Exit: Get used to change

*Part of a series that started here*

I don’t know that my journey makes a lot of sense apart from a bit of context, so let me chronicle the “leavings” and upheavals that have marked my journey through Christianity.  Skim down to the conclusion at the bottom if you lose interest in the details. 

When I was still in single digits, my parents went through a messy exit from the first church I’d known, the one with the soft green pew fabric but hard linoleum floor. (Always fascinates me what elements “stick” in a memory. I’ve always got color.)  Western PA had a large number of non-Baptist Independent Fundamental churches.  I’m going to write a side note about that in a minute.

My first church had a cool name (The Church of the Open Door) and a pretty, simple building with a traditional steeple and a basement for Sunday School classes and one of those attendance/offering boards at the front.  It was the church my mom landed in when, tired and angry after divorcing her cheating husband in the late 1950s and striking out as a single mom long before that was ok to do, she found Jesus and got some IFnonB religion. (IFB = Independent Fundamental Baptist, the most common “flavor” of Fundy church out there, except that my church wasn’t Baptist, as I’ll get to in a minute).

I’ve written about this all before, so I will just summarize here. Because IFB teaching+American social mores aligned in the mutual condemnation of divorce, my parents were in trouble as soon as they tied the knot. My dad spent the remainder of his life angry and hurt that his brand new faith was immediately squashed by his pastor calling him an adulterer for marrying a divorced woman. The church folk banged on our door every Tuesday night as part of “weekly visitation” to try to get him to come to church. We used to turn off the lights and hide until they went away.  Social condemnation does weird things to people.

My parents finally said “Nope” and left that church when they realized that the condemnation would extend to me too. Conveniently in IFB churches, as long as you can put juuuuust enough distance between your old church and your new one, you can sort of start over at the new one. So we ended up at Mt Carmel Community Church, the church which also housed the Christian school I attended.

My dad rarely went. He felt judged and unwelcome. My mom went because I think she found a lot of good in it, and we got to do a few things together.  I have good memories of that church, overall.  I got married there. My dad walked me down the aisle, though I know he felt awkward about being thrust back into that world. My mom was dead (cancer) so I don’t know how she would have felt. But the Mt Carmel people were very kind to my parents when she was ill and dying, and I will always be thankful for that.

*****

About IFB and IFnonB: The history of Fundamentalism in America is complex and one’s mileage definitely varies based on the particular stream they landed in.  By the time I left Fundamentalism (around 2002), the Baptist stream had won pretty much everywhere except in a few pockets. Ohio had a strong non-denominational tradition among their “Bible” churches, for example, which managed to hold out against the Baptist juggxrnaut   Much more I could say, but that’ll have to be a post for a different day. 

Why does it matter?  Well, before the Internet, your experience of Christianity was very much mediated through your church and pastor. If your circle of Jesus said divorce was the ultra evil, that rock music was African sex beat trash, and that no self-respecting woman would be caught dead in pants — that circumscribed your experience. The Baptist flavor of Fundamentalism is 95% the same as non-Baptist Fundamentalism, but in my experience, there were a few critical differences. 

First, Independent Fundamental Baptist churches tended to follow a rigidly authoritarian and usually abusive structure of church leadership. An IFB pastor was an unassailable bulwark of unchallenged power….until he wasn’t. It was really feudal. The deacons could throw wrenches in a pastor’s “rule” over the church; a scandal could push him out; acrimony could lead to a congregation telling their pastor to move on.  I saw all of those things, either in my own church or in nearby churches.  But the non-Baptist IF churches included Bible Methodists, Bible Presbyterians and Free Presbyterians, “Bible” churches (independent and Fundamental churches who are NOT Baptist), and others.  They tended to be joined to loose affiliations that provided some counterbalance to a pastor’s monarchy, and some (like the Presbyterians) persisted in following elder-rule despite that being anathema to the Baptists.  Other differences: Baptist churches required baptism by immersion, usually by that church’s pastor, for church membership, and tended to beat a Baptist history (usually unfounded bullshit) drum so hard it gives me a headache just to think of it. Oh, and suffocating, rampant God-and-countryism. The whole pile of beliefs is laughable, folks. If you need a list, this one will do:  I heard every single thing on that list at some point.  

Second, I wasn’t raised with the typical IFB, completely narrow-minded intellectual straightjacket thanks to being in a non-Baptist church. I had exposure to different mini-views within our wider circle of churches.  We had preachers from across the Fundy landscape visit our church monthly, more than was typical for most IFB churches.  I didn’t know that IFB churches were so nasty about being closed-minded until I went to college and saw how some of my classmates reacted when I espoused a slightly different view. 

All that to say: I wasn’t raised Baptist, and I refused to call myself one when I attended a truly IFB church in Greenville. My husband told me that was totally illogical to be a member of a Baptist church and refuse the label, but I didn’t budge. The IFB people were a level of crazy I couldn’t be part of.  Even as a Fundamentalist, I wasn’t willing to go that far. I attended Bob Jones University, which is officially non-denominational but practically 99% Baptist. But still — not in the name or the creed–not until I was leaving around 2002.

*****

My shift to a new church and world came with college. It took me a few years to find my place, but I genuinely loved college life and everything it brought to me intellectually and socially.

Bob Jones University is a complex topic for me. I’ll make that a separate post entirely. I’m gonna need time to unpack all that.

Sticking with a theme of churches and CHANGE…  I finally landed at Mt Calvary Baptist Church in Greenville, headed by Dr. Mark Minnick.  For the IFB world, MCBC did me a lot of good:

  • MCBC made the earth-shattering decision to use the NASB Bible translation in public worship and for preaching. I can’t even begin to explain to non-Fundy people the rancor and hatred around the King James Version debates. It was worse than the American political discourse, if that tells you anything. MCBC could shift away from the KJV only because it was such a large and notable church in the BJU camp, and because Minnick had so much personal credibility.  It took him years to inch the church to this point. I learned a lot from that.
  • Minnick is a careful expositor. I can see now how there’s a downside to parsing single Greek verbs for 40 minutes and calling it a sermon. But it punched a button in my seminary-trained brain for precision, and I’m genuinely thankful for what I learned.
  • I’ve never seen a more careful and joyful building campaign / fundraising campaign.
  • MCBC proudly follows a more presbyterian structure for church leadership. It was still 100% male, but at least it’s run by a group not a single man.
  • The founding pastor’s wife was invited to the pulpit to speak to the wife of a ministerial candidate at his ordination. I can’t emphasize enough how shocking it was in the IFB to see any woman allowed to speak from the pulpit, and that offered me a tiny ray of hope as a woman that I might be allowed to use my brain and think my own thoughts.

Mt Calvary was a massive, formative influence in my intellectual life. But the dream shattered for me around 2000 — it’s a long story and involves the personal lives of some of my friends at the time, so I won’t share it on my blog. But I watched MCBC leadership make decisions that may have been well-intentioned, and fit within the logical paradigm of Fundamentalism, but they were wrong, and they hurt people I cared about.  The glass shattered, and I started to question everything. How can godly men be so blind to the harmful effects of their teaching or decisions? 

*****

Our move to Presbyterianism shocked me, honestly.  I was sitting at Sunday lunch with my husband, who was finishing up the coursework portion of his PhD in Old Testament Theology at the BJU seminary.  To put it mildly, experiencing IFB theology as a future minister is a whole other world of batshit crazy.  And Coart has zero tolerance for bullshit. He just does not bend to anyone’s strong feelings about things; he has to be convinced through good argumentation, verifiable facts, and evidence of good motives.

So I was a bit stunned when he said to me, “Lori, I think I might be a Presbyterian.”

At that time, we’d been married a couple years. The only things more shocking to come from his mouth would have been “I don’t believe in God” or “I don’t want to be married to you anymore” or “I’m gay.”  Nothing less.

I remember being scared, wondering if we were about to lose everything and make a horrible mistake. See, I mentioned above that American Fundamentalism is overwhelmingly Baptist. And they aren’t kidding. If you aren’t in the Baptist club, you lose access to the halls of power nearly everywhere. There are a few exceptions (in parachurch organizations like mission boards, rescue missions, camps, and colleges), but Presbyterianism is barely a sliver among the IFB.  For Coart to tell me, in essence, I can’t play by the Baptist rules meant his ministry career would be either relegated to the absolute margins of an already marginalized group, or non-existent.

We spent much of that year on a “walkabout” to visit a wide variety of churches, both Evangelical and beyond.  It was healthy and invigorating. I recommend that everyone do this at least once every decade — go visit every other flavor of church in your town. It’s good to see what the Body of Christ looks like, whether you agree with those people or not. 

I think, looking back, that Coart had already seen the cracks in the IFB theology and the mental backflips required by his seminary professors to keep the house of cards standing. The Bible just doesn’t back up the Dispensational, Fundamentalist viewpoints.  He was being slowly convinced through his Bible study that the correct approach was Reformed theology.  And the IFB folks *hate* Reformed theology.

That moment over Sunday dinner was the beginning of the end of our days in Fundamentalism. Within a year, we were wondering when it would be time to leave. By the fall of 2001, we got our answer.

*****

We came to the PCA (Presbyterian Church in America) because a friend asked us to come teach in his school.  Really. That’s how I ended up in the classroom for 10 years — probably the most influential decision I ever made. And how we ended up at our church, where I was an integral part of the music team for more than a decade. Of all the things I left at NCC, the music ministry is the thing I miss the absolute most. It’s left a gaping hole. I haven’t touched a piano in 2 years.

Deciding to leave Fundamentalism and deciding to join the PCA were two equally grueling decisions.  Leaving the Fundy world meant all of our networking contacts would be irrelevant. You can’t play for the other team in any way and expect to be part of the Fundy world.  I still have the letter Minnick wrote Coart, personally, to express how disappointed he was in Coart to abandon his faith. Within a year, Bob Jones was on the verge of expelling him from his PhD program (he was in the dissertation stage) because we were no longer Fundamentalists. So he walked away from 90 credit hours of coursework.  (BJU was unaccredited, so…. not really a loss once we got into the “real world” and realized unaccredited degrees were worth absolutely nothing outside of the bubble of Fundamentalism. Still hurt a bit though.)

But the didn’t mean the PCA was right for us.  We came to the PCA because it was Reformed, because it followed the presbyterian structure for church government (we’d seen enough horror stories of the IFB authoritarianism), and because it is quite conservative in faith and practice.  I still had to go through a lot of soul-searching to be ok with paedobaptism, Reformed soteriology, and drums in worship music.

In other words, we were willing to join the PCA because it wasn’t all that big a step to the left from Fundamentalism…..but it was big enough to break all of our connections to Fundamentalism, for sure.

Now, to be fair: The PCA “gets” Grace much more than the IFB churches do.  It’s where I read Michael Horton’s wonderful book Putting Amazing Back Into Grace, which helped rescue me from the guilt-driven Christianity I’d learned growing up and had reinforced at Bob Jones.

But the PCA is still very much bound up into propositional truth > heart and belief; it’s tribal as hell with plenty of nasty infighting; it worships its theological definitions and Reformed theology in ways that I find deeply troubling.  A lot of what is wrong about Fundamentalism and about Evangelicalism in general is embodied in my PCA experience.  But if I’d joined a Southern Baptist church or a Sovereign Grace congregation or NewSpring or any other mainline Evangelical church, I’d be writing a lot of the same words.  All I’m trying to do is explain what I’ve walked through, so maybe others can hear their own journey echoed here, and we can mourn together what we’ve lost. 

We joined our PCA church in 2002 and slipped out the door for good in 2016. Seismic changes during those 14 years.. That’s why I’m writing this series. And why I have no clue where to find a church home in 2018.

Catalysts for change

I think it’s fair to the readers who don’t know me to understand a few moments in my spiritual journey that serve as key waypoints. If you know me, then none of these will be a surprise.

1986, summer camp:  After hearing a week of preaching by a missionary to Spain, I felt called to full-time missions. Went home and told my parents, and broke their hearts. They’d always wanted me to be a doctor.  I was a Christian Missions major instead, and went to BJU instead of staying in PA to attend Pitt or Penn State or one of the many little liberal arts colleges up there.

1998, marriage:  I’m not exaggerating when I say that Coart, my husband, is a remarkable man of both heart and intellect. My journey is bound up with his. He somehow knows how to bash up against my hard head yet let me come to my own conclusions. Somehow he’s been doing it since we first met.

1999: I mentioned above a deep disillusionment with our church leadership at MCBC. That broke a spell over me about not wanting to even consider any other viewpoints, and in many ways it was the beginning of the end of our time within Fundamentalism.

2002, teaching:  I can’t possibly give teaching enough of its due as a critical formation tool for my conscience, spiritual understanding, maturity, and career arc. Best decision I ever made, hardest job I’ve ever had. Nothing else has been as rewarding.  Combined with my MEd degree from Covenant College (earned 2003-2006), teaching has been the #1 thing God used to shape my understanding of how He works in this world.  Since I’m not a parent, this is as close as I can get to parenting-as-sanctification.

2005, the year from hell:  Uh, I don’t want to put this stuff out in public. Let’s just say there was a lot going on in our own lives and in the lives of our students. We learned some critical lessons about how to care for others, and the inadequacy of things like “Christian counseling” for mental illness.   (I’ll summarize the worst day of 2005: Within a 24-hour period, I talked someone out of suicide, had to tell that person’s loved one how they had almost committed suicide so I could make sure they got help, and got a call from my pastor asking me to take over a big chunk of music duties at the church because of a “scandal” involving our minister of worship, triggering many questions from my students who’d had him as a teacher. It was a pretty horrible day.)

2005 was the year I learned that Grace always costs the giver.

2007: I watched a lesbian live a more truly righteous life than nearly any other person in her group of friends/colleagues, and it upended pretty much everything I thought I knew about Love, Grace, and the church’s attitude toward LGBTQ+ folks.

2011: Heard about Paolo Freire’s writing on education for the first time. World-changing. Why hadn’t I been told to read this before?  Critical pedagogy and all that.

2016: When the bulk of Christians I knew happily voted for Trump to get SCOTUS votes against Roe v Wade, I knew my sojourn in Evangelicalism was over.

What’s the point of all this?

Just this:  People who leave a religion or cult or close-knit community of  any kind are walking away from multiple things at once: from your network, from your friends and social circle, from a sense of personal history and identity, from your safety net, sometimes from your job and/or education, from a hard-earned reputation or respect.  It can be staggering to be thrust into decisions about your faith, your career, your identity, and your friendships all at the exact same time. (And I’m not even a parent — it’s got to be 100x harder when kids are involved.) 

It’s important to acknowledge the good that you found in those places, even if there were bad things too, because that’s honest.  It’s good to recognize the people who genuinely cared for you, even if others were abusive dicks. It’s important to mourn what you have lost.

 

I feel like this was a dull post.  If you read this far, well, you’re a saint ….or committed…..or bored. lol

I’ll keep writing. Thanks for reading.

3 thoughts on “Exit: Get used to change”

  1. This was in NO WAY dull. The change and journey from fundamentalism (not Baptist — they were not Christian — 😉) to being a skeptic… An almost divorce and then 8 years later a divorce helped me see the light…. A loooooooong journey I’m still on. Still a major part of my being.

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  2. I’m an atheist (who found your blog via some comments you made on Scalzi’s), and despite being an Atheist I’m trying really hard not to be obnoxious about it. I grew up with the sort of Atheist for a father who thinks Richard Dawkins isn’t extreme enough and theists are by definition idiots, so my journey has sort of been a mirror image to your leaving fundamentalism; I’ve been trying to shake off the dogmatism and anti-religiosity I grew up with and have been reading a lot more about different faiths. So this is a long way of saying “that was in no way dull and in fact a very interesting insight into a world I have no knowledge of”.

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  3. Really love reading this series! Thanks for documenting your journey.

    On another note, I’d love to grab coffee/beer with you guys soon. Let me know if yall are coming over to greenville in the nearish future so we can catch up

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