Cover Story
Doug Phillips speaks at the 2012 San Antonio Independent Christian Film Festival.
Rowan Gillson
Doug Phillips speaks at the 2012 San Antonio Independent Christian Film Festival.

Set adrift

Religion | One prominent proponent of ‘biblical patriarchy’ destroyed his ministry with his transgressions. His downfall offers lessons to other leaders

Issue: "Blurred Vision," April 5, 2014

SAN ANTONIO, Texas—For years, the sinking of the Titanic fascinated former Vision Forum Ministries (VFM) president Doug Phillips. He founded the Christian Boys’ and Men’s Titanic Society in 1997 to promote lessons from the disaster, including “women and children first.” (Many men yielded seats on lifeboats to save others.) 

The following year, Phillips wrote in WORLD: “Simply stated, that principle is this—the groom dies for the bride, the strong suffer for the weak, and the highest expression of love is to give your life for another.”

April 15 is the 102nd anniversary of the Titanic’s sinking. It’s also more than five months since the closing of VFM, a once-prominent Christian organization that also met a tragic demise. In the end, losing sight of “women and children first” helped sink Phillips’ own ship.

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On Oct. 30, Phillips resigned from VFM, confessing to a “lengthy, inappropriate relationship with a woman.” He also wrote the sin was serious and “absolutely does merit my resignation.” Two weeks later, the board of VFM announced the ministry would close immediately.

But the travail is not over: On March 13 Phillips’ attorney sent a letter to three of Phillips’ former friends and associates charging that “the three of you have conspired together, and with others, in an attempt to destroy Doug Phillips, his family and Vision Forum Inc.”

Many stunned Christians have wondered: How did this ship sink? Phillips—a husband and father of eight children—had become an icon of the homeschooling movement and a well-known proponent of “biblical patriarchy.”

To learn more, I spent a week in San Antonio—the site of VFM’s former headquarters—and I also spoke with more than a dozen people who had been associated with Phillips or his ministry. WORLD gave Phillips a two-week window to grant an interview or respond to written questions about this story, but Phillips’ attorney sent a statement saying he advised his client against speaking to the press due to the threat of civil litigation against him. 

Still, a wave of other recent ministry scandals adds urgency to a core question when someone like Phillips falls and his ministry closes: How can other Christians guard against similar tragedies on the sea of Christ’s kingdom?

ON A BUSY ROAD in San Antonio, the former headquarters of VFM sits empty behind a chain link fence. On a recent afternoon, trash littered the back alley, and a pair of young men rummaged through a dumpster. Wooden pallets nearby bore the stamp: “Vision Forum Ministries.” 

The VFM building on Blanco Road was never opulent, but it once was busy. It housed the nonprofit ministry and the for-profit company Phillips founded 15 years ago. The for-profit Vision Forum Inc. (VFI) sold books, toys, and teaching materials aimed at Christian families. 

Phillips launched Vision Forum, with its emphasis on the leadership of fathers in families and societies, after working as an attorney in Virginia for the Home School Legal Defense Association. He helped start a church, and became one of the first elders at Boerne Christian Assembly—an independent, Baptist congregation outside San Antonio. He served in a pastor-like role, eventually preaching hundreds of sermons.

As the ministry grew, so did Phillips’ influence. He spoke at homeschool conferences across the country, held national conferences, launched a Christian film festival, and helped start the National Center for Family Integrated Churches (NCFIC)—a network that now includes hundreds of congregations. Bob Renaud, a former Vision Forum staff member and former personal assistant to Phillips, remembers that eventually “every time we went into an airport somebody knew who he was. … I watched him go from being an unknown to being a big player in the conservative homeschool movement.”

Phillips’ prominence made his October resignation even more stunning to ministry supporters who had lionized him. One homeschooling association grieved Phillips’ fall, but also encouraged supporters to send cards and thank-you notes to Phillips and his family, and noted, “He was our hero—the man who could lead us to victory through this horrific war.” One blogger similarly wrote, “He was our Hero. We thought he was unsinkable. …”

His Oct. 30 resignation announcement on the VFM website revealed Phillips wasn’t unsinkable. Phillips confessed to an inappropriate relationship with a woman, though he said the pair “did not ‘know’ each other in a Biblical sense.” Nearly two weeks later, he clarified the relationship with an unmarried woman had “an inappropriate physical component” and was “intermittent over a period of years.” (Phillips hasn’t identified the woman publicly, but several on-the-record and off-the-record sources confirmed her identity to WORLD.)

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