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. Making up your own Jesus is not freedom. It’s idolatry which always brings bondage.

    1. I find it interesting that in attempting to disagree you pointed quite succinctly to the heart of the article – stripping away the idols of self importance and superiority the western evangelical church writ large has placed above and in front of the true Jesus found in the biblical accounts, and the freedom he offers.

      1. wow. Incredible x
        Thank you for speaking what has been on my heart my whole life!! I’m blessed

    2. I’m glad you see that the people she’s talking about are indeed “making up [their] own Jesus.”

  2. This Friend speaks my mind and heart.

  3. I appreciate the heartfelt nature of your comments, but this is all about how the church(es) you went to ACT. There is nothing here about the VALIDITY of your beliefs. Have you asked yourself the only question that really matters?

    jmsr

    1. I invite you to read the other articles tagged “faith” to read more on the validity of her beliefs.

  4. This is so beautiful. Thank you.

  5. This makes me sad. This is not *the* church. This is some churches and I hate that so many have experienced it….and that so many other assume every denomination or congregation is like it.

    1. Unfortunately, this is the church that’s been the loudest for far too long, and that’s why many assume it’s characteristic of the Church universal.

  6. So similar except charismatic and male

    1. Thank you for this article. It made me weep for the lost years I spent as a pastor’s wife living a life as you describe here, and for how I had lost who I was as a person. It has ben 4 years and I am considered a “heretic” for divorcing the pastor.
      I have not lost my faith in God but I have lost faith in the evangelcal, fundamental church and all its hypocrisy.
      You describe to a T so much of what my life was like as a pastor’s wife and homeschooling mom. I regret shackling my children with legalism, but with God’s grace, I hope that my children can find, as I have found how big and loving God really is.

  7. Wow. What a baby. This just comes off as whiny. Quit blaming others. I grew up around people who I think were a little overboard but c’mon. I couldn’t even finish this. So much wrong with this but this holier than thou post isn’t any different than the people you claim were so bad.

    1. WRONG!

    2. I’m assuming by using a fake email address and admitting you didn’t actually read the article you don’t want to have any real discussion, but I’d like to offer you that opportunity anyway. I’ll start by pointing out that naming a wrong by another does not logically imply any assertion of superiority by the one doing the naming. That’s a false equivalence and changing the subject.

  8. As an outsider looking in (not raised in the church, atheist) you just explained everything I don’t understand about the conservative churches in our country. How is anyone involved in an organization that promote excluding and being mean to everyone who doesn’t think exactly like you do? Don’t get me wrong, I know a large number of good people who are believers and involved in organized religion, and I get some of the reasons (tradition, sense of community, people to belong to, rituals) but I just can’t wrap my mind around how you either ignore or go all in on the rest of it. I read the bible, albeit with an untrained eye, and I can’t even find their justifications for the worst of their behavior. Anyway, you wrote an excellent and heartfelt piece, with lots to think about, and I appreciate you tossing it out there. The comments and original writing are both educational.

  9. I believe that God made us in His image – clearly God is not limited to and is greater than one image. And if we are called to love God and others – how can there be a line in the sand that says, “Love them, but not them.”?

  10. Yessss. So much this. I was raised in a different Christian church than yours, but many of the things you have written here are as true of my upbringing as they are of yours.

  11. Day-um!!! This is the stuff! It’s raw, real, vulnerable, filled with so much truth, and eerily relatable. These are things that need to be said, and I and all my fellow heretical Jesus followers are grateful for your voice.

  12. Beautifully written; expresses the experience of many who feel betrayed and disappointed with the church. So sad though there is redemption in your story as well.

  13. All this needs is Wittenberg doors to nail this to. All of us who grew up similarly know the courage you have in you… To write this and then to hit Publish.

    1. I finally read words that say what I have felt for a long time. Thank you for that! Can we have coffee together some time?

  14. I never thought I’d call anyone other than my mother this, but you are my hero.

  15. Tears flow down my cheeks as I write this. Your words reflect the same awakening I’ve felt over the past few years. Thank you. God bless you.

  16. I was 8 and I asked the question, “If we wanted to be more like Jesus, wouldn’t we be Jewish?”
    It earned me what was to become my permanent seat in the corner, my divorced mother assuring me of a place in hell. Other than that, our stories are beliefwise similar.
    I remember the joy and comfort I felt when I found out I was Jewish, the family converted because of immigration and aloneness–community so important and the rural area having no Jews or “Christ killers” as I was taught.
    I am in heaven. As Jesus said, it’s inside us. Everything he taught came from his connectedness to God and his training in his faith.
    Digging deeply into the structure that had a human being come to understand the Christ has enriched my life beyond belief and led me to a world full of love, which is what we are.
    Thanks for the memories–I had almost forgot that horrible struggle –you reminded me of the compassion I need to have for other stuck there.

  17. Beth – thank you thank you thank you. So much resonates. As you know.

  18. From a fellow ‘heretic’, welcome. 🙂

    I follow a heretic too. A carpenter by trade. Gets grumpy when money and religion get mixed up. Turned down a tempting offer of earthly power and dominion when it was offered. Y’know, all the things that the pharisees/evangelical church stands for and hope to achieve, he despised and rejected. In his day, he /literally/ got crucified for not conforming to the religious right’s views on proper obedience and deference to religious authorities. He preferred to sum up the bible in two ideas: love God, and love everyone else as if they were just like you. In his view, religious judgement was something God reserved exclusively for himself. Which cuts into the job description of the religious leadership too much for them to tolerate I guess.

    He’s a tough example to follow. I fall short every day. Forgiving the religious right for driving people away from Jesus is my biggest hurdle right now.

    1. Wholeheartedly agree.

      And, for now, where I fail at forgiveness, I’m working on kindness. Forgiveness as the goal, kindness as one of the ways to get there.

      ❤️

  19. Most ELCA Lutherans and Episcopalians would heartily agree with your fine article. May your love, joy, and freedom always increase.

    1. As would PCUSA. . .

  20. This is everything. Thank you for saying it all. Thank you. It brings tears to my eyes because of all of us who have been ‘lost’ to the evangelical conservative church. And it’s okay that we got lost … I’d much rather be lost in the wilderness with Jesus.

  21. Refreshing…

    My biggest gift to myself was separating Jesus from the hypocrisy that goes on in the church. I am proud to be the PK, TCK, daughter of true youth pastor, pastor, counseler, missionaries, trasition semenairs, cross cultural care and traing for TCK’s, RN(Mom), Educators with a world view and always meeting people where the rubber hits the road.

    Our home was a revolving door and or they would go to the needy all over the world in many places most people would not go. They witnessed the changes that needed to take place in missions and acted — care of family as a unit and training for those around them, mission boards, educators,and dorm parents.

    My story is much like yours, however I never feel I had the wool on my eyes — I saw through the fake smiles early on and knew life had shades of gray. I was done with church in high school after requesting a meeting with the youth pastor, needing a boost for another transition finding myself in a new town going ahead of my parents to start 10th Grade (learning not all youth pastors were as amazing as my father) and he asked before I spoke,”…if this was going to take long he wanted to be home for supper.”

    I stood up and told him not to worry about it, never returning to youth group. Right out of highschool I skipped the Christian college, built homes for the working poor, went to nursing school, married a talented real guy, had two kids, returned to school for education, built a house with my hubby, had another kid…continued my education in eled/sp.ed. & added cross cultural communications(which my Father developed and taught, but he passed away so I had to listen to another professor stumble through the semester and his work that we discussed at the table, in a car, on a plane or on camping trips). All while fighting through cluster migraines, I know you are jealous! Ha!

    Jesus is mine, I am his — I thank him for caring for me and my family through so much, showing grace in practical ways and outright miracles.

    Thank you for being real, I would love to meet face to face someday.

    M

    1. Realized it needs more editing, but I am leaving it raw;)

      1. We’re fans of raw around here. ❤️

  22. Extremely well written. Being a life long “heathen” myself I really can’t empathize but I can seriously sympathize. Spirituality(at least in my view) should be more of caring(about each other and ourselves) and less about control. Thank you for a great piece of exposition and opinion(which I also hold) of what is truly important and things not so.

  23. Minor point: Galileo was not excommunicated by the Catholic Church. Nor was his crime directly related to heliocentrism–he was really at fault for interpreting Scripture without Church permission, a big deal in the days of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation (Galileo’s methods ended up being identical to those prescribed by Pope Leo XIII in 1893). Galileo was ‘vehemently suspected of heresy’ and confined to house arrest for the rest of his life, but he was not excommunicated. He remained a loyal Catholic and continued to support his two daughters who had taken vows as nuns. Within 100 years of his death all of his work had been removed from the Holy Index and by 1800 heliocentrism was accepted by Catholic teaching. Galileo himself would have been rehabilitated much sooner were it not for more pressing business (such as two World Wars, for example).

    Other than that–spot on and thank you!!!!

    1. Really, dude? The mansplaining is a bit tone deaf

    2. Thanks for the correction. I’ve updated the post for accuracy.

      Sincerely,
      A History Geek Who Cares ❤️

  24. Get. Out. Of. My. Head. Lady! I could have almost written this… I was a good little Christian girl, emotionally abused, and told to be a good girl from a young age… but something always rankled with me. When I married an Agnostic Scotsman, while already 5 months pregnant with his devil spawn (who has turned out to be a rather lovely 12 year old… 🙂 I was told I needed to apologize to MY FAMILY, for embarrassing them by being so very… Heathen.

    I’m now doing a photography project (just started) circling how it IS possible to be a “Christian” and part of, or ally of the LGBTQ community… To show young people you don’t HAVE to choose between killing yourself and God.. you can pick life, YOUR life, your REAL life and how you are AND God. Because LOVE is what we are called to do.. not judge…

    Seriously… Thank you for being another voice for reason… and for making me laugh and cry while you do it.

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