Doug Wilson is trying to save civilization. The pastor at Christ Church Moscow, a college town on Idaho’s border with Washington, doesn’t think things are going very well in America these days. He wouldn’t mind a return to Old Testament law, as he wrote in his book Fidelity: How to Be a One-Woman Man: “[W]hen we are dealing with young children who are abused by adults (pederasty, child porn, etc.) the penalty for those guilty of the crime should be death.” Wilson is a provocateur—witty and, if not urbane, urbane-adjacent. For a certain type of Christian, Doug Wilson is a patriarchy-espousing, straight-shooting, feminist-bashing folk hero.
In addition to his role as pastor, Wilson is also a co-founder of New St. Andrew’s College and Grayfriars Hall, a vocational seminary for young men. He has developed a reputation for being a harsh and constant critic, spilling tons of digital ink on issues from LGBT inclusion in the church (he’s against it) to his favorite topic, the implausibility of Christian feminism. Wilson makes his reputation as a shock-jock theologian; in his tendency to bloviate, he brings to mind a certain presidential candidate: “Make Christianity great again!”
Wilson is one of the figureheads of a set of beliefs known as Biblical Patriarchy, devoted to the idea that “father rule”—the literal meaning of patriarchy—is a guiding principle for the Christian life. He is convinced the Bible teaches that a woman’s primary domain is in the home, and only after her responsibilities are satisfied there can she think about going out to get some volunteer work or, perhaps, a part-time job. Female preachers are, naturally, out of the question. “Christian women ought to be domestic,” he once said. “Everything is directed toward home and family and kids.”
It is easy to paint Wilson and other Biblical patriarchalists as a small, backwards, and increasingly irrelevant group of Christians. After all, in an age in which progressive Christianity has a louder and louder voice in people like Rachel Held Evans and Shane Claiborne, aren’t Wilson and his ilk destined to fade into the background?
It would appear not. Wilson has 22,000 Twitter followers; almost as many people as the population of Moscow, Idaho. He helped establish the Communion of Reformed Evangelical Churches, a denomination that has grown from a handful of churches when it began in 1998 to nearly 100 now. His website, Dougwils.com got 110,000 views in September 2015, and regularly sees visitor levels hovering around the 100K mark. Even when you account for the (not insignificant) number of hate reads, it’s clear that Wilson has found and is preaching to a sizable choir.
But what happens when the lights come up on the choir and some of its members are suffering? The harm done by Biblical patriarchy goes beyond outdated ideas about women—as we’ve seen with the Duggar family or the now-shuttered Vision Forum, a pro-patriarchy organization that shut down in the wake of its leader’s affair. A theology that domesticates women will, ultimately, devalue them. It will see them as complicit in their own abuse. It will make them hate themselves until they repent or run away.
Natalie Greenfield, age 28, has 400 Twitter followers to Wilson’s 22,000. But her story—told in blog posts, on social media, and in interviews for this piece—poses a sharp challenge to Wilson’s doctrine, and shows the drastically negative effects that “father rule” can enact on Christian women. Her story also, uncomfortably, confirms Wilson’s claims that both submission and patriarchy are “inescapable.”
Greenfield grew up in Lewiston, Idaho, the second-largest city in the northern part of the state, until her family moved to Moscow when she was 13. There, her parents bought a large house where they would eventually offer room and board to college-aged students living in Moscow. Most attended New St. Andrew’s; some were from University of Idaho; and a handful were students at Greyfriars Hall.
One of those Greyfriars students, Jamin Wight, moved into the Greenfield home when he was 23 and Natalie was 13. Wight would go to classes during the day, meeting regularly with elders from Christ Church, learning about church history and studying Greek and Hebrew to become a more effective minister. At night, after he had oiled the door to Natalie’s room so that its hinges wouldn’t squeak, he would kiss her, tell her she was beautiful, and force her to perform oral sex on him. Like Natalie’s family, Wight was a member of Christ Church in Moscow.
Prior to moving in with the Greenfields, Wight expressed a romantic interest in Natalie to her parents. They weren’t sure what to do, and so they turned to their pastor, Doug Wilson, for advice. The Greenfields and Wilson went back and forth on whether it was appropriate for a 23-year-old to court a young teenage girl, until Natalie’s father Gary finally said no to any sort of romantic relationship between Wight and his daughter. It would have been wisest at that point for the Greenfields to send Wight packing. But in a belief system where the highest good for girls is to marry and have children, it makes some kind of twisted sense that you would want to keep a potential suitor—and a seminarian, at that!—around for your daughter. “My parents, while very naive and foolish, couldn’t have possibly known he’d hurt me the way he did,” Greenfield said.
Jamin lived with the Greenfields for a year and a half. He never relented in his abuse of Natalie, who thought that she was in love with him. She once asked him if she was still a virgin or if fisting “constituted penetration.” He laughed at her, something he did often. He also exhibited some of the tell-tale signs of an abuser: He told Natalie she was a slut and if she told anyone about what happened she could never find another man who would love her. He told her she shouldn’t bother with college or pursue any interests, because she would soon enough be his wife and the mother of his children, and what good would an education do then? He was jealous of Natalie, lecturing her for what he perceived to be her flirtations with other boys. “Abuse thrives in silence,” Natalie said. “The facade is a really essential part of abuse, especially long-term abuse. From the outside, everything has to look fine, and I learned how to do that really well.”
It was Jamin Wight’s jealousy that eventually got him kicked out of the house. Greenfield’s father spotted Wight spying on his daughter outside a party one night, and asked Wight to move out. He did, but Wight still came by the house at times on the pretense of picking up forgotten items, and forced Natalie to give him sexual favors in the basement or in his car. When he finally stopped coming around, Natalie was sixteen and at the outset of years of insomnia, PTSD, flashbacks, depression, and social anxiety. She thought she would bear the burden of her relationship with Wight in silence, because she was sure she was somehow responsible for it. It wasn’t until she worked up the courage to tell a friend what had happened that Natalie decided to tell her parents. The next day, they called the police.
Wight was arrested and charged with three crimes: two counts of Lewd Conduct with a Child Under Sixteen Years of Age and one count of Sex Abuse Against a Child. On all three charges, Wight pled not guilty. In May 2006—eight months after the initial arrest—Wight’s charges were reduced to the lesser crime of Injury to a Child. During the proceedings, court documents reflect that Wight had expressed a desire to become a youth minister and worried aloud what this verdict would do to his career path, as well as any future hopes he had of marriage. He pled guilty to Injury of a Child and made a deal that allowed him to serve four to six months at the North Idaho Correctional Facility.
As the truth of the abuse came to light, Doug Wilson tried to play arbiter. He met with Greenfield’s parents, who were devastated by what had happened under their roof. He met with Wight. And, on behalf of the elders of Christ Church, Doug Wilson wrote a letter to Gary Greenfield, Natalie’s father. The letter expressed distress at how Jamin took “sinful advantage” of Natalie, but went on to say that the elders were equally as distressed by Gary’s failure to protect his own daughter. They wanted Gary to know that they had thought about withholding communion from him—a serious form of church discipline—because of his dereliction of duty as a father.
Another letter, from Wilson to the police officer assigned to the case, was even worse. In it, Wilson again criticizes the Greenfields for their parental folly and asserts his belief that this situation does not “in any way [paint] Jamin as a sexual predator.” When the time came for sentencing, Wilson and fellow CREC pastor Peter Leithart, whose Trinity Reformed Church Wight also attended, entered the courthouse and sat on the side of Jamin Wight. Wilson has been squarely on that side ever since, recently calling Wight’s abuse a “parent-approved relationship that led to statutory rape.”
Why are people attracted to Doug Wilson? “He has a very take-charge presence,” Natalie said. “He is charismatic, very assertive. He talks a fancy game, and he’s a master of rhetoric—and that’s enticing to a lot of people, especially Christian intellectuals.” She spoke of how Wilson and other church leaders often referred to other churches as “happy-clappy” or “Jesus hippies.” “Any time Christ Church perceived there was too much emotion in the way another church worshiped,” Greenfield said, “it was something they could make fun of them about.”
Gary Greenfield and his wife separated not long after the incident came to light, a painful and awkward split. He was barred from communion afterwards. Since then, Greenfield has converted to Eastern Orthodoxy. His wife still attends Christ Church.
Wight isn’t the only child molester who has received counsel and sympathy from Doug Wilson. A man named Steven Sitler, who had a history of molestation that was never prosecuted, came to Moscow to be a student at New St. Andrews College. Like many students at New St. Andrews and Greyfriar Hall—which is to say, like Jamin Wight—Sitler boarded with a local family.
The family Sitler moved in with had six young children. One night in May 2005, when the family had several other children visiting, Sitler went upstairs, got in a bunk bed with one of the girls, and the next morning one of the visiting children told the host father about this. That led to a series of confessions from Sitler, each one more damning than the last: He had crawled into bed, he said, but only because he was moved by God to pray for the girls. Well, okay, there was some touching. He touched a girl’s bottom. And her private parts. And he twice took a three year-old girl into the bathroom so that he could put his penis between her legs.
Wilson, to his credit, advised this family to immediately report the abuse to the police, which they did. Soon after, Sitler’s father retained Dean Wullenwaber, an Idaho attorney who also happened to have acted as legal counsel for New St. Andrew’s. As in the case of Natalie Greenfield, Christ Church congregants didn’t learn there had been an abuser in their midst until months afterward. Wilson counseled Sitler and requested to the judge in his case that punishment be “measured and limited.”
Sitler served 20 months of a life sentence. Six weeks after his release, he was rearrested, this time for voyeurism. Three years later, a Christ Church elder named Ed Iverson set Sitler up with a young NSA student named Katie Travis. They got engaged on their second date, and were married—by Doug Wilson—six months later. Sitler and Travis had a child, and as of this writing, Sitler is only allowed to be around their son with an approved chaperone because he has admitted to “contact resulting in actual sexual stimulation.”
Doug Wilson has written several blog posts defending his position of offering “free grace” to Steven Sitler. He also repeatedly accused the Greenfields of oversight and parental foolishness. Yet at no time has he made changes to the policies at his schools that placed young boarders in local family homes, nor did he take responsibility for the fact that asking community members to trust him about the fitness of these young men has backfired. As far as I can tell, in Moscow, students and families alike are encouraged to live with each other in order to foster community and avoid the kind of social stratification that often occurs in college towns. It’s an admirable goal, and works well in most cases, when college students get be part of a family structure and extend their involvement in their local community. But when it doesn’t work, as in these cases, the consequences can be dire. Moving these young men into dorms isn’t the answer, but a more thorough screening process and an adjusted protocol after an incident or accusation comes to light would be a start.
Wilson isn’t likely to change his mind about anything, though. That’s the damaging thing about theological certainty: It doesn’t respond to human trauma. The Bible is full of warnings to oppressors and the people who enable them. Wilson himself suggested the death penalty for child abusers. Just not, apparently, the ones who belong to his church.
Jamin Wight and Natalie Greenfield both have three children. They live in the same town and see each other every couple of weeks. They don’t interact, but in a company town like Moscow it’s hard to avoid running into the people you’ve known forever. What would you tell Doug Wilson, I ask her, if you could make him understand anything?
She thought for a moment. “It’s never been about taking down a church or making this man go away,” she said. “It’s always been about healing and hopefully connecting with other victims who are in similar situations. It’s important to be loud.”
Laura Turner is a writer and editor living in San Francisco.
This post has been corrected: Gary Greenfield was not excommunicated, as was previously stated.
Illustration by Jim Cooke, screenshot via Youtube