Is Reformed Evangelicalism a Place For The Traumatized?


The movie Logan deserves re-watching. It displays the effects of aging on even the most evergreen and shiny realities. I recommend it. But this isn’t a movie review. As I watched Logan in the theater, Logan (i.e., Wolverine) delivered one line in the film that felt as if he had turned directly to me to say it.

Logan is a man who can heal from anything. The government put inside him an adamantium (metal) skeleton. He discovers the government has also created a clone daughter named Laura out of his DNA, and she has his same ability to heal, his killer instinct, and her own metal skeleton. Logan and Laura are both brutal, skillful killers. He is well over 150 years old, and she is not older than 12.

In one scene, Logan turns to Laura and says:

“Don’t be who they made you.”

Warrior Children

It was a sobering moment of clarity for me — time slowed down for me. In that moment, my entire seminary experience flashed before my eyes. At Westminster Theological Seminary, they called themselves “Machen’s Warrior Children,” and they wore it like a badge of pride. Faculty behind closed doors would refer to times when they colluded to get other faculty fired as “My tour in ‘Nam.” Students would get together at pubs and talk about how all the other seminaries were much worse, too soft, not insightful enough, not consistent enough, not vigilant enough.

I was new to the whole Presbyterian world. But only a few months after I moved to Philadelphia to attend Westminster, it felt like home for one reason. My hypervigilant pursuit of truth was rewarded. My “black and white” conception of the world was applauded. Everyone was put in categories of “in” and “out.” If you fell in line, and paid allegiance to the right people, you were treated as family. If not, you were exiled, and treated as untrustworthy. I don’t know if all Presbyterian communities are like this, or if all Reformed communities are like this. But this was my experience of Presbyterianism in Philadelphia. It was political to the core. And the political players at Westminster were looking for soldiers to fight in their war. Against whom? Everyone else.

It was at Westminster that I realized I had experienced trauma in my own childhood. But it wasn’t until I left that I realized how that had changed my time there. Bessel van der Kolk, a trauma theorist, explains:

“Some traumatized people remain preoccupied with the trauma at the expense of other life experiences and continue to re-create it in some form for themselves or for others. War veterans may enlist as mercenaries, victims of incest may become prostitutes, and victims of childhood physical abuse seemingly provoke subsequent abuse in foster families or become self-mutilators. Still others identify with the aggressor and do to others what was done to them.”[1]

One researcher asks why victims don’t simply break the traumatic cycle by leaving. He comments: “they are addicted to each other and to abuse. The system, the interaction, the relation takes hold; the individuals are as powerless as junkies.”[2] I have no doubt become addicted to Reformed evangelicalism. This blog isn’t an indictment of “them.” It’s a moment of honesty for me. The more honest I have been about what I really think, the more pushback I have received from people who could take away what little platform I have here. The time has come for me to place that fear aside, and simply say what needs to be said.

My Personhood and Evangelicalism

In the same way that emotionally abused women are attracted to abusive men when they become older (re-creating the circumstances of their own abuse), so also abused boys can be attracted to militant contexts that recreate their own emotional abuse. I think that Reformed and evangelical communities can serve as prime outposts signaling for the abused to come, singing a siren song of traumatic repetition.

As a man seeking full-time, professional employment within evangelicalism, I am judged as arrogant and warmongering for my strengths and as emotionally impotent for my weaknesses. I feel like Laura in many ways — with all the anger and violence of a grown man, with an immature innocence inside that needs protecting. And that swirl of so-called warmongering and emotional impotence is characterized by the trauma of my childhood. But it was exacerbated, codified, and formalized by my experience at Westminster — and quite honestly, by my experience in evangelicalism thereafter.

In Logan, Wolverine’s healing powers have slowed to a halt because his metal skeleton became so toxic to him. The very thing that made him most dangerous and most threatening — the center of his “brand” and “platform” — was toxic to him. There is something about this community that is toxic to me. Reformed evangelicalism has done a lot for me, but much of it has been for the worse.

The longer I remain in this community, the longer I feel like I’m losing touch with the Paul who existed before he was militarized — before he was conscripted into Machen’s Army. I haven’t had any formal association with Westminster for several years now. And yet, I still have that killer instinct. I was still trained for 4 years to think of everyone else as stupid. Everyone else’s view on counseling was unbiblical, but we had God’s view. Everyone else’s view on God’s will was unbiblical, but we had God’s view. Everyone else’s view on evil and salvation was illogical, but we had the most consistent view.

My Inferiorities and Evangelicalism

If only I had known how I was using (and being used) by that system, I would have left — had I the courage along with the insight. If only I had known that I was compensating for so much childhood hurt that was only being magnified and worsened, I would have left. If only I had known that the system at Westminster chews people up and spits them out every three years, I would have left. I know of no other seminary with such a trail of bodies, with most of its alumni emotionally damaged from their experience there, still acting out their warrior impulses which they learned — still fighting, still poisoned by their weaponized theological skeletons.

Is There A Place for The Traumatized?

And I’m not sure how to shed this feeling. I’m not sure how to deescalate this trauma. But currently, and I say this in spite of all the books that have been written for “survivors” and “healing” by evangelicals, there is no place for corporate or public healing of trauma in evangelicalism. For all our rhetoric of “redemption” and “reconciliation,” this is the very last place in the world I would ever tell a traumatized person to go. That’s not to say someone can’t be helped here by accident. But we haven’t figured out how to stop hurting people here. And if you’re already here, as a member, and you find your home here, I can only invite you to begin your journey with me:

“Don’t be what they made you.”

The “you” beneath your in-group/out-group instincts is better. We don’t need to conceive of ourselves in terms of “tribes.” And we don’t need to conceive of our world in terms of the lines drawn by 10 major figures who sell all the books. We can figure out a way to heal with God (and grow) on our own terms. And we are probably better off doing that in a world that won’t require us to re-enact our trauma for the sake of its “wartime mindset.” We need peacetime healers for our trauma, not soldiers who took a spiritual CPR course.

In my experience, the Reformed evangelical world wants our trauma when it has battles to fight (which is all the time), and wants us to put the monster back in the closet on Sunday morning. I simply don’t believe there is space for a traumatized person to be their full selves in this community.

God, light the way to you that is beyond and outside of a world that would only reward us for our symptoms of victimhood. Have mercy on us to do what we must for the sake of our own faith, tribes be damned.

[1] Bessel A. van der Kolk, “The Compulsion to Repeat the Trauma,” Psychiatric Clinics of North America 12, no. 2 (1989): 398 [389-411].

[2] G. M. Erschak “The Escalation and Maintenance of Spouse Abuse: A Cybernetic Model,” Victimology 9 (1984): 247-253.

23 thoughts on “Is Reformed Evangelicalism a Place For The Traumatized?

  1. Well said. How refreshing to read such a transparent experience that is majority of these religious folks reality. Thank you for shedding light on your own journey and allowing a platform for others to join. Wish you nothing but peace and happiness in truth. Stay well! ❤️

  2. Hi Paul,

    I am a current student at Westminster Seminary. How do you think current students can guard themselves from this arrogant position?

    I’d appreciate your insight,

    David Fernandez

    Sent from my iPhone


  3. Hi Paul,
    I, too, have a childhood of trauma woven with Reformed theology.
    I have chewed up and spat out others who didn’t know enough or share the same theology.
    Eventually my theology chewed me up and spat me out.
    But Christ took me in.
    That is the single most powerful life and eternity changing experience that ever happened to me.
    Now I have no system of salvation, but I have a Saviour.
    My theological ‘t’s’ are left uncrossed and my ‘i’ undotted, the scriptures demonstrate more mystery and feels more true to the confusion and complexity of life with God. I find myself holding seemingly impossible truths with both hands and rather than confused, or doubting, it feels freeing.
    At times I feel afraid that I have ‘left the fold’, but I know I can’t continue to experience such contempt and a poisonous self-righteousness that destroys others. So I return to long held, fire-forged truths, and embrace being an unknowing child again.

    Be kind to yourself, and allow the Spirit to bathe your wounds.

  4. When I was growing up, I was taught another name for seminary school: cemetery school.
    I don’t think I really understood what that meant until I saw some of my friends go to seminary or to Bible school and come out questioning everything they were taught as children, and everything they once believed; turning back on their first love. I had considered going to Bible school for my first year of college, but I received a rude awakening when I learned that particular “tribe” did not believe in the inerrancy of scripture. Needless to say, God redirected me. And though I received a degree in Political Science at a liberal university, yet God prepared me to fight and I fought the whole way through. By God’s grace, I grew in grace, and I continue to seek His Way.
    I am truly sorry for your experience, and I can only hope that you can encourage those who are now in the same boat that you were in. Often, our greatest points of ministry spring from our greatest trials, so I hope that a spring of living water will come through you and pour into those who need it most. Thank you for sharing your story.

  5. God loves you, so you can love yourself. That’s not wrong. In fact, it’s presupposed in the command to love others (Matt 22:39).

  6. Thanks for your brutal honesty. It’s refreshing. This is also in part, why I left the Presbyterian church a few years ago. During a difficult period in my life, where I was met with severe depression and anxiety, I did not feel as though the church was a safe haven for me to express both my mind, and heart. If my thoughts did not align with the dogma of the church, I was labeled a ‘heretic’. There was no space for healthy dialogue. There was no genuine wrestling with truth. It was a ‘listen to what you have been told, or you do not belong here’ movement. Initially my traumatic experiences in the church, caused me to disdain theology altogether.

    … But now after having been enrolled into seminary for a year, I’ve been placed in a position to face that which I tried to avoid for so long. And I am coming to the realisation that, theology in itself is not bad; for we are meant to know the truth, and the truth is meant to set us free. Is not that what the gospel is? Theology when placed in its proper context, is called to set captives free; it is called to bind up the broken-hearted; it is called to release from darkness for the prisoners.

    Easier said than done though, and I am not saying I’ve figured it out. How do we wed, theology with real-life, gut-wrenching, heart-piercing life experiences? Because I can honestly say I have been there, and I am still currently, here. It’s comforting to know that I am not alone in my thoughts, though. Please keep writing.

  7. I read Brennan Manning, Robert Capon, and Steve Brown to grow reacquainted with the Tremendous Lover and to detox.

  8. This was so helpful! I’ve been wrestling with some of these things and never knew how to articulate it properly. You did an amazing job. Thanks.

  9. Hi Paul,

    Thankful for your brutal honesty. I am a current a student and I just watched the movie this past weekend. Everything you said resonates with me. I have been feeling this way since the end of my second semester and to read someone who has brought to light some of those things has been encouraging. Once again, thank you for your honesty!

  10. I’ve never been to seminary but very similar experience from 20 years in a reformed church, “don’t be who they made you” undoing is hard! Thank you for your honesty, here’s to the truth freeing us!

  11. Dude. Bro. Same.

    I am a Calvinist who by the mere grace and power of God have become drawn away and kept away from these incredibly toxic communities while God does his mighty work of healing my heart and mind and soul because of past trauma.

    Thank you so much for this incredible encouraging and loving word.

    Soli Deo Gloria. Forever.

  12. Finally got around to reading this.

    First, thank you.
    Coming out of four years at Mars Hill, I feel I can relate and I’m sorry. From what I can tell, looks like there’s a lot of overlap in what we experienced in these two places. Would love to share a beer and talk about this more sometime.

    Praying for you and thankful for you, brother.

  13. Oh my goodness, thank you so much for writing this. You have no idea how much I needed to hear that tonight.

  14. Paul,

    I’ve shared this article a number of times, so I wanted to share that your words have comforted me and others. I have experienced being “in” and have experienced being pushed “out” in the reformed community. The pain has also uncovered the needed healing of wounds that drew me to the community in the first place.

    I want to thank you for the risk of writing in the genuine reality of vulnerability where it is meaningful risk not merely calculated honesty.

    Lastly, I’m praying for you, the reformed community and others that have experienced this pain.

    Thank you.

  15. “Don’t be what they made you.”

    I was trapped in recreating my own trauma for close to a decade. I didn’t get free from until I began to recognize the cycle and acknowledge the truth that I needed help. I’ll never forget the night a church leader told me that he didn’t need a counselor to tell him what my problem was, all he needed was his Bible. For him life was black and white, good or bad, sinful or holy, and his words felt like a knife in my heart.

    Why does being broken mentally have to be only about the sin it produces? Why does getting psychological help seem to some religious people as a lack of faith? I don’t know, but I do know that this isn’t the way of Jesus.

    The Bible says a bruised reed He will not break, a smoking flax He will not put out. He is The Great Physician who’s works in our lives to heal. Jesus, Who knows every hair on our heads and keeps all our tears in a bottle, understands trauma and meets us in our pain.

    Thank you for your honesty. It was very helpful and encouraging to me.

  16. Your words resonated with me. I had a similar experience as an undergraduate at Trinity International university (the undergrad arm of your seminary.) I found that everyone from student to professor was obsessed with drawing lines and determining who was in and who was out. I would be curious to know how your experience at the seminary is compared to your time at Westminster.

  17. Having had the unfortunate combination of both being a theology junkie and a female (I’m also probably autistic, but I didn’t know that at the time), being in a reformed church was thrilling but incredibly painful and traumatic. I ended up with PTSD symptoms, as I was deemed sinful due to my gender and the fact that I was intelligent. I wouldn’t fit in the box offered to me, so I was doomed to the never ending wrath of my church leadership. It was hell, and I am thankful every day that the Lord delivered me from that awful place. I’m so glad you’ve uncovered some of the darkness here. Thank you for your honesty, and may the Lord continue to heal you.

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