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.
324 comments
  1. I’m sorry for you, but your story proves the story of Demas (if you know the Bible so well). Your legacy will be the same as his unless you repent and turn back to the true Christ of the Bible. 1 John 2:19 “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out that they might be made manifest, that none of them were of us.” Just in case you’re not familiar with Demas, look up the end of both Philemon and Colossians. Your resume looks very similar to his. Demas could have boasted a greater Christian life than yourself. The end of 2 Timothy shows Demas’ ultimate fate and such will be the same with you if you do not repent.

    1. You are all that is wrong with “Christianity.” You should know that comments and beliefs like yours KILL people and ruin lives. (Contrary to what I’m sure the brainwashing you’ve received your whole life has told you.) Jesus is LOVE. Your comment is full of hate under the guise of Love. You are as deep as brainwashing gets. Literally suggesting that there is no way out. No other way. You might as well start making the Kool-Aid while you’re at it.

    2. So…..every single church split from medieval Catholicism and the Reformation also marks all evangelical believers for hell because they saw something wrong with paying to get out of purgatory or not allowing the laymen to read the word of God? They too went out because they left the right path and not because they saw something wrong with the “institution” of their times? The apostles were not always welcome in the synagogues, and so they went out from the Pharisees and the religious safety net, the politically correct place of their day, and met in homes, by streams, and in the Hall of Tyrannus searching the scriptures daily. Forsaking the institution does not mean forsaking scripture or forsaking fellowship with those sincerely searching for Christ; nor mean that someone loves worldly pleasures more than God, or that they want fame for their own teaching rather than adhering to the truth of Jesus. I have a real problem with the persecution that Christians have given to other Christians throughout history; even thinking they were doing the right thing. Christians burned each other at the stake for “heresy.” I would like to think we are better than that now, but now we just shun people who don’t comply with the mainstream…..because the mainstream “must be correct.” I’ve spent too long wondering if I was going to hell for listening to the Holy Spirit instead of the falsehoods I’d been taught were scriptural. Start studying Greek and Hebrew and “THEY LOST ME.”

    3. Gabriel. Your an idiot. Brainwashed by all the BS you’ve been brought up to believe. God is so much bigger then your tiny little black heart.

  2. Thank you for this. I am in tears as I type. This is the Jesus I believe in. Why am I so scared to come out of the closet about my beliefs? Why am I so afraid of what my family/church will think? It’s bullshit, really. I’m a 48 year old grandma who has been a leader (well, leader under the men) in the church for half of my life. All the while, they have been losing me… for real. You stated all of this so beautifully! I think i will write my own “you lost me” in my journal today. Maybe there should be a hashtag? Haha.. maybe there is one already? This blogpost just made me a little bit braver! Thanks again. Hugs to all of you who are on this journey. We need lots of hugs… and not “side hugs”… damnit… I’ve always hated the stupid side hug. They lost me with the “side hug”!

    1. Unfortunately your churches /parents missed teaching you Jesus’ 2nd most important message ….there is a big difference between religion and Christianity. Christianity , you find on your own , with the guidance of the Holy Spirit , by the grace of God and through the Blood of Christ Jesus; not through man.

  3. Yes. SO MUCH YES. Thank you for sharing this. It feels like you crawled inside of my head and extracted EXACTLY what I’ve come to understand about when they lost me, too.

    My friend was Greg. He jumped off the top floor of a parking garage with a Bible in his arms. I think that’s the day they started losing me. Lord, I would give anything to go back to the last time I saw him – go back as who I am today and what I would say to him TODAY. But I can’t. And he’s gone.

    So thank you for sharing this. Thank you for reminding me that I’m not alone out here in heretic territory.

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