Church hurts. I learned this painful combination of words as a seminarian.
Our professor assigned a book titled Nasty People by Jay Carter. I read the book and quoted it as required in a paper for the name of a class I no longer remember. But the words didn’t mean much to me then.
I had gone straight from undergraduate school to seminary. I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to preach.
I was in a healthy church or at a healthy distance so as not to experience the hurt caused by some Christian leaders and members. I had no idea how badly church could hurt.
I didn’t know then that the body of Christ picked fights, bullied, destroyed the faith and spiritual lives of other believers to maintain power, to dominate the narrative, to control sacred space.
To be sure, I knew it in theory and could point to instances in history. I had also heard from people who knew it intimately.
They shared truisms like, “The church will kill you and say you died,” and “Be careful when they pat you on the back. Because they are checking for soft spots in order to drive the knife deeper.”
I heard them but I didn’t understand the gravity.
I would not have firsthand experience until years later. Before then, I used to think all Christians were good people.
My Pentecostal-Holiness upbringing taught me that if they carried a big Bible, wore a long dress, sat in the pulpit or served in any position in church leadership, then they were godly people.
Looking back, it is an aesthetic righteousness that works best when people keep up appearances.
It can also be used to cover up a multitude of sins and foster a culture that spiritualizes abuse and gives the pastor, the chair of the diaconate or a benefactor power over what persons believe about themselves, God and their neighbor.
The Bible is clear on what qualifies persons for leadership, so I naively assumed that they held these positions because they met the criteria.
I thought every person who served in ministry was a person of good faith. I thought the church was the safest place to be. I have never been more wrong in my entire life.
Spiritual abuse, manipulation, adultery and character assassination – I have suffered terribly at the hands of Christians, and it is still hard for me to talk about.
Somedays, I struggle to believe and have trust issues with the church. Unfortunately, I am not alone.
I have been in social settings where church hurt and theological malpractice were discussed at length.
This, they say, is why they leave the church building and choose to practice their faith independently. It is safer this way. They fear that they will lose their faith in Jesus if they stay.
Because we all know these things shouldn’t happen and that they don’t come with the cross we are called to carry (Matthew 16:24-26). Nobody’s perfect, but we have to agree on the direction of the “perfector of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2). Either we are going Jesus’ way, or we are not.
These discrepancies between faith and practice are not new. But talking about it openly is.
Many of us were given a false binary narrative, a false dichotomy, where good people went to church and bad people did not. “Children of light” or “children of darkness,” we thought there was no gray area.
As a child, I respected the authority of church leaders and believed what they told me. They looked the part of a Christian, a pastor, a church member.
When they were judging our appearance and youthful inclinations, we thought they had every right to until things started to not add up. When money was stolen and the age of their oldest child and the number of years married didn’t match, then we had questions about tithing and the sexless disposition they instilled in us.
Paul Lewis is right when he writes in Faithful Innovation, “People who are giving up on church don’t want simple answers. They want to deal with the hard questions.”
Even if I left these things unsaid, it is a very public complaint and can be found in Twitter threads.
Activist, writer and creative strategist Faitth Brooks tweeted, “You can love Jesus and still reject spiritual manipulation and abuse from church leaders. You can love the church and still hold them accountable. Both are not mutually exclusive. We can do both and demand better.”
The North American church has a lot of work to do. I am talking about it with my guests in season two of The Raceless Gospel podcast, which officially began yesterday.
Won’t you join me there and share your story? It will help me, now a church mechanic, with this bodywork.