Defending the Fatherless (TBB)

Crossposted at Jeff Crippen and Barbara Roberts’ A Cry for Justice.

The “TBB” in the name of this post means that it is part of The Big Box series. If you’re new to Scarlet Letters, read the introductory post to see what The Big Box is all about.

Okay, readers, Hester is really back this time! After a long, long summer, I’ve finally opened my Big Box again – and pulled out Defending the Fatherless by Doug Phillips. Sounds so high-minded and noble, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, as we’ve come to expect, the problems begin almost immediately.

Orphans vs. fatherless?

Phillips opens his lecture with this familiar verse from the KJV:

Pure religion and undefiled before God the Father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world. (James 1:27)

Taken in context of the 1st century, this verse is relatively clear: Christians should help people who cannot provide for themselves financially. Phillips’ take on it, however, is a little less straightforward (emphasis mine):

Do you know there are only a few passages that use the word ‘orphans’ in the King James version? Now let me tell you why that’s significant. Many of us feel that we have an obligation to help orphans. That’s not what the Bible says. The Bible says that we have an obligation not just to help orphans, but primarily to help the fatherless. This is a critical distinction, because all over America there are pastors and elders who say, ‘Well, we really don’t need to worry about those children. We don’t have to get involved in their lives. We don’t have to support those families. We don’t have to encourage those ladies to be keepers at home, because after all, there’s a mother.’ But the Scripture makes it clear, where there is no father, true religion is to care for such a person.

776px-Oliver_Twist_-_Samhällsroman_-_Sida_005In other words, Phillips is proposing an (easily missed and hitherto unnoticed) special category of needy children: children with mothers, but not fathers. He is right that the word “orphan” is rare in the KJV (I could only locate it once), but other than that we have ample reason to be suspicious here. Phillips is basing his distinction on the word choices of a specific English translation of the Bible, not on the original Greek of James 1:27. Take even a brief look at other English translations and his argument starts to fall to pieces, as the NKJV, NIV, ESV, and most other versions all translate the word for “fatherless” as “orphans.” But the original Greek of James 1:27 finishes the argument once and for all, as the Greek word for “fatherless” in this passage is orphanos – the very word from which the English word “orphan” derives. This word can refer to children with no fathers, but certainly isn’t exclusive to that group. Thus Phillips’ distinction between fatherless children and orphans has no basis. There is not one word in the Bible for “real orphans” and another for “fatherless children.” Phillips is merely, yet again, reading his borderline idolatrous notions about fathers and husbands into the Bible. Unfortunately, this nonexistent distinction (remember, Phillips called it “critical”) is the foundation for the rest of the lecture.

Aside from the fact that it doesn’t exist in Greek (or Hebrew, for that matter), Phillips’ distinction has some concerning ramifications. First, it could easily be misinterpreted as setting up fatherless children as a special group, perhaps to be pitied more than children with no mothers. Phillips never said this outright, of course, and I hope he doesn’t believe it. Nevertheless, in an hour-long lecture, he made only one passing reference to motherless children, compared to at least a hundred about the fatherless.

Second, I worry that Phillips’ focus on single mothers may be a bit narrow. Certainly single mothers are a huge group of needy people, and Christians should help them. But has it occurred to Phillips that single fathers could face many similar challenges? For instance, one of Phillips’ stated goals in the lecture was to explain how single mothers could homeschool while still being “keepers at home.” But does he realize that a single father would have just as much difficulty homeschooling without a spouse as a single mother? Certainly, under Phillips’ system, a single father must fulfill his role as provider and is thus Biblically obligated to keep bringing in money. Since for most men this means going to work every day, who is going to homeschool his children? Who is going to do all the tasks that his “keeper at home” would normally have done? Or would Phillips’ advice to single fathers simply be to get a new wife as fast as possible?

Victims need not apply

Phillips’ misunderstanding of Greek was annoying. By itself, though, it probably wouldn’t cause much harm. His next misunderstanding, however, not only reveals his capacious blind spot (my best estimate is that it’s approximately the size of North America), but also has potentially lethal real-world consequences. As the lecture progressed, it became clear that Phillips’ definition of a single mother only extended to widows and women whose husbands have maliciously abandoned them (emphasis mine):

But even more to the point, in 1 Timothy chapter five, I think a careful study would lead us to conclude that someone who is a “widow indeed” is someone who is acting in the capacity of a widow. They have no husband through no fault of their own. Now if you find yourself in a situation with a woman who has no husband and is raising a fatherless child, and the reason why she has no husband is she has facilitated or encouraged a separation or divorce, the answer there is for her to get right with God and to return to her husband. But if you have a situation for whatever reason where that woman has been abandoned, where she’s been wrongfully divorced, I believe the clear intent of Scripture is that we are to help such a person.

Let’s think through this statement for a moment. “Real” widows, according to Phillips, are women whose husbands have died, abandoned, or “wrongfully divorced” them. They do not include women who have left their husbands, seemingly for any reason at all. And if a Christian does encounter a woman who has “unjustly” divorced her husband, they should not help them but should instead tell them to repent and return to the marriage.

After reading and rereading Phillips’ statement, I still can’t decide whether he’s more concerned with the woman’s supposedly insufficient or unbiblical reasons for leaving her husband, or with the fact that the wife, and not the husband, initiated the divorce. Probably it’s some combination of the two. However, one thing is clear: Christians are not supposed to help abused women who have divorced their abusers. I can’t see any way around this, as the abused woman has initiated the divorce, and her husband’s actions do not fit Phillips’ criteria of abandonment or death. Thus, I repeat:

As far as I can tell, in Doug Phillips’ world, Christians are not supposed to help abused women who have divorced their abusers. They are instead supposed to tell them to return to their abusers and live with them.

For those of you who just threw your computers across the room in rage after reading the above, I feel your pain. I find this idea to be reprehensible beyond belief, and certainly not Christian in any way. And honestly, I hope I’m wrong here. If someone can provide me with proof that Doug Phillips does not really believe this, please, do so. Unfortunately I’m not holding out much hope, as he’s shown astounding naivete about abuse and abusers before (see the end of this post earlier in TBB).

Until then, I have only one thing to say. Whether you are male or female, if you are being abused, DO NOT turn to Vision Forum Ministries’ resources for help!

(As an aside, another group excluded from Phillips’ definition of single mothers are unmarried mothers. Since Phillips never even mentioned this group, I’m not sure how or if he intends to minister to them. I’m also curious what he would do if one of these unmarried moms turned up in a “good Christian family.” What would happen if a girl from a patriarchal family got pregnant outside of wedlock? Would she be rejected, kicked out, etc.? Even if she repented, would she still be treated as “tainted” or “damaged goods” because of her past action?)

Substandard widows

502px-Borsos_Widow_1853Just as Phillips has unnecessarily (and dangerously) strict standards for divorcees, he also has ridiculous standards for widows. Not surprisingly, he spends a lot of time on 1 Timothy 5:3-16. I’ve reproduced the pertinent section below.

Do not let a widow under sixty years old be taken into the number, and not unless she has been the wife of one man, well reported for good works: if she has brought up children, if she has lodged strangers, if she has washed the saints’ feet, if she has relieved the afflicted, if she has diligently followed every good work. (1 Tim. 5:9-10)

Phillips claims this part of the passage is about “widows of the list,” or as he explains it, “…a widow of the list is one who has been put on the payroll of the church as a servant of the church. She is a representative of the church to perform services on behalf of the church.” I can’t confirm whether Phillips’ interpretation of this passage as referring to a specific group of “official” church widows is correct, so I’ll grant it for the sake of argument.

Now Paul’s standards for these widows are admittedly pretty high. That’s fine. But Phillips, as usual, has to take this one step further:

Friends, do you realize that all across America pastors, fathers, husbands, are encouraging their wives to leave home? And in so doing, they are Biblically disqualifying these women to ever be considered as widows of the list, because under the Biblical requirement to be a widow of the list, you must be a keeper at home. Under the Biblical requirement to be a widow of the list when you’re sixty years of age or older, you must have trained your children. You must have lodged strangers. You must have demonstrated the principle of Titus 2 that the women are to be keepers at home, as the Scripture says, lest the Word of God be blasphemed.

In other words, women who work outside the home and do not homeschool their children can never meet Paul’s requirements in 1 Tim. 5:9-10.

Perhaps it’s not immediately clear to you how this can be. Women who work outside the home cannot train their children? Of course not, because of Phillips’ eisegetical and anachronistic interpretation of Deuteronomy 6:6-7 as a mandate to homeschool (see here under the first header). They cannot lodge strangers? Of course not, because true hospitality involves genuflection to the husband as “the lord of the home” (see here under the first header), and women who work outside the home have more than one “authority” (see here under the last header). (Note that Phillips doesn’t address Paul’s other requirements, which obviously don’t require being a homeschooling stay-at-home mom.)

Unfortunately, if we don’t accept Phillips’ previous arguments, his extra requirements for widows fall like a house of cards. In fact, they start to resemble the kind of Pharisaical nonsense Jesus described in Matthew 23:4 and Luke 11:46. This may seem like an extreme charge, until we get to this statement by Phillips near the end of the lecture (emphasis mine):

You may find yourself in a situation where you have an unbelieving relative or someone who frankly doesn’t want to be helped, doesn’t want you to be involved in their life, doesn’t want to give up their job, doesn’t want their children to turn back from government school. I think as Christians we have an obligation to give a Gospel witness to our family members, to encourage them to follow the ways of truth and what the Scripture says, but we certainly have no ability to coerce or to force them to do that.

I hope Phillips was not intending to imply here that a single mother who has to work outside the home and send her children to public school, and does not believe that these things are sinful (as Phillips does), can be automatically assumed to be unregenerate. Because if he was, he has gone much too far and elevated his personal preferences to marks of salvation. But then again, he appears to have done that before too (see here under the last header).

Am I really surprised about any of this? Unfortunately, after listening to 18+ hours of Vision Forum material, no. Saddened, yes. Angry, yes. Tearing out my hair with frustration, yes. But surprised?

Not in the least.



3 comments on “Defending the Fatherless (TBB)

  1. Jeff S says:

    Meant to post on this earlier, but this was another excellent post. The stuff about not helping single mothers who have divorced their husbands is particularly chilling.

    I’m glad you are back and look forward to more posts 🙂

  2. SuburBint says:

    Hooray, you’re back! Can’t wait to catch up on your recent posts!

    I would say that according to Jen and Mark Epstein’s experiences at Doug Phillips church, which culminated not only in their own excommunication but in Doug Phillips breaking all ties with Richard “Little Bear” Wheeler, Phillips not only would encourage an abused wife to return to her abuser, but that he also believes that abuse is always and only the fault of the wife. You can read about their experience at

  3. Jennifer says:

    You brave soul, to go through all that and so eloquently express the faults with it in such time-consuming posts. I couldn’t do it.

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