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the Empathy List #77: My Deconstruction Story: Rejecting the Hierarchy
We're the Deconstructing Evangelicals, Part 2
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Hello friend, Liz here.
Christmas photographs are dirty liars.
As certainly as satellite maps sponsored by Big Tech will steer the rental car into a lake if you’re not paying attention, no one is the family they pretend to be on camera. (Except for the Kardashians, who are paid to be terrible to each other.)
One November during my high school years, my mother insisted that we all—she, my father, sister, brother and myself—don matching khaki pants and white-collared shirts for a trek to the beach on a sleeting afternoon.
We posed in the sand on a rock, white caps behind us, as a professional hid behind a large lens and snapped photos for my mother’s annual Christmas letter, the letter she would later mail to hundreds of acquaintances stretched across two continents.
My father would go on to hang the beach photograph in the stairwell landing of the newly built coastal house with the dock—the house that he purchased and renovated despite my mother’s chagrined approval.
The photo would hang center stage, printed almost to scale and in black-and-white, all of our smiles edited to be whiter than they really were.
That photo symbolized us: tight-knit, united by blood and belief, all of us bright, accomplished and ambitious individuals who kept each other’s secrets and screamed at each other off-camera.
Whenever I climbed the stairs in my parents’ home, that photograph only ever reminded me of my parents’ whispered threats urging us into obedience to the camera. That, and the way my cheeks hurt from holding my lips in the shape of a smile for so damn long in subzero temperatures.
My family relationships have been marked by disappointment, abuse and shame; yet no one would know it from our family photos.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been contemplating how best to summarize my Christian faith deconstruction, searching for the short answer to tell you how I strayed from the particular brand of faith offered by my conservative evangelical upbringing.
Because, I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it, but I was evangelical to the nth degree. ;-)
Between my four-year-old “asking Jesus into my heart” prayer time
…to my summer camp conversion story
…to my baptism in a river before a crowd
…to hundreds of youth group games executed with gusto
…to teenage rebellion exchanged for purity culture’s bland asexuality and short-term missions trips to Mexico and Central America,
I was evangelical all the way, bay-bee.
But I could not integrate the faith of my parents into my own understanding of God. My father, though we got into repeat screaming matches about who I dated and whether I’d complete a Spanish minor in college, was lauded by leaders at my church and invited to join the elder board. My mother, though she frequently cut me down with a “teasing” rejection about gaining a few pounds in my late teenage years, was the church’s women’s ministry leader.
On top of that, throw into the mixing bowl a few intercontinental family moves, a few mood disorders (my own ongoing depression and anxiety) and personality disorders (my parents’), a variety of abuse histories and you’ve got yourself a recipe for mental and spiritual collapse in college. Check, please.
Except it didn’t happen like that, because when I was on the brink of checking myself into a hospital, I wandered into therapy instead. And my female counselors, many of whom had been denied leadership in their churches because of their gender, pastored me.
For the first time, I experienced the shepherding love of another person—tender, respectful, selfless, open-hearted. And It reversed my trajectory for good.
When it comes to the Christian church, the essential question for me has always been one of “authority”—as in, who among us gets to be entrusted with the microphone and how do we decide whether they’re trustworthy in the first place?
Naturally, my family-of-origin narrative deeply shapes the way I understand authority. As I mentioned, both my parents have ALWAYS been elevated to leadership in any church we attended.
But they had a domineering and manipulative marital relationship, each undermining the other, which claimed to be a version of complementarian theology, and their dysfunction scarred the next generation. Yet no one ever saw (or cared to see) the pain they exacted behind closed doors.
That said, I am certain that any accountability offered would have been rejected by my parents. Yet I’ve often wondered, why did no one think to get close enough to smell the dysfunction on my parents before pushing them on stage to lead a crowd of congregants?
What about our system of “doing church” recommends leaders before we know anything about them?
“Authority” is the favorite drumbeat of conservative Christians. You’ll often hear from these folks talk about a “crisis of authority” or a “slippery slope” that wiles you away from accepted norms.
“Authority” is short-hand for hierarchy. This is trickle down economics within religion: if you just trust your leaders, no questions asked, eventually you might meet God yourself.
(Ironically, it’s similar to the Catholic hierarchies that preceded it, though Protestant leaders would chafe at the likeness.)
But the authority of Jesus and of Jesus’s followers has nothing to do with hierarchy for its own sake. I do not mean that hierarchies are entirely and always antithetical to the Bible, and I do not mean to diminish the role of apostleship in passing on the true story of God.
Yet hierarchy for its own sake is antithetical to the Bible.
This is because the example set by the divine persons is authority based on intimacy and interdependency, not hierarchy alone.
I admit this is complex, as it gets into the tricky-to-talk-about theologies of the trinity and submission. What the Scriptures say is that Christ himself submitted to his Father’s authority, and we know that Christ did so of his own volition out of an overflow of love for his father. We also know that the Father used his power to raise Christ from the dead and to elevate him afterwards. This is not only mutual exchange, but generosity.
“Father God,” turns out, isn’t a whip-cracking judge with pyromania, more closely resembling Darth Vader than Santa Claus, nor is Christ the whipping boy. Both are powerful and use their power to benefit the other.
(I won’t get into the Spirit because I believe our primary issue with authority and the trinity comes in the father-son relationship.)
Which is to say, the Father God’s authority was rooted in an intimate trinitarian relationship, where respect and generosity of all persons was the norm, that any power gained or given up happened at the willing expense of each person.
For all of us, “authority” inherently resides in our relationships.
In fact, all of us have the ability to accept or reject another’s authority at will, including Christ himself; we are powerful beings with powerful wills. To accept another’s authority requires being known and allowing another person to tell us the truth about who we are and what they see in us, both good and bad.
The best version of this natural authority will result in a tireless exhortation toward coherency and integration within our Christ life within our deepest relationships.
This is, in fact, the model offered in the Scriptures, the fruit of which is lifelong confession and repentance.
Self-giving authority of this nature produces Christ followers who are humble, generous, open-hearted, empathetic and curious, rather than followers who are authoritarian, judgmental and proud, who value being right over any relationship.
If the people you allow to have utmost authority over you in the pew are those leaders on stage who don’t know your name, let alone the name of your partner or your dysfunctional patterns, then you are not walking in a model of Biblical “authority” at all.
As I’ve mentioned, my own reasons for deconstructing evangelicalism are complex. Yet a theme has emerged in my story: it comes down to the single difference of how Christ leads his church.
Christ models authority through intimacy, while evangelicalism seems to value authority through hierarchy.
Personally, I’d rather have the way of Jesus or nothing at all.
Thanks for reading. Warmly, Liz Charlotte Grant
PSA: This is the second part in a new series I’m writing about religious deconstruction and, eventually, reconstruction.
If you find it compelling, would you share it with a friend?
And I’d be honored to hear your personal story of deconstruction/reconstruction if you’re willing to share it.
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Just for fun…
“Get your ice cream and get it off my plate.”