Four years ago, my family made the decision to move to Gainesville, Florida, seeking to pursue Christ outside of institutional church, in what many describe as “organic” church. (“Organic” church is usually distinguished by no “official” organization, pastors, or budgets, and is highlighted by meetings that include open participation.)
This year, after quite a long journey, I’m making my way back to the Atlanta area. Unfortunately, divorce and cult-like leadership are both primary characters in this drama.
Before moving to Gainesville, I knew that my marriage was having difficulty, but I had no idea just how bad things were. I had been finding freedom from some relationship-damaging addictions, yet much damage had been done, and other deep-seated relationship issues on both sides continued to confuse all sorts of things between us.
In Gainesville, we entered an environment with very friendly, personable founders, one of whom showed a little too much personal attention in some cases… whether or not it was intended that way, the attention was consistent with a pattern of predatory grooming behavior. The teachings from the founders also included a highly romantic view of the gospel, and placed the vast bulk of the burden of the happiness of a marriage on the husband. Combined, this fueled discontent and exacerbated existing problems to a final breaking point.
The details of how the marriage reached that final breaking point will not be shared publicly. They don’t really matter, in terms of how a church community can respond and should deal with a couple going through divorce. No matter how any particular couple finds themselves at that spot, once they both decide it’s completely over, it is. More importantly, church communities that refuse to get involved during the breakdown of a marriage have no authority to step in and make demands once it’s finished.
We decided on a slow divorce process as we tried to figure out how to handle custody and worked towards deciding where to live long-term. It is a fantastic thing that we took our time on this, as initially, I was very against 50/50 custody, and she was very against moving out of Gainesville. At this point, we’ve been making 50/50 custody work very well practically for well over a year (and has really helped the kids overall), and are moving back to Atlanta this summer, where the extended family environment will help provide a more secure spiritual and emotional environment for the kids.
Yet as we were learning how to patiently and peacefully work through the process of divorce – about nine months into that process – we were both kicked out of the church community. Their viewpoint, specifically, was that:
(a) Divorce is always completely wrong. I can understand why some would hold this view, but the Bible gives clear reasons why it can be necessary, and Christians have traditionally extended this towards other serious breakdowns in relationship. It is not up to a church community, however, to determine at what point a couple has reached a level of dysfunction that justifies divorce, and a couple is under no obligation to share their personal details with the entire community if they choose not to do so.
(b) “Legally” married means no dating. By the time we were kicked out of the community, we had both begun dating, even though our legal status was still “married” since we intended to work out details on our own rather than in court. Since “extramarital” relationships are wrong, their legalistic mindset dictated that we were in sin and must be “disfellowshipped” according to 1 Corinthians 5.
For about a year and a half before being kicked out of the community, we had been in conversation with the founders and a few other families in the group, and they were, more or less, aware of everything. While some of the counsel we received was good, much of it was completely inappropriate to our situation and often even personally hurtful.
Not long after our decision to peacefully follow a path of divorce, the founders began to publicly deride us in front of the community because of that decision. I can imagine that if it had been a publicly contentious process, if we had taken our private matters public in destructive, self-righteous ways, one of us would have won people over to “our” side, and justified in our position, able to stay. As it was, these “leaders” knew the truth, but lied to others in the community and claimed that we had no justification for it. At that point, we chose to continue to keep each others’ confidences rather than share all the details publicly and prove these leaders wrong – both for our own sakes, but also for our kids and for the community. It was more important to us to be at peace with each other than to be “right” in anyone else’s eyes.
During our excommunication, the founders sought to justify themselves to the church community by sharing all of our private problems and indiscretions. All of the things we had shared over the years, in confidence, were shared to the entire group – without our knowledge, awareness, or consent. This was well after having been told that it would have been wrong for either of us to share any of this information with the entire group… Yet they had no problem doing precisely that when it served their own agenda.
If a counselor or therapist broke those kinds of confidences and shared that kind of information publicly, it would be grounds for a lawsuit and they would end up losing their license. In many states, this also applies to clergy, as well as any identifiable “spiritual leader.”
For other people’s sake, I would have been willing to walk away quietly to prevent all of that information from being shared, but I was not given that opportunity.
To my knowledge, some of what was shared was factually accurate, but that does not dismiss the fact that they had no authority to share anything. I particularly know that after some folks raised questions about the treatment, additional things were said – and I know that some of that was outright lies. I also learned that a few folks were even a bit excited at the prospect of “handing them over to Satan,” and that those who were in disagreement were intimidated into not communicating with us.
For the last eight months, people who once called us brother and sister have considered us untouchable, like some kind of leper that’s going to infect their marriages and families, and destroy them. Those that disagreed with how this was handled have silently lived in fear, knowing that voicing their disagreement would likely mean that they would be next.
I have come to understand that the sum total of this treatment is nothing less than spiritual abuse.
After this happened, several friends remarked to me that I had gotten kicked out of a cult. That characterization is not far from the truth.
In reality, I can understand anyone having those convictions about marriage, divorce, separation, and dating. And I would lovingly support anyone as they lived out those convictions. What I can’t understand is treating others with this kind of disgust and contempt if they don’t hold to or live by the same set of beliefs. Then again, that kind of legalism and condemnation happens all the time throughout Christianity, on many more issues than this, so I shouldn’t be surprised to find them poisoning an “organic” church, including through its founders.
I have since learned that some of these founders have had their own struggles with similar issues in the past, and their public persona would be seriously damaged if such information was thoroughly investigated and made public. Because of this, there has been a concerted effort to rewrite that history and keep it covered up. I’ve also learned more of their many failures to build communities that are sustainable. I have begun to suspect that being condemned by them and cast aside from the organic church community was simply their way of trying to continue to protect the public face of their organic church movement, though many who know the inside realities of it are well aware of how shallow it can be.
“Organic” church leaders are building their own mini-kingdoms, too, and are as likely as other leaders – if not moreso – to protect their kingdoms vehemently, through manipulation and coercion. Their guru status combined with their need to maintain a spotless public persona makes them more likely to rely on cult-like behavior to keep their “flock” pure, fuel their elitism, and entrench their control and authority over their groups. They claim to be against hierarchical leadership, but in the end, they don’t trust the groups they’ve founded to deal with their own crises, and employ their stardom at the local level to maintain every bit as strong control over their communities as traditional “pastors” do in typical churches.
Thankfully, God continued to provide for me, as I had already been making connections into another local church here, whose body life and community was open and accepting, and I’ve been fortunate to find folks who are as dumbstruck by my story as I am. I’ve also come to a simpler understanding of the gospel of Christ that has helped me put this kind of leadership abuse into perspective, one that strongly believes that differences of belief and conviction are simply no basis for division and condemnation.
Perhaps the biggest lesson I’ve learned, though, is that Christianity will continue to fail at helping people with struggling marriages until it learns how to love and support people dealing with divorce. Anything less is compassion based on conditions, love with strings attached.
I’m glad that I’m able to begin to close this chapter of my life, and share some of this now… and to be able to do so honestly, and without anger or resentment. I want to be careful to say things publicly in a way that my children can read one day, but I also want to be honest with them about the way religion infects even the best of us. And I simply can’t stay quiet about the fact that the “organic” church approach ended up being just more of the same, and specifically failed me when I needed authentic church community the most.
Update (25 April 2013): This blog post, more or less, says all I intend to say publicly regarding the circumstances I’ve described. I do not intend to comment on details that I do not have first-hand knowledge of. To me, the details of someone’s past is not nearly as important as whether or not they are genuine about it. A large part of my motivation to write this blog post was to be genuine, myself, and to tell my story as publicly as I can.