It’s nearly 10 years since the day I realised I’d had enough. I stood on the station platform on the way home from the meeting, one grey English summer afternoon, and knew for certain that I wanted nothing more to do with the Christadelphians. Over time, my feelings have changed; I’m not nearly so angry as I was. I’ve heard the stories of other leavers, and know that I was lucky. I was young, unattached, and, by the time I cut my ties, had friends outside the community. For me, escaping was a relief.
Once, I was furious about what I saw as the hypocrisy and small mindedness of the community. These days my chief issue with Christadelphianism is simply that it is so dull. It is religion with all the beauty, spirituality and fun taken out. It has no festivals, no good food, and even joyful singing is frowned on. It has no calendar, no time for aesthetic beauty, and unlike most other faiths, its rituals do not engage the senses. It seeks only to engage the mind.
It really an academic discipline, a precise and rigid one. Every Christadelphian child knows the life-saving importance of correct doctrine (a series of don’ts). Life should be lived ‘according to the word’ (another series of don’ts.) Feelings don’t even come into it. It is no surprise that ultra-Christadelphians unite around the word ‘logos,’ meaning knowledge, order, and reason. Not for nothing has the religion been described as ‘Christianity at the autistic end of the spectrum.’ If religious fundamentalism is a scientific approach to religion, then Christadelphianism is a parody of this, so obsessed is it with systematically proving, defining, and reasoning away all spirituality. The God of Plodding Pendantry. Does this touch anyone’s heart? Drier than an Old Testament desert, it does nothing for the soul.
Why were we drilled with doctrine, while references to ‘spirit’ were dismissed or played down? The word ‘spirit’ gets almost six times as many mentions in the New Testament as the word ‘doctrine.’ (287/49, ‘Authorised’ Version) What is it about this small, beautiful word that causes such offence? If you take away the spirit, doesn’t that mean its dead?
‘Spirit’ cannot easily be defined, and what cannot easily be defined cannot easily be controlled. It is no surprise that spirit should be a thorn in the side of Christadelphianism, with its intolerance of ambiguity and uncertainty. Spirit is lightness, pleasure, mystery, free will. It is hard to pin down. It is alive, untameable, intangible. One who is spirited does not easily submit, and therefore stands in opposition to what Christadelphianism fetishishes most: authority.
It is essentially a man’s religion. Nothing new there – most religions are patriarchal – but it still needs to be said. It is entirely cockocratic – that is, all authority resides in men. Women have no direct say in the decision making process and their voices are never heard publicly. But, more fundamentally, the religion is primarily about men. The community celebrates and revolves around men –putting them on platforms and in charge, respecting their views, studying the lives of great men, and requiring a married woman to orbit her own life around her husband’s. The lives, views, abilities, knowledge and experience of women are, in general, of little interest. Christadelphian women may make themselves useful with a number of ‘pastoral’ and housekeeping tasks, but the work that is most valued by the community is always performed by men. The ‘issue’ of women comes up only occasionally, as a problem for men to solve.
In this way all of Christadelphian culture is saturated with machismo. Relishing the Old Testament, with its war-like, god of absolutes, the Brotherhood thunders with self-certainty. It takes a real man to have the universe all worked out, to explain the past, present, and future to us. Manliness is proved through intellectualism, its crushing logic showing no mercy on the big-hearted, the weak-minded, the doubters.
Why is a woman’s voice problematic? Because the Bible clearly states that only men may interpret the Bible with authority or speak from platforms. How do we know? Because men, who are the only ones allowed to interpret the Bible with authority, say so. For a religion that prides itself on the soundness of its reasoning, I can’t say I’m impressed.
But this male-dominated community appears hardly any kinder to its men – the average Christadelphian man seems barely able to breathe between the requirements to be alpha family man, alpha breadwinner, alpha bible student, alpha speaker, alpha committee man, and 107 other duties. The ideal Christadelphian brother is a Human Doing. He may not have feelings, but he must have the answer to everything – under pressure to be a God-like ‘head,’ he is forbidden to be human.
I realised that the reverence for the male intellect has its origins in the sect’s creation myth. As God produced a perfect world out of the void, so John Thomas is said to have discovered, through sheer Bible study, a unique and perfect truth in the midst of ignorance. In reality, of course, ideas form part of an evolutionary, interactive process, and his own were, like everyone else’s, a product of the time and place in which he lived. Far from being universal, ancient and everlasting, ‘The Truth’ could not have developed at any other time, or at any other place, than the modern West. In no other era could a religion be so painfully literal and inflexible in its interpretation, or be so preoccupied with the accumulation of factual knowledge over gaining spiritual insight and practical wisdom. Many of the characteristics of the community in which I grew up – its stiff formality, pomposity, Europhobia, anti-Catholicism and aversion to displays of emotion – were simply the fossilised values of middle class Victorian England.
JT called his group ‘Brethren in Christ’ under pressure to avoid conscription to the military, but if I had been given the job of finding a name for the community, I would not have called it ‘Christa’ anything. There may be pockets within the community whose beliefs and practices are Christ-centred, but at heart it is a religion based on the worship of a text. They are Protestant extremists, dedicated to the veneration of that eclectic collection of stories, letters, law and mind-expanding visions known as the Bible.
But this cult of Bible worship represents a paradox: On the one hand, it elevates the Bible to a status which is uncalled for within the text itself, while on the other, it is highly reductionist. Unlike the Quran, for example, the Bible makes no grand claims for itself. It does not pretend to have all the answers. It does not insist that Genesis provides a factual account of how the world came into being, or demand to be the centre of anyone’s life. It never even references itself as a book. But neither does it do the Bible justice to reduce it to a ‘manual’ or ‘our guide,’ (as if life could ever be lived according to instructions). Though it contains plenty of stuff which is irrelevant, tedious, bigoted, and violent (I worked my dutiful way through my Bible reading planner, I know what it says) it also has beauty, poetry, wisdom, and spiritual and emotional truth. It is also rich in wonderful stories.
So what is the pull, for its adherents, of this serious-minded and isolated group? For some, it’s family and community – most are born into Christadelphianism and cannot envisage life outside it. For others, it is the excitement of world events ‘unfolding’ according to ‘Bible prophecy.’ Its not hard to see why – Christadelphian ‘signs of the times’ refer to events so generalised and frequently occurring, that once the children of Christadelphian parents have been programmed to recognise them as signifiers of the End Times they are likely to spend the rest of their lives in a semi-permanent state of Armageddon Alert.
Thus, we know that that when we hear of ‘wars and rumours of wars’ it’s a clear sign that this is the Beginning Of The End. And if not then, it will probably definitely be ‘when they talk of peace.’ But it will be at a time when no-one expects it. And if you are still in any doubt, hear this: ‘The Son of Man will return at a time when people are eating, drinking and getting married.’ With all this as evidence that the apocalypse is nigh, who would think of leaving the Truth? Of all the quirks and contradictions of Christadelphianism, perhaps this is the biggest: that a culture that despises anything ‘wishy washy’ should be so invested in ‘signs’ so vague they would make your weekly horoscope sound specific and definite.
A lot has changed for me since I stood on the station platform nearly 10 years ago. With time I am less angry with the community, and although, sadly, an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Bible has not yet proved to be a huge asset to me in adult life, that’s not to say that I haven’t gained anything from my time in the Delphs. I learnt the warmth and wisdom of community, to be reflective, and not to spend my time on earth buying stuff and worrying about belly fat. And there is a part of me that will never think quite the same as everyone else.