Breaking Fences

“Why won’t legalists have sex? Because somebody might see them and think they’re dancing.”

While you’re still dying of laughter over that one…

Rules protect us from sinning. That’s the whole spirit behind legalism. Rules about what you wear, what you watch, how you dress, what you eat, where you go — they’re all designed to keep you from ever getting close enough to a sin to commit it. They “fence off” the sin so you can’t get to it. Want to avoid sexual sin? Probably best not to go dancing.

That way, you can be sure that God will bless you instead of punishing you.

The problem is… actually, there are a lot of problems with living life this way. One of the problems is that there are never enough fences. Legalism creates row after row of fences, trying to block off any avenue to that sin. That includes even the good parts of our human nature that might lead us too close to that sin.

And eventually, breaking the “fences” becomes just as great an offense as the sin itself.

These rules vary from one subculture to another. In my own “Fellowship,”  (Bill Gothard’s homeschooling program) girls could wear makeup and earrings, but it was a big deal not to listen to “rock” music (which was almost any music other than hymns or classical). In the church my husband grew up in, the music rules were less stringent, but women weren’t allowed to have pierced ears or cut their hair. I read about other cults where members weren’t allowed to attend other churches, or had to log a certain number of hours in prayer every week, or weren’t allowed to eat marshmallows.

And it never works. We still mess up. Legalism just gives us hundreds of extra ways to mess up, without the remedy of God’s grace and mercy to restore us.

It’s a heavy burden of guilt to be credited for a sin you never committed.

In my world, the “fence” progression looked something like this:

Sin: sexual sin

Rule 1: To avoid sexual sin, don’t date until you’re ready for marriage.

New sin: dating

Rule 2: To avoid dating, commit to “courtship” in which the parents make the decision that you’re ready.

New sin: violating courtship commitment

Rule 3: To avoid violating your courtship commitment, don’t let yourself fall in love with someone your parents haven’t approved.

New sin: falling in love

Rule 4: To avoid falling in love, don’t let yourself have crushes.

New sin: crushes

Rule 5: To avoid crushes, don’t interact with the opposite sex on a casual basis.

Therefore:

Interacting with and enjoying the attention of the opposite sex is, in effect, sexual sin.

So back away from the fence and behave. That’s what God said, after all.

Are You a Failure? Y/N

The thing about cults and cult-like systems is that, for the most part, they’re really boring.

Most of the indoctrination takes place day by day, through sermons that carefully redefine Scripture, through lectures that reinforce the group’s beliefs, and through long, dull sessions of filling in blanks and regurgitating the right answers.

The question-and-answer exercises are very simplistic, and all designed to condition you to doubt yourself and feel like a failure. You learn to look to your leader for answers, and you’re afraid to leave the group because you know you’ll crash and burn on your own.

A friend from my own Fellowship* recently shared a snapshot of a worksheet we had to fill out as students in the early 90s. As 14 – 18 year olds, we were separated from our parents at weeks-long conferences, awakened early and kept up late, and bombarded all day with lectures and conditioned group responses. Somewhere in the middle of this exhausting, bewildering, and exhilarating experience, they dropped things like this in our laps:

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1. Do you get up early in the morning?

2. Do you get out of bed when you wake up?

3. Are you an “energy-giver” when you get up?

4. Do you decide the night before what to wear the next day?

5. Do you consistently honor a day of rest?

6. Do you make your bed as soon as you get up?

7. Do you have everything in its rightful place?

8. Do you keep your room neat?

9. Are you consistent in your daily Bible reading?

10. Do you have a regular prayer time?

11. Do you regularly memorize Scripture?

12. Do you always wash your hands before meals?

13. Do you practice proper etiquette?

14. Do you sit near the front during a meeting?

15. Do you stand up for your elders?

16. Do you take notes during messages?

17. Do you know how to detect the five types of fools?

18. Do your parents approve of all your friends?

19. Do you fulfill all the promises you make?

20. Do you put yourself to sleep with meditation on Scripture?

*

An outsider could glance over it and say, “Well, there are a lot of great ideas here. Except what does washing your hands have  to do with self-motivation? Just take what’s good and leave the rest.”

An insider knew much better than that.  “No” is not an acceptable answer to any of these questions. Notice that”Sometimes” isn’t even an option. We couldn’t take-and-leave. This wasn’t a mere list of ideas. This was a test, and we were set up to fail it.

Unless you’re educated in the culture that it comes from, you probably still miss how loaded some of these questions are. I could spend a dozen blog posts unpacking these questions.

For instance, “Do you get up early in the morning?” Early rising was a mark of Godliness; sleeping late was, therefore, sinful. The next question, “Do you get out of bed when you wake up?” reinforces the idea that staying in bed is a sign of slothfulness. And there was an entire booklet about the dangers of being slothful. So if you answered “no” to questions 1 & 2, you’re already spiritually defective.

Or how about #14? Sitting in the back of a meeting demonstrated apathy (a sin) or rebelliousness (a major sin).

In order to answer #17, you had to remember the extensivelesson on the Five Types of Fools; so that question actually covered an entirely separate session in itself.

Question #18 weighed about a ton. Your parents had the power of God’s disapproval in your life. If they didn’t like a friend of yours, no matter the reason, the only obedient course of action was to get rid of that friend. Also, “friend” here could stand for “friend of the opposite sex” — someone you liked despite the fact that God expected you to keep your emotions pure until He brought you the one you were to marry. It was a reminder that even your emotions were subject to God/your parents.

The entire list, by the way, is pretty easy to master if you happen to be someone exactly like the Venerated Leader who wrote it — a man who didn’t need much sleep, was an extrovert, found memorization easy, didn’t have any real friends, wore basically the same thing every day, and spent thirty years sexually harassing young women that he invited to work for him. Oh, wait, he forgot to add that item, didn’t he?

Twenty years later, when many of us saw the picture of this list, we felt that same oppression we’d lived under as teenagers. “No wonder,” we said. “No wonder I always felt like a failure. No wonder I worked myself into chronic fatigue. No wonder I broke down at age 20.” This list was just one of many others like it. This was how we knew to please God.

This was our spiritual life, one in which choosing your clothes the night before is just as important as keeping the Sabbath (one of the Ten Commandments). No room for mistakes or personality. Just keep your head down, obey, and pretend you aren’t the complete failure you know you are.

And for the record, I have no idea how washing your hands before every meal made it on this list. That’s stupid.

If you need me, I’ll be lying in bed in my comfortably cluttered room, with no memory of the five types of fools, and resting in the grace of God.

*Bill Gothard, IBLP/ATI

My Story

Anybody can tell that I had a rough church experience, considering that I wrote a novel about it.

But actually — it wasn’t.

I grew up in a pretty normal Southern Baptist church in south Mississippi. It was conservative, but not particularly strict, legalistic, or reactive.

(But, being good Baptists with an “invitation” at the end of every service, we could sing “Just As I Am” seventeen times in a row without breaking a sweat.)

When I was 14, my parents decided to homeschool my sister and me. As far as the homeschooling went, I liked it. It suited my self-paced, nonconformist personality much better than the public school system.

So: church was okay. Homeschooling was fine. Then where did I get this novel?

Well, in order to homeschool, we got into Bill Gothard’s ATI program (made recently famous by the Duggar family, but we were before their era.) ATI seemed like a good idea at the time. Most cults do.

Over the course of two or three years, my family adopted dramatically different rules about dress, music, food, and romance. Many of the changes were painful for me. With every new publication or seminar or meeting, I knew something else I enjoyed would turn out to be wrong somehow. The “standards” were set high and left nothing up to personal choice.

But I conformed. After all, my other option was God’s punishment.

And my experience with the Institute wasn’t all bad. (Why, no, there’s nothing unsettling about the fact that we considered ourselves as part of “The Institute.”) I made a lot of friends, got to travel some, and was generally treated well — if mostly overlooked — by the leadership. The good was tangled up with the bad to the point that I couldn’t always tell one from the other.

Then I got married, and all those “standards” about dress and romance and music didn’t really seem important anymore. I was glad to leave it all behind.

Well, mostly behind. During the early years of my marriage, I was drawn to stories of cult survivors. Not people who escaped the weird, terrifying cults run by Jim Jones or David Koresh. No, I used my slow dial-up internet connection to find stories of people who left the big, visible, “churchy” cults that looked almost normal on the outside. These people had no real abuse to report, but were emotionally and spiritually devastated. Over five or six years, I read hundreds of heartbroken stories. Some ended in redemption, but all too many didn’t.

Then Facebook dawned and I connected with other ex-Institute students. I recognized those same cult-survivor stories in my very own circle.

And some of them in my very own life.

Gradually I faced my tangled memories. I finally understood how much pain I was in, but had been taught to ignore.

And I was one of the lucky ones. Many of my fellow “Xers” suffered tangible abuse at home, at church, or from Institute leaders. Some survivors were cut off from their families and hadn’t seen their siblings for years. All of us had to deal with a warped view of God, self-hate, and utter confusion over what the truth really is.

For me, redemption came through my marriage to a gentle, faith-filled man; through family and friends who loved me through the tangle; and finally, through a God who broke past the fear and pain and showed me what grace really is.

So my personal story isn’t too horrifying. I’m just someone who got chewed up and spit out by the system, without anything to show for it afterward. Nothing except a tenacious grip on God and a burning desire to give a voice to those who are still too broken to speak.

Warding Off Superstition

A couple of friends have pointed out that my launch date (ahem, November 13, ahem) is, in fact, a Friday the 13th.

And that’s kind of like poetic justice because nobody in the Fellowship is superstitious. God controls everything, so there’s no such thing as “unlucky days.”

Instead, Fellowshippers (and a lot of Christians outside of fiction) adhere to straight Biblical truth about cause-and-effect:

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But saying bad luck is because we don’t complete certain rituals to ward off evil? Utter malarky.