In the first part, we looked at what could be regarded as commendable. In the last instalment, we looked at some of the doctrinal concerns with Wilson. In this final instalment, it’s time to face some of what’s scandalous and ugly.
This is going to be the longest and most controversial of the three posts. There’ll be those who think I’m mud-slinging. They’ll say I’m taking Wilson’s words out of context. I’ll do my best to present facts, as well as giving assessments of those facts. The reason I’m doing this is because, when considering Wilson’s influence, we do also have to consider the outcomes of his life. Is he blameless? Is there a pattern of unwise behaviour that might warn us away?
There is an infamous quote from a book written by Doug Wilson and Steve Wilkins, Southern Slavery As It Was. This quote has been circulated around for years:
Slavery as it existed in the South was not an adversarial relationship with pervasive racial animosity. Because of its predominantly patriarchal character, it was a relationship based upon mutual affection and confidence. There has never been a multi-racial society which has existed with such mutual intimacy and harmony in the history of the world. The credit for this must go to the predominance of Christianity. The gospel enabled men who were distinct in nearly every way, to live and work together, to be friends and often intimates. This happened to such an extent that moderns indoctrinated on ‘civil rights’ propaganda would be thunderstruck to know the half of it. Slave life was to [the slaves] a life of plenty, of simple pleasures, of food, clothes and good medical care. In spite of the evils contained in the system, we cannot overlook the benefits of slavery for both blacks and whites . . . Slavery produced in the South a genuine affection between the races that we believe we can say has never existed in any nation before the War or since.
In a 2020 blog post, Wilson appeared to retract some of these statements. He wrote:
…while there were many instances within American slave-holding in which many blacks and whites did have genuine and godly affection for one another, we cannot say it was characteristic of the institution as a whole… we can surmise that American slavery was a wicked institution on the whole because God brought a cataclysmic judgment against the entire nation because of it.
In that same blog post, he says that the book Black & Tan contains his more recent thinking on the issue. And he doesn’t retract anything from that book. In Black & Tan, Wilson wrote:
The issue is whether a Christian man could have lawfully owned a slave in 1850 America without being necessarily guilty of a moral outrage. Was slave ownership malum in se, an evil in itself? The answer to that question, for anyone who believes the Bible, is that it was possible for a godly man to own slaves, provided he treated them exactly as the Scripture required. (p.69)
Was southern slavery a wicked institution? Well, if so, how was it possible for a godly man to partake in that institution without any moral culpability?
I’m a Canadian living in Australia. I really don’t understand how difficult it should be to just categorically condemn American slavery as evil and move on. Why all the waffling? But in the United States there’s this phenomenon known as Neo-confederacy. It’s a movement which believes the south was on the right side of the Civil War. Neo-confederates pine for the old south and its values. Wilson has been known to run among them and that’s why it seems he gets caught up in controversy over slavery.
Scripture says in 1 Timothy 3:2 that “an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach…” Likewise, in Titus 2:7-8, Paul urges Titus, “Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, dignity, and sound speech that cannot be condemned, so that an opponent may be put to shame, having nothing evil to say about us.” These are high standards for a pastor and his character. There are times when Wilson publicly falls short of these standards.
Doug Wilson wrote a book featuring a sex robot, Ride, Sally, Ride. The Canon Press website describes it as “A satirical novel from an award-winning pastor about love, the crack-up of the U.S.A., and refusing to back down when the whole world calls you crazy.” In the book, the author puts pornographic language into the mouth of the sex robot. I don’t care what context it’s in, I don’t care if it’s satirical, it’s not appropriate for a Christian to be writing those words, let alone a pastor. Wilson needed someone to pull him back from writing this book and say, “Douglas, interesting idea, but please don’t. Just don’t.”
Elsewhere Wilson often uses crude and disrespectful language, especially in reference to women. In one place he refers to a PCA committee stacked like “some blonde in a tight dress.” In another place, he refers to feminists as “small-breasted biddies.” I looked up ‘biddies’ for you – it’s a derogatory term for a fussy and mean old woman. Though there are more, I’ll give one more example and then stop. Here Wilson is referring to women on the front of the magazines at the grocery store check-out as an analogy for evangelicalism:
…the partially dressed female on the cover of the nearest women’s magazine, the kind my kids call a day-old doughnut. Right, the one with the fake bake tan, the abs of a sixteen-year-old boy, the boobs of a wet nurse, and the knock-your-eye out bottle blondisity.
That’s just uncouth, perhaps even misogynistic. No one should speak like that, let alone a Christian pastor.
In the first instalment, I noted that Wilson is witty. But his wit sometimes gets ahead of him and he ends up transgressing the boundaries of good taste and Christian propriety. Even colleagues in his denomination believe he sometimes goes too far. In a report concerning two sexual abuse cases (which we’ll get to shortly), a committee took issue with Wilson’s language about women (quoted above). They wrote:
We note that this language has caused a good deal of anguish among pastors and elders of CREC churches who would otherwise be supportive of Pastor Wilson’s ministry. Pastors should be careful not to give women reasons to avoid seeking help from the church. Instead, we should make it clear that the church is a place where all people are treated with honor and respect, and where victims can find grace.
In this particular case, Pastor Wilson’s rhetoric has, unfortunately, been found offensive and inappropriate even by many in his own denomination (including other pastors and elders). Pastor Wilson’s blog posts regarding these cases have proved to be quite divisive even amongst those who consider him a friend and ally. A more prudent and temperate use of language would be helpful.
So you don’t have to take it from me when I say that some of his language is unbecoming of a pastor. Even his friends and allies sometimes cringe.
Drug and Gambling Scandals
In 1999, a teacher at the Logos School and member of Wilson’s church was selling illegal drugs to Logos students, as well as students at New Saint Andrews College. In addition, he is alleged to have engaged in immorality with a 17 year old Logos student. Aaron Booth was placed under church discipline, but none of his criminal activity was reported to the police. In a letter to the congregation, Wilson mentioned that Booth was under discipline, but didn’t disclose the reason.
In 2001, a son of one of Christ Church’s elders (who was also dean at New Saint Andrews College) opened a small illegal gambling establishment in Moscow. It included the serving of alcohol, also to minors. The elders of the church, including Doug Wilson, discovered the gambling operation and shut it down. They, however, did not report this criminal activity to law enforcement. Instead, it was dealt with strictly internally. The “bank” was owed $1000. Those who owed didn’t pay. Wilson and the elders decided to pay this debt out of church funds – but allegedly did not disclose this payment to the church members. While Wilson says it was repaid by the father of the manager of the gambling house, the full story remained untold until the leak of e-mails and telephone recordings. This debacle resulted in the filing of 94 ecclesiastical charges against Wilson by two former Christ Church members. While these charges were dismissed by Wilson’s denomination as “frivolous and unconstitutional,” you can still read them here and find various responses from Christ Church in this archived edition of Presbyterian and Reformed News.
Sadly, there are three well-known (there are others lesser-known) sexual abuse cases associated with Wilson and his church. It’s common to identify them by the names of the perpetrators: Steven Sitler, Jamin Wight, and Jim Nance. I’ll first briefly and factually describe each case.
In 2005 Steven Sitler pled guilty to molesting a child. During the legal proceedings, it became clear that he had done this more than once with far more than one child. On October 12, 2005 Sitler was sentenced to a minimum of five years in prison. However, the following year, on May 2, his sentenced was suspended and he was released from prison with lifetime probation. After a short courtship and engagement, Sitler married Katie Travis on June 11, 2011. Katie was a graduate of New Saint Andrews College and, by this time, Sitler was a convicted sex offender who had been diagnosed as a fixated pedophile. In 2015, while under polygraph examination, Sitler admitted to being sexually aroused during contact with his infant son. Many of the relevant legal documents can be found here.
Jamin Wight was a seminary student at Greyfriars Hall. Along with several other seminary students he was boarding with Natalie Greenfield’s parents. At the time of the alleged incidents, she was about 14 years old and he was 24. He groomed her into a sexual relationship. This occurred between February 2001 and June 2002. Wight was initially charged in 2005 with three counts of sexual abuse of a child and lewd conduct with a minor under 16 years of age. A plea agreement was reached with Wight whereby he would plead guilty to one count of sexual abuse, with the other charges being dismissed. However, the judge refused to accept the original plea agreement because he did not believe the facts warranted the charges. Instead, a new plea agreement was reached whereby Wight would plead guilty to injury to a child. He was sentenced to four years in prison. In 2014, Wight was in court again. He pled guilty to charges of perjury and domestic battery and served another 30 days in jail. Relevant legal documents can be found here.
Jim Nance was a teacher at the Logos School in Moscow and an elder at Christ Church. One of his students was Emilie Dye (now Paige). She alleges that he groomed her into a sexual relationship. In December of 2014, Nance was dismissed from Logos School for “infatuated and unprofessional behaviour” towards Emilie. At that point, according to Doug Wilson, the school didn’t know the extent of his behaviour – but according to Emilie, they didn’t meaningfully investigate that either. Nevertheless, Wilson says that in 2017, Nance came to him and confessed “about 7 or 8 instances of overt immorality” with Emilie. Wilson also states that Nance was reported to the police by himself and the superintendent of Logos School. It appears that he wasn’t charged because his grooming of Emilie carefully ensured that, when their relationship became sexual, she was over 18 and appeared to be consenting.
When it comes to Wilson’s involvement in these situations, I think it’s best to try and maintain as objective a perspective as possible. With the Sitler and Wight cases, a committee made up of pastors from Wilson’s denomination (Communion of Reformed Evangelical Churches – CREC) investigated and prepared a public report (hereafter ‘CREC report’). This committee consisted of presiding ministers of the various CREC presbyteries. They commended Wilson and Christ Church for doing some things correctly. But they also pointed out that some things were handled improperly and unwisely.
With the Wight case, the CREC report concludes that the Christ Church leadership could have done more to assess his fitness for ministry. A church with which he had interned had highlighted some character defects, including a lack of respect for women, but this report wasn’t given proper attention in Moscow. Doug Wilson wrote a letter to a police officer in which he denied that Jamin Wight was a sexual predator. The report rightfully questions the wisdom of this. The CREC report also questions the wisdom of Wilson’s interactions with Natalie Greenfield’s father. In a letter, Wilson rebuked Gary Greenfield for not better protecting his daughter. The report says that since it was perceived as blame-shifting, this was counterproductive. Finally, they stated that someone other than Wilson, someone with expertise in dealing with sexual trauma, should have provided counselling to Natalie.
In the Sitler case, the CREC report states: “…it was a serious mistake for Christ Church leadership not to formally inform the congregation (or, more specifically, all parents of young children in the congregation) of his pattern of serial molestations immediately after it came to light.” Wilson and his fellow elders fell short on this. As a result of this failure to communicate, the man who introduced Sitler to his wife was unaware that he had molested numerous children – despite the fact that this man (Ed Iverson) was an elder in the church. As the report says, “This raises questions about who else in the Christ Church community might not have known that a serial child molester had been indwelling the community for an extended period of time.” Before sentencing, Wilson wrote a letter to the judge urging that Sitler’s sentence be “measured and limited.” The report assesses this act:
We are satisfied that what Pastor Wilson meant was, in light of all the circumstances, including Sitler’s self-disclosure and acceptance of responsibility, that the sentencing judge would not just put Sitler in prison and throw away the key. Nevertheless, a recommendation from a pastor for a “measured and limited” sentence for a serial child molester, whatever the intentions, is the kind of thing that can lead to a lot of heartache for victims and their families, and a lot of confusion by the public. It would have been wiser for Pastor Wilson to simply stick to communicating about the facts of the case as he was familiar with them, and let the judge do his job of determining an appropriate sentence under current law.
Finally, Doug Wilson officiated at Sitler’s wedding to Katie Travis. About this, the report says: “Under the circumstances, we strongly question the wisdom of Christ Church leadership in supporting and solemnizing the Sitler/Travis marriage.” I would put it stronger: it was utterly foolish and naïve. It was pastoral malpractice to facilitate the marriage of a diagnosed fixated pedophile.
Tim Bayly is by and large known as a supporter of Wilson. When Wilson published an Open Letter on his blog defending the Sitler/Travis marriage, initially Tim and his wife Mary Lee declared that it was “pastorally wise.” However, after learning more details about the Sitler case, they removed the post and apologized. The Baylys clarified that they do not endorse the approach that Wilson and Christ Church took with respect to the pastoral care of Steven Sitler.
With regard to Jim Nance, there are no legal records available, neither is there anything like the CREC report about Wight/Sitler. We have Emilie’s account of what happened. We have Wilson’s attempt to explain it. There we do find a problem. Wilson presents the situation as if it were something between two consenting adults. For example, “Both Jim and Emilie had denied at the time that there had been any physical involvement…” As noted earlier, according to Emilie’s account, the school didn’t ask anything beyond, “Did you kiss?” But then there’s this statement: Jim Nance’s “repentance was false, in that he and Emilie were still covering up what they had done…” (emphasis added). There should be no “Emilie” and no “they” in that statement – as if the victim shares any blame or responsibility. This shows a distinct lack of pastoral awareness about the dynamics of sexual abuse.
There is far more that could be said about this topic. I have been selective in what I’ve said about these three cases – I’ve tried to stick with facts that could be verified. Readers can explore these issues for themselves if they wish. At the end of the day, I believe it’s clear that Wilson has mishandled these cases. And there are more than one or two. But why? Some theorize that it has to do with the patriarchal dynamics of the Christ Church community. Strongly patriarchal communities attract and foster sexual abuse. It seems inevitable in a world where “women make the sandwiches” and a man “penetrates, conquers, colonizes and plants” (Fidelity, p.86). Abusers will always be at home in a world where “wives need to be led with a firm hand” (Reforming Marriage, p.80).
Whatever things good and true Wilson has written or said over the years are unfortunately overshadowed by his erroneous teachings, pastoral missteps, and uncouth language. One might say, “Read him, but with a healthy measure of discernment.” However, when a pastor cannot be relied upon to teach something as basic as justification correctly, it is more apropos to steer people away entirely. When a pastor displays a pattern of foolishness which constantly creates controversies and divisions, it is best to warn the saints to avoid such a man (Rom.16:17). Because, when everything is accounted for, Doug Wilson has nothing to offer that can’t be found elsewhere from wiser and more trustworthy sources.