Trigger warning for mentions of spiritual abuse.
If you’ve been here very long, you know that I spent nearly 10 years in a spiritually abusive church.
During my internment in this group I learned to believe that the love of God was expressed most effectively through the confrontation of sin among our brethren. We were told that the essence of love was to be warned of our sin and given the opportunity to “bear fruit unto repentance,” thereby proving the sincerity of our redemption. In fact, the most unloving thing one could do to another believer was failing to warn them of sin, carelessly allowing them to blaze their path to hell. I was drawn to these people for their transparency, nakedness, and vulnerability. Their teachings were presented with strength and conviction and were the farthest thing imaginable from the “cheap grace, prosperity gospel” I had grown up with. I dove in without looking back.
When I say we were transparent, vulnerable and naked, it was in the sense of being found in the hot seat with the “light of fellowship” aimed at our flaws. “Search me and know my heart” took on a new meaning. There was an expectation of confession. Deeper, hidden sins were expected at the root of the “obvious symptoms.” Those who responded well to correction were embraced. Those who did not were ostracized or eventually excommunicated via manipulation. It didn’t take long to adopt the pattern of response that would garner the most positive results.
I vividly remember my first confrontation. I was 17. My heart pounded a foreboding rhythm as I sat across from my young friend in her living room. Haltingly, painfully, she “brought her offense” to me. I had speculated that she had a crush on a boy in the youth group and conspiratorially giggled to my sister a prediction that they would marry. My friend learned of this and felt hurt. Rather than bringing her feelings directly to me, she followed the pattern set before us, consulting with our youth leaders. She was counseled to formally confront me according to the rules of biblical discipline. My examination took place with church elders in the next room, sanctioning the practice and “supporting us in prayer.”
What had started as a case of hurt feelings ballooned into accusations of foretelling, divination, witchcraft and rebellion.
I was angry, indignant, as I listened to the charges against me. I felt betrayed. How could the whisper and giggle of a teenage girl lead to this? My anger was quickly squelched by the ultimatum laid before me by my friend. The requirement was that I repent, turn from my ways, and by means of a trial period prove my sincerity lest she and other church members be forced to distance themselves. If I continued in my pattern while claiming to be a Christian, they would fulfill the biblical mandate, “with such a one, do not even eat.”
My blood ran cold and my head spun. This was no idle threat. Just weeks before we’d excommunicated a friend of ours, carefully navigating the legalistic steps of “biblical church discipline.” I knew I was in danger of losing the first real friends I’d ever had. This was not a time to exert my will. I wondered if I was so deluded that I’d become demon possessed. I wondered if I was a witch. At the very least, I assumed my friends and leaders must be able to see a great blind spot in my life. So I tearfully pledged repentance and promised to work harder to overcome rebellion. I became utterly humbled, and for many years lauded that encounter as the nearest I’d ever been to Jesus in the flesh. Because only Jesus would get himself dirty enough to save one as close to perdition as I.
That was only one of many such confrontations, both conducted for me, and sadly, by me. I regret to say that I participated in these inquisitions as eagerly as I sought them for myself. Over the years I grew anxious if my friends did not point out my faults. I believed that any failure to confront me indicated they no longer cared and were content to let me slide right out of grace.
The truth was that many of them had grown weary of this fruitless charade.
Over time, I began to recognize what was happening and knew I had to get out. I was the first among my friends to leave the church. I didn’t know who I was or what I believed. A crisis of faith became a very real crisis of identity. I draw my sense of being from the people around me and suddenly I had nothing familiar in proximity. Who was I? Did I really know Jesus? If not, who was I serving? It was months before I felt I could hear from the Lord in the wilderness, alone. But I was determined to stay by His side, wrestling, until I came to some kind of reconciliation with Him.
This poem epitomized where I was. It became my desperate prayer. But would it ever be answered?
…This story isn’t over yet. Part II coming soon.