3 Toxic Concepts I (Un)Learned from Church… (and Why They’re Important to Name)

Let me give some context straight-from-the-gate:

I was raised in an Evangelical church setting. The doctrine taught there was very theologically eclectic and there was heavy emphasis on the charismatic, on the supernatural, and on an assurance of faith / church doctrinal statements. As I grew older, I began a very intense and intentional process of rethinking my faith, spirituality, and what being a (progressive) Christian looked like for me. Although the process was initially terrifying, the way faith looks now for me has both expanded and deepened.

This means that I’ve given a lot of thought to both the positive things I learned from my faith background (care for others, belief and ease with the Unknown, attention to / care for those who are systemically marginalized, the concept of beloved community). Yet I’ve also given a lot of thought to some of the more toxic things I’ve learned along the way. I’ve given space for unlearning some things. SO, if you aren’t comfortable with the dissonance that comes from learning, unlearning, and critique (even of the things we hold dear to our hearts or that are a part of our spiritual / cultural DNA)… then this post isn’t for you. I promise this post isn’t as troll-y as the title may suggest. These things are named to foster inquiry and perhaps, in some cases, further contemplation and freedom. So, before you are tempted to tell me HOW and WHY this post isn’t for you, take a moment of self assessment and reflection. Always remember that you can read another post if this feels deeply uncomfortable for you.

With that context, we press forward. Here are 3 toxic concepts I learned from church:

  1.  Always… in every case… wait for supernatural signs that God has spiritually released you from something… before you leave it.
    There’s been a few posts making the social media rounds that talk about God not releasing you from absolutely problematic situations… toxic relationships of all kinds, toxic environments, problematic churches, etc. I can remember the days of waiting for signs, signals, wonders, etc. that God had released me from a certain situation… and then I realized… this is what wisdom is for. I’m not Bible scholar but if there is an entire Biblical book in praise of wisdom then… I have questions about why we don’t feel free to use it when the situation calls for it. Especially for and in situations that suggest that leaving is our best course of action, health, and well being.I unlearned this particular messaging a) as I grew older and learned the story of my mother, and b) as I got in tune with my own heart, wants, desires, and needs.Anyone who knows my mother, knows that she is absolutely pragmatic. One of my favorite stories from her is about her first time doing a surgical procedure in PA school. In that moment, she remembers being very hesitant… but in the medical profession, time is precious and essential. Her supervising doctor leaned over to her and said, ‘Make a decision. If it goes well, you may have saved a life. If it doesn’t, we can triage and fix it. But if you do nothing, then we really can’t help you’.When she told me this story, I immediately thought about my spiritual development. There were SO. MANY. DECISIONS I’d put off because I didn’t see the writing in the sky that God was ‘releasing’ me. When I began talking to mentors and working with my therapist, I realized that we have been equipped with wisdom, emotion, and intuition to discern when we need to leave a situation. For too long, I ignored the signs of my own body including a tight stomach, a rapid heartbeat, constant anxiety or sadness, waiting to be ‘released’. I suppressed thought processes about why a church was problematic, ignored stagnant spirituality, waiting to be ‘released’. Now, I know better. When my body tells me it’s time to leave a situation… I leave it. When wisdom tells me it’s time to leave a situation… I leave it. I trust that I’ve been equipped with all I need to live an authentic and purposeful life, and that I know when it’s time to move on. I trust that in you, too.
  2. “God told me…” trumps all.
    The work of spiritual development and formation is important for many reasons. However, one of the reasons I’ve found to be most salient in my life is because without doing that work (and finding mentors to guide and encourage you in that work), you are susceptible to believe all the things that folk say… God said. I didn’t learn this lesson until I was involved in a very toxic dating situation. At the time, my partner was taking steps to pursue full time ministry and trying to make sense of all of the things involved in his own spiritual formation process. However, the way this was expressed was through directives in our relationship that began with, “God told me…”. Once I realized that the ‘God told me’s’ did not line up with my personal truth of God… nor what I’d been learning in my faith development process (which, in all transparency, included sitting with / contemplating womanist / liberationist theology) I realized that far too many times ‘God told me’ is used as a tool of silencing and / or perpetuating faulty theology under the guise of supernaturalism.
  3.  Hegemonic masculinity is God’s design. First, I will preface this concept with a few connections to other pieces. #Bearwithme 🙂 Scholars R.W. Connell & Messerschmidt defined and re-defined hegemonic masculinity as “the pattern of practice (i.e., things done, not just a set of role expectations or an identity) that allowed men’s dominance over women” (2005, p. 832). Hegemonic masculinity happens in cycles and it represents societal and cultural practices men’s dominance and subsequently, women’s subordination, is normalized. In an article that rethinks this term, they explain:

    “Consider how an idealized definition of masculinity is constituted in social process. At a society-wide level… there is a circulation of models of admired masculine conduct, which may be exalted by churches, narrated by mass media, or celebrated by the state. Such models refer to, but also in various ways distort, the everyday realities of social practice….Hegemonic masculinities can be constructed that do not correspond closely to the lives of any actual men. Yet these models do, in various ways, express widespread ideals, fantasies, and desires. They provide models of relations with women and solutions to problems of gender relations. Furthermore, they articulate loosely with the practical constitution of masculinities as ways of living in everyday local circumstances. To the extent they do this, they contribute to hegemony in the society-wide gender order as a whole”. (Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005, p. 838, emphasis mine for the interpretation of text)

    Earlier this month, writer Libby Anne, wrote about The ‘Real Men’ of Evangelical Christianity for Patheos.com (this article was so well crafted and interesting to read). Libby Anne broke down the ways in which memes, such as the one below, further codify and normalize hegemonic masculinity. I’ll add here that not only do they normalize men’s dominance and women’s subordination but they do it under the guise of true spirituality, faith, and Christian faithfulness. Here is an example of one of the memes she referred to in the text:


    To be clear, what happens on the Internet in this regard mirrors what can and what has happened in various churches as well. However, since I count it bad practice to speak for every church space, I will illustrate the concepts already fleshed out by Connell, Messerschmidt, & Libby Anne with my previous lived experiences.

    When I think about my years spent in 2 nondenominational Evangelical churches and one urban-focused Reformed Theological church, I also think about the ways that I dated and the functions I did while there. I was taught, from these perspectives, that women could only have certain roles within the church (recall R.W. Connell’s words: “models of relations with women”, p. 838)I was taught that the answer to issues related to gender / gender expression lay in a) conforming to a certain Biblical interpretation of gender being man or woman, b) submitting to a male partner in dating, courting, and marriage, and c) submitting to male leadership and pastoral care. This type of hegemonic masculinity was also seen as God-designed. So, the “widespread ideal or fantasy” included waiting for a man of faith to choose you, remaining abstinent, marrying, submitting to that man, and teaching your children to do the same… (thus perpetuating hegemonic masculinity but no one explicitly says this. In a lot of scenarios, this connection is denied or spiritualized).

    So, it was a game-changing moment when I began to integrate knowledge of Biblical text with historical context, gender studies classes, and the scholarship and Biblical interpretations of folk who were NOT White, Evangelical, male pastors (refer to Mujerista Theology, Womanist Theology, etc). I found that there were many people and many sacred spaces who were / are challenging these notions. I was able to find mentors, women of color in ministry, and other Christians that were along the journey of deconstructing and decolonializing our minds, hearts, and spirits. These things encouraged me, empowered me, and emboldened me (…. #churchyalliteration… some things you just keep) on my own journey.

    I don’t name this toxic concept to call forth debate on what others beliefs are. I name it to say that what I’m clear on is that hegemonic masculinity does not equate to God’s design. I’m clear that it speaks more to codifying women’s subordination. Since I’ve moved from that place… since I’ve allowed myself the space to believe that God. is. for. women in ways that don’t feel like spiritual reduction or through patronizing methods… my own spiritual life has deepened. I clearly see the Image of God in relationships and gender dynamics across the spectrum and no longer feel constricted or confined in what ‘ministry’ can look like for me as a woman of color and as a woman of faith.

There were quite a few more that I may introduce in a Pt. 2 or Addendum post, but I’ll stop here for now because I want to make my parting thought clear. Naming these concepts is important. It is important because these toxic concepts can be quite insidious and can seem very benign. But (pardon my colloquialism), these jawns can have you bound. They can foster deep doubt about your own thought processes, your faith development in light of your sociocultural identities, and the ways in which you experience God.

Questioning these concepts can feel risky when you’re working through your own spiritual identity development processes and if you’re being taught that faith always looks like being ‘right’. So naming these concepts is something I find value in, because I know there are folks who may be processing through these concepts as well and because I know that questioning, critiquing, reformulating your theology is an absolutely important and life-changing practice.

This post marked the beginning of a larger series, which can be read here.

RESOURCES For Further Reading & Inquiry!

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