The #churchtoo movement is attracting a lot of attention these days. Like many others, I have my own story of spiritual abuse in the church. In recent years, I’ve recognized it as such and begun to talk and write about it. Yet, as strongly as I feel that these stories need to be brought into the light, I’ve been cautious in sharing because I am grateful for many aspects of growing up in the church. I just wish the adults who helped shape beliefs had known better so they could have taught me better.
I came across this article from Josh Harris this morning; it struck a nerve and lit a fire that needed to be channeled into words. In 2003, Harris released a book that spread like wildfire through the evangelical church: I Kissed Dating Goodbye. It was shoved into the hands of adolescents throughout the Bible belt as an added safety measure against “sinful behavior.” Rather than offering practical support to almost-adults navigating opposite-sex relationships, youth leaders and parents touted this book as a manual for purity.
As a teenager who grew up in the Southern & Independent Baptist church in the late 90s/early 2000s, I was taught (and bought into–hook, line, and sinker) this whole “dating is wrong” worldview. I read this book and Harris’ follow-up book, Boy Meets Girl: Say Hello to Courtship (a rather convenient amendment to his original stance once he began dating but needed a more acceptable term). The first research essay I wrote for a college English class argued the necessity of casting aside dating and committing to serious courtship with marriage as the goal. (I cringe at the thought of my naivete, but it is true that you don’t know what you don’t know.)
As a “good, evangelical Christian girl” my sense of self-worth was entirely tied to “guarding my heart,” “remaining pure,” and “waiting for the right one,” and “living with my parents until I was married.” (How, exactly, does that happen when you aren’t allowed to find “the one?” This still baffles me.) Rather than learning to live out my God-given identity as a woman, the messages I heard from every authority figure pointed back to a checklist of items I needed to adhere to in order for God to magically give me the desires of my heart.
They weren’t harmful suggestions in and of themselves, but they were presented as a rule book wherein God kept track of my behavior as a measurement of my faithfulness. If I didn’t follow the rules, I didn’t deserve good things.
At 34 years old, I’ve never dated (except for that one hilariously bad blind date when I was 22-ish), I’ve never been kissed (did anyone else hate that movie?), never slept around (or with anyone at all for that matter), never this, never that. I wore the TLW ring (the “one ring” of the evangelical church.) Side note: none of the guys in my youth groups had TLW rings. Hmm.
Why would I put this in print for all the world to see? Why would I share these intimate, vulnerable details of my life?
Because I know I’m not the only person who has considered herself unworthy, unlovable, rejected, and hopeless because she was fed the rhetoric of kissing dating goodbye. (And let’s not even touch the notion that girls/women were/are considered responsible for the way a boy/man conducts himself. Was I at fault when the youth leader who was a handful of years older than me put me in a headlock, taunting and laughing as I struggled to get loose as my peers watched? He lorded his perceived superiority over me like a trophy. You can’t wipe away the damage of a scenario like that from the heart, mind and, soul of a 17-year-old girl.)
It’s instances like these that have me reconsidering my belief system from the ground up, un-learning the “truths” that aren’t actually true and re-learning what is. The reality is that I, like many others, have experienced abuse at the hands of the church. Reconciling those past hurts with who I am today is hard but necessary work as I heal and become the person I was created and redeemed to be.
I still don’t have the “desires of my heart” in this area of my life. Maybe I never will.
And it’s only been the last six months or so that I’ve allowed myself to admit that this skewed thinking has caused a significant accumulation of emotional and spiritual damage.
I’m wrestling with the implications of how this viewpoint has driven deep-rooted lies about the character of God into my soul; it has caused me to believe that my singleness has made me less-than.
I don’t have any solid answers or solutions of how to reconcile my past beliefs with the truth of my identity other than the slow process of allowing God to re-parent my heart in this area.
I just wish I could tell 16-year-old me that she’s a human and that God placed those desires to be loved, accepted, pursued, and protected in her DNA. She’s not weak; she’s stronger than she knows.
And he’s not hovering over her with a checklist of her successes at following the good girl rules.
She is enough as she is.
She is worthy.
She is loved.
She is accepted.
She is pure.
She is pursued.
Whether she kissed dating goodbye or not.