Deconstruction and Gatekeeping

Many of you saw this tweet this week from author Rachel Joy Welcher:

I do not intend to make this a call-out post against Rachel because, really, there is nothing unique about this post. It is merely one person, out of a whole sea of people, who believes that there is a right way and a wrong way to deconstruct.

To those people, the right way will involve a Biblical framework (whatever Biblical means) and a connection to the local church.

The wrong way will involve removing one or both of these things from your life.

Now I do actually get where Rachel is coming from. I do. Because a decade ago, I probably would have said something very similar.

My entire upbringing told me that a Christian simply cannot exist without the Bible and without some kind of spiritual oversight in their life. To walk away from either was a certain path into a world of sin, loss of faith, and eternal damnation.

So for someone like Rachel, and others like her, it is unthinkable for anyone who identifies as a Christian to choose a path that does not involve fellowship with other Christians or regular Bible study. They have been trained to see such decisions as first steps towards godlessness.

And in that world, existence without a G/god is unthinkably dangerous.

But here’s the thing:

There is no one right way to deconstruct. Anyone who says differently does not understand what deconstruction is.

Christians have a responsibility to learn how to manage their own anxieties about the spiritual well-being of others. Contrary to much of what authoritarian religion tries to tell us, we can take personal responsibility for our own spiritual lives and allow others to take responsibility for theirs.

So what is deconstruction and how do we do it?

Deconstruction, simply put, is a way to describe the act of sifting through our worldviews and belief systems to identify what works for us and what doesn’t.

Authoritarian Christianity is not a faith the welcomes questions or curiosity. It is a faith that needs certainty and absolute truth that cannot be questioned. It “ordains” leaders to tell us what we believe and to convince us that we are so broken by sin that we are incapable of thinking for ourselves; this, they taught us, is why we need our local churches. We need our pastors to tell us how to properly interpret the Bible because sin has rendered us incapable of doing so for ourselves. And we need the flock of a local congregation to hold us accountable to submitting ourselves to a spiritual leader.

Christianity, as so many of us knew it, groomed us to be incapable of independent thought or action. We were left to believe that we NEEDED our churches and our Bibles to point us towards the path of righteousness.

Deconstruction is the idea that we get to ask questions and be curious about whether we are investing our time and energy into the right people and beliefs. It has also, quite rightly, been identified by some within the deconstruction movement as, “repentance.”

Christianity is a major world religion that carries with it centuries of white supremacy, colonialism, misogyny, homophobia/transphobia/queerphobia, etc… These are not things that disappeared over time. On the contrary, all of these things are alive and thriving in the modern day Christian church.

Without the process of deconstruction, we will continue to pass these sins down to future generations, perpetuating the toxicity and the harm committed in the name of God. We will be unable to see the big picture of all the damage that Christianity has committed towards countless people and continues to commit today.

Deconstruction also zeroes in to see what elements of the Christian worldview are harmful or unhelpful, not just to the larger Christian church, but also to the individual going through the process of deconstruction.

Using myself as an example, deconstruction helped me identify how the church’s patriarchal, complementarian, and authoritarian teachings led to deep dysfunction within my family of origin and the relationships I was building outside of my family. The experiences that I had, as a result, left me deeply traumatized and in need of external help to process and heal from.

It was only be allowing myself to be curious about the truth claims of the religion that I was born into that I was able to name the destructive forces in my life that I needed to run and heal from. Deconstruction also helped me to identify sin in my life, against others, so that I could repent and change course.

Does Deconstruction require Reconstruction?

People under Rachel’s worldview need to believe that reconstruction is part of the deconstruction package. Sure, it is okay to break down your theology and toss a few non-essentials out (whatever “non-essential” might mean in this context). However, you must have a plan to get back into the church and back to normal.

It needs to be stated that if you walk into something like deconstruction with the foregone conclusion that you must end up back in the same place you started, that isn’t deconstruction at all. It is simply one more variation of authoritarian faith that dictates each step you must take to be a good Christian and a good person.

To be fair, some people do need to reconstruct and find themselves back in church after a lengthy period of prayer, study, and healing from their trauma. However, after deconstruction, their faith will not look the same.

That person may now attend a much more, or perhaps just slightly more, progressive church than where they first found themselves. They will likely have different thoughts on church authority and hierarchies within institutions and marriage. How they interpret the Bible has likely changed drastically as well.

Other people leave the faith entirely. They might end up in other faiths/worldviews. They might end up identifying as atheist or agnostic and never again identify as Christian or spiritual.

But let’s be clear about one thing: No matter what path a person might take, they are not “doing deconstruction wrong.”

People in the deconstruction process are doing the work they need to do to sift through their worldviews and their belief systems to determine what is and is not compelling and healthy for them.

What if My deconstruction leads me out of faith?

Authoritarian religion has a dangerous narrative that says if a person has started to deconstruct or has left the faith, they did so willingly; they left the fold because they desired to live a life of sin and hedonism rather than worship God.

Many critics of deconstruction do not understand that belief isn’t actually something that any of us are capable of choosing. For many of us, the Christian belief system is compelling. For many other people, it simply isn’t. No amount of willpower can change that.

Deconstruction happens when a person is no longer able to find a belief system compelling. There can be many triggers for this:

  • Education leads the individual to realize that their faith has been lying to them about some historical or scientific fact, which leads to a general distrust in everything else that faith has taught them
  • Religious abuse from clergy has shown them that faith leaders do not actually practice what they preach, leading to a general distrust in the religion itself.
  • Watching congregations enable and coverup abuse within a faith system or church leads to a distrust in the community
  • The faith is simply no longer compelling to them because they have grown in some way that no longer allows room for their previous faith

Many of the people I have personally met over the last several years have confided in me that the breaking point for them was watching the evangelical church chase the idols of power and money through politics. Others have told me that the church’s unloving response to the global Covid-19 pandemic led them to question their faith.

Here’s a message I have for those currently going through deconstruction:

If your deconstruction journey means that the idea of God or the traditional understanding of the gospel is no longer compelling to you: THAT’S OKAY.

God, assuming God exists, is not watching you with a magnifying glass waiting for you to take a wrong step.

If God is the good God They are said to be, there is grace, compassion and understanding. There is no room for punishment when someone loses their ability to believe.

The most important thing for you to focus on in this moment is:

What is healthy for you?

Is it finding a new local community where you are accepted regardless of belief?

Is it finding a therapist who has experience working with religious trauma?

Is it finding a reputable deconstruction coach (like Angela Herrington) to help you process your journey on your own terms?

Take care of yourself and your mental health first and foremost, and everything else will fall into place when the time is right.


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