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This story is a special one to me. Regular reader, “BeenThereDoneThat” (BTDT) has been commenting on this blog since the first weeks here. During that time, I have watched her in her commenting as she has been recovering through a very difficult spiritually abusive church experience.
I had the opportunity to meet BTDT and her family this summer when I was visiting their area. I still get teary-eyed thinking about those precious couple of hours. We shared stories, we cried, we laughed. I looked directly into BTDT’s husband’s eyes when meeting him and his love for his wife was so beautiful as he spoke about her.
Watching this precious family walk away after the nice visit, I had an overwhelming sense that: THEY ARE FREE. To leave the “church” environment they were so connected with emotionally, spiritually, physically was a huge risk. But they did it. This is one family who will make it. They are free from their spiritual prison.
Meeting them, knowing their background and where they are now has been one of the biggest highlights for me of blogging. Yes, real people are reading these stories and are finding truth. I suspect BTDT’s story will be read by many and pray that God will use their family’s difficult experience to speak into the hearts of others who may be facing a very similar situation.
I ask you to pray for this precious family because it’s a big deal to “go public,” even anonymously. There is risk involved, but they are ready to take the next step. They are flying free. ~ja
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BeenThereDoneThat and Flying Free: Spiritual Abuse, A Personal Story
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My former church is a bit different from what most people reading this blog have experienced, except for maybe Faith Tabernacle. It is doctrinally Oneness Pentecostal. However, since it is an independent church, they have adopted a lot of beliefs and practices from other faiths. From the Anabaptist traditions, they adopted simplicity of dress and lifestyle, non-violence and non-resistance, and the two-kingdoms theology. If you visit their Agrarian Community, you can watch them work the fields with horse-drawn implements, throw pottery on a kick-wheel, build furniture with hand tools, craft metalwork in a forge, spin yarn, weave, make cheese, and take classes on various homesteading skills.
They’ve also incorporated many child rearing practices common to the Homeschool Movement(TM) including the harsh discipline of children. It is Patriarchal in structure and authoritarian. Children are to submit unquestioningly to their parents, wives to husbands, families to their ministers, ministers to the membership board, and everyone to the founding elder. Most children are birthed at home with lay midwives. (Ours weren’t.) It is because of this context that I’ve had direct experience with the abusive nature of authority in the local church. I believe when this type of “order” becomes institutionalized in a church, abuse is not only possible, but likely.
The last straw, for us, happened when my husband found his business to be hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. Imagine how scary this was for him. (He is home schooled with no high school diploma. In fact, one minister told his mother that they realized that many of the kids did not even receive a high school equivalent education. His mother taught to the church’s requirements.) Our minister, and the membership board, advised him to file for bankruptcy. They said that we would probably have to give up our home (a double-wide mobile home), and my husband would work for someone else in the church. During one phone conversation, our minister yelled repeatedly at my husband that he was going to jail.
My husband sought advice from a financial planner, a bank owner, a few prominent, local businessmen, and a new accounting firm. All of them advised against bankruptcy, and determined that he could pull through this with some hard work. He proposed this plan of action to our minister, who then called him stupid, incompetent, foolish, and confused. Our minister was very upset that he had sought counsel outside “the church.” He told my husband to “pray through” (read: agree to our plan) and call him back. When my husband did not call back, my father-in-law showed up with a letter of disfellowship from our minister. This meant that we would now be shunned by all the people we had spent our lives with for the last 25 years. So much for church discipline being reserved for
situations of unrepentant sin. When you belong to a church that ties your salvation to your submission to pastoral authority, abuse of power seems inevitable. Ours is one more story of such abuse.
Just a few months after these events, the first news reports came out regarding five men, who are all now convicted and in prison, who had molested their own daughters, sisters, and other children in our former church. Considering the unquestioning respect that these girls were expected to show their fathers and brothers, this comes as no surprise. What did surprise me was the church’s response. I’ve heard them pronounce from the pulpit and in testimonies that, “we have the answer to what this world needs.”
When the molestations came to light we heard from them, “Well, it happens everywhere.” So, by their own admission, they’re no better than anybody else. Yet, they see no irony in one’s salvation hinging upon submission to authority that is potentially just as abusive as “everywhere” else. This type of patriarchal order leaves women and children vulnerable to the most heinous of abuses. And you cannot guarantee, as we learned in my husband’s business situation, that the ministry will support anyone in a crisis.
In one situation, when a father confessed to a minister of molesting his daughter, it was not reported to law enforcement for a whole year. This man and his wife just cried together and prayed that “something would change.” (Whatever that’s supposed to mean.) Mind you, the nurseries for Sunday services and Friday night home groups were mandatory for all children until age 2. I never thought to question, nor would it have been acceptable for me to do so, whether there were safeguards to ensure that the children in the nurseries were protected from potential abusers. After all, these were such a nice group of people. (Sarcasm)
So where does this put us at today, a year and a half later? My husband has made significant progress on paying off debt. One customer, who was a true victim of this financial mess, continues to refer my husband to other people. Another customer, who we owe a significant amount of money to, repeatedly invite us to attend their Methodist church. I am humbled by their mercy. We plan on seeing this through. It appears my husband did receive sound financial advice that he could work through this. I believe we made the right decision in spite our former church’s objections.
We don’t plan on returning to that church. My husband and I are enjoying full use of our iPhones. Previously, we were only allowed to have them after our minister put a passcode on them to lock down the browser, YouTube, and AppStore access. (We’ve now heard that iPhones are forbidden to all but the ministers. Leadership has its privileges!) We, obviously, now have internet access and enjoy other media.
My girls enjoy wearing jeans. My little ones are big fans of Barbie, Cars, Toy Story. My boys enjoy Batman, Spiderman, and, yes, even Harry Potter. I was very inspired watching Lord of the Rings. My oldest daughter is beginning to experiment with different hairstyles and nail polish. She’s a very intelligent girl.
Some day, I want her to have the option of attending college. That would not be allowed in our previous church. In order to do so, she would have had to leave the church, her family, and everything she had grown up with behind. (We receive word on a regular basis of other young people who have walked away. One was the youngest brother of our former minister. He is now dead of a drug overdose.)
If my daughters had chosen to remain with the church, they would only be allowed to marry another young man within that church. There are many more young ladies than young men. If they didn’t marry, they would remain living with my husband and I, and serve the church or its ministers in some capacity. (This is becoming a common scenario among the patriarchal “courtship” crowd.)
I still struggle to make simple, basic decisions on a daily basis that many others take for granted. It’s crazy! I spent half of my childhood growing up in England and Saudi Arabia. In my late teens I frequently traveled by myself through international airports half way around the globe. But, for 24 years I submitted many decisions to a minister for “confirmation.” Even after I married, it was not my husband, but our minister who counselled what I should or should not do. My husband got to hear about it when I took my kids shopping with me to Walmart. Our minister said I should get a babysitter so as not to expose my kids to “worldly influences.” I feel infantilized — stunted. Time and finances do not permit me to seek professional counselling at this time. But this blog, and others, have helped me to learn and grow. And I react very strongly to tweets directed at a woman as to how her husband/elders are involved in her discernment activities. Perhaps this letter helps explain why.
And one more thing. There’s been a lot of discussion on some blogs about complementarianism and choosing a husband who can be a “spiritual leader.” My husband is no spiritual leader, and the ministers in our former church repeatedly rubbed his nose in that. But he busts it hard every day to make sure our lights and water stay on, the mortgage is paid, food is on the table, and debt is paid off. He humbled himself to take all his receipts and paperwork into a meeting with a customer and banker to assess how many material and subcontractor bills had not been paid. He drinks a little too much sometimes.(I don’t blame him!) He’s been the one to suggest several times now that we begin regularly attending the Methodist church. I love this man. He is honest and hard working. Please, ladies, do not cross a man off your list of possibilities because he doesn’t match some image of “spiritual leader.” You may pass on a really good man. Give love a chance.
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