On June 19th, I shared some screenshots from a website with church officers in my denomination and other Reformed denominations, comparing the behavior revealed there to the biblical qualifications of an elder. The screenshots were from the Genevan Commons Facebook group (GC). Since then, I have received numerous encouraging messages and notes of support. Officers in my denomination wrote an open letter . I have also received numerous messages from women who have suffered under spiritual abuse. It’s overwhelming. The question is, where do we go from here?
I’m thankful to have some church officers advising me and asking some good, critical questions about what I hope will come out of all this. It’s caused me to do a lot of reflection. I’m thinking deeply about the role of social media, responsibility in how we use it, the distinctions between the weight and value of informal and formal ecclesial processes, and the complexities of how they may work together in this case.
I am listening and feel the weight myself of what the formal process can and cannot accomplish. I am grateful for the open letter signed by ninety plus officers in my denomination. This was an informal act, yet I believe carries an important weight. The public abusive behavior of church officers in our denomination was rebuked publicly. Finally.
But it continues.
A month after the Genevan Commons website exposed the behavior of these church officers, the Presbytery of the Southeast (PSE) of the OPC passed a motion to investigate the behaviors from officers in their presbytery in this Genevan Commons group, as some of the worst offenders leading the way were in their presbytery. However, one of the members they appointed to this committee is/was a Genevan Commons member who has written critical articles of both Rachel Miller’s work and my own. This is a conflict of interest to the investigation, especially when no signers of the Open Letter were appointed to the committee. It also made no sense to me that no one from the committee had contacted the victims with any questions. They seemed more concerned about investigating the signers of the Open Letter than caring for victims of harassment from their own church officers. This is curious, as they are not only gathering information here—real people in their denomination are still under spiritual abuse from church officers in their presbytery. You’d think you’d want to hear from them. Instead, my session was contacted by a member of this committee, asking that they silence me. This is re-traumatization 101. Silence the victims as they work on image control rather than protecting and ministering to the hurting sheep.
Two months after the committee was formed, I was contacted and asked to meet with the committee via Zoom. Two months. I declined, as the next day charges were filed against Bennie Castle, Shane Anderson, and Michael Spangler. These charges were not filed by the committee.
Who Pays the Price?
The painful and difficult part of coming to terms with what is and isn’t happening right now is that everything that has furthered the process has been at my cost. Waiting for men with authority to act came at my cost. I kept waiting. The abuse escalated. In sharing the screenshot website, I provided the public exposure that had to happen for the hope of justice and reformation. Years have gone by with this harassment increasing, church officers seeing it, and nothing happening. It’s still continuing. It’s blown my mind to see what church officers can get away with on social media (and how quickly they try to use their authority to silence the victims). Over this time, it has even infiltrated my own church. While I didn’t want to publicly comment on this situation, it was exposed with a false narrative by an administrator of GC, Shane Anderson, after one of my own elders, a GC member, fed him this information and shared a letter written by our elders to our congregation. This is much more painful than the public stuff. I’ve lost friends over this. I’ve moved back to my own blog. And just like all the other times I’ve confronted GC members, they have responded by digging in their heels and turning on me. I am what’s wrong. They are the gatekeepers, sacrificially saving the the OPC from me.
Every attempt to have this abuse addressed has been at my cost. And the cost of other women—women doing the work to get this far. We are the ones accused of slander, deepfaking, manipulating data, of not waiting on the church courts for due process. We are being intimidated, threatened with civil charges, and it’s been suggested that I may think I have a free pass to sin against the ones who have hurt me. Apparently it is sinful to bring darkness to light. Meanwhile the behavior and the responsibility of the members of GC has been minimized and downplayed, as “we all get our hands dirty with inappropriate speech online sometimes.” Public reviling and nefarious plotting from church officers has been discounted as a mere imbroglio news story that has now passed—the heat is now out of the kitchen. Everybody move on. Aimee, stop talking about it. Let the church do her work.
Even listing these things seems so reductive because they are all so incredibly weighty, each adding another level of betrayal and pain. And that won’t be satisfied in charges.
Charges do not address the community protectionism, where those who could take a stand to rebuke this behavior, and follow through if it still continues, have repeatedly chosen to evade responsibility. How many church officers have stood by in silence when they could do something? When they could do the very protecting they champion that men are supposed to do?
Women have had to do it.
And then the opposite of male protection happens, and they turn on us. I’m constantly on the defensive, constantly having to do the work where I’m misrepresented, slandered, etc. Just the other week, I was traveling to a two-cop town to a wonderful RCUS church in Nebraska, only to find out that the pastor was repeatedly contacted with warnings about how dangerous I am.* I cannot escape it. The well keeps being poisoned against me and my work and I keep having to point out where the drops of poison are in the water, even as it should be as clear as day. It’s exhausting, painful, incredibly stressful, and non-stop. And there is this underlying accusation from some, “Well you are the troublemaker who asked for it.” Like I deserve this for talking about women and discipleship! And for speaking truth about abuse!
I am constantly receiving detrimental messages about my value as a person. Often by officers in my own denomination. And I have to continuously ask, “Am I crazy?” “What is wrong with me?“
I know there are some who have done a lot of work, and I don’t want to discredit that any here. I am so grateful for those who have come alongside working not only in the behind the scenes ways that are so needed, and without which none of this would be addressed, but also in truly shepherding me throughout. I am so grateful for that. I am also grateful for my pastor and some of my elders who have shepherded me through some painful moments. I know that without them I would probably have given up and just left the OPC. I love my local church. But even so, I sit in despair with the latest developments.
I look at the formal process, the work that those in authority to govern the church need to do, and see that is really just the minimum of what needs to happen. It should be basic that we should not have spiritually abusive pastors and leaders in our denomination. Think of how fast our leadership would move if a church in our denomination ordained a woman. Why are we not moving as fast for the other qualifications of eldership? Why would we not be just as swift to use the masculine representation of the Bridegroom to protect the bride from abuse?
As my husband says, after merely one day’s experience with Genevan Commons, you don’t even have to be a believer to know how vile it is. And an unbeliever would ask, “What is the matter with Christians? Why are they so full of hate? Why do they treat their women like this?” And we are talking about church officers here. It’s basic.
What Do We Really Want Out of This?
Even so, I see clearly how charges, even if filed, even if victorious, do not address the heart issues. They also do not address all of the pain and destruction that is left behind. I think this is a real issue that reformed denominations need to look at. In a sense, formal charges should be a last resort because we first want to informally address these heart issues, hoping for change. Hoping for repentance. Hoping for reconciliation. That’s what we really want. Firstly, restoration to Christ. Secondly, to his people. And in a case when spiritual abuse is involved, the repentant person in spiritual authority should see that they need shepherding at this point and not to have this kind of authority over God’s people. They have so violated trust with God’s people, that a sincere apology would include action that is sensitive to this. Voluntarily stepping down would be an action that shows the weight of their responsibility to God as an office bearer as well as putting boundaries in place out of respect for the victims of their abuse. Because they are valued.
By the time charges are filed, it means hearts are hardened at destructive levels. But the victims of this destruction must continue at this point to move through the destruction to pursue justice. The “i’s” that must be dotted and the “t’s” that must be crossed in the formal process are but symbols and reminders of how their value has been trampled upon. The informal process to get this far can often be traumatic for the victims, as they put themselves out there with the truth, only to be gaslit by the perpetrators, watch them manipulate others that should be helping the victim, and sabotaging the process as much as possible, likely trying to reverse the order of the victim and the offender. So while charges may be a necessary part of the process, the process itself hurts the very people it is set up to protect. This is something that needs more discussion in our churches. This is where the leadership in the churches should consult the people in the margins, as those who are leading the process can gain perspective to better care for the sheep. So charges, even if filed, even if victorious, and even if they supply a small amount of justice, are executed while the wounds of the hurting are still very open, exposed, and vulnerable.
The church should care about this.
I do see God’s providence at work in my own situation. I see how even these painful steps have driven me to Christ, given me more resolve, a space to breathe, and to think more about my goals in writing. There are so many layers to this. With all of the backlash from my writing on women as disciples, whether from ACE, CBMW, or GC (which are not in the same boat when it comes to destructive behaviors), there is a connecting theology of the ontology of male and female that “justifies” their actions. This theology itself devalues women. It even robs them of their personhood. It’s all so ironic, as it is their understanding of the nature of authority that makes them abuse the authority that they do have—using it not in benevolence to serve and invest in the growth of others, but to hold over others. They insist in power OVER rather than power TO. And so you’ve got seminaries and parachurch organizations pumping this theology of an ontology of male authority and female subordination out. (And I have seen a distorted view of the nature of authority used against men in the church as well. They do turn on their own.)
Another layer is that as seminaries are pumping out ministers, making sure they have their theology all “right” (and given the above paragraph that sometimes includes this unbiblical theology of man and woman), they just let known character issues slide. Multiple people have expressed to me that the behavior in GC is a result of what they’ve already observed about the pride issues of some of these offenders while in seminary. This is so unscriptural, as the majority of qualifications for office in the Bible have much to do with character.
So yes, I think charges filed is the minimal action that needed to happen. But we should not be aiming for the minimum that needs to be done. Big conversations need to happen in our church denominations about community responsibility, character in leadership, and the nature of authority. We need to talk about how to train pastors to spot and navigate through confronting abuse and how to care for victims well. Our governing church order should support this. It’s time to examine our theology of man and woman and what effects that has on discipleship and even our dignity as brothers and sisters in the church. We also need the freedom to disagree within the bounds of our confessions and discuss the way we treat those whom we have differences with. Church officers should model this best! We can have all our theology right and not have love.
And then we’ve missed Christ.
One benefit of a formal process, such as this committee formed by the PSE, is that it is now open to public scrutiny. That’s a good thing. But from my end, when I heard about this committee, I feared more protectionism, image control, and no tangible care for the women in their denomination who continue to be harmed in the process. Read on, and you will see that confirmed.
I understand that the formal process takes time because we want to protect the constitutional rights of the accused. But what we haven’t addressed is how this time is taken at the expense of those who are harmed. How do we get protected? If it takes years to begin the formal process, and another year or so to see it through, what is left of the reputation and dignity of someone like me, Rachel Miller, Valerie Hobbs, and many more in this process?
The church needs to consider what the formal process does not accomplish. Charges don’t address the heart issues and all the destruction that is left behind to get there. They don’t address the infected system that has enabled spiritual abuse. They don’t address what all the dotted “i’s” and crossed “t’s” in their process symbolize—dehumanized, broken women. Is the PSE going to investigate all that?
Genevan Commons is just case in point of an entire culture. All of these layers that need addressed won’t happen if the women are told to be quiet now and let the church handle it. We should never stop talking—our denominations need to be like Christ and say, “Let me hear your voice” (Song of Songs 2:14).
So where does the church go from here?
Let’s see what action has been taken.
This weekend the PSE met and ruled to receive the recommendations from the report that this “committee” submitted. Additionally, the Judicial Matters Committee ruled on the charges against these three church officers in my denomination.
Dr. Valerie Hobbs, a linguist who specializes in religious language, analyzed the report of this committee’s recommendations. I highly recommend that you read it—especially if you are in the OPC. You can read it here. I just want to make a few comments to highlight what is going on. The committee’s recommendations are a public document and you can access it here.
What you won’t read about are any real victims, not even a thought about them. Instead:
“It is the united perspective of the committee that the work of Mrs. Byrd warrants thorough, substantive, and careful review and critique by the OPC. Regardless of one’s position on the merits of Mrs. Byrd’s publications, they are obviously closely related to this present disruption to the external peace and order which Christ has established in the Church (WCF 20.4).”
I am a disruption, the one who is causing division in the church! Not the abusers. What could I have written that deserves that kind of reviling and abuse?! They also rebuke the 90+ signers of the Open Letter. Michael Spangler is a scapegoat, but they still paint him in good light, emphasizing how “readily to meet” them he was. And according to them, Shane Anderson was so “honorable” in his interactions with the committee. They use the word “brothers’ a lot. They minimize the reviling and harassing behavior on GC as a narrow set of issues from the wide scope they supposedly discuss. Instead of calling out misogyny, they refer to it as sarcasm and disparagement, saying it’s mostly not from men in their presbytery (one man would be bad enough, but two of the men charged were administrators of GC leading the way). More space was taken to condemn the creator of the screenshots website and the signers of the Open Letter than any of the church officers exposed in it.
Then there’s the sin leveling:
“Throughout its work the committee has encountered a similar theme with respect to all parties involved. Each ‘side’ in this controversy has been very quick to point the finger of accusation to the other, while seemingly very slow to engage in careful, humble, self reflection. Let us remember that our standards define sin as ‘any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God’ (WSC 14).”
Can someone please point out to me where I have participated in spiritual abuse? Or where calling out abuse is sinful? And how is it that the very basics are missed here—the great responsibility of those in spiritual office?
So the recommendations were approved—
- That the PSE erects a committee of three presbyters to contemplate bringing a charge or charges of an offense against Rev. Spangler (BOD III.8.a).
- That the PSE asks Mr. Shane Anderson to meet with the Committee on Shepherding to discuss his online conduct.
- That the PSE petitions the Presbytery of the Mid-Atlantic to erect a study-committee to examine the writings of Mrs. Aimee Byrd and publish its findings.
- That Presbytery dissolves this committee.
Michael Spangler is the only one being considered for a charge, Anderson gets a talking to, and let’s investigate Byrd.
*Correction: The recommendation asking Shane to meet was defeated. Even worse. No need for the talking to.
And the Judicial Matters Committee’s ruling on the charges?
- Presbytery approved the recommendation to augment the session of Greensboro (Shane Anderson’s church. He is one of three elders. Spangler is another of the three.) with additional interim elders to handle the charges against Anderson.
- Presbytery approved the recommendation to decline the charges against Castle, saying there’s not of sufficient weight to warrant a trial.
- Presbytery approved the recommendation to ask the JMC to conduct a preliminary investigation regarding Spangler and report back.
So this is how Presbytery meetings go? No discussion about the character of church officers? As one friend put it, instead of outrage over the dignity of their sisters that they are called to shepherd, pastors have become lawyers. The real issue is trapped in a web of convoluted rules and regulations that protect abusers.
Where does the church possibly go from here? How is it even safe for people like me—who are mistreated by church officers—to be in the OPC? This presbytery meeting speaks volumes on what is valued. It isn’t the people under their care. It is their own authority and secrets. And the procedures that protect them.
*A previous version said Shane Anderson was the one who called ahead. However, I’ve been given new information that it wasn’t Anderson who called the pastor and it’s unclear to me what, if any role Anderson played.