One of my biggest regrets took place when I was 16, sitting in an all-boys tent at a Christian youth summer camp. It was one of those late-night deep chats with the camp leaders, where they coax out your angsty teenage struggles so that they can smooth them over with a healthy dose of conservative theology. Somehow, the discussion made its way to marriage roles (heterosexual marriage roles, that is) and the question of male headship. I say question; it was barely asked before almost everyone in the tent resoundingly answered in the affirmative. ‘I used to struggle with the idea,’ one of the older boys said. ‘But then I read a book about it and it makes sense to me now.’ The usual mental gymnastics ensued – ‘the husband is head of the wife, but Christ is head of the man, so really Christ is the head of the wife, just via the husband. Which is fine because, er… well it says so in the Bible’ – and I just sat there in awkward silence. I don’t believe for a second that if I had said something it would’ve made a great deal of difference. The power in that tent was very much on the side of male headship and a little protest from one of the youngest boys there wouldn’t have started a feminist revolution. But I still wish I’d made my values known regardless, to have not been complicit in my silence.
Experiences like this were not uncommon at that time in my life. We had left the church I grew up in when I was 13, and a tentative deconstruction was beginning thanks to that experience and a growing exposure to progressive politics on the internet (I’m one of those rare young white men who has been made more left wing by the internet rather than the other way around). Most of the fundamentals of my charismatic evangelical faith were yet to be taken apart, but I was pretty sure women were equal to men and that affirming LGBTQ+ people was a good idea. This was enough to put me wildly out of step with the Christian communities I’d grown up in, and I hadn’t even began questioning hell or penal substitution yet. But I kept going to many Friday evening youth groups and summer camps with my old church because, well, many of my oldest friends were there. And frequently I’d find myself sitting uncomfortably through another ‘deep chat’ about how we have to love our gay friends but maintain that being gay wasn’t ‘God’s best for them’ (these youth leaders all claimed to have gay friends that they told this to; I’d be interested to hear the alleged friends’ sides of the story). The most I ever pushed back was the one time I asked if it was possible to be Christian and LGBTQ+ affirming. I received an emphatic ‘no’ and kept quiet for the rest of the evening.
I spent a surprisingly long time in this limbo state, continuing to go to charismatic evangelical church events as my own faith became less and less in line with what was preached at them. And I’m not convinced this was good for me. Although in my head I was picking apart the flaws of the theology – rejecting their bigoted social conservatism, their cruel and stressful model of salvation, their unaccountable power structures rife with abuse – I was still immersed in the environments where all of this was being enforced. And they are strange environments. The aforementioned late-night-deep-chats are the apotheoses of the irresponsible intimacy fostered in these places. They draw out your vulnerability in front of all your peers in order to decree the ‘Godly’ solution to your struggles, implicitly recruiting those peers you’ve just exposed your soul in front of as enforcers. The fear of communal shame, under the guise of ‘loving accountability’, is harnessed to keep you on the straight and narrow. In these spaces you are discouraged from trusting your own feelings – from listening to your own body’s attempts to communicate with you – and encouraged instead to surrender yourself to the judgement of the conservative evangelical social order, as enforced by your best friends.
I am white, male, straight and cisgender. I am exactly the kind of person the evangelical church is designed to benefit. I am hyper-aware of the fact that the kind of oppressive environments I’ve experienced are nothing compared to those whose identities the church privileges less, if not downright discriminates against. But there is also a particular insidiousness to growing up as a straight cisgender man in these environments: the offer of power. There’s an implicit bargain that, if you repeat what we want you to repeat – if you fit yourself into our patriarchal mould – you too can be like the youth pastors and worship leaders you idolise. And if you read one of our approved books and suppress your discomfort with male headship, then you get to be the most powerful person in your family simply because of your maleness. The great irony of evangelical Christianity is that for all its warnings against the temptations of ‘the world’, it maintains its patriarchal dominance through the constant temptation of power.
I have finally left these kind of church spaces for good. It took me too long and I am still working out the full extent of the impact they’ve had on me. Certainly, it has made me more suspicious of myself than I would like to be, more excessively self-conscious of my own faults while simultaneously less capable of doing anything about them; more likely to suppress those faults out of fear than to work through them honestly. When I was in the limbo state, I theoretically maintained an ardent opposition to the church as an institution while struggling to resist the pull of it. I believe this is because what the community churches claim to provide is actually – when done right – deeply important to me; when it isn’t a community shaped by abusive power structures to keep everybody in line but a space that truly expresses the all-embracing love of Jesus. And since leaving those old churches behind for ever, I have been extremely fortunate in finding new communities that are far closer to that ideal. Nomad is one of them. The beautiful chapel at my college is another. And the vibrantly inclusive church in the centre of my home city is the most recent space I’ve entered and felt the unconditional welcome I – and others who wouldn’t fit the evangelical mould – could never get in those old spaces. My hope is that everyone longing for the kind of community previous church experiences have failed to live up to can find it.
– Nathan Brooks