"It is with a heavy heart that we as church leaders are writing to confirm that we have removed you from our membership list in accordance with your wishes."
UPDATE (1/15/17): The Sentinel & Enterprise has just published Marie's story!
Excellent reporting by Peter Jasinski!
Six months ago Marie Notcheva stopped attending Heritage Bible Chapel (HBC), where she had been a member for over a decade. Nearly four months ago, she resigned her church membership by certified mail. Why? Because church elders were admonishing her to attempt reconciliation with her unrepentant ex-husband who had emotionally and psychologically abused her throughout their lengthy marriage. They divorced last year. To the best of our knowledge, Marie's ex-husband has never been a member of Heritage Bible Chapel, although we understand he does attend there.
For those not familiar with Marie's story, we recommend the following TWW posts, which were published last month:
Since that's quite a bit of information to take in all at once, here's a recap from this post.
Marie married a native Bulgarian, and during their 20 years of marriage she endured terrible emotional and psychological abuse, which became increasingly worse. Here is an excerpt from the previous post:
Desperate to get away from the tyranny, Marie gave up almost all of the assets to which she was entitled in a mediated divorce. On February 1, 2016, Marie left with her car and personal belongings.
In March 2016, Marie went to her two pastors and told them she had left her ex-husband and that divorce papers had been signed weeks earlier. She explained that she and her ex-husband had already done months of biblical counseling in 2014. Within months after those counseling sessions, her then-husband reverted back to his abusive behavior and attitude towards Marie, not seeing any issues with his behavior. Marie's pastors were surprised by this news regarding her troubled marriage and impending divorce, but seemed understanding and compassionate.
Eight days later, Marie's pastors asked her to meet with them to “answer a few questions”. The meeting turned into a two-hour interrogation. The pastors' minds were already made up before she entered the room that “abuse, even physical abuse, is never biblical grounds for divorce”. (It should be noted that there are MANY biblical counselors and pastors who do not agree with this position.)
In the months that followed, the pastors expressed their desire that Marie and her ex-husband work toward reconciliation. Given that the couple had done biblical counseling two years earlier which did not help, Marie had no desire to reconcile with her abusive ex.
On September 28, 2016, Marie sent a certified letter to Heritage Bible Chapel resigning her membership. As an American citizen, Marie is free to associate or disassociate with a voluntary organization. There was also a signed return receipt, indicating that the letter had indeed been received by the church. The letter Marie sent was very similar to the sample letter included in a TWW post published almost five years ago. It is entitled How to Mimimize Damage When Resigning from a Mark Driscoll-like Church.
On October 14, 2016, the HBC elders sent Marie an email response, which included the following:
The covenant that you entered into when you became a member does not permit you to resign during circumstances such as these.
Marie did not respond to this email. Over a month went by, and the elders sent Marie the following correspondence:
[NOTE: We are including the church’s 4-page letter at the end of the post.]
The 'drop dead' date of December 23, 2016 came and went… Then two days ago Marie received the following correspondence from her former church.
January 11, 2017
It is with a heavy heart that we as church leaders are writing to confirm that we have removed you from our membership list in accordance with your wishes. While we deeply wish our conversations with you had gone differently and would have resulted in a different outcome, we acknowledge that you desire no further communication from us and we will not be contacting you further. We will continue to pray for you and trust that God will faithfully care for you as [you] seek to follow Him.
The Elders of Heritage Bible Chapel
So why have HBC elders suddenly stopped pursuing Marie? It appears they have wisely sought legal counsel. The final statement – "We will continue to pray for you and trust that God will faithfully care for you as [you] seek to follow Him" – was of particular interest to us. The elders appear to be backtracking on their plan to label Marie as a someone whose faith needs to be restored.
We found it quite interesting that on New Year's Day Kevin Wright, HBC's Pastor of Counseling and Family Ministries, delivered a sermon entitled The Urgency of Restoring One Another. This message was based on James 5:19-20, which states:
My brethren, if any among you strays from the truth and one turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.
Dee and I have both listened to Kevin Wright's sermon, and we are troubled that he may have had Marie in mind as he preached on this passage from James. After all, he and Tim Cochrell, along with the other HBC elders, have spent a considerable amount of time since last March attempting to 'restore' Marie.
To hear the sermon for yourself, go here. Kevin's opening remarks are as follows:
Well this morning we're continuing on in a study that I started with many of you who came out to the first unit, this is something that I've been working on for years, uh this is kind of uh my school's dissertation for my doctorate ministry type of thing that I've been working on and as that kinda came into play in my own life, as I began to get to a point in my studies where as like O.K. um the teachers look at you and like what do you want to study? What do you want to do?
Um I really became just burdened that I was like man I really want to encourage the church or to help the church become all that they want to do or all that we're called to do in the One Another passages. And they're like Whoa! That's a lot of information. Like, there's a lot of those. Let's narrow it down, and so through a process we narrowed it down to this idea of confronting one another in sin and and restoring one another. And I remember going through that like man I don't know if I really want to do that because man confrontation is such kind of a taboo thing in our world today.
And as I began to study and as I began to pray and as I began to seek God's Word I realized Holy Cow! It may be taboo, but it is exactly what we need, it is exactly what we're called to do. It's exactly the importance that God wired us together in such a way as a community, and so these are things that I want you to do. These are godly things.
Unfortunately, we've taken these godly things and sometimes we've spun 'em around and made 'em awful things. Some of the confrontations that I've seen in the church have been really not good. And so God has really stretched me over the last couple years as I've been studying this topic of the need for Christian community and the need to be able to have these difficult yet loving conversations with one another and the need that's there for it.
And so I'll be sharing with you today um from the Book of James Chapter 5 the passage that was read earlier and next week we'll be looking at Galatians Chapter 6 as we continue on this topic.
According to his bio, Kevin is "currently finishing his Doctorate of Ministry in Biblical Counseling degree at SEBTS" (where he also earned his M.Div.). "Kevin is also a certified biblical counselor with the Association fo Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC). He became 'Pastor of Counseling and Family Ministries' at Heritage Bible Chapel in March 2015.
So in his doctoral studies at SEBTS, Kevin Wright has been focusing on 'confronting one another in sin and restoring one another'? When I heard those words, the sin sniffing that was so prevalent in Sovereign Grace Ministries came to mind.
So what do you think about Kevin's introductory remarks? Do you think he had Marie in mind as he talked about 'confronting one another in sin and restoring one another?' The timing of his sermon is definitely suspect.
Let's assume for a moment that Kevin did have Marie in mind. Well, here's our question:
How can the pastors at one church claim that someone (like Marie) is NOT a believer while the pastors at another church claims she is indeed a Christian, that they are supporting her, and that they totally disagree with the former church's position. Who gets to decide?
What happens when you have two churches with diametrically opposed positions on someone like Marie? Who is right and who holds the keys to the kingdom?
Make no mistake, Marie is our sister in Christ, and we certainly hope that those at her former church will treat her respectfully when they inevitably encounter her in public settings. It will be an excellent test of their Christian character…
Marie has submitted a final statement, and we will let her have the final word.
God bless you Marie! You have demonstrated tremendous strength as you endured a terrible ordeal. So glad we could be of help!
Final Statement by Marie Notcheva (January 13, 2017)
In light of everything that has transpired at HBC in regards to my divorce, I can only say that my experience with leadership there and Tim Cochrell in particular has served at least two positive purposes:
(1) my standing up to them has prompted a number of other women similarly harassed by current and former leadership to speak up; and
(2) the corruption inherent in their authoritarian “do-what-we-say-or-else”, “you’re-here-to-serve-us” style of “leadership” has now been exposed.
I am eternally grateful for the true Christian counsel I have received that has strengthened me through this ordeal, as well as the support of friends, parents, colleagues, and my new church family. Mostly, I am thankful to my Savior for leading me out of the fear and darkness, and reassuring, protecting and providing for me at every turn.
Having been a part of the American evangelical subculture for 26 years (eleven of them at HBC, and six as a certified ‘nouthetic’ counselor), I was well aware of the practice known as ‘church discipline’. However, it was always my understanding that it was enacted with a church member who was actually in sin. In the case of an abusive marriage, presumably it would be the abuser who would be ‘disciplined’ – not the victim who has removed him or herself from the situation. Unfortunately, occasional chats under the guise of ‘counseling’ by clergy who have little to no experience counseling controlling/emotionally abusive individuals (and who clearly do not understand the psychology behind such a mindset) is rarely, if ever, efficacious in bringing about lasting change. Hence the Church’s astonishingly high failure rate in convincing women to return to such situations.
The 4-page letter I received from the HBC leadership four months after I had left their church would have been laughable, had it not been so vindictive. Although it was full of half-truths, misrepresentation of facts, and a couple outright lies (ie. That I had implied I had been the victim of physical abuse, when in fact I had compared the situation with my former church to a certain article by Boz T.), an attorney advised that I not rebut it publicly. To do so would require another 3-4 pages simply to correct all of the fallacies therein, so I will leave it at this: it was evil.
I will say publicly that I do not believe the pastors at HBC or their entourage to be evil men. They are not. However, in many of the cases of ‘pursuit’ and things said to adults choosing to leave their high-control religious group, their actions and statements are evil. Yet I believe they are acting from deceived hearts rather than malice. Much like William Stoughton, Chief Magistrate who presided over the Salem Witch Trials, I believe that they actually believe they are doing a service to God and “keeping the Church pure” by punishing those who have the audacity to stand up for themselves, and refuse to be cowed, manipulated, or silenced. We were admonished to “keep the circle small” and pretend that our “reaction” to that abuse (whether spousal or spiritual) was sinful. Speaking out is not “slander”, a word the HBC pastor loves to use (while simultaneously holding secret meetings about others). Slander, by definition, must be false. Every word I have spoken/written about Tim Cochrell’s sinful and coercive communication with me has been demonstrably true, and I have provided the 28 pages of emails between the two of us as evidence.
The truth always comes out, for those who have ears to hear it. We can only hope and pray that those precious Christ-followers still at Heritage will have the courage and discernment to hear and see it.
Four-page letter from HBC elders to Marie Notcheva