“Maybe he’s changed…”
she thought. “It’s been quite some time. Surely he’s different!” She hoped with everything in her that he had changed. How could he keep hurting people? He must know he had hurt people. Shouldn’t she hope for the best and try to think the best? Yet she couldn’t shake the feeling that she had seen these warning signs before. “No”, she thought. It wasn’t loving to assume bad things. She has to think the best. To do less would be “uncharitable”. Or is the forgetfulness of time warping her memories, leaving her with fondness and affection for someone who never really existed in the first place?
When I was a teen, I played this card game that had no rules. Not that it didn’t have rules, but you weren’t allowed to know what they were. The key to the game was to learn the rules as fast as you could, so you could finish the unstated objective of the game to win! It was a massively confusing game. The first several rounds of the game was spent with everyone getting penalty cards for breaking the unspoken rules. After a while, it was easy to see that you had to bark when you played a spade, pat your head for a diamond, etc. Some of the other rules were more tricky. I spectacularly failed the first several times I tried to play that game and often ended up with practically the whole deck of cards in my hand.
Card games remind me of all the wonderful times we had at church camp. Ever have one of those groups of people that you’re so comfortable around it just feels like one big family? That’s how I described my church. We were family! It was a small non-denominational church. My immediate family helped start it. Once a year as a church, we would go camping. The memories of hanging out at the sandy beach, long chats by the warmth of the fire, card games (Dutch Blitz!) that went long into the night and outdoor worship services are times I look back on fondly. I have pictures of lake baptisms, floating dock “king of the dock” fights, and kids getting thrown off the “blob” into the shimmering water of the lake. They remind me of what once was.
For a long time, our church rented a building in which to meet. It had been near a decade when the subject of building came up. As things typically go, we built a brand new church building. Suddenly there were all these new “understandings”. With a new building came rules that had not been there before. And a pastor! Our elder run church was suddenly a pastor run church. In this new world of new building, decorations, multiplying Bible studies, groups, and a shifted social pecking order there were unspoken rules that I didn’t know. Some seemed to get them just fine, but I was like a clown in huge shoes, walking around and stepping on everyone’s toes. While being very well meaning, but not without mistakes, I kept having to pay the fines, both emotionally and socially. Still the rules to the game escaped me and I was painfully aware. The unrest that resulted because of the change of order in the leadership shook things up in the entire congregation. While my husband and I might not have been the only opposition, I have come to realize I was an easy target. With the rest of my extended family in positions of leadership (elders, worship leaders, etc.), I volunteered on the worship team and my husband ran sound. We weren’t integral cogs in the machinery of the church. To be frankly honest, we were expendable. While the hows and whys are an explanation for another day, we eventually, spiritually beaten to a bloody pulp, left the church.
For a long time after that I didn’t even want to go to church. I felt like I had left family. Not my relatives. I had left family, period. I could name all the names of the people in the church that I would miss like sisters, brothers, mothers and children. To go somewhere else felt like betrayal. But at the same time, the abuse that had happened to me by the words of the “pastor” (and others) was betrayal. The inner conflict for me was almost more than words can describe. It was torturous. I near lost my sanity. (Truth be told, I’m fairly certain I lost it completely at times. Thank the Lord for his protection.) My husband, my steady husband, while utterly helpless to do anything for me, did the best thing he could possibly do… He kept loving me. He gently prodded me to church when he could and he lovingly let me stay home when he couldn’t. My illness flared up worse with the emotional trauma, so at times it was difficult to distinguish depression and anxiety due to the abuse verses physiological issues. When things got bad enough that I was concerned about being a danger to myself, I finally found help. (Let me take a second to urge you- if you or anyone you know is considering harming themselves or others, please do not hesitate to reach out and get help! It could save your life or the life of others!)
It took about two years of counseling and learning about God’s grace for me to feel like I could dare to consider there might be something in life worth living. While still extremely fragile, I had to go and try to live life in this new found grace. There were times that even walking into a new church would cause a panic attack. Now two years past that… Life is worth living! Grace literally makes me giggle with delight! Yet, now I can see what an abusive situation was happening inside that church. I have hoped and prayed that that church has changed. A lot of those members are still in my social media feeds. My extended family still attends there. I find myself seeing signs (words, phrases, behavior) that still indicate abuse and entrapment. (Sometimes those signs cause PTSD type symptoms in me.) But then I tell myself that I’m not a member there anymore. I think how much I’ve changed, so I hope they have changed. Then I think I have no right to make judgement about it. I remember the good times and pretty soon I’m thinking idealistic thoughts again… I have caught myself saying to my husband, “Do you think they’ve changed? What if they’ve changed? They must have changed by now! Surely they wouldn’t continue to hurt people like that. I should hope for the best, right?” Then damning evidence comes out that is undeniable. During one of my last “wishing for the best” moments, I started realizing that I sounded just like an abused woman, longing for her abuser.
My former church is my abusive “ex”.
I am so thankful that I no longer am beholden to an abusive intimate partner. My Jesus loves perfectly. He understands intimate partner abuse. He understands pain. He bore not only my sins on the cross, but the sins of what others did to me. It’s because he perfectly paid their debt that they owed me, I can have peace in him.
My husband and I hope and pray for freedom for this church, so locked up in bad theology and abuse. We pray for the women that are being subjugated under the teaching of “headship”, although not being taught from the pulpit, well being caught in the foyer and fellowship. We are waiting with open arms for the exodus of abused women and children- while we dread the pain and suffering that will accompany it… And hate the brokenness that sin brings… We know that God can use all things for his glory. We also recognize that not all congregation members are experiencing the same intensity or level of deception. We refuse to condemn an entire church, when we know there is hope from God. While the pastor and others (his supporters) meant their actions to be well meaning, God used their complete misuse of authority for our eventual good. All glory to God!