January 30, 2013

Damaged Goods? You Don't Get To Define Me

The past couple of days has seen a proliferation of posts in the more progressive segment of the Christian blogging community about the way the church deals with sexuality, sin, and shame. The ones I've seen have been concerning the treatment of gays in the church and the purity standard impressed upon young people in conservative churches. The comments after these posts have been painful, amazing, angering, and saddening, yet very thought provoking. Two posts and their following comments, Torn: Chapters 7-11 and Do Christians Idolize Virginity?, at Rachel Held Evans' blog, and Sarah Bessey's post, I Am Damaged Goods, at A Deeper Story, made me do a lot of thinking of the culture of shame and the concept of damaged goods that I have experienced in the past from a former church.

It's not just gay people and young people that get the unhealthy message of shame from conservative churches; lots of divorced people have that nonsense forced upon them, too.

It's 1996. I had been divorced for four years, went through a couple of self-destructive years afterwards, and then had gotten my life back to a bit of normalcy. I began attending a Church of Christ congregation in my area, the denomination I was raised in as a youth. Things were great; I became close friends with the Minister and his family, led singing and prayers, and even got to speak from the pulpit one Sunday evening. Of course, I was staying single all of that time, but then things shifted when I started dating a lady from the congregation. That was bad enough with me being a divorced man, but this lady happened to be the daughter of one of the church elders...

Suddenly, I found myself being informed of last minute changes to the serving schedule, being replaced with flimsy reasons given. I spoke at length with the minister about the situation, and we both understood the situation fully. Soon, the classes led by the elders and deacons were becoming legalistic in nature, focusing on "scriptural divorce" and the requirements to be an acceptable servant. My minister friend focused on grace and redemption from the pulpit, yet he couldn't speak out directly against the people who signed his paycheck. I quit dating the elder's daughter, but the legalistic arguments continued. If I refused to slander my ex-wife by accusing her of adultery to the elders, I was to remain as damaged goods. ( I admit that was still angry with my ex at this point of my life, but we were getting along for the sake of the children, and our marriage and divorce was really none of their business at all. And, I already knew that God doesn't want us to throw anyone under the bus.)

I learned that forgiveness and redemption were merely nice things to proclaim at that church; to practice that forgiveness and live in acceptance of redemption for all believers was not of relevance to the majority of the leadership there. They were more concerned with having the appearance of purity and wholesomeness.

I walked out of that church during a class where the topic was more legalistic rule-keeping and invoking the name of Paul repeatedly, saying, "All I've heard today is how important to keep these rules of Paul. Maybe you should change the name on the sign out to 'Church of Paul!'" I made a vow to never set foot in a church of Christ congregation ever again, excepting weddings and funerals, and I've kept that vow.

I know there are more open-minded and ecumenical church of Christ congregations around town that I could have attend after that, but the experience had turned me off of the idea of church completely. I still had very conservative theological views at that time, and wasn't willing to look into what were referred to as "liberal" churches. But that experience made me question a lot of things about the Bible, and to start seeing them in a different way. Conservative churches can lay down their oppressive guilt trips, and call me whatever they want, but their words are meaningless in the big picture.

They don't get to define me. They don't have the power or the right to define me.

Only Jesus has that right and power.

He tells me that he has redeemed and reconciled me to Him.

He tells me I am a new creation, not just from the time I first believed, but for all of time.

He loves us even when we feel the guilt of wrong things we have done, or the shame laid upon us that tells us we are a wrong thing.

He makes all things new. Even divorced people.

Addendum: I know that my story is extremely mild compared to many of the stories of oppression and spiritual abuse I've been reading over the past few days. But, it does serve to show that spiritual abuse and oppression in churches affects a wide range of people and degrees. 

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