Trigger Warning: Spiritual abuse, references to sexual abuse (not explicit)
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Nearly the entire time I was a member of the church I was raised in, I experienced a difficult to describe discomfort, an aching inside, and I felt alone in that feeling.
After I left, I discovered I had never been alone at all. I’ve heard from people who wanted to leave, but cannot risk losing their families and the community of the church. I’ve heard from people who have objections to teachings and attitudes within the church but cannot express them without risking being ridiculed and shamed (or excommunicated). I’ve heard people express the same vague feeling of something being wrong, the same quiet hidden pain, that I felt for years.
I left because I felt like I had no choice. I took the teachings of the church very seriously, because I believed very passionately that the Bible was the literal word of God, as the church taught, and I believed all of the church’s teachings were in harmony with the Bible up until the day I decided to withdraw my membership.
One of the church’s teachings revolved around a sort of extreme “closed communion.” “Closed communion” means communion is only offered to members of the church. To become a member of this church, you had to formally profess that you were in complete agreement with all church doctrine (based on the church’s “fellowship” doctrine). There is no room for disagreement, and no gray areas; you are either in or out. Most members were born into the church, attended a church-run elementary school, and “confirmed” in conjunction with graduating from 8th grade – meaning, most of us made this formal profession of agreement between the ages of 12 and 14, and are expected to hold on to the exact same beliefs for the rest of our lives because we essentially made a promise before this whole group of people and our entire families to do so. It’s a lot of pressure for a young person, during an already difficult time of life naturally filled with growth and change – but while everything else about your life is developing, you’re told that the development of your religious beliefs must stop here. No more growth, no more change, no evolution of thought – your beliefs are to remain fixed at that point, at that age.
After being confirmed, I went on to the church’s high school, and while there I was treated terribly and terrible things happened, and nobody did anything. When we tried to speak up or reach out for help, we were usually ignored. If we refused to be ignored and kept trying to speak, we were warned about committing “slander” and were ordered to simply accept the authority of the faculty and were accused of lying or being bitter and were doubted at every turn and sometimes we were blatantly lied about and misrepresented. Any implication that a faculty member had made a mistake or done something wrong was simply unacceptable and responded to as if it were downright impossible, and then turned around on the student in the name of “giving the benefit of the doubt” and “putting the best construction on everything.” It became clear that even when there was absolutely no doubt about a situation in the mind of a student, and even if that student was supported by witnesses or evidence beyond reasonable doubt, the student would still be doubted; we had been taught that all people aught to be given the benefit of the doubt, but for some reason that didn’t apply to us. Either we had been lied to, or weren’t really seen as people, or perhaps both. When there was no room to create this doubt, things were quickly hushed up and swept under rugs in the name of “forgiveness.” Forgive and forget – or get out. To a teen whose entire family was “in,” getting out wasn’t truly a viable option, similarly to how not being confirmed was not truly a viable option. We were fed strings of false choices, and by the time we reached adulthood, must of us had come to believe that truly were no choices. Believe, agree, submit and be saved – or be shunned and damned. With no experience in the outside world, and without any experience forming relationships that weren’t mediated by the church and its rules, there is even less of a choice for those deepest within the church. Being a member and not rocking the boat for them isn’t a matter of belief, but an issue of survival.
I knew it was wrong. I felt the wrongness of it so deeply that it made me ill sometimes. It took me several more years, however, to see this wrongness as a matter of belief. I thought if I held on until adulthood, when there would no longer be some conceivable motive to invent, then people would believe me. I thought if I held on, even though I couldn’t help myself or protect my friends, I could at least make things better for the children that would come after me. So I held on – and nothing changed. I am still accused of lying, or exaggerating, or of “misunderstanding.” I’m told that I am bitter, that I am vengeful. I am told things that I know are simply untrue, and I am not given the benefit of the doubt. The best construction is not put on me. Still, I am not fully human. After several years of this, I began to realize that there was a fundamental difference of belief at play: I believed that the way were treated was morally wrong, and the church did not. I believed that every student was a person deserving of rights and worthy of being listened to and heard, and the church did not. I believed that I was fully human, and the church did not.
I didn’t know how to fully express this, but the realization crept up on me and started eating away at me. I began rereading the Bible in an effort to find a verse that I could point to, and scouring church documents for a doctrinal point that I could highlight, in the hopes that I would find something which would encapsulate this wrongness. I began realizing that it couldn’t be done – not because I was wrong, but because the wrongness I felt was not in the doctrine or the misinterpretation of any individual passage. I was in the behaviors, attitudes, and dynamics of the group. I was discovering the idea that right doctrine does not automatically guarantee good behavior, but I didn’t have words for it yet.
The thing which finally gave me the clear logical justification I felt I needed to leave the church was a belief I had always found fairly trivial: the belief that the papacy is the antichrist. I had understood this teaching to be a common belief, but did not realize it was considered formal doctrine by church leadership. When a church leader informed my husband (who was participating in “adult education classes” at the time) that this was technically official doctrine, it all collapsed for me. The Bible simply doesn’t say that. You can make that argument, sure, but the Bible does not actually say “the pope is the antichrist.” It’s just not in there, and to realize that this was a belief I was supposedly expressing wholehearted belief in by participating in communion – I just couldn’t do it anymore. I didn’t express this as my reason for leaving, because I knew it wasn’t the real reason, but it reassured me that the church’s doctrine clearly was not perfect, and if all else I had learned there was correct, I was morally obligated by those teachings to separate myself because of this one thing – because I didn’t (and don’t) believe that the Bible teaches that the papacy is the antichrist. My motivation for wanting to leave was how deeply bothered I was that mistreatment of students at the high school was not taken seriously, and was often explicitly denied and ignored. I saw this problem as an issue for the entire synod, because it is also the location of the college and seminary where all of the teachers and pastors are trained. Any problems there present a problem for the entire synod, because any toxic issues there will likely be picked up by the teachers and pastors in training there, and from there are likely to spread throughout the entire church body over time. I had often described the school as “the beating heart” of the whole organization, and up until I implied that this heart might be diseased, the analogy had never been contested. I e-mailed my pastor and stated that I was withdrawing my membership based on concerns of sexual abuses which were being ignored and covered up, and for my own well-being, and that I did not want to be contacted by and would not be meeting with any church officials to discuss this decision.
I was done. I was free. It felt like I was escaping, and I often still describe it this way. I’ve spoken to enough people who feel trapped and unable to leave the church to conclude that it really was more of an escape than simply walking away. People have called me strong and brave for leaving, but I don’t feel strong. I don’t feel brave. I feel fortunate. I feel downright lucky that I had experiences with the outside world that showed me that there were better things out there (even in churches with virtually identical teachings), and that I met people who taught me what it feels like to be genuinely loved and supported, rather than dominated and controlled. Part of why I still believe the existence of some sort of god-concept at all is because more than anything else, I feel I was blessed with those experiences, and blessed with that last nudge out those doors. I feel more “saved” now than I ever did there.