How I Became a Heretic (or How the Evangelical, Conservative Church Lost Me)

I wasn’t always a heretic. I used to be as Religious Right as they come, raised as I was in the 70’s and 80’s in a conservative, evangelical, James-Dobson-loving, Christian home.

I went to Awana and learned Bible verses for candy and badges when I was little.

I know the Four Spiritual Laws by heart, and I attended Evangelism Explosion training so I could lead people away from the Fiery Pits of Hell where their souls were bound if I failed to witness, and I learned to shove them into the arms of JesusChristTheirPersonalLordAndSavior (one word).

My parents became missionaries, so I lived with pagan tribespeople in the jungle, sacrificing for Jesus, and I went to missionary boarding schools where I took Old and New Testament classes and memorized Scripture because it was a shield against the Devil.

I voted for George Herbert Walker Bush in 1992, my first American presidential election as an eligible voter, because he was the Only Godly Choice. I was appropriately, emotionally destroyed when Bill Clinton, that Lackey of Satan Who Proved He Was Evil Incarnate When He Squidged on Monica Lewinsky’s Dress, was elected in his stead.

I went to conservative Christian colleges — two of them — and I majored in Church History. I know the nuanced differences between the Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed, and I’m geeky enough to have an animated conversation about them.

I bought books at the Christian bookstore about the dangers of Drug Culture, Hedonism, and Sex, and I hid those books deep in the couches of my nonChristian friends so they’d find them eventually, read them, and be saved. Coercive Couch Conversion, YEEHAW!

I was sure to tell my friends to Never Have Premarital Sex with their boyfriends (I didn’t even consider they might have girlfriends) and to remain pure so they didn’t transform into Chewed-Up Gum; used and wrecked and never able to pristinely fit back in their box. I knew, after all, that being Outside the Box was the Most Dangerous Thing that could happen to us. I didn’t mention to my friends, of course, that I was having premarital sex, because saying so would’ve meant I was deliberately doing it, which I was definitely not doing, since what I was doing was falling on my boyfriend’s penis — accidentally — over and over again.

All of which is an extremely long way to say I have street cred, man. I was a good Christian once. I meant well. I was very sincere. I have all the training. I prayed all the prayers. I asked Jesus into my heart at least 46 times, and I meant it every one of them. I was baptized twice, once as an infant and once as a teenager, so I have all the baptismal bases covered. I’ve studied Scripture, and I’ve committed it to memory so it is writ upon my heart, and I love Scripture still. I believed All the Things about Hell and how to scare people away from it, even though very few of those beliefs were based on the Bible. And I was extremely scared to hit the “like” button on questionable Facebook posts, sure I’d be found out for giggling at swearing, or loving the gays, or Being Political, or Thinking My Own Thoughts, which is, of course, the Worst.

I am, in short, not the person you would’ve picked to become a heretic. Not the person you would’ve picked to abandon Republicanism and the theological giants of the 1980’s. Not the person you would’ve picked to believe marriage ought not be confined to one man and one woman. Not the person you would’ve picked to deeply doubt a Literal Hell. Not the person you’d think would come to believe others’ salvation doesn’t depend on me at all.

But I did become that person. I became that person in spades, and I’ve given a lot of thought to where conservative Christianity fell apart for me. To where I became a heretic, off grid from the theology I was taught was Higher Ground. Away from the theology that was supposed to keep me Safe and Protected, as though those are the goals, and, instead, found me walking a ragged path through the wilderness rather than the well-trod highway I was told was the Narrow Way.

Here’s where it came apart for me:

When I was 7, you told me in no uncertain terms that the Smurfs were Satanic — something about arch demons and Papa Smurf as Karl Marx in disguise. I mean, I could buy the bit about He-Man luring me to Hades — after all, he called upon the Power of Grayskull and was practically, deliciously naked — but the Smurfs were a little harder to believe. You didn’t know it yet, and neither did I, but you started to lose me there. Even my 7 year old self knew the most evil thing about the Smurfs was that wretched theme song.

When I was 14, you told me to trust you, and you were my youth pastor, so I did. You said weird things about sexuality and girls’ bodies which led men to sin, and I felt uncomfortable around you always, but I was taught to trust you more than myself, so I shoved down my own discomfort, and I didn’t question you. Nothing awful happened. Not to me, anyway. But I learned what men said to me was more important than the Holy Spirit or my gut or my conscience. And you lost me.

When I was 15, we were out to save the world. You said we were doing God’s own work, though my soul squirmed at handing out trite tracts on the city streets and saying as many sinners’ prayers as possible instead of feeding the hungry, and clothing the naked, and finding medical care for the mentally fraught. And so you lost me.

When I was 29, and my gentle, compassionate, kind friend from our missionary high school wrote our entire class to tell us why he couldn’t come to our reunion and why he’d never see us again — because he was gay, so he’d had to choose between God and not killing himself — and, well, in the nicest possible way, said that we could go fuck ourselves because he wasn’t dying for any of this crazy, conservative Christian bullshit, you lost me. You lost me like my friend never did.

When Christianity became an In-Club with its own subculture and language rooted in white, middle class America — when Christianity was bought and sold to the Republican Party through the efforts of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson and fears about the Supreme Court — you lost me. When James Dobson and Franklin Graham took up their hypocritical banner, you lost me again.

When you taught me that blasphemy and taking God’s name in vain meant uttering the phrase “oh my God” — as though avoiding those three words completely fulfills one of only ten commandments — as though “oh my God” said in horror isn’t the deepest prayer for help — you lost me. When you buried the idea that blasphemy is spreading lies in the name of God, in favor of a simplistic phrase — when you didn’t look deeper — your vapid explanation lost me.

When you told me drinking wine was different in Jesus’ time — that the alcohol wasn’t as potent so it was OK that Jesus drank but it’s not OK to do it today — that Jesus didn’t really mean “do this in rememberance of me,” like his goal wasn’t communal worship over wheat and wine — like his first miracle wasn’t turning water to wine for a party that had already drunk its fill — you lost me.

When you told me God created the world 6,000 years ago — when you said, specifically, during college chapel that believing in evolution was the same as disbelieving in God — when you denied science the way the Church in Galileo’s time denied the earth revolved around the sun — you lost me. As though God is too small to set evolution in motion. As though evolution isn’t a miracle all on its own.

When you told me you’re certain your interpretation of the Bible is the only interpretation — when you said the meaning of the Bible in whatever English translation you prefer is clear — when you said homosexuality was a “lifestyle choice” and an “abomination” and changed your mind to “orientation” when the science became clear — when you still insisted that our homosexual and transsexual and bisexual and pansexual and polysexual and queer and questioning and human neighbors may exist but may not practice their sexuality within the parameters of Godliness — when you said the theology on sexuality is different than our former, historical theological justifications for slavery or women remaining silent in church or the sun revolving around the earth — you lost me. When you said you believe in a static understanding of the Bible outside of context and history and oral recitation and science and poetry and translation — when you ditched the beautifully mysterious and mystical meanings of God’s Word who was made flesh in Jesus Christ — when you denied the Holy Spirit has come with fire to be an ongoing revelation to God’s people — you lost me completely.

When I watched people suffer and become more disenfranchised than ever because of your interpretation of Scripture and your imposition of that on their lives, so very unlike Jesus’ response to the marginalized, you lost me.

When you became more concerned about protecting our borders in the isolationism sweeping the globe than protecting the most vulnerable who are trying to flee to us, crying out for help — when you didn’t say like Jesus, “let the little children come to me” — you lost me.

When you told people to come as they are, and I knew it really, secretly meant “come as you are so we can change you, and if you fail to conform in time, you’ll have to leave” — when I berated myself for thinking that was uncharitable, and it ended up being true — you lost me.

When you told me after my miscarriage to examine my life for sin, and you wished I’d bothered to listen to the tapes on how to have a Christian pregnancy, and if only I’d tithed more to the Church so I didn’t lose my first born like the cattle of the Israelites, you lost me.

When you told me my genitalia affects who I’m allowed to teach and which platforms I’m allowed to take — whether I can preach, which men can do, versus “bring a message,” which women are allotted — whether I can be in leadership or must submit to those with different genitalia — you lost me.

When I brought home my precious baby girl from Vietnam and you said, “At least she’s not black,” you lost me.

When I spoke what I believed in earnest — out loud and in public — and you punished and shunned me and told me you’d probably forgive me eventually but you couldn’t say when, you lost me.

When Jesus’ example was to make wine for drunk people at a wedding, to break the Sabbath to pull an ox and its farmer’s livelihood from a ditch, to bodily block the stone throwers, to furiously upend the tables of people cheating the poor from inside the Temple, to eat with hookers, to abandon the rules in favor of loving his neighbor — and you wanted to monitor the length of my skirt, and which words I could utter, you lost me.

When I finally realized you taught me to be polite and quiet because it upheld the power structure and made those oppressing others more comfortable, rather than upheld Jesus’ radical example and God’s great love of every person, you lost me.

When you told me my virginity was my most precious gift, you lost me.

When you told me premarital sex would wreck my life and relationships forever, and you were wrong, you lost me.

When you told me with every word and every glance and every action that my micro-behaviors and submission to our Christian patriarchical subculture were more important than my aching, expansive heart and desire to see God’s Love sweep the planet, you lost me.

When my gender and sexual minority friends found no sanctuary or succor with you — when you insisted you loved them while they committed suicide at alarming rates in even larger numbers inside faith communities and you did nothing other than spout Bible verses, nothing to save their lives, nothing to set aside your cold recitation of culturally-proscribed, modern, fundamentalist theology — you lost me. You lost me, you lost me, you lost me, and, more importantly, you lost them.

When I watched you actually believe you’re as hurt, as victimized, as terribly sad, as those who’ve been perpetually and systematically disenfranchised and abandoned by the Church, you lost me.

You lost me.

Jesus won me. Love owns me. And you lost me. Which is fine.

I live now in a place where I’m called a heretic regularly. Where I’m told I’m leading people astray. Where my convictions are not welcome in the church I chose once upon a time. And it’s a strange gift. Because I’m free. Free to love others fully. No longer restrained by false parameters. And I’ve found, as many who’ve wandered in the wilderness, that nothing — no one — no theology — no church — can separate me from the Love of God. Or stop me from spreading that Unlimited Love-of-God heresy to others.

And so I bid you good night. And send love. And Love. And wave in the dark, always and forever.

 

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ABOUT BETH WOOLSEY I'm a writer. And a mess. And mouthy, brave, and strong. I believe we all belong to each other. I believe in the long way 'round. And I believe, always, in grace in the grime and wonder in the wild of a life lived off course from what was, once, a perfectly good plan.
323 comments
  1. Thank you, thank you , THANK YOU! Although I came to the Evangelical crazy party a bit later than you, our stories are similar. Waving back at you from “what I thought was the dark but is actually the light” side.

  2. Thank you.
    All of this.

  3. Thanks for writing this, Beth. I’m not quite as much of a heretic as you are (although most Evangelicals would think I’m even moreso, since I’m a Mormon), but we’re aligned on several heretical points and you’ve given me a few more to ponder. Keep writing, and keep waving.

    –a person who is also named Beth and has five kids

  4. I hear you! Last night my kids came home from youth group, and said what the sermon was about, “being like jesus” I asked what the pastor said. They couldn’t remember. I told them, “believe it or not, being like Jesus is simply loving people. Although the church preached opposite, and its not modeled in christian circles any more. That really is the gospel.” It is awful when your children go to church and you have to make sure the message is the truth. (They go to socialize with friends).

  5. Yes. All of this. YES.

  6. Well done, and well lived. Keep up the good work. I always appreciate the affirmation that I am not alone. I have found two church organizations that are compatible with such heresy: Unitarian Universalist and Unity.

  7. Hi Beth, I love this so much! I was just thinking this morning that any theologian who hasn’t been called a heretic at least once is not worthy of the title. Brava! My journey is similar to yours. I’ve come out the other side with a fierce love for Jesus and realised that I never needed churchianity at all because it has NOTHING to do with him or what he wanted us to learn about life. Blessings, Lisa

  8. You have read my heart. So grateful for you.

  9. I never would have guessed this–you seem like you’ve always been one of the cool christians.

    Have your parents changed as well?

  10. you basically wrote my entire journey. step by step, starting at 7 years old. except for one paragraph full of living in an ultra-patriarcal cult (read bill gothard + doug phillips) for some years, which had a doozy of a toll. thank you for what you wrote. all of it. every single word. especially the last ones… love owns me. jesus won me. period the end. i am still working it all out after my faith kinda shattered over the last few years… but i am sitting with it, in grace and in love, and not panicked at all. thats worth its weight in gold.

    1. Me too, Chelsea. Bill Gothard almost ruined my life.

  11. When I was 20, when the Spirit-filled organist and choir director of my Baptist church left her PTSD-riddled Viet Nam vet husband after he beat her senseless and set the house on fire, and was told by the church she could remain a member but no longer play the organ for services or remain choir director because marriage was sacred no matter what, I said ‘This is bullshit’ and stomped out, and never entered a church again except for other people’s weddings and a funeral or two. That was 54 years ago. I have not seen anything in those 54 years that would entice me back. But I have seen many many beautiful people who live the precepts, who walk the Christian — pardon me — Christ — talk, who embody what it means to be a Christian, a Buddhist, a Hindu, a person of faith, who do feed the hungry, cloth the poor, tend the sick, and I know that faith does not reside in institutions but in the individual. Blessings of all faiths to you, Beth. Hereticing is hard, but amazingly it gets easier as you go along.

  12. This is my story, from the mission field to the Christian college, to the premarital sex, to be everything. My happiest moment this week is when my pre-teen daughters heard the word “virgin” and had to ask me what it meant. I love this and that I’m not the only one wth this story ❤❤

  13. That is me. I was raised with a very Black and White life and when I discovered the life between the colors, THEY LOST ME TOO! I love your heart and your vulnerability. Thanks for your eloquent description of disenfranchisement.

  14. Thank you Beth. Thank you.

  15. Thank you, thank you and thank you again! Oh, and also, I love you!❤️ You always find a way to put into words what my achy heart is screaming out. Gladly claiming the title of heretic with you and so, so many others. Terry

  16. Thank you! I also grew up in a conservative church though one the conservative Christians informed me was not Christian despite having Christ’s name in the name of the church. I left it for many of the reasons you stated.thank you for putting it so well.

  17. Oh Beth, thank you, and now I am happy that I didn’t put on mascara yet because it would be ruined. This is why I left my Southern Baptist Church, after hearing the preacher rail against global warming, against ecology, against gay marriage, heck when the mega millions was over 200 Million we got a sermon about how buying a lotto ticket is sin and if we won that church didn’t want our dirty sin money. I finally found a place, which happens to be UU, and the first day I went and they talked about love and helping and finding your own path and how we are all worthy of dignity and respect, I sat in the back and cried and cried. Thank you Beth. I love you.

  18. Love, love, love this! I was raised in a devout-ish Roman Catholic family, and the church lost me for many of the same reasons. Recent political events, done in the name of Christianity, have made me not only more lost but very very angry. Now I’m not even pretending in front of my still-religious family that I’m buying this crap. I’m done. This heretic is out of the closet!

  19. I think this is my favorite post ever.

  20. Beth, I so resonate with your journey; thank you for putting honest and gut level words to this process of separation from familiar and comfortable paths to a new and different way. I think there is a quiet but growing movement of the Holy Spirit afoot transforming hearts in new & life-giving ways for “such a time as this.” I think those who are turning to the genuineness of simply following Jesus are encountering the refreshing freedom you describe. This process has brought me to an entirely new and profound encounter with Amazing Grace — for the first time as someone raised in the Church I can honestly say that I “was blind but now I see!” Thanks for unashamedly allowing God to use your witty, honest, and creative voice to put words to this coming-out process. It is wonderful encouragement for kindred spirits to know they are not alone!

  21. Oh Beth! This post sings to me in your voice! Groaning louder and calmer and then louder because Dammit they aren’t hearing us!
    I love you so. And I wave back in the ash covered darkness. ill see you soon!

  22. I love this. I know that I have an unshakable faith in God. But I cannot find him in an organized church. No matter how good the people are. Or how much they try. They always end up making rules for God and I cannot believe he approves. If God needs me to follow a rule I’m certain he could let me know that without a handsy choir director or gaggle of old biddies pointing and whispering about my choices.

    I’ve been curious but unwilling to pry about where you found to land after leaving your church? I hope you have found or strengthened your community. When I departed I found the loss of ritual more painful than the rejection of those I left behind. After a lifetime of a certain set of faith practices the changes must have been hard. I so glad to see you writing again. I hope your heart is feeling less tender and full of love.

  23. I love the honesty and passion in your post. I identify with so much of this xx

  24. From one heratic to another, waxing in the dark. ❤

  25. Love, love, love. Waving from the UK where it is light, but many are in the dark. Find your Tribe and be love. Great to hear your voice again.

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