Great Expectations: basic human decency.

This post first appeared on Dani Does Lots of Things on October 5, 2015. It has been republished below.


Last week, I went to my first therapy session since I was a teenager. (For those remembering my summer post about starting therapy, I was wrong — that was seeing a psychiatrist, not a psychologist.)

My primary care practitioner recommended the counselor who volunteers at the clinic. I’d known that the clinic had a pastoral care counselor, so I told her I was apprehensive about going to such counseling as an atheist, particularly an atheist whose mental health has been so damaged by Christianity. She assured me that despite his work on his Master of Divinity, he would be respectful and objective.

From these assurances, I assumed he must not be a biblical counselor like those I saw as a teenager, but closer to the many liberal Christian friends I have who merely want to make the world a better place through compassionate social justice work, much like my PCP is.

I also assumed that if he wasn’t licensed yet, he was working on it.

Ohhh, how wrong I was, on both counts.

While I don’t want to get distracted by the details of this session, a few things strike me as particularly notable about it. They’re themes I’ve noticed emerging from my more fundamentalist and evangelical friends alike, and it’s troubling.

On the one hand, he claimed that his office was a safe space free of judgment, much like you’d expect from a counselor.

On the other hand, he kept reiterating that he wasn’t going to stop talking about God.

Despite my repeated insistence that approaching my care with God as the focus (especially knowing that I’m an atheist) was disrespectful and made me very uncomfortable.

He disagreed, even managing to work a “God’s Plan for Salvation” speech in, all the while assuring me that’s not what he was going to do.

Don’t get me wrong. As I’ve said multiple times before, I tend to not police Christians’ talk about their faith. I accept that it’s a significant driving force in their lives, and realize if I want a relationship with them, it’s unfair for me to expect them to keep quiet about it (much like it’s unfair for them to expect me to remain silent about my beliefs, but we’re still working on that one).

This particular situation, of course, was starkly different. This counselor was not acting or talking to me as a peer. I was in his care, and he was abusing the position of power that care afforded him.

This experience highlights a couple of the many reasons I have this on-going series of conversations for well-meaning Christians. There are reasons I keep coming back to the concepts of empathy and respect and listening to people who believe differently than conservative Christians do.

One such reason is the vast divide between what Christians expect from non-Christians and what they expect of themselves in relation to non-Christians. Continue reading

The rightly divided word.

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This post was first published on my blog on May 1, 2015. It has been edited slightly for publication here. Image courtesy of Julie Jordan Scott.


This is less a definitive post than it is a personal observation and public questioning. I’d love to have a discussion about this phenomenon, largely because I’m still kind of processing my observations and what they imply. But do keep in mind that my opinion is just that — mine. You don’t have to share it, and you’re welcome to share your views in the comments!

If there’s one thing the Plymouth Brethren taught me that will probably never ever go away, it’s the ability to notice patterns in both written word and lived-out actions. Considering humans in general notice patterns to ensure our survival and to imbue our lives with meaning, combined with how so much of Plymouth Brethren-practiced theology is based upon what they see as patterns in Scripture, it’s really no wonder.

Lately though, I’ve been noticing how many people, men in particular, (men with Plymouth Brethren influences even more particularly) approach me, my story, and my critique of their religion. And I’m kind of fascinated by it, in the same way cats are fascinated by knocking things off of tables just to see the world burn.

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Conservative Christian men approach what I say in the exact same way they approach what the Bible says.

It’s as if the rightly divided word has less to do with context & intent than usefulness to a particular cause or argument. I know that’s quite a claim to make, but the more I reflect on how I was taught to approach the Bible and observe how these men approach my words, the more pronounced the parallel becomes. What do I mean, exactly?

  1. They isolate our words from the context in which they were written.
  2. Then they insist that neither context nor authorial intent can meaningfully affect a “plain reading.”
  3. Finally, they assert that any other interpretation is intellectually dishonest.

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Basics of preaching.

In my 20+ years of experience in the open assemblies in the United States, typically there are only three explicit prerequisites for preaching:

  1. Being a Christian
  2. Being a man
  3. Having the spiritual gift of teaching

Formal study in a seminary setting is often discouraged, or at the very least looked upon with skepticism. The idea is that any man under guidance of his local assembly, through the indwelling Holy Spirit and regular study of the Bible, is capable of preaching God’s Word to the congregation if he is deemed to posses the spiritual gift of teaching.

This is not to say that assembly preachers never receive any training at all. Typically, training will come from the elders or a mentor in the assemblies who is also a preacher. With a lack of emphasis on formal biblical study, however, it is not unusual for training to start at a very young age. Boys as young as 8, in my experience, have been given the opportunity to give short sermons or testimonies as a way for them to gain experience. So in the assemblies, an 8 year old boy is more eligible to preach than a grown educated woman.

There are leadership workshops and conferences for training as well, like the Shepherding Conference at Greenwood Hills or the Rise Up conferences. There is one assembly Christian college that is seen as acceptable to attend for training (Emmaus Bible College), though any conservative Christian college is grudgingly acceptable.

There are also numerous books from assembly men teaching others how to preach. One favorite is A. P. Gibbs’ classic, The Preacher and His Preaching.

Preaching styles vary from preacher to preacher and even from message to message. There are topical studies, expository preaching, analytical studies, word studies, and various other approaches to scripture and application. Due to the low church nature of Plymouth Brethren (and my gender prohibiting me from being eligible to preach while I was in the movement), there are specific terms for these preaching styles that I’m simply unfamiliar with. The website Voices for Christ hosts probably the largest online database of Plymouth Brethren sermons.

Just as elders are not generally paid staff for the church, preachers are also not salaried and generally there are several men in an assembly who share the burden. Some preachers travel to other assemblies to preach as well, promoting community and ensuring that no one assembly is entirely insular. It’s not unusual for them to be given a love offering from the church.

Most preachers are not typically considered evangelists, however. While most assembly preachers focus on their congregation and a few local assemblies, evangelists are often commissioned from their home assembly to travel and preach regionally or even nationally. While many of them hold full-time secular employment, it’s also not unusual for an evangelist to rely on financial support from a group of assemblies or through the Plymouth Brethren group, Christian Missions in Many Lands.

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.

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Introspection: the impact of religion on personality.

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This is cross-posted from dani-kelley.com. Image courtesy of freeimages.com.

A friend has recently revived my interest in the Myers-Briggs personality designations. She’s an ENFP, and I’m an INFJ — experts say that our personality types mesh the best, which we find oddly fitting. She’s one of my oldest friends, the kind of person that you can go years without seeing (not for lack of want!) but pick right up where you left off, even if you both have changed considerably. We’ve noticed in our 20-year friendship that our enthusiasm tends to fuel each other, which makes total sense considering both of us are NFs (iNtuitive Feelers).

During a visit a couple of months ago, we were talking about just how difficult it can be to nail down your type. She related to me that she’d struggled with identifying various aspects of her personality, as she exhibits different traits in different scenarios (work versus home, for example). This led to a discussion about how nature versus nurture can affect the development and exhibition of personality, and I just haven’t been about to stop thinking about it since.

When I first took the test several years ago, I was newly married and still a fundamentalist Christian in the Plymouth Brethren movement. As I elaborated in a recent post, Plymouth Brethren pride themselves on being able to suppress their emotions in favour of what they deem to be reason (as described by their literalist interpretation of the Bible). When I was still an assembly girl, I was often praised for my thoughtfulness, level-headedness, ability to study the Bible as I was taught to study it and come to the same conclusions that distinguished preachers came to. Friends from that time often commended me for my ability to “make the right decision” even if it was hard, usually with a bit of awe in their voices, as if I were doing great things for God.

I’m not sure if any of these people really realized what was happening. I mean, I certainly didn’t. But the reality is that I was constantly working to change who I was, fundamentally, in order to fit the picture of Assembly Girl that I was supposed to fit. Or, as I’ve said elsewhere, I was supposed to be invisible so others could see Jesus. This necessarily meant squelching emotions, analyzing every thought and action, studying to prove myself acceptable to God and the authorities He’d placed over me, and getting rid of everything I thought was coming between me and my Lord.

There were two great music purges I went through, throwing away literally hundreds of dollars worth of Christian music I felt didn’t honor the Lord. I dropped out of my conservative Christian school after deciding that my classmates were too worldly to be good influences on me. I stopped performing music publicly because I reasoned that I was taking a leadership position by doing such and that wasn’t my place as a woman. I separated from friends I felt weren’t as serious about their relationship with Christ as I was. I curtailed my language to be totally above reproach (unless talking to myself: I saved the most abusive language I knew to describe myself). I spent most of my spare time reading my Bible, listening to sermons from my fellow brethren, and growing closer to the friends I felt would bring me closer to the Lord.

I deliberately sequestered myself from everything and everyone that I felt convicted weren’t pleasing to God, no matter how much personal pain it brought me, and I rationalized my decisions every step of the way with every Bible verse and assembly apologetic I could think of to justify this gas-lighting and silencing of my true self.

So…when I first took the Myers-Briggs personality test, still thoroughly embedded in the fundamentalist Christian tradition of my youth, I scored as an INTJ, rather than an INFJ. In retrospect, it’s no wonder I skewed more heavily to Thinking rather than Feeling, since I was taught to fear and distrust feelings. Feelings were often considered sinful, bringing guilt and shame, whereas Logic (According to the Word of God) was holy and true, bringing stability (supposedly). I didn’t understand that divorcing feelings from thinking the way I had been taught to do was utterly damaging both to myself and others, not to mention ripping conversational rhetoric out of its context and reality.

The thing is, I could never totally eradicate my Feelings. In fact, in some way I acknowledged this as I started college and began training for my career as a graphic and web designer. I explained it thus: I had Art Mode and Programming Mode. It was nearly impossible to switch from one to the other on a whim, but whichever I found myself in would be the medium I’d excel in. I justified this to myself by saying that I was using my artwork and graphic design for the Lord. Without this justification, I feared that my artwork and design work were just like the feelings that fueled my creativity: unreliable and worthless. In fact, a big part of the reason I allowed myself to go into graphic design in the first place was to help spread the gospel without being in a leadership position, along with being able to have a career that wouldn’t require me to leave my home when I got married. (Oh, how naive I was!)

As I began to recognize how toxic my church environment was, the emotions that I’d done my utmost to stunt for my entire life began pouring out of me like Niagra Falls. The intuition that I’d always had but deeply distrusted kicked into high gear, and I honestly felt like I was becoming an entirely new person. I kind of think I was becoming a new person; or rather, I was discovering who I’ve always been at my core.

It took a while, and I’m still not all the way there, but slowly I leveled out, became more sure of myself, learned how to identify and express my feelings without necessarily being snowballed by them. (It’s definitely a work in process, though.)

And to my surprise, as I became more confident, started setting my own boundaries, expressing myself and embracing my full personhood feelings and all…my faith simply wasn’t able to make the cut.

I feel a bit odd saying that. Usually it’s not feelings that leads one to abandon the faith of their childhood. And don’t get me wrong, logic and reasoning certainly played a rather large part in my deconversion, a topic I hope to continue to explore in my writing. But perhaps it was the realization that fundamentalism demonizes human experience and emotion while prizing unyielding devotion to an ancient book (under threat of eternal violence) that made me realize that Christianity as I knew it was neither logical nor safe.

So. When I retook the Myers-Briggs test a little further into my rediscovery of myself, I was surprised to see that while my score for Thinking vs. Feeling was pretty even-keeled, Feeling won out. And I was amazed and relieved to see myself reflected in the description of the INFJ. The INTJ had never quite fit, never quite helped me understand myself better. But now that I’ve shaken off some of the confines of the toxicity of my religion and am deliberately cognizant of power structures and their affect on individuals and cultures, I’m very happy to have found myself. And I can’t help but wonder in what other ways religion impacted my personality, and how it might impact the personalities of its adherents — for good or for ill.

Let me hide myself.

Hide Myself

A woman’s heart should be so hidden in God that a man has to seek Him just to find her.
~attributed to both Max Lucado and Maya Angelou

I was 15 years old, sitting in the front row of the church, staring skeptically at the woman who was preaching to us. This wasn’t my youth group, of course—the assemblies would never allow a woman to speak like this. I determined that perhaps she was like Balaam’s donkey, and did my utmost to pay attention to whatever word of the Lord she might ironically speak despite her unfitness for leadership.

She walked over to her projector and held up a transparency sheet. “This represents you,” she said simply. “Your lives.” She picked up a few different markers and started doodling on the sheet, explaining that our sins and decisions and actions were like the marks on the page. “Everything is here—from the clothes you wear, to the words you say, to what you do in your every day life. They all show up here.”

The speaker placed the sheet back on the projector and turned on the light. “This light is Jesus,” she continued. “Notice how you can’t see him through the ink, only through the clear parts?” I stirred in my seat, aware of how it seemed the Spirit was moving within me.

She took an eraser and slowly began moving it across the marker drawings. I watched, mesmerized, as the marks disappeared. “This is what the blood of Christ does”—she pointed to the now-clean sheet—”so that all that can be seen through you is Jesus.” She spent the rest of her time with us explaining how important it was to make sure that our transparencies remained clean, that our decisions and words and lives were so clean that we would only reflect Christ to those around us.

As I got in the van with the carpool that brought me to church that night, I was deeply convicted to start changing my life so that I would better reflect Christ. It occurred to me that this meant becoming a different person. But wasn’t that what Christianity was all about to begin with, becoming a new creation in Christ?


There’s still so much that I’m trying to unpack about my upbringing. I was completely saturated in a fundamentalist Christian environment at home, church, and school. Putting words to what’s damaging about what I believed is delicate, difficult work. I keep coming back to, “But nobody meant to hurt you! They were just doing what they thought was right!” Unfortunately, intentions aren’t magical, and they don’t erase the damage that actions create.

In past months, I’ve kept coming back to the concept that preacher so memorably illustrated for me. Quite literally, I was supposed to be invisible so others could see Jesus. Today that phraseology puts me on edge and reminds me of a Darth Vader Boyfriend, but at the time and even up until a few years ago, I absolutely didn’t blink an eye. Of course I was supposed to be invisible. Of course nothing was too big a sacrifice for my Lord. It was so easy to swallow because it’s absolutely indistinguishable from what I was taught in the assemblies.

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Call for input & entries.

“When you have this motley group of many denominations, this independent environment, and then this distortion of scripture, that’s an environment where abuse can flourish.”  ~Boz Tchividjian

Regarding my absence.

As you can clearly see, I haven’t been nearly as active over here as I initially anticipated. This is due in part to lacking the time needed to regularly update and in part to dealing with a particularly rough season with depression and anxiety. I’m working through things as best as I can, and part of that has looked like a continual meditation on what I want to do with this blog.

Clearly, it’s still very much in its infancy. I’ve been trying to figure out how to go about writing about the movement, my experiences within the movement, and dissecting the problems inherent in the system.

As I’ve said before, I started PBD because as I made my way out and began searching for critical examinations of the open assemblies, I was unable to find any. So I’m trying to create the space that I wanted when I was questioning.

Clarified direction for the blog.

A friend rightly pointed out to me that so far on the blog, I’ve alluded several times to the abusive nature of the Plymouth Brethren without taking the time to establish that they are, in fact, an abusive group. So I’ve been trying to outline why I think they are abusive, then build on the bullet points later in the blog.

And that’s where you come in.

Call for participation.

I want to establish that the ideas, beliefs, and practices in the assemblies are either directly abusive or demonstrably conducive to an abusive environment. So for things like biblical literalism, inerrancy and infallibility, I need to be able to back up that those things are harmful. I think I’m set for things like the dangers of the particularly sexist structure of the movement, but the more theologically-specific problems are things I need more help with since I have never personally tried to find a Christianity outside of the Plymouth Brethren version.

I don’t want this blog to exist in a Dani-sized vacuum. My experiences are not universal. I want to foster a community for the many of us who have left the movement, whether to find a Christianity worth keeping or not. I want to bring light to the darkness that hides far too well in the assemblies, not because we have a vendetta against them but because manipulation and coercion and abuse cannot be addressed, dealt with, and healed from until they are seen for what they are.

The following list is just the beginning of my outline and is thus incomplete. I’ll be updating it as I’m able, but I want your input. Scripture you remember being used to enforce strict authoritarianism, practices you recognize that create environments ripe for abuse and cover-up, patterns you’ve noticed that are damaging. While I am doing a lot of thinking and researching and talking to people, any help or insight you have (former PB or not) is so deeply appreciated! You can add your thoughts in the comments here, or if you’d prefer to talk one on one, you can contact me privately.

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