This is an edited/updated reprint of a post I wrote for Plymouth Brethren Dropout in May 2014.
I was 15 years old, sitting in the front row of the church, staring skeptically at the woman who was preaching to us. This wasn’t my youth group, of course — the assemblies would never allow a woman to speak like this. I determined that perhaps she was like Balaam’s donkey, and did my utmost to pay attention to whatever word of the Lord she might ironically speak despite her unfitness for leadership.
She walked over to her projector and held up a transparency sheet. “This represents you,” she said simply. “Your lives.” She picked up a few different markers and started doodling on the sheet, explaining that our sins and decisions and actions were like the marks on the page. “Everything is here — from the clothes you wear, to the words you say, to what you do in your every day life. They all show up here.”
The speaker placed the sheet back on the projector and turned on the light. “This light is Jesus,” she continued. “Notice how you can’t see him through the ink, only through the clear parts?” I stirred in my seat, aware of how it seemed the Spirit was moving within me.
She took an eraser and slowly began moving it across the marker drawings. I watched, mesmerized, as the marks disappeared. “This is what the blood of Christ does” — she pointed to the now-clean sheet — “so that all that can be seen through you is Jesus.” She spent the rest of her time with us explaining how important it was to make sure that our transparencies remained clean, that our decisions and words and lives were so clean that we would only reflect Christ to those around us.
As I got in the van with the carpool that brought me to church that night, I was deeply convicted to start changing my life so that I would better reflect Christ. It occurred to me that this meant becoming a different person. But wasn’t that what Christianity was all about to begin with, becoming a new creation in Christ?
There’s still so much that I’m trying to unpack about my upbringing. I was completely saturated in a fundamentalist Christian environment at home, church, and school. Putting words to what’s damaging about what I believed is delicate, difficult work. I keep coming back to, “But nobody meant to hurt you! They were just doing what they thought was right!” Unfortunately, intentions aren’t magical, and they don’t erase the damage that actions create.
In past months, I’ve kept coming back to the concept that preacher so memorably illustrated for me. Quite literally, I was supposed to be invisible so others could see Jesus. Today that phraseology puts me on edge and reminds me of a Darth Vader Boyfriend, but at the time and even up until a few years ago, I absolutely didn’t blink an eye. Of course I was supposed to be invisible. Of course nothing was too big a sacrifice for my Lord. It was so easy to swallow because it’s absolutely indistinguishable from what I was taught in the assemblies.
The concept of being hidden was driven home so often in so many ways, implicitly and explicitly. The Plymouth Brethren taught me that being a Christian meant dying to myself, focusing on spiritual things and not on physical things, hiding myself in Christ. My friends and I all worked so diligently to make sure nothing was distracting us from Christlikeness. The sermons we listened to, the Christian fiction we read (because secular fiction was certainly of dubious morality), the Christian music we listened to (if it wasn’t deemed too worldly), the devotional and eschatological books we studied, (non) dating books, marriage and family talks, families we grew up in and around, even the way we were taught to read the Bible…all of it pushed us to erase ourselves, suppress who we were, change who we were to become more like Christ — because being ourselves was in and of itself sinful.
To be clear, this kind of teaching isn’t limited to the Plymouth Brethren, or even to Christian fundamentalism. It is present in varying degrees all throughout evangelicalism, as well, weaving erasure and shame into the hearts and lives of thousands upon thousands of believers who accept it because Christ must be preeminent, no matter what.
In an effort to be spiritually discerning, my friends, mentors, and I would create rules to help guide us in our path to righteousness and a closer walk with God. I had friends who decided that going to the movie theater was a distraction from holiness, so that was cut out of their lives. The enjoyment of a motorcycle or car or even TV was considered idolatrous by some and was thus discarded. We worked so hard to be who we were told and who we believed we had to be: the best possible example of Christ on earth. All sorts of naturally amoral activities and objects were suddenly moralized and scrutinized and measured against whether they could lead us closer to the Lord. If the answer was “no,” the spiritual thing to do was remove it from our lives in any sort of meaningful way.
Of course, being an inherently patriarchal system, there were more rules to keep women in line. Our bodies had to be hidden lest we cause men to stumble. In church, our hair had to be hidden so that the only glory visible to the angels was Christ as typified through the uncovered heads of the men. Our voices were to be hidden within a church setting, and many of us believed we were never to have any authority over anyone but our children and perhaps younger sisters in the faith.
This focus on hiding every aspect of our lives manifested in nit-picking of epic proportions. I remember a couple friends and I discussing in worried tones whether our desire to wear contacts was vanity or even worldly, and whether makeup made us too noticeable. One memorable evening at a youth conference, the guys were ushered out of the room so the camp director could plead with the girls to dress more modestly because when sitting in the grass watching a sporting event, some of our shirts would ride up and our pants would ride down and he could see our skin, which was displeasing to the Lord and could cause him and other brothers in Christ to stumble. Eventually I stopped singing or playing piano publicly because I was afraid that I was taking a position of authority.
At this time, “Rock of Ages” became my favourite hymn. (As rewritten by the Plymouth Brethren, of course.) Looking back now, and considering the part it played in my favourite book at the time, it’s all too telling:
Rock of Ages, cleft for me
let me hide myself in Thee.
Let the water and the blood
from thy riven side which flowed
be for sin the double cure:
cleanse me from its guilt and power.
So often in my prayer journals, I’d repeat that stanza. I longed for nothing more than to be completely hidden in Christ, completely transformed from the wretched being I believed myself to be to become that blank transparency, to become that clean vessel of honor for the Lord.
I didn’t recognize it then, but it was a systematic dehumanization of ourselves in an attempt to conform to a specific interpretation of Christianity based on a “plain” reading of Scripture. And at least for me, I hid myself so deeply that even after leaving the movement 4 years ago, it’s still a struggle to find myself.
“By and large, Christianity as a system in the Western world teaches people to run roughshod over the boundaries of those within and without their camps under the guise of love. The consent of its members and non-members alike isn’t required, as clearly demonstrated by the past almost 28 years of my existence. And that’s a massive problem, enabling (and at times commanding) the manipulation, mistreatment, and abuse of countless people.
In fact, I’d say one of the defining characteristics of Christianity today is that it has a consent problem.”
“I think we really do a disservice to ourselves and the people around us when we attribute the good or bad things actually done by people to the supernatural, or even to some sort of intrinsic goodness like hard work. I don’t begrudge people the comfort they take in believing a divine creator has orchestrated their life to their benefit, or even wanting to believe that bad things have happened due to an invisible malevolent force. I just can’t help but notice how this tendency to credit the supernatural with what man or chance has wrought often serves to create a disconnect between us and our communities.”