Picture a rock, if you will. Now picture that rock deep inside a cave. Finally, in your mind’s eye, take a stroll out of the cave and see that the cave is under a mountain. Now, back to the rock. Underneath the rock lives a large family. They weren’t always destined to live in such seclusion. The parents came from fairly normal–perhaps one could say “worldly” in the non-religious sense–families. Perhaps an in-depth treatment of their stories would be an interesting study, but I’ll refrain, for brevity’s sake. I will just say that they met and were married in a small but vibrant Fundamentalist Baptist church, with strong Ruckmanite leanings, and highly separatist in nature. Into this small, small world, I and a large number of siblings were born and raised. They could probably tell stories of their own if they wished, but all in their time – I’ll stick to my own.
This is hardly a tale of heroics on my part, as should be apparent by the end. I share this to be an encouragement to the readers and show that God works even when we don’t know what we’re doing – “fumbling for a light switch in the dark”, to borrow a Mat Kearney lyric. My chosen part was often simply that of a spectator, a follower, a bystander. There’s no prescription here for life – I have no answers, no deep spiritual truths to give upon looking back at my experiences. Perhaps the readers can help with that. All I can see is God consistently bringing the right people into my life at the right times, to this day – from my wife, to two of my sisters, to a flawed but sincere SBC church, to a game forum admin, to a woman with a passion for seeing spiritual abuse become a thing of the past (two people I probably won’t get to in this story, amongst others). He works in mysterious ways to wake up His children. I’d love to dive into so many rabbit holes in this, but again, I’ll refrain, for the most part. So, onward.
My parents are both Christians who, at the beginning of my narrative here, felt called out of their worldly environs into a path of holiness and separation at the afore-mentioned tiny church. I’m tempted to call it The Village for the remainder of this tale. M Night Shyamalan would be honored, I’m sure. We were affiliated with no one, no denomination or parent church – oh gracious no, we were far too close to the Bible to stand with the world. Our spiritual isolation was nothing short of extreme, and slowly, the church dwindled in members until a small core of about 25 remained.
The Puritans were our heroes of the faith. Jonathan Edwards was perhaps a 4th member of the trinity, nay, 5th as to not supplant the authority of the one and only true word of God, the Authorized Version, The King James Bible. I’d loosely define the theology as Calvinistic Dispensationalism, or perhaps whatever the heck Dr Peter S Ruckman believes–yes, even the conspiracy theories (oh, the conspiracy theories!), educate yourselves, ladies and gentlemen–complete with double-predestination. Also, we did not believe in Baptism or Communion, and those who did were mocked as simpletons who didn’t read their bibles.
Short digression: I’m not particularly interested in diving into the relative merits or lack thereof of the various theological figures or theories I may bring up here, I merely want to paint a picture of my church experiences. Please insert your own snorts of displeasure and/or horror.
The Christian life was rigid for us. From an early age we were well-versed (hehe) in the so-called “secret duties”. Every Christian must spend hours daily in somber study, reading, prayer, scripture memorization, and meditation. The world was an evil place, and good golly, public schools were Beelzebub’s tit. So, of course, we were homeschooled. All of us. With our own made-up curriculum borrowing various and sundry Christian-patriarchy-based materials to aid us. Grammar was never my strong suit, but I digress. No homeschool co-ops to provide us with a vague semblance of social life. No one was good enough for us. Come out from among them and be ye separate! Stay in The Village. Where else will you find Bible preaching? Where else will the truth be given you 5 times a week? Only the Preacher can provide for you spiritually.
Ah yes, the Preacher, as we always called him. Or Bishop, as he titled himself on his handwritten letters with greetings plagiarized straight from Paul’s Prison Epistles. I’ll call him Bishop N from here on out, because good lord. Narcissistic. Manipulative. Verbally abusive. Sexist. Oh so sexist. Brilliant in just enough ways to be that much more controlling of his ever-shrinking flock. Small-minded in the ways of science and “worldly wisdom”. Obsessed with his office and position. This is a man who refused on principle to attend his mother’s funeral because it was on a Sunday and he’d have to skip preaching in the morning. This was a man who was divorced and remarried, yet somehow tried to justify to us how that was ok for him within his rigid puritan theological framework (it wasn’t ok for anyone else).
A few highlights might give a better picture.
-We went to the beach one Saturday, which was a no-no. My younger brother got a highly visible sunburn, so my mother, in fear of us being sermon-fodder for a month, applied makeup to his face before church to hide our sneaky rebellion.
-my dad was once ordered to give me a whupping because I accidentally tossed a doll’s purse in the church house. I can still hear his shout on that occasion in my mind. “WHO THREW THAT? _____ [my dad], you better take care of that right now!”
-Bishop N’s wife once ratted me out to her husband for opening my eyes during an opening prayer (which were typically very long prayers). Ponder that one for a half second.
-My sister got an “opportunity of a lifetime” one Sunday: she got to play piano for the Sunday service. She messed up once in one of the songs, and was never allowed to do it again. Bishop N’s wife or daughter always played. The man knew how to kill a spirit.*
-things told him in confidence were almost always preached at the next service, with vague or not so vague references to someone present being guilty. I mean, there’s like 20 people in the church, over half of which are related to each other. Like we don’t know who you’re talking about.
-My dad, who likely suffers from chronic depression and is prone to much silent moody behavior, was constantly blasted from the pulpit for having a “bad heart”.
I think that last one is enough, though I could go on. It still angers me, years later. My siblings’ memories are far better than mine and can give more examples, I’m sure. These have always stuck in my mind though.
This was my environment. This was Christianity to me – a distant God, a God far more interested in our believing right (down to the last jot and tittle) and in our rigid performance of “secret duties” than in our hearts and whether our lives and actions actually meant anything to our fellow man. Fear the man of god. Theoretical faith. Like spending years working and studying for a PHD and then getting a job at McDonald’s. Wasted knowledge.
I knew I was a sinner from a very early age – how could I not? I knew I needed Christ, but not necessarily in a personal way. It was just what I was told, repeatedly. But I never felt good enough, never ready. There’s perhaps a danger of over-saturation for children who have yet to accept Christ – you’re constantly exposed to the Bible and Christian books and teaching, yet it’s never made personal and it becomes just a thing everyone does. No meaning, no relevance, no connection. Cultural Christianity, except there was no escaping it. You had to choose it.
One night when I was 11, my dad took me aside and laid it out for me. He brought the meaning home personally to me. I accepted Christ there. The sad thing was, after the initial euphoria and relief wore off, I said nothing so as to not bring attention to myself. I lied to my own mother about it, knowing she knew the truth, when she asked me. I’m thankful for a merciful, patient God who does not deny us. I could not speak up for myself even in this matter. It was years before I started processing my own faith for myself, making sense of it in meaningful outward ways. In the meantime, it was business as usual, going through the motions of devotions. Only change was an added level of guilt that I wasn’t better. You’re a christian now. No excuses.
Frankly I don’t have the words to make sense of where I was mentally at this time. Discipline was rigid. We were “the best-behaved kids anyone had ever seen!” and we were proud of it. The sense of self was suppressed to blend into this image we were cultivated to have. If we were deemed rowdy, it reflected on our parents, who would then be called out for their parental failures. From the pulpit. Obviously, years of this reality trickled down to our daily behavior. I wish I could give a word on the discipline in the home, which was often erratic and anger-fueled and sometimes harsh, but again, my memory does not serve me well at all here. My parents firmly believed in early physical discipline of children (I don’t remember if it was quite Pearl’s level, but close), and I personally was spanked all the way up to about age 13. Beyond that, I’m foggy.
At this point I will introduce one of those catalysts for change in our lives: my oldest sister and her new-found boyfriend. They met online (strike one), he was not a match approved by Bishop N (strike two), and he was not a suck-up (strike three). Bishop N treated him like dirt. He’s a good man, and wanted to do everything right by my parents and the church for my sister. The pastor’s treatment of him was so odious even my parents could not ignore it, and the seeds were sown for our eventual departure from the church, several incidents later. They insisted on staying together and getting married in spite of him. Our relationship with Bishop N and others in the church steadily soured till one day my dad summoned the courage to tell him we were done. We were free, and thus that chapter of our lives closed, at least physically.
It’s really sad and indicative of how screwed up minds in bondage can be, that the last straw for my mom (who was the last one to wake up in a meaningful way) was what she felt was a personal attack – not from Bishop N upon her or even her children, but a situation between N’s daughter (her family making up the other half of the church, roughly) and her in regard to a home schooling program. She felt N’s daughter was allowing her children to cheat in their quizzes. The other of course didn’t see it that way. There was sniping, letters, fake smiles, cold shoulders, etc. You know, all the signs of a healthy church family. That situation got so bad, and my mom couldn’t live with it anymore. She homeschooled us practically from scratch, sternly, and seriously. There was no cut corners. And though I’d hardly call our education good or comprehensive, we were at least honest. This was the issue that was the last straw for my mom, and consequently the last obstacle to our exodus. Not the quarter century of spiritual abuse, the fear we lived in, the constant abrasive and contentious spirit over everything, how we were treated like imbeciles…. No. What she felt was a personal insult. So no, when we left this place, most of us had learned nothing. We were just angry at people.
The thing about freedom from such long bondage is that you know nothing or remember very little but bondage. We had been institutionalized. The awful thing about abusive environments for children is that they often know nothing but their reality – no memories of a previous–perhaps happier–life to draw on, to give hope or context. My oldest sister, the one with the most common sense and independence among us at the time, had already married and moved out of the state. Finding a KJVO church immediately being of paramount importance, we hopped right from the proverbial frying pan into the fire. The fire in this case being a Hyles-Anderson mega-church (soul-winning, separation, standards, and follow the man-of-god!) which we all loved immediately, because love-bombing is a legitimate strategy! Kudos to anyone who gets that little joke.
Fun note: Since Bishop N did not believe in baptism, guess what – none of us had ever been baptized. To join this new church, we all had to get baptized, of course, so we all got baptized one Sunday morning. We were the talk of the church for weeks.
It felt good, being appreciated, after years of constant belittling from the pulpit. You get the picture here, I’m sure. You’re willing to overlook just about anything when you’re in detox mode, coupled with the church honeymoon stage. We were happy to turn our spiritual radars off for awhile and bask in the simple things, like relationships with other human beings, church dinners, activities, donuts at Sunday school – the typical Baptist fare. The Village was all cold spirituality and separatist holiness and woe is me breast-beating, while the new environs were all superficial love and good works everywhere. Good deeds were lauded publicly. The man of God, a rotund caricature of a southern, Baptist pastor, was universally worshipped and of course never questioned. All was well.
Little did we know that the seeds of turmoil had already been sown years earlier, in the office of the pastor’s son, now the assistant pastor and heir to the throne. He had left a camcorder recording in his office as two girls were allowed to change clothes there (I couldn’t make this up if I tried, and frankly, I’m still a little fuzzy on the details of this one. I will stick to what was relevant to me at the time). Years later, while we were attending, the women in the tape wanted to know what had become of the tape, and when the pastors were uncooperative, they left the church, along with several other families, and took the story to the news. This resulted in so much vitriol from the pastors – the “troublemakers” were called liars, lost, pure evil, etc and of course we were commanded to shun them and not hear or read any correspondence from them. I blindly went along with it, trusting the men of god in my life to not be wrong. At one point, there was an emotionally charged altar call in which everyone in the church was challenged to come down and literally stand with the pastors against the evil ones. My gosh, the manipulation – they knew exactly what they were doing and the affect it would have! I went down and stood with them, with almost the entire church. The members who did not come down left soon after, of course. Imagine the spectacle! This was no small church, and to be singled out as dissenters in such a fashion – the “faithful” at the front looking down on the dissenters in the pews…. The devil was in the pulpit that night.
Sometime prior to all this, I met the girl who would become my wife indirectly through work. She and her family attended a small southern Baptist church out of town. We and others from the church became close, and I started sneaking out of town to their church on rare occasions. It was a solid place, faults not withstanding, and the lead pastor and his family kind of adopted me. They were fun, spontaneous, loving, committed, and happy in ways I hadn’t seen before. I wanted what they had. The pastor had started a small group sort of thing of his own accord on Thursday nights – nights of course when my home church was not meeting so I could freely attend. It was radical for me at the time! I was stepping out of my parents’ and church’s authority to voluntarily care for my spiritual well-being, and also, let’s be honest here, spend some time with my girlfriend. This routine continued for some time, and eventually I asked her to marry me. She said yes, and there was much rejoicing.
It’s a testament to the power of general apathy and blindness that, even with the stirrings in my mind from seeing what a real community of believers might look like, I still could not compare my experiences and wake up to the waste of a church I called home and choose between the two. My girlfriend even asked me at one point, after a few visits with me there, what I saw about the place that kept me attending there.
Best answer I could give her was, “I believe this is where God wants me to be right now.”
Still I did not wake up. As I said, when the pastoral meltdown occurred over the peeping tom incident, I still trotted my rear end down to the front to stand with pastors I barely knew.
This is where you’re free to imagine the Holy Spirit inside me facepalming so hard I might even feel something. “I sent you a woman to pull your strings, and you still tried to blame your apathy on My will!” Maybe He actually said that. I wasn’t listening at the time.
Two things finally woke me up to the point of feeling the need for personal action. One evening I was driving with my southern Baptist church friends, and the pastor’s son asked me about my church’s stance on the KJV. They (my church), of course, believe that you can’t be saved unless you were led to Christ through a KJV (I even have sermon audio on this one). It had never really sat well with me, but I’d also never given it much thought. Again, apathy. When my friend asked me about it, I had to explain it. Out loud. I still remember the shock, horror, and, in my case, shame and disgust that descended over that car ride. It shook me. Just what was I a part of anyway??
The other was my younger sister, one who really took one for the team big-time and actually attended the college for two semesters. She wanted to actually do something with her life though, and quit. Consequently, she became something of a pariah around the church along with the other quitters, and even in our family to some extent (mostly to my mom). Not too long after the peeping tom pastoral meltdown, she took me out to lunch and proceeded to lay the situation out for me best she knew. I learned that the evil horrible church members who left were, in fact, telling the truth, and the pastors were straight up lying and slandering them so we wouldn’t talk to them and learn the truth. I learned that, in fact, the video did exist, and she had seen it. I don’t remember much about my thoughts after that, but I was done. I spent more and more time in my girlfriend’s church. My parents didn’t particularly approve, but I had an excuse, and they were just happy I had found someone. I didn’t really ask for their permission anyway, and I stopped attending not too long after I proposed to my girlfriend, and started attending hers full time.
And to go back to what I said about me and heroics, I told my Sunday school teacher of 2 years (decent guy, actually) I wouldn’t be coming back via text message, and I was very much relieved when he never responded. Sliding through life with minimal conflict and human interaction characterized me then, and still does, often.
This created a rift in our family, as you can probably guess. My mom was angry for a long time, and still is, and even some of our siblings have grown cold to us. We’re outsiders, backsliders. Doing nothing for Christ. Chose the pleasure of the world over the yoke of the man of god. My mom will periodically not allow our younger siblings to interact with some of us for petty things. I don’t think Jesus had that in mind when he said he’d turn family against each other. Maybe it is in their minds.
Even after all that, I still had not really processed what had gone down. I jumped from a toxic environment to a pretty solid, supportive one in the SBC church, and I was just happy to be at a place where I was appreciated, could grow in peace, and even be useful from time to time. I married my fiance, moved into an apartment, and life was pretty solid.
The anger, doubt, and much-needed self-examination was simply buried, postponed.
You see, for some, including me at the time, and including some of my family members still, being in a cult for most of their life simply constituted an embarrassment or an inconvenience: while the world, or “decent churches” got to do cool things and wear nice clothes, etc, we spent a quarter century or so buried in a backwoods tiny place and missed out on all the fun. How embarrassing is that? Look at those awful clothes we wore! And the books we had to read! What’s not discussed or touched on is the evil of it, that in the grand scheme of things, we spent approximately a 3rd of our lives twisted around a man’s finger. That our impact on the world around us through that church was a distinct negative. That his treatment of us was evil. There was no group processing: “Why? How did this happen? Why did we let it go on so long? What can we do to learn from this so it never happens again? How do we use our experiences to show compassion?” That’s where real healing can begin. Until then, you just jump from a bad situation to what looks like a better situation at the time, but with no real foundation for what is “better” beyond “it’s not THAT”. For Christians, that often looks like jumping from spiritual tyranny to benevolent spiritual tyranny. I am writing this now because I suppose I’m seeing the evil of the systems we were a part of in a clearer light. For that I have many people to thank, including a few I met on Twitter who befriended me. I won’t say I’ve processed things fully – that’s silly. But I trust I have more clarity now to be able to write about these things with any coherence. It’s not out of bitterness or vengeance I write. Bishop N died recently. His ministry speaks for itself, and it’s not good. His own daughter left his church before he died, if that tells you anything. As for the other two pastors, there’s still time for them and their people to come to their senses.
After about 2 years at the SBC church, the beloved pastor retired, and we started searching elsewhere for a church. It was an hour from where we lived and just didn’t make sense for us to continue attending long-term. We tried a few places without success, and finally upon a recommendation we started attending a 9Marks and John Macarthur-affiliated church, without knowing anything about either of those two entities. Things seemed a little off, though we couldn’t put our fingers on it initially, because the actual services and worship were excellent. My wife especially started feeling her boundaries encroached on by multiple ladies in the church, who kept asking for personal information and her cell number, pressuring her to come over for dinner, etc. Also the small group ladies meeting she attended was very much an exercise in forced intimacy – she felt a lot of pressure from the group to share her deepest sins with a group of women she barely knew. We’re both introverts and that’s not ok. One night she came home from one of these things crying about that, and I just didn’t see the red flag at the time, nor could she really express how she was feeling. It slowly crept up on us though, till it was undeniable and we had to talk about it. One Sunday, one of the younger “elders” in the church walked up to me, shook my hand, asked me to remind him of my name, and then proceeded to ask if I had considered joining the church. I don’t even remember what I said at the time, but later that started really troubling me. You only knew me by facial recognition, and you wanted me to join the church….? That’s not backwards to you? What? Only later did I found out what “joining the church” meant to the 9 Marks folks, making that incident that much more weird, but we stopped going almost immediately anyway. I think we saved ourselves a lot of pain there.
It’s been an interesting journey since then. We currently attend a fairly small but healthy church not far from us with two of my siblings, and the peace has been good for us as we figure things out together. My faith looks nothing like it did through those first churches, and that’s a good thing, because it’s finally starting to become mine. I’ve also gained what can only be described as a church family on Twitter.
Writing this out is as much for me as it is for anyone who might read this, but again, I hope it’s encouraging to someone out there (even if I find it hard to believe that it would be what one might call inspiring). Maybe a lesson here is that God will draw His own to Himself, even when that means leaving multiple churches where He is not present. His own will persevere in finding Him. He’s called us out of the bondage of sin and legalism and man’s attempts to set up religion in His name without His Spirit.
In closing, I want to thank the friends and family who didn’t write me off through the years of fundamentalist blindness, the ones who’ve befriended me and helped me grow, the ones I’ve never met but still encourage and influence me. Y’all know who you are. I want to give the same grace to others going forward. I don’t want to continue and perpetuate the cycle of abuse and dysfunction in my own life.
*Correction courtesy of my sister on the piano incident:
She did NOT mess up during the song service. She actually played too well – no mistakes. Bishop N and his wife/daughter felt threatened, apparently. They did not want her to feel good about her talents and get proud, or something, so they cut her out of it. I’m not sure if the correction makes the incident worse or better.