures communicates, again, who is valued in the OPC. For the last two weeks, I have been sitting in the soup of devaluation, feeling the yuck of how the PSE crushed my dignity and worth. Over and over. They continue to lob public shame on me. I am to sit in the humiliation of what is “the real problem” so they can hold on to their legitimacy. The charge includes reference to the “heinous nature of which is aggravated by Mr. Spangler’s office as a minister of the Word.” And yet I sit in the contradiction for them to call his guilt heinous and not to censure him properly. He was not only destructive to the church in charge #1. The difference is that he was destructive to people without power, the people in their care. What is heinous is that the charges were reduced to two words. What’s heinous is that my name and others can be further trashed on the presbytery floor. What’s heinous is that officers with the authority to discipline do not get at the heart of the matter. And what is heinous is that this is all done in the name of God.
Shane Anderson seems to have evaded a trial by demitting office. He has stated that he is now worshipping at a CREC church. And yet he was Michael Spangler’s counsel at the trial. And Spangler has now stated that he will be worshipping at a Free Church of Scotland Continuing church, the pastor of which participated in the Genevan Commons discussions and defended Spangler at the trial.
Michael Spangler has not appealed in the time allotted for him. So, now I guess this is all supposed to be the final word of justice. And I’m left feeling like collateral damage with the heart of the matter never even being addressed. And seeing no repentance anywhere. This isn’t merely about the offenses of Michael Spangler. This is a whole infected system. And as a friend pointed out, their procedures, their orthodoxy, didn’t fulfill the most basic of Christian duties. They missed love and therefore missed Christ. So without reform, it will continue. I feel like the clobbered bride in the night scene of the Song of Songs, seeking help from the guardians of the walls while desperately seeking to find the One whom her soul loves.
Thankfully, I learn from the bride. My eyes are on the Groom. If all of our eyes were on the Groom, we would see that Christ delights in his people. He does not shame them because he bore our shame, and our guilt. We should be able to confess our sins and seek forgiveness and reconciliation. This is core gospel stuff. We wouldn’t want to heap shame on others. We would not want to control others. We certainly wouldn’t participate or tolerate a pattern of gross spiritual abuse against others. And we could critically engage in our differences in a healthy way.
The hope that I do have is due to some officers in the OPC who have reached out, ministering to me, and wanting to be a part of change. Additionally, the signers of the Open Letter sent a strong message, calling those members of Genevan Commons involved in abusive behavior to repent, saying:
Such sins are an outrage and are extremely grievous in the sight of God. They bring shame and reproach on the church of Jesus Christ, and they encourage a culture of disrespect and derision in the very body which is to be known for its love (John 13:35). Rather than honoring women the way that Christ has honored his precious bride, these men have encouraged each other (and indirectly, the rest of the church and the world now that these words are made public) to disparage women.
As Wade Mullen teaches in his book, abuse is a community concern. But it costs to address it. I am the one paying that cost, along with the many other “wounded warriors” as Scott McKnight and Laura Barringer name it. Those who aim to be neutral need to understand that they are actively hurting Christ’s body with that decision—“People who chose to remain neutral give a safe passage to lies….Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented” (Mullen, 180).
This is why I am writing.
“Because abuse breeds in secrecy, confronting it is doing the opposite of what it wants you to do: confronting abuse is seeing it when it wants you to look away, making sense of what you are facing when it wants you to accept confusion; opposing it when it wants you to remain converted; speaking when it wants you to be silent.” (Mullen, 173)
Abuse is enslaving, which is the opposite of the gospel.
So I am pleading with my denomination, asking that question directly: how do you treat women who speak truth to you? Is that a gift? Or a threat? I have done a lot of reflecting about how I want to use my voice as a victim, and how vulnerable and hard that is, while encouraging others to do the same. I’ve heard from numerous women (and men) who left the OPC because they had no support. And now their abuse cannot be formally handled, as they are no longer members in the OPC. The abusers remain. The system remains. It cost them less to leave. And yet they carry that heavy weight of devaluation and of knowing it’s happening to others.
The irony is that the whole reason I have found myself in this nighttime scene is because I tried to use my voice theologically to help the church. I was branded as dangerous. Certainly, churches need to be vigilant in guarding orthodoxy. We have our confessions of the faith that help us here. I am not saying that every opinion and teaching has equal validity. There is a difference between critique and suppression or abuse. Not critiquing errant teaching is also a sign of devaluing a person. But how do we treat those whom we disagree with within the bounds of our confessions? Do we have nothing to learn from others?
Church officers in the OPC, would you consider seeking out the wisdom of those who have suffered under your governance for training pastors and elders about the dynamics of abuse and for nurturing a culture where the vulnerable are cared for, where their stories can be told, where their voices matter, and where their dignity matters? Would you consider learning from those who see with different eyes, recognizing that your perspective may have some blind spots? Would you investigate the theology of man and woman that is being taught by your pastors and destroying the dignity and personhood of both the men and women in your churches? Would you hold abusers accountable, even when they are your friends? Would you examine the process of addressing sin, regarding how it impacts victims of abuse? Would you look at infected presbyteries—do you have a way of addressing that?
Would you acknowledge the Rizpahs of our time, keeping watch over the bodies of collateral damage from abusive power (2 Sam. 21)? Would you in a sense “sit shiva” with us? Would you join us in calling for repentance? Would you help keep the vultures away?
This whole experience with church government has been traumatic. The expert was right—it is gross spiritual abuse. I have come out worse after having sought help. And all along, I am told to trust in the process (The very slow process, which doesn’t address the heart of the matter, doesn’t care for the victims, and forces them to pick up the tab). But as one person observed, “The BCO is never what you are navigating, it’s always the whims and group dynamics of particular presbyteries made up of a pastoral guild that has no training relevant to running a court or understanding dynamics of relational trauma and how systems work to negate justice and truth….as an ecclesiology, it only recognizes power.”
We need reform.