Equal Marriage is a great big mess for evangelicalism

I have so many thoughts and I am so damn uncomfortable right now.

First there was World Vision-US last week changing their internal policy to include married gay Christians into their staff. Then 2 days later, their change of heart and apology to their bullying evangelical partners for messing about with the status quo. The utter mess of this heartbreaking saga was just mind-blowing to watch and made me so SO angry.

Then on Saturday, for the first time ever, same-sex couples in the UK were finally legally able to tie the knot, cue delight in the media and horror in some parts of the religious world. Vicky Beeching, a well-known UK theologian and social media expert came out in support of this move and ended up on the receiving end of some pretty horrible verbal attacks on twitter. There was a lot of ugly name-calling and not a lot of grace on display from those who disagreed with her.

It is really tough at the moment to be an evangelical and support marriage equality. Well-known leaders whom you looked up to and were blessed by in times past, equate being pro same-sex marriage with ‘not taking the Bible seriously’ and ‘selling out’. It is always assumed that a person who holds such a view is trying to ‘please man and not God’ and pandering to the media and culture of the day. Some go as far as making support for gays a matter of salvation.

The whole thing is terribly sad and difficult to navigate from within. See, I was raised within this evangelical setting and it is part of my identity whether I like it or not. The whole way that evangelicalism functions, its missional heart, the way it does music and worship and many many things in between, is very comfortable to me, familiar, and, well, I like it. I don’t at all feel like myself within a more formal liturgical setting like, say, Anglicanism. But right now, being evangelical is awkward and uncomfortable and I feel on edge about identifying with a group who is capable of saying the most dehumanizing things about gays without batting an eyelid and still claiming to ‘love the sinner’.

It has been a very slow journey for me, in part certainly because I know very few gays and so I haven’t had to dig too deep, I haven’t had to take a stand, I haven’t had to do anything about my discomfort. But I remember when the Coalition for Marriage Petition first turned up in the entrance hall of my church, and I remember the long list of signatures already on the sheet of paper when I arrived, from people I knew and loved and respected. I remember clearly thinking to myself, without hesitation: “I cannot sign this thing, I don’t remotely believe what it says” and at the same time having this sinking feeling of ” I don’t know how I fit in this group anymore, I don’t know what it makes me, and this horrible feeling of disconnect I am experiencing, I really don’t like it. Am I like a progressive Christian now, am I one of those liberals that most people I know don’t think are actually ‘real’ Christians?”

And the answer, two or three years down the line from this moment, is yes. Yes I am. (because also don’t get me started on bible inerrancy and Steve Chalke). I must surely be a heretic; and to most conservative evangelicals, I am.

All I want to say, I guess, is that I am sorry it is taking me so long to extricate myself from these beliefs. When push comes to shove I want to be an advocate for LGBTQ folks and I will respectfully disagree with people who find this repellent but I am also terrified. I don’t feel like I have all the answers and I don’t feel that I have a handle on all the theological arguments. I know what my heart says, and I know that my mind rebels every day against the weak argument of ‘because the Bible tells me so’ but I’m still wrestling. But I’ll be honest, I am scared. I am sorry that it is going to take a while yet before I can be confident and hold my ground without just resorting to ‘but these are people we are talking about!’ and ‘most people don’t have a gay agenda, they’re just normal people wanting to do normal life!’ because the fact that this is how I feel is not going to wash with people for whom the authority of the Bible and the earth’s axis is on the line. I have dear friends within evangelicalism, I shy away from conflict and yes, I want to be liked, and I don’t know where to go. Just sharing these views with people I know and trust feels like a big deal but I also know for sure that my discomfort is nothing to the harrowing journey my fellow gay Christians go through every day so I am sorry. And go get married and I will come and cheer you on.

 

Recovering from church burnout: tips for the early days

burnout tips

Photo attribution

It’s interesting how a good discussion with a new acquaintance a couple of days ago can bring new insight into your own experience of coming out of a high-expectation church setting and help identify patterns. My INTJ brain likes this! Having someone else say ‘I experienced exactly what you’re describing too’ can be very affirming, and I won’t deny it, it felt good.

I should add the disclaimer to the following, that I can only speak from what I have observed in my own recovery progress from burnout to spiritual wellness so hold these thoughts lightly. This is just a (non-exhaustive) list of principles that have helped me along the way.

1. Take care of yourself

Leaving a high-expectation setting can lead to confusion when the requirement to serve has been removed. Not being involved can feel wrong or lazy or even un-Christian.

In the months and even years of slow recovery, it is important not to minimise the impact of the hurt and confusion that you are experiencing, and to cut yourself some slack.

This could include taking time off church and learning to rest properly. Take on a new hobby. Do something for yourself.

For many months I barely could make it through the doors of church without wanting to run straight out again when overwhelming feelings of boredom or anger would swell in. I have learnt that it is a common symptom of being burnt out and that it is ok. You are ok.

2. Give yourself time to heal

Recovering from a bad church experience is a long-term process; I won’t lie, it took over three years for my coping abilities to get back to what felt like a more normal range. Things do not resolve themselves with the snap of a finger. Whatever you decide to do, if you do continue to attend a church, I would not recommend getting involved in anything. Because of the ‘I must serve’ mentality I had carried away with me from my previous life, that’s exactly what I did and within a few months I was an emotional wreck with just enough capacity physically and emotionally to cope with my working life and relationship/marriage. Everything to do with church was off-limits and would cause me anxiety and even at times distress.

I liken it to running a car without filling up the oil tank. The car is running but the internal damage that is going on undetected is extensive and incredibly destructive. Eventually the whole machine turns into a shell, a fuming pile of junk that creaks to death in the midst of white smelly smoke. Being burnt out means just that: your emotional and spiritual tank runs dry, you have been used up and your capacity to give is exhausted. It is especially true if you were running on someone else’s vision. Take the motivation away and there is nothing left within you. If you try to serve in these conditions, you are just kicking your feet in a pot of ash and causing yourself more internal pain.

Unfortunately, there is no magic recovery button. What you really need at this stage is rest and time. Eventually it will happen. Sometimes even from one day to the next, your emotional tank will have refilled itself sufficiently so that your inner world will find balance again. Then it will tip in the other direction and you will find that you have something to give out again after all. In the meantime, I would take some time out from any kind of service.

3. Rebuild a relationship with Jesus that is separate from serving the church

You may not be able to join in with corporate worship or go to church; you may struggle to worship privately, or read your Bible, or even pray. Again, these are common symptoms of church burnout. I still struggle to read my Bible now, and it has been years. The desire and the hunger within me is growing again however, I am pleased to say.

Well-meaning people often say ‘just take it to the Lord’, which feels so trite and cliché when you are in the midst of such emotional pain. My idea of prayer, erroneous as it was, was that it is such a holy, spiritual thing that I ought to feel extra holy and spiritual doing it. A lot of the time however, my actual dealings with God were more Jonah and Job-like, that is, lots of angry ranting and asking God why and how. But then I remembered that most of the Psalms read like this too, bleak conversations with God about despair, and that God is neither surprised nor offended by my honesty.

On a personal level, after years of focus on the Holy Spirit, the turning point in how I lived my faith in the midst of this painful season was to get back to the centre of what the Christian faith really should be about, the person of Jesus. Everything else falls by the wayside when compared to how fascinating, inspiring and worthy of worship Jesus is. Rediscovering this has brought life into my soul again. When you can’t talk to anyone for lack of words, when you feel like you might be too emotional, too messed up and basically ‘too much’, when God feels too big or too remote and the Holy Spirit too mysterious, going back to Jesus and pouring your heart to Him becomes the safe place where you might be yourself and know you are welcomed in wholeheartedly, where you might rest your head and soothe your wounds.

The key thing is to keep the conversation going.

One of Half a Billion: Reflection on Strange Fire

One of Half a Biillion

There’s been a lot of chatter online about the Strange Fire Conference hosted by John MacArthur last weekend. The purpose of the conference was to highlight and condemn the dangers of the Charismatic Movement and to make the case for Cessationism. As I am not a theologian and know next to nothing about cessationism, I followed the discussion with a lot of interest through the summaries on Tim Challies’ website and the transcripts from Mike Ricardi. I originally picked up on the conference through Adrian Warnock‘s website.

In short the cessationist view is that the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit, namely speaking in tongues, healing and prophecy, are no longer in operation today as part of the normative Christian experience.

Helpful

On the one hand, I am very grateful for the few helpful sessions that taught me about cessationism, such as Tom Pennington’s case for cessationism and Phil Johnson’s session on providence. They were very helpful and corrected many wrong assumptions I had formed about the cessationist view. There is a great article on the web about What Cessationism is Not which was also very informative. One particular thing I noted is that continuationists and cessationists use the same terms ‘Holy Spirit’, ‘gifts of the Spirit’, ‘work of the Spirit’ and do not mean the same thing at all and so I welcomed the clarification. Now I happen to believe that the case for cessationism is weak and people like Andrew Wilson commented on it much better than I ever could hope to do myself. However the conference highlighted areas of error within the movement with which I (and I dare say many thousands of other charismatics) wholeheartedly agree and I myself observe with cynicism, such as the Prosperity Gospel and the healings so obscure they cannot be confirmed (hello, one leg longer than the other ‘healings’).

Not So Helpful

Alongside these helpful comments, I was nonetheless originally surprised and then pretty appalled by the tone of the conference and the sweeping statements that painted an entire movement as a work of the devil, in particular the final address from John MacArthur and the Q&As. Mr MacArthur made his view very clear and that’s the one good thing about it. Whilst sort of extending grace to a few reformed brothers like Piper and Gudrem (I say ‘sort-of’ because he seems to not quite be able to get his head around it), the rest of the charismatic movement was rounded up and treated to this:

There are others who criticized by saying, “You’re attacking brothers.” I wish I could affirm that. We’ve said this one way or another this week: this is a movement made up largely of non-Christians.

As someone who identifies strongly as both continuationist and charismatic but not a Reformed Calvinist like Piper and Driscoll and therefore not in the good camp, I was still not expecting to be dismissed so categorically, especially with regards to salvation. Not only that, but apparently I am in actual fact engaging with Satan and his demons (see the Q&As for the full quotes).

Am I really so deluded and far from faith in Jesus-Christ that every time I pray to God and express it in a charismatic way, I am actually colluding with demons? What a way to shut down the conversation.

My Story

I am not going to continue to be offended further because I do not see myself in that description but instead will say the following:

I have been on both sides. I grew up in as uncharismatic, possibly cessationist – Bible-preaching Baptist evangelical – a church as you could find, and I lived in a super-charismatic setting for eight years. For all its strong biblical emphasis, many believers in that Bible-based church failed to display of the Fruits of the Spirit (Gal 5.22-23) to the degree that I was quite convinced that God was a nice theoretical idea with no actual observable life-changing power other than being a make-believe crutch to be held on to for dear life. When I became a Christian at fifteen years old through personal conviction of who Jesus was, it was accompanied by a physical experience of the Holy Spirit. Subsequently, over the next few years in France but mainly in the UK, I went through a period of intense emotional healing, more often than not accompanied by some form of charismatic experience of the kind that is described by the Strange Fire people as the work of demons.

I will readily admit that there are many things within the charismatic circles that have left me with questions and great discomfort.  It has been my observation, as a Christian who holds the Bible to high regard, that the charismatic desire to seek a better understanding of the Holy Spirit and His work can lead to a focus on non-essential doctrine and overstretched teaching and it is with this in mind that I now seek to educate myself. I absolutely agree that more discernment is needed. But even in the super-charismatic church I attended for many years, I know of no single person who holds to the prosperity gospel in any shape or form, or who would not recommend going to see a doctor and to continue with medication after a healing until a full sign-off from the medical profession.

The point I am getting at is, I could say the very same thing of other non-charismatic reformed churches as well. Extend the theology of total depravity to its extreme limit and you get the groups who believe that a toddler’s spirit needs taming through physical discipline; extend Paul admonition to not sue your brothers in Christ to its extreme and you get all sorts of sexual abuse in the church swept under the carpet for the sake of unity; extend another bit of the text and you get Westboro’s God hates fags campaign.

By contrast, Reformed theology, sound doctrine, is not a haven for false teachers. It’s not where false teachers reside. Reformed theology, sound doctrine, faithful biblical exposition among the long line of godly men, is not a place for false teachers, where frauds, deceivers, liars, and misrepresenters of the truth go. You’re not going to go to a Reformed church and find false miracles, false visions, false prophecies, false anointing, bizarre mindless pandemonium breaking out, shaking, rolling over, and falling down, saying false things about the Holy Spirit. That’s not going to happen in that environment, because they’re anchored to the truth.

The idea, espoused by the Strange Fire Conference, that somehow the cessationist reformed view is pretty much free from error is as heretical as it is arrogant, yet never in my wildest dream would that lead me to question their salvation.

A Slippery Slope

The point I am trying to make is that were it not for the revelation that the Holy Spirit is at work today as taught to me in a charismatic context, I would most likely not be a Christian today, or I would be a very unhappy one. I received all the biblical foundation knowledge you would expect from growing up in a reformed setting and was familiar with the creeds and the Gospel message, and I held back and remained unconvinced for the longest time because of the lack of fruit in my church. Even after my conversion, without a personal experience of the Holy Spirit answering prayers and yes, giving and receiving prophetic words of encouragement and direction for my life, my faith would have remained desperately intellectual and might eventually have died. I would in most likelihood be agnostic today were it not for the work of the Holy Spirit and those wacky charismatic ways.

That’s not to say that I myself have healed anyone, or that I call myself a prophet, or any of these things. But I desire them, and I believe them to be available to me, today, not for any sensationalist reason but because I believe it is an integral part of what it means to follow in Jesus’ footsteps, who modeled how to walk in the will of the Father with the guidance of the Spirit. I reject the idea that the healings and prophecies and words of knowledge served only to confirm who Jesus was, but that He did these things because He loved people and His heart was broken for them. That is the Jesus I wish to follow, who did not just teach the Word but also touched the poor in acts of love, not just through practical service but also with words of knowledge and healings.

For me it comes down to the fact that I cannot separate doctrine from experience. The cessationists of Strange Fire seem very fearful and skeptical of emotions and of using intuition because it might not be entirely exact. Because of this they turn to an entirely biblical approach which gives them the reassurance of certainty and in the process elevates the mind as if it were not also capable of error. But we are renewed not only in our minds and spirits but also in our emotions and we cannot be a whole person unless our emotions are engaged in our worship of God, which may or may not express itself in exuberant fashion. Worship from the mind alone falls woefully short from who we are meant to be as humans. It also leaves little place for doubt and is, in my opinion, a slippery slope towards legalism.

A Final Note

Many cessationists in their comments on blogs in relation to the Strange Fire conference have argued that using the ‘my story’ card is not valid because it is ‘say-so’. I just can’t go with that. Basically it is not just calling many believers liars and emotion-seekers but coming at it with the assumption that they are all liars. My only advice to them would be to get alongside some charismatics, maybe even some in the more wacky settings. Become friends with them for their sake, not just because you think they are wrong and you want to set them on the right path. Ask them to tell you their stories. Then come back and tell me that we are all liars, heretics and unsaved.

With this in mind, I am grateful to C Michael Patton who is not a charismatic and yet was (shock) able to publish the most brilliant exposition of the wide range of what it means to be charismatic with grace and balance and avoided tarnishing everyone in the same ‘not-a Christian’ brush.

 

When I was on fire

This post is part of Addie Zierman’s synchroblog to celebrate the publication of her memoir When We Were on Fire, which talks about growing up in 90s American evangelical culture. It’s quite different in scale to my experience in France and in the UK but not that different either, and I hope to purchase her book soon.

 when we were on fire synchroblog

Its a fire
These dreams they pass me by
This salvation I desire
Keeps getting me down
(It’s a Fire – Portishead)

When I was on fire… I was 15, a new Christian and my local church was not equipped to deal with my hunger to know more of God. For one thing, there was not much youth, there couldn’t have been more than a handful of kids my own age, so there was hardly anything set up for us. There was also a sense that young people were not really full persons. At 15, you were still a child, and it showed in how you were talked to. You did not count yet, you were not wise, you were not learned, you were the generation of tomorrow. So if you were young, and female to boot, what could you possibly bring to the table?

When I was on fire… I was 16 and I pledged I wouldn’t date anyone until I was 18. I can’t remember who instigated it, me or my mum, but it was really a secret between me and her. I did it wholeheartedly but it wasn’t hard, I hadn’t dated anyone before and for the longest time there was only one guy in our youth group anyway. I’d caught glandular fever a few months earlier after kissing a guy at a Christian camp (I know I got it from him, there was an actual trail of illness to follow) and I didn’t want to repeat the experience. The pledge just gave my decision a bit more holiness, a little more weight.

When I was on fire… I was 17, and I asked if I could join the student youth group, because they held Bible studies and I wanted to engage in proper discussions about God, not just attend Sunday school. I was told no by the group leader, and it took the church pastor to speak on my behalf for me to be welcomed. When I say welcomed… I asked why we met only once a fortnight and not every Saturday evening, surely a couple of hours spent talking about God and having fun together couldn’t be that detrimental to studying, and I was shot down and told that I wasn’t a college student, how could I possibly know what I was talking about?

When I was on fire… I was 18 and you could have knocked me over backwards when I realised that the Holy Spirit was real and not just a theoretical idea. I had questions about that, and it was ok to ask them. We didn’t do much teaching from the Bible but that was OK, because people did that in their quiet time, and God turned up in the meetings anyway, didn’t He?

When I was on fire… I almost went to Africa on a small mission and I could have cried in relief when the project was cancelled. I had zero desire to go on missions to the far corners of the earth and I was terrified that because it was the one thing I most feared, it meant that it was probably God’s will that I should go.

When I was on fire… I asked this one guy out and he said he liked me but he felt that God was asking him to dedicate the next year to Him and that he should not date anyone. I respected his desire to be on fire for God and I admired and loved him more for it. A year later I asked again and he turned me down. He didn’t say so, but it’s fairly obvious he just wasn’t that into me in the first place.

When I was on fire… I didn’t say anything when I was told by the people I lived with that my friend was not welcome in their home because of things she had done in the past that were not appropriate. They didn’t think she was a good influence and her presence would affect the spiritual atmosphere of their house. I couldn’t quite believe what I was hearing, but I had literally just moved in, their house, their rules. I had just committed to being accountable to this leader. All this spiritual warfare stuff was new to me and I was too involved to objectively take a step back and see heresy for what it was. I was there to be taught and I knew I had much to learn still; I wanted to be a better Christian and a better person and for that you need to have a teachable spirit. I remained silent, and I didn’t ever invite anyone into my home.

When I was on fire… I didn’t go visit this one friend who lived up north. Because if I had, I would have had to sleep on his sofa, and he lived alone. I knew we would have been absolutely fine and we would have had a great time but I decided not to go anyway because I would have had to lie to those I was accountable to. I didn’t think I could pull it off, and I didn’t want to be questioned about what was and wasn’t appropriate. He was a man and lived alone, and it’s just not done for men and women who aren’t married to sleep in the same house. It might lead to temptation.

When I was on fire… Being passionate meant being involved. Being ‘on fire’ meant being a servant like Jesus so serving the church was the way to go. For a while I led worship almost every Sunday; I led worship for the Saturday morning prayer meeting, 2 hours at a time. I was where it was happening. I was told I was hearing what the Holy Spirit was saying to our church for such a time as this. I thought my level of involvement was right and good. I thought it meant I was on the right path with God, that I was in His will, that I was fulfilling His vision for my life. I look back now and I’m not sure where it was leading me to and what I learnt. One thing I do know: I don’t make much of a Christian where it matters. I don’t have much empathy; I find people exhausting and annoying, especially those who don’t have ‘pick up and go’. I am afraid of being eaten alive by other people’s emotional need. So the thing I needed the most, to be taught about compassion, to be taught how to feel like Jesus, how to act like Jesus, how to care like Jesus, despite all the accountability and the self-examination, I didn’t learn. I didn’t know about the need outside of my church aside for their general need for Jesus. I didn’t make a difference where it matters, with the materially poor, with the mentally broken, with the isolated and the marginalised. I waited for them to come to me whilst I hosted a Holy Spirit party for the grateful few.

When I was on fire… For a long time I didn’t have much interactions with non-Christians outside of work. I didn’t know how to talk about my life and my church. I lived in a Christian bubble that wasn’t seeker-friendly and only had one non-Christian friend. I couldn’t invite her to church because our services were a bit too ‘out-there’ and were really just for us to hear the Spirit. For all our declarations, she wouldn’t have heard much about Jesus there, because there wasn’t much Bible teaching going on. I couldn’t invite her to my home because she was not a Christian and my hosts did not know her. So I went out with her, to her house, to pubs and clubs where I let down my guard a little bit and had fun. I felt a little bit more like myself. I was not double-checking myself all the time, it was liberating. For a while, there was more freedom.

When I was on fire… I was part of the leadership of a house church. I didn’t like the way commitment to God started to become synonym with engagement with everything God we were doing as a group and a community.  I didn’t like that it was ok to call people on Sunday morning to ask if they were going to attend the meeting.

When I was on fire… Suddenly I wasn’t leading worship at all. Hard to do in a house with just ten other people when you play the keyboard and not the guitar. I had so many questions and I wasn’t sure what I was doing anymore; if not worship, what was my calling, was this what I wanted to do with my life? Where was it going?

When I was on fire… the flame burnt out. I couldn’t pretend anymore that the things I was doing were for God. I distrusted everybody’s intentions. My faith was hanging by a thread and it took years for it to start growing again from the ashes of my former life. Now it burns again but it doesn’t look the same at all. No striving, just grace and the space to ask questions and be myself without judgement, warts and all. I know a little bit more about myself and where I need to change and it’s about growing, not burning. Fire is only good if it starts within and turns into warmth without, not if it shines without and destroys within.

Welsh Outpouring Pastor Coming to Sussex

The King’s Church in Horsham is hosting an event tonight with Richard Taylor, the pastor of Victory Church, Cwmbran, a Welsh church which has seen some amazing things in the last month or so, miracles, healings, salvations and the like in increasing numbers, which they are calling the Welsh Outpouring.

Outpouring-Sussex-Event-16052013

They are using my local church building in Mid-Sussex so I will be checking it out and I am very much looking forward to it. We are expecting big numbers and apparently, people are coming from all over the place for this, which I understand and am kind of puzzled by at the same time.

There is no doubt that this is a significant event for Sussex. Richard Taylor has in the last month seen more incredible undeniable healings than I can probably imagine, and it is very exciting that he is coming to share his experience and insights. It feels particularly important for the Horsham church, for our church and for the other local churches, to raise our faith and expectations of what God might want to do with us and how the Holy Spirit might impact our local communities. We definitely hope that he will impart to us a level of what he is seeing happen in Cwmbran, because quite simply, we want what he’s got.

So although I understand that people want to come and hear him speak, I also am a bit perplexed because it seems that if you’re going to make a long trip down to hear him speak, unless you live fairly locally, you might as well go to Wales. After all, that’s where the actual outpouring is taking place. Mr Taylor, as far as I can tell, is the lucky recipient of God’s grace on Cwmbran at this time (by the way, what IS IT about Wales and Holy Spirit breakouts?) rather than God’s vessel through whom miracles are performed. In fact, one significant thing you get from reading the updates on his church website is how little it has to do with a particular personality or ministry. People are repenting of their sins and meeting with God through the preaching, sure, but not through one specific person. Some completely unchurched people appear to be experiencing their own Damascus moments, convicted by the Holy Spirit without anyone speaking to them. Some healings and other miracles occur on their own, without a specific prayer or touch by a Christian (as opposed to the big ‘push and shove’ revival techniques you usually see on TV and YouTube).

So hey, colour me puzzled. I still expect God’s presence to be immense tonight because He has a tendency to show up wherever people’s faith is raised up corporately, because He loves us and He is always good.

If you’re wondering what this ‘outpouring’ stuff is all about, make sure to check out Victory Church’s website. They have posted regular updates ever since it started in April.

Spiritual Abuse and Discipleship – yep, that’s my first post!

I didn’t intend to start this blog on such a sensitive and sobering subject, but things have conspired against me in the last two weeks.

First I stumbled upon a website called Under Much Grace, which provides resources for recovery from spiritual abuse. I started reading and was immediately stunned to find myself remembering events and particular practices in my church experience, which perfectly fitted the description of cultic behaviour provided on the site. Secondly, out of the blue, a number of Christian bloggers I follow started to join in with a week-long series on the subject of spiritual abuse awareness so the subject matter has been playing in my mind all week and basically bugging me into putting my thoughts down. Despite the fact that all of the material comes from US sources and doesn’t always translate into a UK or French setting, it certainly brought a number of things to the surface.

So although I’m really late in the day, I am sort of writing this piece as part of the synchro blog.

A couple of posts echoed with me very specifically, the first one from Dani Lee Kelley at Crooked Neighbor, Crooked Heart, who titled her post ‘In which I hesitate to call it abuse’. She opens by saying:

“I am so hesitant to add my voice here. Surely abuse is too strong a word for the things that have happened in my life, I think to myself. No one meant any harm. Everything was done in love, everything was said in love. They didn’t know that they hurt me.”

And

“Please understand that in each and every one of these instances, I believe with all my heart that the people involved intended good for me. But as I am learning, good intentions don’t always mean good actions. And in fact, sometimes the people who mean the most good do the most damage.”

I spent eight years in a church where the practice of one-to-one discipleship was an integral part of the culture. Within a month of my joining the church at eighteen years of age after travelling across the Channel, I was invited to be mentored by a more mature Christian, which in my case was a lovely lady who had kids my own age. In some ways, certainly when I started to attend the church as a clueless, immature but passionate to know God eighteen-year-old, I was blessed to be mentored by such a wonderful woman. She lightly guided me through some difficult situations during my first few years in England, and her and her husband remain good trustworthy friends to this day. However in the following years as my life changed and I got known and grew in my knowledge of God and in my gifts, I was not always ‘lightly guided’ and in my immaturity and dare I say also my childhood history, I was not able to tell the difference between guidance and subtle behaviour manipulation. The quotes I include above and below describe very much how I feel at present about my experience and the accompanying discomfort, as until last week, I don’t think it would have occurred to me to use terms associated with spiritual abuse to any of my experiences. And yet…

Amy Mitchell, who writes at Unchained Faith, talks about the aftermath of dealing with spiritually abusive people and states:

“I am not going to sit here and say that I was spiritually abused by our church or the leadership*.  That would be lying, and it would be hurtful to those who are still involved.  But I will tell you this: There were people in authority there who absolutely, unquestionably used intimidation tactics on me and on others.”

With hindsight that has only been slowly unraveling in me in the last couple of years, I have started to see that the spiritual burnout I experienced after leaving the church I had attended for eight years was not normal. The spiritual, emotional and physical exhaustion I lived with for four of the last six years are not just a sort of ‘desert experience’ that Christians occasionally describe, when God doesn’t seem to be speaking into your life in the way that He used to. No, I went from leading worship and a house church to struggling to muster any interest in all aspects of my walk with God, being regularly overwhelmed with boredom or feeling irritated during church meetings, having no desire to communicate with God or read the Bible, experiencing irrational feelings of anger and depression against the church in general and wanting to withdraw altogether from church life.

Identifying the root cause has not been easy and I am still working it out but a few things stand out.

Serving the church vs serving God

I definitely got burnt out because I over-served. When I moved away to be closer to where my now-husband lived, I got involved in his church straight away, serving with the worship team and attending weekly choir practice as well as joining a small group just as I had done previously. With the daily commuting I was doing to and from work it was not physically sustainable but whilst I can see the physical strain was of my own doing, I could not immediately see where it was heading; as far as I knew, I was just doing what Christians do; the negative emotions that I was starting to experience were a complete mystery to me, I simply did not know why I was feeling that way. Increasingly however I was building up resentment against the level of engagement that was required of me, especially with the worship team and small group. The more I got involved, the more was asked of me so that I felt like I was backed into a corner, wanting to give a hand and having my whole arm taken off. I was not aware that I was not serving the church out of love for God but out of duty. Unsurprisingly, it took its toll and the exhaustion I felt affected every area of my life. I do think God took pity on me at this point as I hit boiling point around the time of my engagement to my boyfriend so I was able to withdraw completely from serving in the church to organise the wedding and later to focus on our relationship during our first year of marriage.

Following someone else’s vision

Another issue was that of motivation. For years I was mentored by my church leader and I had become used to being ‘in the know’ about the vision for the church, the prophetic words that inspired it and I had no reason to doubt that God was speaking to us about the direction we were taking. Due to my close relationship with the leader and the fact that I was often leading worship on Sundays, I was regularly reminded to engage with the vision of the church ‘for the sake of what we are trying to achieve’, especially when it came to moving to house churches, which was a bold and challenging move for everyone, leaders included. I did so willingly enough because I didn’t doubt that the leaders were devoted to hearing God’s voice and following His lead, even though I had no particular conviction either way and increasingly struggled to connect with God without others hearing His will for me and the direction of my own life. So I ran with the vision and started to lead one of the house churches with three other people without any sense of personal conviction that I was doing something I was actually interested in. When I moved away and lost the environment where the leadership was pushing their agenda on me at a personal level, I was no longer able to sustain any motivation for what the church was doing. This is when I realised that I had been running on empty, with someone else’s vision, someone else’s dreams, someone else’s prophetic word, which they had, consciously or not, handed to me as if they were my very own vision and dreams.

When non-essential doctrine takes on a life of its own – do I need to justify my feelings again?

Whilst I actually believe that a culture of accountability and authenticity can be a source a great strength to grow in maturity in God, it can become unhealthy when the level of introspection and constant self-questioning that is expected becomes a dominant feature of everyday life.

The importance of purity in my behaviour and in my intentions were called into question as part of the discipling process on a number of occasions. Again, there is no problem with wanting high standards for yourself and wanting to encourage others to have the same, however it is all too easy to throw away grace in the process and turn the Christian walk into a striving battle to avoid sin. I recall a particular incident when I was living in the church leader’s house when I went out with non-Christian friends and stayed up all night chatting, only returning home at 6 am. The girl I was sharing a bedroom with mentioned it to the leaders who sat me down to basically tell me that it was not appropriate behaviour for a Christian girl to stay up all night in someone’s house where there would be alcohol and where I would be vulnerable to seduction from non-Christian men, and that it would give the wrong impression about the kind of person I was. They were also concerned that neighbours might have seen me come in that morning and made assumptions about where I had been and what I had done. The problem was not whether anything inappropriate had actually taken place but rather that I might become the subject of discussion among our non-Christians neighbours who knew that this was a Christian household, and might wonder what kind of Christian I was really like if I behaved just like the world does.

After this incident, I never did stay out that late again, but never did I trust my roommate again about anything of importance either, despite the fact that I know she only did what she did out of concern for me. She never actually discussed the incident with me, just went straight to the leaders about her concerns. I never felt comfortable talking about anything that I did outside of the church with anyone in my house ever again either, for fear of being misunderstood and having to justify my actions in any way.

Under the guise of ‘becoming more like Jesus’ and ‘saying the truth in love’, I was taught to double-check myself about every thought, every plan and every decision, to make sure that I was walking in line with God’s will for my life. At a subconscious level however, the subtle underlying message I was taking in was that it is not OK to make mistakes. If you make a mistake, it must mean that you did not hear God properly in the first place. And if you are not able to hear God clearly to make the right decision, then the root cause must be sinful. The necessity of knowing that you were doing the right thing by God was all important and it was preferable to involve others in your decision process, the implication being that someone of more mature faith and experience might be able to help you hear God more clearly. For someone like me, who had grown up without the guidance of a father or a strong authority figure, it sounded like a completely reasonable and desirable scenario, and it is entirely possible that for many years, it protected me from making knee-jerk emotional decisions that would have had a negative impact on my life. However what had once felt like protection at 18 had become an exhausting approach to doing life when I was 25 and wanting to once in a while not having to justify why I was not going to be at church that morning, which is difficult to do when you’re one of the house church leaders and you just want a day off.

Lack of validation when expressing negative feelings

Once when I was having a chat with the leaders about how I was getting on in their house (which was massive and at one point housed 9 young people as well as the leading couple), I said that I was uncomfortable sometimes with the fact that the men would come out of the shower wearing just a towel. I said I had obviously no problem wearing a bathrobe but that the same courtesy from the men would be welcome. I vividly recall that my request barely registered and the discussion was turned around to why this was a problem for me, because, you know, lust and all that, women don’t usually find seeing a man’s chest a stumbling block. It was never discussed again, and as far as I know, no action was taken to get the men to be a bit more dressed. As it was, there was definitely no lust involved for me, I just found it uncomfortable if I had to walk past said half-naked man in the corridor.

Whilst this situation alone would actually be a major problem for a lot of women, and not because of problems with lust, the crux of it for me is that a lot of conflicts were turned around this way. I would express a negative feeling, especially in a conflict with another person, which instead of being acknowledged and validated, would be dismissed and the issue raised ignored in favour of examining the state of my heart. It felt like the most important thing was to ensure that my heart was protected from holding on to these negative feelings. I would therefore need to ‘check my own heart’ to make sure that I was being clear before God.

I organised a leaving party when I moved away and asked that the invitation be extended to all the house churches via their leaders. I had been a huge part of the church for eight years yet barely a handful of people attended, and the main pastor who has mentored me for years and in whose house I had lived, did not come either. I left within days of the party so I had very little opportunity to chat to people to know how this happened. It was a very long time before I could think about this without experiencing confusion and pain, and I was at great pains to try to rationalise it by assuming that the information just didn’t get through and people didn’t know about it. Still, the feelings of intense rejection and that my contribution to the life of that church had been for nothing lived with me for many years. It would be fair to say that to this day I try not to think about that day. Recently I was asked if I thought it would be a good idea to chat with some of those guys to get some closure, especially the leader to whom I had been so close, and I said that I didn’t think it would be helpful. My greatest fear is that if I were to raise it after all this time, it might be met initially with an apology but I would end up being questioned and finding myself justifying and defending the emotions I felt at the time. I simply cannot bear the thought of going through such a conversation.

Yet I cannot deny that within this occasionally stifling and unhealthy environment I was nonetheless able to grow in ways that I could never have achieved had I stayed in France. I encountered people who completely changed my life. My understanding of God was very theoretical before that time and it is in England and in that church that I was shown how to be a Christian in practical and genuine ways. People modelled a daily walk with a living God who wants to know us and be known by us accompanied by a level of expectation of encounters with the Holy Spirit that I had never seen before. I was given a lot of support when I had to deal with an unhealthy relationship very early on. I discovered my musical and prophetic worship gifting and was enabled to grow in it. The church was in full acceptance of women in ministry at every level and I never once had to fight to be recognised as a valid member of the church.

And so now I am at an impasse. I look at both the blessing and the hurt that I have experienced and I am divided. I want only the best for the church yet I am very aware of some serious shortcomings that have hurt many others and to which they remain oblivious. It poses important questions about the kind of discipleship Jesus had in mind when he said ‘Make disciples of all nations’. He did not ask us to make converts and he did not expect or demand perfection from each other. Yet did Jesus, Paul and others in the Bible not have disciples, people to whom they taught all they knew, challenging them and raising them to be the leaders, preachers, apostles, worshipers, prophets of tomorrow? Is it possible to mentor people without falling into a behaviour-controlling pattern? Having experienced both, I do think it must be possible but it appears to be dependent on an individual’s inclination and personality, and how do you discern that? What sorts of guidelines would you put in place? These are questions I don’t have a clear answer on.