I’ll tell you my church story.
Disclaimer: not meant to offend; merely expression of an individual’s emotional development in and out of church life.
I was never raised religious. No one in my family was particularly into God. Superstition yes. But never loyal to one religion.
Religion was something I stumbled upon. It began with grade school. Back then most schools were either Catholic or Protestant, at least the more decent ones. I loved the bible – the stories fantastical, a Jesus figure that loved you as you are. To a kid that’s pretty comforting. An all powerful God too – no longer need to fear the gremlins and monsters lurking in the dark. Say a prayer and God the father will come to your rescue and annihilate all the scary demons.
I don’t say this sarcastically. I’ve seen the power of, shall we narrow it down to, “Christianity”? To the meekest and lonesomest ones it provides comfort. To the sinners and the down-trodden it raises them from the bottom rungs and tells them they are worthy. It doesn’t matter if your mom or dad or sister or brother didn’t love you. God does. And that should be enough. I’ve seen near destroyed lives picked up and pieced together by the power of Christianity.
Problem came when church teachings didn’t align with rational thought. This gets a bit messy. Every church is different and every interpretation of the bible is slightly different depending on which denomination you’re from. Baptists believe that one must be baptised to be saved. Catholics believe you can enter a purgatory after life on earth to earn your way back to heaven. Some, like Pentecostals, practice the speaking of tongues. Mine doesn’t. Then you have the other denominations on the further end of the spectrum – and be careful now – if you slip a little too far away from mainstream you’ll be classified as culty. Mormons don’t make the Christianity cut – but I appreciate the similarities in parts of their book and the bible.
My problem with church began with homosexuality. I’m not gay, but a handful of good friends are. The awkwardness began when I was told regularly at church that God wasn’t ok with gayness. There are biblical backings – the obvious one Sodom and Gomorrah. And a handful of passages in Romans and other old testament books that condemns same sex coupling.
Yet there are contradictions. A handful of practices that were not ok in the old testament are now ok. I’m thinking menstruation, and how a woman was perceived as unclean and sinful during her bleeding (Leviticus 15); how pork was perceived as unclean and not to be consumed (Leviticus, Deuteronomy); how slavery was ok (old and new testament alike); how having multiple wives was ok (old testament). Some of these practices (like polygamy) could be explained away by Jesus’ condemning of such in the new testament, but bottom line is, the forbidding or allowing of practices/customs changes with time. As we learn more about the world, especially in the realms of science, as our humanity evolves and we develop new standards for morality, so does our interpretation of the bible and official church doctrine.
We’re already seeing this evolvement in the homosexuality debate. Churches are divided. There are the conservative churches that still hold on to the traditional teachings against homosexuality, and you have, for instance, some Anglican churches allowing and blessing same-sex unions, perhaps even allowing gay people as candidates for bishophood. My church is against homosexuality. I don’t have a problem with it, but in order not to ostracise myself from religious friends whom I’ve known a long time, I don’t get into debates about this. I just won’t sign or support anything that condemns homosexual behaviour.
My second problem is sex. The most usual form of sexuality condoned by Christians is the heterosexual, no-premarital intercourse type. It’s straight forward (no pun intended!): if you’re straight, don’t have sex with anyone else other than your spouse (extra points for not masturbating and watching pornography), then you’re ok. There’s no need to feel guilty, unclean, wrong.
But what if you don’t fit into this narrow mould? Worse – what if you’re single and getting older?
Then you’re bound to a lifelong existence of loneliness and holiness.
I say this out of observation. Single church life is very lonely. While I understand there are ministries and fellowships directed towards single people, truth is for almost every church most of the resources are directed towards Christian couples and families. The pastor is almost always a married man with a family. People high up in the church power ladder are almost always married. Married couples, at some point, no longer understand the needs of a single person at 30, 40, 50 and above. There was an amazing article discussing this phenomenon, and the message in it was that married church couples need to acknowledge that they don’t understand the singlehood church life, and that church as a whole needs to reach out and provide more resources to single churchgoers.*
The difficulties of singlehood within church becomes inhumane at a point. Let me illustrate. You’re a man of 35. For whatever reason you weren’t able to find the wife that God prepared for you. Perhaps it wasn’t God’s will that you marry. But your heart says otherwise, and you long to get married. Every brother around you now has a wife, and perhaps young children. They’ve settled well into couple/family life, have new responsibilities, and the fellowship time you guys shared during the single days has long vanished.
You find it harder to stay pure. Because your church doesn’t allow masturbation (some may – but from what I know most don’t), you release your sexual energy through guilt-ridden, angry sessions of jerking-off, maybe accompanied with pornography. You may or may not admit this “sin” in your small-group sessions. There is some resentment, because (let’s assume you’re part of a couple plus singles all male small-group) the married guys can obviously have sex with their wives. But you can’t. Because if you have sex you’ll be committing adultery.
The girls start looking at you weird. If you’re lucky, a much younger Christian woman might find you a catch and marry you despite the near 10 to 15 year age difference. Or maybe it so happens that both of you are single at 40+ and ready to take that step in marriage. But if you’re not that great of a catch, ain’t that good looking, as you age you tread closer and closer to crossing that threshold of sleazy single guy. Couples think twice before inviting you to their baby showers or birthday parties, because it might be awkward. You may have a position of power in church, where you minister to younger kids or perhaps an early-adult fellowship. But the older those kids get, the less relevant you become. As they step into relationships and marriages of their own, they no longer look up to you because you don’t have the marriage experience. What you say holds less weight over time. This is partially the church’s fault. This isn’t Paul’s world anymore where celibacy was celebrated. While married life and single life should be equally valued, since the bible’s message and goal is obedience to God and growing closer to Christ regardless of marital status, in practice married life is much more honoured. This is evidenced by the ridiculously high percentages of pastors being married before ministry.
For women it’s equally painful, but perhaps less invasive since traditionally women are perceived as less sexually active and don’t have much of a problem with masturbation and pornography. Note the use of perceived. It doesn’t mean that these women don’t struggle with sexual desires and suffocating feelings of loneliness. It’s just that female “sexual sin” is less of a focus in small-groups and church teachings. Most examples of pornography condemning during church sermons are male focused. I can only speak from my church experience.
But the pain is there. You’re less happy about attending weddings, because you don’t want to be stuck at the couples table where you’ll be the only single person. Or worse, stuck at the singles table where only the awkward leftover unmarried church people are clumped together. Baby showers are painful. While you want to be happy for your sister in Christ for her third child, you can’t help but feel she’s traveling further and further from you in the race of life. No matter – the ultimate gift is eternity with God, right? The pain, the loneliness, the feeling that life or biology jipped you becomes unimportant at the prospect of heaven. Only that it’s not – you’re living this life. And it sucks.
So here you have it. Pockets of single men and women punished to stay asexual, pure, giving, and are expected not to have sex until they get married. A lot of them will stay unmarried, because past a certain age it’s nearly impossible to get a decent date, let alone step towards the direction the alter. These men and women continue to attend church – for many, it’s the only community they’ve known for the past decade or more. They’ve invested week after week of church and small-group attendance, time they could have used to expand their social circle and meet other people, but it’s time they will never get back. At 35, 40, 50, it’s very difficult to break out of that church social circle and meet new friends. Only, now that everyone has formed families of their own, you realise you’re the one left behind.
There are of course problems with married life as well. But I’m not going into that.
If you’re gay, the problem is even more complex, or altogether another problem. You’re theoretically not allowed to have sex with the person you like/love, because you’re not supposed to have sex with people of the same sex, period. Your love for your love interest is sinful. Your natural tendencies to like people of your same sex are altogether sinful. Basically – you are sinful. Forget the “hate the sin, love the person” talk. It’s not possible from a practical level – anything that preaches that sentence will still feel like a huge judgement regardless.
I can’t even imagine the pain and guilt that builds up over time. I’m straight and I’ve felt that guilt and fear throughout my life. I can only multiply that feeling 100 times and assume it as the pain and oppression gay people feel at church.
These are a couple reasons why church no longer makes sense to me. That’s why I’m breaking away from its grips. I’m tired of being told what to think, feeling sorry for those who are marginalised within the church community, disagreeing with certain church doctrines especially in relation to sexuality, and knowing that citizens of church are divided into first and second class: the married and the unmarried.
What are your church stories? Are you a believer struggling with the same thoughts? How have you worked a way around it all? How relevant today are church teachings re sexuality?
*If anyone knows the article name, please share! The article is approximately a year old.