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Early Roots

by Carlos Gupton

     I understand the stories of faith deconstruction, respectfully. Toxic teachings and communities inflict unimaginable damage that requires a lifetime of painful disavowal and rebuilding. For me, there is no need to defend the importance of these narratives. But the attention they receive today can leave the impression that faith malformation is the universal experience of all who are raised in religiously conservative environments. It is not.

     I grew up in a church that was deeply conservative in every sense of the term - memorizing lots of Scripture, singing old hymns from shape-note hymnals, hearing Bible-filled sermons preached with fervor, feeling compelled to "go forward" during the 15th verse of Softly and Tenderly to publicly repent of the mere thought of cussing, taking the Lord's Supper every Sunday - if you know, you know. 

     The genuine love. Oh, the genuine, Christ-filled, warm-hearted, unconditional love pervaded that experience. Sunday School teachers who started keeping scrapbooks on you from when you were born until the day you married. An elder who was so concerned about how his "kids" were doing in school that he had lunch with the principal in the cafeteria with Bible open and heads bowed. Precious old ladies with flower-filled hats who would sit near you just to hear you sing. If you know, you know. 

     What did I learn? Several things. God's love is unfailing, unfathomable, and unconditional. Scripture, all of it, is inspired, authoritative, and true. Jesus Christ died for me and for the world and is my forever advocate and high priest. The Holy Spirit lives inside me as the divine power for a holy life. Christian morality is a grateful response to what God has done. The infinite God has gone to great lengths to show us that he longs to forgive us and change us intimately and personally. From the story of the Exodus, to the teachings and encounters of Jesus with the downtrodden, to the Pauline effort to get Gentile Christians to alleviate the poverty of Jewish Christians, to the beautiful scenes of reconciliation in the everlasting kingdom in Revelation - all taught that God corrects injustice, loves the poor, and longs for people to live in harmony. This is just a start. And it is the very language I first heard it taught.

     My preacher knew his Bible and loved to do 60-lesson series on John, Acts, 1 Kings. He preached heart-touching sermons like "Bathsheba, the Salvaged 'Sinner'" (which introduced me to David's abuse of power and what I would later understand to be sex slavery). My Sunday School teachers were happy, positive people who created fertile environments for faith development. And when I decided to preach, you would have thought there was a contest to see who could encourage me the most.

And yes, I have a lump in my throat as I write this.

     Was everything theologically or behaviorally mature? No. I remember those stories too. No romanticizing here. I was hurt by some things and by some people. Was it a vessel God used to pour out his love and bear witness to him in the community? Yes. And my heart is full of gratitude. My life is paying it forward.

     Has my faith changed and evolved since then? Certainly. But for me, my tree of faith and all its branches and fruit still go down to these early roots. 

     Back to the beginning. Are stories of toxic churches and deconstruction helpful? Yes. Tell the whole truth and rebuild healthy faith. But please make room in the overall narrative for those like me whose experience was blessed and fruitful.


Director of Doctor of Ministry, Professor of Ministry at Lipscomb University.

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I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.

John 16:33