I got a great reminder recently about how appearance-driven some religions are…yet another experience with someone from my former faith who stopped, looked me up and down from my sandals and jeans to my cut hair and makeup, rolled their eyes, sighed, ignored my outstretched hand and my friendly “hello”, and turned and walked away. Of course, even that was preferable to my encounter a couple of days later with the man who answered my cheery “good morning!” with an exclamation of “Hallelujah!” and then proceeded to turn his back on me and pray *just* loud enough for me to hear him…apparently he had to cleanse his soul after a woman like me looked upon him 😉
It’s a funny thing, this being a pariah – and it’s given me much more insight into how the victims of “soulwinning” expeditions must feel. Honestly, the church(es) I spent most of my life in focused only on externals. Oh, they talked a good talk about being led by the Spirit, and how we should be a light in the darkness. But you know what sticks in my mind? The sermon after sermons after innumerable sermons on “holiness”. The series and the books and the tapes of Brother So-and-So or Sister So-and-So exhorting us to “holiness”, to ever increasing focus on appearance and what was visible to scrutiny.
It wouldn’t have been quite so bad if there had been a consensus on just what this elusive Holiness was. You’d think that belonging to a fellowship of churches that called themselves by that name would mean there would be some sort of agreement on just what was holy and what was not. But in three countries, in many many churches that I’ve attended or visited, there have never been two churches that agreed on “standards”.
Mind you, there are some that could reach enough of a like-mindedness that they would agree to “fellowship” – this usually happened when the dating pool suffered an imbalance in a local congregation, so pastors would meet and hash out the things they could agree with enough to let the teens intermingle. But for the most part, I had pastors who would say “we can’t fellowship with pastor x’s church, they are too liberal” – yes, even though the ministers were credentialed by the same organization, even though they signed the same articles of faith, even though we were told repeatedly that as a denomination, we had “The Truth”.
The mantra I heard over and over and over again to explain this discrepancy? “You are responsible before the Lord for following your Man of God.” This, of course, meant our pastor – himself voted in, his tenure full of acrimony, his days spent negotiating the political structure of whatever church he was in for that point in time. But that pastor, until the church voted him out and sent him looking for another place he was “called to”, was essentially Jehovah to us. His preferences were “Holiness”, divine revelation to us. That meant that when we changed pastors, we could change “standards” to meet his new guidelines, and what was once sin was no longer since our new Man of God didn’t require it…but a whole new crop of sins would be listed. It was a cult of personality that revolved around whichever personality was dominant at the time.
Some examples: at various times in my life, I’ve had pastors who required that I wear opaque tights because my legs shouldn’t be seen. Others required taupe or nude pantyhose. Still others? Sheer was ok, but black was preferred. One pastor didn’t care if we had bare legs under our preferably ankle-length skirts, but we had to wear hosiery to perform on the platform – leading several of us to keep a spare pare of knee-highs in the pew 😉 Skirt lengths have varied from knee to ankle. Some pastors allowed “slits”, others said if a slit was necessary then too much of a woman’s evil form was on display, and they required A-line skirts instead. Sleeve length was the same – everything from short to elbow to wrist was required, depending on who the pastor was (they all were unanimous, though, that seeing pits was forbidden – no cap sleeves, ever.) Yes, I’ve been to meetings for ladies where I had to hold my arms out from my sides and have a minister’s wife or youth leader’s wife walk by to see if they could glimpse my bra, because if they could, then the young men in the church would be distracted if I raised my arms in worship.
Shirt material – some allowed knits if they weren’t clingy, others required cotton material only. Necklines – everything from jewel necks to button downs with only one button open, nothing at all that showed that a woman had breasts.
No jewelry, of course…although even this was split from “no wedding bands or watches” to “no wedding bands, plain watches ok” to “expensive watches with diamonds are ok to exchange when you get engaged” to “wedding bands are ok, and you can wear big glitzy feathery jeweled pins on your lapel and on your shoes, but please to take off the medic alert necklace you are wearing.”
These differences were really, really prominent at camps and conferences where all different churches from one denomination were together under one roof. You could tell the “liberal” churches – They had a WOMAN minister! They might even let a woman who had trimmed her hair stand up and ‘testify’ in church! and look, their girls wore promise rings! and OMGoodness, did you SEE that her slit goes up a half inch ABOVE the back of her knee?! How dare she stand exposed before God that way!
On the other side of the arena, you’d have the “conservative” churches – but none of them stood really close together, because while they were united against the common enemy of jewelry and trimmed hair, they still had their variances clearly marked by the color of their hosiery, the style of their updo (conservative churches require a woman’s hair to be UP already), the colors they were allowed to wear, and the type of shoes their pastors permitted. Even at the alter the lines of distinction were drawn – until a bona fide ‘sinner’ walked in, then it was “look at US! We are ALL HOLY! We have THE TRUTH!” as the various ministers rushed to be the one to ‘pray them through’.
Yes, I sound bitter. Believe it or not, I really am – surprisingly! – not bitter over this. It’s because I saw the other side of this equation as well…people who genuinely love God. Pastors who believe what they are demanding is the Truth-with-a-capital-T and who weep real tears over those who “fall away”. People who are trying to do their best in this confusing world to hear God’s voice and follow it. People who are willing to do anything and risk the world’s derision for their idea of what God wants. That takes courage (I know, because I lived it – you try being the only one working the potato harvest in a dress!)
But mixed up in the desire to serve God is the desire to serve the pastor, and that’s where it falls apart for me. I don’t believe that any one man can be a divine oracle for me, speaking contradictory revelation and dispensing salvation contingent upon how well I comply. I’ve had some pastors that I truly loved over the years, some of whom I’m still friends with, or at least friend*ly* with. The difference is that I no longer lie awake at night feeling guilty for violating some requirement of the church or the pastor.
Yes, I know that people believe I’ve hardened my heart, I’ve backslidden, I’ve rejected God.
All I can say to that is: You have no idea how very humbling it is to throw out everything you’ve ever been taught, to re-examine your whole life, to be willing to admit that what you helped propagate just might not be God’s desire. No, I can’t see myself ever moving back into that – not now that I’ve been honest enough to admit that my whole life part of me has always listened to sermons with a skeptical ear.
I know this: I believe in God – I believe I’m saved by His abundant, overwhelming, all-encompassing Grace.
No longer am I willing to belong to a faith that teaches that this Grace is contingent upon my compliance with arbitrary rules, no matter how nice the man who issues those rules is.
And with each person from my former faith who sneers and turns away, and each person whose eyes well up with tears as they see my ‘backslidden’ state – with each person who refuses to talk to me for fear I’ll contaminate them or that my independent thinking might be contagious, my resolve that I’m on the correct path is affirmed. I love them, I wish them well, but it truly is no longer for me.
On this Resurrection Sunday, I feel as if I’m walking out of the tomb with Him. <3 I’m enjoying what it feels like to be alive, unhampered by expectations of a man or a congregation who insist that I have to follow a checklist to earn my way to Heaven. I’m slowly learning what it’s like to truly walk by faith – to trust that I’m safe and loved and saved even though I’m not wrapping myself in tattered rags of “Holiness” – that God truly loves me Just. As. I. Am.
He is Risen, indeed!