I recently read a book called Escape by Carolyn Jessop. This woman was born into the radical polygamist group called the Fundamental Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (or FLDS). Carolyn Jessop courageouslyshares her testimony of trial sand triumph while also exposing the brutality of the FLDS cult and the atrocities all too often associated with spiritual abuse.
Most of us would shudder at what Carolyn suffered. She was coerced into an arranged marriage with a 53 year old man she didn’t know. This man already had three wives, one of which was as abusive as their husband. The brainwashing, the sexual abuse, the tyranny and psychological manipulation leaves the reader in utter disgust. Honestly it was a disturbing read. Anyone wanting an inside perspective of the FLDS church ought to read the book. Anyone wanting to be inspired by a courageous woman should also give the book a read.
But what I want to share has to do with the disturbing similarities of the FLDS’ foundational principles to some of conventional, conservativeChristianity’s practices.
While the FLDS may take these similarities to radical extremes, I believe it is imperative to point out the undeniable comparable principles. If we believe in these principles we inevitably participate, condone or capitulate with the evil practices these principles lead to.
The similarities I’d like to point out are the idolatry of submission, the hierarchy, the patriarchy and the attack on individuality. Let me begin with:
Idolatry of submission and the hierarchy
I grew up Independent Fundamental Baptist or IFB. Subconsciously, I believed IFB to be the “real” Christians. The ones who understood the Bible correctly. IFB were the Christians living out sound doctrine. Within the IFB there isa definite hierarchy. At the top of the pyramid is the Pastor. Like in most conventional church structures, it’s assumed his spiritual gift deserves a title, a pulpit and a salary. He is the head. Of course he is under God, but his authority is ultimate in the church. The only person I ever saw my pastors submit to were their own pastors.
Next come the elders. These are respected men who hold a title and maybe some sort of job like counting the tithe. In most of the churches I attended, being an elder was more of a title than a job. Then comes the “core group” which isnever officially stated, but every church has one. It’s the members who come every Sunday morning, Sunday night and Wednesday night. The five star Christians. The ones who come to every function. Who donate their time and energy at every event. Of course they are still laymen, but like favored children, they get special attention. Then there’s the common saved layperson. And lastly the unsaved pew sitter.
I learned from Carolyn Jessop that the FLDS pyramid looked only slightly different, with the Prophet at the top, who had ultimate authority, the apostles, the patriarchs, the fathers, the favorite wives, lesser wives, and then children. Their leaders also are only expected to submit to God, verses on mutual submission or members of the same body are totally ignored. Certain men can rise to importance based on how many wives they have and how close they are to the prophet’s circle. The FLDS are the only people going to heaven. Of course, women’s acceptance into heaven in determined upon their submission to their husbands.
I grew up where women were never allowed to teach in the church. I’ve known men who believed women shouldn’t even give a testimony “inside” the church. I know of a missionary’s wife who would never give her salvation testimony to males. Women in the FLDS have similar limited “spiritual rights”.
A pastor I knew once told a story of this woman in the church who was a gossip, eavesdropper and meddler. She continually nagged him over some inconsequential detail, often calling the church non-stop to confront him. Once she showed up to the church and started berating him. Pastor Farley then went on to laugh and explain how he held the woman over the banister and threatened to drop her down the flight of stairs if she continued to be such a sinful nagging woman. Everyone in the congregation laughed at this story. She shouldn’t have dared to be so ugly to such a man of God.
I remembered this when Carolyn shared about how a powerful man in the FLDS community (soon-to-be prophet, Warren Jeffs) demonstrated to a classroom of boys of what an obedient wife looked like. He took a woman with long braids and wound her by her hair until she was on the ground in sheer pain.
Women in the FLDSwear long dresses and long underwear underneath. Carolyn said she would be stared at when going into town. But she didn’t care. Because they were the heathen, literally sub par, evil God haters. I could relate while reading this. I grew up wearing skirts and dresses. I was stared at too when we would go places. I was well aware that I stood out. But I also believed girls that wore tank tops and shorts were dressing that way so to be lusted after. “The world’s” judgment was easier to take when I remembered that I was “peculiar” for modesty’s sake. I was a good Christian girl. They simply were sinners.
I’ve known Christian families who wouldn’t go on vacation unless their Pastor blessed their decision. One Pastor would monitor every conversation his wife had. This same man also thought it was okay to come into our house and check our internet history, uninvited. Just to keep tabs on us. Make sure our lives were clean. I know of a church where the men would ask the pastor if they could marry a certain girl in the church before they’d ask the girl’s father, let alone the girl. I know of many situations where women were abused, but the men in the church never approached the predator because, after all, this man was the head of his home.
In the FLDS, woman and children cannot call an ambulance or the police without their husband’s approval. They cannot marry without the prophet’s permission. The prophet assigns women to husbands, often giving the young, good looking women to the prestigious leaders, even if these men are in their eighties or older. Women in the FLDS community rarely can report abuse. The government is seen as evil, and the leaders within the movement side with the husband the majority of the time. If the spiritual authorities do intervene, it’s a small penalty to the man, and then the wife is treated even worse in her home. Men refuse to get involved with other men’s homes. Even if sexual or physical abuse is going on. Carolyn details this in her book.
When Warren Jeffs took over as prophet for the FLDS, one of his edicts was that no one should have anything the color red. Red was Christ’s exclusive color for himself. No one questioned. Entire households threw out clothes and tools, even when they were low-income families and it meant ridding their children of most their wardrobe. It is common in this cult for grown adults to abandon reason and moral convictions if their leaders tell them too. They blindly follow.
This is not unlike many in mainstream Christianity. There is spiritual abuse going on in the Western Church. Truth is twisted and authority misused to support the insecurities or the power trips of church leadership. And people refuse to acknowledge it. They’ve been duped into a false authority that strips them of their liberty to follow Christ. They are kept in a rigid religious militia.
Predators, spiritual or physical, are fools glut on false power. Often these people go unchallenged because “good people” fail to act. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard victims tell me that their family or friends advised them to keep silent. Or victims who told me how no-one believed that “so-and-so” could ever do something like that. The sickest part of it all is that Christians sugar coat their apathy with spiritual terms, like forbearance, obedience, submission. One of the biggest excuses for inaction is a false perception of forgiveness. Many many victims remain silent for fear that they are harboring bitterness, or that it’s their duty to “forgive and forget”. Manipulative predators take advantage of such helplessness. The religious victim is doubly handicapped.
Abuse: To use ill, to mistreat, to misuse, to violate, to defile, to deceive, to impose on, to pervert. Improper treatment.
People who mistreat you, violate you, deceive you, impose themselves upon you, are ABUSERS.
It doesn’t matter if the abuser has a title. He is still guilty.
It doesn’t matter if others trust him. He is still guilty.
It doesn’t matter if he’s a nice guy. He is still guilty.
It doesn’t matter if he suffers. He is still guilty.
It doesn’t matter if you remain silent. He is still guilty.
Victim: Something destroyed; something sacrificed in the pursuit of an object.
If your trust has been violated, if your freedom has been imposed upon, if you have been objectified – you are a victim.
To live like it never happened is wicked.
To remain silent enables the furtherance of evil behavior.
To be the abuser’s friend steals their opportunity of repentance.
To support the abuser condones sin.
To be hurt is not the same as being bitter.
Many are unaware of tyranny in the “Church’ because they’ve never dared to question their Pastor’s opinion. I’ve personally experienced this, and have watched others undergo labeling, rebuke, belittling, misunderstanding, and excommunication. When someone decided to leave the church their salvation was called into question. Comparing conventional Christianity to tyranny is not off the mark. Many Christians have been bullied with threats of God. “Our way or you’re out of God’s will”. Don’t conform to the system and you’re an outcast. Suddenly somehow Satan is gaining victory in your life. Comply or be excommunicated. Opinion is rebellion if it isn’t the authority’s opinion. You’re against God if you don’t agree with Pastor So-and-So. Tyranny.
Idolatry of submission hurts people. It is sin. Our inaction is a tolerance of sin – which is evil. Our blind submission to men is dangerous and leads people astray. Our refusal to resist the tyranny that condones abuse is evil. Doesn’t matter if we are part of a cult or a conservative denomination, idolatry of submission is sin.
Secondly, I’d like to talk about: Patriarchy and the attack on individuality
Many leaders in the Christian arena claim that patriarchy is continually under attack. Womanhood, on the other hand, is only targeted by their own kind. Their own stupidity. They are tearing down womanhood when they try to be like men. (Ie: feminism). Now I do believe that every individual (men, women and children) are under attack because the image of God is an offense to the enemy. I also believe that a new image for manhood is encouraged. A hairless, manicured and tamed servant. The world certainly blurs the lines of gender differences. But this does not prove that women are less of a target. I believe because women are more vulnerable, it is actually women who are more preyed upon. Look at history –Oppression of women has been going on for centuries. This only makes Christians look ignorant when they deny the oppression of women. (Something to consider is what modern conventional Christianity encourages men to be like… I think if we were honest with ourselves, we’d realize that the gentle, manicured servant isn’t just society’s idea, but also the Church’s.)
But back to patriarchy verses feminism – Of course feminism is a real thing – The dictionary defines it thus: fem·i·nism: the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes 2:organized activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests. By definition, feminism is not the enemy of women like conventional Christianity claims.
Of course, looking at history we see that this isn’t all feminism has proven to be. Firstly, there are the “Equality Feminists”. These are the feminists who wished to change unequal treatment of women. These women advocated women’s rights (especially in the political sphere) and sought equal wage in the workforce. When we look at feminists during the 1840’s to 1920’s this is what we normally find. It’s too bad Christians couldn’t have continued to support the movement and become lasting advocates of women like Christians ought to be. Many early day feminists were Methodist and Quaker women. Unfortunately, we allowed it to be sabotaged by others who led it to the feminism we are more familiar with today.
These are the “Gender Feminists” that seek to remove the distinction between the genders. They believe that by blurring the distinction between the genders they can bring down tyranny and patriarchy. The gender-neutral movement is directly enforced by these feminists. These are the Sexual Revolution Feminists.
Feminists recognize the history of oppression against women, yet fail to recognize the most liberating force in all the world – Christianity. They recognize religious tyranny, traditions and regulations as an aid to oppressing women, yet fail to see how God is actually against these very same evils. They recognize marriages that are used to manipulate women, yet illogically condemn marriage in general. The Declaration of Feminism states “Marriage has existed for the benefit of men; and has been legally sanctioned method of control over women… We must work to destroy it….” These feminists have come to the wrong conclusion. Feminists are not the first defenders of women. The Bible strongly stands against the exploitation of women. Perhaps feminists fail to recognize Christianity as the worlds most liberating force because we aren’t doing our job. Instead Christians encourage patriarchy simply because Christians believe it is the antithesis of feminism. Christians are condoning religious regulations even at the cost of hurting people. Christians are practicing a false concept of marriage. It’s no wonder the world shakes it head at Christianity. It’s no wonder that advocates of women condemn Christianity and marriage and religion. We’ve given them reason to believe that they are hazardous at best.
Unfortunately, Feminists are recognizing and addressing the problem while Christians refuse to do either. Instead, so many Christians are focused on remaining “unspotted from the world” and living like hermits, ignoring the atrocities instead of being leaders and culture changers. Not only are we ignoring the problems, but we have become part of the problem. Christians are not only offering irrelevant religion but dangerous messages. How can Christians rescue oppressed people when they are part of the oppression?
With the “me too movement” bringing a lot of light to the oppression of women, the public is now much more informed of the rampant sexual abuse common in Christian communities. It’s not just in cults like the FLDS. Sexual scandal in the church house is not a new tragedy. Its been going on for centuries in the catholic church. Luthern, southern baptist, non-denominational, Mennonite… none are excluded. One woman told me how her dad never hit them. But she knew something was a little “off” because he always showered with them – his teenage daughters. Her father is a Christian. One friend just shared with me how a man in her church was having sexual relations with his teen daughters. The pastor knew about it but never confronted the man. She later learned why. The pastor was habitually sexually abusing one of the church members who happened to be a paraplegic in a care home. These stories are not exceptions. And they happened in small American towns in normal modern churches.
Just in my own experience of speaking out about the oppression of women I’ve had some concerning conversations where Christians have asked me – “Well, how was the woman dressed in that incident?” “Was she sold into trafficking, or was she a prostitute by choice?” “Why didn’t she scream and get people to help her?” “Was she out at night by herself?” “Maybe she was a disobedient wife.”
Instead of blaming the victim, Christians ought to be collectively outraged at society’s acceptance of abuse of women, and an outlet for which these women can tell their stories while collaboratively fighting against abuse. We should recognize female vulnerability to be a real thing. Instead Christians are faulting the victim. They often sympathize with the abuser. I’ve listened to Christians claim that women have “implied consent” if they were dressed immodestly or were too drunk to protect themselves.
One of the most important healing tools we can give a victim is their voice and a listening ear. But many Christians who subconsciously fall for the idea that women are sub-par to men have refused these women permission to speak out against their abusers. Injustice thrives in a society that ignores the assault on the weak.
One young woman shared with me that she and her sister were physically abused by their father – in view of church members – But no one ever stood up for them. Another woman told me that she and her siblings were beaten with their toys as children by their father – a“godly” man who was best friends with the pastor of their church. Later on, he molested the girls in their teen years. When the chance came for the children and mother to run away it was the elders in the church that convinced her mother to stay and not “rebel” against her husband. This young woman still has many siblings living in this abusive environment. She struggles with PTSD as well as other mental illnesses. I know of Christians who told her to return to her home after she had escaped. They didn’t believe her story and assumed she had run away in rebellion to her father’s authority. Some of the people who told her to return to her home were Christians. Normal, “godly” people.
In the FLDS, woman’s only empowerment is their sexual status. Carolyn writes that the wife who has the most power in the home is the wife that has the most sex with her husband. At one point Carolyn had to give her husband sex in order for him to provide for her children. It is unthinkable to refuse your husband sex because he is the wife’s priesthood head. A wife’s performance is literally rated by the husband who has the supposed power to determine whether a wife goes to heaven or not. The wife is expected to be in total submission to her husband and one hundred percent compliant to his wishes. The cult further expresses that a woman should continually be seeking God’s wisdom to know her husbands wishes and how to better please him. Carolyn was never allowed to order anything from a restaurant that her husband didn’t like. To do so would prove she was not in harmony with him.
A Christian woman highly revered in many Christian circles wrote on how to appease your angry husband. She mentions that when her husband is angry at her she merely runs to the bedroom and before he can do anything, she strikesa sexual pose so to entice him out of his anger.
A young woman was recently ridiculed and ostracized for leaving her abusive husband. She feared for her safety as well as her young son’s. The Christian community rebuked her because she left him without him having ever physically abused her. She explained that he locked her in her room, took away her phone at times, continually criticized her, would throw things in his anger, punch walls, or shake her. He admitted to such behavior but blamed his wife because she wouldn’t give him sex when he needed it. The Christians blamed the wife for this man’s abusive behavior. And they failed to acknowledge it as abuse. Simply because she didn’t have any bruises or any testimony to him actually hitting her with his fist.
Women in the FLDS have been typecasted as intellectually, morally and emotionally weak. Some of the same arguments in the FLDS cult are being used in less radical Christian circles, claiming women are weaker and therefore are more easily deceived, must be kept silent, and can have no role in leadership. This is because the ultimate Predator/Abuser hates the strength of image bearers of God and knows quite well that women make mighty warriors.
A preacher that I know would give classes on marriage. He explained how women were emotional creatures who couldn’t really be understood. It was their genetic makeup. Women generally simply couldn’t think on logical, analytical terms. He advised men to give up the idea of ever understanding their spouse. He reminded the congregation that men are the head, women are always subservient to men, and that their desires, ambitions, and efforts should always be towards her husband. Many things he advocated left the listener to believe women were sub-par to men in intellect and wisdom. Marriage was the union of a man and women where the man was to seek the kingdom of God and women were to merely cheer on the sidelines and bear offspring.
A woman going to college instead of serving in her home was frowned upon in this circle. Women could not initiate a ministry or be a missionary without a husband or father. Women were never encouraged to seek God’s will concerning their passions because it was assumed that women were to be “helpmeets” of their husbands, nothing else. A woman’s future was already understood to involve changing diapers, cooking meals and cleaning the home. Of course this was preached as a privilege and an honorary and noble field.
A quick disclaimer: Being a helpmeet is noble. Being keepers of our homes is certainly an honor. Bearing children is a miraculous and unique ability solely given to us women. But the conventional Christian mindset of what that entails is boring and limiting. Very few talk about how a keeper at home means a guardian, a warrior, of the home. Of course women change diapers and cook meals and clean. Just like men change the oil in cars and take out the trash. But those chores do not define manhood. Keepers of the home means much more than the chore list. Women are individuals with unique passions, talents and aspirations. Why aren’t women encouraged to pursue their gifts and passions? Why is it that the Proverbs 31 woman was an entrepreneur and minister outside the four walls of a home and yet the conservative Christian woman is limited to her house or the church nursery? Because individuality is attacked in religious fields.
Interestingly, it isn’t just modern Christianity that’s to blame. Many preachers during the Reformation held sexist views, even famous men like Luther, Calvin and Knox.In 1893 a conservative preacher named John Milton Williams claimed women were responsible solely as guardian of the home and therefore had “no call to the ballot box”. A fundamental Christian 1920s newspaper called the Watchman Examiner warned that women stepping into political spheres would bring down the nation. While some Christians today might disagree with that statement (though many wouldn’t), they might overlook the insidious mindset behind the it.
Recently I read an excerpt of a Christian book that claimed the definition of femininity was simply the affirmation of masculinity. Of course when describing masculinity, the author went into detail of how men are leaders etc. But when it came to women, femininity was merely an attribute. Christians have forgotten the value of individuality and accepted a false view of complementarisim.
This reminds me of a book that Carolyn called Fascinating Womanhood. Many of the young FLDS women began to adhere to this books guidelines on how to become more appealing to men. It recommended that women play ignorant or helpless so to boost men’s egos. If they played the ‘damsel in distress’ convincingly enough, the men who came to their rescue would feel attracted to the ‘damsel’ because she had created him to be her hero. Many girls began to play into the role expected of them – they became helpless and incapable, pure emotions without intellect. Interestingly enough, this kind of behavior exists in less radical groups. Something to note is that these girls do attract men, but the kind who believe women are thoughtless, helpless, emotional creatures in dire need of male assistance to survive.
Conventional Christianity has narrowed the definitions of what it means to be a man, or to be a woman. This false perception is obsessed with “biblical roles”. Men do not have to lead to be masculine any more than women have to bear children to be feminine. One danger of assigning gender specific roles, attributes and ministries means that many men and women are often kept from realizing their true calling. Or their duty. How many women have been kept from preaching the gospel because of conservative Christian doctrine that women must remain silent? This obsession encourages sexism in the Body of Christ.
Certainly the solution is not to blur the distinction between male and female. God intended there to be unique differences. Yet, contrary to fundamentalist beliefs, masculinity is not at jeopardy when women take charge. Warrior women are not a threat to warrior men. Women in authority are not emasculating men who are learning from these women. Women are not being masculine, or rebellious, if they are an expert on a subject, or manage a company, or oversee a ministry, or in authority over a co-ed group.
I know of Christian women who were expected to kowtow to their young sons, simply because they were female and their sons were male. I’ve watched mothers be berated and treated like subhuman creatures by their sons with no intervention by their fathers.
The men in the FLDS who treated his wife as subhuman did so out of insecurity and pride. I cannot attribute any better motive to the conservative fundamental Christian.
Women are not the only ones dehumanized by conventional, conservative religion. Children’s individuality is also targeted. In the FLDS, status is associated with the number of wives one has. Wives vie for their husband’s favoritism and consider the number of offspring to represent their husband’s good favor. Since their husband is their spiritual leader, there is definite value in who has the majority of children. Instead of seeing children as unique individuals to be stewarded, children are merely pawns in the family structure. They are expected to play a role, one of obedience and submission and little else. Because a man’s prestige is rated on the size and submission of his family, children are treated as commodities instead of people. A family with children who question or refuse to conform are disgraced. Most girls are not allowed a college education. Girls have little hope of pursuing anything other than to become the spouse of whom the prophet chooses. Discipline is often violent and arbitrary. Often the “sister-wives” will “discipline” each other’s children in order to vindicate themselves and abuse the children of whatever wife is in disfavor. Children are little more than possessions to be strategically used and abused.
In Christian culture, a child’s value has been measured on what they are allowed and not allowed to do, and how faithful they are to stay within that grid. Both parents and spiritual authorities value what a child can give, or what they portray, instead of who they are. Many Christian leaders are bemoaning the fact that “Christian” children are leaving their “churches” and family values once they reach young adulthood. It is this very mindset of devaluing their individuality that pushes them away.
Parents are often bent on molding their children into loyal subjects of their own opinions, religious beliefs, political views and so on.The capabilities or needs of a child are rarely considered. This mindset leads to devaluing the personhood of young minds. “The Church” encourages fitting children into a grid of “roles”. In an effort to create structure, they have boxed in the creativity and individuality of children. They have cramped the opportunity of greatness by expecting so little. There is nothing predictable or mechanical about a child. This worldview that children are machines to be dominated and manipulated has led to abuse of children. Not only have they been dehumanized on an educational level, but physical and mental and spiritual level. Certainly by cults like the FLDS, but similarly by Christians as well.
In conclusion, how do we fix the epidemic of world wide spiritual abuse? Firstly, I think we ought to ask, who is to blame for these atrocities? Are pastors the one to blame? It is certain that many “Pastors” promote and administrate abuse. But conventional pastors are simply instruments of false Christianity. So who is to blame for the continuation of widespread spiritual abuse? Well…
Who agrees to conform? Who has pressed themselves to meet expectations? Who agrees to the check-list Christianity? Who unquestioningly grovels? Who fears men? Who gives homage to traditions? Who is obsessed with meeting the five-star Christian criteria? Who idolizes authority? Who remains silent? Who fails to draw boundaries? Who subjugates themselves in total dependence?
We are at fault for the continuation of false authority and the oppression of the weak. If Christians would wake up and acknowledge their own apathy they could hold tyrants accountable and stop the epidemic of abusive authority. We need to bravely unchain our minds, even at the risk of rocking the boat. We need to stand up and protect ourselves, and others. Not to is selfish. If we simply escape but say nothing we are allowing abuse to continue. Now is the time to recognize, expose and eradicate abuse. The only way we can achieve that is by one heart at a time. We need to start with our own hearts. This may look like standing up for the child who is belittled in the grocery story. Or saying something when someone dehumanizes the pre-born. It may mean accepting the legitimacy of abuse that happened in our own lives. For if we refuse to see abuse in our life, we cannot help point it out in other’s. Maybe it means standing up to an authority in your life that has taken advantage of those around him. Maybe it means learning how to value your person-hood. Or the value of your children. Maybe it means it’s time to apologize for past behavior and start afresh. Perhaps it looks like helping out at shelters for abused women. Once we open our eyes to the abuse around us we can start to become the righteous advocates we were created to be.