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POST: The Church as a Father Figure

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Originally published on Wheat & Tares Blog

The Church as an abusive Father

Recently an acquaintance of mine explained that he didn’t understand me and saw my being vocal of problematic Church issues as being critical of the Church and hence being on the wrong side, and that if I felt this way I should consider leaving.  He then explained that the Church to him was like a spouse whom he loved dearly and whose flaws and weaknesses he looked past and accepted in the name of the greater good.  I get it.  We simply accept, protect, defend our spouses tooth and nail.  I could totally get his analogy and it helped me to see and understand his perspective.  The Church for me though is different.  Then it hit me.  The Church, to me, is not comparable to a spouse but rather a parent.  And not just any parent but rather an abusive father who was in need of help and encouragement to change.

I finally felt like I had something that felt like it worked and explained how I feel.  Stay with me while I work through this.

I love my dad.  He is a big part of who I am and how well I have turned out.  I owe him a lot.  While he has fallen short in many areas he also has been there at times when I needed him.  Now these positive experiences do not excuse his bad behaviors but I feel I am at a point where I can, both appreciate the good he has been, while also not accept his harmful actions.

Early in my life My father could do no wrong.  I had placed him on a pedestal and saw him as the greatest thing ever.  Which kid doesn’t?  Dad taught me to know right from wrong and he showed me how much fun it could be as I worked hard.  I felt validated by him as I sought his affection.  When I was doing well in Church I seemed to earn his approval and pats on the back.  The problem was though, that I was unaware of his behaviors.  I didn’t see them.  And out of sight is out of mind.  Now that I think about it, I actually did see some of those behaviors but I just brushed them off as not an indicator of his character or I ignored them completely or I excused them away as false anti-Mormon rhetoric.  I blamed and shamed those who spoke evil of my father and those who claimed he did and said things that I knew were impossible.  I defended him for years knowing the bad things people said couldn’t possibly be true.

As time went on I began to hear stories from some of his other children.  That he had abused them in some way.   Some was physical abuse that occurred when some of his children were not accepted by him and he approved of shock therapy at his work to try and alter their condition when now we all recognize that the condition is unalterable and the treatment was scarring.  Sometimes the abuse was emotional when he would tell some of his children who were unaware of his behavior to not trust his children who knew full well what he had done.  He would pit some of his children against others of his children by pointing out they were too intellectual, had a feminist agenda, or were gay.  Some he sexually abused by talking about intimacy before and after marriage in way that his children struggled to see marriage intimacy in a healthy way.  Some he physically abused by telling his children that it would be better they came home in a casket than having lost their virtue out on their mission and some of his children did great harm to themselves because of their deteriorating image of their self worth. These abuses seemed not to exist in my youth and then seemed negligible in my young adulthood and then finally were seen as a serious issue and could no longer be brushed aside by me and others of his children.  Father has quietly moved past some of these behaviors but he has never stood in front of his Children to apologize for them.  And, yes, there are still behaviors that persist even today that marginalize or hurt his children.

We simply could not turned a blind eye of his demeaning those of his children who had questions and doubts after discovering Dad’s behavior and history.  These same kids who were once faithful had now discovered Dad’s life history and had discovered that the Story Dad gave for who he was and how he came to be was a very different story from reality. But Dad seemed to not be comfortable discussing his abusive behavior and so One by One by One by One by One he cut off those children who would not stop bringing up his mistakes and paradoxical past.

While I love my dad, I no longer trust him to be the end source for truth.  He simply has disappointed me too many times.  I still trust him to have wisdom at times.  I still ask his advice.  I still seek his encouragement but I no longer assume that his answer is the absolute right answer.  Rather he is now one voice among many that I look to for advice and enlightenment.

I still want his company.  Some of his children have distanced themselves from him for their own health and inner peace.  Others choose to only visit him on the holidays.  And while I try to see him every weekend, it is different. I no longer hold him as my hero or as the perfect example I once did.  Some of his children have become entirely disillusioned by the giant let down once they discovered who Dad really was

I am troubled by some of his children who defend his behavior or who explain it away or who choose to remain ignorant of his abuses simply because they love him too much to let go of that perfect image they have of him.  For them it is easier to shame me and my siblings who speak out against the abuse.  It would be too disruptive to their life…..  to their balance to allow room in their mind for Dad to turn out not to be exactly what he told them he was.  I get it and while I struggle with it I too wish at times I could go back to seeing him the way I once did.  Yet I can’t.  There is no going back.  The best I can hope for is to acknowledge Father’s positive along with the negative.

Some of us children have tried to talk with Dad.  We try to help him see the hurt he has caused but he refuses to apologize.  Says that doing so simply is not something he can or will do.  He feels He doesn’t owe anyone an apology.  Sometimes, once in a while a very small part of him will confide “There may have been things said or done that were not in harmony with our values, principles, or doctrine.”  But this incredible admirable part of him is a part we rarely get to see and is overshadowed by his reluctance to acknowledge that he has on many occasions misunderstood God’s mind and will in ways that really hurt others or assumed there were lines where there wasn’t.

For years my Dad demanded that I follow him and  that I, never choose to follow a path contrary to what he required and taught…. and for years I did as he asked.  But one day having come to grips with Dad’s flaws and mistakes and hurtful behavior I chose to no longer follow him blindly simply because he was Dad.  I was now at a place where I would choose to follow him if my inner spirit said he was right on some occasions but also just as determined to dissent when what he required at other times was at odds with my soul.  He seemed to try and soften his stance at times  by telling me I could seek answers from God if I felt challenged by what he required but he stopped short of giving me permission to choose another path on issues where my answer from God was different than what he was requiring.  He seemed to assume that God’s answer would always match his request. This need he had to be right and to compel his children to follow him at all times added to my skepticism of his advice as always coming from God.  In fact As I have talked to others who knew Dad through his life they made me aware that he had taught ideas in the past as absolute certainties only to retract his words later and do a 180° on issues that only a few years before he had adamantly said the opposite and promised it was God’s will.  

You may read this and think I don’t love my Dad.  But I do.  He still is a giant part of my life.  You may think I wish ill on my Father.  Not true.  I pray every day for him.  I want nothing more than for him to come to grips with the hurt he causes to some of his children and will apologize and move swiftly to repent and to correct his behavior.  You may think I am exaggerating his negative traits.  I would agree that minor flaws should be looked past and not held under a microscope, but unlike some of his children, I also see a line where One can no longer morally stand quietly aside while such behavior occurs.  And while I can no longer be silent about it.  I freely acknowledge the good he is and the good he does while also recognizing that parts of him are dysfunctional and in need of  change.  He is still my dad and in spite of his problems I still consider him family and hold him close to my heart.  That will never change for me.

At the same time I can no longer ignore the hurt that some of his children have felt and the damage that has been done.  It is Time for an Intervention.   Many of us kids who feel abused or who wish to defend those who are don’t have to leave, regardless of what our siblings suggest.  He is our dad too.  And out of our Love for him, we instead choose to carry out this intervention.  So Dad…. here it is….

“We love you Dad.  We care deeply for you.  We want you to move past these perspectives that bind you and hurt others.  We want your honesty and forthrightness on your past.  We want you to recognize the hurt you are causing at times to those who love you.  Dad, You are at a fork in the road and rather than entrench and excuse your behavior, and double down….. Our hope is you will pick yourself up, face your truth, and move forward focused on the good that you are and immense amount of good you have yet left to do!”

Let me finish by telling you the Good that Father is and has been.  He is actually my adoptive Father.  He took me in when I was 17 and I was selling and using drugs and making lots of bad choices and yet he excitedly took me in warts and all.  He helped me see my self worth as a Child of God and he helped me develop many of the skills and talents I have today.  He helped me to discover what it meant to feel God’s presence.  He helped me to develop a great love for learning and for truth seeking.  He helped me develop communication skills.  He was instrumental in my meeting my wife and he has helped me raise my kids as well.  He has been instrumental in their turning out incredible.  He helped me to see that these relationships were eternal.  He also continues to give me a place to help and serve others and I still hold out hope that God is leading Dad along, just in a much different way than I had thought early on.  My dad is still an anchor in my life and I can’t envision life without him.  I need him.

Dad…….. I am hopeful your best days lie ahead.


Bill Reel is the host of Mormon Discussion Podcast which seeks to help Latter-Day Saints work through a faith reconstruction with the end goal of remaining in the Church and remaining faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

(It should be said that my actual father is an awesome human being and I am lucky to have him and this analogy should not be taken to reflect on my experience with my own Dad.  I should also add that many individuals ave actually lived in abusive relationships with parents, spouses, and others.  I do not wish to diminish the hurt and harm you have felt and that has occurred but must add in some way I truly feel spiritually damaged by my faith and in some ways experience real PTSD because of my Church experience.  May we all find healing in this life.)


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