It’s been about 13 years since I first earned the reputation of a “backslider”.
It’s been only about one year of them maybe being right.
The first 6 or 7 years relegated to an outlier was really difficult. I was constantly misrepresented, lied about and betrayed by the church. What made it even worse was that while they were busy branding me a heathen, ironically I was busy working hard to be a better Christian. The very things I believed Jesus called me to love were the same things the church hated me for.
You see, I had discovered the teachings of Jesus that the church buried and kept hidden, and it set my soul on fire. Once I saw this side of Jesus there was no going back – values like social justice, welcoming the foreigner, caring for the poor, not accruing wealth, sharing resources, interdependent living, and practicing non-violence – it all spoke to me powerfully.
There grew in me a deep burning passion to practice these tenets BECAUSE of my faith, not in spite of it.
And yet most of the Christians I knew were wary at best and horrified at worst. To some, I was most certainly influenced by the devil.
It’s true I was frustrated and upset with the church, sure, but it was because they weren’t being Christlike, not because I didn’t want Christ.
Making these changes to my life was extremely costly but I continued to push forward in radical obedience. I paid the cost for it because I was so deeply convicted it was the right way. Doing the right thing was always worth it, or so I had been taught.
And yet to these Christians I was taking the easy route, giving in to worldly temptations and desires.
Believe me, there was nothing easy about letting my faith dictate my life.
I lost my status, I lost my friends, I lost my job, I lost the closeness of my family for a long time.
And yet to all of them I was doing the popular thing, taking the wide road.
But there was nothing popular about my convictions; I was the most hated and shunned person in town.
The harder I tried to be good, the more sinful they said I was.
I would have stayed and tried to help make the church better because I loved the church. I tried that for as long as I could. But it was Christians who ultimately made me leave.
I deeply believed that at the core of Christianity was the call to community, but I was ostracized from my Christian community and oftentimes had to go it alone.
I do believe there is a remnant of true Christ-followers living out their faith by making a positive difference in the world. They are the ones who inspired me for so long, but in the end it wasn’t enough.
I kept the name Christian for years after deconstructing and I thought I would forever – even if I had to strip away almost everything recognizable.
I clung to the last shreds of that identity because the teachings of Christ truly blow my mind and healthy Christian community has radically shaped my life in the most positive ways. But ultimately, retaining my faith was like trying to hold sand between my fingers. Eventually it all slipped out.
I never thought I would lose a part of myself that used to be everything.
I will always respect progressive Christians, but I reached a point of realizing that when it becomes more rare to see a Christian bringing good into the world than it is to see one spreading hate, it’s not something I want to be associated with.
I feel when it is more surprising when Christians act Christlike than like what they preach against, there is no point to me sifting through the ashes trying to find a few flakes of gold.
When I am more damaged and scarred from Christianity than I am healed and transformed, it’s just not worth it.
When the explanation and disclaimer I have to give for my faith is more extensive than the faith itself, nothing is left.
“Christian” is a name I never thought I would lose, but ultimately it was Christians who took it from me.
And you know what? They can have it.
If you’ve ever tried talking about your experience of church trauma and/or abuse, its likely you’ve been met with something along the lines of “Well, that’s not REAL Christianity!” “Oh, but those weren’t REAL Christians!” I’ve heard this more times than I can count, and I have a few embarrassing memories of responding similarly myself.
I don’t think manipulation, control, shame, abuse, judgment, discrimination, or oppression – which have all become commonplace in American Evangelicalism – are in line with the teachings of Christ.
But that doesn’t mean we get to dissociate those behaviors from Christianity.
“Christianity” is whatever Christians are doing.
And yes, Christians lie. Christians gossip. Christians turn a blind eye to suffering. Christians misuse tax-free dollars. Christians sexually assault minors in their care. Christians colonize lands and cultures they deem inferior. Christians pass legislation that keeps people on the streets, in prison, and in destitute poverty.
And “not all Christians” doesn’t negate the fact that Christians are still doing these things, and more frequently than most would like to admit.
Christians also donate to charities. Christians volunteer at homeless shelters. Christians build community gardens. Christians practice radical forgiveness. Christians march in Pride Parades. Christians advocate for justice and peacefully protest. Christians give their extra bedroom to a homeless teen.
All of this is real Christianity. The good and the bad.
I have seen the Christian faith expressed anywhere along a wide spectrum – from hellish horror stories that still haunt me a couple decades later, to transformational healing communities that met me in my darkest times and make up some of the best years of my life.
Christianity is the whole gamut. You can’t pick and choose what you like and ignore or justify the rest.
I’ll admit, it’s tempting to gate-keep what is “allowed” to be Christian. That way anything that makes us uncomfortable, makes the faith look bad, or goes against our personal values is therefore “fake” and not our problem.
Perpetrators of atrocities can be labeled insincere, fallen away, or wolves in sheep’s clothing – whatever keeps them disconnected from us.
But we don’t get to conveniently assume the people we don’t like aren’t part of us. If someone practices the Christian faith, participates in Christian community, touts Christian morals, obeys Christian rules or makes decisions based on their understanding of Christianity, for all intents and purposes – they are a Christian.
If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck – its a duck. Whether its a cute duck or an ugly duck. Even if that duck leaves a poopy mess in the park. Even if that duck nips a child trying to feed it. Even if that duck wakes up the neighborhood at 5am with annoying quacks. We don’t get to say its not a “real” duck because we are fond of ducks and this duck makes ducks look bad. It’s still a duck.
As I mentioned earlier, I used to respond to religious trauma survivors saying “Those people aren’t really following Christ” or “That’s not what Christianity is all about “. This was my knee-jerk reaction because I felt defensive of my own expression of Christianity that felt positive for me. It was uncomfortable to feel misrepresented. I had deep convictions about what Christianity was “supposed” to look like (which didn’t always line up with the lived experiences of others). At the time, my fervent life goal as a Christian was to invite more people into the faith which I believed was always the best thing for them. Acknowledging something negative about Christianity might scare people away. It was counter to everything I thought I was supposed to be doing with my life.
But over time, as I experienced my own religious trauma, I learned firsthand how the “not real Christians” mindset dismisses survivors who were hurt in Christian churches, manipulated by Christian doctrines, abused by Christian leaders, and oppressed by Christian institutions. This response tells survivors – “what happened to you wasn’t real”.
But it is real; perhaps more real than anything else in our past because of how it permeates our present and shapes our future.
Have Christian abusers strayed from the true way of Christ and created their own warped brand of Christianity?
It all depends on your interpretation of Christ’s teachings (and whether that interpretation allows you to see abuse in the first place). But I think many Christians would say yes – the damaging aspects of modern Christianity were not the original intent.
But even so, positive intent doesn’t erase negative impact. Those of us who still identify as Christians must take responsibility for the ways our tradition has made room for and turned a blind eye to Christian abusers because we’ve decided they aren’t “real Christians”.
And we desperately need to reflect on ways our tradition may have even cultivated harmful beliefs and behavior in the first place.
By distancing ourselves from the abuse that takes place in our churches, we let it continue. By deciding that abusers aren’t real Christians, we are choosing to see the dangerous and damaging aspects of the faith as coming from the outside, and therefore not our problem. This enables abuse.
As someone who spent almost 30 years in the church, I have a lot of repenting to do. Not just “I’m sorry” but actively undoing the harm I contributed to either directly, or by my lack of awareness.
As someone who (kind of) still identifies with progressive and mystic forms of the Christian tradition, I acknowledge that for every way the faith has been good for me, it has been life-shattering for someone else. My tradition has brought a lot of healing to people, and it has profoundly hurt people. Until every single Christian takes personal responsibility for the ways our tradition has been harmful, and strives to change it, real Christianity will continue to spread unimaginable pain.
The more serious I got about my faith and the more I let it change my life, the more the church hated me.
I was taught to follow Christ no matter the cost – turns out the highest cost was betrayal from Christians.
On Sundays we sang “I have decided to follow Jesus … though none go with me, still I will follow… no turning back, no turning back”. Yet when I went alone I was accused of going rogue.
When Acts 2 and Acts 4 inspired me to give up an individualistic and consumerist lifestyle and pursue interdependent community living – I got called a socialist.
When I decided my faith should shape my life, I was accused of relying on works to save me.
As I let God’s love break down my prejudices and biases, I saw the Image of God in all people – so I got labeled a universalist.
I couldn’t deny anymore the non-violent message of Christ and the pacifist lives of the earliest Christians – and was told I was getting too wrapped up in “non-essentials”, and getting my faith mixed up with hippie politics.
Studying American history, I came to the difficult conclusion that the US had never been a Christian nation, and that it could never be, as empires are always in direct opposition to Christ. I was attacked and called anti-American.
Christ said to love everyone – so I put people before doctrines. But I quickly found I could only love Church-approved people – white people, straight people, able-bodied people and wealthy people – without being reprimanded for following popular trends.
Humbly I decided I need to be a truth-seeker more than a truth-preacher, but now they said I was losing my way.
When I noticed the church pledges allegiance to politics more than Christ, I was called a libtard and snowflake.
I took Jesus seriously when he said to take in the stranger and help those in need – but Christians cared more about protecting borders than protecting lives and apparently if I didn’t like it here, I should move.
When I expanded my definition of family and did life with the people God put in my path, I was accused of breaking down family values.
I asked hard questions like Jesus did in his parables, but I was shunned for going astray.
When I emulated Christ the most closely, I was accosted with “We don’t recognize you anymore! You’re not one of us!”
The more I sacrificed to do the right thing, the more I was called selfish.
The less popular my convictions became, the more convinced they were I was taking the “easy path”.
The more fervently I followed the Spirit’s leading, the louder the doors slammed behind me.
Following Christ got me kicked out of Christianity.
I’m not finding myself, but finding my worth
I’m not lost, only trained to be invisible
It takes courage to be who you really are
Just you and nothing and nobody else
Unveiled for the world to see
No facades, no apologies
I’m learning to love myself again – or maybe for the very first time
I’m rewiring my brain to believe I am good – not disgusting or evil or broken
I can trust myself – and they were wrong
I was created with inherent glory and nothing, no one, can strip that away
That’s what it means to be made in the image of God
“How far are you willing to let Truth change your life? If something is true, and good and right, would you want it, even if it demands a response? What if responding means changing your way of thinking? What if embracing it changes how your family and friends see you? What if it changes your job security? But if it is true, would you want it regardless of the cost, or would you rather live a comfortable lie? Whether we like it or not, each of is faced with this question and will need to decide: How far are you willing to let Truth change your life?”
Does this sound like something you heard as an Evangelical? Does it flash you back to when pastors implored you to “pay the cost” of following Jesus? Urging you to give up the comforts and pleasures of this world for sacrificial faith? Commanding you to turn away from the popular ways of secularism and selfishness for the narrow path of life?
It sounds like that to me. But actually, I wrote this in 2013 one month before graduating college, and I wrote it about following newfound convictions that became my catalyst for walking away from the conservative church. Alone in an evangelical world, I was burdened with epiphanies that led to my deconstruction. My eyes had been opened and I couldn’t un-see how anti-Christ mainstream Christianity had become. The more I learned about what Jesus actually stood for, the more I saw how unlike him many churches really were.
Jesus said “put down your sword” but churches supported guns and war. Jesus said “how hard it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven”, but churches praised the rich and criticized the poor. Jesus said “let him who is without sin cast the first stone”, but churches judged relentlessly and ripped apart people’s lives with their gossip. I tried to ask questions or make points, but most Evangelicals were defensive and closed off.
I wrote this piece about seeking truth regardless of the cost – but in the way that an ex-Evangelical refugee has to pay, not as the face of pious religiosity staring down imaginary oppression.
I had been warned that the world would hate me, but actually it was the church that did. They taught me that persecution would come from doing the right thing, and it did – from Christians. I was trained to think secular groups would try to influence me and control my beliefs, but found that no one on the outside really cared what I did with my private life – only the church obsessed over that.
Christians had always told me that following the truth would be unpopular and cost me greatly. That’s exactly what happened – following my convictions became a deeply unpopular journey because my entire life was filled with Evangelicals who disapproved. The cost was losing everything and starting over from scratch.
I didn’t plan on leaving the church – I simply had committed to learning, growing and being driven forward by my conscience. As I learned new things, I changed accordingly. But there was no room for change in conservative Christianity. At the slightest hint of going my own way, I was accused of taking the easy route – ironically, deconstruction was the hardest thing I had ever done.
Hands trembling, I pulled opened the gate standing between me and vast, lonely unfamiliarity. I took a deep breath and stepped forward, answering the Spirit’s call into the wilderness. I knew Evangelicals wouldn’t let me go easily. I knew they would hunt me down and terrorize me (and they did), but I mustered my courage and went anyway. I gave up my community to venture ahead solo. I lost my friends and made some enemies. I let go of my status and reputation to be slandered and blacklisted. I faced my fears and trusted that Truth is good.
Maybe I should never have looked back, but I still desperately wanted to make a difference in the Christian communities I had known and loved. I did everything I could to gently and slowly expose whoever might be there with openheartedness to the Christ I was learning about – inviting them into curiosity. After all, someone had done that for me.
But I had to be careful. Being too open was dangerous. I wasn’t fully escaped yet. That would take years. I became skilled at using conservative language to express my progressive Christian ideas (knowing all too well that with just one word outside their lexicon, the arrows start flying). But conservative-coding everything I said made it difficult to know how much of my message actually got through. It took so much energy to find ways of creatively weaving new threads of discovery into an old tapestry of tradition, hoping the right people would find it or even recognize what it was.
Eventually, I had to heed the scriptural advice: “do not throw your pearls before swine.” Over the years my writing has changed – because my audience has changed. Now I maintain only those circles of influence characterized by mutual openness, learning, curiosity and reciprocity.
In those early days the mantra that kept me going was “I will follow Truth wherever it takes me” – a moment-by-moment response to reverberating internal echoes of “How far are you willing to let Truth change your life?”