Last winter, my family and I spent one afternoon of a ten day vacation in London reliving one of the most terrifying moments of my college years, for the vibes (as my kids say). It was an exhibit at the British Natural History Museum that replicated what it felt like to experience an earthquake in real time. As I moved with the throng of other tourists into a space designed to recreate the experience of the 6.9 Kobe earthquake from inside a grocery store, my stomach started to churn. When the simulation began with its first jolt, the tourists chuckled and squealed, but I fought a full-scale panic attack. When it was finally over, I had to find a bench to sit on to collect myself.
For rest of the crowd it was little more than an amusement park ride. For me, it was reliving personal history. I was in my final semester of college at TMU the morning the Northridge earthquake literally jolted me awake at 4:30 in the morning with tremors so violent my head banged over and over against the headboard of my bed. It was over 25 years ago, but the feeling of falling asleep in the safest place you know, only to wake up to chaos and pain, gets into your cellular memory and never leaves.
When I wrote about my journey to and through TMU several years ago, I omitted many of the specifics of my upbringing intentionally. The 6th commandment doesn’t come with an expiration date, and the process I’ve followed to try and separate what were objectively influencing factors from my subjective perception of them as a child is still very much in work. It’s sufficient for now to say what I did then – that the baggage I brought to TMU as a wide-eyed freshman from Australia is precisely what made the Biblical blueprint for life I was taught there so attractive.
It wasn’t that the authority and submission framework was compelling in and of it itself- it was the promise of spiritual and circumstantial safety that came with it that drew me in.
The language of the spiritual danger of the evils of culture and lies of false doctrine spoken at TMU was the language I’d been taught to speak from childhood. Its familiarity was reassuring. Heresy was everywhere, and falling prey to it was as simple as reading the wrong book or accidentally striking a yoga pose at the gym. So we read books by all the “right” people (heavy emphasis on the Puritans, Calvinists and anything by John MacArthur), and were warned about all the “wrong” ones (secular psychologists, the Charismatics, anything by Beth Moore). We learned which sociopolitical issues were essential for Christians to care about (abortion, marriage), and which were dangerous (feminism).
But while these outermost walls of spiritual safety were designed to protect our souls from dangerous theology or worldliness, we still needed a working system for living inside them.
That’s where complementarianism came in.
In the complementarian blueprint as I was taught it, men and women were created to function in very distinct, almost oppositional roles. Men lead, women followed. Men were made to crave risk, women security.
The woman’s domain was the home and child raising, the man’s, everything else. God made male leadership and authority to serve as a protective shield for women, to create an atmosphere where women would be happy, fulfilled and secure. To live inside this framework was to enjoy safety, stability and the blessing of God; to step outside it was to be in step with the world, the flesh and the devil.
I didn’t grow up in this kind of warm, stable environment, and I felt its lack acutely. Moreover, as a young believer, I longed for God’s love and approval more than anything else. And so I built my life according to the blueprint I was taught, at a significant cost that I willingly paid as an act of sacrificial obedience to God, believing that God would bless me.
Eventually, my understanding of the gospel matured so that I came to understand and experience the freedom of knowing that the basis of God’s love for me isn’t my obedience, but Christ’s. And so I began to live more freely, even as the ecosystem of my family’s life operated according to what the complementarianism model taught at TMU and GCC would define as ideal – every aspect of it aligned with doctrinal orthodoxy and overseen by committed Christian men.
Then the tremors began.
It started with the discoveries that the history of my spiritual forefathers I’d been taught had been majorly revised. I’d been taught all about their orthodox doctrine, but next to nothing of their heterodox practices – their advocacy for slavery, their propping up of racial segregation, their passive and active resistance of the Civil Rights movement – all of it in the name of doctrinal orthodoxy.
Then, contemporary spiritual fathers began to be exposed, men in the church whose doctrinally sound teaching had nourished my soul and enriched my faith. Some succumbed to political pragmatism. Others fell into personal impurity. In one case, the enormity of his sexual sin was so great that its exposure drove him to suicide. Another awaits sentencing after being convicted of two counts of aggravated assault of a minor.
With one story after another, the closely guarded trust I’d placed in these men because of the purported purity of their doctrine was shattered.
Then earlier this year, the greatest tremor of all happened. In the space of a few months, I experienced a collection of trials that intersected every axis of my life at once – relationally, vocationally, financially, and spiritually. So I did what I’d been taught – I took refuge against the spiritual safety walls I’d been told would hold me up. But as I leaned on them, they crumbled into dust.
I sat amongst the dust and the rubble, hurt and disoriented, for a long time.
And then I started to rebuild – on a more solid foundation, with better materials and a different blueprint – one I learned from the prophet Jeremiah.
5 This is what the Lord says:
Cursed is the person who trusts in mankind.
He makes human flesh his strength,
and his heart turns from the Lord.
6 He will be like a juniper in the Arabah;
he cannot see when good comes
but dwells in the parched places in the wilderness,
in a salt land where no one lives. — Jeremiah 17:5-6 (CSB)
Jeremiah’s perspective on the consequences of trusting in men is very different than the one I was taught at TMU and Grace Community Church. Jeremiah compares trusting in the strength of human men to being like a juniper bush in a desert wasteland, with no water in sight, and the ground so thick with salt that whatever drops of rain fall from the sky are instantly leached away. Entrusting ourselves to human power isn’t a path to safety or prosperity; it’s a recipe for disaster.
There was a time when I would have read those words and nodded right along with them. I would have assumed Jeremiah just meant the unrighteous, the amorphous “pagans” I was taught Christians were so different from. But I was wrong, and now I know from personal experience how right Jeremiah is.
So do innumerable others.
Over the last five or ten years, an entire cottage industry of websites and social networks has sprung up for people, many of them women but not all, whose stories are like mine in kind, and far, far worse in degree. They built the framework for the Christian life they were promised would be safe, and it collapsed. Even worse, when they asked for help to fix the damage, those called of God to be conduits of care, inflicted more damage by ignoring or dismissing them and denying there was anything to repair.
Crushed by the very infrastructures on which they’d been taught to rely, many are walking away, rebuilding their lives with blueprints of their own design. I understand that impulse. I feel its magnetic pull more than ever. But I’m not giving in to it.
Jeremiah’s words remind me that I’ve got no more ability to protect and provide for myself than anyone else.
But Jesus does.
7 The person who trusts in the Lord,
whose confidence indeed is the Lord, is blessed.
8 He will be like a tree planted by water:
it sends its roots out toward a stream,
it doesn’t fear when heat comes,
and its foliage remains green.
It will not worry in a year of drought
or cease producing fruit. — Jeremiah 17:7-8 (CSB)
Placing our trust in the LORD, Jeremiah says, is like being tree planted by a river, with roots that reach out into the water to draw from a constant stream of nourishment. The heat of trials can’t hurt us. The drought from a lack of human provision or resources doesn’t frighten us, because the source of our life doesn’t come from them.
To paraphrase another Rachael, “I don’t trust the church. I trust Christ.”
Trusting in Christ as the source of my life doesn’t mean I’m building a giant bunker around myself, so it’s just me and Jesus. Trusting in Christ means trusting His words about what he’s building and the means he’s employing to build it. Trusting in Christ means not building a giant platform for myself on the wreckage of the church’s wrongs, nor joining forces with those who have. Trusting in Christ means trusting Him for the wisdom to know when to be quiet, like Sarah (1 Pet. 3:6) but also to know when to speak, like Abigail did (1 Sam. 25:24), and Esther (Esther 7:3-4), and the woman of wisdom in Proverbs 8 (Prov. 8:1-8). It means trusting Him with what to say, and, especially, with what happens as a result.
The tremors that are shaking the institutions of American evangelicalism and the structures on which they’ve been built, aren’t letting up. Only time will tell which ones will crumble into dust, and which, if any, will hold. We forget that Jesus’ promise about what He would build and secure was about his church, not about our colleges, or our seminaries, our denominations or our parachurch multimedia ministry empires.
We’re being reminded.
What Jeremiah promises, and what I’m learning afresh, is those whose trust in the LORD have nothing to fear. Neither does anyone whose trust has been in other things – in human men, in the human institutions we’ve built, or in ourselves – if they repent of that misplaced trust and place it once again in the nail-scarred hands of the only one who is worthy of it.