Faithfully cynical

I don’t think of myself as an optimist. Hardly a situation will pass without a dire warning from me on the likelihood of its going to hell, a habit not helped by the fact that my proclamations are often correct: yes, our recently widowed neighbour was trying to get rid of her tenant’s daughter so she’d have the tenant all to herself; yes, our other neighbour’s new wife used him to have a baby and now wants a divorce and for him to sign the child off*; yes, the gardener everyone was raving about turned out to be a liar and a thief. And so on. I don’t think it’s an ability so much as it is cynicism: you’re rarely disappointed when you bet on the worst of people.

One area I’ve tried my best to battle this ominous cynicism is the church. Yes, the church – which gathers the very worst of us together and sticks labels that read “free”, “saved”, “grace” and “righteousness” on otherwise bottomline bad people – has received a (relatively) free pass from me and my jaundiced eye. Ironic, because if you’re looking for the worst of human pettiness, treachery, hatred and coffee, even in the best of congregations, the closest set of church doors will usually do.

Take for instance the debacle that rocked the tea duty roster at the church where I’m volunteering. Everyone wants to have tea and gossip after the church service; you’ve gotten up at seven am on a Sunday, you might as well, or so the thinking goes. Unfortunately, very few of the people who want to have tea and coffee after the church service want to take turns serving tea and coffee to the other members of the congregation, and so the same five people ended up doing it Sunday in and Sunday out. If I hadn’t been one of those five people, and if I hadn’t been expected to spontaneously take over the tea duty roster on account of a stray vagina I happened to have in my possession, I probably would have cared less; but I am, and I had to. The situation went south rather swiftly.

Okay, we can be pointed about this, the church council decided: tea after church was cancelled. Now, a few weeks later it’s still cancelled, because despite complaints about its absence and the minister’s plummeting popularity re: all matters tea related, there weren’t enough volunteers to prompt its revival. The excuses are varied: we’re busy, I’m sure you understand; we’re men and our hands fall right off if we so much as look at a teapot; we did it before, once, two decades ago; we did it before, once, two decades ago, and swore a blood oath against its then-organiser; we don’t want to; it’s not part of the job description; what is “tea”?

The tea duty roster furore demonstrates on a small scale why so many churches empty every year: we’re bloody awful at church.

So why the free pass on my part, one wonders? There are a few reasons: I really like Jesus and the Holy Spirit and sometimes even God the Father; I like learning more about Jesus and Christianity in general; I have an otherwise fairly useless degree in theology; I want to share my relationship with Christ with other people; I can’t otherwise sing in public. And perhaps, in my heart of hearts, in a deep place that still believes in good things, fundamentally good people and happy endings outside Young Adult fiction, I cherish a hope that church could help transform me into the kind of person who I’d want to go to church with.

But there comes a point when one’s deepest hope begins to flicker like a candle left to its own devices in a breeze. It’s not an instantaneous process. It’s taken a lot of blood, sweat and tears, a lot of pointless politics and small-mindedness, a lot of struggling to adapt and failing to fit in, a lot of strife and gossip and frustration to admit that church as I’ve experienced it is hardly beyond my old friend, cynicism. In many respects I’ve been the church’s unlikely champion, had to be, as a would-be minister. I always defended it on the principle that church could be good – or failing that, better – if only it were done right. But, as we stand on the precipice of a tea duty roster impasse, who knows what is right, anyway?

I still hope that Jesus will disappoint this cynicism of mine, I have to admit, and not just because I want a job at some point. I’d like to be proven wrong about life and people and religion, I think. I’d like a glimmer of the church’s beginnings as a radical, sweeping and transformative first century movement to shake my dusty foundations of tradition and obnoxiousness and privilege. I’d like to be reminded just how deep and wide and tall and encompassing Jesus’ love for bottom-of-the-barrel people such as myself can be.

So even while giving the church a critical once over, I realise that few places are more in need of grace than the church. Some would doubtless stake a similar claim for prisons, but honestly? At least prisons serve tea.

*I was literally revising this when my mother phoned with fresh gossip: the wife left yesterday morning and will be moving out over the weekend.


Authority in the Christian blogosphere


Christian women find their voice and live out their callings online

Two weeks ago Tish Harrison Warren wrote a piece for Christianity Today titled “Who’s in charge of the Christian blogosphere?” In it, she wonders whether the kind of platforms people – especially women – gain through blogging should be accountable to some kind of ecclesial structure, much like pastors are theoretically accountable to their denominations.

Warren posed the piece as a rumination on responsibility: how can we make sure these bloggers – many of them laypersons, their “only” virtue being their popularity – “do” theology responsibly? She cited Jen Hatmaker as an example. Hatmaker – who has been in ministry for two decades and is a published author and popular speaker – recently announced that she is supportive of the full inclusion of LGBTI people in the church, a decision that proved unpopular in the evangelical world. (Read her response to the immediate flare-up of criticism here.)

Warren’s article wasn’t well-received, at least by my Twitter timeline’s standards. Warren was criticised for singling out Jen Hatmaker in a way that came across as chastising: how dare Hatmaker, “only” a blogger, deviate from the evangelical bottom line? The article read and felt like a gendered attack, Hatmaker acting as the negative example of what happens when those outside formal structures don’t toe the line.

Warren has since issued an apology to Hatmaker, but the article is still up on Christianity Today – the first part of a series called #AmplifyWomen. It’s ironic and telling that the first article in this series wasn’t about amplification at all, but about control.

Warren wouldn’t be the first woman delegated to keep her fellow women in check. One comes across it often; if you need an example, just skim any article relating to women on The Gospel Coalition blogs (alas, a favourite teacher of mine, Jen Wilkin, has participated in something similar). Warren has come across as sincere in her Twitter replies to criticism and praise, but I doubt she realises that a lot of her article’s backbone is internalised misogyny.

Make no mistake, the issue at play in Warren’s piece isn’t responsibility or accountability. As quite a few influential bloggers have pointed out, they are accountable: to their personal relationship with Jesus Christ, to the church or spiritual communities they form a part of, and to their friends, families, and peers. In fact, one could argue that the response to Warren’s piece is an indication of how much accountability there is in the popular Christian blogosphere: her article didn’t remain unchallenged, and the criticism was mostly fair and well thought out.

No, the issue Warren’s article skirts around is control. Unfortunately, there are still many church traditions where women aren’t allowed to preach, speak or teach (or if they are, it’s only to other women or to children). In these denominations, women aren’t allowed to have authority. So when these women, who are forced into silence by their churches, turn to the Internet to share their voice and listen to the voices of others like themselves, this presents a conundrum to the men and women in church denominations who delineate the function and authority of women. How do you control women speaking outside the traditional sphere of the church?

Well, you can’t, not without making it exceedingly obvious that the issue is really control rather than authority. If you’ve followed any of these popular female bloggers, authors, speakers and preachers (Jen Hatmaker, Rachel Held Evans and Sarah Bessey to name the bare minimum), you realise that their passion and gifts are Spirit-derived, unlike the man-made ecclesial structures that would insist they aren’t allowed to write Spirit-filled words or share Spirit-filled truth or preach prophetic, Spirit-filled prophecies. If it becomes clear that so many women have the gift of teaching, preaching, and disciple-making outside official church structures, you have to ask yourself: are these women and their ministries the problem, or the fact that so many churches continue to deny them?

It’s interesting to me that, around the same time this piece was published, an editor over at The Gospel Coalition went on a Twitter and comment rant against what he calls “discernment bloggers”. He had had a run-in with the women who run Spiritual Sounding Board and The Wartburg Watch, both websites dedicated to blogging about spiritual abuse in the American church. This editor, Joe Carter, called blogs like these divisive and the women who run them “broken wolves in sheep’s clothing”.

Call me crazy, but I spot a pattern here: women who won’t adhere to the “it’s all fine, it’s alright” party line of patriarchal, male-dominated church and spiritual traditions are called out by the benefactors of those traditions when their unsanctioned, Spirit-filled commentary hits too close to home. These churches, like Warren’s article, claim it’s about God-ordained authority; but it’s really about male-centric control. If God gives women authority to witness outside the church, then their authority isn’t in question.

As someone who had once lost her voice to an oppressive, male-dominated church situation and rediscovered it through blogging, I cannot overstress how important the voice of female Christian bloggers are. Even when those voices are more conservative than I am or have a theology that differs from mine, I’ve been enriched by the writing and teaching of Christian women who blog, both those with large followings and those with a smaller audience. Sometimes simply the reminder that there are powerful, Spirit-led women using their gifts is more of a comfort than I can say.

Christianity is a much bigger place than any one church, any one denomination, or any one pastor would have you believe. Faith, discipleship and following Jesus don’t heed the lines humanity draws around them. More often than not, the Holy Spirit uses those lines as starting places rather than as borders. These lines are porous, made to break through, much like sheep pens are meant to be left if the flock are to find places to graze, explore, grow and mature.

When an article like Warren’s appears, I see it as an indication that things are right rather than that things are wrong. It means that somewhere, someone is toddling from their sheep pen, following their Shepherd out into the world. It means that someone has chosen to listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit rather than the strictures of men.

“Christian crusader in teen abuse scandal”


John Smythe, left. Source. 

A prominent British attorney’s years-long abuses against teenage boys in southern Africa has been revealed in a Channel 4 documentary.

John Smythe worked many years as a missionary in southern Africa.

He was charged with the culpable homicide of a teen boy in Zimbabwe back in 1992. Shortly thereafter he moved to South Africa and continued his work with teens.

He administered violent beatings for perceived “moral offenses” such as masturbation and pride. While not overtly sexual, a 1982 report found his punishments to be “suppressed masochistic sexual activity”. The beatings were so severe, some victims had to wear nappies afterwards.

Evidence suggest the Anglican Church worked to cover-up Smythe’s offences.

In the last decade Smythe has been involved in cases against pro-LGBTI and abortion laws in South Africa.

Read the article here. 

One year later: surviving spiritual abuse


It’s been a year since I left a spiritually abusive church. A year since I bid an ugly goodbye to a congregation I had, for better or worse, immersed myself in for four years. A year of things heard about myself through the grapevine—and of whispering things about others through the grapevine too. In many ways it’s been a difficult year. There’s no good way to leave a spiritually abusive church. There’s no clean exit, emotionally or spiritually. It’s usually too late for that.

Honestly, I’m tired of thinking, talking and writing about spiritual abuse. I’m tired of the looks you get from people who don’t understand what it is and file it under “church politics” or “bitterness” or who ignore it altogether. I’m tired, too, of speaking about it with people who do get it, who’ve been through exactly the same thing. Spiritual abuse is taxing. It’s draining. Its effects don’t abide the week, month or year perimeters we draw around other things in our lives. It long outlasts its genesis, its perpetrators.

That’s exactly why I need to continue thinking, talking and writing about spiritual abuse, of course: because it’s so poisonous. It thrives on the silence and exhaustion of its victims. It banks on remaining unspoken. Its architects will go to great lengths to avoid direct, clear confrontation.

I’ve learned a lot about spiritual abuse this year. On the negative side of things, I’ve learned that so-called “top down” spiritually abusive leaders all look, act and think the same. Tullian Tchividjian’s recent saga is an excellent example of this. These leaders are boring in their predictability. They are usually narcissistic. They demonstrate a superficial concern for others that they use to manipulate and exploit them for personal gain, whether physical, material or emotional. They’re controlling. They avoid taking responsibility for their actions; there’s little to no accountability. When confronted, they either blame their victims or they play the victim. They’re liars, and their lies are big and bare-faced. They surround themselves with “Yes men”, people who believe the image these leaders project, and they use them to control and manipulate and report back on those not immediately within their reach.

Most importantly, I’ve realised that spiritually abusive leaders cannot be reasoned with. Reasoning with someone requires empathy, and they have none. For a long time the biggest question I had about the leadership at my old church was, “How? How could they be/think/act this way?” But when you remove empathy from the equation, the answer clears up: they did what they did, said what they said and thought what they thought because they are unencumbered by empathy. They don’t care about anyone other than themselves. That’s the long and the short of it.

On the positive side of things, I’ve learned that it wasn’t my fault that I ended up in a spiritually abusive church. Emotionally I was in a very negative space when I first started attending my old church. I was dealing with the aftermath of having been in a close friendship with a pathological liar and the uncertainty of a calling on my life when I saw the ad for this church in a local newspaper. I knew something was off about the leadership when I first started going, but I thought it was merely vainglory. The church as a whole seemed nice. I started attending a Bible Study. I began to feel more comfortable about being a Christian and studying theology. I thought I could avoid the seedier aspects of the church and its leadership by effort of will alone.

That I was making a mistake in that assumption I wouldn’t realise until later. Spiritually abusive environments don’t tolerate anyone operating outside their aura of influence and manipulation. You either do or die, and the “doing” is more stealthy and eroding than you’d think.

Sometimes – less often, these days – there will still be moments when I punish myself thinking that I should have known better. But then I remember something I read on a blog about spiritual abuse: healthy people trust. It’s not that I made a mistake in trusting that my old church would be a place of God, or its congregation decent people; that’s what normal people do. The mistakes lie with the unhealthy church community, its corrupt leadership and their deceit and manipulation.

Surviving spiritual abuse is unpleasant. It doesn’t feel much like surviving. It’s a struggle to reorientate yourself emotionally and spiritually. It’s a struggle to remain emotionally healthy; to continue to trust people, to open yourself up to others, to allow yourself to be part of a church once again. It’s a struggle with God, with knowing his character and promises, and having had to deal with the worst from his followers. But perhaps the most difficult thing to deal with, post-spiritual abuse, is that so few people understand what spiritual abuse is, or believe that it’s real. Unlike other forms of abuse, spiritual abuse often goes unacknowledged by the people and institutions around us. They just don’t think it’s that big of a deal.

That’s why I wanted to write this post, an update of sorts: to remind myself and others that yes, it happened. Yes, it’s a real thing. Yes, our feelings – our hurt, our anger, our fear, our frustration, our disbelief, our confusion – these are all normal; this is what spiritual abuse feels like.

And I wanted to remind myself and others that, trite as it sounds, life goes on. Our pain will go on with it, but it needn’t define us along the way, and eventually we will leave it behind.

I wish I could offer a “how to” on this “going on” thing – a plan with predictable results. I can’t do that, of course, but maybe I can offer some insights and pointers:

  1. Some people are just assholes.
  2. Do not be dissuaded from your experience, your impressions and your feelings.
  3. Read up about spiritual abuse, on both its perpetrators and its victims. This helps you identify patterns and locate your own experience within them.
  4. Staying in touch with people from the spiritually abusive church is difficult. They may be in denial about what happens there or devalue your experience. But their feelings don’t negate your own.
  5. Forgive. Keep forgiving! This doesn’t “erase” what happened or the guilt of those involved, but it sets you free from self-flagellation. You’ve got quite enough to be getting on with.
  6. Forgive, but do not trust the spiritually abusive environment ever again! They might try to convince you that forgiveness = trust. This is gaslighting. Don’t fall for it.
  7. God isn’t on their side. God isn’t on your side. God is on God’s side, the side of justice and love. Know that God has seen what happened to you, and wept. Know that God will work on the situation. I’m pretty sure God struck my old pastor down with illness as a humbling experience. It didn’t take, but maybe second time’s the charm? 😉
  8. Reacquaint yourself with God. Read the Bible. Pray often. Read books by good mainstream authors. Listen to sermons and teaching by good mainstream speakers. Spend time with God in non-conventional ways.
  9. Find a new spiritual home. Go in with an open heart but sharp eyes. Don’t commit straight away.
  10. Be patient with yourself. Be patients with others.

If I wrote another blog post like this a year from now, I’m pretty sure in essentials it would be much the same: spiritually abusive environments will still be spiritually abusive environments and taking advantage of people; it will still hurt that we were one of their number; we will have moved forward, if only in bits and pieces. And hey, that sucks. But there are other things that will also still be true: we will still be loved by an Almighty God. We will still have survived something that was meant to mow us down to manageable size. We will still have resisted. We will still be healthier than those we left behind.

Friends, whether it’s one week later, one month later, one year later or ten years later: it’s been a week, a month, a year, ten years. And we are free. We are free.

Never forget it.

Weekly reads


Interesting articles, blog posts and news stories from around the internet. 

Most redemptive: Rev. Eliza Buchakjian-Tweedy says wise things about the church and LGBTI people:

The thing is, as a wise person said recently: every time you draw a line every time you build a wall to exclude people, Jesus ends up on the other side of it. Jesus, who hung out on the margins of his society with those deemed unworthy and dangerous; Jesus saw them, saw God in them, and loved them for exactly who they were.

Most “nodding along”: Five lies pastors are tempted to tell, and how to resist them.

Most insightful in an unpleasant, “not at all surprised” way: Scot McKnight draws an interesting connection between the ESV translation’s “permanent edition” and one of their dodgier translation decisions:

Exegesis can settle this, and if this exegesis is right, the ESV must at least consider an immediate change in its translation. When I first heard this my first response was, “Why would the ESV do this? Why would they alter this verse in this way and then say it is Permanent?”

Why indeed?

Most schadenfreude-inducing: Steven Anderson, homophobic pastor and general angry person, has been banned from entering South Africa. He was due to “evangelise” here later this week. I also found it bracing that many South Africans in the comment section of his Facebook post sharing the news so openly supported the government’s decision.

Most edifying: Part two of a series on spiritual abuse. It deals with “abusive atmospheres” and I found the subsection on how to recognise these spiritually abusive atmospheres very spot-on.

Quote of the week


Weekly funny