The truth will set you free

ImageWhen I began to see and acknowledge the abuses of my former church, and likewise the mistakes my parents made in my upbringing, one of the most common reactions I received was like this: “All parents make mistakes, so stop feeling sorry for yourself and make better choices if you think theirs were wrong.” I am bitter, they said, and I need to repent of this.

Several years ago, Anna Sofia and Elizabeth Botkin posted an entry in their blog along these lines.¹ Stacy McDonald has done the same in her blog² specifically set up as a response to Hilary McFarland’s revealing book, Quivering Daughters.

What the Botkins, McDonald, and others are doing by this is just implementing a way of avoiding the real issue, which is the fact that the things we are criticizing are being systematically promoted and protected by Christian leaders. It’s a method of guilt manipulation aimed at silencing those who would oppose them, a common tactic in these groups, as some of our past posts have illustrated. Many of those of us who have come to recognize the shortcomings and outright abuses of hyperpatriarchal churches and families are devout Christians who don’t wish to revel in bitterness or to take a harsh stance toward our parents (whom we may fully acknowledge to have been loving and good-intentioned)—so accusing us of these things can be a very useful tool for someone who wants us to stop talking.

But let’s apply just a little bit of critical thought here. What are we actually saying and why? This is a question that must be taken seriously, because only in the answer to it can one determine whether or not it’s fair to assert that we are merely angry and mean.

Saying, for example, that one was immature due to being severely restricted from making one’s own choices, is not the same thing as saying, “I am still immature because of them, and there’s nothing I can do to change that.”

Acknowledging that the actions of another caused us pain (whether it was intentional on their part or not) is not the same thing as holding a grudge or marinating in bitterness.

These are important issues for each of us to address as individuals, but the fact that such attitudes could (and sometimes do) exist does not mean that they always do, or that they are the driving force behind the books, articles, and conversations on these topics.

In fact, the purpose of this blog, of Quivering Daughters, and of most of the other writings I have come across on the subject of the mistakes our parents made, is not to play the blame game. Our aim is to acknowledge the truth. Only by acknowledging the truth can one move on to a better place: personally, as well as for one’s own children. If we deny it out of some pietistic notion that to do otherwise is to be bitter and harsh, we can’t fully see where we can heal from and improve upon the mistakes our parents made.

That being the case, it seems to me that the people who are behaving uncharitably are those who would deny the painful truths and ascribe sinful motives to those who choose a more realistic way.



Peace at what price?

stockvault-tankardstown-copper-mine-window-section-135588A year after my marriage, a friend of mine suddenly and secretly left her parents’ home and went to another state to be with the young man she was in love with. She was feeling helpless and oppressed, and she felt that she had no other choice at the time. Her parents operated under the same basic beliefs that mine did: patriarchy, continued parental authority into adulthood, and courtship.
My reaction to my friend’s decision was indignation, anger, and condemnation. When I heard the news, almost immediately I sent her a harsh, accusatory e-mail. (I repented of that later and apologized to her.) I couldn’t believe she would flout her parents’ “authority” like that–even though she was 24 years old.

Here I am years later–still coming to terms with the authoritarian parenting under which I was raised, still healing from the emotional wounds from my own courtship and engagement. I no longer believe in patriarchy as I did then, and I’m trying to figure out how to support and encourage other young women who are in similar situations to mine and my friend’s. Recently I thought about my friend’s situation and my reaction to it, and I puzzled over why I was so angry with her and why I would have been advocating hyperpatriarchy when only a year before I had been so relieved to finally, finally be free of my parents’ control. Why wasn’t I more sympathetic to her?

I’ve thought and thought, and this, I think, is the root of the issue: I was envious. She did what I never had the guts to do… not to say that hers is the only course of action. The maturity or wisdom in “running away” instead of “standing up to” oppression can be debated. While some may find it possible to work with their parents, gradually gaining independence and maintaining relative peace simultaneously, others may find it necessary to make a more abrupt change or break. Who can say what the best course is for each individual, for each daughter-in-waiting?

I think I told myself so many times that I had to obey my parents because… well, I had little choice. I wanted love–I wanted people to be happy with me. I did not want to disgrace myself or my family. I did not want to disappoint anyone. Even though I felt a range of emotions from annoyance to discontentment to frustration to resentment to anguish–in the end I told myself I was just not submissive enough and that I needed to respect authority. I was not prepared to admit that what I was taught and how I was treated was wrong in any way. I could not admit to being abused (however well meaning my abusers were). While it is true that my compliance maintained “peace” in the family, the price was my freedom and self-respect.

Going back to my anger and envy. I think I thought my friend ought to have suffered as I did. How dare someone else free herself and get her heart’s desire in one fell swoop? How dare she not suffer as I did? My suffering was all worthwhile. I persevered. How dare she take the easy way out?

I was convinced that to oppose my parents in any way was equal to spitting in their faces and being an ingrate. I thought that it was my job to do whatever it took to please them and keep our relationship peaceful. So how dare my friend be so ungrateful for her loving parents?

The memories of my friend’s obvious unhappiness and desperation, my confusion and anger, sadden me. I had so little compassion for her, and yet at the time I still had so little for myself. It would be several more years before I began to process my experiences and move past my guilt for my “ungratefulness” and “rebellion.”

Gilded Cages, Part 2

Click here for part one

According to proponents of patriarchy, daughters should rejoice in their father’s protective authority, which some call an “umbrella of protection.” Indeed, for those girls who are blessed with kind, mature fathers who don’t dictate their choices and micromanage their lives, such “submission” is relatively easy. The trouble comes when you aren’t so blessed. What if the very person who is supposed to protect you is actually stifling you and stunting your growth? So then what is it to be? Obedience or defiance? Or perhaps something else entirely.

As I said before, I wasn’t particularly ambitious growing up. I never felt like any of my dreams were squashed. But then, I wasn’t taught to dream beyond staying home, getting married, having children, and homeschooling, and I wasn’t one of those spirited girls with unsinkable determination. Strict, authoritarian parents find fertile ground in timid, unassuming girls like I was.

My relationship with my future husband was the first big thing I really, really wanted, but from the very beginning, it was micromanaged. I was told more than once that it wasn’t that I was untrustworthy–it was that my parents were responsible for me. No matter how many times I was told that, it didn’t ring true to me. He and I could not go anywhere alone (except a couple times during our courtship and a few times during our engagement) because they were responsible for me. We could not hands or say “I love you” until we were engaged. Everything, absolutely everything, about our relationship was decided by my parents, even down to how we could hug or hold hands, whether or not we could kiss before the wedding (answer: no), whether he could enter my bedroom at any time, whether he could watch me do my hair or put on makeup, and even, sometimes, what I was allowed to tell him about my life (even a few weeks before we were married). I can honestly say that I did not feel like they trusted me; instead I felt that they viewed me as immature, incapable of handling myself and making adult decisions. (Yet somehow this was all supposed to change the day I got married? Suddenly I would be a responsible adult? Well, at least then I would be under the protection of another male.)

I know that my parents has loved me and tried to be good parents. Much of what they did was from love, but I think there was a lot of fear involved. It has been hard for me to even admit to myself that they made mistakes, though. For a long time I tried to justify all of it, and during my courtship and engagement with my husband, I felt extremely guilty whenever I felt any discontentment or resentment toward them. My journals are filled with my struggles. I kept telling myself that I needed to be submissive and should just be grateful for the good things I had.

This is a struggle that is faced by many young people raised in patriarchal and authoritarian families. We feel that to criticize our parents is shameful and perhaps in violation of the fifth commandment to honor our parents. It was a startling revelation for me when I realized that honor is not synonymous with obedienceI further realized that to recognize and acknowledge mistakes that were made is not dishonoring my parents, especially not if I am giving them grace by not assuming the worst of their motives. If my mother believed the earth were flat because she was given faulty information, I don’t think I would be dishonoring her if I shared this information with someone (with good reason–not just to ridicule). If I said my mother believed that because she was a gullible idiot, that would be dishonoring her.

When we deny wrongdoing (even that which was done out of the best of motives), we inhibit our own healing and make it that much more likely that we will repeat our parents’ mistakes. When we finally acknowledge what happened but refuse to use this to help others or to change ourselves, we perpetuate problems for ourselves and even for others. At that point, we are saying that the reputation of our parents is more important than any harm they or their ideology caused. As Hillary McFarland put it, “It is a grave disservice to the heart, soul, body and spirit of a woman when she is given the subtle message that the truth of her own pain is not as important as the reputation of the ones who inflict it.” She also wrote at the end of the article I linked to above:

“…Is acknowledging truth a righteous thing to do, especially when truth leads to God’s glory, and healing, even when truth hurts?

“Are we called to live righteously before God?

“For offspring to live righteously, is this not the utmost in honor for a parent; even when the parent does not agree with choices or decisions their child has made? God is the one who justifies. Let God determine what brings Him glory.”

Even as I came to these conclusions, I was still unsure. Does the Bible really say that adult daughters were to submit to their fathers? Do fathers really have authority which they only relinquish upon transferring the daughter to her husband? You can read a lot of Protestant takes on this (and the proponents of patriarchy base much of their argument on Numbers 30:3-5), but here I am, an Orthodox Christian woman. I must heed the Church’s teachings and practical wisdom.

I began asking around. I talked to several priests. I posed questions on internet groups. I was frustrated because no one seemed to understand where I was coming from–and how can they? Patriocentricity as I experienced it is really only alive and well in certain small Protestant sects.

But it started coming together. This is what I have gleaned. From my parish priest, I learned these things:

  • The key issue is one of responsibility. A father in Israel would have been absolutely responsible for his daughter until she was married, and then her husband would have taken on that responsibility. From what Patristic commentary he found, a woman who was not the responsibility of a husband or father would be another story.
  • In Orthodox practice, which informs us of how the Church understands these things practically, there has never been anything like the kind of control which I described to him (I briefly sketched out my experience and the patriocentric model).
  • In fact, it has not been unusual for a father to object to a daughter becoming a nun, but his objections were not allowed to prevent her from doing it if she was old enough to make her own decisions.

Another priest responded to me in such a helpful way that I will share it in its entirety:

“In every society there is an age at which a person is no longer considered a child, but has become an adult. The Bar Mitzvah of the Jews is an example–at 13 a boy becomes a man and is no longer under his parents’ rule, but is responsible for his own actions. In Western societies a child becomes an adult usually somewhere around 18-21 depending on local laws. At that point the person becomes responsible for their own actions and lives and the parents have no legal ‘say’ in the matter.

“The question, of course, is how this is played out in the Church. Traditionally there is no specific point set out in the doctrine of the Church where a child becomes and adult–that is left up to the local culture. Thus there is no hard and fast answer to the question about when a child is independent of their parents. I cited earlier the example of the Bar Mitzvah because it is directly related to the culture of the Hebrew people of the Old Testament and thus is relevant to the understanding of the commandments. The 5th commandment does not say that children are slaves of their parents, nor does it say that children are owned by their parents (and thus can be ‘transferred’ to some other person as you describe the idea of marriage of a daughter)–it says that children must honor their parents. To ‘honor’ our parents does not mean that we are required to fulfill their every wish–rather that we respect their age, wisdom, experience, love, hopes dreams, dignity and authority. As children, when they responsible for our actions, then we owe them a greater level of obedience than when we are adults and they no longer are required or bound by law to answer for what we do and who we are. Once you are an adult, you are not required to obey your parents as your masters, but you are expected to respect and honor them, never denigrating them or dismissing them or bringing shame upon them (see Noah and his sons after the flood). If you honor your parents then as an adult yourself you will take into account their ideas, experience, wise counsel, suggestions, desires, hopes dreams etc. and give these things weight as you make your own decisions in life. But an adult child (whether married or not) is not the property of their parents or their slave or bond servant (never should be actually).

“Now I would also say that an adult child (whether married or not) who lives in his parents household and who is supported by (whether in whole or in part) by their labors is subject to the ‘house rules’ laid down by the head of the household (the parents). This is not about ‘honoring your parents’–this is about respecting the authorities who rule over you. If you don’t wish to follow the house rules, then find another place to live.

“If you want to see how this idea ‘works out’ in the Orthodox Church then the best resource is the lives of the saints. Read these not only for the specific actions of the saints, but also for the cultural underpinning of the pious life. Look at the mutual love and compassion between family members and how they cared for one another (both emotionally and physically) The obedience of an adult child to his parents is not so much born out of duty (although duty is an element) but rather out of love–love of the parent for the child and love of the child for the parent. Love cannot be legislated, it must be grown–it is a seed planted in the heart that must be tended and nurtured so that it matures and bears fruit.

“On a similar note, I have had inquirers come to the Church and in the course of catechism the question arises about marriage and the submission of wives to their husbands. Everybody, especially the husbands, seems to remember that wives are to be subject to their husbands and are to obey them–but no one remembers that in the same breath husbands are commanded to love their wives as Christ loved the Church (ie. He emptied Himself and gave all of Himself for the Church even to the point of giving His life for her.). I tell those husbands that we will talk about the submission of the wife after he has sacrificed everything for her and laid down his own life for her. While the scriptural turn about is not quite so clear with parents and children–the principle applies.”

I described a common scenario to him of parents requiring their adult daughter to stay at home and not go to college or get a job, and this was his response:

“A young adult (man or woman) of 21 is not required to live with his/her parents. He or she is responsible for his/her own actions and can do pretty much what he/she wants (OK, enough of the ‘he/she’ foolishness – from this point on I will use she since the original example is a woman). Who will stop her from getting a job, moving out, applying for a student loan, enrolling in university, buying a car, etc, etc. If the young adult chooses to remain in her parent’s home, it is her choice and she has thus chosen to abide by the regulations (house rules) that they impose on those who are part of the household. If she makes a different choice, will life be harder? Most likely, yes, but that’s only because she has chosen to do without the strings that come attached to the parental help. If she makes a different choice will she be sinning? No, not in the least. As an adult it is your responsibility to honor your parents by listening to what they have to say, taking it into account giving weight to their greater life experience, etc.–but that does not mean you don’t make your own choices. One choice you can make as an adult is to give your life over into someone else’s hands–thus the possibility of entering monastic life and submitting to the monastic rule and guidance of the spiritual father of the monastery–but that still is a choice you make for yourself as an adult.

As much as I agree with the above–that adult women have choices–it does show the ignorance that is so common to most people of the type of control that has been wielded over these young woman from their earliest age. Many people don’t realize that while a girl may not be physically restrained (though some are), there are various methods of imprisonment. Considering the fact that many young women in patriocentric families have the resources of a 15-year-old (no high school diploma, no job experience and resume, no drivers license or at least no car), they have no way to get out of their situation. The only option is for someone outside their home to help them–but most girls have no one to turn to. They go to a church where everyone else would urge them to stay with their parents and would consider them rebellious for doing anything else, they don’t feel they can trust anyone, they don’t have the courage to ask anyone, or they simply don’t know anyone well enough to ask for help. Expecting some of these young women to pull themselves out of their situation is almost requiring something impossible of them. It takes a special kind of strength to go against people who control everything about your life.

I’ve known and heard of young women (well over the age of 18 and even 21) whose parents threatened to take away their computers or cell phones as penalties for disobedience, whose phone calls and e-mails were closely monitored, who were actually locked in a room or house to prevent them from escaping to be with men their parents had previously approved for marriage (and who were not dangerous men), and more. If some of these extreme actions were not actually taken, the young women were given threats of being cut off from friends, boyfriends, or fiances. People think this stuff is outlandish, but it happens. I myself was told that if my hsuband took a certain liberty with me (holding my hand when we weren’t yet allowed to), he’d be “out of here,” so of course I lived in terror of displeasing and disobeying my parents.

As for clinging to Numbers 30. What of the Old Testament laws concerning slaves? Or polygamy? Why is it that patriocentric proponents are so quick to claim the verses that support their beliefs, but they hold back when it comes to slavery and polygamy? (Well, some of them go a little easy on slavery.) Are we merely to cherry pick what best suits our personal preferences?

I shared the Orthodox perspective on all of this because I believe that it is indicative of the traditional view of the Church throughout history (for the Orthodox Church is nothing if not traditional), and I have no doubt that most other Christian groups have similar views. The truth is, requiring adult daughters to submit to their parents (and that they should be controlled or punished when they “rebel” or “disobey”) is not something that can be defended with any ease. The bottom line is that girls and women are seen as lesser and as property, and this is not compatible with the teachings of Christ and His Church.

As I continued to delve into the historical, traditional aspect of this from a Christian perspective, I did as the one priest recommended and read the lives of saints–in particular, female saints of the ancient Church. In a future post I will share some of what I learned through that.

Gilded Cages, Part 1

As a daughter in a conservative, Christian, homeschooling family within a patriocentric group of churches (the CREC), my life’s boundaries were pretty specific. I knew what was expected of me. I wasn’t quite sure what would happen if I didn’t live up to these expectations, but I didn’t want to find out, having the vague impression that it would Not Be Pretty.

I do not recall being taught specifically while growing up that adult sons and daughters were still subject to their parents. I do remember courtship being taught to me as superior to dating because, the reasoning was, God gives parents the responsibility to protect their children from sexual impurity and grave mistakes of the heart. Children, even adult children, need their parents’ direction and counsel in having relationships with the opposite sex. I accepted this unquestioningly. I saw “public schoolers” and how foolish they were about dating; I knew sexual promiscuity was rampant. I wanted no part of such things. Add this to being taught, rightfully, that I, as a child, should honor and obey my parents.

Another part of our worldview in my family was that college was, for the most part, a waste of time and money. Self-education is just as good as classroom learning and receiving a diploma. More than once I heard the latter referred to as “a useless piece of paper.” Since we rejected public schools, and, indeed, any formal schools at all (because even the most conservative Christian institution can be corrupted–plus “whatever you do, I can do just as well at home” seemed to be our unspoken, unofficial motto), it only made sense to view colleges and universities in this way as well.

I cannot recall any conversations where I was asked what I would like to do with my life or if I had any dreams or ambitions. To be fair, I didn’t really have any aside from getting married–especially once my future husband arrived on the scene. While I take responImagesibility for my lazy tendencies, I feel it is also only fair to point out that I was never encouraged to dream and cultivate myself beyond a few specific areas. When some of my friends began going to college and later getting jobs, my mother and I critiqued the choices they made, and it was clear that we considered them as having taken riskier and less wise paths. When I spoke with my mother about this in the recent past, she said, “But you never came to me and said that you wanted to go to college. I did encourage you to do some things, but you weren’t motivated.”

Many women in families like mine are told the same things by their parents when they discuss their past. “You never asked to do _____. And we never said you couldn’t.” What is so difficult to explain is that you don’t have to specifically tell someone that something is wrong or undesirable for them to get the message. You don’t have to boss people around for them to know that you expect them to follow your wishes. You don’t have to threaten someone to intimidate them.And then there is a little thing called bounded choice. If someone said to you, “Would you rather jump into a snake-infested pit, or would you rather stay up here with us where it’s safe?” what would your answer be? No one in her right mind is going to take the snake pit. So when a young woman is basically given two choices–(1) follow the path we’ve chosen for you where it’s good and safe or (2) go to college/get a job where it’s full of sin and ungodliness and unpleasantness and lack of protection–what is she going to do? And there are other forms of bounded choice, such as what I was given. I could take correspondence courses (through a particular unaccredited, small Christian college), or I could do no college at all. I could give music lessons, or I could choose not to. A real choice would be: Which college would you like to attend? Or would you rather not attend college? Or: Would you like to teach piano or find another job/vocation?

It’s not exactly this way for every young woman in a patriarchal/authoritarian family. Some fathers/parents allow their adult daughters to work outside the home and attend college. Even here, though, it’s a matter of lengthening the leash. Fathers (or the two parents together) are still the ones making the final decisions. There is still a leash, and they are holding it.

It comes down to a question of authority. I didn’t doubt my parents’ authority while I lived at home before I was married. I accepted it unquestioningly, nor did they ever remind me of it–at least not directly. It was simply understood. Obey… or face the consequences. It was years into my marriage before I was far enough removed from the pain of my courtship and engagement to examine it–to probe and to ask the hard questions about authority. In my next post I will share what I learned during that process.

Click here for part two

Shame in the darkness

ImageIn case anyone has been wondering, we’re still here. We’ve just had a lot going on and not a lot of time to write, but God willing, there is much more we’d like to share with you.

My last post from several weeks ago focused on the ways in which women are treated as second class citizens in my former CREC parish. I’d like to expound a bit more on the last point, which was about the leadership’s refusal to engage in discussions with women.

A verse from the Old Testament with which many of you may be familiar is Deuteronomy 22:5. It says, “A woman shall not wear a man’s garment, nor shall a man put on a woman’s cloak, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord your God.” In many conservative Christian circles, this is taken at face value and used to support the view that women should wear only skirts or dresses.

Doug Wilson takes it as a prohibition against females in combat.¹  He says that this verse forbids men from cross dressing, but that the Hebrew word translated as “man’s garment” refers simply to battle gear, and therefore a woman may not put on armor, fatigues, etc., in order to fight. This was the interpretation accepted by the elders of my parish. I am certainly not prepared to discuss what this verse does or does not really mean, but the goal of this post is not to argue about the correct interpretation. It’s about their abuse of this verse, whatever it is actually telling us, which comes from their definition of “combat”. They took it conveniently beyond the question of women wearing pants or serving in the military, to encompass any kind of argument, discussion, or even direct questioning of a man by a woman. A woman confronting a man in any way is a woman “going to war”. She is putting on a man’s garment.

But women were certainly not the only ones upon whom they wielded this weapon–because whatever a woman does is all the responsibility of her covenant head (her husband or father).² A wayward woman, then, can simply be dismissed (thereby avoiding the real issue), and the actual culprit attacked. The wife or daughter is shamed for being “unsubmissive” and usurping a man’s role, but then she is dismissed and they go on to shame the husband or father for being so effeminate as to have so little control over his unruly woman or by “sending her to war”. In other words, it doesn’t matter what the issue actually is, if the woman’s questions or objections are legitimate or not, because everyone has a fundamental problem (except for the elders).

When this happened to me, I did exactly what they wanted me to do: I cowered. I stopped talking when they told me to. I let them ignore me while my husband took the heat, and I have seen the same thing happen to others. This is how they attempted to shame me and other women into “submission”, by comparing our actions to God’s law, and showing how we had fallen short, how we were rebellious, forsaking our God-ordained roles as women. And shame, especially when used against a person or group who already lacks self-confidence and/or support, can be a very effective tool for manipulating others.

I knew when I was there that something was wrong, but at the time I had no frame of reference to enable me to see it for exactly what it was, and that is why their attempts were successful. I largely did what my pastor and elders wanted me to, but it was usually not out of love or respect but out of fear. It is a fatal error to mistake fear for respect, and the truth is that I did not respect them; though perhaps it appeared that I did, even to myself, in reality I was afraid of them. I was afraid of their sharp tongues. I was afraid that they would condemn me for daring to ask a question, or for expressing an opinion that did not square with their own. I was afraid that they would humiliate and shame me, because that is exactly what they did do to me, and what I saw them do to others time and again.

Fear and resentment are the opposites of love and respect. But the thing is, without the experience of the latter, it’s incredibly difficult to identify the former. If you’ve only ever lived at night, you may have the sense that there are things you’re not seeing, but you have no real concept of just how much, because you’ve never actually experienced daylight. My perspective is broader now: I can compare the night to the day, because, thank God, I have a healthy relationship with my priest, in which there is mutual love and respect, and therefore no place for fear or resentment. I now know what freedom is like, so oppression looks all the blacker.

Back then, I just wasn’t equipped–and that’s what they’re counting on.

²Douglas Wilson, Federal Husband (Canon Press, 1999); pp. 25-26

Attraction, Part 2

Click here for part one

In the years since leaving the CREC, I have had many opportunities to describe those churches and my experience in them, usually in conversations about my spiritual background, how I came to join the Orthodox Church, and so on. Invariably, as I briefly sketch out some of the hyper-patriarchal aspects, my listener’s eyes widen and mouth opens in disbelief. To most people, yes, even Christians, such ideas are completely foreign. Sometimes the questions are asked, and sometimes they hang in the air left unsaid: “If it was so weird or harmful, why were you there? How did you get caught up in all of that?”

Anyone who has been part of a spiritually abusive church with cultish traits knows the feeling of embarrassment such questions evoke–embarrassment, even shame. How could I have been so blind and deceived? How could I have subjected my family to such teachings and treatment?

The thing is, almost nobody join a cult with their eyes wide open. And surely no one is asked, “Would you like to be part of a spiritually abusive group?” If they were, I can’t imagine their answer would be, “Sign me up!”

So what’s the draw?

Safety. Security. Acceptance. Likemindedness. Love. We all crave these things, don’t we? It is natural to desire them.

For conservative, homeschooling, Christian families, safety is important. We want our children to be protected from a world that can deceive them, hurt them, and lure them away from God. When we find methods that give us assurance of keeping our children safe, we are drawn to them. It is easy to find security within systems that promise good, safe, shiny results.

When you make the choice to raise your children in a dramatically different way than most of the surrounding culture, you are going to feel, well, different. Perhaps isolated. Thus begins the quest to find support from other families taking the same strange journey–which isn’t a bad thing in and of itself. When you find that support, it’s such an encouraging, comfortable feeling.

Love bombing” is one of the traits of a cult. I think it well applies to my family’s experience in our CREC congregation. They took us in and accepted us immediately and completely. When we moved to the area, many of them dropped everything to come over and help us. The effect of simultaneous acceptance and assistance is a strong feeling of gratefulness and loyalty on the part of the recipient. It is very powerful.

So imagine yourself on a quest to find true, loyal friends traveling the same lonely road you are on. Imagine yourself stumbling upon just such a group. It all looks so warm and inviting! Obviously they’re all doing things right. They all seem so happy. Wouldn’t you be caught off guard?

Like I said, no one knowingly signs up for spiritual abuse or abusive teachings. Once you’ve been welcomed into the warmth and safety of the group and are in a vulnerable state of emotional attachment and perhaps even dependency, you are already receptive to the teachings of the group. This is even more true when true, biblical doctrines are taken to an extreme or slightly twisted.

When we joined the CREC, we didn’t learn all their teachings at once, and, more significantly, we didn’t understand the implications of their teachings all at once. We agreed with much of what was taught by the leadership, and the extreme bits here and there we were able to shrug off or downplay. We would tell ourselves that they didn’t really mean such-and-such and maybe didn’t realize how they sounded. And then there were the outright contradictions. True, good things were said from the pulpit, but then the actual behavior was a totally different story. When confronted with their contradictory words and behavior, however, they would deny the accusations and justify their actions.

Spiritual abuse is subtle, gradual, insidious. It doesn’t wear a name badge or proclaim itself. It comes in the end of a sermon that causes you to scratch your head or think you must have misheard something. It comes in the cold, uneasy feeling you can’t explain when you do something that displeases the leadership or goes against the acceptable modes of behavior of the group. It comes in the moment when you realize that questioning is regarded as rebellion or an affront. It comes in the confusing moment when your words are twisted and garbled into things you never meant. And it comes in the shattering moment when you realize you’ve been kicked to the curb… a disgrace to their public image, a blemish to the purity of the congregation.

A church for men

Charissa did a good job in the last entry describing the allure of the CREC and other patriocentric/familycentric churches. To most eyes–especially the conservative evangelical sort–they really do look like they’re doing things right with their families, and for parents concerned that their children are trained up in the way they should go, that seems very important. It also seems to be the logical extension of minds concerned with orthodoxy¹: if you’ve got the right doctrine, you’ll do other things right, too. That was one of the things that attracted me more than anything else, the emphasis on seeking the truth about everything (by means of analysis and argument). I was tired of sitting on the fence about things, tired of Christian relativism, tired of Christianized messages of secularism, tired of people saying it doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you love Jesus. Here in the CREC, it certainly did matter. It seemed clear: you could see it in the way they raised their families, the way they worshiped, the way they lived.

The problem is that, like Charissa said, things are not always as they appear to be. Some things are beautiful on the outside, but inwardly are full of dead men’s bones, as was true of the Pharisees (Matt. 23:27), and, I discovered, is also true of many families and churches in groups like the CREC.

The prevailing view of women in our parish was a low one. It was something I was never able to personally accept, but I endured it for years because I viewed it as nothing more than an annoying quirk, hardly worth parting ways over in light of the many positive features. And the fact is, on the surface it doesn’t even seem like women are oppressed there in any way. They don’t wear burqas, they can drive, no one is beaten or called names; they seem happy, even that they are embracing this life by their own free choice.

Spiritual abuse is insidious. It’s subtle, like its father the Devil, who comes to us disguised as an angel of light (II Cor. 11:14). The happy families, the high standards of morality, the ostensibly serious approach to theology…these things conceal and distract from the reality of spiritual misogyny that threatens the souls of women in these places.

But if you watch carefully, you can see it come out. Let’s take a look at just some of the ways in which this misogyny manifested itself in the parish to which I belonged:

1. “The sermon is for the men.”

Yes, the pastor actually said this, on more than one occasion. And no, he wasn’t talking about that particular sermon, but about every sermon. Sermons are for men. The men should listen, and then interpret it for their wives and children. The wives and children can be in the room while the sermon is being preached, but it’s not intended for them, because men are superior to women.

I thought about being fair and saying that it’s because wives are supposed to submit to their own husbands, but though it would seem nicer, it’s actually not true–because it’s not just about the differing roles of husbands and wives, but flat out men versus women, no matter how hard they try to convince us otherwise. Read on and you’ll see that I speak the truth.

2. Communion must be served to women by men

ImageFor the first several years, the pastor would call the men to the front of the church when it was time for Communion, and the men would take bread and wine back to their families and assist them in drinking from their family’s common cup. Later they modified it slightly so that the elders and deacons would carry the elements to the families, but it was basically the same thing because it was only to a male that it could be delivered to, except in extreme circumstances in which there was no male in the family.

This wasn’t just a matter of preference. A woman was not to come to the front of the church and bring the bread and wine back to her family, even if her husband was away for some reason. Was she divorced or widowed? Was he out of town on business? Then send her son up–even if her son is a preschooler! This is not hyperbole; a four-year-old could come for the cup and bread and bring it up to his mother, who had to sit in her pew. Why? It wasn’t because he was cute, it was because he had the requisite genitalia.

I can’t tell you how sick this made me. I tried to ignore it but eventually it was infuriating, to the point that I didn’t even want to be in the room when we took Communion. I didn’t actually leave, because I felt it was important to partake, but I felt irritated and frustrated the entire time.

Once, after they had started having the elders bring the bread and wine to the “heads of household” (i.e., males), it so happened that I was sitting at the end of the pew nearest the elder, and it would have been an uncomfortable stretch for him to have to give it to my husband–so I did what any reasonable person would do and reached to take it from the elder myself. I was planning to then hand it to my husband. But no. The elder pulled it away from me and laughed at me, then pushed past me to give it to my husband, as is meet and right.

3. Women may not listen to church meetings.

Every so often, there would be a “men’s meeting” at church. Males of any age or position were welcome, but women were forbidden. In these meetings, church business would be discussed, including issues pertaining to the constitution, as well as theological questions and conversations.

As a thinking person, I was very interested whenever this sort of thing came up, so naturally I was very eager to hear what might be said in these meetings. I asked if I could listen in on them. I specifically said I had no interest in participating, but only hearing. But the answer was no. And just as in the above example about Communion, the elders laughed at me and began to refer to me as “Yentl“. It was all very patronizing, but I laughed along with him in order to prevent myself from exploding with resentment.

The same applied when I requested to join the men’s email list, which was the only list where there was doctrinal debate. The ladies’ list was all about diapers and homeschooling–all well and good, except that I really wanted to read the theological discussions, too.

But I was just a silly little girl, apparently. They smiled at and mocked me, and I wished I were a man.

4. A woman should not confront a man in any way.

Once I had a problem with something the pastor said in a sermon. I felt that he had inappropriately called out specific individuals on an issue that he didn’t actually understand and that was completely irrelevant. It’s a long story and I’m loathe to rehash it, because it was extremely petty and involved, but I was not the only one who felt that way.

I emailed the pastor and other elders and told them of my concerns. I wasn’t at all hostile or accusatory; I just wanted them to know that I was somewhat upset and that I felt the pastor didn’t understand the issue, so I wanted to give him my point of view.

I received a brief reply, and then my husband got a longer one, in which he was accused of “sending his woman to war”. After that, the entire discussion–which lagged on for a very long time–was between the men only, even though I was the one who had felt strongly enough about the actual issue at hand to take the time to ask them about it. (Another woman actually did this, too, and ended up in the same situation.)

This happened in other cases, too. One time the pastor actually criticized my father for the fact that I had “inserted myself” into a situation that was allegedly none of my business, even though I was a married woman, and by the pastor’s own philosophy, the issue should have been taken up with my husband, not my father.

They forget what St. Paul said (Galatians 3:28):

…All of you who were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

In the past I have felt that I ought not to publicly express an opinion that is different from my husband’s. I have even hesitated at times to admit to him privately that I could not agree with his position on one issue or another–and that is partly due to the fact that I naturally shrink from conflict, but also because of the environment in which I found myself. Is it any wonder? What were the messages I was hearing? Sermons are for the men. Women must receive Communion from men. Women are not permitted to listen to church meetings. If women vote in political elections, they should vote the way their husbands vote. They should believe what their husbands believe without question. Women should not be trusted to make decisions about the best way for them to give birth.² Anything that goes wrong in any area of life for the man, the woman, or the children, is the husband’s responsibility because he is the head of his family.³ And on and on it goes.

Some say this is patriarchy. It might be better to refer to it as hyperpatriarchalism, or patriocentricity, because there is a traditional Christian patriarchy and this is not it. And it’s no small thing. It is wrong, and it perverts the Gospel. It had an effect on me that was imperceptible to me at the time, but even as I questioned it, it was stunting my personal growth and distorting my own concept of myself. Looking at it now from a distance, I feel I’ve been freed from a kind of bondage. It was years later that I really began to see that, despite what I had thought, I did not escape completely; I could not get away from the guilt, the oppression, the bonds, the push to make me a non-person, to take from me my own thoughts and my own responsibilities…my personal relationship with my Lord and my God! I am moving farther and farther from this place in time and in thought, but the shedding is slow and gradual. I am relieved that it’s happening for me, and grieved for those who aren’t getting away.

¹Little ‘o’ orthodoxy, just so we’re clear.
³Douglas Wilson, Federal Husband (Canon Press, 1999); pp. 25-26

Attraction, Part 1

My family moved several times while I was growing up, and because of this, we attended quite a few churches. At first they were Baptist, but then we settled into whatever small, Reformed, Presbyterian congregation we could find. We were never entirely happy with any of these churches–except perhaps the one that had all homeschooling families in it; there we felt at home. Our main complaints with many of the churches we attended were that pastors only preached in generalities when it came to practical Christian life, and we didn’t think most people were really serious about raising godly families.

The first time I walked into a Sunday morning worship service in a CREC congregation, I was met with the refreshing sight of rows and rows of families. Babies sitting on the laps of parents or older siblings. Parents sitting affectionately close together–or perhaps one parent on either end of a long row of potentially unruly children. Some families had only have three or four children, while others had fuller quivers of six, seven, eight… maybe close to a dozen children! There was continual movement in the congregation because, as we all know, even the best behaved children move around at least a little bit.

At first I was a bit taken aback by the singing–because as is typical of CREC congregations, it was loud. Later, I learned that this is accordance with “making a joyful noise to the Lord” and that Christians singing Psalms and hymns are actually singing battle songs, conquering the world with the Gospel. The first few times I heard the congregation say “Amen!” at the completion of each song, I found it a bit jarring because it was often more like shouting. But again, I soon was taught that Christians are warriors, and this is our battle cry.

My family felt at home here. For so long we had felt like misfits in other churches, and at last we could be surrounded by likeminded people with the same values we had–the same emphasis on family, the same vision for godly children. Here pastors weren’t afraid to preach with strong words against worldliness and in favor of very specific, “biblical” practices. Men were not only encouraged but urged to lead their wives and children–to be the “head of their house.” Women were taught to submit to their husband’s leadership and support him in all things. Parents were to instruct their children in everything and require obedience of them.

Every family homeschooled. There were no age segregated Sunday school classes (just one for entire families) and certainly no youth group. Children of every age were welcome to receive communion, which was served weekly, and fathers distributed the elements to their families.

After each worship service, there was a pot luck meal with a seemingly endless array of crock pots. Everyone stayed and talked for hours. While the adults visited, the older children looked after younger children, and the young adults gathered around the piano and practiced singing Psalms and hymns in four part harmony. As one visitor exclaimed in delight, “It’s like Little House on the Prairie!”

Indeed, it seemed an idyllic world where men were challenged, women were honored, children were protected, and everyone was loved. I thought I had found a place I would never leave. But “all that glitters is not gold,” and I would eventually discover that this world of safety and fellowship had a dark side of control and conformity.

Click here for part two

Breaking the silence

We’re finding our voices.

Do you know what it’s like to have had it taken almost completely away, decibel by decibel? If it were sudden and shocking, you might put up a fight, but if you can be gradually made to accept a certain set of beliefs about yourself and about God, you can eventually find yourself utterly mute before you even know what happened. And then what can be done? How can you free yourself from that which you’re unable to acknowledge?

They almost succeeded in muting us, but somehow–by a series of thoughts and influences–we got away.

We got away. That wasn’t what they wanted, because it showed that they’d lost control, but the truth is that they have no real power; the worst they could do was to slam the door behind us and say, “And don’t come back!”

We didn’t. And over the ensuing years, we have been able to begin to find ourselves again, to reclaim what was taken: our voices, our minds, our feelings, our womanhood, our spirits. There is so much work to be done, but life is good; we’re on our way to freedom. It’s for others that we want to write. As we survey our abusive pasts and the fountain of healing we’ve since found, our hearts hurt for those who are suffering in the same way that we did.

Enter this blog. If you are where we’ve been, this is for you. Maybe you understand fully that you’re in a bad place, but circumstances prevent you from changing it. Maybe something feels wrong to you, or you’re depressed, but you think that’s your problem. What we want you to know is that it’s not your problem, and that you’re not alone.

I’m Andrea, and the other contributor here is Charissa. We came from conservative evangelical homes, where our families practiced homeschooling and “biblical courtship”, and we both ended up in the Communion of Reformed Evangelical Churches (CREC) in our late teens–and these are the things we want to talk about in ensuing entries. Today we are Eastern Orthodox Christians, both happily married with children.

It is our prayer that this blog will be a light in the darkness.