Why Reading the Bible Made Me Leave My Church

When I was in late elementary to middle school, or thereabouts, I went to a small Baptist church in Titusville, Florida, called Heritage Baptist Church. The congregation was so small that the pastor blocked off the back pews with a yellow plastic rope to force people to sit closer to the pulpit, I suppose so that the pews would look fuller? To keep us from spreading out as we naturally did? I never quite understood it. My mom and I cleaned the church every week, and she would remove the ropes, coil them neatly on a back pew, a tiny little unexpected act of rebellion. But on Sunday morning they’d be back up, a bright yellow nonot here you don’t.

I remember being given a Bible at some point at that church—maybe it was when I got baptized—and its binding was tight, but my Sunday school teacher commented that she was sure I’d have it worn and creased in no time, knowing me.

I knew what she meant, that I read the Bible, that I studied it, that I was a good girl. And this is my whole childhood, my whole religious upbringing, being identified as the good one, and then desperately striving to live up to that designation. Always afraid to lose the label, to lose the identity, always sure I was one misstep away from that. Desperate for praise, which meant approval, which meant love. So, I worked on that Bible. I worked on it hard. I highlighted and underlined. I read. I bent the binding. But no matter how much I pressed it open, pushing against the glue, I never could break it, I never could get it to flop open and stay put. It always snapped shut.

I didn’t take this as a metaphor then. It was a cheap Bible. I got a different one, moved on. But there was part of me, deep down, that knew: I would never be on the inside exactly what everyone wanted me to be on the outside.

As a teen, I read my Bible regularly, fairly regularly anyway, but I stuck to the parts that made the most sense, the parts I heard preached on most at church. Sometimes the Gospels. Mostly the writings of Paul. The letters to the early churches. The Old Testament was largely left untouched, save for Genesis, Psalms, and Proverbs. I went to church weekly—Sunday morning, Sunday night. And of course we were expected to go on Wednesdays, but depending on the church we were attending at the time, we usually skipped that service, as it was usually either a prayer meeting (my parents weren’t that big into public prayer) or a type of witnessing boot camp (my parents also weren’t that big into knocking on doors at dinnertime to discuss eternal destinations).

It wasn’t until graduate school or just after that I finally read the Bible cover to cover. And then I did it again, this time as part of that “read the Bible in 90 days” thing. And a third time, also in 90 days.

I emphasize the time not to brag on myself (I had more free time then than I will probably ever have again in my life). But it’s a key detail—because when you read the book so quickly, you have time to retain more. And reading it so often, so completely, and so rapidly, with nothing left out or skipped, was jarring on many levels.

Because it’s impossible, then, to sit under a teacher every Sunday morning and realize just how little backing he has for what he’s preaching. When he offers a verse in support of a point he’s making—before, you might have assumed that was the best verse, or the clearest one, or just the one he happened upon when writing his message. But post-Bible binge, you realize: no, that’s the only verse that supports that point. That’s the only one.

I started asking questions. Jesse started asking questions. He worked at the church we attended, which complicated things significantly. It was a church where loyalty meant something, where the much-loved receptionist was asked to step down when it was discovered she was attending another church.

But this was also a church that positioned itself as a safe place to ask questions. So ask them we did. We asked about context, about interpretation, about why some passages were treated as being relevant only to ancient cultures, while others were considered timeless instructions. Why some passages were considered descriptive while others prescriptive. And the answers—when we got them, which was infrequent at best—were deeply unsatisfying.

At one point, the staff was asked to submit questions to the church leaders through note cards. Jesse and I worked on his questions together. When Jesse went to drop his off, the box was full, so he put it in the pastor’s mail box. Not long after, the pastor emailed the entire staff to ask that the person who had dropped off a list of questions that were “divisive” and “unbiblical” identify himself within the week.

Suddenly, I was that middle schooler again. Trying so hard to be the good girl. Trying to bust apart the seams of that Bible to prove that I was worthy, to prove that I was what everyone wanted me to be, that I was spiritual enough, that I believed the right things, that I said and did and felt and knew and loved the right things. That I was right. Good. Worthy. I was that scared little girl, trying so hard. And I had been condemned by the highest person at my church. I cried. I shook. I felt sick.

Everyone knew it was us. We were the only ones asking questions like that. Questions that could be labeled “dangerous” in an all-staff email. We were those people. At this point, even our friends were beginning to distance themselves, though we hadn’t picked up on that yet.

We tried to make amends. We tried to correct it. I wrote an apology to the pastor that was both sincere and melodramatic, my pain and fear naked in my words. The pastor replied by thanking me for my email and telling me that I needed to send emails to his public account, which goes first through his secretary.

We met with the pastor to explain ourselves. He agreed he had misunderstood the intent behind our questions. He sent a follow-up email to the staff about a separate issue that had a note at the very end that said simply “the issue with the anonymous note is being resolved.”

Something in me broke then.

There were other reasons why we left that church. Too many to detail in this one post. But I can see now how our departure was all but inevitable. Not because the pastor handled the questions badly. That was the tipping point, but the momentum had been there long before then.

Because when you consider who I am and how I was raised, how could it not happen? I was taught to take the scriptures seriously—to take them more seriously than any specific teacher. I was praised for reading my Bible, and I craved praise like oxygen. How many times had I heard, “Don’t take my word for it—read it for yourself”? The problem, I realize now, is that I was never meant to take that literally.

I watched my mother take down the rope every week. A small, subtle, almost unnoticeable challenge to the church’s authority. Our refusing to participate in the door knocking. Taking “do unto others” literally, because my parents didn’t want strangers coming to our house while we were sitting down to eat to tell us we were on our way to destruction. Do unto others. The scripture trumps the teaching.

And I know now, nearly six years later, that the bungling of our questions was actually a gift.

If a broken bone isn’t set right, the body will heal it misaligned, filling in the gap with new bone. A malunion. The body compensating the best it can. To fix the malunion, to bring the bone back to alignment, means it has to be broken again.

The public humiliation, the condemnation, was a break. But it was the second break. The healing one. Because I was still that little girl who associated religious teachers with God, with my parents, with love and approval. I needed for them to see how hard I worked. I needed for them to see how seriously I took it all. I needed for them to look at me and say, we’re not worried about this one. I needed to be the good girl. I needed that because that’s who I thought I had to be to be loved. By people—and by God.

This second break would serve to correct this malunion. It still hurt. It hurt more than I can express here. I carried the shame of that for a long, long time. Full healing will take longer still, I know. But now, as the wound begins to heal, I can see it for what it was: a gift, a blessing. Permission to leave. Permission to step away. To take my former self by the hand and tell her, you don’t have to try so hard. You are enough, all by yourself.

And, you don’t have to believe what they think about you.

And, take down that rope, little girl, if it ought to be taken down. Ask the questions that scare them. Ask the questions that scare you. Let them worry about you. Let them. You’re going to be just fine.

Erin BondComment