Today’s post is a blast from the past: one of the first posts I wrote about the Unequally Yoked Club (UYC). In many flavors of Christianity, folks call mixed-faith relationships unequally yoked. However, the people in the UYC didn’t start out mixed-faith. No, they both got married expecting to be Christian forever — but then one of them deconverted. Let me tell you about the very night that my then-husband Biff realized that yes, I had completely deconverted, making us unequally yoked. Along the way, I’ll show you why my deconversion proved to be such an insurmountable problem for us.
(Originally published on October 13, 2013. I tidied up the original post quite a bit to make it easier to read. To the readers who were here for this post’s first run, thank you for being patient as I learned how to write without accidentally swallowing my keyboard.)
Before we can really get into the meat of this post, I need to review the fundagelical view of promises.
I’ve talked before about the things that drew me to fundamentalism: the illusions it offers of an unchanging doctrine, an unchanging god, and an unchanging set of expectations. And it’s true. Sort of. Those illusions create a lot of problems when they bang up against reality. Still, they’re alluring promises to a lot of people.
For example, when a kid swears at six years old that he (yes, he) will become an evangelist or a pastor, then that’s what’s going to happen no matter what! If that child later decides that he would rather be a fireman or a nurse or a stay-at-home dad, his parents will always bring up that earlier “contract.”
In the same way, when pre-teens who still think the other gender has cooties swear they won’t have sex till they get married, everyone waves that promise in their faces till their wedding day.
Heaven forbid those kids turn out to be gay, child-free, asexual, trans, or polyamorous.
Or just not wanna get married at all to anybody.
Set in Steel.
Most people rightly consider it child abuse to hold a little kid to a promise made at the age of six.
But in the fundagelical church world, once someone’s made a promise, there is no way to walk it back. It doesn’t matter if the other party to that promise turns out to be abusive or nonexistent! Nor will fundagelicals show mercy if the promise was made under premises and terms that turned out to be invalid. A promise is still a promise, and woe betide the child who goes against a promise later in life.
Things don’t improve for adults, either. The promises made at any point in a Christian’s “spiritual walk” are set in stone. That’s true especially if the Christian declares that these promises are made in the “spirit.” That means they have the stamp of approval from Jesus himself!
Hardcore Christians don’t even pick a restaurant to eat lunch in without praying first about where they ought to go. So you can imagine how much they pray and seek guidance before making any big decisions.
Walking Back a Promise.
Amazingly, this god, the author of quarks and quasars and continental drift and nuclear fusion and black holes, has opinions about absolutely every single personal decision a Christian needs to make. Even more amazingly, Christians are generally very sure about just what those opinions are.
Thus, it’s awfully hard for them to walk back a promise made after declaring that a god wanted them to do a certain thing.
Obviously, there’s no way whatsoever to tell if anything a Christian “hears” is really a message from any god at all. The idea could come from “the flesh,” which is to say just from the Christian him- or herself. Or it might come from demons, whose voices are surprisingly hard to tell from that of the Christian god.
So if you decide later on that you must have misheard that voice, or that the voice in all likelihood didn’t exist at all, you’ve got problems on a scale that non-fundagelicals can’t really begin to comprehend.
The nature of promises, then, constitutes the first leg of dysfunction in Christian marriages.
The Perfect Soulmate.
One of the cruelest illusions modern Christianity offers is the idea of the “soulmate.” That’s the idea that there is one special hand-picked romantic companion out there that Jesus has pre-selected for each and every one of his “children” from the beginning of time.
This person will be absolutely perfect in every single way. Marriage with this person will be similarly blessed and perfect.
The idea of soulmates may have come from Plato’s Symposium. However, the modern conception of the “soulmate” is fairly new, maybe from the 1960s and its Age of Aquarius thinking.
In ages past, romantic love may have been valued, parents may have hoped that their children would find romantic love in their various arranged matches, but nobody expected a marital partner to be the end-all, be-all of companions. Romantic love was very nice and definitely a goal. But if it didn’t happen, a couple could at least treat each other with “love,” meaning respect, courtesy, goodwill, and charitable generosity.
Talk about changing the definition of marriage!
The Inevitability of Change.
People change, too.
That’s so obvious to me now, but at the time, I didn’t know this simple truth.
People change. Sometimes, they change a lot.
I met Biff when I was a dreamy-eyed 17-year-old. We married when I was 20. Already at 20, I wasn’t the same person I was at 17. In the next few years, I changed even more.
I’m not the same person I was at 20. I’ll probably be different in my 50s and 60s, too.
(2020 Narrator: “Yeppers.”)
Change occurs much faster (and more dramatically) in younger people as they try on new personalities and new ways of looking at the world, and as they explore new avenues of self-expression and philosophies.
As they learn critical thinking skills, they re-examine their beliefs. Sometimes, they develop different beliefs or shed erroneous ones. That’s all normal in the real world.
In toxic Christianity, however, Christians view this process with horror and dread — and try their best to stop it. Change is their enemy.
Proverbs 22:6 advises parents to “train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.”
The forceful indoctrination of a vulnerable mind sounds like child abuse to folks outside that culture. But evangelical Christians take that verse very seriously. Their answer to the problem of personal change is to forcefully indoctrinate their children. They try hard to ensure their kids won’t ever question what they were taught. They won’t ever change.
Brandishing this verse, pastors and ministers teach the traditional (and increasingly erroneous) view that even though young people might leave the religion for a while, they’ll be back when they have kids of their own.
These older Christians think that even if young parents don’t take Christianity seriously, they’ll want their kids to be exposed to it at a young age (before they get sophisticated enough to recognize malarkey when they hear it).
(2020 Narrator: “Some older Christians still think this way now, and they’re still wrong.”)
Extreme Needs, Extreme Measures.
Likewise, these well-meaning parents’ and pastors’ cruel and abusive answer to young people’s inevitable romantic yearnings is to indoctrinate those same kids with the idea that if they have even one sexual experience with a non-soulmate, or even just one non-sexual romantic dating relationship, they forever tarnish themselves.
Disgusting stories abound about “abstinence education” courses. In some of these courses, people spit chewed-up food or partially-swallowed water into glasses to demonstrate what a sexually experienced person looks like to their god and to their future soulmate. (I guess rape victims are SOL.)
One of the more odious of these courses, Choosing the Best SOUL MATE, even comes out and says that its goal is to help students stay “pure” until they find and marry this soulmate their god has picked out for them. It goes on to say that men are like “knights” who won’t take kindly to their “princesses” giving them pointers on how to rescue them. And one of the bigger Christian dating sites, ChristianMingle, has the tagline Find God’s Match for You — which implies that there’s only the one match, and it’s definitely from a god.
As a result of these teachings, Christian dating has become a repository of the very worst myths and illusions there are about how people and relationships work. It all encourages the rather egocentric illusion that people are all stars in their own movies and that everybody else is just a supporting cast member. Character development only happens for the stars of the movie, just like talking to the camera is reserved for Wayne and Garth.
The movie stars’ opposite-gendered romantic interests aren’t supposed to have three-dimensional personalities or ever develop or grow. They’re there to be awarded to the stars. The stars deserve them and their attention. Didn’t a god say so?
The notion of unchanging, divinely-picked soulmates constitutes the second leg of dysfunction.
The Central Pillar.
And now for the third and last leg: the idea that couples must build their relationships around shared religious belief.
Jesus is supposed to be the linchpin in the relationship, the base upon which the marital house is built. This idea, too, is a cruel and abusive thing to teach young people, and I know that what I just wrote is going to raise the hackles of many Christians reading this, since the idea of basing a marriage on shared faith in Jesus is all but axiomatic at this point.
And I’m about to show you just how axiomatic.
The Dating Seminar.
When I was sixteen and a new Southern Baptist in the mid-1980s, I took part in an event my church held called “Love/Life Principles Seminar: A Dating Seminar for Youth.” I didn’t even remember this seminar. My packrat of a mom kept the brown plastic binder they gave participants as a keepsake, which I found after her death.
The binder contains a relationship course written by someone I’ve never heard of, Barry Wood. His qualifications for writing this course are never outlined in the binder itself. His autobiography page reveals that he is a pastor somewhere and he’s given a lot of speeches to young people. Those are his qualifications. That’s it. He possess no evidence-based training or education related to anything in that binder.
On the inside cover, in my very careful half-print, half-cursive hand, I dutifully wrote down the hours of the seminar (9am to 4pm). Inside, it still contains the map they gave participants for where to get fast food before and afterward.
This was serious business, is what I’m saying.
At least early in the day, I clearly followed along quite conscientiously! In the workbook’s many pages, I filled in all the blanks provided by the author for all of his leading (and, I might add, completely citation-free) questions and answers.
The Main Purpose of Dating.
The binder has several tabs in it. Under the one marked “Dating,” on page 33, the author has this to say (emphases his; the underlined word was filled in by me, but clearly as a result of being told what to write there):
“The main purpose of dating is to unite two people spiritually. Because this is the main purpose of dating – God must be very much involved in your love life. . . Dating should not be used to start friendships but rather is the result of friendship. Only close friends know one another well enough to begin a possible courtship (dating).”
On the next page, the author invites participants to speculate about when a young person is old enough to date. A series of blanks next to ages 13-18 are provided. One answer is “when parents consent.” The author reveals that this is the only age at which a child is considered old enough to date.
(2020 Narrator: “As it turns out, this course took inspiration somewhere along the way from Bill Gothard. Surprised?”)
A few pages later, the author tells young women that their primary concern in picking a dating partner is finding one who cares more about their god than anything else (p. 38).
In Wood’s world, “ladies” seek “guys” using purely personality-based traits, but “men” seek “girls” who are “beautiful inside as well as outside.” Boys must avoid girls who are “a flirt and immodest.” Wood thoughtfully informs us that such a “girl” is “a gold ring in a pig’s snout.”
Oh, and of course he tells young women that their job is to be such wonderful Christians that their boyfriends/husbands will want to be even better Christians because of them.
But What of Non-Christians?
In this seminar, the author makes sure to discuss the idea of dating a non-Christian.
The illustration on page 41 is of a beautiful bride in a high-necked wedding gown smiling up at her groom, who is an unshaved, long-haired, balding hobo in rags.
This is what my church wanted me to think about when I thought about dating a non-believer.
The author writes on page 42 (again, emphases are his):
NOTE THIS TRUTH: A believer cannot be yoked together spiritually with a lost person! Therefore, why date a lost person! It defeats our purpose for dating. It is a dead end street. Would you ever love a boyfriend (or girlfriend) more than the Lord?
This is what I was taught about how to construct a romantic relationship. My Dear Leaders wanted me to use this information to figure out who to date and marry. This is what they wanted me to value in a future boyfriend and husband.
And Now: Bringing It All Together.
Now. Okay. We’re ready. Let’s add it all up and look at it together.
A Christian couple is taught balderdash from the time they’re old enough to absorb the words used.
They are taught that promises, especially promises centered around their god, are sacrosanct and cannot ever be broken, and that nothing true or good can ever change.
They are taught that their god has picked someone specially just for them and that this person will be their perfect mate forever.
To find that person, they are given a whole list of qualities they should be looking for and valuing in a mate. They are taught that the only good marriage is one centered completely around their shared belief in a particular god (and moreover usually a particular “flavor” of that god’s religion). If people change at all, then they must grow together in tribally-approved ways.
If they’re convinced they’re doing something that is their god’s will, then naturally, everybody else in the movie’s cast plays along. They and the other cast members only need to recite the correct lines and hit the correct marks on the stage. This is how young fundagelicals learn to desire and value a Mayberry fantasy of married life.
Maybe things even lurch along all right for a while after they marry.
And then, one of them deconverts.
Flies in the Vaseline, We Are.
From the bottom of my heart, Christians in the UYC, with tears in my eyes:
I am sorry.
I am so sorry.
You did not sign up for this.
I know you didn’t.
This is not your fault.
It’s not your spouse’s fault, either.
You both got fed a pack of lies. These were horrible, toxic, harmful, cruel, pernicious lies at that. They were lies told by largely unqualified people who, however well-meaning, have no business meddling in other people’s love lives.
The facade, always jostling so uncomfortably with reality, has fallen away.
The happy illusion you were taught (that if you did X, you’d get Y) has been destroyed.
Most of all, the certainty you once had, false though it was, based as it was on an imperfect understanding of what relationships are and how people operate, has been torn asunder.
The Recipe for Misery.
If I had to write a recipe for how to absolutely destroy someone’s life with false teachings, I could not do a better job than modern Christianity has with its teachings about marriage.
So when I looked across at Biff on that fateful winter night so many years ago, the night he finally realized I’d deconverted, I felt a degree of sympathy for him. I knew this wasn’t what he’d expected.
For months, he’d been praying — and manipulating me — to regain the wife Jesus had promised him I’d be. All along, Biff had been holding onto the belief that I’d come to my senses somehow — through his prayer, through his conniving, something.
This was not how he’d wanted his married life to look or work.
Pulling the Rug Out From Under Him.
I’d pulled the rug out from under Biff. I’d done an unwitting bait-and-switch.
He’d married a dedicated Christian woman. We’d made plans around him going into the ministry. We’d operated together, as a team, as best we could under the antiquated and misogynistic rules of our faith (and of course his malignant narcissism). I’d been the best wife I could be, and I’d followed all the rules.
Then I’d ruined everything for him.
Of course, all I’d really done was simply to stop playing along with what had turned out to be purely a fantasy. I’d accepted the changes that had occurred in my outlook. Those changes were not temporary aberrations.
My deconversion was the only authentic, honest, and fair response I could make to what I had discovered. It was the right thing to do. I certainly didn’t deconvert to hurt anybody. Rather, I did it to save my own sanity.
I’d stepped outside of the prescribed dance steps on the floor and had finally begun dancing to my own music.
Why It Was Such a Problem.
In most couples’ lives, they expect changes to happen. With communication and a healthy dose of respect and gentleness, the majority of those changes can usually be incorporated into the couple’s shared life together. That includes deconversion, as millions of suddenly-mixed-faith spouses are discovering to this very day.
But in the worst flavors of Christianity, with those Christians’ hatred and terror of change, their deathgrip on the illusion of soulmate perfection, their loathing of compromise, and their callous (and erroneous) insistence that a good relationship is impossible between people of differing beliefs, even fairly minor changes can destroy a marriage.
So even if Biff hadn’t been a weapons-grade narcissist, I don’t think our marriage would have recovered from my deconversion. Biff subscribed completely to those three dysfunctional beliefs I’ve named here. Just in general, he loved fundagelical ideology! However, that ideology limited his emotional flexibility and (perhaps more importantly) his compassion. Everything had to go according to his internal Jesus Movie, starring King Him.
Still, I mourned the death of that fantasy life Biff and I had both been promised so many times by our various well-meaning church leaders and mentors. I sorrowed for the pain and fear Biff clearly felt that night.
For differing reasons, I felt the same pain and fear as I contemplated the future.
Dazed, I wondered how we would deal with what had changed.
NEXT UP: Lord Snow Presides!
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