I grew up in a Midwestern Assembly from birth to 18 years old, shortly after which I left. I must say that I did not have such traumatic experiences as others who have submitted to this site have detailed, but emotional and spiritual damage still occurred. As many others, I grew up sheltered from the rest of the Christian world, and my best friends, for the majority of my life, were kids in the Assembly. As impressionable kids, we were just the perfect sort to instill with its hazy doctrine.
I felt innately the superior attitude of the Assembly as demonstrated by my outburst at a supermarket when I was four. The unsuspecting cashier wished me, “Merry Christmas,” to which I replied in a child’s bratty fashion, “WE don’t celebrate Christmas!” I knew that we were better than everyone else, that other Christians didn’t have the best picture of Christianity, and this perspective was affirmed by George Geftakys’ book, Testimony to Jesus. I also recall people leaving over the years and they were always regarded as backsliders, even if they just went to a different church. They were, without exception, outside the will of God. Some did eventually come back and they were viewed and sometimes treated as the prodigal son - without all the festivities.
I was taught over and over again about the will of God, and wrapped up in this teaching was the idea that in order to know the will of God, you must be faithful to the Assembly, which often meant extraordinary expectations, and you must both seek and follow the guidance of the elders and the ministry as the whole. Like others, I too had the fear of losing my heavenly inheritance if I did not follow the “will of God.” I had dreams about the “end times” and being left behind because of some small sin that I forgot to confess. I had assurance of salvation, but no assurance that I would be accepted into the kingdom of heaven.
In spite of the oppressive and graceless teachings, I grew up relatively happy. I had a decent childhood, good friends and a relatively safe environment. Into my mid teens, however, I began to feel more external pressure to perform. It was never explicitly stated. The pressure was more subtle.
On a teen team, we often passed out tracts and evangelized near the beach. I was an introverted sort and the idea of speaking to strangers terrified me, but I was also terrified of the disapproval of others, both from my more outgoing peers as well as the adults. I feared that my hesitation and lack of participation would be viewed as unspiritual. So I ended up giving my testimony on a street corner, shaking like a leaf. Giving my testimony in and of itself was not a bad thing, but the motivation behind it left something to be desired.
I also had a good friend in high school who went to a Brethren church. She invited me to go to church with her one Sunday, and I asked my mom if I could go. She, in turn, sought direction from an elder. At first, I was flatly told, “No,” then after I questioned why, was told that I could go as long as I made it to the afternoon meeting.
When I graduated high school, I wanted to go to a music college in Nashville. I was forbidden from this because there was not an Assembly down there. At the college I did end up going to, there was a campus Bible Study. I did attend sometimes, but I didn’t go out of my way since I had classes, homework and a part-time job. I was spoken to about this by the leader of the Bible Study. It was impressed upon me to be more involved - again with the underlying suggestion that I was not entirely committed to Christ if I did not. I had, however, already begun to think slightly more independently and to question the ideology and motivations of the Assembly, so I chose to ignore this.
My questioning of the Assembly began in high school, though I rarely spoke of it. I did, however, show it on at least one occasion. Our Assembly had teen functions once a month on Friday, and we were encouraged to invite our other friends. We often played musical chairs, and I offered once to bring my stereo and music (Christian only) for one night. When I played Newsboys songs (a popular band that most Christian teens would identify with) a supervising elder came over to me and told me to shut it off and put on something else. I was slightly disrespectful and questioned his decision-making.
The next Sunday, I was pulled aside by the leadership into a room and talked to about my behavior. I refused to apologize, however, refused to back down, and instead gave arguments supporting my position. Of course, this was a pointless and futile effort. The incident left a bad impression on me, and I wondered about the others I’d heard about - the ones who dared to get TVs and were severely admonished.
At the age of 18, I supposed that I would be free to follow my own spiritual convictions even if they did not align themselves with the teachings of the Assembly. I was sadly mistaken. This supposition was put down immediately. After a weeknight meeting, I was sat down with an elder that my mother confided in and was questioned about my aberrant ideas. I had my Bible with me, prepared. I logically explained my positions but was told repeatedly, in no uncertain terms, that I was wrong. As I resisted the indoctrination, the elder became more agitated, raising his voice. On top of the verbal berating I was receiving, I was mortified that my own parent was not sticking up for me and was just sitting by and watching. I ended the hopeless argument by jumping up and running out of the building and down the street until I could breathe and think clearly again.
I still did not want to leave mad or bitter. This was partly because it was ingrained in me at home to not leave in a spirit of bitterness and that all the others who had left were bitter and would, basically, get what was coming to them from God for the way they spoke and regarded the Assembly and the elders.
At this time, God was good to me and put in my life two Christian adults who were strong and wise believers, and they ended up being welcome counselors and good sounding boards for me. I also found books by Christian authors, one specifically being about the will of God, which opened my eyes. I know longer wondered if I was crazy; instead, I wondered if I had the guts to do what God was leading me to do – leave.
I knew I would most likely lose my friends. I knew that I might be made an example of, called a backslider and that it would embarrass my family – perhaps my greatest fear. I also half expected to be turned out of my own home. It would not surprise me if devotion to the Assembly outweighed familial love. Luckily, that did not turn out to be the case.
I wrote a letter of intent to the elders. It was respectful and reasonable. I expressed my will to do the will of God. I then received a subsequent letter in return, telling me that I was not doing the will of God. This was expected, however, and I even found it slightly humorous.
After I left, I was still forced to contend with their disapproval. Relatives who still attended would question me, question my motives. On one occasion, I was berated to the point where I, once again, had to leave the room. Years later, when going to meet my mother after one of their outreaches, I ran into the elder with whom I’d had my doctrinal pow-wow, and he proceeded to lay into me for actions he thought demonstrated that I was not following God – like leaving the Assembly and moving away from home and cutting my hair. I was asked sternly, “Do you have regular morning times,” like this was the litmus test for who was right and who was wrong. I ended the argument by basically telling him that I wasn’t swallowing his fallacies and walked away.
After I left, it was hard, at first, to find another place of fellowship, but God did eventually lead me to a small community church where I immediately sensed His presence and His grace and further learned what freedom in Christ truly means. With help from other Christians, I have better learned the love and grace of God, and though I am not perfect by any means or have all the answers, I know that I am free now to truly experience a significant and personal relationship with a tenderhearted Savior.
I am sad to say that some of my peers, with whom I grew up closely for many years, did not have this same fortune. Unfortunately, some who left have seemed to leave Christianity altogether, and while I cannot be surprised, I wish that they would also learn to distinguish between the actual truth of the Bible and the deceit of the Assembly’s doctrine. I believe that those who caused harm to these precious souls will have to give an account someday. “If anyone causes one of these little ones – those who believe in me – to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea.” (Mark 9:42)
Finally, for those who still doubt, I wish to affirm that the price of spiritual liberty is far less than the price of spiritual blindness, whether it be blindness by choice or confusion. “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor. 3:17.)
August 11, 2008, Mark Campbell: Dear Anon.! Thank you so much for telling your story!
As any former member knows, the bad you received as a child in the group plays a very familiar sad tune. However, your escape from the group demonstrates that it is indeed possible to leave a toxic belief system and find that there is such a thing as a true faith in Christ!
Though it seems like the odds that you might just chuck the whole thing would win, God's grace defied those odds! Your story is like the hopeful and healing lifting exemplified in the story of "The Good Samaritan", and it brought joy to my heart! I'm sure it will provide hope for healing for many others.