The following is an article I was asked to write by New Horizons, the denominational magazine of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC). They requested I write about how reformed theology, and the theology taught by the OPC, had sustained my faith through over two decades of abuse. I wasn’t sure whether they understood, at the time, what they were asking me to do, but over several months, I wrote the piece to their specifications. No matter how many times I write about these things, it causes me deep anxiety and depression. Unfortunately, after I submitted my article, OPC Pastor, Danny Olinger, and General Secretary for the Committee on Christian Education, rejected it. So, I have decided to publish it here, on my website. Originally, when I submitted this to New Horizons, I did not name names. However, I have since edited and updated the piece, because I believe that honesty is particularly important at this juncture. My Open Letter to the OPC Regarding Abuse in the church is posted here.
“What would it take to get you to spread your legs for a man?”
At 15 years old, I was stunned by his words. He was an OPC pastor, named Gary Davenport. I and a small group of teenagers were staying overnight at his house on our way to OPC youth camp. After my friends had fallen asleep, I had gotten up to get a glass of water. There he’d been, studying for his sermon on the sofa.
On first sight, I’d considered telling him about my dad – the violence and sexual abuse I was experiencing at home – but my hopes were dashed when he spoke those words. Suddenly, I felt stupid, unsafe, and exposed. I remember tugging my tee shirt as far over my thighs as I could make it stretch. I told him I didn’t feel comfortable with this conversation.
He laughed and said he was only asking these questions for my good. He talked about my breasts and how he thought they looked beneath my suit. He talked about the way I’d walked as I waded in the pool; totally unaware he’d been watching me. Unless I knew my vulnerabilities, Gary claimed, some man would get me pregnant.
But I was no stranger to these types of games. My father, a violent sexual predator, had inadvertently prepared me to meet this wolf in shepherd’s clothing. I understood these warning signs. I knew what this was. I excused myself, went back to bed, and cried myself to sleep.
This couldn’t be how most pastors were though, I thought. So, a few months later, I worked up the courage to ask for help from another OPC pastor. My dad’s violence had recently escalated, and I made up some excuse for wanting to meet. He took me out for Thai food. Halfway through lunch, I took my leap of faith.
“My dad threw an iron at my head,” I explained. “I ducked just in time, and it dented the wall behind my head. If it had hit me, I’d probably be in the hospital right now, or worse.”
I remember imagining him taking me back to his house, where I’d be safe. Maybe he’d arrange for me to stay with another family from church. Maybe he’d call the police and make sure my dad couldn’t hurt my mom or four little sisters.
Instead, he got very quiet, and said, “We should pray for your dad’s anger issues.”
I can’t tell you how surreal and disappointing it was when he dropped me off on the curb in front of my parent’s house. He drove away with a smile and a wave, and I felt utterly abandoned and alone. I blamed myself for having hoped at all. How could I have been so stupid as to think he’d listen? Did I not explain myself well? Did he not understand? To this day, I don’t know.
Looking back over my childhood, it’s the grace of God I survived. My dad taught Sunday school and propounded Reformed theology in multiple OPC churches. Our church pianist in California, who I told my mom had tried to wrap his arm around me, later went to prison for molesting his daughter. My best friend’s dad at our PCA church in Germantown, Tennessee, also served time for child sexual abuse.
God spared me from so much, yet sustained my faith through what I can only describe as torture. It was over 21 years of domestic violence, sexual abuse, psychological abuse, and spiritual abuse. One of my earliest memories is from when I was two-years-old. Under Tennessee law, the term for what happened is “aggravated rape of a child,” but most laymen would call it molestation.
When my husband and I joined our current church, Cornerstone OPC, in Cypress, Texas, Pastor Robert Arendale – one of the wisest men I’ve ever had the honor to learn from – asked me, “How did you survive all that and keep your faith?” I can only say it is a miracle. When I was about 11-years-old, I had told God that my biological father was a stranger. I told him I felt the presence of evil in my home. I asked God to be my real daddy, and he said yes.
Back when I was 15, I realized to a new degree how bent my dad was. My childish mind was maturing to a more adult understanding. I overhead my dad telling my mom what a beautiful figure he thought I was developing. And something clicked inside my mind. Something broke inside my heart.
Have you ever seen the movie, Men in Black? There’s a scene where the alien kills a farmer and walks around town wearing his skin. It was like my dad had spiritually died and a demon inhabited his body. Realization came crashing down that my dad wasn’t a true Christian and never even had been. The dad I’d thought I had, the godly man I hoped he could become, was a lie.
And I decided to kill myself.
I retrieved a razor blade from my mom’s art supplies, took it to my bedroom, and sat down on my bed. And I prayed, “God, I’ve heard if I commit suicide I’ll go to Hell, but I can’t live like this any longer.” I begged God not to abandon me, and pleaded, “I want to come to Heaven to be with you.”
But then something unusual happened. A voice filled my heart and soul. He said, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” Being a good little OPC girl, I didn’t believe in speaking in tongues or modern-day prophecy, but it was like I knew that voice in my very DNA. I knew those words from Scripture as the words of God.
I dropped the razor that had been pressed against my veins. My tears of sorrow turned to tears of joy. Suddenly, I knew, without a shadow of doubt, that I had a good Daddy, a righteous Heavenly Father, and he loved me, and he was faithful. I decided to live that day, because I knew God had more planned for me than misery and pain.
Today, I not only believe in Reformed doctrines like election and predestination, but I am living proof of them. When an Arminian tells me that they fear losing their faith, I can tell them how I should have lost mine a thousand times, but God is faithful and sustained me. When I doubt my own salvation, I recall my childhood, and know that only God could have gotten me through it alive.
My dad loved infiltrating doctrinally sound and theologically deep churches. He was the “noisy gong” and “clanging cymbal” of 1 Corinthians 13. He puffed himself up on knowledge. He fed his ego by conning godly, educated people into thinking him a theologian. But he could go from studying Berkoff to beating his daughter black and blue in a snap. He had not love. And he has become as nothing to me. I often talk about my dad in the past tense, because I feel as if he died. But he attends a PCA church now. Last I checked, he taught Sunday school.
When I was living with my dad, we were members of one PCA and four OPC churches. Some church leaders were abusive. Some were ignorant or unwise. Some were godly and faithful, but never suspected what my dad was. Yet the Gospel worked through all of these men. I witnessed total depravity. I experienced how unconditional my election truly was. I felt Christ’s atonement and was drawn by his irresistible grace. My God and true Father, my Redeemer and Savior, preserved his saint. He is my Recovery.
“It was like my dad had spiritually died and a demon inhabited his body.”
You may have meant this rhetorically, but it sounds like it was literally true. There were demon possessed preachers in the Bible, and there are still many today.
This was hard for me to read Jenn…i experienced terrible abuse at home too. Im so glad you escaped and now have a good life. There are many wolves in sheep’s clothing inhabiting the church. Its a very sad reality. We know that one day they will get what is coming to them. God bless.
It sickens me read about your terrible experiences and lack of fortitude of all the church lesders who ignored or took advantage of you and others. I do not believe in revenge but i do believe in justice. Let righteous justice prevail.
You are very brave and courageous. You are kind and loving and caring. God has enabled you to speak out. So speak…thank you
Thank you for sharing your story, I am so sorry that you had to go through this. I think we have some similarities. I grew up in the OPC as well, with a sadistically abusive step-father who was also the pastor. (He actually adopted me when I was young, but now that I have accepted the full impact of his abuse, I do not want to call him father any longer). He is a covert narcissist and very knowledgeable about theology. He could switch from the malignant, abusive narcissist that he was at home to the public, covert narcissist in an instant. When my father was a younger pastor, he began to earn a reputation for being arrogant among some of the other pastors in the Presbytery. When he realized this, he developed the ability to display false humility. He did this because he needed to maintain the admiration that he could not live without. I still observe him play-acting this false humility in conversations with people who I know he is secretly ridiculing.
I’m in graduate school now at a seminary, studying mental health counseling and theology, trying to understand twisted minds of both my parents and sort the spiritual lies from Biblical truth.
My mother is misdiagnosed with general anxiety disorder. She is actually extremely Borderline with Narcissistic traits. They were both extremely physically, emotionally, spiritually and psychologically abusive. My mother is more neurotic and had a more difficult time hiding it. My stepfather, however, was a master at hiding. He was worshipped, and still is worshipped by people in that church. I too believe in the doctrines taught in the OPC, but I link the twisted, legalistic application that was pervasive in the OPC with the abuse that infects many of the churches. I could go on and on and on. I know Danny Olinger. He’s still friends with my stepfather. I don’t know much about him, although I’ve met him many times. I often felt invisible to the men who were leaders in the OPC. I learned to fear them. There are wonderful, loving, Christ-like people in that denomination. But there are also many abusers who use the Bible as a weapon. A lot of them are elders or pastors.
I found your site because I wanted to find more like me. I have a very difficult time explaining my childhood experiences to most people. They just can’t wrap their minds around it and then usually conclude that I grew up in a cult. And let’s be real. The Only Perfect Church has some cult-like characteristics. I would love to connect with you.
Our childhoods were stolen from us. Jesus knows our suffering and justice is his.
My father is also an abusive sociopath who has never ceased pursuing his ambitions of being an esteemed “Bible Scholar” in a Reformed church. I am so disappointed with myself for getting sucked back in. My faith is still in tact, but only because when I start to give up I stop coming to church for a long time. It is harmful to my relationship with God to stay in fellowship, but I am now completely broken and financially dependent on him. I am afraid if I continue to sit in a church that enables and encourages his delusions of grandeur (re: his “ministry”) then I will become like him.