Last night I watched The Way Down. It’s a new HBO documentary about Gwen Shamblin, a TN native cult leader and author of the once popular book The Weigh Down Diet. As I watched clips in the documentary from the video series and study based on the weight loss book, I was reminded of my early years in church and more of the things taught and emphasized that caused me to be vulnerable to abuse. I remembered doing Gwen’s study and following her advice to only eat when my body let me know that I was hungry. I might have initially lost a pound or two before shame and guilt for giving into temptation and eating when I was not hungry convinced me that I didn’t love Jesus enough. Food was an idol, I was an addict, and it caused me to want to eat more. Growing up in a sexually abusive home, food had indeed been my comfort. It really didn’t catch up with me until I was a teenager and then it became obvious that I needed to stop eating so many donuts and Little Debbie’s. Cutting back on the sweets helped in the 9th grade, but I was never able to get back to being the skinny girl who was once called a toothpick in elementary school. I carried a lot of guilt already when I started Gwen’s study. Even though I wasn’t successful at what she was teaching, I believed it was because I was a failure. Certainly, it couldn’t be sweet talking Gwen who consistently turned to Jesus when she was hungry, who knew her Bible so well, and stayed skinny and beautiful as a result. Even though I can’t remember all of the things I felt in her study, the way I felt in the class hasn’t left my mind. I felt judged and ashamed. But it wasn’t just in her class that I felt this way. One of the cult recovery specialists on the show pointed out how Gwen appealed to our lower human nature parts to draw us in; those parts that were only motivated by shame and guilt. Another specialist said Gwen convinced people that they were broken and needy and needed her help. Not only did I believe these things about myself in Gwen’s class, but I believed them when I sat in church, too. As a matter of fact I’d been believing my whole life that I was too broken and needy. My pastor of the church at that time was not narcissistic. He was kind and soft spoken. His wife was the same. They were the kind of people who made you felt comfortable around and not judged. I learned a lot about the Bible in that little church. I’ll always be grateful for this, but still even though the pastor was one of the good guys, the evangelical southern culture still seeped in. I believed that I was a broken and needy woman who didn’t have a voice to speak in church without submitting to a male authority figure. I believed it was my responsibility to keep my husband happy and do what he said. I believed I needed to raise my children up in the church and make sure they minded. Beat the child he will not die, was a scripture that was bought up sometimes in conversations with family. Even though I knew it was not to be taken literally, it let me know that as parents it was our job to keep our kids in line. I shudder at how these beliefs led to the death of an eight year old child in Remnant church. Watching The Way Down, I was reminded again of how many scriptures taught by themselves can be used to justify anything. As another cult specialist pointed out in Southern evangelical cultures especially we are taught to take the Bible seriously. I cannot tell you how many people I have heard from church who say to me that their pastor teaches only from the Bible. I want to ask them now which parts of Bible is he emphasizing and using to justify what he wants you to believe?
Self-destructive teachings like Gwen’s, are one of the main reasons I have been in a deconstruction process for the past few years. I realized how easily influenced I have been by the evangelical culture. I think the last couple of presidential elections certainly confirmed that something was wrong in many evangelical circles. When I hear Jesus and infidel immigrants that we need to build a wall to keep spoken of all in one breath, I start to question being in the same religion with this person.
Perhaps the worst impact that the southern evangelical culture had on my life, was how it convinced me that I was weak, vulnerable woman who needed to go to my pastor for help. When he looked at me and told me that he believed I’d be delivered and make it to the promised land (Gwen promised her followers the same thing), I believed him. After all, I was a weak and needy woman and he was my pastor. Listening to him was like listening to God. You better believe I am deconstructing everything I was taught in the church, because the very foundation of what I was taught is what almost caused me to lose everything. As a result, both my husband and I still struggle to trust and with PTSD. I want to root out every bad teaching I ever received and not leave one tiny bit of it in my life to grow! A family member in the ministry once told me that one didn’t need to throw out the baby with the bathwater when considering bad theology that was being taught in church. My question today to him would be how do we know what is the baby and what is the dirty bathwater? How can we know what is true and what is not true? Thankfully, I learned some good things in church, too. Jesus said that there would be wolves in sheep’s clothing and that we would know a false teacher by its fruit. The apostles warned that evil disguises itself as light and that there would be dark spots in our love feasts. These verses always fascinated me. Maybe it was because my favorite book was The Stand by Stephen King as a teenager. Thankfully, I learned some good theology from my favorite horror writer, too. When I read The Stand, I couldn’t believe that so many people followed Randall Flagg. Didn’t they know how bad he was? Who would have thought that I grow into an adult who would follow another leader who was just as destructive to my own life? I had convinced myself in church that if I just knew the verses well enough about false prophets that I wouldn’t be decieved by one. But I recognize now that the problem was I was looking for errors primarily in what people were saying. In an environment where verses are picked to justify anything, it’s easy to convince a person that they are doing the right thing when they are actually following someone off of a cliff!
Today, my lack of trust as well as wisdom learned from bad experiences, causes me to not go by just what people say, but rather by what they do. I’m a harsh critic of churches, I know too harsh and judgmental at times, but at the same time if someone loses everything in a hurricane, they will most likely pay more attention when there is a warning in their area. They will be more likely to cover windows and doors, evacuate on time, or maybe never build another house close to the coastline. I’d fall in the latter category. I’d most likely build far off the coast to decrease my chances of losing another home. But still I need somewhere to live, and there is no place that is completely safe from the potential of suffering loss. So I have to keep my desire to keep myself safe in perspective. Some adult survivors may not take things to the extreme that I have. They have been able to return to church, but when they attend they are usually more equipped to recognize abusive situations than others who have not experienced similar things. Churches who desire to be healthy should embrace survivors and their gained insights. They can be a wonderful gift of wisdom to a church that wants to truly represent Jesus. One of the reasons I am suspicious of so many churches is because of their unwillingness to talk about abuse. In our efforts to find a church home after being abused, we reached out to a few church leaders for help in our healing process. One leader stated some victims get stuck in being a victim. His wife said she was sorely disappointed that I was taking a break from church due to reminders of past hurt. Another said, if I got out of the habit of attending church it’d make it more difficult to go back. Another leader talked about how Satan was out to decieve pastors. In other environments, the teaching from the pulpit emphasized the importance of forgiveness, moving forward, and living the victorious Christian life. Thankfully, there were also people in the church who took the time to listen and share their own painful experiences in church. I discovered those who had been hurt in church environments were able to offer the most comfort and support, which is another reason the church needs to embrace survivors and learn from them. Even though we did find support in some churches and made some friends who are still friends, we still have not found a church where we feel safe. Too many of the teachings remind us previous teachings that caused much destruction in our lives.
In the deconstruction process I am in, I have found it extremely difficult to not throw out the baby with the bathwater where theology is concerned. But I’m starting to see that maybe this isn’t the best analogy. Maybe it’s not so much about picking out the good and bad teachings. Maybe the way up is about looking at how the teachings are being used and the fruit that is growing on the vine. Just as electricity can be used to add light, heat and cool our homes, even save our lives and keep us more comfortable and safe, electricity is also a deadly force when used in an incorrect way or without precautions. My husband is an electrical instructor. I’ve heard him talk about the hazards that can cause painful injury or death. I know the difference between being shocked and electrocuted. FYI electrocution means a person has actually died as a result of electricity. I am coming to understand that the Bible can be used in ways that bring life, comfort, healing and safety, but used in the wrong ways without proper precautions it can lead to death and destruction. Why does my husband’s electrical class show pictures of injuries as a result of electricity? To teach what happens when it’s used without following the basic codes written to keep us safe. When the church is unwilling to listen and learn from survivors, they are opening themselves up for disaster. However, when they follow the basic codes spoken by Jesus to keep His followers out of harm’s way from destructive teachings, they can become part of the solution rather than the problem. We can lead each other to the way up, and not the way down!
Scripture teaches that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. This applies to the church systems made up of people, not just the people sitting in the congregation under a pastor who believes his theology is the best and only one that will save us. So be careful not to put too much trust in the system! Scripture also teaches we are created in the image of God. We are capable of goodness and wisdom when we humble ourselves and follow Him. We are not just weak and helpless people who need pastors to lead us to the promised land! One of the reasons we are able to read and learn the Bible on our own is because Reformers like Martin Luther fought against the system that said we had to rely on the church to tell us what to do! We are capable of making decisions on our own!
What does it look like to follow Jesus?
What are the fruits that grow?
What have you discovered is the way up?
But what happens when we live God’s way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely. Galatians 5:22, 23 MSG
It is absolutely clear that God has called you to a free life. Just make sure that you don’t use this freedom as an excuse to do whatever you want to do and destroy your freedom. Rather, use your freedom to serve one another in love; that’s how freedom grows. Galatians 5:13-15 MSG