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Thinking For Myself

By David Patrick ~

I found this website only a week or so ago, but have been visiting it regularly to read some of the posts here. I have always been especially drawn to biographical sketches where someone tells their own “story,” because personal stories have always touched me in a special way. “Stories,” sometimes, transcend all of the noise, ingrained beliefs, and potential disagreements that clutter people’s thinking process – including my own.

I was raised in a very conservative, evangelical sect known as “The Assemblies of the Brethren,” or just “The Assemblies” for short. The Assemblies are biblical literalists, who believe, pretty much, that they and they alone are following the model of the “New Testament church.” By this, they mean (among other things): that they observe the Lord’s Supper (Communion) every Sunday, and believe this is an observance or “ordinance” of Christ’s command to remember His death and resurrection on a regular basis, until such time as he returns (at the “Second Coming”).

There is no recognized hierarchy within an Assembly congregation, the way there might be in some other denominational structures. In fact, they seem to pride themselves on the fact they hold staunchly to a “non-denominational” structure, rather than those other “well-meaning but misguided” Christians who accept “secular” affiliations like Baptist, Methodist, etc. They take this directive from the Apostle Paul’s writings in the New Testament. Paul likewise wrote that “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet” (2 Timothy 2:12). From this sole verse, women are expected to remain silent during congregational meetings and services. Granted, they may sing hymns, play the piano or organ, and teach Sunday school to children, but they are not permitted to share scripture, preach or teach whenever there is any man present who is capable of doing so. Only men are permitted to preach, teach, give out a hymn or share a passage of scripture and expound on it, which pretty much defines the typical structure of a Sunday morning “worship service.” The worship service always culminates with Communion. And, again in keeping with Paul’s injunctions, women are expected to have come to a “conviction” about wearing a “head covering,” usually an ornate veil placed on their heads during services to cover their hair. The idea here is that to a woman, her hair is her “glory,” a thing she takes particular pride in. In covering it during services, she is showing submission to the “Lordship of Christ.”

I share this information only to give you a little background, because most people, I find, are not familiar with The Assemblies as they are with the other mainline denominations.

It’s interesting what one is willing to embrace with their eyes closed. For many of the years of my youth and early adulthood, I held staunchly to this evangelical, fundamentalist pattern. To me, anyone who wasn’t an evangelical and a Biblical literalist was not truly a “Christian,” at least not according to Biblical directives.

I do still believe [...] that many evangelicals are good, loving people – or at least attempting to be. My conclusion is that people are people, no matter what faith tradition (or lack thereof) they follow. But there were problems. Most of the adults I remember while growing up in these meetings were very dysfunctional, with families that were equally so. Many were just plain weird. My father, who molested me from age 6 to age 12, was also an “Elder” in our congregation, meaning, at least on paper, that he was recognized as someone “mature in the faith,” and capable of leadership in the church. And, I had known I was gay since at least age 12. And I had questions and saw many hypocrisies that no one could answer. Unfortunately, many of those hypocrisies were in my own life, especially while I was trying to “pray away the gay” (and that’s putting it mildly) while struggling to continually deal with my sexual feelings, and the “sin” and mounting guilt of my many casual sexual encounters. No saints here, ironically.

Eventually, and with great trepidation, I left the Assemblies when I was about 25, and aligned myself with another fundamentalist group. I truly felt like I was on the brink of suicide if something didn’t change. For a couple of years, and amidst regular counseling with the pastor of this new church, things rocked along pretty well, and I did find a brief period of respite for my soul. But I found that I kept having near-panic attacks about my sexual feelings, even if I hadn’t been actively acting on them in some time. I was ashamed to look anybody in the eye, because I felt that they could surely see right through me and the “Holy Spirit” would tell them who I “really” was. At the same time, I grew angry and disheartened at being pitied by the few within the church who did know my story. And in a telltale moment, I walked into a single sexual liaison with another man in the church, which meant that a year-and-a-half of counseling was down the tubes, and I was right back where I started. I was confused and very angry. And I just couldn’t take it any more. The man with whom I’d had the encounter “repented” and was restored to fellowship. I did not, and was excommunicated as an “unrepentant homosexual.”

So…it’s 20 years later, and I now have restored relationships with several family members, who know that I’m gay, even if they don’t champion it. However, everyone in my immediate family – and I do mean everyone – is still evangelical and fundamentalist, except for yours truly. And I still get periodic invitations to attend church services, with the offer of a “potluck” thrown in for good measure. I have come to feel that most of these family members genuinely mean well. They are concerned about the state of my “soul,” but I find that I just can’t abide the doctrine anymore. I still believe in God, even in a uniquely personal God. But I’m referring to myself more and more lately as a “recovering fundamentalist.” How can I trust a philosophy that discourages empirical questioning or speculation? That so often uses some form of shame or manipulation as a means of insuring that its members “think rightly”? I’ve been inclined to ask probing questions for too long.

I do still believe, however, that many evangelicals are good, loving people – or at least attempting to be. My conclusion is that people are people, no matter what faith tradition (or lack thereof) they follow. And in that vein, you will have some well-adjusted folks and some not-so-well-adjusted folks. It seems to me, however, that much of fundamentalism lends itself to tipping the scales on the “not so functional” side, simply because of its soul-deadening dogmatism. So, I continue to try to find a form of spirituality that suits me, which is not always an easy task. Even years after the excommunication, I find that I’m not much of a “joiner” when it comes to aligning myself with this or that religious group. I like people, and I’ve come to appreciate dialogue more than I ever did when I was a die-hard believer. But the road to yourself…. Well, I guess that’s never an easy one.