Hännah Ettinger is a copyeditor at a social policy research organization in DC. She blogs at Wine & Marble and worships at All Saints Church. After living in California, her family moved to Virginia in 2000 to join a Sovereign Grace Ministries church, where they experienced and participated in 10 years of cult-like spiritual abuse. Hännah writes about growing up in a large homeschooling family, her experiences with Christian patriarchy and SGM, and the freedom she's found in the intersection of feminist discourse and grace-centered Christianity. Be sure to check out Hännah’s blog or follow her on Twitter.
“How are you doing?” they would ask.
C.J. Mahaney would crow his response: “Better than I deserve!”
This became the standard greeting in Sovereign Grace Ministries, trickling down from the “mothership” church in Maryland to the other churches across the US and to mine, in Richmond, Virginia.
“How are you doing?” someone would ask me.
Internally, I’d say, “Terrible. Mom threw a fit at us on the way to church and Dad’s giving me the silent treatment because apparently it’s all my fault.” But my verbal response would always be the correct one, “Oh, you know, better than I deserve!”
I learned how to fit in at our church, hoping it would let me find close friends like the other girls had. I had to tone myself down (emotional modesty), not ask too much (selflessness), not attract too much attention (humility). I had to give up my hobbies and interests to “serve” my family. I had to dress in a way that didn’t show my body too much (physical modesty). I had to not be wild, unusual, forward, outspoken. Biblical femininity was a state of passive openness to receiving—suffering, male attention, the Holy Spirit. Though it was never said in so many words, being a biblical woman in SGM was the emotional equivalent of lying back, closing one’s eyes, and taking one for Jesus. Doing all of this was worth it, of course, because any suffering that resulted would be better than I deserved.
Everything in SGM was based on authority structures. Once I heard the analogy in a sermon about how the pastor was a “spiritual covering” over the congregation, a God-ordained role. Under him were the fathers, like little umbrellas/coverings over their families under the big umbrella of the pastor’s covering. Under the fathers were the mothers, and under them both were the children, but the fathers had the final say on questions of authority within the family.
Within this hierarchy is built the marital structure of complementarianism, where the man and his wife are valued as equals before God, but when it comes to questions of authority, the man is the head and the woman is his support and follower. On the bottom of the spiritual food chain are the children, who are told to submit to their fathers in the annual Father’s Day sermon, in Sunday School, in Care Group, in the home during “corrections” (spankings). I don’t think I ever heard the verse about fathers not aggravating their children referenced in any sort of church teaching in SGM.
Good children in SGM are docile, obedient, pliable, respectful, quiet. You are told to be “a blessing” to your brothers and sisters. If you interrupt mom while she’s talking to a friend at church, you’re spanked at home later, because that was dishonoring to her and you should know to wait for her to notice you before interrupting her conversation. If you talk back to dad after he spanks you for not sharing, or argue that it was really your brother’s fault, you get spanked again (because obviously you’re still in rebellion or lying). If you cry too long when you’re sent to bed, you’re spanked for being in rebellion, not asked what you need. You’re told to shake hands with strangers your parents meet, and if you refuse, you’re probably going to be spanked for being rude and disobedient.
I remember wanting desperately to grow up so I could stay with friends as long as I wanted without getting lectured for being disloyal to my family, for not wanting to serve them at home. So I could like things (secular music, popular movies, drawing nudes, blogging) without being afraid of being a bad example for my younger siblings. I remember wanting to be free from the discomfort of being told that my apologies weren’t good enough, that I needed to detail my sin more clearly before I’d be believed as sincere.
After SGM, I’ve had to learn boundaries, how to say no, how to like things because I like them, not because I ought to.
I’ve learned, for example, that I am allowed to be uncomfortable with hugs from my family’s pastor. I don’t have any “reason” for it, but it makes me feel panicky because I have no relationship with him (I live in a different state and visit that church only about twice a year), and that’s not wrong. I am allowed to evade a hug I don’t want and instead extend my hand.
Did you catch that? “Allowed.” I’m still having to relearn language, too. “Allowed” is a big word from my time in SGM, because everything is based on authority structures. Of course I’m “allowed” to refuse an unwanted hug. It shouldn’t be a matter of permission.
I try to avoid using the word "deserve," now, because I don't know what I deserve. And I don't know what I think of Reformed theology anymore. Everything in that world is balanced on merit, absence of merit, and grace overpowering both. (Yet we'll talk a lot about being Sinners and needing Justification, like a debt-forgiveness transaction). And I just...don't know. "Deserve" is a dirty word.
But I think about what I'm worth a lot these days. After my husband left me, telling me he never loved me and shattering the trust I thought we had and stealing my confidence in myself because of his affection for me. And so every time I'm told that I'm worth more than what I was given from him, from my family, from SGM, I store it up in my heart, a worry stone that I touch in my pocket when I can't see clearly. I'm worth loving. Perfect love casts out fear. Jesus offers that to me. I'm held.
We talk about spiritual abuse a lot, this tribe of former SGM members I’ve found. We’re the survivors of legalism, of manipulation, of codependency, of religious addiction.
Eleven plaintiffs came forward with a lawsuit alleging SGM church leaders covered up the abuse of children by discouraging parents from reporting abuse to authorities and requiring victims to forgive their abusers in person.
The details of the lawsuit are horrific, enough to take your breath away, as is the continued defense of Sovereign Grace Ministries from The Gospel Coalition, Together for the Gospel, Al Mohler, Tim Challies and other evangelical leaders, which was amplified when a judge dismissed much of the lawsuit because several of the plaintiffs did not sue in time before the statute of limitations had expired. (See Boz Tchividjian's response to the continued culture of silence and protection in American evangelicalism.) They have told us to pray, to be patient, to believe the best of those whom God placed in authority. Discussing the case in public is labeled “gossip,” and whistleblowers are characterized as troublemakers.
We get angry because we know that children very rarely have the courage or motivation to fabricate abuse allegations. And we get angry because we know several of the defendants have already been prosecuted and served time for similar crimes. And we get angry because we know the culture; we see how this could happen. There has to be some truth to the stories.
But the stranger ones? The masks and Celebration, the spankings in a row on a desk? The boa and the cameras? Could these too be true? They’re so far fetched. So detailed. So exotic.
But I sit here and wonder about things I remember. How the pastors could call a secret gathering of young children at Celebration for a surprise skit for the parents and then tell the kids to keep it a secret. How we would go and rehearse and never tell our parents and never be questioned if we said we were helping the pastors with something.
How the Valentine’s Day dinners they did with the couples were elaborate, prom-like. How the pastors made videos, made skits about the specifics of a good date night. How CJ bragged that his wife was so self-sacrificing and never turned him down when he initiated intimacy.
How women, abused by their husbands or neglected because of affairs, would try to go to the pastors for counseling, for advice, for help. How they would be told to “be more sexy, be more submissive” and not to come back until the husband initiated the request for pastoral help (being the head of the household and all).
How women with post-partum depression were told they were suffering from a sinful lack of faith and if they really loved God, they could change their attitudes and recover.
How parents gave me permission to spank their kids if I needed to when I babysat, how other parents promised to come straight home from their prescribed weekly date night and spank their kids if they gave me any trouble. How they made the kids call me in tears the next morning if I reported any sassiness at bedtime or “delayed” obedience.
“Do you think the allegations are true?” asks an outsider friend, and I hear myself saying, “Yes, yes, I think they are.”
I’ve watched my friends leave SGM for good and deal with obvious culture shock of attending churches where grace is preached. I’ve listened to them struggle to unlearn the name Sinner and try to grow comfortable with the taste of the word Saint. I’ve listened to my sisters grieve over how they never knew how to say no when they were approached by sexual predators, because they didn’t know they had the basic human right to do so after being taught things like first-time obedience and assuming the best about those in authority no matter what (because God put them in authority, so they have inside info on God’s will).
The mindset you get into when you’re in a SGM church—when you’re really immersed in the culture—is like a limp hand, waiting to be met by a stronger one and taught how to shake hands properly. You’re the follower, the passive complement to leadership. Your life is like that of a stay-at-home mom in a patriarchal family: you submit, you respect, you respond, you serve, you give, give, give.
This is why it’s such a huge thing for the victims to speak out. They’re doing everything they were trained not to do.
And so I stand with the abused. I believe the victims. SGM’s culture of believe-the-best-so-don’t-gossip, the mindset of I’m-the-worst-sinner-I-know, the assumption that the leaders were God-ordained and righteous? These things worked together to hide a lot of abuse that I did see myself or heard from close friends who suffered it in silence, alone and ashamed.
That day is over now. The story’s not finished, and the pastors who feed their egos on authority will reap what they sow.
If you've believed the lie that your worst day is better than you, the sinner, deserve, if you've identified yourself with the name of Sinner for so long it's inseparable from your self-confidence, let me dare you to believe that you are worth more than that. The New Testament overwhelmingly refers to those who love and follow Jesus as "believers" or "brethren" or "saints." Not sinners. Saints.
We are living in the communion, the fellowship of the Church universal and historical. We are communing with the saints who have gone before every time we gather together in Jesus' name, taking the sacraments together, saying the creeds. You and I are no longer under that old name, and your worst day is not one that the Father of lights would wish upon you. You are bound up with Christ, a new creation, and you deserve so much more than this guilt- and sorrow-ridden world offers you.
Survivors of spiritual abuse, of sexual abuse, of manipulation and codependence: there's more to the Body than what you've walked through. And we're here to hold you up while you heal.
To learn more about abuse in the church, check out our series, “Into the Light.” See also G.R.A.C.E—a fantastic organization working hard to address abuse in Christian environments. And don’t forget to check out Hännah’s blog.
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