Wrestling with doubts is very difficult. But when my wife and I began wrestling with questions about the Bible, our family situation made our struggle even tougher. We were part of a very conservative group known as the Church of Christ. The Church of Christ doesn’t consider itself to be a denomination, nor does it even consider itself to be Protestant. Its goal is to match the teachings found in the New Testament so that it can mirror a first-century church. So in a way, it claims to predate Catholicism.
Because of its focus on the New Testament, the Church of Christ tries to base everything it does on scripture. There’s a saying that’s often associated with the church which says, “Speak where the Bible speaks; be silent where the Bible is silent.” In many ways, it’s an admirable stance to take. But this devotion to scripture also creates a problem that many people who leave other branches of Christianity don’t have to deal with: withdrawal.
Withdrawal is a practice that is very similar to “excommunication” in Catholicism, “disfellowshipping” as used by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, “disconnection” in Scientology, and “shunning” among the Quakers. In withdrawal, those who have “fallen away” from the church can no longer be associated with in any context, unless it’s being done in an effort to bring them back to the group. Even among close family members, this is usually expected to be enforced. So my wife and I knew that if we left Christianity, or even just the conservative branch of the Church of Christ, we would lose our relationships with those we were closest to.
As you might imagine, dealing with that realization only makes the search for truth that much more difficult. Because now, the decision isn’t being based solely on evidence; it’s being heavily swayed by social pressures. All this really does is make it more difficult to tell others that you’re struggling with doubt. When I first had concerns about the Bible, I told some people I was close to, because I fully expected to find solutions to the issues. But when they didn’t have any answers, I was referred to other Christians who might be able to help. As time went by, the circle of people who were aware of my questions became quite large, so that there was no way for me to just let things go. I was frequently asked if any progress had been made with my doubts. I wanted to be honest and say that my doubts had only grown, but I also knew that complete honesty would eventually get me driven out of the church (and my family).
It was an incredibly difficult period — easily the toughest thing we’ve ever been through. My wife and I tried to deal with it in different ways. At one point, we decided that we would just continue to live as Christians even though we didn’t believe it just to save our family relationships. But we soon realized that this would be too difficult to accomplish. Before our doubts, we had both been very involved in the congregation. We both taught Bible classes, and I took a very active role in worship. We couldn’t go back to that level of involvement, but we also knew that as long as we took a less active role, people would suspect our lack of belief. Also, the Church of Christ isn’t casual about things like attendance. If you don’t go to every service, then obviously something is wrong. And it’s not that we hated going to church services — it was actually something we had always enjoyed. But we worried about exposing our kids to it so frequently, especially since they would be expected to go to Bible classes. And considering our past devotion, no one was really going to accept anything less than a full recovery from us. We just weren’t capable of that.
Finally, we realized that we just couldn’t be dishonest about our beliefs. We didn’t want to live that way, and we certainly couldn’t raise our kids to believe something that we thought was false. So we stopped pretending and were officially “withdrawn from” in December 2010. We weren’t able to do Christmas with our families. We haven’t heard from them on our birthdays. In some ways, it’s almost like they’ve died. The most complicated part is that we have 3 children, and we want them to be able to enjoy their grandparents. So while our families can’t have anything to do with my wife and I, we still have to interact with them enough to coordinate visits with our kids.
The whole situation has been awful, and not everyone in the family has been on board. Some members of my family aren’t members of the Church of Christ anyway, so their relationships with us haven’t changed. And a couple of my family members who are in the church, don’t completely agree with the way our withdrawal has been handled. But they can’t speak up much for fear of retribution.
So if you’ve read my blog and wondered why I bother writing against Christianity, it’s with the hope that our families will rethink their positions. Even if they never turn away from Christianity, if they could just see that the Bible doesn’t always agree on the details, maybe they would relent on their strict application of withdrawal. We miss our families, and all we really want is tolerance.
In the next post, I’ll examine the doctrinal basis for withdrawal.