Disclaimer: This blog post is memoir. It reflects my present recollections of experiences over time. My intent in sharing my history is to empower anyone struggling to cope with trauma caused by mental illness, abuse, religious harm, and discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender. Please be advised, the following read is raw and vulnerable and may be inappropriate for some readers.
In the beginning there was the Church of Christ.
Most people have no idea what Young Earth Creationist Fundamentalism is and have never met a person who practices such a religion. Yes, we’ve all heard of Jerry Falwell, Westboro Baptist Church, and Kim Davis but these people are in the media, on our big screens, and they seem little more than sensationalized works of religious fiction made up to improve television ratings. I can attest to you that these people are very real and they are very dangerous. Fundamentalists not only vehemently believe their actions are motivated from a place of love rather than bigotry, they literally believe it is their Christian duty to behave this way and if they don’t behave this way they’ll burn in Hell along with the rest of us sinners. This is not a game they are playing nor is it a hobby or some 15 minutes of fame they are seeking. They are whole heartedly and passionately committed to pushing their religion’s agenda onto everyone and they feel that Jesus has instructed them to do so. They will never stop hounding, never stop preaching, and never stop shouting about the sins of this world as long as they have breath in their lungs. They will continue to “love the sinner, hate the sin” until they die or until the second coming of their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, whichever may come first. Ministering to the “lost” is as deeply ingrained in the fundamentalist lifestyle as fried chicken is in Southern cooking. Their picket signs, their martyrdom, their disregard of human rights is all motivated by their dogmatic interpretation of the Bible and if they are properly devout then no amount of reasoning or logic can sway them from their righteous cause. The fundamentalist is ever looking forward to the promised rewards of eternal life in Heaven with its mansions and streets of gold and pearly gates. Therefore they gladly and without hesitation forsake anyone who refuses to accept their way of life. How do I know all this? I know because I was born into it and because I was born into it, I can give you a first hand account of what fundamentalism really is and eyewitness testimony of the ugly side of religion that most people either don’t know or don’t want to know about. Hell I’ve spent a decade hiding from the fact that I’m an ex-fundamentalist myself. Silence is not the way to stop a cycle of abuse however, and so I will not be silent any longer.
I was born into a third generation fundamentalist family. Being born into such a religion, most children do not even contemplate that this sort of lifestyle is anything out of the ordinary or anything they should or can question. This was true for me, and because of my upbringing I was just as devout as the next Young Earth Creationist. My Mother and her family, and my converted Father, are members of a little known Young Earth Fundamentalist religion which goes only by Church of Christ. There are two different factions of the Church of Christ. One is considered liberal and the other is considered conservative. The liberal Churches of Christ allow musical instruments to accompany worship services but the conservative congregations only sing a Capella and musical instruments are forbidden. Liberal churches also include a fellowship hall within their building for pot lucks, baby and wedding showers, and other such celebrations. Conservative churches do not include fellowship halls and think that partaking in any food other than the Lord’s Supper on the church’s grounds is sacrilegious. I was barely allowed to chew gum in church. Lastly, liberal churches often include a steeple on their building and conservative churches would never include anything as secular as that on their buildings. So for the most part liberal Church of Christ members think these differences between the two sects are subtle but the conservative church members think the liberals are sinning by straying from Biblical instruction and are therefore going to Hell. From the pulpit we were instructed to never attend a Church of Christ without fully researching whether or not the church adhered to “book, chapter, verse” practices. It was implied that a conservative member would sin if they attended a liberal worship service. The conservative Churches of Christ are very strict about which churches are okay for their members to attend, and the approved list is not very long.
With my family, I attended one conservative Church of Christ after another from utero until I was twenty years old. Growing up, I used to always wish we were members of a liberal congregation but honestly both sects are very patriarchal and authoritarian and neither promote equal rights for women. The Church of Christ’s mantra is “Book, Chapter, and Verse” and they will not participate in anything that is not explicitly written, via their interpretation, in the Bible. For example, even though Jesus, his birth, death and resurrection was the very meaning of existence for us, we were never allowed to ever celebrate Christmas as Christ’s birth. Why? Because there is not one verse in the Bible which states that Jesus was born on December 25th or that we should celebrate it. For us, Christmas was all about Santa and presents and never about Jesus. The Church of Christ held the belief that Jesus’ birth, death, and resurrection was to be celebrated every single Sunday and Wednesday night at worship services and the individual was to be mindful of Jesus, his crucifixion in particular, every single moment of every day. So even when the rest of the country was singing Silent Night and wishing peace on earth, my family and church thought this a sinful practice and deemed Christmas a non-religious holiday. Even in the privacy of our own home we were not allowed to sing along with any holiday song that was religious in nature and out in public we were expected to minister to others that December 25th was not biblically accurate. This is one example of many that I could give you to illustrate how isolated members of the Church of Christ are from society due to their extreme interpretation of the Bible.
Now I tend to believe that most religious people are more spiritual than dogmatic, more traditionalist than fanatic, and simply trying to understand the universe in a context beyond their own perceptions. However this is not the case for the fundamentalist, such as my parents and the people I grew up around. Fundamentalist interpret the Bible literally and believe it as absolute, infallible truth. It permeates every aspect of their being from the daily decisions they make, to how they vote, to the people they associate with. The Church of Christ teaches that a person cannot go to Heaven unless they are baptized by Immersion and the church goes as far to assert that they are the only group of Christians strictly adhering to the Word of God. In essence, Church of Christ members believe they are the only ones going to Heaven. Baptists, Methodists, Pentecostals, the Assembly of God, Jehovah Witnesses, Catholics, and so on are all guilty of straying from Biblical instruction and are therefore not saved. The Church of Christ will argue and say that anyone can go to Heaven, but what they so hypocritically leave out is that they think they are the only ones accurately following the Bible and that everyone else is wrong and therefore Hell bound. If an individual from another denomination decides to become a member of the Church of Christ then that person must be baptized again at the Church of Christ before membership is permitted and it doesn’t matter if the person was previously baptized or not. According to the Church of Christ, if you aren’t fully immersed in water by a baptized member of the Church of Christ then you are not saved and cannot go to Heaven. They consider all other forms of baptisms as “just getting wet”. This ideology is one of the major conflicts I had with the church and it’s the major reason I struggle socially to this day. When you are brought up to think that you must, in the least, keep your distance from and often completely shun “worldly” people because they aren’t saved and you are it really stifles the ability to make friends or appreciate different cultures. I was extremely deprived of diversity growing up and that’s why it is so extremely important to me today. As a young adult, I just could not get on board with believing that other people who loved God and had faith and accepted Jesus as their Savior were going to burn in Hell because they demonstrated their faith differently than the Church of Christ.
Furthermore, the Church of Christ practices the Bible so literally that women are not allowed to speak during worship services.
1 Corinthians 14:34-35 NKJV, “Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to remain submissive, as the law also says. And if they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is shameful for women to speak in church.”
Female members of the Church of Christ can sing during worship services of course but are not allowed to lead prayers, present the sermon, or act in any role of leadership in the church at all. Women can teach Bible school but if a boy, and even if that boy is as young as 10 years old is baptized then she is not allowed to teach his class, a man must do it. If a woman has a question or concern then she must present those questions or concerns to the church via her husband. If she isn’t married then she must meet privately with the Elders of the church and then they present her questions or concerns to the church on her behalf. I was taught from an early age that I was inferior to men and that my sole purpose in life was to marry a man within the church and produce children for him. I was expected to be ladylike, meek, humble, modest, and above all silent. This subjugation is preached from the Church of Christ pulpit, enforced by the male members, and accepted by the women as all part of the Holy Will of God. The Church of Christ goes as far as to preach from its pulpits that women are also responsible for whether or not a man “lusts” after them. I cannot tell you how many sermons I listened to instructing women about how their dresses should not show too much leg (in most cases showing your knees was questionable) and how your dress should not be too form fitting and your blouses should never show any cleavage. I witnessed older women sizing up how inappropriate the dress of younger or single women was right after worship services in front of everyone. Shame is the weapon of choice for the church and its members. The Church of Christ preaches that a woman is responsible to dress in a way that is not sexual or flirtatious or could in any way be interpreted as such. Therefore she is at fault and sinning and not the man if the way she dresses causes him to lust after her. Oh and forget about wearing a pantsuit or slacks to worship, as the women are only allowed to wear dresses. Pants are for men.
Another asinine practice of the Church of Christ is their approach to what they deem “public” sins and what a member must do in order to be forgiven. A public sin is when a baptized member of the church behaves, or sins as they call it, in front of other people in a way that brings reproach or shame on the church as a whole. For example, if a member participates in dancing, drinking alcohol, goes to the theater and sees a movie with nudity or adult language, or engages in premarital sex then that member has publicly sinned. When any of these types of actions come to the church’s attention (and believe me they always do) then the church declares that the member is publicly sinning. Members are encouraged to report public sins if they witness or hear of another member committing them so that the church may intervene and save the staying member’s soul. Once a member is accused of public sin the Church of Christ will then “disfellowship” from the guilty member and the entire congregation is told quite dramatically from the pulpit by an Elder about the disfellowship and all the reasons why it’s happening. Basically the accused member is publicly humiliated and then they are no longer a member of the church and therefore not welcomed to attend services until they are willing to ask for forgiveness. The congregation is then instructed to cease all association with the guilty member until that member has atoned for their sins. In an instant the member loses their entire community and if their families are members then they lose their family too. Now select members, a pious board of lost sheep herders if you will, begin to reach out to the ostracized member in an attempt to bring the lost member back to the fold. This practice is nothing more than harassment coupled with intensely shaming the person on a daily basis. They will berate the disfellowshipped member over the phone or by an on slot of letters or by randomly showing up at their place of residence uninvited and who knows what means they are using with today’s technology. If the lost member wishes for the harassment to stop and get back into the church’s good graces then they must confess their sins. So because these sins have been deemed public by the church, the atonement for the sins must be public as well. At the end of every Church of Christ worship service the congregation sings a get-right-with-Christ hymnal while the preacher stands at the front of the church waiting for someone to walk down the aisle. The hymnal serves as a “welcome” to any non member to be baptized for the remission of their sins or for any baptized member who has gone astray to come forward and ask the church to pray for the forgiveness of their sins. I remember sitting in my pew stealing glances about the building excited to see if someone would “come on down!”. So during this hymnal the member accused of public sin must walk down to the very first pew and sit alone in front of the entire congregation. The first pew is reserved specifically for this type of situation. While the congregation continues to sing, the preacher then sits down and the accused member proceeds to whisper a confession of sin into the preacher’s ear. After the congregation finishes the song, the preacher stands up and announces their confession to the entire church. Then he leads the entire church in prayer asking Jesus to forgive the member of their sins. Once the prayer is over the majority of the congregation will then rush down to the member and embrace them and welcome them back into the fold. Many ex-members call this practice “The Walk of Shame” and it’s the prevalent reason ex-members give for leaving the church. Took the Walk of Shame myself after I was disfellowshipped at the age of 20 and then never went back to that church again.
The Walk of Shame may seem like a bizarre and ugly practice but in my opinion the ugliest side to this religion is that it promotes and condones child abuse.
Proverbs 13:24 NKJV reads, “He who spares his rod hates his son, but he who loves him disciplines him promptly.”
My Mother took this particular scripture to heart and was very devout in her application of it. She in fact was so proud of her adherence to this particular scripture that she often bragged about physically punishing us in a way that demeaned any other mother in the church who wasn’t physically punishing their children. I felt ashamed and embarrassed every time she’d brag about spanking me. Many times when I was little she actually took me outside of church and spanked me in the middle of services because she wanted to publicly display how righteously she was raising her children. All it takes is one member of the church to push corporal punishment and the rest of the members will usually fall in line, or in the least turn a blind eye to the practice. I was aware however of several mothers who did not believe in nor practice corporal punishment at all. My own mother’s sister and mother in fact did not agree with or practice physically hitting children. So my mother was never spanked but beat the crap out of me on a regular basis. It’s a very odd thing for me to wrap my head around even today. Being physically abused never encouraged me to love God or have stronger faith. All it did was make me afraid of my mother. Obviously, this is another glaring reason I left the church. I do not condone physically abusing children. Today, if the Department of Social Services becomes aware that you are hitting your child, that child can be removed from the home. If we, as adults, hit another adult that is called assault and you can go to jail for it. So why then would a religion condone the practice of hitting children? It seems very archaic to me and something, in my opinion, more people should speak out against.
Growing up so saturated in the Church of Christ prevented me from realizing for the longest time that I had the power to choose a different life for myself. From the time I was an infant, we attended worship services at a conservative Church of Christ at least three times a week, every Sunday morning, then again on Sunday night, and every Wednesday evening like clockwork. I was there every time the doors were open sitting in a pew surrounded by adults practicing a religion that suppressed women, condoned child abuse, and believed the Earth was literally created in six days. Sometimes we attended church even more than three times a week. Throughout the year the church would host “gospel meetings” where we attended church from Sunday to Sunday racking attendance up to ten times in a week. I also attended Vacation Bible School during the summer and even taught bible classes as a young adult. This religion was drilled into every aspect of my being inside and outside our home and it subsequently bred a very isolated, very sheltered childhood. My life was so entwined with the Church of Christ that withdrawing my membership cost me the only community I had every known, and my entire family. And, I didn’t just quit the church cold turkey. I attended several Baptist worship services and stood with my hands stretched up to the heavens singing hymnals as I’d never sang them before. I attended Assembly of God services where I witnessed people”speaking in tongues” as they convulsed on the floor, twitching and twisting with the Spirit and just sat on the pew weeping because my faith obviously wasn’t strong enough to receive the Holy Ghost. I attended Catholic Mass and bent down on my knee in supplication and partook of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. I even tried attending a liberal Church of Christ for several months but the damage had already been done. For me, leaving behind church entirely was the right path. It was the only way I felt safe again. I do not regret my decision or doubt it in any way. Do I wish I had not experienced religious harm at the hands of my family and the Church of Christ? Of course I do and that’s exactly why I’m speaking out about it now.
Faith, how one chooses to practice and express that faith or if one chooses to practice and believe at all should only be for the individual to decide. No group of people should ever abuse spiritual power in such a way as to stifle the faith and beliefs of another. It shouldn’t matter if you are a member of the Church of Christ of Baptist or Pagan or Atheist. The only thing that matters is for every person to be free to follow their heart and walk the path that is right for their life. Respect is what matters and respect is the one thing I never received or experienced when my world was immersed in the fundamentalist lifestyle. Fundamentalism is not Christianity; it is a militant, cult like practice that harms people. I’m not a Christian any longer, but if I was I would take my religion back from these abusive people without apology. The tides do seem to be turning and I have witnessed more and more people standing up against fundamentalism. I’ve read hundreds of comments online of Christians confirming, “You don’t own my religion.” “That’s not the God I worship.” “God is LOVE.” and so it seems, thanks to the internet, that as more awareness about the abusive nature of fundamentalism comes to light, the more our society as a whole rejects it. Spirituality should not be held hostage by anyone. All of us should be free to connect to a soulful life in the way that is best suited to us individually. I am hopeful that a day will come when no one will have a story such as mine to share, but until that day arrives I will walk the path of truth that I have choosen and speak out against all forms of abuse and religious harm.