I Am a Former Southern Baptist

Carol Chea

My departure was 40 years in the making

“As a general rule, I would say that human beings never behave more badly toward one another than when they believe they are protecting God.”
Barbara Brown Taylor, Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith

I have never heard from God.

I have never felt the Holy Spirit.

I have real issues with some passages in the Bible.

These three statements have taken me years to admit, and I have waded through oceans of extreme shame and fear to get to the point of being able to write this.

Before we get into why these statements have caused me to lie awake at night, stomach clenched in terror, I should provide some backstory.

I was raised Southern Baptist. As a matter of fact, almost everyone I knew was Southern Baptist. I grew up smack dab in the middle of the Bible Belt, so everyone belonged to a church, or at least, everyone claimed to believe in Jesus. Our town was pretty much closed on Sundays, we signed petitions to keep our county dry, and we shunned the local Pizza Hut because they served beer. My childhood was filled with Sunday School, Vacation Bible School, and Easter egg hunts in the churchyard. We said grace before each meal, we attended church three times a week, and our biggest entertainment was Saturday night singings or the occasional trip to a southern gospel concert. We would load up in the church van and head off to hear the McKameys or the Isaacs, excited to see how the Lord would move.

My worldview was shaped by the church. I was expected to live the tenets of the Baptist faith. I was raised to believe that the Baptists were the only ones who held the truth and that other denominations were misinformed. I was taught that I was to obey my parents if I wanted to live a long life, that I was supposed to stay away from the pleasures of the world if I wanted to be blessed, and that the only way to enter heaven was to pray the prayer of salvation. I learned all about Moses, Noah, Ruth, Esther, David, Samuel, and Paul. I memorized Bible verses by playing Bible trivia. I learned about the evils of hormones in my middle school Bible class, and I was taught that I had to dress and act modestly to make God proud. I remember feeling so thankful that our family was fortunate enough to have found the only denomination with the “right” answers to life and eternity.

As a child, I loved the church. I couldn’t wait until Sunday morning. I would bounce out of bed, get dressed, and wait on mom to bake muffins. She only baked muffins on Sunday morning.

Mom taught Sunday School, and dad played guitar for the choir. As I got older, I became a regular soloist, dad always accompanying me on his Martin flat top. We would sing songs like, “When We All Get to Heaven”, “Just As I Am”, and “Amazing Grace”. People would clap, raise their hands to the sky, and lose themselves in the praise and worship. Some would shout, some would quietly sob. As a child, I would take all this in, wondering when these feelings would come to me. I couldn’t wait to be “caught up in the spirit”, to feel so full that I had to shout or raise my hands to heaven.

The fact is, I spent my childhood lost in the religiosity of the church. My parents definitely believed the doctrine. They were Bible-reading, spirit-moving, tithe-paying Baptists who tried to practice what they preached, but the lessons I heard on Sundays often didn’t make it into my house on weekdays. My dad was a hard worker, he loved me fiercely, and he tried very hard to be the best he could be, but he struggled with mental illness. He was bipolar and refused to take medication, believing that it would make him appear weak, or that he didn’t have enough faith. There was a misconception among Christians that mental illness was nothing more than the results of unconfessed sin, or that the person was being tempted by Satan. My dad tried to pray away his mental illness, and it almost killed all of us. Dad’s depressive episodes manifested as horrible anger, and my dad would devolve into a screaming mess of a man, bringing such an air of misery to our home that I would escape to the woods behind our house just to find some peace. My mom took the brunt of his anger, suffering as the victim of his verbal tirades, his demeaning words, his brooding. My mom bore it with grace, but even she broke from time to time.

The horrible truth is that my mom enabled my dad. She was a master of making excuses for dad, hiding his behavior as much as she could. She loved him madly, but she was also afraid of him. Combine this with her natural passive personality, and she suffered more than anyone understood. The co-dependent relationship of my parents pushed me to dig deep into the faith of the church to try to make sense of the volatility I lived with. I fell headlong into every choir practice, every Christmas play, every Bible study. I believed if I walked close enough to God, I could heal my home life.

I used the church as an escape.

Photo by Evan Dennis on Unsplash

I remained steadfastly committed to all things Baptist throughout my teen years, avoiding the typical trouble of adolescence. I didn’t go out, didn’t get caught drinking, didn’t get into “boy trouble”. The reason I didn’t face any of these issues is that I had no friends outside of my church. Even inside my church, friends were hard to come by. I found myself spending most of my weekends with my pastor, his wife, and my parents, singing at different churches in the area.

College was a culture shock, for sure. I had never been exposed to anything that was deemed “worldly”, so the variety of people I met during those years was eye-opening, and it was the beginning of my realization that people held beliefs that were vastly different from my own.

I married young and had kids that we raised in the church. We discouraged dating, preferring that our kids wait until they were “old enough” to handle relationships. I placed a huge amount of pressure on my daughter to be a Godly young lady. I homeschooled my kids to keep them away from the evils of society.

I made my children fear the world, withdraw into themselves, and try to navigate their doubts on their own.

I harbor huge amounts of regret.

Fast forward a few years. We had moved to a new city, had new experiences…all of these things started me down a path that I never believed I would travel.

I began to doubt the teachings of my youth.

The southern gospel music and Wednesday night prayer meeting had been replaced by a large, modern Baptist church. We sang praise and worship music, there were drums and electric guitars. The pastor wore jeans and t-shirts.

It was cool. My family felt like we fit in. The kids loved the youth group, I enjoyed the atmosphere. My then-husband loved the music and was asked to join the drum rotation.

But even through all of the excitement of church events, dynamic worship sessions, informative Bible studies, I was beginning to doubt.

My husband and I divorced, both feeling like it was time to head off in different directions. My kids were pretty much grown and out of the house, so I was on my own for the first time in my life.

I started to skip church, not because I wanted to, but because my ex-husband was still very involved in the church. It felt like the church chose sides and he was the winner.

I visited other churches, and something struck me.

They are all the same.

The same music, the same sermons, the same jeans, and t-shirts.

Here’s the thing: I don’t mind consistency. As a matter of fact, there should be consistency in what is being shared from the pulpit. If the Bible is the epitome of clarity then it should be no problem to preach the truth, right?

But we all know this isn’t always the case.

There are denominations because humans see things differently. Ten different people could read the same Bible passage and interpret it in ten different ways. To me, this is beautiful. It leads to critical thinking, promotes discussion, encourages togetherness even if people disagree.

The problem that was beginning to rise in my heart and mind was the fact that I didn’t believe in a lot of the doctrines I had been taught all my life. I struggled with the way the church treats the LGBTQ+ community. I began to question why politics had taken such a stronghold on the pulpit, and why Fox News had become the only source for “the truth”. I didn’t understand how the same group of people who spewed hatred against abortion also railed against single moms who “took from the government”. None of it made sense.

So after four decades of Southern Baptist indoctrination, I left. Mind you, I was terrified. Memories of sermons that warned against “backsliding”, or “letting the world in” flooded my mind.

But something amazing happened.

I felt free.

Free for perhaps the first time in my life. Up until that point, I had been a bundle of anxiety. I prayed the “sinner’s prayer” so many times that my knees were bruised from the kneeling. I worried constantly about everything. I firmly believed that all the news stories pointed to Christ’s inevitable return. I was terrified that I would wake up and all my family would be gone, taken in The Rapture, and that I would be left behind. I was a basket case.

When I broke from the church, I realized that I could breathe on my own. I didn’t need a pastor to tell me how to live every second of my life. I could make my own choices, screw up, fall flat on my face, and not feel that I had let down the God of the universe. I realized that I didn’t have all the answers, and better yet, nobody did. The world is full of people who are trying to figure it all out, and everyone has their own truths to guide them, their own journeys to follow.

The biggest “aha moment” for me was realizing I am worthy. I am worthy of love, I am important, and I am unique. My entire existence up until this point was formed with the belief that I was nothing. I wasn’t worthy of love, but God loved me anyway. There was nothing I could do to earn love, but Jesus decided to scrape my worthless body off the floor. I know the purpose of these teachings is to show how much God loves humanity, but for me, it made me feel unlovable. This is why I prayed for salvation so many times. My unworthiness had been hammered into my head for so many years that I didn’t believe Jesus should even waste his time with me.

I now feel comfortable questioning everything. There is so much in this world I don’t understand, and that’s okay. Now that the chains of religion have been removed, I am free to explore, to study, to decide…or not.

So where does this leave me in relation to my faith? Interesting question. The jury is still out. One thing is for certain though. I am enjoying the journey, and I love the peace that comes from not knowing the answers.

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I want to draw attention to LGBTQIA+ issues, the struggles of finding legitimate work from home opportunities, and the need for employers to recognize how productive workers can be with a hybrid or work from home schedule.

Lexington, KY

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