Self Belonging:

Growing up evangelical, women learn they are always someone else's property. For some, leaving the faith is the only path to self-ownership.

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Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the concepts of agency and autonomy, how necessary they are for a fulfilling life…and how impossible they are when consent is ignored. I’ve been realizing with a growing sense of anger and frustration that I had no grasp of those concepts as a Christian. Really, as I came to understand what basic respect, prioritizing consent, and honoring the autonomy of my fellow humanity looked like, I realized that Christianity as I knew it had no place for those things…and therefore had no place for me.

Don’t get me wrong. There were many things that played into my deconversion—this wasn’t the only thing. But it was certainly an eye-opening discovery.

You see, I grew up with the knowledge that I wasn’t my own person. Oh, no. I belonged to many people.

I belonged to God, because He made me. In fact, I belonged to Him even more because He saved me and I was a Christian.

I belonged to my parents (who thankfully were good, wonderful, trustworthy parents who loved me with all their hearts and took great care of me). But in my culture, I belonged to them and was expected to forfeit my autonomy in favor of submission to their authority in my life, up until the moment my dad gave me away to my spouse on my wedding day.

I belonged to my husband, whether I was currently married to him or not. What I wanted or needed, physically or emotionally, was irrelevant, because my purpose was to serve him.

It never occurred to me to investigate this claim that I didn’t belong to myself. None of these things were ever a question for me. It never occurred to me that I could do things because I wanted to do them. The thought was always, “Is what I’m doing going to glorify God, fall in line with my parents, and honor my future husband?” After all, I couldn’t forget the acronym for joy and what it meant.

As a girl growing up into a woman within the Plymouth Brethren movement, not only did I not belong to myself, I also had lots of people to answer to. Lots of authorities who could offer input into my life whenever they pleased. Lots of people to submit myself to: all the elders at my church, all older Christians, all men. Even peers were encouraged to “exhort” me to better, more Christ-like behavior.

We assembly folk were an extremely biblically literalist bunch. While higher education in theological or biblical matters was generally frowned upon (you only need the Holy Spirit and a group of like-minded believers, don’t you know), we prided ourselves on our ability to think clearly, comprehend and apply the truths of Scripture to our lives, and make sure that our emotions never, ever ran away with us. After all, emotions are fleeting and untrustworthy, but the Word of the Lord is forever.

Words were often redefined, like love and joy and peace. Love was a choice, never a feeling, because feelings could change but love wasn’t allowed to. Joy was similarly not based on circumstances like its shallower sister, Happiness, but was to be found in the knowledge of God. Peace, whether it was truly felt or not, was ours because God promised to give us the peace that passes understanding. Even doubts were explained away as unreliable feelings, because we had God’s Truth so there could never be doubt if we were claiming the Truth for ourselves.

Intentionally or not, the result of growing up in a system that taught such things was that I constantly undermined my own emotions and feelings, seeing them as less than, as an enemy I had to squelch. After all, if my experiences didn’t line up with what the Bible said, it was me and my experiences that were wrong. Always.

All correction from any number of people, no matter their relationship to me, was to be accepted without complaint. All perceived punishment, born with the knowledge that I deserved it. All trauma, experienced with a joyful heart that I got to suffer for the Lord and an understanding that pain wasn’t a big deal compared to the glory awaiting me in heaven.

No matter what happened, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that my thoughts, my wants, my needs were of no consequence. I didn’t matter. Only God and those He put in authority over me mattered, and there was no boundary I was allowed to set that would allow me any amount of autonomy.

Like when “godly” peers and authorities alike proved themselves to be untrustworthy, manipulative, even predatory, and my friends and I had no recourse because we instinctively knew their authority meant our comfort didn’t matter.

Or when I told a friend about being sexually assaulted in college and he replied, “Praise the Lord!” because like me he was taught suffering for God was the greatest thing that could happen to us as Christians.

Or when I was forced to sign a statement saying I agreed with all 80 pages of the BJU rulebook under penalty of expulsion (and when that forced agreement was brought up as proof that I’d consented then broken my “contract” with them when I was expelled).

Even when I became suicidal after having sex with my boyfriend, because I was so ashamed that a healthy, healing consensual sexual experience somehow meant I dishonored God, my parents, and my future husband. My enthusiastic consent meant nothing, because those people not involved in the situation at all didn’t want me to. To drive this point home, a friend at the time said I’d proven I could no longer be trusted to make my own decisions so she and another friend would be making them for me.

Then there’s the time when I finally talked about my sexual assault, depression, and PTSD publicly for the first time and Christians seemed to privately rush to tell me to be quiet, that talking about such things or dwelling on them was displeasing to God and damaging to others.

And of course when I finally deconverted and told my Christian friends that I understood their pain and confusion but asked them to respect me and my beliefs by neither scolding me nor trying to convert me, and those requests were ignored en masse to the point that I had to delete an entire toxic, hateful thread and block people who took to private messages to lambast me for daring to have a public opinion in such opposition to the one I was supposed to have.

This isn’t something that’s particular to my former brand of Christianity, either. By and large, Christianity as a system in the Western world teaches people to run roughshod over the boundaries of those within and without their camps under the guise of love. The consent of its members and non-members alike isn’t required, as clearly demonstrated by the past almost 28 years of my existence. And that’s a massive problem, enabling (and at times commanding) the manipulation, mistreatment, and abuse of countless people.

In fact, I’d say one of the defining characteristics of Christianity today is that it has a consent problem.

When God’s love is offered freely to everyone…unless they reject Him, at which point He’ll subject them to violent, painful, and—oh yeah—eternal punishment, Christianity has a consent problem.

When generations are taught they don’t belong to themselves because God made them and paid for them by killing His Son so now they’re literally His slaves, Christianity has a consent problem.

When it’s taught that believers are dead and thus no longer alive, but Christ lives through them now so they literally no longer exist and everything they do must align with the desires of a being other than themselves, Christianity has a consent problem.

When people are constantly compared to mindless sheep who need a shepherd because on their own they can’t survive, Christianity has a consent problem.

I’d say one of the defining characteristics of Christianity today is that it has a consent problem.

Come to think of it, I’m pretty sure Tangled is one giant metaphor for deconverting from Christianity and escaping the abusive control of a manipulative authority figure.

When Christians constantly evangelize those who want to be left alone because of course they know better than those poor hell-bound sinners, Christianity has a consent problem.

When Christians want to be free to live however they please, but also want to use the government to force the country to live under “biblical” laws, Christianity has a consent problem.

When believers pry into each other’s lives and shame each other for perceived moral failings that tend to be absolutely no one’s business under the guise of exhorting each other, Christianity has a consent problem.

When women are expected to give men a chance whether they want to or not, because men have more godly authority than women so we ought to trust them, Christianity has a consent problem.

When people, married or not, are taught they don’t have authority over their own bodies because they belong to their father (if unmarried) or their spouse (and of course ultimately with God), Christianity has a consent problem.

When divorce is forbidden even in emotionally, physically, or sexually abusive circumstances, Christianity has a consent problem.

When women are forced to carry pregnancies to term against their will, Christianity has a consent problem.

When children are seen as the property of their parents and treated like show dogs to train and show off, praised when performing well and beaten (oh, excuse me, spanked) when they “misbehave,” Christianity has a consent problem.

When children are told to respect and honor their parents, no matter what abuses were rained down upon them in the name of love or otherwise, Christianity has a consent problem.

When you are told to lean not on your own understanding but in every possible way submit to God and His authorities in your life, Christianity has a consent problem.

When core tenets of the faith dictate that your own heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked and no one can know it, and in the next breath you’re taught spiritual authorities in your life are to be trusted more than your own intuition and obeyed even against your better judgment (because of course you can’t even have better judgment, don’t you know that your heart is deceitful and desperately wicked?), Christianity has a consent problem.

When the liberals, atheists, non-Christians, LGBT+ community and all others that Christianity by and large decries as sinful and reprobate are the ones who teach love, acceptance, respect, and community better than Western Christianity as a whole ever has, Christianity has a consent problem.

There are individual exceptions to this, of course. Certain groups within Christianity who are different, truly respectful and loving and inclusive. I’m unendingly thankful for the Christians in my life who tirelessly work to make their religion a better, safer place. People who strive to teach that you are your own, in fact, and fight against the awful lie that we’re damaged goods, and lead the charge of liberation for the oppressed.

I’m equally thankful for other former Christians like me, who write about our experiences in the faith and outside the faith, offering solidarity to other former Christians in an overwhelming Christianized nation, providing valuable critique of the framework of Christianity and how to live as an actualized person when you’ve realized that everything you’ve ever known is no longer available to you, and fighting to make sure that the church and state remain separate for the good of all in our country.

I can’t tell you how freeing it is to realize that I belong to me, and no one else. I get to decide what happens to my body, what kind of interactions people are allowed to have with me, and what sort of people and activities and possessions I want to have in my life. I’m my own person, and I get to decide who that is.

And until Christianity as a whole takes a good look at its refusal to recognize or honor the boundaries of others and work to change their rampant tendency to control the lives of all they can in the name of God, consent be damned…Christianity is not a safe place for anyone. And more and more people like me will have to leave it to find any sort of freedom, respect, and dignity.

Dani Ward is a graphic designer, calligrapher, and web geek by trade who spends the rest of their time learning self-care and how be a better human being. You can find them @dlward and @FatGirlMedia

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Neil Carter is a high school teacher, a father of four, and a skeptic living in the Bible Belt. A former church elder with a seminary education, Neil now writes mostly about the struggles of former evangelicals...