He hadn’t said much that night. The other two had played the bad cop/good cop routine on me, while he sat at the other end of the table listening. R had led the meeting, file folder and notepad in front of him like the police detective he was, laying out the evidence against me, while K had asked questions in a slightly more gentle manner.
The air in the church basement was thick with fear, and not mine either. I was filled with anger. How dare they call me before them again as if I were a criminal on trial? How dare they try to turn my husband against me?
Before we had descended the stairs, I had pulled Scott aside. “You have my back, right? I need to know before I go into this that you are on my side.” I was shaking, eyes full of angry tears, demanding an answer.
“Joy, of course I’m on your side. But Joy, how can you be so defiant? I’d be peeing my pants if it were me. But you are angry and ready to fight. Please try to calm down.”
Now we sat at the long white plastic table, the three church elders on one side, Scott at the end, and me on the other side. Just like the interrogations on tv, but without any slamming fists or physical torture.
G finally spoke. “You wrote a post criticizing my seminary last week.”
I looked at him. “You mean the post about the conference?”
“Yes. That’s led and hosted by my seminary. Do not criticize them.” I hadn’t seen him angry before, but he was angry now.
I repeated it, hoping they would hear just how ludicrous this was. “You are telling me not to critique a conference that your seminary is connected to… on my own blog?”
“That’s exactly what I’m saying.”
It was like having the door slammed shut in my face. They wouldn’t listen to me. They wouldn’t try to understand or see things any other way. There was no reasoning with them. There was no compromise possible. They were right, the arbiters and gate-keepers of Truth, and I was wrong. For months I had felt like they saw me as poison or cancer, but I had dismissed those impressions as paranoid. Now I knew it for sure. They had to shut me down or get rid of me.
John wrote in 1 John 4:18, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”
They didn’t love me. They couldn’t love me, because they were afraid of me.
I walked out of that meeting with the only resolution possible in that circumstance: I took myself out of the church membership. To remain required me to affirm theological statements which I could not honestly affirm. To remain required me to put myself under the authority of fallible men who thought they were infallible and who believed they had authority over every aspect of my life, including my personal blog and Facebook. To remain meant subjecting myself to church discipline for daring to express my doubts and questions about faith and church and celebrity pastors.
Even though I was no longer a member, I still attended that church for several more months. I couldn’t bring myself to leave without the rest of my family, and my husband wasn’t ready to consider it a lost cause. They barely looked at me after that, I wasn’t asked to help in any way (except on occasion in the nursery – apparently I couldn’t lead the babies astray), and they didn’t call me into any more meetings. I was no longer their responsibility. They had washed their hands of me. I was a problem that they had gotten rid of.
We finally left, along with several other families, after they took the intimidation, false accusations, manipulation, and fear to whole new levels with a dear friend of ours who dared ask questions to a man who had given an obscenely inaccurate and unscientific presentation on the age of the earth to the church.
That was two years ago, but I’m still trying to recover from the experience. This space, this safe place to be honest about our pain and our questions? I did my best to make it safe for you, while at the same time knowing that it wasn’t safe for me at all. To be completely honest, it still doesn’t feel safe for me. Every time I receive an email or letter or phone call from someone at our new church, my stomach knots and I wonder if it’s happening again. I don’t broadcast that I have a blog to people I meet in my kids’ schools or at church or in our community. I have only friended one person from our new church on Facebook.
I don’t want to be afraid to be who I am. I don’t want to keep everyone at arm’s length. I can’t love you if I don’t know you, and that only happens when I let you get to know me too. The irony that I’m the one who wrote for a year about living and writing life unmasked, about not pretending to be something we’re not, is not lost on me. But I have been hurt. The scars are still fresh and they still ache. And I’m a real person. I don’t want to experience that again if I can help it. So I wear my armor, I skirt around topics I would have jumped into before, and I try to regain health and strength even as I wait for the hammer to fall again.
I’ve made some tentative steps towards being more transparent again, and so far I’ve been met with genuine love and acceptance. I can tell that the people we are getting to know today genuinely care about us, and even though we all know we disagree on politics and the practical outworkings of faith, they are not afraid of diversity. That is the key, I think: love, not fear.
As I work to overcome the deadening effects of spiritual abuse on my faith and my creativity, I have found tremendous encouragement in the journeys of others. I want to leave you with these words from Michael Gungor in “The Crowd, The Critic, and the Muse: A Book for Creators“:
The crowd has its rules, and it will be very loud and adamant about these rules because without rules, the crowd’s culture couldn’t exist. But sometimes there are rules that ought to be bent or broken.
An argument could be made that you are not producing good art until you infringe upon some of your culture’s rules and expectations. Perhaps artists in a culture are like prophets in ancient Israel, calling for society to repent and re-imagine itself. Artists like question marks, like incarnated doubt in the faith of a culture–keeping that culture fluid and growing.
All great human achievement or cultural advancement comes from people stepping out of the traditional and expected courses. The music that many of us love today never would have been created had not composers like Beethoven or Wagner broke the rules that had been set for them. This is how innovation works. Somebody breaks a rule and steps outside of the expected box. Eventually, that unexpected action becomes the new norm, the new box, until someone else comes along and breaks the new set of rules. The role of the creator is an inherently precarious one. Somebody had to be the first person who proposed trying to build a ship that would fly to the moon. Walt Disney had to tell someone his dream of starting an empire based on a cartoon mouse. At some point in their lives, our most innovative creators get laughed at. They are scorned as fools, wastrels, or heretics. [emphasis mine]
Day 2 of Spiritual Abuse Awareness Week: Your journey and consequences of spiritual abuse
How has your experience affected you? What has it done to you emotionally, mentally, physically, spiritually, etc.? What has your journey been like? How have you gotten where you are today? Do you feel you’ve healed? What do you still struggle with? Add the direct link to your stories below.
Every day this week, Elora Nicole will be hosting anonymous survivor stories on her blog as part of her Rebel Diaries project for those who aren’t free to speak up publicly yet. In addition, Rachel Held Evans will be highlighting spiritual abuse on her blog.
Don’t forget: the hashtag for Twitter discussion is #ChurchSurvivors