Observations about Plymouth Brethren relationships.

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This post originally appeared on my blog with the title “Observations about relationships in Christianity” on May 8, 2015. It has been modified slightly for publication here.

If you’ve been a reader of my blog for any amount of time in the past two years, it’s no secret that I’ve lost quite a number of friends, most of whom were Plymouth Brethren. The first wave were lost either when they discovered I wasn’t a virgin or when I married a man they didn’t want me to marry. The second wave were lost when I publicly declared my lack of belief in Christianity (especially upon clarifying that it was actually a lack of belief in any deity or supernatural realm).

I sadly can’t say I’m super surprised by either Great Exodus, which should speak volumes to the assemblies about how unconditional their love really is. But what has confused me is that quite a few of my non-Plymouth Brethren Christian friends didn’t abandon me. I found this rather puzzling for quite some time, to be honest. It’s been difficult to pinpoint why some stayed and some left, but after much introspection, reflection, and observation, I think I’ve come to understand a couple of the fundamental reasons why some stayed and some didn’t.

How firm a foundation is Jesus our Lord?

christ-preeminent

A view of the pulpit in the Tabernacle, the meeting house at Greenwood Hills. I spent a sizable portion of my life here from ages 12-21.

In fundamentalist Christianity, particularly the Plymouth Brethren, particularly Greenwood Hills Bible Conferences & Camps (just look at that logo!), there’s a biblical phrase that’s quite important: Christ Preeminent. It means in all things, Christ is to be the foundation and focus of the individual Christian, the local church, and the church universal (all Christians everywhere). How this plays out in a Christian’s life varies, of course. But a central application looks like this: if Christ isn’t the center of your life and every aspect of it, you’re doomed to failure.

As I try to explain this phrase and state of mind, I realize it’s a deepity (thank you, Cassidy, for introducing me to that word!). As she explains, “A “deepity” is a saying that seems very deep and meaningful at first, but when you look at it more closely you realize it’s beyond idiotic–or that it says something awful about the subject that the person uttering it doesn’t even realize got said.” In this case, it’s nearly impossible to really nail down what making Christ Preeminent actually means, which explains why there’s so much discussion about it in conservative circles, along with truly myriad applications.

When I was a Christian, Christ being preeminent in my life looked like getting rid of anything that would distract me from my relationship with Him. This meant purging my music on a regular basis (literally multiple hundreds of dollars of CDs thrown away to make more room for more positive influences). I frequently cut out activities I enjoyed because I believed they weren’t helpful in my ultimate goal of being more Christlike — activities like performing music in churches, Bible conferences, and nursing homes (because I was taking a leadership role by my performance, which subverted the gender roles put in place by God as an example of Christ and the church, typified by men leading and women submitting). I even let my dream of going to a prestigious art school go to waste in order to go to a Christian college where I thought God would teach me submission. (That worked out well.)

Perhaps the most blatant and unfortunate way in which I tried to center Christ in my life involved — you guessed it — increasingly isolating myself from “worldly” friends.

It seems that once faith in Christ is no longer a common denominator in a relationship, assembly brethren typically respond with the equivalent of:

If you recognize this, REPENT IMMEDIATELY, YOU BACKSLIDDEN SINNER.

You see, light can have no fellowship with darkness. The friendship would be an unequal yoke. When Christ is no longer the foundation of a relationship, the entire thing crumbles — because there is to be no other foundation.

Some of you feel this disconnect. You intuitively know how wrong this is. You still believe what you believe, but you also still try to love your unbelieving loved ones (though often you do it quite poorly.) I appreciate your presence in my life, though I do wish ever so much that you would take the time to listen to former assembly folk, even us former Christians.

What kind of foundation forms a lasting friendship, then? I mean, friendships are a pretty personal thing. There are lots of aspects that are difficult to pin down, usually including compatible personalities, shared experiences, outlooks on life, mutually enjoyable activities, etc. I think those things are a given, no matter whether you’re a conservative Christian or not. But in my experience, the ingredients that point to longevity seem to be a pretty equal mixture of mutual admiration, respect, and trust.

The Christian friends I have now who have been friends of mine for years weren’t my friends just because of our once-shared faith. We became friends through discovering and indulging in shared interests, sure, but we did it while demonstrating respect for each other’s individuality and personhood. Our personalities do click, but we also work hard to be empathetic, trustworthy, respectful people. We care about each other, what demonstrably makes each other’s lives more meaningful and fulfilling, no ulterior motives. Which leads me to my next observation.

Iron sharpens iron — and shackles people.

Before I began the deconversion process, my closest friends and I met and grew close at Greenwood Hills and other assembly conferences. We often described our relationships as the kind where iron sharpened iron. Our friendships, while made easier by compatible personalities and enjoying our time spent together, were explicitly predicated on the understanding that we were to rub the rough edges off of each other to bring one another closer to Christ.

So when I confessed to them that I’d had sex of my own volition, I’m not entirely sure what I expected. I knew I had done everything I was supposed to. I’d confessed to the elders at the church I was attending at the time, to my parents and his parents, to my closest friends. I set measures in place to make sure I would never Fall again. I was appropriately depressed and withdrawn (since I learned that having hope for a better future was a sign of rebellion, apparently). I was truly repentant.

Yet one day, when my boyfriend was making plans to come visit me, I was taken aside and told in no uncertain terms what I was and was not allowed to do with him. I wasn’t even allowed to sit beside him on the car ride home from the airport. They were thorough and they were merciless.

I can't resist pulling this one out again. And if you're not already reading David Willis's excellent web comic, Dumbing of Age, I suggest you remedy that immediately. Seriously. Start here.

It basically went down like this. And if you’re not already reading David Willis’s excellent web comic, Dumbing of Age, I suggest you remedy that immediately. Seriously.Start here.

I was utterly mortified. I tried to protest, tried to reason with them, but they would hear none of it. “You’re really good at making things sound okay when they’re not,” they told me. “And you’ve shown that you can’t be trusted to make good decisions. So…we’re making these decisions for you.”

In case you’re wondering, that is all kinds of Not Okay. And I suppose it’s no wonder that we’re no longer friends today.

This is sadly not very uncommon, particularly when you consider the problem Christianity in general has with boundaries and consent. Conservative Christians often declare themselves The Designated Adult.

Now I’m not saying there’s anything wrong at all with talking to friends about harmful behaviors they’re exhibiting, or even the unhealthy beliefs that may spur them on to behave in a damaging way. I’m a big fan of communities figuring out how to be better humans.

The problem comes when you see people as projects.

THIS IS SO MUCH MORE DIFFICULT THAN IT LOOKS.

This past spring, my mom and I took a pottery class together. It was a lot of fun and lot of frustration as I learned to work with clay on a potter’s wheel (or even just making pinch pots). I started out by cutting a pound or so of clay from a giant lump, then forming it into a wedge to make for easier centering on the wheel. Once it was on the wheel, it took a shocking amount of strength and determination to force the clay to form into whatever I was making — a mug, a bowl, a plate, whatever. I took pieces away that shouldn’t have been there, and I got very intimate with the clay as I worked to shape it into its final form.

The Bible talks about God being a potter, and people being clay. It also talks about Christians being the body of Christ, doing His work on earth. Knowing the assemblies’ penchant for being “people of the book,” is it any wonder that so many of them approach everyone — fellow brethren, other Christians, and non-Christians alike — as if they’re trimming and molding clay? As if they’re iron meant to sharpen one another? As if people are anything at all other than people inherently worthy of respect and permitted autonomy over their own lives?

Human beings are not vessels of clay, meant for honor or dishonor based on the whim of an invisible being (or even our well-meaning friends and family). We are not iron meant to become sharp and pointed like weapons. We are people, individual and whole as we are, living in community together trying to live our lives with purpose and meaning, trying to make our own little worlds — and sometimes the larger worlds around us — better places.

You may not even realize that this is how you’re treating people. I certainly didn’t realize it. I didn’t know there was any other way of treating people…until my real friends, the friends that have lasted, the ones who respect me and care about what’s healthy for me more than what’s comfortable for them, showed me. They affirm my likes and dislikes. They affirm my ability to discern for myself what’s life-giving for me. They never try to control who I am. They build me up, insist that I have intrinsic worth, respect my decisions and opinions even when they disagree, and are able to voice their disagreement in a kind, loving, humanity-affirming way. I never have to worry if they’re going to try to break me or sharpen me or make me into someone other than who I am. They are true to themselves and encourage me to be true to myself, and our relationships are ones of compromise, admiration, trust, and respect.

If you want to have lasting relationships like this, you need to learn that it’s not your place to make decisions for others, to try to force them into the shape you wish they would take for your comfort and convenience — or even for the conformity to a particular kind of religion you think they should exhibit. And it’s not my place to make your choices for you, either. Real change, real dialogue, real friendship happens when we’re able to see one another as individuals who have worth and validity all on our own. Call it the image of God in humanity if you must, but stop expecting to be able to exert control and dominance over people the same way I exert control and dominance over my clay. (Even then, clay often has a mind of its own and gets away from me. I have to learn to listen to it and go with its flow rather than force my own will upon it, ending in destruction.)

All of this keeps coming right back to the start of a regular series on my blog: respect of human autonomy and agency. Relationships aren’t doomed to failure if Christ isn’t the center. They’re doomed to failure when we can’t see, respect, and affirm the humanity of the people in our lives, choosing to be “right” over choosing to love and honor the physical beings right in front of us.

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6 thoughts on “Observations about Plymouth Brethren relationships.

  1. Your statement “when I was a Christian” is not correct. Either you never were a Christian or you are. A true Christian has the Spirit of God living within who is the seal unto the day of redemption. He never leaves that person. Saved or lost. True of everyone . The Lord knows them that are his.

  2. Well written and makes you think. I know the ones claiming to be born again look at you as the evil one. The Plymouth Brethren are very cold hearted folks . They claim that the love of Jesus is in their heart. Problem is they are mostly heartless. When all is good they are all smiles and praising the Lord, but do something that they feel is sin and look out. No more smiles. They will pray for you. Quote bible verses that have nothing to do with your problem. They are very cult like…..

  3. so glad I am a believer and do not claim a title like Plymouth Brethren though I do attend an assembly. As I read your blogs including the failures of others toward you, I see a woman in need of the Savior. I see someone who tried to be good without the power of the Holy Spirit. This has gone on since Cain who tried to get to God his way and of course it did not work. Failures? oh my we all have many failures, including judging others. I usually sit in the Tabernacle for the Labor Day conference and see those words, “Christ Preeminent.” To me that means He is to be first in my life, and when He is not, which is too often, I seek to make Him such. I am sad reading this as the failures of others are your excuse not to come to Him. The words of Christ are so open and forgiving and healing.

    • Might I direct you to another post I wrote called “Humility in listening,” in which I outline how utterly disrespectful and arrogant it is to pretend to be a better authority on my life than I am. Here’s a particularly relevant portion of that post, in case you don’t feel like reading the whole thing:

      “You’re taking ownership of my story, mangling it beyond recognition, then insisting I accept your version rather than my own. You’re saying you’re a better judge of my experiences and life than I am. And when you suppose these things about my life and my beliefs, you are being incredibly disrespectful and unloving.”

      But perhaps more than just pointing out how you’re being disrespectful, please allow me to suggest ways to better fulfill the second greatest commandment to love your neighbors (including your atheist neighbors) as you love yourself.

      “Are ideals more important to you than the actual real live people in your life? Is it more important for you to be right than for you to form a connection with another human being? Are you so determined to be right about your faith and right about how wrong we are that we’ve ceased being humans only to become projects or obstacles?

      What if you could hold your faith and our experiences in tension together — listening to us without reacting defensively and maybe even validating our experiences and personhood? After all, don’t you believe we’re all made in God’s image? What would this even look like in a practical sense?

      Don’t be so quick to brush us off because our beliefs aren’t the same. Surrounding yourself only with people who agree with you creates an echo chamber that will never help you grow.

      Don’t assume you know us better than we know ourselves. According to your own scriptures, only God knows the heart and you shouldn’t be concerned with what He’s doing in someone else’s life anyway.

      Believe us when we tell you about our former faith. Even if it doesn’t make sense to you that someone could love God then not believe in Him anymore, believe us. We know ourselves better than you do. We were there the whole time. We know what happened.

      Resist the urge to become defensive when we tell you about our lives and experiences as Christians and the problems we encountered therein. Instead, be willing to examine your own heart and your own church. Are you just angry that changing how you show love means you can’t smack people anymore? Or do we maybe have a few points about what’s wrong with the church?

      Be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger. It may just be possible that even we have something to teach you about following God’s second greatest commandment, if only you’ll show humility in listening.”

  4. Isn’t it amazing that Christ said the greatest commandment was ‘love thy neighbour,’ yet the Plymouth Brethren won’t even share a party wall with the folks living next door.

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