Cover Story

Set adrift

"Set adrift" Continued...

Issue: "Blurred Vision," April 5, 2014

Morecraft (left) and Bradrick
Handout photos
Morecraft (left) and Bradrick
By Oct. 29, the five men were confronting Phillips in his home in San Antonio. They say the meeting didn’t go well. Though Phillips admitted his sin, Muela says Phillips argued about the process the men used to approach him. They say the meeting grew contentious, and Morecraft walked out.

In a Facebook post a few weeks later, Bradrick—the former staffer who considered Phillips a mentor and spiritual father—said the meeting was like “experiencing the scene from Braveheart where William Wallace finds out he’s been betrayed by Robert the Bruce. …”

Weaver, Phillips’ friend from college, said he was disappointed too: “The goal was to be a Nathan [the Old Testament prophet who confronted King David over sin]. I thought if we could say: ‘You are the man,’ he would break. But it didn’t work out that way.’”

By the next night, Phillips had posted his resignation. (Phillips’ attorney said he resigned voluntarily after much prayer and counsel.) In his letter, Phillips didn’t mention that he had concealed his indiscretions from the public for eight months. He indicated he would leave public life and said his family had forgiven him. He said his church leadership “came alongside me with love and admonition, providing counsel, strong direction and accountability.”

BOB SARRATT—the lone elder when Phillips privately confessed last February—didn’t return requests for comment, but in January 2014 Sarratt and a provisional elder, Jeff Horn, posted a statement on the church website. They said that following Phillips’ confession in February 2013, the church leadership had worked with the involved parties to bring restoration and repentance.

They noted Phillips had professed repentance for his sin before the church body, and that the elders had publicly rebuked him. The statement didn’t indicate when they rebuked him or why they waited for months. Jeff Horn—the church’s provisional elder—did respond to written questions in an email. Horn said he became a provisional elder in March 2013, but didn’t learn about Phillips’ sin “with and against a woman in the BCA congregation” until late August 2013.

Horn said Phillips was rebuked before the church in November 2013 for “marital unfaithfulness, hypocritical deceit, and dishonesty as grievous sins against God, his church, against his family, and against those who invested their trust in Doug as a leader.” He said Phillips’ sin “should have been shared with the members of BCA sooner than it was”: Goals of healing and reconciliation “should not have trumped the responsibility to address the sin before the congregation and hold Doug accountable on a congregational level in a more timely fashion.”

Billy Calzada/Genesis
Holding Christian leaders accountable isn’t always easy. Concerns to follow a biblical process for confronting sin are crucial. But when a public figure privately confesses serious sin, it’s still critical to ask whether his leadership position makes public disclosure necessary.

Some connected to the VFM and church community said a heavy emphasis on avoiding gossip could lead to suppressing issues that should be discussed more openly. Some had earlier concerns about Phillips and the woman, but said they didn’t have evidence to press it.

It’s also worth noting that accountability starts long before the disclosure of serious sin. Evangelist Billy Graham traveled the world, but said he would never go into a room with a woman who wasn’t his wife. Plenty of other Christian ministries have prominent leaders who avoid scandal, and strong ministry boards can help set and enforce good standards.

Phillips appeared to have some safeguards in place as well, including traveling with assistants and family. It isn’t clear where the safeguards broke down, but that offers another valuable lesson: Even systems that encourage protecting women and children can only work if the people who teach them follow them.

Indeed, ministries and churches sometimes coalesce around worthy, biblical ideals like building strong families and promoting certain kinds of education. Personal sin doesn’t invalidate those ideals, but it does offer a reminder that the most fundamental safety comes as Christ and the gospel remain the center of Christian churches, ministries, and lives.

In Phillips’ case, it’s at least clear that some wish they had known about the problems earlier rather than later. Horn—the provisional elder who also worked at Vision Forum for over eight years—acknowledged as a former employee, “I would have preferred to learn about Doug Phillips’ grievous sin sooner than I did.”

James Leininger said he also would have preferred to know earlier. The Texas conservative and billionaire businessman supported VFM for years: He said his donations included the building on Blanco Road and the home that Phillips and his family lived in while they worked for the ministry.


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