Last weekend I read Becoming Free Indeed: My Story of Disentangling Faith from Fear by Jinger Vuolo (formerly Duggar). I finished it in two days. It was a fairly short read, but I was mostly intrigued by how much I related to her story of fear, confusion, and uncertainty. While our families and home lives were very different, I was recently made aware that I too grew up under the teachings that her family believed in. A religious Christian teaching curriculum that, when googled today, shows up next to words like “home school religious cult.” Yes, you read that correctly.
I was never into following the Duggars, so I didn’t know too much about her story personally, but we had more in common than I was expecting. It was interesting to hear her recounting stories that she was told to justify a certain belief, all the while I’m thinking, yeah I remember that exact story. And I remember it being used for the same reason. Even the things she journaled closely resembled what I have read in my journals around the same age. Those entries were heavily fearful and worried about doing the wrong thing and being wrong.
Thankfully, our church at the time didn’t follow everything to a tee, they just sort of picked the favorites to follow, I guess? Wearing pants was ok. At the time people didn’t have more than 2 to 4 kids. (This changed a little later after we were gone to 6 to 7 kids, maybe more, I stopped keeping count.) I do remember going through the full seminar from the teachings and being a bit surprised, even at the time. It was very strictly religious in terms of rules of what you could and couldn’t do. It was a lot and very overwhelming. It kind of makes you question everything about the world and makes you feel like the only safe place to find information is in the teachings which are completely closed off to and in judgement of people who lived out their Christianity differently.
That much is true. Our church felt closed off in a way. Sure, we had food banks open to the public and we would go into the neighborhoods to talk to people, but it always felt like an us and them mentality. They were outsiders and didn’t know the truth about the world; we had all the answers if they would change their lives to look like ours. It felt stuffy. It felt like no one truly came in or left our little world. Maybe a few here and there, but for the most part, we were closed off and I thought that was safe and healthy. We were homeschooled and we whittled down almost every activity we did to things only at church. Other than working at a Christian book store (also run by people in our church), I didn’t have much connection to the outside world. I’m still cool with homeschooling as long as your kids are actually learning, which I saw neglected in some families. I think the area we grew up in was also fairly closed off in general. People didn’t really leave and outsiders were rare. I started to feel like I was suffocating. I needed fresh air.
In terms of the teachings I experienced, I think I can confidently say the biggest harm from these teachings for me was their “umbrella” theory. When I was growing up, it was called the Umbrella of Authority (when I googled it today, I saw that it was called the Umbrella of Protection, which, as you’ll see, is ironic). Basically, the thought is that you would be protected if you followed everything your authority said, and if you wavered even a little (even without knowing) you were begging for trouble. As a teenager and young adult, I explicitly learned that I could never trust my own thoughts, feelings, or desires. I had to “submit” everything to authority. My struggle was that my authority was supposed to be the father and then mother, no matter what. I never could fully swallow that because I didn’t really have a great relationship with my parents.
So if I can’t trust myself and I don’t trust my parents, who do I trust. They had that covered with “spiritual authority”. I 100% believed that everything I did in my life had to be under a church leader’s approval and I was a pretty good girl at that until I wasn’t (more on that in a second). If you had one dream or thought or desire and your authority had another, you had to “lay yours down.” I think in a way, I was drawn to this mindset because I had always been searching for someone to guide me in a parental or even mentor type of way, so I was a prime candidate for these teachings. I needed a leader to help me grow, but instead I was kept in place. Literally.
My great rebellion? Taking a math and writing class at a local community college. I was told that “this is not good.” I can remember the exact spot where I was sitting when I heard these words in shock. I thought they were going to be proud of me. I was very wrong. I mean, I don’t remember anyone in our church ever really pursuing college (who wasn’t already in college when they joined the church), but I thought that was a coincidence. Turns out, deep down, I don’t think they actually believed in going to college, but I can’t remember them ever outright saying that. It was looked at as an evil and a sure trap for sin.
Ironically, we were spared from some of the thick of the teaching because of our home life. At the time, we were just teens who just kind of tagged along with other families until I could drive. Our dad was out of it and our mom was working most of the time. Even when I started driving me and my sisters to church events, we weren’t in the same position as other kids our age who were also a part of this group. Their parents were listening to and following these teachings, whereas ours were hardly present. Our home life did not look like what we were taught a home should look like: the father as the head of the home, the ultimate authority, “no matter what”. No wonder I struggled with this. After the father was obviously the mother, but even when she was physically present, she was dealing with a lot of her own stuff and wasn’t really there emotionally for us.
The first step of breaking out of this was stepping away from a church drama group I had been a part of for years. I was tired and I felt like things were the same. My authority’s reaction was to bring me and my youngest sister into her office along with said authority’s husband the head pastor. She did not agree with my choice, but I simply couldn’t do it anymore. Even my pastor looked at her and was like, “What’s the big deal?” Oh, but it was life-changing. We were ostracized in the church to an unbelievable extent. Keep in mind I was still a teenager, about 18 or 19. I can clearly remember a Sunday morning when I was sitting on a pew between an older couple and another older woman. My so-called spiritual leader hugged and greeted the first woman with the most sincere sounding voice, skipped over me without even a hint of eye-contact or acknowledging I even existed, and hugged the couple with the same enthusiasm. She was making a point. It was like being shunned, but still present. There were messages preached from the pulpit that seemed to target us, not by name, but with somewhat specific details. It was shocking and one of the most eye-opening experiences I’ve ever had about human behavior.
I’ve been away from these teachings for many, many years and about 6 years ago, truly started finding freedom from some of those beliefs, but there are many that I don’t don’t even think about that still operate in my life because I forget they’re there. It’s almost refreshing to find out all these years later. It validates all of the feelings of discomfort I had regarding some of the things we were taught to believe and experience. Not everything was 100% wrong or bad, so I’m sorting through some of that as well, but there were many unhealthy things that caused more damage to an already broken person. There was definitely spiritual abuse. (Not physical in anyway in my case; however there was absolutely a misuse of power over minors and vulnerable people.) That I knew even before I knew that the teachings were misled. Add that to our home-life drama and man, you’ve got yourself a pretty interesting cocktail.
But even through all of that, God remained faithful. He has always been real and alive in my life. And despite the CRAZY things I have seen in the church, of which this post hardly scratches the surface, I still deeply value the church community. Sure, it looks different for me today. I’ve been in different types of churches since then and I do not put all of my trust in church leaders. Most importantly I am different. I’m finally realizing that I’m a grown woman and I’m learning to trust myself to make decisions. This is recent and it hasn’t been easy, but the growth is beautiful.
God has never changed and is still good.
People are people and really can’t bear the weight of all of our trust and devotion.
And Freedom is an amazing journey…
What’s your story?
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