“Real” Christianity: The Phrase That Enables Abuse
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.
Following Christ got me Kicked Out of Christianity
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.
No Facades, No Apologies
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? (Exvangelical Edition)
“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?”
I Lost My Dream Job Because I’m Queer
I lost my dream job because I’m queer. Isn’t that illegal? Well, yes. Except I technically left voluntarily. Most former pastors and missionaries do. I left because I felt pushed out and I couldn’t be complicit in oppression any longer. Whether that’s voluntary or coercion, is up for debate.
That’s how churches get away with it – the discrimination. They corner you into a shrinking box until you can’t live like that anymore and you leave. Then they can say you left willingly. You resigned, it wasn’t a good fit, you pursued other opportunities, your passions changed, etc. That, or you hide your real self because you can’t afford to lose your livelihood. Perhaps after years of Christian service, your secular business skills are lacking and you aren’t sure what your options are.
It doesn’t matter whether or not its intentional, pushing “dissident” Christians out of their ministry jobs. Oppression is so deeply ingrained into church culture its entirely possible not everyone there realizes what they’re doing. But the impact is the same and responsibility is not absolved.
I didn’t want to quit my job. Leaving deeply broke my heart. I had worked with the ministry for seven years, employed full-time for three. That community was everything to me. It wasn’t just my job – it was my closest friendships, my fun weekends, my late nights, my meaningful conversations, my outlet for making a difference in the world and my opportunity for discovering my own gift and talents.
My college ministry was my safe place when I was excommunicated from my parents church for visiting a male friend. My college ministry empowered me as a woman – they allowed women pastors and showed me that as a woman I could be equally used by God. My college ministry believed in me as a shy, home-schooled 18 year old and enabled me to take on a vital role in the community. Because of my college ministry I learned I was gifted at facilitating discussions, planning largescale events, writing sermons and public speaking, mentoring and coaching to name only a few.
The acceptance and empowerment I experienced there healed me from a narcissistic church friendship I had had for the previous four years which left me feeling totally worthless and defective. My college ministry pushed me outside my comfort zone in all the best ways and provided me the first opportunities to build friendships with non-believers, to have in-depth spiritual conversations with people I didn’t know closely, and even to speak on a faith panel alongside atheists in front of several hundred people.
Because of this ministry, I became a central hub in a thriving and diverse community – feeling valued and important for the first time. This ministry provided me the opportunity to live in a community house and experience interdependent, sustainable living in ways I had only dreamed of before. This ministry showed me what it is like having a close, tight-knit fellowship of people that have nothing else in common other than a shared belonging and curiosity about Jesus.
My college ministry was the reason I learned how to be family with people I didn’t always naturally feel drawn to. They gave me the chance to complete a two-year internship usually only offered to Bachelor’s graduates after I had earned my Associates degree. The internship was the most meaningful thing I had ever done with my life. I was able to dedicate myself full-time to my passions – making a tangible difference in the lives of people who meant the world to me. Through raising financial support I was able to get paid for doing what I loved the most. Because of this ministry, I was able to help others experience Christianity as healing, transformational and empowering. They made it possible for me to facilitate an environment where people could have the same kinds of powerful spiritual experiences that changed my life.
This ministry gave me the chance to study theology and take seminary classes and achieve my dream of becoming a pastor. Me! A woman! A young woman in my early twenties at that. Earning my licensing credentials was so incredibly validating. After a lifetime of being told women, and especially young women, couldn’t be trusted – here was a ministry that affirmed me in doing pastoral work even as a student. They then went on to empower me to becoming officially recognized as a pastor within their denomination. This ministry was the best thing that happened to me. Leaving felt like the antithesis of everything I held dear.
However, as I moved higher and higher up in the organization, I had the chilling realization that the national and global levels of this denomination weren’t as family-like and accepting as the small chapter I had worked with since I was a teenager. The more I attended huge conferences and met national leaders, the more I experienced judgment and legalism.
The community houses connected with sister ministries where I spent a lot of time during my internship had strict separations between men and women. For instance, when myself and a few other female interns went downtown to get food with one of the male interns, we were warned to “be careful with him”. What did they expect us to do? Have an orgy in the car? These binary divisions and oversexualization were always very uncomfortable and confusing to me as a queer person. The community houses were also strictly no-alcohol, so when a friend of mine came over with some Amaretto-flavored ice cream to store in the freezer during their visit, we were almost told we couldn’t have it (even though it was non-alcoholic). They eventually said it was okay after a chaotic household debate. Rules like these became more and more consuming and nonsensical and ridiculous and I went from feeling safe and accepted to once again being always on edge, waiting for the day I would break an unexpected and unknown rule and my life would come crashing down all over again.
As a student I was aware that my beloved community had a “traditional view” on marriage and sexuality, but it wasn’t a topic that came up much. We didn’t encounter too many people who asked about those policies, so I never experienced it being a problem in a practical sense. However, now as an interned staff member the problematic nature of those policies became painfully clear. Once while running a promotional event in the campus center, a student approached me and asked if we were accepting to LGBT students and I didn’t know what to say. I knew the official answer was no. I mean, they could come to our events of course, but eventually if they wanted to be an active Christian in the community they would be asked to give up that part of themselves. What’s more, they would be asked that by straight married staff who would never have to make a similar sacrifice. Being put in this predicament opened my eyes to just how horrible our stance was – I just couldn’t see Jesus ever telling someone they weren’t accepted. The person standing in front of me was a real human being, not a topic, not an issue, not a doctrine. I ended up telling them “Jesus accepted everyone so we had better do it, too!” My answer satisfied the student, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that while what I had said was morally true, I had somehow just lied about our community. From then on, I often felt like a wolf in sheep’s clothing – acting accepting and loving on the outside, but on the inside I was following oppressive policies and being dishonest with people.
What made it even harder to accept the community’s “traditional stance” on sexuality, was that they were affirming to women in ministry even when most “traditional” churches weren’t. They were willing to do the hard work and theological gymnastics to come to that conclusion – pulling apart problematic Bible verses, studying the original culture at the time, imagining scenarios that might make a writer say what they did, even speculating that some verses had been added in later – but they were never willing to do the same thing with the verses about homosexuality. I knew if the same amount of effort was invested in resolving the LGBT “clobber” passages, a similar conclusion could be reached. In fact, I realized it would actually probably be easier to arrive at LGBT inclusion than inclusion for women pastors. A quick history study shows that the word “homosexual” wasn’t in any English translations until 1946, and the word had been understood as pedophilia before that. Changing the translation had been a topic of debate and not universally accepted as the correct decision.
It became so clear to me that because it was so easy to do the research and change their minds on LGBT inclusion, if it wasn’t happening it was simply because church leaders didn’t want to. It would shake things up too much to change an entire denomination’s stance, so they didn’t bother. They would lose things – things like, clout in certain circles, a percentage of affiliates, and large donors. Women had led the way in establishing the denomination from the very beginning, so female equality never required leadership to “change their minds” or make any sacrifices. Women were always involved in drawing up organizational policies and stances, but openly LGBT people were never represented on decision-making boards. Now generations later, real people were being hurt as a result. A lack of representation always leads to dehumanization and oppression of the underrepresented groups as decisions are made about them without their involvement.
As I completed my internship and went on to becoming a licensed pastor, I continued to wrestle with my growing understanding of my sexual orientation. I had never talked to anyone in the ministry about it, but I decided to tell my best friend who was an intern there at the time. She and I had been through everything together over the last 5 years or so, and if anyone would understand, it would be her. I trusted her. I told her what I knew about my queerness and excitedly declared that self-acceptance was so freeing – I finally felt authentic! She responded by telling me that my “most authentic self is full of sin and brokenness” and that for those reasons I should not strive for authenticity but rather holiness. I was devastated and deeply insulted. We had always been so bonded – we were very touchy best friends and our souls felt joined in a way I couldn’t explain, but after telling her I wasn’t straight, she became cold and distant and avoided touching me. I was completely shattered. This couldn’t be Christlike, could it?
As my theology became more and more inclusive, a divide grew between me and my beloved community. I wasn’t able to teach or preach freely anymore – there was now a limit to what I could say. For a while I taught what I was told to, not what I believed. But I couldn’t do that forever – I couldn’t in good conscious get up in front and say things that I believed were inherently wrong and harmful and untrue. I was also painfully aware that in order to be true to myself, I would lose everything I held dear. I wouldn’t be seen the same way again and I would give up all I had worked toward for almost a decade. I would lose my entire community all over again, seven years after it had happened the first time.
One of my students who identified as lesbian apparently didn’t know our official stance on LGBT inclusion. It wasn’t talked about much and I can understand why. Once she told me “I’m so glad I could find an accepting church community! I don’t think I would be a Christian if I hadn’t found this.” That cut me deep to the bone. What were we supposed to do now? A member of our community found her faith under false pretenses. I couldn’t deny it was a huge red flag if revealing our true beliefs would destroy someone’s faith and their ability to be part of our community.
As a queer, pansexual woman, I couldn’t even tell this student that I shared parts of her journey. I couldn’t share commonality with her as queer women. I couldn’t connect with her as a fellow queer Christian. I had to hide my identity or talk about “remaining celibate” and how Jesus supposedly changed me. As a queer person, I wasn’t allowed to work a job where I spiritually mentored other queer people. Straight people were supposed to do that. Or queer people who denied themselves. The epiphanies were suffocating.
I watched myself being slowly pushed further and further out of my window of tolerance. I couldn’t do this. I couldn’t get paid money to oppress people who were just like me. I started to face my privilege as a straight-passing cis-gendered woman who was in a relationship with a man at the time. I contemplated the fact that I was allowed to exist in this community because my life on the surface fit closely enough in the box of their expectations – but not everyone had that privilege of conforming on the surface. I wasn’t comfortable continuing to use my privilege of acceptance to take it away from others. I couldn’t live secretly as a self-accepting queer person while asking someone else to deny their queerness.
It wasn’t just the doctrines on LGBT issues that pushed me away from this ministry. By this time, I had seen too much. I had seen judgmental attitudes, controlling policies and ridiculously strict rules designed at higher organizational levels – but ultimately it was reckoning with the humanity of queer people that pressed me to the point of knowing without a doubt what I had to do.
So I left. I left everything I wanted for my life and everything I saw for my future. I left what I had thought was my calling and what I seemed most gifted at doing.
I left my closest friends and my built-in support system. I left the only place I had truly felt I belonged. I left a job I loved so much, waking up in the morning felt like a fantasy. I left the community I had invested the entirety of my adult life into.
I left in faith that I would be able to find other ways of building community and practicing healthy spirituality. I left trusting that God would not reject me for honoring the way I was created.
I left knowing I had built my life over completely from scratch once before, and I believed I could do it again.
So I found a loophole in the 3-year contract I had signed and used that as an excuse for leaving and I did it. I left. People supported me because they thought I was leaving for “family reasons”, and while that was part of it, I wasn’t fully honest about my reasoning. I couldn’t deal with same the pain of rejection that we regularly asked our queer students and others to experience. I couldn’t bear simultaneously losing my community and knowing they would be looking down on me behind my back, too. I travelled a path all too familiar to many queer people and I hid – for my safety, my sanity, and my survival. In the process of leaving a place where I lived in hiding, I hid some more. It hurt.
I remained close friends with some of the students I had mentored, now with no limits. I was able to maintain relationships mostly only with those who hadn’t had authority over me and were more liberal in their theology. The young lesbian woman who unknowingly spurred on my journey of walking away would actually be the first person I officially came out to about a year later.
My faith in myself was not unfounded. I went on to join leadership at a progressive and affirming church and co-founded an intentional-living cooperative and unconventional church-like community at an apartment complex downtown my small city. I found ways to be a badass non-traditional pastor with no denomination telling me what I could or couldn’t hear from God or how I could or couldn’t love people.
Pastoring “unofficially” meant less recognition, lower status and limited credibility in the institutional church world, as well as no pay. It also meant giving up my treasured credentials with the denomination I had served unless I wanted to pay high annual fees and balance a tightrope between two worlds. I decided I didn’t need a prejudiced man-made organization validating my abilities or God-given calling and chose not to renew – closing that chapter of my life forever.
I will always miss the campus ministry that first loved me and healed me and made me who I am today in so many ways. It will always hurt knowing they didn’t fully know or accept me, and while I have moved forward, I will never “get over it”.
I lost my dream job because I’m queer. But I fulfilled my dream of starting a church and being true to myself and following the Spirit even when it costs me everything. And ironically… that’s something they taught me how to do.