In 2011, I was casually attending the hip new church in my hometown. The Table* stuck out like a green steeple from the fold of worship halls found in that Buckle of the Bible Belt town. The people there didn’t care about your tattoos and piercings. There was no dress code, in theory or in practice. They were non-denominational. Instead of a choir singing hymns, they had a band playing contemporary praise-and-worship. I thought, wished, hoped that they were different.
Several years before I was invited to The Table, I stopped attending the church in which I grew up. I had grown tired of gritting my teeth and wincing at casual, even institutionalized, racism, sexism, and homophobia during sermons and classes. As much as I loved many of the people there, I had—for reasons still unknown—been a whipping boy and an outcast since day one. The last time I dropped in, I found out someone had started a baseless rumor that I was “on all kinds of drugs.”
I was not in a good place when I decided to get married. I was desperate to make an obviously broken relationship work, and blind to the fact that neither of us really cared about the other. Despite having distanced myself from religion, I still believed that God would make things all better if we made a commitment.
I brushed off every second thought by heaping more guilt onto myself: You’re such a burden to them already. This will have all been for nothing. People have paid money for you to do this, so you can’t change your mind.
I insisted on premarital counseling, which ended up going about as well as my marriage; I’m getting divorced in October, so you do the math. David** was pastor at The Table, and he had a great program with which he said he was familiar.
I took a test to see how good of a match I was for my ex. My stress score was 99/100. David’s co-pastor thought I was lying about not being pregnant; he also said I didn’t “make enough money to be married.” I took offense, but didn’t say anything. This was supposed to be about working through problems, not going on a Marxist rant because the co-pastor was an ignorant jackass.
Throughout the counseling, I maintained that same position. I never lied, but there were many, many times I chose not to argue. Like when David said that I was “wrong” about egalitarianism, “but that’s okay.” Or when he said that men cannot feel, and women cannot think. Pick your battles, I thought.
At the initial counseling meeting, I agreed to move in with my brother; this being a conservative Christian program, they did not believe in couples living together prior to marriage. David asked if he could share information about the counseling with my brother. I agreed. I thought that maybe, if something went wrong in counseling, he could break the news to my brother so I wouldn’t have to.
Later, I found out that David was using my brother to spy on my movements in order to make sure I had not moved back, or spent the night in my own bed. I was angry. I didn’t believe that, just because I have a vagina, I was under divine order to remain under the authority of a male relative, yet that is exactly the conservative tenet David was following. He knew I didn’t agree with that crockery, so he misrepresented his intentions in order to gain my agreement.
To make matters worse, every time I saw David, he patted me on the back and congratulated me on “being strong enough” to remove myself from my home so that I could resist sexual temptation properly. My ex and I were never sleeping together in my home; my parents forbade it. I slept on one couch, and he slept on the other. In David’s mind, this was fishy. David’s constant congratulations for this major inconvenience, made me feel as if he thought I was a whore. After all, who else but some heathen fallen woman would need so much encouragement in order to abstain from sex for six weeks?
Tensions were rising. In the counseling chamber, I listened to my ex lie outright about his past. I was unwilling to call him on it in the counseling chamber. Given David’s attitude thus far, there was no reason to think he would take it seriously. He seemed to believe my ex, who painted himself as a lifelong Christian—he converted nearly three years after I met him—and humble servant of God. I was truthful about my spotty relationship with Christianity. David thought I should listen to my ex more.
It comes as no surprise that religion was the last straw for my acquaintanceship with David. Over a few short weeks, he had discovered just how disparate our views were. I had discovered just how much of a hardline Calvinist he was compared to the easy-going face he gave to The Table. It was because of these differences that David decided the last session needed to be spent discussing my personal religious positions.
His last question: “Do you believe Jesus Christ is the only way to Heaven?”
My reply: “I don’t know, to be honest. I’m not willing to give a definite ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer to that.”
David, smugly and slowly: “Then I would question whether you can even call yourself a Christian.”
I was floored. Had this really just happened? This was David. From The Table. Yes, he was more conservative than me by far, but I would never in a million years have guessed that he would say something so cold. If his statement seems innocuous: read it again, and keep in mind that David believes all non-Christians will spend eternity in Hell.
“[R]e-examine all you have been told in school or church or in any book, and dismiss whatever insults your own soul.” Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
I refused to return to The Table after that. Does that mean David won? Perhaps. But I was not about to fall back into his web of dishonesty.
You see, I had come to realize that The Table, despite its outward appearance, operated under a much more sinister guise than other churches in my area. Conservative protestant ministers make a habit of stepping on toes, as the saying goes, by preaching—among other things—bigotry and Christian exceptionalism from the pulpit. David and The Table pretended to be accepting, said “It doesn’t matter who you are or what you believe.” Except that it did matter. A lot. Instead of telling me to my face that he found my views problematic, David decided to love me into his way—the right way—of belief.
I gave up on organized religion. I never gave up on the Divine, but I found new ways to worship. No sense throwing out the baby with the bathwater, after all.
The only truly good thing to come of that terrible experience was this: when my marriage failed less than two years after it began, I never once considered counseling. By that point, I knew that my marriage was beyond help before it started. I wasn’t about to waste more time getting it wrong.
* Not the church’s real name.
** Not his real name.
Note: “The End of the Beginning” is a song by Christian singer David Phelps.
Do you have a counseling horror story you’d like to share? Let’s talk about it in the comments!