Essay: Danger of the Church
By Glory Cumbow
After being raised in the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist Church and then spending my twenties as a youth minister, seminary student, and pastor in the Presbyterian Church (USA), otherwise shortened as PC (USA), I have gleaned inside knowledge of both the evangelical church and the mainline protestant church. In college when I escaped the oppressive, conservative, patriarchal church I was raised in, I adopted far-left politics and a church focused more on grace than legalism. I thought I had freed myself from the danger of harmful theology, but now I know danger lurks within the institution of the church itself, regardless of the varying theologies.
Aside from the outward influence of the church regarding politics, there is the churning inward turmoil of the church that harms the people who try to remain within it. I was never taken seriously as an authority figure as an afab (assigned female at birth) person, and I would not feel safe enough to come out as bisexual or genderqueer until I left the church. I was always in danger spiritually, mentally, and emotionally, and I believe many other people in the church are too. I have broken down the dangers that I have observed as a former member of the church and how the institution functions under these harmful notions. In doing so I hope to subvert the power the church holds over the marginalized people in our country.
The Danger of Biblical Literalism and “Compassion”
I was raised to believe that every word in the Bible is true and should be taken literally. The world was created in 6 days as Genesis says, the great flood really happened, women should be submissive to men, etc. This was the fundamentalist way of believing, but also many conservative evangelicals that I have known throughout my life believe similarly. The main emphasis of this belief is that the only way to go to heaven is to believe in Jesus as your savior. Everyone else goes to burn in hell for eternity. This is why people are so pushy about their religion: they are scared of hell and do not want to go there or for others to go there either.
Meanwhile, there is also the belief in taking care of the poor, sick, and outcast just like Jesus said to do. Unfortunately, I have watched my parents and peers give to others in need with “strings attached.” Instead of volunteering time, money, or food to those in need, there is also an agenda to push their religion on the people they’re supposed to be helping. I have heard stories about how Franklin Graham uses the shoeboxes given to Operation Christmas Child to convert people in other countries, as opposed to giving them as free gifts. I have listened to sermons about befriending people so a Christian can try to convert them. Jill and Derick Dillard, who are Christian influencers who claim fame from the Duggar family and 19 Kids and Counting, talk about befriending LGBTQ+ people and even using their pronouns but making it clear on their social media that they believe being queer is sinful.
Compassion is not compassion when there is a hidden agenda. It becomes a transaction. I truly believe that you cannot love and care for people fully if you believe that God will ultimately send them to hell. A God that sends people to burn forever for the choices made in the blip of their existence on this earth is abusive, not compassionate. The danger here is that manipulation is being disguised as kindness and goodwill.
The Danger of Systematic Theology
Most mainline protestant churches adhere to systematic theology, a belief system based on the teachings and biblical interpretations of a historic theologian. Presbyterians and Lutherans follow “reformed theology” which came from the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s. Presbyterians prefer the teachings of John Calvin while Lutherans prefer Martin Luther. Methodists follow Wesleyan theology and the teachings of John and Charles Wesley.
While this is an over-simplified way to describe the beliefs of the people within these denominations, that is actually my point. When I was going through the ordination process in the PC (USA) I had to pass ordination exams that adhered to reformed and Calvinist theology. I had to use and cite sources from reformed theologians that included a well-crafted essay response to questions about theological issues such as predestination, theories of atonement, and election. Regardless of my personal beliefs about these matters, I had to respond to these essay questions that fit within reformed theology. As someone who was very progressive and a closeted queer at the time, I had to do a lot of mental gymnastics to reconcile my personal beliefs and morals with the Calvinism I was required to use as my basis to be ordained. If I wanted to save face within the system of the church, my theology had to come first and my morals had to be worked in later.
Systematic theology is dangerous because it is what many denominations are steeped in as a foundational part of their history. Instead of updating the theology that is informing their beliefs, especially since most of these “great” theologians are westernized white men who are interpreting scripture through their lived experiences which excludes all other demographics, they cling to them. They try to make these theologies work with constantly updating ethics and morals as society develops. An institution that chooses to protect ideologies that are clearly outdated for tradition’s sake means choosing concepts over people.
The Danger of Calling
There is varying discourse about the theology of “calling”, but in short it is the belief that one should follow God’s will or “calling” that God wants for a person’s life. The danger I encountered in this particular area of church life is that I learned to ignore red flags and my intuition. I was told by colleagues, professors, and pastors alike that when making a big decision I should pray and read scripture to listen to guidance from God. I was often encouraged to get out of my comfort zone, because saying yes to a “calling” that I might be uncertain about could be God’s way of surprising me with an amazing opportunity.
After seminary, I had a church that was interviewing me to be their associate pastor. They were interested in me, but I was extremely hesitant about them. The pastor’s wife worked as the Christian Education Director, a powerful position in the church. I was afraid this meant that I would be manipulated into doing things their way in the church. I was. I saw a picture of their previous associate pastor and was stunned that we looked very similar: facial features, glasses, hair color, hairstyle. I was afraid they wanted someone who was exactly like her. They did. I saw these red flags and my gut was telling me not to move forward with this church.
I heard the voices of people around me in my head reminding me that I needed to get out of my comfort zone and say yes if God is calling me. I set aside the doubts that were warning me not to go, and I accepted the job. I was bullied out of that church in nine months’ time, and I left ministry after that. When an institution teaches you to suppress your intuition and your lived experience to blindly trust the influence of the people within it, claiming that this is God’s will, then this leads to dangerous situations where people are valued for what they can do for the church and not for their well-being as a person.
The Danger of “Purple” Churches
A jargon phrase we threw around in seminary was “purple” churches or churches where both “red” voters and “blue” voters attended. Most of the churches we as students served in the PC (USA), as is common in the mainline protestant churches, were purple churches. Often what this meant for me and my friends was that progressive voices had to be quieted and tamed to “keep the peace.” Sermons had to be watered down to toe the line between a palatable amount of compassion for conservative ears and too much of a social justice warrior message. People had to bite their tongues and compromise during board meetings or Bible study when ideas clashed.
I was told at a church where I served as the associate pastor that there were LGBTQ+ allies within the congregation and that I could perform same-sex marriage ceremonies at other locations, but our church would not allow same-sex marriages to be performed on our property or in our sanctuary. I was closeted at the time, and at that moment I knew I would never be safe to come out as queer. When I stated that this broke my heart, I was chided by the senior pastor that I shouldn’t feel that way because that’s how people compromise.
Purple churches are not safe churches for marginalized groups. They are more interested in keeping the peace between the red and blue parties. Someone who finds an ally to ostracized communities can be led into a sense of false security, believing that this supportive person attends a supportive church. But when progressive ideas are quelched to maintain the status quo, then the marginalized person who believed they were safe is betrayed. The idea of “we can disagree and still be friends”, or in this case attend the same church, neglects to address the fact that often the disagreements are over basic human rights. Purple churches are dangerous because they protect their insular community at the expense of others, allowing racism, homophobia, sexism, and classism to exist unchallenged in the pews.
The Danger of Grace
Grace is a word used often in the church. They reference God’s grace as favor and blessings from God. Christians also talk about giving grace to one another or asking for grace which usually means they are asking for patience and forgiveness when someone does something wrong or accounting for a learning curve. While this is not an unreasonable request, the problem is that the church is often decades behind the secular world when it comes to making progress. While the church continues to hold political power in the country then they stifle progress and systems of oppression remain in place.
Similar to how people in purple churches function, my progressive friends in ministry often advocate for the people in their congregations to be given grace while they try to overcome deep-seated ideas of racism and homophobia. If we’re just patient enough and give them enough time, they can help change them and influence them in a better direction. The problem is that oppressed people will continue to face hardships such as financial difficulty, hate crimes, injustice with law enforcement, a lack of adequate healthcare, and their human rights being made illegal while we wait for the people in the pews to catch up.
Giving grace to people, since all people are imperfect, is not the problem. The danger comes when we choose comforting people in power without challenging bigoted notions over helping marginalized communities pursue justice and equality. The stakes are much higher for people ostracized by society who aren’t protected (and instead are targeted) by the government. We do not have time to wait and give people grace when the church uses its political power to make people suffer.
The church is a powerful force in the United States that affects the political landscape. These cultural and theological elements all combine to create the mindsets found within the church and provide insight into the institution. What it boils down to is that far too often the church chooses to protect itself as an entity over valuing human rights and dignity. I do know incredible individuals within the church who are working to change it. I thought I could be one of them, someone who changed it from the inside out. But it wore me down. I was silenced and oppressed even while presenting myself as a straight, cisgender woman. So long as I was closeted and unsafe to come out to be celebrated in my queerness, I would never be able to remain a member of the church. Now my task is to help people, both inside and outside of the church, understand the core issues of the oppressive power of this religious institution. If we know what we’re up against then we can get to the root of the problem. My hope is that we can stop the danger at the source to put power in the hands of marginalized people and improve the state of our nation.
Glory Cumbow (they/them) is a writer living in North Carolina. They work as a strategist helping other writers to get their work published. They are dedicated to the arts and work with local theatres and sing in their community choir. When they’re not writing, they enjoy traveling, catching live shows, and visiting art museums.