Wednesday, June 1, 2011

B8. Leaving Church


April 14, 2011 I severed two long-term relationships, of 19 and 49 years in length, with one phone call.  For the first time in my entire life I am without a church family and without a denomination.
Born into a devout Southern Baptist family, baptized at age 8, I remained a member of that congregation until I finished college and moved to a different town for my new job.  I immediately joined a Southern Baptist congregation there, and remained a member during my 5 years living there, plus the 3 years I attended a Southern Baptist seminary, receiving my Master of Divinity degree.  After seminary, 19 years ago, I moved to my current city, also for employment, and quickly joined the church that I have just left, the church of which I was a member longer than any other in my life.  A church where I loved teaching Sunday School, led the first adult mission trip, to Honduras, was the first woman ever to serve as a deacon, and even got to preach a couple of times.  A church where I knew the pains and joys of those around me and cared for them as they cared for me.
I left.  The question of why is the difficult part.  There is nothing I can think to say that would be humanly satisfying for anyone to hear.  It was not a sudden decision, was brought on by no animosity toward anyone, but was a growing need within me that reached its breaking point.  I grieved the loss, just as one grieves a death, as it was indeed that for me.  The loss of a comfortable friend of 19 years and a less and less comfortable friend of 49.  Yet, I have no regrets.  I fully believed then, and believe more strongly with each passing day, that it is God who is leading me.  To where, I do not know, but I think I had to leave the confines of the Southern Baptist church to be able to follow God's leading more freely.
I came to this church directly from seminary, a spiritually propelling time of my life, complicated by the Baptist war that was in progress denomination-wide and on whose present battleground I found myself standing.  Unbeknownst to me, I found myself studying for the ministry on the campus where the heat of the war was centered at exactly the time I was there.  Unprepared, as most Baptist church members are, I tried to stay out of the battle, and to even pretend to understand it would have been a stretch for me at the time.  One side was accusing the other of not believing the Bible, but I never met anyone who didn’t.  One side was being forced off the mission fields and out of their seminary teaching positions.  During the 2 ½ years I was in seminary, I think there was one professor there when I graduated that had been there when I began.  There was much pain, and much show of power.  I watched, I listened, I refused to be labeled, although the other students labeled me a fundamentalist, probably because why would anyone else begin seminary in such a time of take over?  I didn’t argue.  For all I knew they were right.  I didn’t understand the name-calling.  I concentrated on my studies, completed my degree, opted not to pursue the missions dream that had taken me there, due in part to the Southern Baptist wars, and I took a teaching position here where I quickly felt led to join this congregation.
Still processing the battle I had witnessed and on whose stage I had been some kind of minor player, still unable to make sense of it all, and not accepting as “the whole truth” either side’s explanations, I set it aside and lived my life outside the controversy.  This was not difficult to do, as the church people were largely sheltered from any knowledge of the power struggles that had been going on within the denomination.  The war was not yet directly touching most of the individual congregations, at least not in such a way that those in the pews could see and identify it.
Over the years I continued to read, listen, ponder, and process, and maybe 10 years later I began to make some sense of it all.  The more I understood of the controlling power side, the more clearly I perceived the flaws of their position.  Power.  Control.  Manipulation. Indoctrination.  Even brain-washing.  Going on weekly in every local church, without any clue to the local church members.  They read, studied, and taught their weekly printed denominational materials, without ever questioning the Scriptural interpretations they were being fed.  As I began to discern this, it became more and more difficult for me to sit in a Sunday School class and listen.  We were being fed anti-intelligence, anti-science, anti-women propaganda, and being taught to interpret the Scripture in a way that I can’t believe any of the writers or Jesus ever intended it to be interpreted. There came a time when I could no longer sit silently.

Baptists in Conflict
During the 1980s the Southern Baptists began to divide into two very different ideological factions.  The controversy at its core is about how to interpret Scripture.  While both sides agree the Bible is inspired by God, the two sides disagree on what that means.
The fundamentalists teach a literal interpretation of Scripture.  They teach that the Bible was essentially written by God.  Thus every word is to be understood literally and applied directly to the daily lives of every person of every generation.
This legalistic interpretation leads to the oppression of women within the church.  All pastors, deacons, and Sunday School teachers (except those who teach only women or children) must be men, based on writings by two Middle Eastern men two thousand years ago.  It leads to teachings that deny education and science, in order to defend the minimal scientific understanding of the Biblical writers many thousands of years ago.  The word evolution, for example, has become a watchword, a word necessarily juxtaposed against Christianity, a word that threatens the fundamentalists’ Biblical understanding of how God created the world.
Fundamentalists read the Bible as one entity, written as a book of instructions for each individual’s life.  This is quite problematic, as the 66 writings that make up the protestant Bible are of various genres and filled with polygamy, slavery, and all kinds of images that must somehow be ignored.  None of the Biblical writers intended their writings to be used this way.   It leads to controversies of Biblical discrepancies and contradictions, although the fundamentalists will attempt to argue away any such discrepancy, and will simply pick and choose to which passages we should pay most attention, brushing others aside perhaps because we don’t fully understand them.
The moderate Baptists, called "liberals" by the fundamentalists, interpret the Scripture with analysis of its context, examining each of the 66 different writings individually.  When was it written?  In what culture?  Who wrote it?  What was the author’s intended purpose?  How would the first readers have understood it?  What genre is the writing?  Is it poetry, allegory, history, a personal letter . . .?  With this interpretation, discrepancies actually strengthen the cohesiveness of the Scripture, and the text can be appreciated in all the richness it possesses.
In 2000, following the fundamentalist takeover of the SBC leadership, the convention adopted a revised Baptist Faith and Message, the basic doctrinal statement of the convention.  Revised from the earlier 1963 version, this new document adds, among other changes, a new section on family life, dictating the submissive role of wives to their husbands, and their responsibility to maintain the home and nurture the children.
The theological and spiritual implications of this interpretive controversy are enormous.  How we choose to interpret the Scripture directly influences our view of women, our view of education and science, the entire lens through which we see the world.

Christians in History
No matter how we try to ignore it, the Christian Church does not have a perfect history.  Look at the bloody Crusades.  Look at the Inquisition.  Scripture has been used and misused in all kinds of justifications:  to wage “holy” wars, to silence women, to defend slavery, to condemn sexual orientation, even to justify the Holocaust.
Adoph Hitler in his Mein Kampf said “I believe that I am acting in the spirit of the Almighty God; in defending myself from the Jews, I am doing God’s work.”
In the 16th century when Copernicus discovered that the sun, not the earth, was the center of our solar system, the Christian world was infuriated.  Martin Luther quoted Joshua 10:13 and called Copernicus a fool.  John Calvin quoted Psalm 93 and asked who was going to place Copernicus’ authority over that of the Holy Spirit.  Melanchthon quoted Eccles. 1:4-5 and called for all those who believed Copernicus to be exterminated “to preserve the truth revealed by God.”
Those of us who love the Scripture are well aware that we can justify almost anything using Scripture if we pick and choose carefully enough.  We know we are guilty of embracing the passages that justify what we already believe, while we ignore those that don’t fit our own thinking.  The danger within our churches is that the SBC provides our Bible Study material, thus choosing for us which passages to read, and telling us how to interpret them, and since the 1980s, always from the fundamentalist perspective.

Advice to the church family of my past 19 years
I usually try to avoid offering unsolicited advice, and I acknowledge that, having left the church, I have given up my right to offer advice.  Nonetheless, to read or to ignore, the following observations are bathed in prayer and offered in love.
During the 19 years I was a member here, we had three different pastors and multiple interim pastors, the longest stay being 5 years.  Why can’t we keep a pastor, we often asked each other.  One of those 3 pastors, I believe, answered that for us.  We are two churches, he said.  While most Southern Baptist churches have taken a stand in the Baptist division, or have chosen fundamentalism by default, ours has tried to sit on the fence, choosing not to talk about the controversy, and leaving our members in the dark that anything is going on in the convention beyond our own walls.
What this means is that we continue to add members of both ideologies, and they continue to struggle against each other.
Officially the church has taken a stand.  The church’s constitution states that it has chosen to stay with the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message, which was in place before the power struggles, although few in the church have any clue that it says that, or why.  The church has made the leap to including women in its deacon ministry, and many even seem open to women pastors. Still, as a church, they are a mixed and ever-battling congregation.  New members come in without having any idea that such constitutional choices have been made, and most who have been in the church for years also know nothing about it.  Few have any knowledge of the controversial issues, thus are unable to spot either side when they hear it.  Nonetheless, it is quite usual to hear two Sunday School teachers in the same class teaching opposing ideologies on back to back Sundays.  I know.  I was one of them.
My advice, that the church might heal and grow:
1.        Educate the leadership and, years down the road, the congregation, on the church’s constitutional position within the Baptist controversy
2.       Ask new prospective members to sign a document explaining the church’s position
3.       Advertise the church’s position (on the church sign, the church Facebook page, etc.) so other like-minded people in the community can find the church that fits them
4.       Devise a policy to allow members to fill certain leadership roles (including all teachers) only after a full year of membership.
Or decide that this is not the side of the controversy on which the church wants to be, and make changes accordingly.  The important missing factor is that the church know itself and embrace its choice so it can move on in service to God, allowing those who would choose a different ideology to find a church that has chosen that one.  It will mean letting people leave, and attracting those who will embrace the same ideologies.
Why is this so important?  It’s not really about us.  Most of us have been doing the church thing for many years.  We are fine to keep on doing what we’re doing.  But where are the younger generations?  Where are the youth, the 20-somethings, the 30-somethings?  They have gone, to seek relevance.  They see right through the foolishness of ignoring science, of condemning their gay friends, of a society where a woman can run for president but she can’t be a preacher.  Understanding the Baptist controversy is important for the children growing up in our churches being taught their fundamentalist gender roles or being condemned for their sexuality.  Such teachings are not a mandate of the church.  A church can choose to prepare its little girls to hear God’s call, to teach all its youth to deal with the sexuality that they all possess, to respond thoughtfully and honestly to their real questions, to pray with them about real issues, to dialogue with them rather than to dictate what sounds churchy.  This is important for their sake, that our foolishness does not chase them away from the God who created and loves them.

Closing Thoughts
The title of this blog is perhaps a little misleading.  Although I did indeed leave my church, I have not left “the Church.”  I have not abandoned God, and God has not abandoned me.  As I have visited other churches over the past couple of months, I have seen God working in many different arenas, and I have observed churches dealing in different ways with the controversies of the denomination and of the larger society.  As I had lunch with one pastor, he personally shared with me (unsolicited) where his church stood on a variety of controversial issues.  The church had taken a stand, and they were apparently careful to let every prospective member know who they were as a congregation, in order to keep controversy outside.  I appreciated that, and it must be working, because he has been the pastor there for over 12 years, and the church has moved beyond discussing the Baptist controversies and is focused on its multiple ministries.
I suspect I will join another local church at some time, although I plan to wait on God’s timing.  It might even be another Baptist church, though most likely one that has chosen to leave the SBC, if so.  It will definitely though be a church that shares my convictions; a church where the passions God has given me can be nurtured, appreciated, and used for God’s purposes; a church where gender does not determine service; where judging and condemning others is not part of the definition of following Christ; where education is encouraged; a church free from blind political mimicry; where thoughtful dialogue about real issues is welcome; where the Bible is not being worshiped, but God is; where faith, hope and love abide; and where, of these, love is the greatest.  I am depending on God one step at a time.
We all change, as does every relationship.  Even a denomination can completely turn around in 20 years.  20 years ago my story would have sounded much different, and 20 years from now I’m sure, if I am still on this earth, it will be quite different again.  Yet, God is the constant.  To follow Christ is to live as he modeled – maybe without roots, without clear direction, sometimes pushing against the grains of society and even religion, without the understanding of family and friends.
My Prayer
I pray for the church of my past 19 years, and am thankful for its profound imprints on my life.  I pray for its protection, direction, and healing.  I pray for those whose hugs I miss every Sunday morning.
I pray for my many fundamentalist friends and family who might not understand.  They are strong Christian people.  I love them, and I respect their convictions.  Though we might stand opposite on a man-made Baptist continuum, we are all serving God as best we understand.

I pray for my own relationship with God, as I step into new uncharted territory.  Every step is a step of faith.  May God keep me on the path that’s set before me, and may the passions that guide me be in tune to the passions of God.

14 comments:

highplaces1234 said...

I became a Christian at age 20 and joined the Southern Baptist Church. Growing up, I always felt there was something different about me but wasn't sure how to express it. As I joined the church, I was immediately led through a course where I was taught the basic principles of the being a Christian. I began hearing the churches views on homosexuality. I never understood or even agreed with the condemnation of others. But I allowed what seemed hatred toward homosexuals indwell my mind. I began feeling the oppression of women especially those in ministry. I sensed the call into the ministry. I was told by some that women did not belong in the ministry. I left for seminary. I had a loving Southern Baptist Church who loved me and support me. After all, I was their member who was being called into the ministry. At Seminary, I also went during a controversial time. Professors and people’s lives were being ruined because they did not believe exactly as others felt they should. Seminary consisted of being challenged and having your beliefs challenged. For the first time in my life, I was hearing different ideologies and I wasn’t being told what to think but had to decide for myself. I began developing my own beliefs but then things changed as the Seminary changed. New professors, etc.. Classes became, this is what you are to believe. You were to cheer the professor’s beliefs dared not to challenge. Those who challenged and had different perspectives were trashed, rejected. I graduated but it was Seminary where I began realizing that possibly I am homosexual. It frightened me. I had heard so many especially those at Seminary condemn homosexuals and speak of how they are going to hell. I shoved these thoughts from my mind. After graduation, I went into the ministry. God used me in incredible ways but as I was in the ministry, I still witnessed people who were condemning and judgmental. As time went by, I would struggle once again with my homosexual desires but would shove them aside knowing I would be rejected, misunderstood and even fired from the ministry. A battle began raging within me and that part of my life suffered. I couldn’t be in a relationship. Finally the struggle became too strong and I left the ministry giving a different reason to keep people from suspecting the real reason behind my leaving. I thought to myself. “Ok now I am free from the ministry and can seek Christian counseling and could be open an honest.” After leaving the ministry, I came home and began attending my home church. But things were different. People began treating me differently because I had left the ministry. I found Christian counselor and shared my struggles. But I was told that homosexuality is a sin and that I need to forget about any thoughts. I pushed it aside again. I began going to a new Southern Baptist Church and things would be ok until the thoughts and desires returned. The horrible struggle returned. I pleaded with God to take it away. I had been doing this for years. I told God of my agony. I begged my counselor to let me talk about it. Homosexuality is a sin. Remove it from your mind. My turmoil deepened and I began moving from church to church. Finally, I am beginning to realize that God wants us to be who He created us to be and that He wants me to come to terms with my sexuality. To be happy and to deepen my relationship with Him. But I still struggle because I have no idea where I can go to church and feel accepted for who I am. I enjoy contemporary worship and I desire to grow closer to the Lord. I know I can no longer go to a Southern Baptist Church because I will be rejected if I am honest. But I struggle finding a place of worship where I can be free. I desire strongly that I need to find a new place of fellowship. I need prayer for wisdom. I want to find a place of worship where the people are not condemning and whose desires are to seek God, love God, and to love others as Christ would.

Kathy said...

Dear HP, Thank you for reading my blog and taking the time to share your own testimony. I am praying for you tonight, for peace and direction. There are many churches and organizations that will nurture and welcome you. On-line you can find the Gay Christian Network, Soulforce, Evangelicals Concerned . . . and in your nearest city you might look for Episcopal, UCC, Presbyterian USA, or Lutheran ELCA churches that list themselves as welcoming and affirming. The Southern Baptists will catch up one day, but they are slow to embrace the social justice issues. If you want to send me a private message, my email is ncprof579@hotmail.com. I might be able to suggest a church near where you are.

Stephanie said...

Kathy, Shelley posted a link to this on FB, and I couldn't resist reading. I grew up in an independent Baptist church...not much different. After going to college, I had to accept that some of my deepest beliefs were completely against the Bible, that making fun of other religions was never condoned by Jesus, and that the "sweet old saints" were actually racist-filled individuals who blamed all the country's problems on black and Hispanic people. Thanks for sharing your story - I think many people will find it resonates with their pasts as well.

Kathy said...

Hi Stephanie. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment on my blog. Did you return to church after your negative experience? There are many great churches out there that share your passion about racism, immigration, etc., including some awesome Spanish-speaking congregations. If you want to go church-exploring with me, just let me know! :)

claire said...

Greetings, Kathy. It feels so wonderful to meet a sister from another Christian denomination going through something so similar to what I am experiencing right now...

There is much for me here to explore and learn and discover. But I found a heart and a voice that are speaking to me, and I do feel happy about it.

Blessings.

Daisy said...

Hello Kathy, Thanks for sharing this part of your journey. I think there are many of us, from different denominations, who are being led by God's Spirit beyond the institutional structures that are often more about Constantine than about Jesus.

I came here via Claire's FB post - we two RC gals know exactly how it feels! :-)

Barbara - humble servant of the Princess Daisy of Alberni

Kathy said...

Hi Claire! Thank you for taking the time to read and comment and for joining my blog! I love your blog and and happy to have found it!

Hi Barbara! I appreciate your comment and your visit! Indeed there are many of us on similar journeys! Blessings to you!

TheraP said...

Hello, Kathy. I saw your comment at Claire's and came over to take a look.

I so recall the moment, during a massage of all things, when I "knew" deep inside something which prompted me to ask: What's more important, God or a church (RC to be exact)? And of course the question had only one answer! But I needed that inner prompting of the Spirit... in order ultimately to follow a twisting path, which to my surprise led me to join an Eastern Orthodox community over a year ago (on the verge of my 65th birthday).

I see the "Church" as being, to our eyes, fragmented, but to God's eye, the Church is us... all of us - seeking to follow this pull of Holy Mystery - this magnetism, you could say, that so upends us at times - turning us inside out and upside down, which I think is the true meaning of: Be transformed by the renewal of your mind. Which definitely occurs "From the Heart" as you say in your title.

You might be interested in Makrina's blog - I say that because she too has made monumental changes in her life - literally leaving the Cistercians a year after her final vows (after more than a decade with them), eventually becoming Orthodox herself. (and she'd converted to RC, maybe also to Anglican before that... but I think she's reached the end of line as I have)

Anyway, here's her blog:

https://avowofconversation.wordpress.com/

God is tugging so many people... you have to marvel at that!

Peace be with you.

Kathy said...

Thank you, TheraP, for reading my blog! It is indeed exciting to see God working in so many people of various backgrounds. Thank you also for Makrina's link. I enjoyed reading her post. I will also check to see if you have a blog here. Blessings to you!

TheraP said...

Actually, Kathy, I've ended up with several blogs. If you click my name, you'll find my blogger blog - Nothingness - and on the sidebar two spin-off blogs (and info about what that blog has tried to do).

I like your poetry. I like that you've taken this step of faith. I find it interesting that the Bible clearly shows God asking for just that. Over and over. But instead people get so scared - they want "assurance" and they glue themselves into static entities. I think the "institutions" are there like "ladders" for us to make use of. Till we get good at climbing. Till we reach the last rungs that any institution can provide. Many people just stop there. Or make use of rungs that were really put there for the "lift off" - when we have to take that leap of faith - to the God is waiting to catch us or is already within us, our inner Guidance.

Peace be with you.

Deborah said...

i'm sorry to be clueless, but what do you mean by "RC"? all if can think of is that it might be Radical Christianity... help :-)

Kathy said...

Deborah, I assume you're referring to TheraP's comments? I think her RC was for Roman Catholic.

Joyce said...

Kathy, this is powerful! It is what I am feeling but for some reason I don't feel God leading me away yet. So I read, study and listen.

Kathy said...

Joyce, you can make a difference from the inside in ways you can't from the outside. Sending a prayer for you now, for peace and direction. Thank you for leaving a note. I love your blog.