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?
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:
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 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 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.