My parents joined an IFB church in the late 80s when I was five years old. I believe the church was started by a Bob Jones graduate about a decade before. It held BJU in extremely high regard—i.e. the vast majority of staff at the church and its Christian school were BJ graduates, the Sunday School and Christian school curriculum were BJU Press or BJ approved, BJ college reps and music groups visited every year, etc. I attended that church and Christian school from ages 5-18, when I graduated and finally rebelled against my upbringing and showed my independence… by doing my undergrad at PCC. (Yup, I know… I basically just switched my spiritual nooses; but at the time, you would have thought I had spat at Jesus, judging by my teachers’ reactions.)
Overall, I am grateful for the doctrinal foundation I received during my childhood. Many good people poured truth into my life, and God’s Word does not return void. Salvation by grace through faith was clearly preached, along with the other fundamentals that I still hold in high regard today.
But I did see many times where the tentacles of tradition choked out the joy of salvation and the love of the brethren. Man-made rules and standards were taught as evidence of salvation and godliness—the lower your standards, the farther from God you were. To not follow a standard precisely was disobedience, and disobedience was sin; and sin, while not removing your salvation, separated you from God so that He couldn’t hear your prayers. So breaking a standard, meant God couldn’t hear your prayers. It was also an evidence you didn’t really love God because you didn’t keep His commandments (John 14) because you were commanded to obey your authority (Romans 13) and you didn’t. And because of your sin, God is now angry with you (Psalm 7) until you confess it and follow the standard. The mind games caused by this kind of reasoning have stuck with me my entire life—I don’t doubt my salvation, but I constantly doubt if God loves me, if I truly love God, if I’m pleasing God enough—all because of standards. It’s an exhausting weight that I picked up from church as a child and never put down.
The more extreme teachings happened in the school and youth group settings rather than in adult church services, which meant my parents we’re unaware of what we were being taught.
For example, when I was in junior high, one day the math and science teacher dismissed the girls from PreAlgebra early in order to correct the boys. Around that time in pop culture, the show “Home Improvement” with Tim Allen and Jonathan Taylor Thomas was popular. The majority of the boys in the class had begun to part their hair down the center of their heads, similar to J.T.T. (Keep in mind, the school already had standard IFB hair rules like “off the collar, off the eyebrows, off the ears.”) The teacher became extremely serious, red-faced with anger, and told us that we were following the ways of the world—that God had MADE man with two natural hair parts, one on the right side and one on the left side of the head, and that to part your hair in any place other than those two places was to defy God’s design for His creation, therefore defying God’s sovereignty, therefore defying God Himself! Defying God is rebellion, and rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft!
I remember sitting in that chair, with my hair parted down the middle, wanting to crawl under the table. I was a rebel; I was a witch; God hated me. I remember going home and praying to God, begging Him to forgive me for defying Him, crying over my sin. Before you think, “well, that was just a random teacher in an IFB church,” a few years later, that man left our school because he was hired by Bob Jones Press to help write new editions of their high school science curriculum.
As a teenager, I remember wanting to obey and follow every rule as closely as possible, but also being confused by the constant hypocrisy I would see. For instance, choir and music class were mandatory at the school. The music teacher was a Bob Jones grad who took it upon himself to teach us not only how to sing, but also what to listen to. We endured videos and lectures about the sin of back beats, syncopation, “vocal sliding,” “vocal runs,” CCM, SGM, rock music, rap music, “secular” singing, etc. Then he would play appropriate music that pleased God, showing us different genres that were acceptable because of their lyrics and technique. Basically, “high-church” sounding choirs and Christian barbershop quartets were godly; “high-brow” secular music was good too—so orchestras, operas, musicals—if you would dress fancy to see it in concert, it was lofty enough to be ok with God. This is where the hypocrisy was, because we could listen to the Phantom of the Opera soundtrack while driving to a youth event, but couldn’t listen to Philips, Craig, and Dean. If a musical or an opera singer had a song with a backbeat, that particular song might be “discouraged,” but could still be listened to because it was “culture.” But if Steve Green had a song with just piano, it was still sinful because of the way he sung it… and his religious associations. (Though religious associations didn’t matter if you listened to Pavarotti or Charlotte Church.)
Another common occurrence that always bothered me involved the youth pastor. On bus rides to youth camps or Christian college tours, he would often complain about how sore his neck and shoulders were while driving. Then he would cycle through the teenagers with the “strongest fingers” to give him a massage. The “strongest fingers” belonged to the pianists, the majority of whom were females. So we’d be in a bus for hours, during which multiple girls rubbed this guy’s neck and shoulders; then we’d get to camp and, without fail, be told to sit a “Bible’s-width apart” and observe the six-inch rule while hearing a sermon about how it’s “good for a man not to touch a woman” and how our purity is the most important gift we can give our future spouse… so don’t date, kiss, or even hold hands… or, presumably, give neck massages.
I want to be careful not to paint that youth pastor as a pedophile—I don’t think he was trying to get his jollies off with the teenage girls; he was one of the realest preachers I’ve ever heard with many practical messages and a good heart…. but it doesn’t change the hypocrisy. Teenagers read the message loud and clear: “Do as I say, follow these guidelines to godliness or be in open rebellion against God—but also, ignore me while I make exceptions for myself to do what I want because I’m an authority and I can do that.”
My wife and I have just recently begun to question our IFB upbringings. We are so grateful for the RFP because it put to words the feelings we’ve had for years but didn’t know how to verbalize. At first, I was bothered when my wife started listening to it. I presumed the podcast was going to be a bunch of bitter backsliders complaining about every little injustice that could justify their rejection of God… but then I listened and heard people who truly love God and want to know Him—not the trappings and traditions, not the mind games and manipulations—but to know Him and live in biblical Christianity. Thank you for a forum that gives a voice to the hurt and offers hope for recovery. May God continue to bless your ministry and may many more come to know the freedom of living in the love of God.