“It was five years ago today…”
By Tim Neely
On Sunday, 6 August 2000 Tim Neely, a former member of the Greater Philadelphia Chuch of Christ, posted the following message to the alt.religion.christian.boston-church usenet newsgroup.
It is republished here with his permission.
It was five years ago today…
… that I officially and irrevocably left “God’s Modern Day Movement.”
The reasons were less dogmatic or theological than pragmatic, but that still didn’t make it easy. In fact, I got to experience three weeks of Hell on Earth from the time I decided to leave until the time I actually left. And that abuse and duress simply reinforced my decision.
My “sin”? Following my dreams and taking a job in a part of the country where the International Churches of Christ did not yet have a planting.
I found out about the job thanks to an ad that appeared in a magazine I subscribed to. (Think about it: If you liked a magazine enough that you paid to have it delivered to your door, and a job opening came up there that matched your abilities, interests, temperament and salary needs, wouldn’t YOU at least check it out?) I had left another job not long before this, and I was freelancing at the time, so I went for it. Anyway, one thing led to another: First the company flew me out for an interview, then they offered me the job (on my birthday, no less!), then I had to agonize over whether to accept or not. I did choose to accept — and that’s when the real dark side of the Greater Philadelphia Church of Christ (GPCC) came out.
First, after my job interview I got a ride home from the airport with a brother, and he wondered why I hadn’t asked for advice on everything, including how to dress for the interview! I thought that statement pretty ridiculous at the time. But that was just the start. I had sermons directed at me specifically. I was involved in a “breaking session” with my discipler and my zone leader, who kept throwing Bible verses at me as if they were daggers. I talked to a leader in the Milwaukee area, who said that if he were in the same initial position, not only would he not have accepted the job, but he never would have applied for it in the first place. I was accused of “not listening to advice.” Of course I listened to advice. But, as with all advice, you ask other people’s advice, too, weigh the pros and cons and you make up your own mind. (That’s why God gave us free will.) In retrospect, it all seems awfully silly. But I was filled with self-doubt when I should have been filled with confidence. Any normal group would rejoice in a member’s newly-found success and wish him or her all the best. But the GPCC (and the ICOC) is not a normal group.
But I was fortunate. Even during my six months in and near the Greater Philadelphia Church of Christ, I maintained relationships outside the church, and those came through for me when I weighed the pros and cons of my “job opportunity of a lifetime.” I never wavered from my beliefs that there are many paths to God (though the ICOC sure tried to change my mind there) or that actions speak louder than words. I went on family outings the same weekend that the church had planned outings. When there was a meeting of the entire Mid-Atlantic area in Washington, I stayed with my biological sister rather than with ICOC “brothers.” My one and only date as a member of the ICOC was one on one, on a Sunday afternoon after services, and neither of us was overcome with lust because we were by ourselves….
It wasn’t easy at first. On my trip out here, I was afraid. Some church members had implanted the “fear of God” into me so deeply that I was sure that some form of divine retribution awaited! I had at least one nightmare that some of my old leaders were coming out here to try to kidnap me. In my first three months in Wisconsin, I wrecked my car and injured my ankle severely enough to cause a temporary limp, not to mention other more minor “problems.” But at the same time, I was led into other directions: I rarely listen to “Christian radio,” but as I was driving one day, I happened to catch an interview with Ron Enroth, author of “Churches That Abuse.” I went out and bought both his books. An encounter with someone at work led me to finally, after 20 years, seek medical help for a nearly lifelong depression and social anxiety problem, which of course my time being pilloried in the GPCC had only exacerbated. I read the Bible. More importantly, I read books *about* the Bible — how it was constructed, who *really* wrote it, why certain books were in it and others were not, and the utter absurdity of taking the thing literally and inerrantly. As with any other work, you have to read it with a seeker’s heart and a skeptic’s mind. (In addition to Enroth, I read books by Carl Sagan, John Shelby Spong, Bruce Bawer and Peter Gomes, among others, all of which made me feel better about leaving an ultra-legalistic Christian sect, and that I wasn’t “leaving God” in the process. I’ll be happy to supply the titles upon request.)
After five years here in rural central Wisconsin, I have no doubt in my mind: The decision was the correct one. Five years later, I’m more self-assured, feel more at peace, and am well-respected in my field after coming in as a complete unknown. I still believe in God, but my definition of God doesn’t fit in any of the fundamentalist boxes. I returned to the Catholic church for a couple years, especially because I found a loving one and not a dogmatic one. But I began to feel untrue to myself going — I don’t believe in papal infallibility or the celibacy of the priesthood or that sex should only be used for procreation. While I still have some ties to Catholicism, mostly out of pre-ICOC tradition, my own worldview is now closer to the Deist or Unitarian view. I believe that if God created mankind in his/her/its image, as the book of Genesis says, that means ALL mankind — black, white, Chinese, Jewish, Muslim, women, children, the disabled, homosexuals, even politicians! :-) Most “Christian” sects, unlike the leader they pretend to follow, don’t believe that.
So there’s where I am today. Five years away and counting. I’ve moved on. But I will never forget. I don’t WANT to forget. My experience reminds me how easily I can be taken in by empty promises of a better life when I’m vulnerable, and it serves as a reminder to be careful out there!
Best to all,
former member, Greater Philadelphia Chuch of Christ