Spiritual Abuse in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church

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In 2010, I joined the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, excited that I had found a refuge from the crazy world of Evangelicalism. In 2017, I was seeking for refuge from the OPC and the spiritual abuse I experienced there.

There had been red flags along the way that I didn’t think twice about until after all of the spiritual abuse happened. But what really brought everything out to the light was in 2016 when my family became members of Providence OPC in Temecula, California.

“Trust the Process”

At the time, the church was without a pastor. The former pastor, Jesse Pirschel, had taken a call elsewhere, and for over a year, the church had been on the search for a new pastor. Several difficult events had transpired before we joined the church that prevented the church from calling a new pastor, and we could feel that members were getting antsy.

We were told again and again by the elders and the regional home missionary, Dave Crum, who was placed in charge of overseeing the church in the midst of this period, that we needed to “trust the process” outlined in the denomination’s Book of Church Order. The process was intentionally designed to be lengthy. Following the Book of Church Order, the church had a committee made up of members of the church responsible for the pastoral search, who would regularly review candidates before presenting them to the congregation as a whole.

A Startling Announcement

In August 2016, the regional home missionary and elders announced a congregational meeting after worship. In this meeting, they announced that their former pastor, Pirschel, was being considered again as pastor of Providence OPC. Not only that, but they wanted the congregation to vote within the next few weeks to “call” him back. In other words, this former pastor would shortcut the lengthy process.

In the middle of this congregational meeting, I stood up and addressed the congregation. I reminded the congregation that families (like mine) had joined the church since this pastor had left, and none of us had had a chance to hear the man preach or even speak with him. If the church were to have a vote, we would not have been able to vote our conscience if they fast-tracked the process. I pleaded with my fellow congregants to slow down and follow the regular process outlined in the Book of Church Order. Let us invite the man and his family so that we can hear him preach and speak to him face to face. After some discussion and a vote, the church agreed to do this.

Interviewing the Pastor

There were two instances that the pastor spoke to the church to answer questions — once over video conference and once in person. In both of these instances, I stood up and publicly asked the pastor why he had left Providence OPC and why he was so quickly wanting to leave the pastoral call he had taken up only a little while back. As someone who had gone to seminary to be a pastor, I had heard again and again from my professors that a call to a church was important. You could tell a lot about a minister in how seriously they take their call to serve a particular church. Yet, even after asking from multiple angles, I never received a straight answer. I knew that the constant deflections and subject changing meant that there was something going on that he didn’t want to share publicly.

Because of this, I decided to ask an elder of our church if it was okay for me to call this former pastor to ask him privately about this matter. I was given full approval to do so. Pirschel didn’t pick up, so I left him a brief message about how I, as a member of Providence OPC who wanted to vote according to his conscience, would like to have a chance to speak with him privately about the questions I asked him previously. I never received a call in return from him.

The Call That Made Me Sick

Instead, that evening, I received a call from a number I did not recognize. It was Crum, the regional home missionary who was overseeing Providence OPC. During this phone call, in raised voice and sharp tone, the regional home missionary proceeded to accuse me of being “presumptuous” and “doing what you shouldn’t have done,” even after I explained that the elder had given me full permission. This man then went on to say that other people in the church were speaking ill of me because of the questions I had been asking the former pastor — i.e. he was using gossip in an attempt to silence me. The volume and rage coming through my phone into my ear was shocking to me. After the call, I felt sick. This was not right. This is not how things are done in the OPC. I had to tell someone. I had to get help.

Just Business As Usual

As someone who had recently graduated from seminary, I went to the professors in the OPC I was closest with for help: John Fesko and David VanDrunen. In fact, Fesko was a member of the presbytery that Crum was a part of. Neither of them lifted a finger to help us.

Two families from Providence OPC began sharing stories of how they had experienced similar and worse things in their private interactions with Crum, and the patterns were very clear: bullying, spiritual abuse, attempts to silence, use of gossip and slander, etc. I began to hear stories from others who had encountered this dark side as well. The regional home missionary carried himself publicly with charisma and affability. His private demeanor was radically different. This is why no one believed their experiences.

To make matters worse, when I began asking some others for help and advice about what seemed to be a clear sign of a pattern of years of spiritual abuse and bullying, they began to make excuses and justify his behavior. “Well, you have to remember that he’s helped plant lots of Reformed church.” “But, he’s done so much good for the kingdom.” On and on the excuses went. It was clear — to these people, this man’s accomplishments covered over a multitude of his heinous sins that crushed sheep. It seemed that this was just business as usual in the OPC.

When the church voted to call Jesse Pirschel, our family was one of few that voted against it. We experienced ostracization and betrayal that was painful beyond measure. When our second child was born that year, only one or two families reached out to us to congratulate us. We left Providence OPC wounded and battered. Not only had we lost a church family, but we had experienced a rude awakening about our denomination. Spiritual abuse spanning years and years was tolerated amongst the leadership. People in power knew about this man’s abusive actions as well as the abusive actions of other leaders in the denomination, and they did nothing about it. My seminary professors who had influence would do nothing.

The Long Shadow of Spiritual Abuse

At the time, we fled in silence, like Joseph and Mary with Jesus, hoping that we wouldn’t be tracked down and hurt more. We sought refuge elsewhere — a new church, a new denomination. But even after we found a new church home, the trauma of the abuse didn’t stop there.

Over the course of the years that transpired after we left the OPC, we had interactions with OPC pastors who had previously had a big part in our lives who showed their true colors as well. One pastor decided to spend his time writing snarky comments on my and my wife’s social media pages. Another pastor that I confided in with our story of abuse began to spread our story without our express permission and put the blame on me for not reconciling with the regional home missionary. Again, the issue of a system and pattern of spiritual abuse and years of bullying and ignoring clear evidence therein were never addressed. They were all so parochial that they saw this all as some sort of beef I had, rather than just the tip of a large iceberg of spiritual abuse and silent complicity in the OPC.

I’m Not Surprised

Over the course of seven years, I went from someone who loved the OPC and wanted to minister in the OPC to someone who absolutely cannot in my conscience encourage anyone to join that denomination. There are people who are in the OPC who will claim that they’ve never experienced spiritual abuse or heard of these sorts of stories. That’s good for you. But the ability for you to experience the OPC unscathed was paid for by the spiritual abuse of sheep behind closed doors, the ostracization of victims, and the silent complicity of those who know better and can do something about it.

When I hear stories about Aimee Byrd’s experiences with members and leaders in the OPC in the Genevan Commons and other Facebook groups, I’m not surprised in the least. When I hear about these same people getting away with their bullying, slander, and abuse in their churches and presbyteries, I am not at all surprised. My family and countless other individuals and families have lived it. Many haven’t spoken up because they believe that no one will believe them and they don’t want to relive the trauma.

Conclusion: Appreciating Frame’s “Machen’s Warrior Children”

When I was a die-hard member of the OPC, I remember hearing about John Frame’s essay “Machen’s Warrior Children.” Folks in the OPC frequently talked about how Frame was a bitter ex-OPC person in order to try to dissuade people from hearing his concerns and observations. I don’t agree with Frame in all of his conclusions, but this is one that rings true for me and my experience:

The various anniversary celebrations and official histories in the different Reformed denominational bodies have been largely self-congratulatory. In Reformed circles, we often say that there is no perfect church, that churches as well as individuals are guilty of sin and liable to error. But Reformed writers and teachers seem to find it almost impossible to specify particular sins, even weaknesses, in their own traditions or denominations, particularly in their own partisan groups. A spirit of genuine self-criticism (prelude to a spirit of repentance) is an urgent need.

I wish I hadn’t bought into the lie that Frame was just a bitter ex-OPCer and had read his piece earlier. I’m sure folks will chalk me up as some sort of bitter ex-OPCer and refuse to hear my story and the story of others like me. But that’s not my ultimate concern. My concern is to let others who have experienced this or who are currently experiencing this in the OPC know that they are not alone, they are not crazy, and there are many of us out there who have your back. If I can even convince one person that that is true, then I believe my story, though painful and horrendous as it was and still is, is being used for some sort of good in God’s story.