The upcoming appeal to the trial decision, which will be heard at OPC General Assembly in June, is a opportunity to show to the OPC community and beyond that women’s bodies matter, that women themselves matter, that a man who protects his chronically ill and disabled wife, acting towards her in accordance with his conscience before God will be supported and embraced, not condemned.
In January, 2015, I was asked to attend the last stage of the ecclesiastical trial of a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) Presbytery of the Southeast, held in Raleigh, North Carolina. I am a Reformed Christian, a former member of the OPC, and an academic, now living and working as a linguist at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom.
For several years, I have been conducting research related to how women in the Reformed Church are written and spoken about. My name was given to a member of the OPC Southeast Presbytery as someone who might be interested in documenting what I observed there as an expansion of my research and sharing it with the wider Reformed community. After attending the last stage of the trial, The Aquila Report published my report entitled ‘Women on Trial: One Observer’s View’.
The response from the Reformed community was immediate and polarized. In online, public forums, some individuals speculated about and challenged my moral character and motivations for attending the trial. At times, the public attacks have been vicious. Some labeled me a liar, a slanderer, and compared me to Satan. Quite a few stated that I had no business attending the trial and was not welcome there.
However, this negative response (which occurred almost exclusively in public forums) has been overwhelmingly outnumbered by the supportive, encouraging, and positive public comments and personal e-mails, phone calls, Skype conversations, and face to face conversations with Reformed Christians, some of whom attended the trial, from across the United States, and beyond. Perhaps the most visible expression came via Christopher Jones’ follow-up piece on The Aquila Report entitled Ministering to All of Us: A Response to Valerie Hobbs’ ‘Women on Trial’, which highlights the importance of Christ’s ministry to those ‘on the outside edge of normal.’
As many of you have no doubt heard, an appeal related to the outcome of the ecclesiastical trial will be heard at this year’s OPC General Assembly at Dordt College scheduled for June 3-9, 2015. Whether or not you see the wife of the defendant as central to this trial, I encourage you to consider that she was mentioned throughout the stage I witnessed and that the defense repeatedly highlighted her importance in the proceedings. That in mind, I write this article for two reasons: to share with you the stories and comments I have received from Reformed Christians and to urge Reformed Christian women, differently abled Reformed Christians, and those who care about them from within the OPC and beyond to attend General Assembly.
Since The Aquila Report published my account of the last stage of the trial, I have received personal communication from over 200 Reformed Christians (OPC, PCA, RPCUS, RPCNA, ARPC, URC, PCUSA, Reformed Baptist, and Reformed Congregational). Approximately half of the communications came from either pastors or lay members of OPC congregations. Around 130 of the total are women, ranging in age from early 20s to late 60s. The men I heard from are almost exclusively church officers (teaching elders and ruling elders).
I have been greatly blessed and encouraged by many in the Reformed church who are deeply concerned about the decision of the OPC Presbytery of the Southeast and the way women are viewed, spoken about, treated, and ministered to in the wider Reformed church. But the e-mails, phone calls, etc., that have stuck in my mind are those from women across the United States, many of whom attend OPC congregations, who have shared their stories of dismissive attitudes towards illness and suffering, women who feel marginalized and ignored, and women who have had their presence at presbytery meetings questioned.
Women wrote for themselves and on behalf of others. One woman wrote that she is frequently unable to attend church due to chronic illness (like the trial defendant’s wife) and has been rebuked by members of her congregation and her pastor for her irregular attendance.
Another woman contacted me to say she was in tears reading about the trial, that as a disabled woman, she felt that it was as if she herself were on trial, a sentiment expressed almost identically by 13 other women.
Women in physically abusive marriages told me how they have been told to stay for the sake of ‘unity’ and ‘spiritual reconciliation.’ Others expressed what one described as countless experiences of feeling ‘shut up and discounted.’
One OPC pastor’s wife e-mailed me to say that she had been treated ‘rudely’ when she attended presbytery meetings; her attendance met with incredulity.
Many other women recounted feelings of being an outsider due to being single, divorced, or otherwise not ‘fitting the mold.’
These are just some of the stories that have been shared with me, all of which indicate how deeply this trial and the events surrounding it have resonated with many Reformed women.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, the upcoming appeal to the trial decision, which will be heard at General Assembly in June, is a opportunity to show to the OPC community and beyond that women’s bodies matter, that women themselves matter, that a man who protects his chronically ill and disabled wife, acting towards her in accordance with his conscience before God will be supported and embraced, not condemned.
On behalf of these 130 women and countless others, I humbly urge the godly leaders in the OPC to act with boldness and love for their brother and his wife and daughter. I also ask as many as are able to attend GA this year to witness the outcome of the appeal of the trial decision and to show support for women, for all those who are outsiders, who are weak, who are afflicted, for all whose lives are profoundly affected by these kinds of decisions.
Whatever your view on these matters, please pray with conviction for all those who are in the unenviable position of passing judgment on the appeal, that they would listen to the evidence with wise ears and make a prayerful and God honoring decision. Let us follow the example of our Lord who ministered to both the spiritual and physical needs of those who are the most marginalized and stand with them in love.
May God’s name be glorified.
Valerie Hobbs is a Lecturer in Applied Linguistics at the University of Sheffield, Associate Director of the Lydia Center for Women and Family, and Fellow in Language and Christianity at Greystone Theological Institute. She and her husband and two children attend an independent Reformed church (a member of the EFCC) in Sheffield, United Kingdom.