I’ve been quiet here since I’ve been traveling, driving solo from DC to LA, but the other night I had the happy experience of an evening with Sarah and Micah Murray, and we talked a lot about our stories and processing the conservative Christian world we’ve come out of. And I had a flash of epiphany this morning as I drove away, so you’re getting an Immodesty Rail post instead of a happy-Hannah travelogue post.

***

When I started courting, I was hyper aware of how everyone else I knew had done this thing, what the stories in Josh Harris’s books showed as the “godly” ways to “walk out” their courtship in “good faith,” and what was necessary for having a healthy romantic relationship. Or at least, I knew what I thought a healthy relationship should look like and I had a pretty good idea of how to make mine look like a happy, godly thing for others to later emulate. This wasn’t conscious — this was just SGM culture.

See, the overall focus of everything in SGM (for me) was: be a good example for others. Every piece of my teenage and college years was set up in reaction to either 1) what my elders would think, and 2) what those younger than me would interpret as license to mimic if they watched my behavior.

Welcome to legalism.

And my ex, being who he is, was also really aware of what was and wasn’t socially acceptable in these circles. As a result (because, luckily for me, I was also aware that I was dating a person), I was tuned into this, too.

Given what we saw modeled for us in courtship culture (and, honestly, serious/”mature” Christian dating culture overall), his initial behavior as my boyfriend was much like this:

From xkcd

And it seemed like the reason he did this (well, the primary reason), was because of the culture in our Christian community where everyone assumed responsibility for policing each other (accountability) and thus you had to behave a certain way to assure everyone that you were being “above reproach” and “mature” and “godly” with your relationship choices. It was basically dating as social performance art.

Being uber happy with your new relationship — in a verbal performance sort of way, because physical demonstrations were too risky/sinful — was the best way to keep everyone off your back. I think, maybe, I engaged in this a lot more than he did. I’d be aware of the social expectations and talk up the positive things in our relationship and try to gloss over or tone down the negative elements. I felt compelled to talk about things that were too intimate to appropriately share (swapping dirt with your girl friends is one thing, but it’s entirely another to share that stuff with everyone to try to preemptively keep them from being “concerned” about you), and it drained me a lot. I felt like I was always on the defensive, needing to justify my relationship and my choices.

I’m not actively assigning motives here, but after all of that I tend to wonder a bit about why courting (or newly dating post-fundy life, or even newlyweds from this background!) couples tend to frequently feel the need to spam social media with announcements of how happy they are, how grateful they are for their bf/gf, how blessed and undeserving they are in/of the relationship. And I don’t really care about PDA if it doesn’t seem like a performance to make a statement.

But that all brings me to the problem with this defensive reaction to accountability in a legalistic atmosphere. Your simple motives aren’t good enough, and you are forced to second-guess yourself and over-think things to the point of cultivating insecurity and codependency. Decisions are made by committee — you talk yourself blue in the face telling everyone you know about your decision dilemmas, and ask endless questions about motives and fears, and then take steps based on where you are at the end of the accountability gauntlet. And advice from mentors and peers and parents is great, but this isn’t that. It’s losing yourself and appropriate sense of boundaries and privacy for the sake of fear, and you often forget to enjoy the ride of a new experience because you’re so afraid you’re doing the wrong thing.

I missed a lot of the joy in various “firsts” because I was so busy over-thinking everything and tense and afraid of doing the wrong thing. And that’s just silly. Dating is supposed to be about learning, not getting everything right the first time.

Why are Christians so afraid of making wrong choices and learning through mistakes? If we’re a practicing a faith that’s centered in grace and redemption, we shouldn’t be obsessing over having the Instagram-perfect, thoroughly “accountable” relationships like in the glossy courtship books our parents handed us. We should be enjoying learning about the beautiful things that can be had in community and learning about ourselves and each other, without fear.

***

All that said, I doubt I’ll ever recommend a relationship book to anyone ever again. Instead, I’ll shove a copy of Daring Greatly in their face and grin and say “this will change your life.”


So, there’s this lawsuit against the denomination (or in their lingo, the “movement” or “family of churches”) that founded the cult-like church I grew up in, where the leaders are being accused of deliberately obstructing justice and preventing sexual abusers of children to live without consequences while making the children “reconcile” with their abusers.

I wish I was making this up.

Now, Christianity Today is running a piece with a quote from the current SGM spokesperson from back in November, essentially expressing that the leaders are affronted that someone would dare bring this lawsuit against them, because it undermines their authority and reputation.

Here’s the quote:

“SGM believes that allowing courts to second-guess pastoral guidance would represent a blow to the First Amendment that would hinder, not help, families seeking spiritual direction among other resources in dealing with the trauma related to any sin including child sexual abuse,” Tommy Hill, SGM’s director of administration, said in a November 14 statement.

They argue that they didn’t need to report these abusers to the law, because the knowledge they had falls under a protection established to preserve the trust of a parishioner/confessor relationship. The problem is this: the abusers didn’t confess initially to the pastors. The parents of the victims and the victims themselves were the ones bringing the report to the pastors. The pastors then proceeded to take what they considered to be appropriate action: in most of these cases (and any other cases of this nature that I’ve ever heard of in my ten years in SGM) the victim was asked about his/her sinful desires which might have caused this situation to start (translation: did you want it? were you asking for it? your heart is deceitful–you might not have been aware of your secret sinful desires. No exaggeration of content, just tone.), and then eventually attempted to conjure a “reconciliation” between the abuser and the victim. Often this entailed apologies on both sides and the expectation of a hug to show goodwill. And while the perpetrator might be, say, removed from helping in Sunday School, he/she would be allowed free range at their home church, in the community, at Bible studies, and at church conferences. And no one outside of those present for the “reconciliation” would know about what had transpired.

This is fucked up. That’s pretty obvious, from a basic human standpoint, let alone a legal or “biblical” one.

I don’t like writing about SGM stuff often. But I think I need to now, because I was in SGM for 10 years and I get how the system works and why this has happened.

Here’s the thing that most outsiders won’t understand: this sort of interaction is objectively wrong, but when you’re immersed in the all-consuming culture that is your average SGM church, you can’t tell.

Let me walk you through the mindset a bit? It’s hard to understand, and I won’t go so far to say you get brainwashed, but you definitely become numb to certain things: lack of appropriate boundaries, pastoral manipulation, guilt trips, performance-based social approval, etc.

You stop thinking critically, because questioning things is ever-so-subtly frowned upon. It’s welcomed, objectively, but you feel slight displeasure or get sidelined because of suddenly busy schedules (because, obviously, if you have questions, you’re asking your pastor to help you understand things better, not studying on your own, because they have slowly, subtly made you dependent on their approval for your confidence in your discernment and spiritual maturity). You get asked to save your questions for after care group, or referred to Systematic Theology (which will probably not answer your question), or be assured that this is really a common concern, and they plan to address it in a sermon series in the fall. Just wait.

So, the mindset.

You arrive at a SGM church. You’re starving for genuine believers who want to talk deeply about their faith and personal struggles and you’re welcomed to the local church with open arms and dinner invitations and suddenly you’re finding that these are really, really nice people. And they seem so happy.

So you start attending their care group. And the material they are studying is heavy in theological terms and discussions of sin, and God’s glory, and God’s sovereign plan. You feel excited that you have found believers who take their faith so seriously and seem to be growing in the Lord.

And you enjoy the sermons and the Sunday morning music–they have a great band, the songs are meaty and not Jesus-is-my-boyfriend-and-4-chords, and the pastors are funny, self-deprecating, and they talk in-depth about verses and reference commentaries and historical context and you feel excited, because this is intellectual AND heartfelt, and they seem so genuine. The pastor seems so humble and tender. You can see yourself “getting plugged in” here for the long-term.

Then, as your first year or two passes, you learn about other things.

The women’s meetings where there’s a joke/illustration about how the godly mom the speaker admires doesn’t even have a junk drawer, she’s so organized. That’s so hospitable of her, to keep her home welcoming and clean! This honors God!

There might be a care group meeting where you’re asked to look back on the last year–where did you fail? Where did you see God “growing you”? Where do you want to grow in your faith this next year? Who is going to keep you accountable to it? And the idea of accountability groups is introduced: a biweekly meeting of 2 or 3 church members of the same sex, where you ask each other “hard questions” about spiritual disciplines and growth–where have you been “struggling” lately? what do you need to repent of? how can you make it right with person you sinned against (they may not even be aware of it!)? do you have any “observations” for me?

You feel encouraged. Areas of weakness are being exposed and you’re getting support from your friends to try to grow and work on them! You have strong Christian friends who really care!

And other things happen. You are urged to be faithful with your giving, so you splurge and give generously to the building fund. You are compelled by someone’s example to go get involved in Sunday School. You want to grow in the feminine, biblical virtue of hospitality, so you have some friends over for dinner once a week. You help make food for care group. You plan baby showers, surprise birthday parties, trips to the movies (where everything is pre-screened via Rotten Tomatoes to make sure that no one will be made to “stumble” because of temptations in the movie related to their sins they’re currently working on). You get really excited when the senior pastor’s daughter-in-law asks you to babysit for her kids one evening–what an honor! You do it for free. You and your husband are hoping to improve your marriage to grow in ways you see the older couples living out godly marriages, so you study books like The Complete Husband, and urge him to make sure he’s got accountability partners for his struggles with lust (because he’s a guy. Duh, he’s always lusting. We know this.), and you schedule yourselves a weekly date night and you try not to have too many expectations for it, so there’s a chance of a deep conversation.

If you have kids, you ask the older moms for wisdom and so they start giving you input. This input morphs into regular unsolicited critiques, and you realize you have to be really serious about spanking the right way, and not letting disobedience on the first issue of a command slide anymore. Your kids need to learn not to interrupt adults, not to be angry or fussy, because you’ll get an observation from some other mom if they see you struggling to control the tone of your family. Oh, and you’re a stay-at-home mom, because that’s God’s best plan and highest calling for you as a woman.

You offend your friend by snapping at her one day over a nothing when you’re stressed, and she writes you a long email later, offering her concerns for the pride and anger residing in your heart. She cares about you, so she’s going to point it out! But you really need to repent and work on that. Maybe have longer quiet times and do a study on peace and gentleness? You wonder if she’s right, or if it’s just that you were overtired and hungry, and that’s not normal. You ask your husband to keep you accountable, and you show the email to your care group leader’s wife, who urges you to take it seriously and to pray about trying to reconcile with your friend. Later your husbands may meet for lunch, to discuss how to handle this reconciliation. They schedule a double date, where you apologize to her (you’re probably crying, because this is sin and it’s serious and you feel terrible because this sort of thing is what put Jesus on the cross for you. You are such a vile sinner!), and she welcomes the  apology, and then tells you that she spoke with your care group leader and his wife, too. They have some concerns about your pride, because you didn’t seem to be very receptive to the rebuke at first. Maybe you should meet with them as three couples and talk about it? You’re mortified and want to make it right, so you agree. Your husbands probably don’t say much. Your friend hugs you and tells you how she loves you and is praying for you and really wants to help you grow–that’s all!

The three-way meeting with the care group leader will be the end of this, if you are meek and receptive and don’t argue or question their input. This will end with a time of prayer, and much thankfulness will be expressed over your humble, teachable spirit!  Sunday’s sermon is about how you are supposed to make it easy for your pastors to care for you by being teachable and transparent to them, and you feel encouraged. You’re finally on the way to being purified, and man, are you thankful for the cross! Jesus must have suffered a lot to save you. So amazing.

…and then live that way for ten years.

You have the perfect storm for socially quick, manipulative personalities to rise quickly in the ranks of the church leadership, for the depressed and hurting to beat themselves up for their sins and keep accepting any critiques of their attitudes or actions, and the insecure to always, always second-guess their own instincts and instead choose to follow the advice and corrective teachings of those in authority over them.

It’s not brainwashing, but it’s a social immersion into a culture where you lose your sense of self, your boundaries, your privacy, and your ability to reason independently in a slow fade to submissive SGM church member, fiercely loyal to the great people and genuine culture of faith there.

It’s insane.

And so, in that world, your child tells you that so-and-so at care group touched their private parts. You are furious. You confront this person, you tell your care group leader. Your care group leader tells you that he’s going to bring this up with your pastor and get back to you (because no one thinks to call the cops yet), and the pastor wants to meet with you (maybe you’ve never had any one-on-one time with your pastor before, so you feel affirmed and like he’s taking it seriously)…and then you’re angry in the meeting toward your child’s molester, and you get confronted about your anger, and, and, and…

Suddenly, the SGM sin-confrontation system has kicked into high gear, and the child abuse has take a back seat (because, it’s only on the child’s word, and children are so sinful and need to be trained to love Jesus and not walk in their flesh)…

And it never gets reported. And your child is made to hug his/her abuser. And the abuser is seen as repentant and restored, and you think, well, maybe it’ll be okay. That process of rooting out sin is really thorough. And they have so much accountability–from their accountability partner and their care group leader and from the pastor.

And nothing is done about it.

Until now.