Shootout in an OP Corral

Thoughts on Dr. Hobbs' article, Women on Trial: One Observer's View

Since Dr. Hobbs’ article was posted at The Aquila Report, there has been a lot of discussion of it on Facebook. One man, who is not a member of the Presbytery but says he has close knowledge of the case, objected that, despite the accurate statement of the charges, Dr. Hobbs’ misrepresented what the case was really about. To this I responded: …let’s assume that there are inaccuracies in the report. I don’t say that there are, but let’s assume it. How in the world does a Presbytery ever entertain such charges to say nothing of convicting? Just on the face of the charges it seems a case of far overreach of a Presbytery’s authority.


Yesterday the Aquila Report published Women on Trial: One Observer’s View by Dr. Valerie Hobbs. Since then the gunfire has been hot and heavy. You might want to keep your head down – a thing I have a hard time doing. I keep sticking my head up to see what’s going on and to fire some shots in both directions.

Dr. Hobbs’ reports her observations as she attended the last meeting of an ecclesiastical trial conducted by an Orthodox Presbyterian Presbytery. It involved a minister accused and found guilty of not fulfilling his duties under the fifth commandment to his wife and daughter. The minister’s failing involves his wife who has chronic physical problems and who has been absent from public worship on Sundays:

    [The accused] has shown delinquency in the management of his household by the regular absence of his wife and daughter from the public means of grace in the corporate worship of the visible church.

[The accused] has hindered members of his household from receiving pastoral oversight and spiritual care from the Session having ecclesiastical jurisdiction over them. *(Addition: I was pointed out to me that the second specification had not been included. I have added the specification to the first. This leads to no change in the evalutation.)

There is something about Dr. Hobbs’ paper that I noted in my first reading and have in every reading since that gives me concern. (Please remember that your Curmudgeon has the honor of being banned by the Bayly Boys from commenting on their Blog for his scoffing at their view of patriarchy, a hurt which has caused me the loss of no little sleep.) My concern is the academic framework that seems (to me clearly) to influence both her thoughts and her vocabulary. (She is a linguist at the University of Sheffield in Scotland *Correction: England.) It appears that she is influenced to some (significant) degree by feminist scholarship in the fields of language and sociology. A few quotes taken from three sections of the article will show why I have this concern. She writes:

I am a linguist at the University of Sheffield, and so my interest was academic to some extent. For several years, I have been researching the kinds of language used by Reformed Christians to characterize women and their roles in the home, church, and society. As this trial involves not just the defendant but also his wife, I attended to observe the kinds of language used to speak about the defendant’s wife. (Emphasis added by me indicated by bod print in quotes.)

What I aim to show in this report is that central to the trial itself and to my experiences therein are the repeated denial of a woman’s physical self and the elevation of her spiritual, domestic, idealized self.

… this Presbyter’s questions and behavior were, in my opinion, founded on the assumption that since my physical presence was neither domestic nor docile, it was unacceptable.

I also have a practical concern. I note that the age old question, “What do women want?” seems more complicated than ever. My parents taught me a few rules of etiquette (which I know from experience are not much emphasized today). Here are some antiquated things I learned: to open and hold the door to a building for women (or, as they were called then, ladies); to give up your seat to a woman anywhere you were if there were not sufficient seating; to help a woman to be seated at table at least on semi-formal occasions; to stand up when a woman enters the room; not to shake hands with a woman till she offered you her hand; to take your date’s door key from her, unlock the door, and return the key to her; not to take a bite of a meal or of the dessert afterwards till your hostess took her first bite.  Today doing these things can be interpreted as “micro-aggressions.”

My concern (admittedly as a male – if the Bayly Boys have not reclassified me) is that I detect as an over sensitivity on her part about issues of gender and sex:

…I attended the trial to witness and to record these matters as a Reformed Christian woman, as part of my conviction that matters affecting women should be witnessed by women. 


The most frequent question asked of me was, ‘Why are you here?’ One presbyter asked, ‘Did your father-in-law send you?’ When I replied that I had come of my own volition, he said, ‘Why in the world would you do that?’ I gave the same answer each time: that I had come because the trial involved the situation of a woman in the Reformed church and that I had come to observe and witness. This answer seemed to surprise nearly everyone I spoke to, at least two remarking, ‘Wow’, others changing the subject after a few seconds of silence.


She found these the following questions (which she coded) objectionable:

Where have you come from? (place of residence)

Do you know anyone in this area? (personal connections)

So are you here mainly to visit those friends? (reason for attendance; I replied that I had come solely for the trial, to witness it as a woman and as an academic)

Are you married? (personal life)

How many children do you have? (personal life)

These questions  (there were others about which more later) could well be entirely innocent. At least in the South, there are questions that are almost always asked when meeting a person: Where are you from? (place of origin) Who’s your mama and daddy? (family connections) Whaddya do? (work or calling) Where’d you go to school? (what your football loyalties are) You married? (marital status) Y’all got any kids? (number and ages of children) These are entirely normal and, unless you turn out to be a Yankee, friendly questions.

I think she “over-interprets” an unthinking mistake that was made by the host church, and this reveals the way she is influenced, or so I think, by a feminist interpretative grid:

There were no restrooms designated for women to use during the trial or even during breaks. The host church has two restrooms, both with multiple stalls, normally assigned one to each gender. During the entire weekend, a sign withthe words ‘Men’s Restroom’ was put over the women’s restroom door sign.

… I waited outside the restroom doors (having already slipped out during the session) for nine minutes, watching men go in and out of the restroom without acknowledging me… At one point, I asked, ‘If this how things work? Do men go first and then women?’ One man overheard and responded that there were men in both restrooms and I would have to wait. Finally, growing desperate, I asked another man if there was anyone else left…He looked in and reported that the restroom was empty. I removed the ‘Men’s Restroom’ sign and went in, claiming my voice and reasserting my physical presence. When I came out, a man was standing beside the door (keep in mind that there was no line to the other men’s restroom) and challenged my actions, ‘I was wondering who had taken down the sign. I guess you’re glad I didn’t come in anyway.’

I have observed among some Christian women the idea that it is all but impossible for a man to “get it” regarding women. That is not to say some men don’t “get it” any of the time and most men don’t “get it” some of the time. But, in my view, it is unfortunate to take the view that because men are men they cannot adequately understand women. If men can’t “get it”, then it becomes nearly impossible for a male pastor to preach the Word of God in a manner relevant and profitable to women, to offer wise counsel to single women and couples in difficulty, or to exercise pastoral care in relation to women. If men really can’t “get it”, then there is no solution but to accept female ordination.

But now let me turn to the men and their words and actions. I begin by returning to the questioning of Dr. Hobbs experienced by one Presbyter.

More worrying, however, was another, very different interaction. While I was talking with one Presbyter in the church sanctuary, one of the more vocal Presbyters (who eventually voted to sustain Charge 2) walked over and said, ‘Introduce me to this person,’ indicating me. The man I was talking to introduced me by my academic title. The new acquaintance then took my hand, which had not been outstretched, said ‘Let’s talk out here’, and pulled me/led me by my hand into the corridor. With a smile on his face and standing rather close to me, he began asking me questions (which I have coded for later discussion).

You have to wonder what led the presbyter to act in this way. It seems clear that something other than ordinary Christian friendliness was taking place. Why did he take hold of this woman’s hand and guide her into a hallway? This appears to be overly forceful in relation to a person of either sex. I know that I would resist being pulled by the hand to a location of the choosing of a person whom I have just met and would not be comfortable with some one’s standing face to face with me. Such assertiveness would result in at least an equal (and opposite!) assertiveness  on my part.

Some of the questions seem less benign than those given above (and I don’t care about her coding of them). Bold letters indicate my thoughts:

How did you find out about this trial? Who told you about it? (my source of information about trial) How is this his business? 

Are you staying with friends? (accommodation) OK, except for what follows.

 Well, then who is looking after you? (personal care) If he said, “Who is looking after you?” this is, to put it mildly, a paternalistic, dare we say, patriarchal question.

I laughed and said that I was very comfortable in the hotel and that I did not need any looking after. He then said,I think it might be a good idea if you stayed at my house with my family. (personal care) This seems to go beyond a concern to be hospitable. Why does it matter where a grown woman prefers to stay?

I have indicated clearly that I do not agree with the interpretative framework within which Dr. Hobbs seems to operate, but, putting those things to the side, there is validity to her objections to the way this man interacted with her. I indicate by bold letters below what I think indicates his man’s attempt to “take charge” of the situation:

Up until this point, I had assumed that perhaps this kind of conversation was just this man’s particular manner (standing close, asking question after question, leaving little time for my responses). After all, we were strangers and he had smiled throughout. However, I began to feel this was an interrogationand even a form of intimidation. I tested the waters by asking about his children. He ignored this and asked me what church I attended. He then responded, ‘So there aren’t any Presbyterian churches in your town?’ and then recommended I look up the pastor of a Presbyterian church in Scotland. He again invited me to stay at his home

Whatever their motives, this Presbyter’s questions and behavior were, in my opinion, founded on the assumption that since my physical presence was neither domestic nor docile, it was unacceptable. This was evident in his use of the following strategies: disregarding the academic nature of the initial introduction and my subsequent reference to my academic interests leading me into the hallway by my hand (taking charge of my body and removing me from the trial room) asking me only indirectly why I was interested in the trial (So are you here mainly to visit those friends?) failing to respond to my attempts to discuss those interests leading the ‘conversation’ (what we linguists call topic raising) primarily towards matters related to my accommodation, personal care, and home life.

In these ways, this man brought his assumptions about my femaleness to the forefront of our conversation, determined I was an outsider, an ‘other’, since I did not fit within certain predetermined categories, and, I would suggest with some confidence, challenged and undermined the reasons for my presence at the trial.

I think also that, assuming she understood the discussion correctly, Dr. Hobbs’ has some valid comments about the way the Presbytery dealt with the relation of the physical and spiritual in the case of the defendant’s wife. One presbyter, speaking in favor of conviction, approved actions of a witness, who described his own wife’s physical problems as 8 or 9 on a 10 point scale, and said that he had “thought he might have overdone it a little bit, when on some mornings, on Sunday mornings, she didn’t want to go to worship and yet he would get his wife up, lovingly wash her, dress her, feed her, buckle her up in the car and take her to the holy worship of God.” It is commendable that a man takes to to church an objecting wife who has to be washed, dressed, fed, and buckled up in the car? Yet this Presbyter, according to Dr. Hobbs, said:

There’s a man who wonderfully exhibits what a husband ought to do in the spiritual oversight of his wife. For this Presbyter, I was deeply moved, even convicted, but [the witness] understood that which is deeply important, that the means of grace, particularly the worship of God is how our Lord Jesus would give himself, grant grace, to his children so that we might be strengthened to live the next 6 days. [The witness] understood that. In fact, [the witness] saw the connection then between the spiritual well-being of his wife and the physical well-being of his wife. He did not in any way seek to disrupt that unity, that bond, that connection. He saw it was crucial…

Dr. Hobbs reports following up with the speaker at the end of the meeting, at which time he said that he was…

…expressing admiration that the witness had affirmed the connection between body and spirit. He clarified that without spiritual well-being, one cannot expect to have physical well-being.

Consistent with this, the Presbytery, according to Dr. Hobbs, resisted the defendant’s insistence that he could not discuss his wife’s spiritual condition apart from her physical condition:

…the accused explained that when he is asked about his wife’s spiritual condition, he always begins with details of her physical condition because he sees them as inextricably linked. At one point, he noted, ‘I cannot talk about one without the other’. There were therefore many occasions when the defendant spoke about his wife’s chronic conditions and disability, many of which were deeply personal. As one Presbyter pointed out in a speech toward the end of the weekend, it was appalling that this case had come to the point where the sometimes intimate details of a woman’s suffering had to be paraded before a room of strangers. And yet, I noted several occasions when at least two men in the room, hearing the accused list these illnesses, surgeries, and hospitalizations and refer to his wife’s ‘physical and emotional trauma’, rolled their eyes. At one point, again when the accused was explaining his wife’s illnesses, a young pastor circled his forefinger around in the air, a motion widely recognized as meaning ‘get on with it.’

Dr. Hobbs reports that: “Several Presbyters insisted throughout the trial, ‘[The accused’s wife] is not on trial. [The accused] is on trial’ and ‘The issue is not her [the wife’s] illness.” Technically that is true, but this needs to be noted: In order for the husband to be convicted, it had to be judged that the wife did not have legitimate reasons not to be in public worship. Otherwise, he could not have been convicted of dereliction of duty without the Presbytery’s having concluded that there was no reason, based on her physical condtion, that he should not have compelled his wife to attend public worship.
Since Dr. Hobbs’ article was posted at The Aquila Report, there has been a lot of discussion of it on Facebook. One man, who is not a member of the Presbytery but says he has close knowledge of the case, objected that, despite the accurate statement of the charges, Dr. Hobbs’ misrepresented what the case was really about. To this I responded:

…let’s assume that there are inaccuracies in the report. I don’t say that there are, but let’s assume it. How in the world does a Presbytery ever entertain such charges to say nothing of convicting? Just on the face of the charges it seems a case of far overreach of a Presbytery’s authority. And I have great trouble squaring it with mercy. This is one of those situations when one understands David’s entreaty, “Let me not fall into the hand of man.”

Whatever the shortcomings (and I have indicated I believe there are significant ones) of Dr. Hobbs’ report, this is the real issue. The charge, which is acknowledged as accurately reported, on which the man was convicted was “delinquency in the management of his household by the regular absence of his wife and daughter from the public means of grace in the corporate worship of the visible church.” This “delinquency” was regarded as a violation of the Fifth Commandment as exposited by the Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms, which take the Commandment to teach the responsibilities not only of children to their parents (“Honor thy father and mother”) but to teach the principle of the performance of duties by inferiors, superiors, and equals. The Larger Catechism teaches that the duties and sins of superiors are:

It is required of superiors, according to that power they receive from God, and that relation wherein they stand, to love, pray for, and bless their inferiors; to instruct, counsel, and admonish them; countenancing, commending, and rewarding such as do well; and discountenancing, reproving, and chastising such as do ill; protecting, and providing for them all things necessary for soul and body: and by grave, wise, holy, and exemplary carriage, to procure glory to God, honour to themselves, and so to preserve that authority which God hath put upon them.

The sins of superiors are, besides the neglect of the duties required of them, and inordinate seeking of themselves, their own glory, ease, profit, or pleasure; commanding things unlawful, or not in the power of inferiors perform; counseling,encouraging, or favouring them in that which is evil;dissuading, discouraging, or discountenancing them in that which is good;correcting them unduly; careless exposing, or leaving them to wrong, temptation, and danger;provoking them to wrath; or any way dishonouring themselves, or lessening their authority, by an unjust, indiscreet, rigorous, or remiss behaviour.

The charge of violation of this commandment by allowing two women in the man’s household to be absent from worship seems strange to me. This is man’s relation to his wife! Apparently he and his wife decided together or he acquiesced in his wife’s decision. Why would a Presbytery (or anyone else) not defer to the husband and wife? And the daughter, if I may assume by the age of the defendant which I know, is an adult daughter. Why would a man be charged for failing to compel his adult daughter to be in services? *(Correction: I have been informed that the daughter is a minor.)

Had I found myself in the situation which led to these charges, I would have said clearly and firmly, “This is a matter of discretion. It is between me and my wife. It is not your business to insert yourself into my marriage in a matter such as this. And, if you don’t like it, I’m gonna tell my wife!” (Believe me, Mrs. Smith is not one whose wrath you wish to kindle.)

The vote to convict was 16-8 with 4 presbyters requesting to have their negative votes recorded.

Bill Smith is a minister in the Reformed Episcopal Church. He is a writer and contributor to a number of Reformed journals and resides in Roanoke, Va. This article appeared on his blog and is used with permission.