In Part 7 I discussed how hard it is to leave a church, let alone leave a faith. In 2013 we left our toxic church for good. But it left a big hole in our lives. Long-time friends disappeared, and we didn’t have a sense of belonging to something bigger.
I mentioned before the first time I was honest with myself and posted to Reddit that I became an atheist. This time I was finally honest with my wife. I understood that her belief was still important to her, and I wanted to honor that, but I couldn’t keep pretending, at least not with her. It took me so long to tell her because even though we have a close relationship, I was very worried she might want out. Part of purity culture is the idea of not being “unequally yoked”. The apostle Paul warned about it in 2 Corinthians 6:14-18.
As an aside, I must say that this is one of the more annoying Evangelical contradictions. Divorce is prohibited in almost every scenario. Infidelity? Stay in and forgive. Abuse? Stay in and forgive. One partner decides that maybe they don’t want to follow the teachings of some people from the Iron Age? You better believe that’s a divorce.
In the end, my wife chose understanding and love. At the time I agreed to support her by attending church and continue to explain biblical concepts to our children. To be clear, I didn’t do these things grudgingly. I wanted a sense of community and I hadn’t quite explored the amount of harm I’ve come to realize the theology does.
We also agreed that we were both done as Southern Baptists. The things that happened in our church, along with things that were happening with my parent’s work with SBC made it clear that a community could no longer be found there. We attended several churches, including one for several weeks until we found out it was SBC as well, they just didn’t put it in the name due to the connotations.
A Methodist church became our home. We attended a Sunday close to Thanksgiving in 2023. Instead of finding a traditional service, we were greeted by a sanctuary that had been cleared of seating and instead set up with lines of people preparing meals to be shipped out to refugees. These sorts of projects are the reason I still believe today one can find good things in church.
That wasn’t all, they had a woman pastor, who spent time talking about love, acceptance, and repentance. She was practical about applying Christianity to our lives and not condemning those outside of it. There was liturgy, something that’s missing from SBC churches, and more diversity of ideas. It wasn’t just about faith, it was about faith and applying it to make the world a better place.
I also enjoyed that our pastors in Methodist churches are assigned by the bishop. SBC churches hire their own pastors which leads them to be a reflection of the congregation. An SBC pastor isn’t free to preach unpleasant truths because they’ll get fired.
Within a year we officially became part of the church and poured ourselves into it. Preparing meals at Thanksgiving was the tip of the iceberg. The church worked food pantries, provided a homeless shelter, built wheelchair ramps for disabled people to get in and out of their homes, and participated in community events. There were truly good people there.
Even Methodist churches reflect their community. Our pastor was transferred to a larger congregation– a promotion of sorts, while the bishop assigned a more conservative, more folksy pastor for our church.
Things didn’t change overnight and the new pastor wasn’t bad, but the message was a soft one with more feeling good about our religion and less about applying it. At the same time, the Baptist church up the street had a young firebrand pastor who made no secret of being in competition. They were larger and they had a rock band. He also wasn’t shy about preaching conservative politics to his congregation.
In ruby-red suburban Dallas, it’s hard to escape conservatives, and those ideas seeped into our church. On one hand, you had people helping the homeless while cursing the fact that they existed. We didn’t stop being who we were but the signs were there. There was anger over the burgeoning BLM movement, distrust of the Obama administration, and a general sense from some people that they were less important due to being white.
White supremacy is a big problem for mainline Protestant churches. The more liberal members are walking away from church entirely. The more conservative ones leave for places that have no qualms with preaching it. Mainline Protestants are faced with dwindling congregations or appealing to those conservative members.
The second choice is a deal with the devil as the United Methodists found out on the issue of homosexuality. The conservative wing of the denomination actually won their fight when it was put to a vote. United Methodists would continue to hold homosexuality as a sin and prohibit the ordination of LGBTQ+ people as clergy. They stopped short of expelling liberal congregations. This angered the conservatives further who started some ugly arguments over splitting with the denomination entirely.
Let’s be honest too. It’s about power and control. The constant need to drum up an “enemy” with an “agenda”. In the middle of the last century, it was over civil rights. Today it’s over gay and trans people. Tomorrow it will be someone else. Anyone marginalized that can’t fight back is fair game. The problems we experienced in our SBC church were the same as the ones experienced with the Methodists. Sure, it was kinder and gentler, but the same attitudes are pervasive.
I continued to justify it though. I leaned into the idea that ideas of peace and love outlined in the Bible were above the individuals who claimed to carry it out. Even if they didn’t live according to those ideals didn’t mean I couldn’t serve.
The election of Trump shattered that illusion for me. I looked around and realized there were very few people left who followed those ideals. Multiple dear friends said they didn’t like Trump but that Hillary was somehow worse. They bought into the rhetoric and leaned into the idea of a team.
The worst was a close friend who stated plainly that it was about the Supreme Court, and the need to end abortion. That one statement hit me like a hammer. No matter your thoughts on abortion, the one thing I believe a principled person can’t do is use the ends to justify the means. It damaged a relationship with a person I considered a friend for more than two decades, and we don’t really talk anymore.
I regret at the time that I didn’t refute it harder. I told him he was wrong and walked away but I didn’t lean into how he torched the credibility of his belief.
Next week I’ll be wrapping this series up with the final straw and where I plan to go from here. I hope what I’ve written will make you think. I’ll continue to tell stories from Evangelicalism but delve into other, happier topics as well. Thanks for reading.