I am my own. I know that now, but I didn’t always.
Fuck purity culture. Fuck being shamed out of wearing shorts, tank tops, and two piece bathing suits because apparently having knees, shoulders, and a torso is ok for men but not for women.
Fuck innocent friendly gestures being sexualized. Fuck the pastor freaking out at me for accidentally letting the office door swing shut for a millisecond. Fuck getting in trouble for giving a male student a ride to church.
Fuck those church bros leaping away when I try to give them a platonic side hug, as if I’m a walking disease, like my body is toxic and will contaminate them.
Fuck always being on edge, waiting for the next unwritten rule I might break.
Fuck being fed a male-centric view of sex – being brainwashed to believe every time I had sex I was being consumed by a man.
Fuck being injected with the nagging fear that I lost something and he took something – the idea that I was losing a part of my personhood, my identity, my soul; something too deep and ambiguous to pinpoint or define and therefore impossible to determine if it was actually happening or not. Fuck the intentionality behind that confusing chaos.
Fuck being told over and over and over again that I’m an object to be utilized, a product that could be spoiled – that I don’t have any agency over my own life and body, that I belong to my future husband, someone who may or may not even exist. But he could somehow own me and was entitled to a certain lifestyle from me, just because he had a penis and I didn’t.
Fuck having no where to turn when I was sexually assaulted because all anyone wanted to know was “what were you doing alone with him?” Not even realizing for years what happened wasn’t okay, that it wasn’t actually my fault for existing in a space near a man who wanted me.
Fuck all the fear and the shame and the missed opportunities and the dampened experiences and the panic attacks and the nightmares and the insecurities with my loving and committed partner. Fuck it all.
Purity Culture can die and go to hell.
I am not the problem. I know that now.
Contrary to popular opinion, God did not make a mistake when creating my body.
I am not a temptation or a stumbling block. I am a human being.
I am good. My body is good. My identity and value aren’t in how or with whom I choose to share my sexuality. I’m not forever tied to past decisions or still connected to anyone I don’t want to be.
Fuck purity culture and fuck purity rings; those little finger-sized handcuffs.
And for the biggest “fuck you” of all – I’m happy. I’ve struggled free. I’ve learned to manage the residual effects. My life is my own. I make my own decisions without the smallest consideration for what the oppressors think.
I know now that my body is a temple for the light inside of me. I am my own. I bought back my life at a price. Therefore I honor my needs, my authenticity and my divinity with my body.
I am my own. I know that now.
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.
With the rise of the deconstruction movement, and the internet making connection more accessible and isolation more difficult to enforce, survivors of religious trauma are coming forward in droves. Our stories are being heard in greater numbers than ever before. Documentaries are going mainstream exposing the atrocities committed by various Christian denominations. Because of our bravery, its finally coming to light in recent years just how toxic the Evangelical church is, especially through the lens of mental health.
Its getting harder for the church to hide their narcissistic and abusive behavior. It’s becoming more obvious that gaslighting is their weapon of choice. Perhaps the ultimate form of this gaslighting is consistently lying about the source of, and solutions for, mental illness.
Congregants are constantly attacked with “Do not be anxious about anything, but make your requests known to God” and “Depression is a strategy of the enemy. Trust God and give it to him!”, “God wants healing for you, all you have to do is pray.” “Stop acting hopeless like unbelievers – continue in the joy of the Lord and abide in his peace.”
While the Evangelical Church would have us think that mental illness is a result of disobedience, many are discovering that for them, the church itself is actually the cause of their mental health struggles. Following their teachings means living constantly on edge, trying to please everyone all the time. It means being responsible for other people’s emotions in order to avoid rumors and judgment and straight up attacks on our lives. Unsurprisingly this leads to chronic and crippling anxiety. Faithful involvement with your neighborhood congregation often means being trapped in a suffocating group that consistently insists you are evil and flawed to your core. It means being surrounded with reminders that you are worthless if not for God’s pity. Obviously this can develop into life-destroying depression. Being beaten into submission both physically and emotionally, and then rejected, betrayed and shunned for looking different usually causes Post Traumatic Stress and a lifetime of severe dysregulation.
The narrative handed to us in church is that mental health issues are a symptom of not being devout enough. But in fact, it is precisely our very devotion and commitment to the church that erodes our mental health! If we were less devout, we would also be less damaged. The closer you are to the flame, the worse you get burned.
If we seek help, we are met with “You aren’t trusting God enough” “Spend more time at church” “delve deeper into your faith” “repent!” but its those very actions that hurt us in the first place. If, in our attempts to heal, we listen to those we’ve been conditioned to obey, we become more and more exposed to the source of our painful symptoms.
It’s quite a clever plan, when you think about it. It’s easier to manipulate and control those who are mentally ill, so helping us heal isn’t in the church’s best interest. Blaming the sickness on the patient and not on the disease keeps us right where they need us. Convincing us the contagion is actually the cure traps us in a loop. Desperate people take desperate measures and most of us will keep clinging to dynamite if we truly believe it will relieve our pain. After all, our religion has the solution to everything. We just need to stop relying on our own understanding, turn off our minds and do what we’re told.
Shame on you, church!
My only consolation is knowing the truth is coming out brighter and louder now and people are fleeing at a higher rate than ever before. Deep, dark secrets are exposed en masse – the oppressors’ worst nightmare. It is a slow and arduous battle, but we are on the winning side of history. We’ll weaken the enemy and take that victory with our own stories as our weapon of choice.
The church I grew up in (like many Evangelical churches) seems moderate from the outside, but regularly promotes extremist theologians, organizations and curriculum. They maintain a tamer image while subtly infiltrating the community with toxicity that is sometimes difficult to pinpoint. “Growing Kids God’s Way” by Gary Ezzo, is a fundamentalist Christian parenting class that is basically a manual on child abuse and you guessed it, promoted by many “moderate” Evangelical churches, including my family’s church.
My parents got sucked in and became obsessed. After taking the class, they even taught it for a few years. This goes to show the extent of the impact this class had on them, because neither my dad nor my mom are naturally inclined toward leadership. They prefer to be behind the scenes, but something about Growing Kids God’s Way compelled them.
Look at the one-star book reviews on Amazon and you’ll see many people warning others of the dangers of this curriculum and telling stories of the trauma and brokenness it wielded on their family. Some of the pillars of the class are “first time and immediate obedience”, promoting painful physical punishment even on babies, saying “I love you” after spanking, servanthood toward the father of the family, “couch time” as a way of instilling inferiority in children, and “appeals” instead of open communication. I’ll explain the lingo.
First time and immediate obedience requires an enthusiastic “yes Mommy/Daddy” within a few seconds of the command. A pause, delay, or even asking a question is disobedience and sin. Parents are told if they repeat a command, they are sinning by enabling delayed obedience. (I was told many times growing up that delayed obedience is disobedience). This narrow and damaging interpretation of obedience puts children constantly on edge. If you don’t hear right away or don’t understand, or if you’re feeling less than happy for some other reason, you can be punished for that. In this mindset children are not allowed to have emotions. They must always be eagerly compliant and submissive. They are not allowed to experience developmentally appropriate expressions of the full human experience.
Appeals are for when a parent asks a child to do something and the child might have new information for the parent. The child must first immediately and enthusiastically say “Yes, Mommy/Daddy” and pause (signifying acceptance of the command) and then they are allowed to ask “May I appeal?”. A “yes, but” from the child is not allowed. Only if the parent says “yes, you may appeal”, can the child then explain something their parent might not have known already, such as the other parent already asked them to do something different for example, or perhaps the food they are being told to eat has an allergen in it. If the parent doesn’t allow the appeal, no further discussion can commence, and the child must obey no matter the circumstances. This can be dangerous. Additionally, this model promotes very formal and limited communication between parents and children, which destroys feelings of intimacy and safety and hinders emotional development.
Telling a child “I love you” during or after physical punishment wires them to believe that love is supposed to hurt them and sets them up for being either the victim or the oppressor in future abusive relationships, often both.
This mindset teaches that even babies can sin. I’ve heard from parents who were instructed to hit their baby if it crawls off a blanket, teaching the baby to “obey” the limits of the blanket and stay put. If the child is curious and continues to crawl after being put back on the blanket, this is explained as sin and rebelliousness. Obviously babies are developmentally unable to obey or understand commands, but eventually the baby will become traumatized and afraid to move and then the parents think they’ve successfully taught obedience to their infant.
My parents were usually gentle people, but this class made them spank me hard (as the first option, not last resort) with a specially designed switch that they ordered from the class. The reason the class had a specially designed spanking switch was to ensure that the spankings hurt enough. And of course, I was always told “We’re doing this because we love you.” It should be no surprise I ended up in an abusive marriage as a young adult.
Growing Kids God’s Way teaches that the entire family should have a heart of servanthood toward the father and husband. He should be served meals first before the children are fed, to teach them he comes first. Thankfully my dad didn’t lean into these fatherly superiority ideas, but my parents did practice “couch time”. This means when the dad gets home from work, he is not supposed to interact with his children until after he and his wife sit down for “couch time” in plain view of the children to show them that children come last. The husband and wife will sit and talk on the couch for however long they want while ignoring the children and the children are not allowed to talk to their parents. While I do think it’s healthy for partners to spend time focused on each other and to teach their children to respect that, the way this class teaches hierarchy is toxic.
This might all sound like something straight out of the Duggar family, but these ideas and similar ones are hidden throughout many of America’s unassuming churches. Even Christians who don’t intentionally adhere to these teachings often are influenced by them and defend other Christians who do in the name of “different convictions”.
Growing Kids God’s Way changed my family for the worse. The meanest my mom ever was to me was for appearances, trying to look good in front of the parents she was teaching the class to. Once my sister and I were in the next room at church waiting for the class to be over, and we were occupying ourselves. At one point we were quietly dancing together, just having fun in a non-disruptive way. But apparently some of the adults next door heard a few of our footsteps and were curious what the sound was (because the rooms were separated by a curtain). My mom was furious and came marching over. She silently “yelled” at us (mouthing and flailing her arms and sneering at us) and she yanked me hard by my wrist. Apparently being heard at all as a child looked bad for their image. We had to sit silently after that.
My parents teaching this class put a lot of pressure on my sister and me to be shining examples of the “finished product” the other adults would get by taking the class. We became their marketing prototypes and we had to be a convincing advertisement, or we brought shame on the family. This experience gives me a lot of empathy for pastors’ kids who are in a similar situation, but for their entire lives and not just for a few years.
As an adult now over two decades later, I don’t totally blame my mother for her reaction that night. Yes, it was her responsibility to treat her children well, but looking back, I see now that the intensity in her glare wasn’t just anger, it was fear. If anyone had arbitrarily decided that she couldn’t “properly” control her children or that she couldn’t accomplish the things she was teaching other parents how to do, then her standing in the church could be destroyed overnight. I unfortunately know what that feels like, as I was unofficially excommunicated from that very same church at 19 years old for something innocent. The experience destroyed me and left scars that I’m still working to heal almost 15 years later. The trauma from that experience has effected every area of my life.
Being part of Evangelical Christianity means you’ve likely seen others go through this and then spend your life trying to avoid it happening to you.
So in an attempt to keep yourself and your family safe, it’s likely you’ll end up traumatizing your kids “God’s Way”. If you don’t like the sound of that, it might be time to leave.
Church is the worst thing that ever happened to me.
Every single traumatic event experienced throughout my life – losing my community, being bullied, losing thousands of dollars to financial abuse and outright theft, sexual assault and rape, an abusive marriage and divorce by age 26, becoming a widow at age 29 – all of it was either caused directly by the church or made exponentially worse by it.
There is no question about it – church is the worse thing to ever happen to me.
For me, growing up in the church was being in a constant state of vigilant performance and pleasing hundreds of people who could never be pleased. I couldn’t win, but I had to. My worth, safety and acceptance depended on it.
The high stakes were known by a young age – the message loud and clear:
“Feeling frustrated? Sin! You must always be patient and kind.”
“Short on money? Sin! Your selfishness and greed foiled wise financial planning. God blesses the prudent.”
“Attracted to someone? Sin! Carnal desires draw you away from God!”
“Got a speeding ticket? Sin! We must obey the governing authorities God has established.”
“Don’t feel like smiling? Sin! We must always showcase the joy of the Lord. How else will people know we are Christians?”
“Exhausted? Sin! You lack responsibility and maturity, so you stay up too late.”
“Misplaced your car keys? Sin! Your lack of organizational skills prevent you from giving God your best.”
“Missed your alarm? Sin! Laziness and sloth are the devil’s playground.”
“Got a B in Math? Sin! We must do everything to the glory of God. Is that really your best?”
“Feeling a little down? Sin! A cheerful heart is good medicine.”
“Running late? Sin! Would you be late if you were meeting Jesus? You must do everything as if you’re doing it for the Lord!”
“Made an innocent mistake? Spilled your drink, burned the dinner, broke a vase? Sin! Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Sometimes these messages were said overtly and sometimes it was more manipulative and pervasive than that. The church knows how to make you feel what they want you to feel without saying so out loud. It keeps them from needing to take responsibility, while still maintaining control.
Living every second of every day this way for my entire formative years left a permanent mark. There is no coming back from that, not completely. There is only learning how to navigate my now hyper-alert nervous system, training myself in self-soothing and grounding techniques, and seeking out positive and safe experiences to rewrite as much of the first two-and-a-half decades of my life as possible.
Religious trauma destroyed me. I never knew when I was going to make the next mistake. It would always happen when you least expected it. The slightest misstep and your world could come crashing down at any moment. And mine did. Multiple times.
I was told regularly how bad I was. But I wanted so much to be good. Not just good; I wanted to be the best – the best Christian I could be, the best daughter, the best friend, the best student, the best employee, and eventually… the best pastor I could possibly be. I climbed the Christian ladder; studied theology, preached sermons, earned credentials, gave money, changed lives. But it was never enough.
The system sets you up to fail.
One day I would inadvertently bring the wrong flavor of ice cream to a ministry house and cause a huge scene. Apparently non-alcoholic amaretto flavoring in a “dry house” was a no-go.
On a typical Tuesday I would nonchalantly put on a pair of long shorts to go to work, only to have a disapproving Christian boss point out a new dress code. I was out of compliance – by one inch.. ‘Jokes’ and snide comments would be made for months.
Someday I would date a person who made me feel safe. But he used a rainbow filter on his profile picture and it caught the attention of the top-dog ministry director. I was on thin ice.
One Sunday I would wear my hair in two braids and be chided for looking immature and childish – what will people think?! But when I started wearing more makeup and fashionable clothes, now I was drawing too much attention. It seemed my sin was existing.
This performance culture would be the reason that at 27 years old I would wear yoga pants in public for the first time in my entire life. I was so excited for an acrobatics class I had always wanted to take – only for unexpected tears to come streaming down my face while I ran red-faced from my car to the class with a long sweater tied tightly around my waist; shame choking me so I couldn’t breathe.
This insane emphasis on reputation is why, after 7 years of proving my character in ministry and giving it my all, I almost got fired and lost everything just for letting someone crash on the floor in my house when they needed a place to stay. All because he was the “wrong” gender.
Christian perfectionism is why, now in my early thirties, if my husband is feeling grumpy I cringe, wondering what I did wrong. If he asks a simple question I snap back defensively, thinking he’s slyly criticizing me. I’m often nervous to drive with friends in the car, gripping the wheel in anticipation of the critiques that are sure to come at every turn. I’ll hit the brakes too hard or not hard enough, I’ll go too fast or too slow. I need to take the most direct route but also avoid the traffic; if I can’t do both it’s because I messed up. I should have used the parking brake, or maybe it’s silly that I did.
Going to church is the worst thing that ever happened to me.
I didn’t get the privilege of choosing my own religion. What I would believe was decided for me when I was innocent and impressionable. That’s not how beliefs are supposed to work. I didn’t get the chance to have a healthy brain or a normal development. I grew up always watching my back, reading into every word people say, watching and listening for cues and warning signs.
I might have been able to pass it off as a fluke, just one bad church out of millions. But then my college ministry job, which at first came across as so accepting and communal, forbade me from dating or drinking even when off the clock. A speaker at one of their conferences made cutting remarks about “girls who wear yoga pants” right before making an altar call. The area director made demeaning comments about the students I dearly loved, only because their school was known as “progressive”. A male speaker at a conference told us that even though we were an egalitarian ministry, women still needed to take 10 years off from the ministry jobs they loved when they became mothers. Our ministry’s founder hinted at being severely disappointed in any community members who weren’t outraged at the legalization of gay marriage. (Even though in a community of over 500 people, there are bound to be multiple members of the LGBT community among us and even more who dearly love someone who is.) He expressed surprise at “how many of us were deceived”. A lesbian ministry staff member was forced to forego any chance of a relationship if she wanted to keep her job, and people would often talk about her “situation”, as if she was an interesting case study and not a person. A trans student was forced to live in a ministry house with people who shared their sex-assigned-at-birth, not their gender identity. My best friend was held back in her credentials training program and forced to repeat an entire year because she had a bubbly personality and guys might “get the wrong idea”, while a man who had sexually harassed her never had his behavior called into question. Her supervisor even admitted the decision was made based more on what the higher-ups would think, than on any problematic behavior from my friend. Another close friend was forced to cut off contact with someone she deeply cared about, because the leadership found out she had a crush on him.
Even with all this I might have been able to chalk it up to really bad luck, two-for-two, but then the church I was required to attend on Sundays to fill my internship obligations, used me for free labor and volunteer hours even after my long 80-hour ministry work weeks. They had no regard for my need for rest or being ministered to for once. Frequently I would show up exhausted, almost in tears, hoping to pray with someone or just talk and let it out, only to be immediately asked at the door to cover teaching Sunday School last minute. I would linger after services, hoping to be asked how I was doing or invited to spend some unstructured time together, but no one ever did. One week, I bravely opened up about my deep spiritual wounds and the pastor’s spouse told me that “all good Christians walk with a limp” and if I didn’t get hurt I wasn’t engaging enough in the battle.
Even my “progressive” church years later, ostracized my partner because he wasn’t as engaged in activism and being “woke” as they thought he should be. He was the greatest person I had ever known and is solely responsible for saving my life and supporting me through my darkest moments. But apparently that didn’t matter to them as much as labels.
Christians from my distant past continued to stalk and harass me online for an entire decade after leaving their church. My fiance’s devout Christian family stole tens of thousands of dollars from me after he passed away, saying they thought I wasn’t “Christian enough” and wasn’t a “real widow”. Ministry friends I had considered like family, my closest companions I lived with for years, ignored my plea for support in the aftermath of my grief. Yet they still wanted all the juicy details about “where I was at spiritually”.
Fuck them all. This isn’t a specific church problem. This is a Christian problem, widespread across multiple generations, regions and denominations.
Church is the worst thing that ever happened to me.
And they still wonder why I left.