Broken Daughters

Picking up the shattered glass of fundamentalism

P/QF: How can I make friends/family realize what they’re getting into?


I’m not quite sure how to tackle this subject. I read a lot of comments and emails, on my blog as well as others, asking what to do when a friend/family member/somebody in your community starts showing signs of moving towards radical christian movements.

I’ve been thinking about different ways how to answer this question and I really can’t come up with a satisfying idea. Every person and family is different and I think it depends a lot on the history of that person/family how much they’ll be attracted to the different movements. For a start I’ll describe what really made ME realize I was on the wrong track.

Right at the beginning I want to say that theological reasoning does not help in any way. They’re all muddy to say the least. You say evolution is a fact – they’ll ask “Why would God lie to me on the first page of his infallible word?”. You say you must interpret passages in the bible, they say it’s the actual, literal word of God. You see where I’m going with this. Don’t even get into fights like this because they will make you look like you’re not only against God or the bible but also against the specific person you’re talking to. They might still talk to you in order to convert you, to make you see the light, but they won’t change their opinions based on what you’re telling them about God and the bible. Worst case they’ll just cut contact with you and you’ll blow all your chances to help them out of it.

A good first step would be to find out why this person or family is eyeing with the movement. Has there been some sort of tragedy in the family such as the death of a loved person, or maybe a case of rape or long-term unemployment? Really anything that can make a person depressed can trigger an attraction towards radical movements. Or has the person simply had a bad history? Lots of love lost? Decisions made that turned out badly? Or simply missed out on chances that person thinks if he or she took it, their life would be better? Try to carefully investigate to understand where they’re coming from. It could simply be the case that a person or a member of a family has some sort of psychological disorder, in that case you can’t really do much but carefully try to push that person towards professionals. In case of some sort of trauma, you might be able to talk to them. You have to gain their trust and live as an example that radical faith is not necessary to be a loving person. Show them you truly care, help them out, talk to them, listen to them. They really need to open up to you in order for this to work. And unfortunately that’s not always the case.

If you don’t have those strong connections to said person maybe talk to someone who’s close to them, someone you can trust will not go and gossip about how you mess with other people’s business.

I can honestly say that without the fact that I got into a courtship I didn’t want to be in, at a point in my life where I didn’t feel ready opened my mind up to that type of work. The people who made me realize and say out loud that I didn’t want this sort of life didn’t talk bad about my family or my beliefs. They urged me to listen to my heart and mind and to investigate whether the decision I was making (or that was made for me) really felt like the right path for me. They didn’t cut me off, they were there for me with love and compassion and even when I fell back into very radical behaviour encouraged me and kept my mind working on my problem. They showed me that happiness, love and a good life are possible without radical behaviour and that God doesn’t abandon people who don’t follow this set of rules made by people like Bill Gothard and supported by communities such as Vision forum. They showed me, in my case particularly, that you don’t have to be a “feminist” (in the sense fundamentalists use it) to be a free woman. They showed me that there were many women in the bible and in history who followed God’s wish for women without being married off to a guy they didn’t want to marry. They showed me how normal relationships work, not by telling me but by living it. That a marriage very well can be happy without the wife being as submissive as a door mat.

If you know a person who is already in the movement and you see things happening that you think are bad – such as abuse, forced courtship/betrothal, and overall strange behaviour – you should investigate as well. Why is this family so radical? Please remember that, if your church community is a mixed groups of different strengths of faith, it’s not that bad yet. The very abusive, hardcore families tend to leave “normal” conservative churches and form up new private church groups, consisting of only like-minded families and meeting up for service at home. That’s the point where they are so cut off every other community that you have no chance to get into real contact with them anymore. Though this isn’t true for all fundamentalist families, it was something I saw happening in my own family as well as others. We used to go to different conservative churches when I was younger, but the worse it got, the more we lived in our own world. We met up with like-minded families only, the fathers leading private service. I think this was partially due to the fact that the girls in my family (me and my sisters) got older and my Dad was more and more nervous that our purity would be damaged through the contact with other families and kids our age, especially boys and men. As long as they are in your church (and you’re a sane person going to a normal church!), you still got chances to build up some sort of contact.

Again, do not get into theological arguments here. Don’t tell them that this isn’t how this church works and what it stands for. Encourage them to stay! Say things like “You’re a great addition to our community” or “I love exchanging ideas and views with you!”. Gain their trust and respect because that’s the only way your word will have some sort of meaning to them. If your pastor is against this sort of radical religion and abuse, talk to him. Tell him you’re worried, but you don’t want to drive those people away. Initiate meetings and groups where you can talk about the different views and teachings. Again, be very careful with this one. Don’t talk about how teachings are ungodly or unbiblical, that’s muddy and won’t make things better. Instead, you should talk about teachings matter-of-factly. Discuss them. Pick out what’s good about the teachings, question the problems, ask for their opinions before you word out a strong opinion of yourself.

Something that will most likely find open ears is beating the teachings with biblical reasoning. That’s actually very easy. Talk about the danger of idolizing leaders like Bill G and the Pearls. Talk about how you have a big problem with the Pearls comparing kids to animals and that you find Jesus would be strongly against such a view. They are children of God, not mules. They can’t be treated as such. Talk about how Harris and Ludy plant ideas into girl’s minds without a real biblical foundation (because in fact, they have none). Talk about how girls read their books more often than they read their bible. Question this behaviour. Really, your strongest argument in this case is that many of the teachings and people are idolized above the bible. They might argue against it to your face but it will get them thinking.

When you’re at a point where you think they’re trying to cut you off, trying to move away from the community they were in, don’t let them shake you off. Back off for a while with discussions of faith and teachings, but be their friend. Help them, be there for them, ask their advice. Tell them how you solved problems. Even if they don’t call you anymore, you call them. Don’t let them hide in their own little world because I can promise you, it’s going to be hell for some of them.

Beliefs are generally a very hard and problematic issue and even if you did everything, your best, to help them and get them out of the muddy waters of radical religion you might still fail. That’s always sad and there isn’t really much you can do anymore in that case except have a clear consciousness that you have tried everything you could. And at the end of the day, that might be worth just as much, at least for you.

And at this point I want to translate a quote I found true, not only for this sort of situation but as a general things in life: “We thought we could do it all. We thought with love it was possible. But sometimes you just don’t make it.”

7 thoughts on “P/QF: How can I make friends/family realize what they’re getting into?

  1. Lisa, thank you for this post. I think I mentioned to you (in that RIDICULOUSLY long email I sent :-)) that I have a couple of friends who seem to be moving toward such unhealthy views. Both of these families have been in and out of various radical views over the years I have known and loved them. You are so right about just being an ear and not engaging in debate. These two families live on opposite sides of the country but stay in touch with eachother and seem to feed off one another’s ideas. Both of these families have recently lost good friends and even left their churches over issues of doctrine. That makes me so sad. I would never abandon my friendships with these dear people, even if they were convinced that little green aliens inhabited their toothpaste tubes!

    While I do not ever give them reason to believe that I agree with their whacky ideas, I do not argue with them either. I just listen and let them do all the talking when it comes to such things, unless we come to points on which we can agree. I have come up with a few good, neutral lines like, “Hmm, that’s certainly food for thought,” or, “Sure I’ll think about that,” or “Hmm, that’s interesting.” I know they are looking for my support and agreement with all of their ideas, but I only give it where I can in good conscience.

    These are really good people, and they truly, genuinely love their kids, not for the brownie points their kids might earn them with God, but because they are their precious children. I think that will go a long way for them, but time will tell. One of these friends just told me that they left their church over an issue of extreme legalism (both they AND the church leaders were being legalistic, but taking different positions :-)). But she did say something that was really encouraging, though. She said that she found it disturbing how the grown children in that church were so controlled by their parents, calling this very weird. I’m glad she feels this way, though the odd beliefs are always changing and evolving in these families which means she may not find it so weird in a year or two.

    I will keep praying for, listening to and loving these dear friends for as long as they will have me. Thankyou for the encouragement and advice and for even making me aware of the dangers of the extreme side of this movement. I knew their ever-evolving ideas were sometimes unhealthy or just plain strange, but you have shown me that there is a much bigger, more dangerous picture here.

  2. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. You have much wisdom on the matter.

  3. This is a great post, Lisa. It’s true that some people respond well to confrontation and a call to aggressively examine their beliefs or those of the people trying to influence them. But some people need a very mild, supportive touch, gentle persuasion that they can have the goodness and joy without the abuse and the abjection and the tyranny. Especially if they’re suffering from depression or post traumatic stress and see only one choice that will make a real improvement to their lives.*

    One thing I’ve found is that even if it apparently like you’re getting nowhere, if you plant seeds in someone’s mind, they’ll quietly grow unseen, sometimes for a while. Other ideas filter through and eventually accumulate, and seemingly quite suddenly, there will be a breakthrough and a radical shift in direction. So if you’re trying to help someone stay out of or get out of an abusive situation, keep at it, even if it’s a little at a time and/or intermittent.

    *Also something to mention: the recruiters and the proselytizers are aware of the utility of people’s vulnerability in getting them to join up. They actively and deliberately seek out these very people to take advantage of, all the while telling themselves that they’re doing it for the person’s own good, or even that God willed the suffering or whatever just so they could be rescued.

    • The radical doctrines even give advice for agressive confrontation of believers: Since you’re supposed to be set-apart and different, people will react very strongly. The sin/devil/demon (whichever you like) in worldly people will hate seeing God’s work and righteousness in the radical christians and tell them things to get them off their path. This argument can fight off pretty much every confrontation and it’s regularly used. I heard it several times from my parents, whenever I heard something that questioned our beliefs. Every negative reaction from the environment is a sign that you’re doing it right, actually.
      The seed planting idea is really the only way to get people to think about their situation. If you do it carefully and in a friendly way, they won’t ignore all you say but maybe think about it at some point, deep inside.

  4. This is an awesome post! It is so hard to watch someone you love heading down such a harmful path, you feel helpless. Thanks for the reminder that trying to argue/reason with them is not helpful.

  5. I think you’re absolutely right. You can’t change someone’s mind – you can only show them alternatives and hope.

    We dealt with this a few years ago with my husband’s sister. She was in her late teens, and I think she was feeling very lost in the transition between being a child and being an adult. Fair enough, so were my husband and I. The difference is that we found each other and could support each other, whereas she found a predatory jerk.

    I think that she wanted to continue being a child, abdicating her responsibility to someone else. And this guy was more than happy to take on that role.

    It started off with him just being aloof and rude at family gatherings. We caught him stealing things and lying (compulsively, it seems, since the things were mostly cheap and the lies were mostly on completely trivial subjects). He often wouldn’t talk at all, just sit on the couch and look bored. My sister-in-law is a musician and he would never go to see her perform.

    Then they moved in together and it got worse. She stopped performing entirely, and she would go into a rage if anyone had so much as a glass of wine with dinner (her husband was Muslim, and she converted). Everything became “off limits.” We couldn’t talk to her about her beliefs or her music, her husband was getting ruder and ruder. By the time they got married, we were afraid we’d lost her completely.

    For a while, we’d tried to reason with her and bring her back to sanity. We mentioned that he wasn’t a good guy and that we were worried he was taking advantage of her. But it just made her angry at us and drove her more to him. She even stopped talking to us for months at a time.

    Then we decided that being present in her life was more important than being right, so we tried our best to avoid “off limits” conversations, and we tried to stop arguing with her. She started to see us a bit more often and our relationship started to heal. We stopped challenging her husband, or ever saying that he was wrong.

    And then one day we got a phone call from her asking us to help her move out. Just like that. Of course, the reality was that she’d been stewing over him for a while, he was getting far too demanding and tyrannical. She hadn’t said anything because she was ashamed that she’d been so misled. Had we continued to press the issue, she may never have been able to swallow her pride enough to admit that something was wrong and that she’d made a bad decision.

    She’s still a Muslim and she’s married another Muslim man, but this one is much more egalitarian in his views. He works hard to get her family to like him (which has, frankly, been hard given all the hurt we’d gone through). Thankfully, she had no kids with husband #1, which certainly made the whole thing a lot easier.

    But the point is that simply being there for her, letting her know that we loved her no matter what choices she made, and modelling what a good/respectful marriage looks like is what finally got her out. By not challenging her, we were able to be in her life – that alone gave her a link to reality and the ability to recognize when things were going too far.

    It doesn’t always work, of course. But I don’t think that there’s an alternative.

  6. This is definitely a tricky situation. I had a friend who was very patient with me when I was in an extreme church. She lovingly would ask me, “Where is that in the bible? Have you checked the Hebrew and Greek?” My husband and I both started studying on our own and sought out people who believed differently to get a different perspective, but it had to be God’s timing for us because for about 14 years we did blindly believe the pastor. You shared some good advice here and the key is that people are so different. You need a lot of patience, discernment, and unconditional love to help a family going down an extremist road…. so that when they’re ready they can leave and know they can lean on you for help.

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