The Evangelical Church and Christianity in general is obsessed with sex. Moreover, they’re obsessed with sex that other people are having. They make every aspect of your sex life their business, especially when you’re a young adult looking to marry, or a person heading into the ministry.
I don’t remember how our particular sex life first became a topic of discussion. I think early on in our new Christian existence we knew we were supposed to cut it out. But dang, really? After two years of relative freedom? It sounded easy and sensible at first. Then a week would go by and we’d be clawing at the sheetrock, out of our minds. Then we’d go for it and I would have all the guilt issues and crap that goes along with that.
Right here it’s important to mention that there was, and always has been, quite a bit more to our relationship than sex. But the church leadership were little interested in the other parts. They were only worried about the sex, thus the emphasis.
That was my introduction to the vicious emotional cycle that “biblical living” will put a person through. It’s not reasonable and it’s not healthy.
At some point, it became something that others who were becoming my mentors were allowed to ask me about. And I answered, truthfully, because to do otherwise seemed like lying to God, and we couldn’t have that.
And now that we were members of the church, apparently there was some bit about members being obedient to their leaders.
We were strongly encouraged to get premarital counseling from a pastor, which we pretty readily agreed to. I mean, how bad could it be to get some advice and be better equipped to make our marriage work?
Let me set the timeline first: I was “born again” in August of 1985. These conversations accelerated in the fall and into the winter of ’85. Our wedding date had long been pegged at June 21, 1986 for our own sentimental reasons.
So… off to counseling we went with Pastor R sometime in late ’85.
To make a long story short there, they believed we were too young to marry, didn’t have any real plan to support ourselves, and felt that we needed to get our “sin” issue under control before we considered marriage.
Well, whatever. We didn’t really take them seriously at the time. This was our lives, and our plans, and we’d come into the kingdom with these plans already in motion. We actually already had a wedding dress. We soon put a deposit on the reception hall and reserved her beautiful little church, Calvary Episcopal, for the service.
We had another counseling session, in which R said they were rilly, rilly serious, that we should wait at least an extra year before getting married. We took that under advisement, then went home and ordered invitations and started looking at floral providers.
Finally, probably around April of ’86, we went in for another session. In fact, I think they called us in, and we were worried about how it was going to go.
There are but a few days indelibly emblazoned in my memory: My wedding day, the births of my three children, sitting with my father when he died, snorkeling with T in Captain Cook’s Cove in Hawai’i… and this day.
T and I sat in Pastor R’s office. He was even tempered, but he gave us a lot of shit for not taking them seriously and for continuing on with our wedding plans when our counselors were urging us to wait.
He then said, in no uncertain terms, that if we didn’t take their counsel and postpone the wedding for at least a year, we would need to remove ourselves from membership at the church.
Now, before I go on, I have to get a couple of things off my chest. The first is that it has been difficult to come to terms with my own complicity in this. This was in the middle of what I now recognize as some pretty serious spiritual abuse, and they were the abusers. But nobody had me in chains. I wasn’t wearing an ankle bracelet, I wasn’t in a cage.
And yet, in a way, I was. Religion, and especially Fundamentalist Evangelicalism with shades of cult-like manipulation, is a ball-and-chain. It’s marvelously adept at mentally captivating people, until you start behaving in a Stockholm Syndrome sort of state.
The second is that, in hindsight, I do see how ridiculous this is, and how easy the right answer is to see. But that’s in the obvious absence of a god, or at least any god who resembles YHWH. If you actually believe, no, if you actually know that your God is there, and that he has appointed these leaders to watch over you and raise you up in the faith… well, that’s a whole ‘nother kettle of fish.
And a third thing – let’s not pretend this was really about money. It was about sex. And it was about the fact that we weren’t able to keep our hands off each other for all that long a time. That was seen as spiritual and emotional immaturity, and evidence that we needed to wait until we grew up and could master ourselves.
Get it? We were to put off getting married until we stopped having sex, and then we could marry and have sex again. How fucked up is that?
So, back to that moment…
T knew exactly what we should do and was ready to walk out, but it was clear to her that I was going nowhere.
I was almost there, ready to agree to call it off. She couldn’t believe it. She argued with him, and I don’t remember much of what she said at that point, but he tried to fend her off by explaining that it would be easier for him to just lay off and let us go about our way. But he couldn’t because as a pastor, he was going to have to answer more strictly to God for what he did than the lay person would. He trotted out these verses from the book of Hebrews, chapter 13:
17 Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you.
And this passage from the book of James, chapter 3:
1 Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.
To this day, what happened next is one of my favorite things that has ever happened in my life. I only wish I had the strength that day to take my cue and assert my individual rights and adulthood. Alas, I did not, and at the time was mortified. But now I see how awesome it was.
At that moment, T looked him straight in the eye and said, “That’s okay, He’ll forgive you.”
Pastor R, whom I’d never seen do more than raise an eyebrow, spun in his chair, threw his pencil across the room and hollered something about not being able to believe this.
And in the end, I capitulated. I called it off. Theresa cried for a couple of days. Remember how I said in the previous installment that T had a history of indulging me in a lot of bad decisions? There was the king of them, right there. Letting these people manipulate us this way. And it wasn’t over.
She should have left me. Nearly every other woman in the world would have packed her bags and her self-worth and told me to fuck off. But she didn’t.
And that’s how we ended up out at some lake, going waterskiing on what should have been our wedding day, June 21st, 1986.
You see, I was theirs. I wasn’t just drinking the Kool-Aid. I was swimming in it. They had me, body, mind and soul. So much of this was none of their business at all.
But it didn’t stop there.
No, they decided that since we were going to remain a couple, we needed to continue serious counseling/discipleship. They paired us up with an older couple, J to counsel me, and L to counsel her.
Keep in mind, what I was trying to do was be the best Christian I could be. In the midst of all this, I had aspirations to be a pastor. I wanted to be in the ministry, change lives, and I wanted to preach the Word. At the time I thought it was because I was really on fire. But now I see that it was simple vanity. I’m an attention whore, a performer, and I want to be the guy on stage that has everyone enraptured.
I don’t doubt that I had a decent amount of good motivation, but let’s not bullshit each other. I wanted to be da man. And in that church, da man was da Senior Pastor.
So I dove into my counseling. I was absolutely honest and forthcoming with him, and he was intrusive and blunt. At first their primary aim was to keep us out of each others’ pants. No lie.
They came up with different ideas to get us to stop being normal. And not only was J concerned with whether T and I were having sex. He wanted to make sure I wasn’t jacking off either. Unbelievable. We actually had a system where I could let him know whether I was managing okay or not without anyone else knowing, kind of a thumbs-up/thumbs-down thing. What business was it of his if I decided to rub one out? Especially since they were trying to cut off the only outlet I really cared about.
One day he came up with this idea from somewhere that is apparently a thing – he said that T and I should declare ourselves Renewed Virgins. Well, in my delusion, this sounded great. I was always so wracked with guilt over every damn thing that the idea of a completely fresh, refreshed start sounded great, in its own whacked way.
Later that day I brought up the idea to T. She said that was the stupidest thing she’s ever heard. We’d had sex. A lot. For years. How the heck are we supposed to pretend we’re virgins?
I was crestfallen, but in hindsight, that’s just another reminder of the kind of person she’s always been. Zero bullshit.
When it became clear that keeping us from being normal young adults wasn’t working too well, their aim became to break us up. They decided we were bad for each other, the cause of each others’ sinfulness, and needed to be split up for our own spiritual health.
Well, that wasn’t happening at first, no way. But finally, after one tearful confession…
Alright, another aside here. You know what else is fucked about all this, about religion’s obsession with sexual “purity?” There we were, two young people in love, who should have just been enjoying our young lives. Rather than being in this fucking crazy-ass guilt cycle, we should have just been young people together, dating, seeing movies, planning our future, seeing the world, and making love. And it should have been nobody’s business but our own. We should have enjoyed each other like an ice cream sundae, like a fine wine, like a breezy afternoon on a cliff overlooking the ocean.
Instead we were tied up in knots of guilt, uncertainty, and turmoil. I can never get those lost days back. Worse, I can never give them back to my beloved T, who suffered far more than I did. Did I mention that she refuses to read this series? Yes, in case it isn’t clear, she’s still here, my T. She persevered where no other woman would have or should have. She loved me with a deeper love than I have ever deserved. We just celebrated what should have been our 29th anniversary. It was still our 27th, and that is pretty awesome, but there’s always that little reminder of what I put her through. She is not over it, not in the least. And I don’t blame her.
Reading this, thinking about those days at all, brings back a pain to her that is still very deep. It brings up resentment that she hasn’t been able to let go. She knows I’m telling this story, and even asking her about the order of events puts a cloud over her day. She’ll always talk about it with me, because that’s who we are, but she won’t be reading through and reliving this anytime soon.
Anyway, after one more tearful confession, they decided we needed to break it off for two months and not see each other at all. We who had been joined at the hip for three years, who cared for nobody else but each other, were to go cold turkey.
Here we are again – all we (I) had to do was say, “Fuck you,” and walk out the door. They weren’t supporting us. They weren’t doing anything for us… except imparting the will of God, right?
Again I let them do this to us. Again. I thought I was doing God’s will, getting stronger so I could be a better husband to her, and proving that we were meant to be together.
In truth, this was the worst of the spiritual abuse. These people were so far out of line it makes me want to punch someone. Over the next two months we were not supposed to see hide nor hair of each other. We actually held to 95% of that. But that 5% – oh, man. Those were the sweetest talks and the sweetest kisses. We just wanted to be together and be happy, and those moments were like oases in a dry desert, reminding me of what should be.
During this time we were both assigned to different mid-week bible study groups. I went to one on Wednesday nights with J. They were a pretty serious group with deep belief and dedication. My involvement with this group was about to reveal a little bit of the dirty underside of the idyllic church life we’re presented with on Sunday mornings.
The leader of our little group, K, at whose home the gathering was hosted, had apparently been struggling with alcohol, and one night confessed this in a pretty impressively honest and raw moment. It happened to be a night when J couldn’t make it. Anyway, in a moment of unscripted honesty and, I think, genuine compassion, the whole group gathered around K, laid hands on him, and began praying over him. That went on for over 20 minutes until things settled down and we all returned to our seats. If I still believed in any of that, I think I would still think that a pretty cool thing that happened.
Well, this church was very much of the Dispensationalist persuasion. By strict interpretation, being as we are in the Church Age, such spiritual activities such as laying on of hands were only for the elders and pastors of the church, not for peons. My old buddy J got wind of the events in his absence, made a fuss, and literally, just like that, that group was disbanded. K and his wife were called into the office and rapped on the knuckles, at which point they left the church.
That really disturbed me, and is probably the first moment where I didn’t see eye to eye with J. Yeah, pathetic, I know, but there it is.
He tried to explain it to me, and I thought that just seemed persnickety, but I had a marriage to try and get back to, so I toed the line.
After two months, and not a minute longer, we got back together. Why the hell she was still waiting for me, I’ll never know, but there she was. It seems at that point they at least realized that try as they might, they weren’t going to split us up forever. It’s not long after that I switched groups and mentors. I don’t even remember why or how that worked out. I’m only glad it did.
After that, the firestorm sort of settled, but I was rattled into a stupor, convinced I needed to seek God’s will in everything, especially about when we’d be ready to be married. I was stuck in so many ways. I’d turned over so much of my autonomy that I could barely think for myself.
A year went by and we were no closer to getting married than the day we walked out of Ron’s office. T was none to happy, but I was stuck. Searching for God’s will.
God’s will is such a murky subject among Christians. Depending on what strain of Christian you are, God’s will, and the communication of that will, supposedly works itself out in different ways. For the Charismatic, it’s quite easy. After all, people are prophesying every week, when they’re not too busy speaking in tongues. They get a word from the Lord, they say. He speaks to them and there you go – God’s will.
On the other hand, when you’re part of a Dispensationalist congregation, it’s not that easy. They believe the Charismatic gifts went the way of the dodo after the apostles died, so no more new revelations of any kind. Bible or nothing. But we still have to find God’s will, right? I prayed, asked, wondered, and read, over and over again. I tried to figure it out. I was taught to wait on Him for an answer, wait on Him to open a door, wait on Him to make clear his path, and so on. And I kept waiting.
I finally found the secret to learning God’s will: Have your fiancee give you an ultimatum.
One day in late 1987, I was at work. I called her to chat during my break and instead she broke. She made it abundantly clear that she had waited long enough, and said, “Either you marry me, or we’re done.”
Now we all know the right answer to that was, “You got it. Done. Let’s set the date.” But I agonized all afternoon, and when I got home, I started praying and got out my bible, looking for a sign. At the time Romans was my favorite book, mostly because of the chapters 6-8, favorites of many self-flagellating Christians. I opened to Chapter One and read this:
13 I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters,[d] that I planned many times to come to you (but have been prevented from doing so until now)in order that I might have a harvest among you, just as I have had among the other Gentiles.
I read that a couple of times and figured that if Paul made plans, but was prevented from going, then he apparently wasn’t waiting around for God to reveal His will. He just made his plans, and if they fell through, assumed that it wasn’t God’s will.
In hindsight, that sounds just like how life works without any gods. You do what you want and hopefully everything goes well. But in my spiritual stupor, I saw this as a revelatory answer. We made an appointment with Pastor R, stated our case, and were given their blessing.
In truth, if they had still tried to deny us, we would have finally left. I knew that much for sure.
I honestly wish they had. But they were on it. I think they went for it because they were tired of fighting us. If we were that determined, they’d let it go. Whatever. I wanted R to marry us, and honestly, there was a subversive part of me that wanted that, because he’d fought us for so long, but I thought it would be full circle. At this point, T just wanted to get married. She’d have been happy running down to the courthouse I imagine.
We did have a nice wedding in June of ’88. Nice, I say, because it could have been so much more. We had it at Santa Cruz Christian instead of Calvary, and we had the music/dance free reception in the portable classrooms out back instead of a nice hall. She never got her first dance with me and last with her dad. It’s still one of the best days of my life, because I finally was wed to my lovely T, but it was also a perfect picture of what fundamentalist church living did to us. It was restrictive, and took the color, flavor, and joy out of life in so many ways. It made it less than it could have been, less than it should have been.
But at least we were finally one.