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Leaving Difficult Churches II: Common Objects of Love

December 8th, 2015 | 5 min read

By Jake Meador

In a piece for Fare Forward on the Benedict Option David Clark emphasized the importance for BenOp communities of having a defined good which would focus and define the community. If BenOp communities withdraw for purely negative reasons, they will wither. Any sort of cultural withdrawal, whatever that term might mean, must flow out of something deeper than fear and aversion to certain emerging cultural norms. To survive, these communities must begin with love and a desire to take hold in a deeper way of some common object of love which unites them.

At root, this is an Augustinian argument—we as individuals and the communities to which we belong are shaped by our loves. Indeed, this is not simply a question for BenOp communities, but for every human being—what things will you love? What loves will you share with your family, friends, neighbors, city, and nation? A healthy nation, of course, would be one with common objects of love that are actually worthy of being loved.

Yet while this is a problem for every person, it is uniquely difficult for people who have recently left a dysfunctional church. The great question for them is the same as it is for any human being—what things will you love? And yet the process of leaving an unhealthy church will obscure the centrality of this question and make it nearly impossible to answer it adequately.

To begin, it is unlikely that you will even think to ask the question “what will I love?” If you’re like me, that question won’t even be on your radar. More likely you will be wrestling through deep personal wounds and, particularly if you remain Christian throughout the ordeal despite the messiness of your church, you will also probably be wrestling with some quixotic theological dilemmas related to your unique background. (Raise your hand if you were that weird college freshman who could debate when the rapture would happen—pre-trib, mid-trib, or post-trib. And raise your other hand if that debate WAS A HUGE DEAL when you were a college freshman.)

But beyond that, the question of loves assumes both a certain degree of agency and of shared identity (we do not love things in a vacuum) that are both entirely absent for many people who recently left insular, in-grown religious groups. Agency has been largely forgotten over time as the forceful presence of the leadership erodes your identity as an individual person made in God’s image. At its worst, this often becomes a sort of brainwashing as the individual almost becomes incapable of questioning the words of the pastors and elders, even if those leaders are biblically disqualified by any plain reading of the New Testament.

The other problem is that as social creatures we often turn to our family or peers to help us understand what things we ought to love. To give a trivial example, my wife and I are huge Johnny Cash fans and our three-year-old now sometimes requests “the Johnny music” when we are in the car or when she is having her quiet play time in her room. When figuring out what we will love, we look to the people around us and, in a healthy situation, we inherit many of their rightly ordered loves.

But in the months and years that immediately follow one’s departure from a difficult church these social groups that would help shape our loves are mostly absent from our daily lives. Again, I can only speak from my own experience of this, but my church growing up was so insular that I literally did not have any friends from outside of the church for much of my childhood. It was my junior or senior year of high school (and I left my senior year) before I had close friends from outside the church.

As a result, when I left the church, it almost felt like a second birth. There is an almost complete rupture in my life from the people I knew and loved prior to leaving and those I knew and loved after leaving. The only overlap between those two groups are my parents and a single friend that I grew up with that I am still close to. (To be fair, some of that is probably normal; most of us go to college somewhere other than where we were born and do not stay in touch with the people we knew in high school or before that. But that distance is opened up mostly through the natural process of growing up. The distance that opens up between you and your friends when you leave a church will likely be similarly large given time but will feel very different due to the almost inevitable conflicts that will come to define the relationship, some of which can become quite heated.)

For the person who has just left an insular church, you may well be without human community for a short time (or sometimes a rather long time) in which case there is no social informing of your affections beyond the soft, imperceptible formation from mass culture that simply happens as a result of living in the United States in 2015. Even if the break has been less complete and you are still in communication with people from the church, you are likely not going to trust their judgment and will be suspicious of whatever things they are encouraging you to love.

As a result, people who have left a cult often come to this question of what one will love only indirectly and through much pain and confusion. There are seemingly more immediate questions to resolve due to the specifics of each situation and so this question will not even appear on one’s horizon for some time and even then is likely to be fairly muddled when we come to it.

This, then, is the ironic tie-in with the Benedict Option given the fears many have raised about the BenOp’s friendliness to precisely the sort of church groups described in this series. The person leaving an abusive church is in an odd way facing the same danger that BenOp communities (which themselves can easily be perverted into cults) also confront: What will the shape of my withdrawal from the life of my broader community be? And what will my new life outside of that community look like? In both cases, the bad answer to this question is likely to neglect the positive goods one hopes to obtain and will instead simply focus on what it will not be. We won’t be x because horrible community I’m leaving was x.

The tragic thing about this approach, of course, is that it actually makes any kind of true individual or communal reformation impossible. In a post on a separate but related issue Bekah Merkle gets at the problem nicely:

I remember sitting at dinner one time when I was probably 19, and I was venting to my dad about the twerp who had told me I needed to wear only dresses. … I was vowing by all that was holy to never wear a dress ever again  as long as I lived – because I didn’t want that guy to think that he had convinced me. To me, at that moment, the ultimate ninth layer of hell would have been for that guy to see me wearing a dress and say, “nice dress.” I would die first, yea verily, I would DIE before I let that happen. … But Dad said something at dinner that night which was phenomenally important for me to understand. He said something like, “Look. You don’t want that guy to be able to dictate your clothing choices to you, right? Well, if you swear off of dresses – you will have allowed that guy to dictate your clothing choices. You will have allowed his opinion to sway what you pull out of the closet and put on in the mornings. So keep wearing what you want to wear, and don’t give that guy a second thought.” Holy cow, that was huge. And freeing. And phenomenal. Basically, Dad was telling me to be above that guy, not descend to his level . . . which is exactly what I had been doing, even though I was violently disagreeing with him. In the name of not letting him boss me around . . . I was actually letting him boss me around.

Merkle needed to understand that the question facing her as she reacted to that man was not how she could display her opposition to him most clearly, but what positive thing she wanted to take hold of instead. The person leaving a difficult church is facing a similar question. The central question they have to resolve is the same question every human being has to address—what things will I love? But the nature of the hurts one often suffers when leaving such churches will almost certainly obscure the importance of this question. And that, in itself, may be one of the most difficult things about leaving these kinds of churches.

Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).