Aside from holiday visits to my grandmother’s church as a kid, I didn’t grow up in a religious household, but my wife did, and after getting married we did some dabbling here and there before eventually going pretty all-in during the late ’00s with a local branch in the ICOC movement.
Despite my ongoing scrupulosity issues and some eyebrow-raising moments here and there (which I now deeply regret staying silent about), things were generally fine, and we built up a number of great relationships and legitimately good memories.
I’ve written extensively about how the events of 2015-today fully shattered my previous relationship with the church, so I won’t rehash everything here, but someone I really respect recently asked me what it is I do believe these days, so I thought I’d outline where I stand as of January 2023.
First things first, I can’t say that I’m an “exvangelical” (in the sense of having walked away entirely from organized religion). This isn’t the case, and in fact my wife and I are still attending a different ICOC-affiliated church, albeit a bit more of a “misfit toys” branch. That being said, I find myself infinitely more sympathetic to exvangelicals and those undertaking the painful process of deconstruction than those that remain terminally incurious and dangerously legalistic.
Here’s where I’ve landed:
Social justice conversations are essential and should be ongoing and prominent, not “toe in the water” topics revisited every few years just to appease the more progressive members of your congregation. Continually avoiding discomfort simply means that you either a) don’t care enough about those affected to prioritize ongoing action or b) are afraid to lose tithes from bigots.
Purity culture has been an absolute disaster on all fronts (in terms of sexism, mental health and more). Burn it to the ground. Perhaps doing this might transform small group discussions from endless “oops, I masturbated!” sessions to difficult “hmm, maybe this toxic nonsense is causing desperately horny young people to rush into marriage far too soon” conversations.
The fact that Complementarianism vs. Egalitarianism discussions are still happening (or in some cases not even happening, having landed on the former) in 2023 is flat-out insane. There should be absolutely no role restrictions for women in the church or in life. Those saying otherwise are simply doing so to preserve their power, or are afraid (probably for good reason) that their mediocrity will be exposed.
Ditto for LGBTQ+ membership, personal relationships and leadership roles. Not only are Bible verses that set restrictive policies around these poor people cherry-picked and interpreted out of context by those that feel threatened, they also err on the side of closing the tent vs. opening our arms, which leads me to perhaps my most controversial stance…
Love and radical inclusion (the examples set by Jesus himself) are infinitely more important than legalistically citing and interpreting verses of the Bible, and when confronted with a murky topic (or one that now exists in a context unimaginable at the time), policies of love and radical inclusion should prevail over snippets of text.
Jesus was a wrecking ball when it came to a lot of church doctrine and hesitance from religious leaders of the time, and yet here many of us are 2,000 years later, slaves to written accounts of his exploits bundled together with followups and interpretations from others.
Do I think that if Jesus came back right now that he’d want to break up a loving gay family since some claim that the Bible says it’s sinful? I do not, and in fact I think he’d be exasperated by many of the hateful rules we’ve built up after his last appearance.
Many modern churches will publicly crow about their amazing diversity and acts of service around the world, then quickly clam up or opt to chat “just among members” when asked about these types of topics.
Sunlight is the best disinfectant, and public Sunday services are the time to put your cards on the table. Would doing that make you feel uncomfortable? Maybe ask yourself why that might be.
When I look to open-hearted exvangelicals and so many marginalized voices sharing their struggles loudly and publicly, I see honesty, open hearts and often very sincere despair over how they were treated and/or excluded.
When I look at a lot of “disciples” I shared services with over many years, I see smiling faces concealing bigotry, stubbornness, complacency, a healthy dose of Christian Nationalism and a focus on using the Internet as a glorified “reach out to hear from our sales reps!” billboard rather than a legitimate place to have hard, ongoing conversations right out in the open.
I’ve spent a long time regaining my spiritual footing in recent years, but having looked at the fruit produced by many different parties, it’s pretty clear to me where the spirit of Christ lies.
A while back, a story made the rounds about a priest that had been accidentally swapping a single word while performing baptisms for more than 20 years, thus rendering them all invalid in the eyes of the church.
While this obviously provided for some solid Twitter gold…
…it also immediately caused an anxiety spike for me, someone that has struggled mightily over the years with Scrupulosity.
Never heard of it? I hadn’t either. The International OCD Foundation defines it as follows:
A form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) involving religious or moral obsessions. Scrupulous individuals are overly concerned that something they thought or did might be a sin or other violation of religious or moral doctrine.
In other words, it’s all the fun of standard OCD, with a some bone-deep, near-paralyzing religious guilt and doubt as an extra cherry on top.
While I haven’t exactly kept my life with OCD a secret, I’ve never written before about my journey with Scrupulosity specifically, and I do so now with the hope that it might bring even a small amount of comfort to others that find themselves dealing with similar struggles.
So, without further ado, here are some hits from my personal Scrupulosity playlist…
Our church’s parent organization, the ICOC, has fairly controversial (to say the least) views on the precise specifics of baptism. For those of us with obsessive-compulsive tendencies, this opens up a never-ending set of reasons as to why our own baptisms might not be valid:
Was this decision entirely my own, vs. just done to please those around me?
Were the exact right words said (by both the leader and/or myself) leading up to the big plunge?
Was my body fully immersed in the water (a big ICOC sticking point)?
What about all of my friends and family that may not have followed these precise baptism practices? Despite all evidence to the contrary, are they all now destined for eternal hellfire?
There is of course no way to ever be 100% sure about the answers to any of these questions, and while most people can shrug and move on, those with Scrupulosity agonize endlessly over each detail.
I remember coming to the paralyzing conclusion during Bible studies that my beloved grandmother, one of the kindest people I ever knew, might not have gone through the precise “required” baptism order/method, and therefore I couldn’t know for sure if she’d been saved.
I came across this article recently about a church scolding its pastor for supporting his son’s hip-hop aspirations (due to some naughty words and themes!), and immediately flashed back to a memory of my grandma showing my profanity-laced college films to all of her senior friends, having chosen to focus more on loving and being proud of her grandson than on stupid technicalities.
That was love. That was Christianity.
The fact that OCD and the ICOC’s dogma ever caused me to fear for my Grandma fills me with sadness and regret.
Compulsion To Evangelize:
As an introvert and whatever the exact opposite of a salesperson is, I’ve always had issues with full-on “cold call”-style evangelism, much preferring to offer a peek into my faith through individual relationships, acts of service and written pieces in which I try to open up about complicated issues.
Sounds reasonable, right? Scrupulosity disagrees.
While the pressure to do in-person evangelism (something that has also burned the ICOC in the past) has died down a bit over the years, it’s been replaced by the aggressive embrace of social media evangelism, or to those with Scrupulosity, relentless “I better share this post from the church or I’m a bad person that denies Christ” brain tickles.
While I haven’t given in to the compulsion in a while, there have been countless times that I’ve re-shared an upcoming event invite just for a momentary sense of relief.
With so many evangelicals generally unwilling to treat the Internet as a place for self-expression and honest public discussion, and instead as simply a glorified marketing list, the fact that I’d periodically cave to this impulse and take the easy way out still fills me with shame.
More painful still is how evangelism guilt worked its way into the last few months of a loved one’s life.
Many years back, one of my favorite uncles was diagnosed with terminal cancer. While I was able to fly out and visit with him one last time before he passed away (something that I’m forever grateful for), much of the visit was consumed with a Scrupulosity-driven pressure to make sure he was “saved” before dying. Keep in mind that I had almost no actual knowledge of his spiritual life or state of mind, only that I obviously had the correct path.
The time I spent putting together and awkwardly sharing an informational packet with him could have been spent outside of my own head, connecting and empathizing with him. To this day I still regret how this went down.
Staying kind and keeping a humble, serving heart is of course the cornerstone of Christianity (maybe not American Christianity in 2022, but that’s a topic for a hundred other posts).
While most people are able to balance their desire to help others with their own need for self-care and the realization that they can’t solve the world’s problems single-handedly, this is decidedly not the case for those of us on team Scrupulosity.
For years I felt personally responsible for spreading the word and/or jumping in to help with the endless stream of “missing person” alerts, medical needs or GoFundMe campaigns that I came across in person or online.
The Giving Tree, in other words, was less of an inspiration and more of a spot-on horror show. This great clip from the Fargo TV series outlines the compulsion and resulting uncertainty well:
After wrestling with Scrupulosity for a large part of my life, I can summarize some of my observations and recommendations as follows…
Working through this stuff is incredibly hard, and I still have bad days where I backslide into a worry spiral. Just ask my wife, who has the patience of a saint. Don’t beat yourself up about it.
Human-interpreted doctrinal rules are nonsense. God cares most about your heart and acting in love (some of which can and should be directed at yourself!), not about dogma.
The guilt you feel shows that you’re coming from a place of love. The seemingly selfless “Christian” role models around you can break your heart and end up being exposed as having deeply disturbing views and an overall pattern of inaction on race, social justice, women’s rights and so much more. Shoutout to the past decade for shining more and more light on this rat’s nest, and I suspect that the next decade will be rockier still as the cleansing fire keeps burning.
Medication. It works, friends.
For real though, if you’ve ever struggled with any of this stuff, I’m more than glad to chat. I obviously don’t have all the answers, but sometimes just waving to a fellow traveler can work wonders.