Observations about relationships in Christianity.

If you’ve been a read­er of my blog for any amount of time in the past two years, it’s no secret that I’ve lost quite a num­ber of friends. The first wave were lost either when they dis­cov­ered I wasn’t a vir­gin or when I mar­ried a man they didn’t want me to mar­ry. The sec­ond wave were lost when I pub­licly declared my lack of belief in Chris­tian­i­ty (espe­cial­ly upon clar­i­fy­ing that it was actu­al­ly a lack of belief in any deity or super­nat­ur­al realm).

I sad­ly can’t say I’m super sur­prised by either Great Exo­dus, which should speak vol­umes to the Chris­tians in those camps about how uncon­di­tion­al their love real­ly is. But what has con­fused me is that quite a few of my Chris­t­ian friends didn’t aban­don me. I found this rather puz­zling for quite some time, to be hon­est. It’s been dif­fi­cult to pin­point why some stayed and some left, but after much intro­spec­tion, reflec­tion, and obser­va­tion, I think I’ve come to under­stand a cou­ple of the fun­da­men­tal rea­sons why some stayed and some didn’t.

How firm a foundation is Jesus our Lord?

A view of the pulpit in the Tabernacle, the meeting house at Greenwood Hills. I spent a sizable portion of my life here from ages 12-21.

A view of the pul­pit in the Taber­na­cle, the meet­ing house at Green­wood Hills. I spent a siz­able por­tion of my life here from ages 12–21.

In fun­da­men­tal­ist Chris­tian­i­ty, par­tic­u­lar­ly the Ply­mouth Brethren, par­tic­u­lar­ly my for­mer church camp (just look at that logo!), there’s a bib­li­cal phrase that’s quite impor­tant: Christ Pre­em­i­nent. It means in all things, Christ is to be the foun­da­tion and focus of the indi­vid­ual Chris­t­ian, the local church, and the church uni­ver­sal (all Chris­tians every­where). How this plays out in a Christian’s life varies, of course. But a cen­tral appli­ca­tion looks like this: if Christ isn’t the cen­ter of your life and every aspect of it, you’re doomed to fail­ure.

As I try to explain this phrase and state of mind, I real­ize it’s a deep­i­ty (thank you, Cas­sidy, for intro­duc­ing me to that word!). As she explains, “A “deep­i­ty” is a say­ing that seems very deep and mean­ing­ful at first, but when you look at it more close­ly you real­ize it’s beyond idiotic–or that it says some­thing awful about the sub­ject that the per­son utter­ing it doesn’t even real­ize got said.” In this case, it’s near­ly impos­si­ble to real­ly nail down what mak­ing Christ Pre­em­i­nent actu­al­ly means, which explains why there’s so much dis­cus­sion about it in con­ser­v­a­tive cir­cles, along with tru­ly myr­i­ad appli­ca­tions.

When I was a Chris­t­ian, Christ being pre­em­i­nent in my life looked like get­ting rid of any­thing that would dis­tract me from my rela­tion­ship with Him. This meant purg­ing my music on a reg­u­lar basis (lit­er­al­ly mul­ti­ple hun­dreds of dol­lars of CDs thrown away to make more room for more pos­i­tive influ­ences). I fre­quent­ly cut out activ­i­ties I enjoyed because I believed they weren’t help­ful in my ulti­mate goal of being more Christ­like — activ­i­ties like per­form­ing Chris­t­ian music for church­es, Chris­t­ian con­fer­ences, and nurs­ing homes (because I was tak­ing a lead­er­ship role by my per­for­mance, which sub­vert­ed the gen­der roles put in place by God as an exam­ple of Christ and the church, typ­i­fied by men lead­ing and women sub­mit­ting). I even let my dream of going to a pres­ti­gious art school go to waste in order to go to a Chris­t­ian col­lege where I thought God would teach me sub­mis­sion. (That worked out well.)

Per­haps the most bla­tant and unfor­tu­nate way in which I tried to cen­ter Christ in my life involved — you guessed it — increas­ing­ly iso­lat­ing myself from “world­ly” friends.

It seems that once faith in Christ is no longer a com­mon denom­i­na­tor in a rela­tion­ship, con­ser­v­a­tive Chris­tians typ­i­cal­ly respond with the equiv­a­lent of:

If you rec­og­nize this, REPENT IMMEDIATELY, YOU BACKSLIDDEN SINNER.

You see, light can have no fel­low­ship with dark­ness. The friend­ship would be an unequal yoke. When Christ is no longer the foun­da­tion of a rela­tion­ship, the entire thing crum­bles — because there is to be no oth­er foun­da­tion.

Some of you feel this dis­con­nect. You feel how wrong this is. You still believe what you believe, but you also still try to love your unbe­liev­ing loved ones (though often you do it quite poor­ly.)

What kind of foun­da­tion forms a last­ing friend­ship, then? I mean, friend­ships are a pret­ty per­son­al thing. There’s lots of aspects that are dif­fi­cult to pin down, usu­al­ly includ­ing com­pat­i­ble per­son­al­i­ties, shared expe­ri­ences, out­looks on life, mutu­al­ly enjoy­able activ­i­ties, etc. I think those things are a giv­en, no mat­ter whether you’re a con­ser­v­a­tive Chris­t­ian or not. But in my expe­ri­ence, the ingre­di­ents that point to longevi­ty seem to be a pret­ty equal mix­ture of mutu­al admi­ra­tion, respect, and trust. The Chris­t­ian friends I have now who have been friends of mine for years weren’t my friends just because of our once-shared faith. We became friends through dis­cov­er­ing and indulging in shared inter­ests, sure, but we did it while demon­strat­ing respect for each other’s indi­vid­u­al­i­ty and per­son­hood. Our per­son­al­i­ties do click, but we also work hard to be empa­thet­ic, trust­wor­thy, respect­ful peo­ple. We care about each oth­er, what demon­stra­bly makes each other’s lives more mean­ing­ful and ful­fill­ing, no ulte­ri­or motives. Which leads me to my next obser­va­tion.

Iron sharpens iron — and shackles people.

Before I began the decon­ver­sion process, my clos­est friends and I described our rela­tion­ship as the kind where iron sharp­ened iron. Our friend­ships, while made eas­i­er by com­pat­i­ble per­son­al­i­ties and enjoy­ing our time spent togeth­er, were explic­it­ly pred­i­cat­ed on the under­stand­ing that we were to rub the rough edges off of each oth­er to bring one anoth­er clos­er to Christ.

So when I con­fessed to them that I’d had sex of my own voli­tion, I’m not entire­ly sure what I expect­ed. I knew I had done every­thing I was sup­posed to. I’d con­fessed to the elders at the church I was attend­ing at the time, to my par­ents and his par­ents, to my clos­est friends. I set mea­sures in place to make sure I would nev­er Fall again. I was appro­pri­ate­ly depressed and with­drawn (since I learned that hav­ing hope for a bet­ter future was a sign of rebel­lion, appar­ent­ly). I was tru­ly repen­tant.

Yet one day, when my boyfriend was mak­ing plans to come vis­it me, I was tak­en aside and told in no uncer­tain terms what I was and was not allowed to do with him. I wasn’t even allowed to sit beside him on the car ride home from the air­port. They were thor­ough and they were mer­ci­less.

I can't resist pulling this one out again. And if you're not already reading David Willis's excellent web comic, Dumbing of Age, I suggest you remedy that immediately. Seriously.

I can’t resist pulling this one out again. And if you’re not already read­ing David Willis’s excel­lent web com­ic, Dumb­ing of Age, I sug­gest you rem­e­dy that imme­di­ate­ly. Seri­ous­ly.

In case you’re won­der­ing, that is all kinds of Not Okay.

This is sad­ly not very uncom­mon, par­tic­u­lar­ly when you con­sid­er the prob­lem Chris­tian­i­ty has with con­sent. Con­ser­v­a­tive Chris­tians often declare them­selves The Des­ig­nat­ed Adult.

Now I’m not say­ing there’s any­thing wrong at all with talk­ing to friends about harm­ful behav­iors they’re exhibit­ing, or even the unhealthy beliefs that may spur them on to behave in a dam­ag­ing way. (Hel­lo. How do you think this series came to be? I’m a big fan of com­mu­ni­ties fig­ur­ing out how to be bet­ter humans.)

The prob­lem comes when you see peo­ple as projects.

THIS IS SO MUCH MORE DIFFICULT THAN IT LOOKS.

I recent­ly start­ed tak­ing a pot­tery class. It’s been a lot of fun and lot of frus­tra­tion as I learn to work with clay on a potter’s wheel (or even just mak­ing pinch pots). I start out by cut­ting a pound or so of clay from a giant lump, then form­ing it into a wedge to make for eas­i­er cen­ter­ing on the wheel. Once it’s on the wheel, it takes a shock­ing amount of strength and deter­mi­na­tion to force the clay to form into what­ev­er I’m mak­ing — a mug, a bowl, a plate, what­ev­er. I take pieces away that shouldn’t be there, and I get very inti­mate with the clay as I work to shape it into its final form.

The Bible talks about God being a pot­ter, and peo­ple being clay. It also talks about Chris­tians being the body of Christ, doing His work on earth. Is it any won­der that Chris­tians approach every­one — fel­low Chris­tians and non-Chris­tians alike — as if they’re trim­ming and mold­ing clay? As if they’re iron meant to sharp­en one anoth­er? As if peo­ple are any­thing at all oth­er than peo­ple inher­ent­ly wor­thy of respect?

Human beings are not ves­sels of clay, meant for hon­or or dis­hon­or based on the whim of an invis­i­ble being (or even our friends and fam­i­ly). We are not iron meant to become sharp and point­ed like weapons. We are peo­ple, indi­vid­ual and whole as we are, liv­ing in com­mu­ni­ty togeth­er try­ing to live our lives with pur­pose and mean­ing, try­ing to make our own lit­tle worlds — and some­times the larg­er worlds around us — bet­ter places.

You may not even real­ize that this is how you’re treat­ing peo­ple. I cer­tain­ly didn’t real­ize it. I didn’t know there was any oth­er way of treat­ing people…until my real friends, the friends that have last­ed, the ones who respect me and care about what’s healthy for me more than what’s com­fort­able for them, showed me. They affirm my likes and dis­likes. They affirm my abil­i­ty to dis­cern for myself what’s life-giv­ing for me. They nev­er try to con­trol who I am. They build me up, insist that I have intrin­sic worth, respect my deci­sions and opin­ions even when they dis­agree, and are able to voice their dis­agree­ment in a kind, lov­ing, human­i­ty-affirm­ing way. I nev­er have to wor­ry if they’re going to try to break me or sharp­en me or make me into some­one oth­er than who I am. They are true to them­selves and encour­age me to be true to myself, and our rela­tion­ships are ones of com­pro­mise, admi­ra­tion, trust, and respect.

If you want to have last­ing rela­tion­ships like this, you need to learn that it’s not your place to make deci­sions for oth­ers, to try to force them into the shape you wish they would take for your com­fort and con­ve­nience. And it’s not my place to make your choic­es for you, either. Real change, real dia­logue, real friend­ship hap­pens when we’re able to see one anoth­er as indi­vid­u­als who have worth and valid­i­ty all on our own. Call it the image of God in human­i­ty if you must, but stop expect­ing to be able to exert con­trol and dom­i­nance over peo­ple the same way I exert con­trol and dom­i­nance over my clay. (Even then, clay often has a mind of its own and gets away from me. I have to learn to lis­ten to it and go with its flow rather than force my own will upon it, end­ing in destruc­tion.)

All of this keeps com­ing right back to where I start­ed with this seriesrespect of human auton­o­my and agency. Rela­tion­ships aren’t doomed to fail­ure if Christ isn’t the cen­ter. They’re doomed to fail­ure when we can’t see, respect, and affirm the human­i­ty of the peo­ple in our lives, choos­ing to be “right” over choos­ing to love and hon­or the phys­i­cal beings right in front of us.