Inside the culture of abuse and social control at Moscow, Idaho's Christ Church
Illustrator: Laura Lannes
Life

Inside the Church That Preaches ‘Wives Need to Be Led with a Firm Hand’

Evangelical pastor Douglas Wilson wrote that men “conquer” and women “surrender.” Christ Church survivors are starting to speak out.
September 28, 2021, 2:24pm

In 2000, Jean, then 16 years old, moved with her mother to Moscow, Idaho, after her parents separated. (Jean is a pseudonym due to safety concerns.) Men and children, prompted by an email from Christ Church, met them at their new home, a split-level rental, to unload the moving truck. Their new city was a beautiful place, says Jean, where “flowers bloom in well-curated beds, Christmas lights are up year-round, and police still ride bicycles.” 

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Moscow is an idyllic university town, most notably anchored by the University of Idaho, dotted by historic buildings, and known for its thriving arts scene. The in-town farmers’ market is populated by friendly, well-dressed “kirkers”—local shorthand for members of Mother Kirk, the nickname for Christ Church, which boasts about 900 congregants in the town of 25,000. Christ Church is a communal ecosystem unto itself, with affiliated institutions throughout Main Street and the business district: the K-12 Logos School; a publishing house, Canon Press; an unaccredited pastoral ministry program, Greyfriars Hall; and a private college, New Saint Andrews.

Jean and her mother hadn’t joined Christ Church before they arrived, but Jean had plans to attend New Saint Andrews. She thought that it was like any number of religiously affiliated schools and that Christ Church was just another church. “It is such a sweet town,” said Jean. “You’d never guess there was such hatred.”

Depending upon whom you ask, the town either hosts a Calvinist utopia or a patriarchal cult in which women must submit or face discipline at home and at church.

Mother Kirk can be a joyous, faithful community. But the conservative congregation also is at odds with Moscow’s more liberal population (surrounding Latah County voted for President Biden in 2020). Depending upon whom you ask, the town hosts either a Calvinist utopia or a patriarchal cult in which women must submit or face discipline at home and at church. At the center of it all is notoriously controversial Douglas Wilson, the firebrand pastor who’s been presiding over his Mother Kirk fiefdom for more than 40 years. 

To learn about Christ Church’s culture of abuse and social control, VICE has interviewed 12 former and current church members and Logos students, and reviewed court and medical documents, church correspondence, and business filings. Ex-kirkers describe a punitive community in which women are told they must defer to church leaders and cannot say “no” to their husbands, men are taught to strictly control their homes, and those who speak out can be isolated and harassed.

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During Jean’s first year as a non-matriculating student at New Saint Andrews, Christ Church’s college of about 150 students, she met a charming, handsome upperclassman. His father was a deacon at Mother Kirk. By her second year, they started dating and soon he said he wanted to marry her. “I had stars in my eyes,” remembers Jean. “But then he got physical. I was a virgin, and it scared me.”

Within their first year dating, heavy petting turned to coercive sex. He’d get her drunk and refuse to accept her wishes not to have sex. He refused condoms. Jean, who had been raised on a steady diet of purity movement books, felt like she had no choice but to marry him, “or I was somehow unclean and unworthy.” Before they got married, she joined the church, taking covenant vows in front of the congregation. After her vows, kirkers came up and shook her hand, saying how beautiful she was. “That’s a big deal to men in leadership,” says Jean. They brag about how their women are more beautiful than ‘pagans’ wives.’” 

The wedding, officiated by Wilson, was four years after she moved to Moscow. Starting nine months after they were married, they had a baby every other year until the couple had four children. One night, after their first was born, her husband came home drunk after she was asleep. He pulled her over, lifted her nightgown. She told him “not tonight,” that she was tired. He got angry. She tried clawing away, then pushing him away with her arms. He pinned her down, so she used her legs to kick him. That’s when he unbuttoned his pants. “When he was done, he passed out drunk and I locked myself in the bathroom and cried.” She was bruised and her insides bled.

“These pastors told me a wife is not allowed to tell her husband no.”

She called a kirker friend about it the next day. The friend attended a Christ Church plant—a seedling congregation based in Christ Church’s doctrine and culture—and “she said the same thing was going on in her marriage.” Marital rape, it seemed, was normal. So, Jean didn’t report it. Jean’s husband raped her over and again a couple of times a week for about a decade, either with violence or by waiting until after she took a prescription sleeping pill. Sometimes, “I’d wake up with him having me or I’d wake up the next morning and be bleeding or see the signs.” Jean has since been diagnosed with PTSD from sexual assault.

Years into her marriage, Jean went to several pastors at Trinity Reformed, a Moscow Christ Church plant, and told them her husband had been raping her. Although they did notify Christ Church leaders, because her then-husband’s father was an elder who could be disciplined if his son continued to sin, the pastors at Trinity, “all told me not to report it and that I was wrong. These pastors told me a wife is not allowed to tell her husband no.” 

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Jean’s then-husband’s drinking increased. She says he held her against walls, slammed a lot of doors, pounded the walls, once pointed a loaded gun at her, raped her with a champagne bottle. The pastors at Trinity told her not to go to the police, not to separate. 

Eventually, she prepared for divorce and left the Christ Church community, knowing she’d just be excommunicated if she tried to stay. One woman’s counselor called her after the split, telling Jean that she “was causing [her husband] to turn to porn now that I was divorcing him.” 

In the time since leaving the Christ Church community, Jean’s car has been vandalized regularly, the air let out of her tires several times. Online, she’s had to block kirkers, including teachers from Logos, angry about her divorce. “I have been called a whore, bitch, and cunt,” she said.

A Man Penetrates, Conquers, and Colonizes

Cigar-puffing and presenting like a Christian philosopher king on YouTube videos, pastor Doug Wilson is a radical provocateur, even among outspoken Christian conservatives, and appears to relish Twitter wars and blog battles. In the 1970s, he became pastor of Christ Church, which is now influential within the Communion of Reformed Evangelical Churches, a denomination Wilson helped found that includes more than 100 churches nationally. In 2003, 94 ecclesiastical charges were brought against Wilson by his denomination—from improperly using church funds to pay off students’ casino debts to “carnal threatening” of others—but the charges were ultimately dropped. Last year, Wilson published a novel called Ride, Sally, Ride about a Christian man who runs his neighbor’s sexbot “wife” named Sally through a trash compactor, and YouTube recently removed Wilson’s video making a moral argument for fake vaccine passports. 

(Wilson declined a request for comment for this article, but did provide a link to a library of defenses for his past controversies.) 

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In his book Father Hunger, the pastor writes that a lack of fatherly authority and biblical masculinity (one that does not “simper and lisp”) is the root of various modern failings, including the “poison” of egalitarianism between genders. He has written “the sexual act cannot be made into an egalitarian pleasuring party.” Instead, he argues that “a man penetrates, conquers, colonizes, plants,” while a “woman receives, surrenders, accepts,” and that “true authority and true submission are therefore an erotic necessity.

“Of course a husband is never trespassing in his own garden.”

The idea is pervasive. In Wilson’s wife Nancy’s book, The Fruit of Her Hands, she describes wives as lovely, enclosed gardens cultivated for marital sex: “But of course a husband is never trespassing in his own garden.” In 2017, Jean says, another member of the church told her a man is allowed to rape his wife. 

Other survivors within the Christ Church community have stories of a culture of allowance around abuse. Former church member Natalie Greenfield was 14 when Greyfriars Hall student Jamin Wight, who was in his mid-20s, started sexually abusing her. In 2005, when Greenfield reported the abuse to police, Wilson asked the investigating officer to give leniency to Wight. Wilson cast their sexual interactions as the result of a parent-arranged courtship—something Greenfield maintains is untrue—but, according to emails gathered in an extensive analysis of Wilson by researcher Rachel Shubin, the judge seemed to accept Wilson’s narrative and rejected a more stringent plea agreement under charges of sexual abuse of a child. After Wight’s conviction (on a lesser charge of “injury to a child”), Christ Church plant Trinity Reformed emailed congregants thanking those praying for Wight. Following his release, Trinity funded $3,000 toward sending Wight on a Haitian mission trip. In 2013, Wight was charged with attempted strangulation of his wife and later found guilty of domestic battery.

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Wilson also officiated the wedding of Steven Sitler, a former New Saint Andrews student convicted of lewd contact with a child under 16, despite Sitler’s parole officer’s objections. (Sitler, on lifetime parole due to the number of victims he confessed abusing, could not be unsupervised with children.) Wilson maintains a unique role in the Sitler saga, saying he encouraged the father who discovered the abuse to report it to the police, but Wilson later welcomed Sitler back to Christ Church (with a chaperone). At Sitler’s wedding, according to one guest, Wilson explained that sometimes people need to get married so the flesh can be contained. Using a wife as a sexual decoy to distract Sitler from children didn’t work. Later, a judge ruled Sitler must be chaperoned around his infant son, due to admitted sexual stimulation resulting from contact with the baby.

A culture that normalizes sexual abuse and harassing survivors is just one manifestation of the authority and control that blends devotion to God with submission to church leaders. For years, Christian blogs, such as Spiritual Sounding Board and The Wartburg Watch, have detailed sometimes anonymous accounts of Christ Church’s spiritual abuse, a phenomenon typically defined as faith leaders creating a toxic culture within a church or community and using their position to shame and control. Kirkers have long been afraid to speak out. That may be changing: a wave of former and current church members are stepping forward now, thanks to a new YouTube channel. On Courageous Empathy, host  Kevin McGill, a Seventh Day Adventist pastor, interviews ex-kirkers about their scarring experiences with the church.

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Still, Christ Church, under Wilson, has been expanding in both footprint and influence. 

Mother Kirk and Spiritual Takeover

Much of Doug Wilson’s work is arguably the continuation of that of his father, Jim Wilson. In 1971, Jim Wilson moved to the Moscow, Idaho area to start a Christian bookstore after retiring from the Navy. The elder Wilson’s 1964 book Principles of War: A Handbook on Strategic Evangelism is a how-to for spiritual takeover of individuals, cities, and nations. Doug Wilson has described Moscow as a city right-sized for spiritual conquest. If all continues according to plan, Mother Kirk’s dominion over Moscow will deepen as its influence spreads. 

There are tensions in Moscow between the kirkers and other town residents wary of land purchases by business owners affiliated with the church. The pandemic underscored perceived camps within the business community, particularly as Christ Church members protested a local mask ordinance. (Doug Wilson’s son Nate and two grandsons were charged with 13 misdemeanors for posting anti-mask stickers and anti-government drawings around downtown Moscow.) 

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As Wilson has built out the church’s holdings, he has protected his empire through theology that demands submission and church discipline, and for those who do not comply: excommunication, and occasional online bullying. For kirkers, speaking up takes courage. There is a regular section in the printed church bulletin listing the names of those who have strayed—as one former member describes, a list of the excommunicated—along with a prayer request for repentance from sin. It functionally serves as a record of people whom kirkers ice out. Families cut off loved ones over leaving the church. Others, as Jean found out, lash out against ex-members with harassment. Small businesses suddenly lose customers, and while it is hard to prove a boycott, the timing suggests as much. The tight-knit Christ Church community which provides so much can also be quickly taken away. 

Wilson’s influence extends beyond church campuses in Moscow. Christ Church’s Logos School serves as a template for the classical Christian school movement. He helped form the Association of Classical and Christian Schools to accredit similar institutions, now numbering more than 200 accredited and full members nationally on its website (the organization has since distanced itself from Wilson). Some former Logos students describe the enforcement of  modest dress, “Godly” gender roles, and “prompt and cheerful obedience” to teachers, as well as prohibitions of romantic relationships between students.

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The school, like the private homes of Christ Church congregants, also seemed to be ripe grounds for abuse. In 2017, Michaela Petersen, who attended Logos through 11th grade, and other students reported inappropriate touching by one teacher to Logos’ school board. According to Petersen, one male teacher “would feel up” Peterson and other girls in the hallways and rub their backs without permission in the classroom. In one instance, the teacher said to the class “You see? Everything has a male and a female part. The projector cord is the male, and you stick his penis in the outlet’s vagina,” as he stroked the cord and then pushed it into the socket.

After the students went to Logos’ superintendent in 2017, this teacher retired with an email from the superintendent thanking him for his service, landed a job with a classical Christian press, and runs a Moscow small business. According to Petersen, at least one other Logos teacher has been accused of sexual abuse with a student, as reported to police two years after the abuse occurred. (Peterson also describes being taught by Logos teachers “the curse of Cain was black skin” and that “Black is the color of Satan and white the color of good.”)

“He just wants to sit there and listen to everything that transpired between these two teen lovers, like all the graphic detail.”

Kamilla Niska, who is now 25 and attended Christ Church and Logos through 11th grade, describes being spanked with a wooden paddle in 6th grade, once by a female administrator, once by a male principal. (In a copy of the 2012-2013 Logos parent/student handbook, provided to VICE, the Discipline Policy states: “The principal may require restitution, janitorial work...spanking, or any other measures consistent with biblical guidelines which maybe appropriate.”) Raised by an adoptive, single mom, Niska says she “didn’t get touched by adult men,” so being bent in a prone position, hands on her principal’s desk as he struck her, haunted her dreams. Other boundaries were violated. Later, in 10th grade, when Niska was covertly seeing a boy at Logos, Nancy Wilson started pulling her into classrooms to talk, and asking if they’d done anything physical. Were they in a relationship? Was she keeping pure? 

Since Niska left the school and church, she has heard about Nancy and Doug asking multiple students about their sexual activity. “He just wants to sit there and listen to everything that transpired between these two teen lovers, like all the graphic detail,” says Niska.

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Former Logos student Helen Shores, 37, was called in for a solo meeting with Doug Wilson after she lost her virginity at 16 to her then boyfriend, who had confessed they’d had sex to his parents. Wilson “wanted me to tell him in detail, everything that happened when we had sex,” says Shores, who was told by Wilson that her boyfriend had already told him everything. “So I needed to tell him in absolute detail what sexual experience happened, how many times it happened, all that kind of stuff.”

Mother Kirk has grand expansion plans for the Logos School. Thirty acres of land has been purchased on the Northwest edge of Moscow to build a new school complex. A promotional video on the fundraising campaign page touts itself as a reminder “that much of what we are doing in education… is exported to hundreds of classical Christian schools across the country and beyond.” 

Over recent years, multiple, secret groups for Logos survivors have organized online. Among those who work to help survivors is Sarah Bader, who left Logos School as a kid. She has appeared five times on Kevin McGill’s YouTube channel. Bader and others’ public appearances on the channel have prompted more survivors to reach out. Since the channel’s start in May, Bader and McGill together have heard from 27 victims of some sort of abuse (spiritual, physical, emotional, sexual) from within the church or its schools. 

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After Bader appeared on the channel, someone sent her an ominous picture of a knife via Instagram. She has worn a pistol on her hip since last year, when she spoke up against Christ Church members strategically buying up business property in her own neighboring small town, Troy (population 900). She noticed an armed kirker had made a habit of sitting outside her business.

Lordship in the Home

Counseling sessions—with school children, church members, and married couples—were one of the main mechanisms through which Christ Church pastors engendered a culture of male domination. Although Doug Wilson holds pastoral and counseling roles, he does not have formal theological training, did not graduate seminary, and is not a licensed counselor.

One woman who reached out to McGill was Kimberly McCullough, whose ex-husband was an early Doug Wilson disciple. McCullough, 56, was a dutiful, homeschooling mother. She read the Bible with her children. She recalls her husband saying “No wife of mine is going to work”  and needing his permission to cut her hair. But when he started disappearing from the home for long stretches, he still demanded sex on his return. Her husband was absent so much, when he did come home, she was left feeling “who is this strange man who wants to take my body?” Not to submit to his wishes would be sinful, she knew from Doug Wilson’s teachings and Jim Wilson—Doug Wilson’s father—made this clear in counseling sessions with McCullough. 

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McCullough says she was counseled, “if the wife did not concede, she was in sin,” and believed a woman could be excommunicated from the church for refusal to have sex with her husband. Faith was central to her. She couldn’t understand why sometimes her throat would seem to close, her body suddenly gripped with panic. Her anxiety attacks went undiagnosed for years. 

The counseling sessions were sometimes later wielded against disobedient members. When McCullough finally left her husband after 18 years, the elder Wilson—who describes himself on dust-jackets as a pastor, counselor, and director of Community Christian Ministries—was called as a witness in their divorce case. McCullough remembers Wilson claiming he did not have to maintain confidentiality from their counseling sessions as he is not ordained. He saw himself more as a Bible teacher, he noted in court recordings. (Her ex-husband could not be reached for comment, but the details of their marriage and divorce were confirmed with courtroom recordings.)

“If the wife did not concede, she was in sin.”

Like his father, Doug Wilson articulates those lessons in his book Reforming Marriage, writing: “Wives need to be led with a firm hand” and that “it is tragic that wholesale abdication on the part of modern men has made the idea of lordship in the home such a laughable thing.” In Federal Husband, Doug Wilson asserts men must assume full spiritual responsibility for the household, including any wifely negligence to submit in: “spending habits, television viewing habits, weight, rejection of his leadership, laziness in cleaning the house, lack of responsiveness to sexual advances.” Such a husband must confess failure in leading his wife, outline clear expectations, and repeatedly point out her failures. If she complies, “he must move up a step, requiring another of her duties be done.” If she continues to rebel, it’s appropriate to call in the church elders.

Many of the emotional dynamics ex-members described in the church run parallel to coercive control in abusive relationships, while theological demands for submission normalize the same pattern at home. Church leaders, doubling as counselors, know how to hurt rebellious members.

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In a letter on Christ Church letterhead, the church’s Center for Biblical Counseling ministry counselor Mike Lawyer informed one woman after hundreds of hours of counseling she was being suspended “from the Table of the Lord” until she confessed and repented after leaving it up to her husband to clean and prep food, putting her kids in daycare, and “ignoring the God given roles,” including submission. Another woman, Cori Phillips, is a 51-year-old homeschooling mother of 10 children and attended Providence Church, planted by Doug Wilson’s brother Gordon (now a teacher at Christ Church’s New Saint Andrews College). When Phillips began to raise concerns about Doug Wilson’s blog to her church leaders and on Facebook, a church leader cast Phillips as a dangerous woman, warning a friend’s husband to shield his wife from Phillips, and spread a mix of misinformation and decades’ old details from pastoral counseling sessions.

For others, counseling in-house keeps sensitive matters under Wilson’s authority. Hilary Medina attended Christ Church from around age nine to 21, and was 15 or 16 when her mother told her she needed to speak to Nancy Wilson. Unbeknownst to Medina then, her oldest sister’s husband had sent a letter to Doug suggesting her father had done something inappropriate to that sister when she was young. Nancy Wilson asked Medina if she felt safe around her father, and Medina admitted she’d thought she had been watched in the shower through the bathroom window.

“It is tragic that wholesale abdication on the part of modern men has made the idea of lordship in the home such a laughable thing.”

According to Medina, Nancy confirmed this had been her dad, that he’d confessed to it, as well as inappropriately touching her. (In a request for comment for this story, her father confirmed “on a few occasions” watching her in the shower from the window.) 

About a week later the family was called into Doug Wilson’s office to hear her father’s confession. Her father recalls now that he’d confessed to inappropriate behavior toward his eldest daughter a year or two earlier in Wilson’s office. At this meeting, Medina’s father asked her to forgive him for looking at her in the shower and “other stuff that you don’t know about,” but that her father felt he didn’t need to detail since she wasn’t fully aware. She remembers back rubs that strayed to her butt, the sides of her breasts. Her father says he does not recall this, but deferred to Medina’s memory. (While unclear whether criminal under Idaho law, unwelcome touching could potentially have violated the law against lewd conduct with children under 16 or other statutes.)

In response to a request for comment on this and other interactions with church members and students, Nancy Wilson said, “Like thousands of churches, we do provide counseling and input for people, but it would be utterly unprofessional for us to reveal even their names—still less the content of the conversation.”

In Wilson’s office that day, the family cried and held hands. Today, her father says his behavior was his own choice, not caused by Wilson, and that Wilson counseled him to avoid being alone with Medina. Yet Medina remembers Doug Wilson telling her something she’s never forgotten. If down the road, a bird or something hit the window when she was in the shower, she may think about her dad watching her, and that wouldn’t necessarily mean she was bitter, she was told, but she should confess bitterness right away. 

Medina also remembers Nancy Wilson telling her in their subsequent counseling sessions that her father hadn’t done anything illegal. When Medina would mention, for example, a hug where his hand strayed to her butt, Nancy Wilson suggested she give him the benefit of the doubt. 

“That’s the Christian thing to do,” she was told.

Domestic violence
If you think you may be in an abusive relationship, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or visit their website, thehotline.org.

Sexual assault
If you need someone to talk to about an experience with sexual assault or abuse, you can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673), where trained staff can provide you with support, information, advice, or a referral. You can also access 24/7 help online by visiting online.rainn.org.

Sarah Stankorb is a writer living in Ohio. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Marie Claire, Glamour, O Magazine, and the Atlantic, among others.