The rightly divided word.

word

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.

cat

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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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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The Dropouts: Dani Kelley

It seems only fair that I started with introducing myself and telling you a bit of my story.

I grew up at Greenwood Hills Bible Chapel in Fayetteville, PA, home of the similarly named summer camp where I also worked from 2000-2006. I also attended quite a few retreats and conferences outside of GWH (as Greenwood Hills is often abbreviated), including Brooklyn Bible Chapel’s fall youth retreats in Baltimore, West Virginia Family Bible Conferences in southern West Virginia in the summer, and the winter Myrtle Beach Bible Conferences. I even made a trip to Seabrook’s spring conference down in South Carolina one year, not to mention spending a week attending CMML’s Missionary Orientation Program in 2006.

How must people who knew me probably remember me: playing piano in the tabernacle at GWH with long hair, T-shirt, baggy pants, and sneakers.

How must people who knew me probably remember me: playing piano in the tabernacle at GWH with long hair, T-shirt, baggy pants, and sneakers.

Those who knew me during those years will probably remember that I was in no way, shape, or form a casual Christian. Nor was I casual about my adherence to assembly principles. I lived out my faith as a Christian and an assembly girl to the best of my ability and as consistently as I could. Often I even brought friends from my non-denominational Christian school with me to conferences in hopes that they would see that Christ was preeminent in the assemblies and maybe they would more seriously dedicate their lives to Christ (which would, of course, prove itself in them joining an assembly). I made sure that my faith was on constant display so I could fulfill the mandate in 1 Peter about being ready to have an answer for the hope that was in me.

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