I’m Dani Ward,

and I do lots of things.

I belong to me: learning agency & consent outside Christianity.

Image courtesy of Death to the Stock Photo.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the concepts of agency1 and autonomy, how necessary they are for a fulfilling life…and how impossible they are when consent is ignored. I’ve been realizing with a growing sense of anger and frustration that I had no grasp of those concepts as a Christian. Really, as I came to understand what basic respect, prioritizing consent, and honoring the autonomy of my fellow humanity looked like, I realized that Christianity as I knew it had no place for those things…and therefore had no place for me.

Don’t get me wrong. There were many things that played into my deconversion — this wasn’t the only thing. But it was certainly an eye-opening discovery.

You see, I grew up with the knowledge that I wasn’t my own person. Oh, no. I belonged to many people.

I belonged to God, because He made me.2 In fact, I belonged to Him even more because He saved me and I was a Christian.3

I belonged to my parents (who thankfully were good, wonderful, trustworthy parents who loved me with all their hearts and took great care of me). But in my culture, I belonged to them and was expected to forfeit my autonomy in favor of submission to their authority in my life, up until the moment my dad gave me away to my spouse on my wedding day.4

I belonged to my husband,5 whether I was currently married to him or not.6 What I wanted or needed, physically or emotionally, was irrelevant, because my purpose was to serve him.

It never occurred to me to investigate this claim that I didn’t belong to myself. None of these things were ever a question for me. It never occurred to me that I could do things because I wanted to do them. The thought was always, “Is what I’m doing going to glorify God, fall in line with my parents, and honor my future husband?” After all, I could’t forget the acronym for joy and what it meant.7

As a girl growing up into a woman within the Plymouth Brethren movement8, not only did I not belong to myself, I also had lots of people to answer to. Lots of authorities who could offer input into my life whenever they pleased. Lots of people to submit myself to: all the elders at my church,9 all older Christians,10 all men.11 Even peers were encouraged to “exhort” me to better, more Christ-like behavior.12

We assembly folk were an extremely biblically literalist13 bunch. While higher education in theological or biblical matters was generally frowned upon (you only need the Holy Spirit and a group of like-minded believers, don’t you know),14 we prided ourselves on our ability to think clearly, comprehend and apply the truths of Scripture to our lives, and make sure that our emotions never, ever ran away with us. After all, emotions are fleeting and untrustworthy, but the Word of the Lord is forever.

Words were often redefined, like love and joy and peace. Love was a choice, never a feeling, because feelings could change but love wasn’t allowed to.15 Joy was similarly not based on circumstances like its shallower sister, Happiness, but was to be found in the knowledge of God.16 Peace, whether it was truly felt or not, was ours because God promised to give us the peace that passes understanding.17 Even doubts were explained away as unreliable feelings, because we had God’s Truth so there could never be doubt if we were claiming the Truth for ourselves.

Intentionally or not, the result of growing up in a system that taught such things was that I constantly undermined my own emotions and feelings, seeing them as less than, as an enemy I had to squelch. After all, if my experiences didn’t line up with what the Bible said, it was me and my experiences that were wrong. Always.

All correction from any number of people, no matter their relationship to me, was to be accepted without complaint. All perceived punishment, born with the knowledge that I deserved it. All trauma, experienced with a joyful heart that I got to suffer for the Lord and an understanding that pain wasn’t a big deal compared to the glory awaiting me in heaven.

No matter what happened, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that my thoughts, my wants, my needs were of no consequence. I didn’t matter. Only God and those He put in authority over me mattered, and there was no boundary I was allowed to set that would allow me any amount of autonomy.

Like when “godly” peers and authorities alike proved themselves to be untrustworthy, manipulative, even predatory, and my friends and I had no recourse because we instinctively knew their authority meant our comfort didn’t matter.18

Or when I told a friend about being sexually assaulted in college and he replied, “Praise the Lord!” because like me he was taught suffering for God was the greatest thing that could happen to us as Christians.

Or when I was forced to sign a statement saying I agreed with all 80 pages of the BJU rulebook under penalty of expulsion19 (and when that forced agreement was brought up as proof that I’d consented then broken my “contract” with them when I was expelled).

Even when I became suicidal after having sex with my boyfriend,20 because I was so ashamed that a healthy, healing consensual sexual experience somehow meant I dishonored God, my parents, and my future husband. My enthustiasic consent meant nothing, because those people not involved in the situation at all didn’t want me to. To drive this point home, a friend at the time said I’d proven I could no longer be trusted to make my own decisions so she and another friend would be making them for me.

Then there’s the time when I finally talked about my sexual assault,21 depression,22 and PTSD23 publicly for the first time and Christians seemed to privately rush to tell me to be quiet, that talking about such things or dwelling on them was displeasing to God and damaging to others.

And of course when I finally deconverted and told my Christian friends that I understood their pain and confusion but asked them to respect me and my beliefs by neither scolding me nor trying to convert me,24 and those requests were ignored en masse to the point that I had to delete an entire toxic, hateful thread and block people who took to private messages to lambast me for daring to have a public opinion in such opposition to the one I was supposed to have.

This isn’t something that’s particular to my former brand of Christianity, either. By and large, Christianity as a system in the Western world teaches people to run roughshod over the boundaries of those within and without their camps under the guise of love.25 The consent of its members and non-members alike isn’t required, as clearly demonstrated by the past almost 28 years of my existence. And that’s a massive problem, enabling (and at times commanding) the manipulation, mistreatment, and abuse of countless people.

In fact, I’d say one of the defining characteristics of Christianity today is that it has a consent problem.

When God’s love is offered freely to everyone…unless they reject Him, at which point He’ll subject them to violent, painful, and — oh yeah — eternal punishment, Christianity has a consent problem.

When generations are taught they don’t belong to themselves because God made them2 and paid for them by killing His Son3 so now they’re literally His slaves,26 Christianity has a consent problem.

When it’s taught that believers are dead and thus no longer alive, but Christ lives through them now27 so they literally no longer exist and everything they do must align with the desires of a being other than themselves, Christianity has a consent problem.

When people are constantly28 compared29 to30 mindless31 sheep32 who need a shepherd33 because on their own they can’t survive, Christianity has a consent problem.

Come to think of it, I’m pretty sure Tangled is one giant metaphor for deconverting from Christianity and escaping the abusive control of a manipulative authority figure.

When Christians constantly evangelize those who want to be left alone because of course they know better than those poor hell-bound sinners,34 Christianity has a consent problem.

When Christians want to be free to live however they please,35 but also want to use the government to force the country to live under “biblical” laws,36 Christianity has a consent problem.

When believers pry into each other’s lives and shame each other for perceived moral failings that tend to be absolutely no one’s business under the guise of exhorting each other,11 Christianity has a consent problem.

When women are expected to give men a chance whether they want to or not,37 because men have more godly authority than women so we ought to trust them, Christianity has a consent problem.

When people, married or not, are taught they don’t have authority over their own bodies3 because they belong to their their father (if unmarried)4 or their spouse5 (and of course ultimately with God), Christianity has a consent problem.

When divorce is forbidden38 even in emotionally, physically, or sexually abusive circumstances,39 Christianity has a consent problem.

When women are forced to carry pregnancies to term against their will,40 Christianity has a consent problem.

When children are seen as the property of their parents and treated like show dogs to train and show off, praised when performing well and beaten (oh, excuse me, spanked) when they “misbehave,”41 Christianity has a consent problem.

When children are told to respect and honor their parents, no matter what abuses were rained down upon them in the name of love or otherwise,42 Christianity has a consent problem.

When you are told to lean not on your own understanding but in every possible way submit to God and His authorities in your life,43 Christianity has a consent problem.

When core tenants of the faith dictate that your own heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked and no one can know it,44 and in the next breath you’re taught spiritual authorities in your life are to be trusted more than your own intuition45 and obeyed even against your better judgment (because of course you can’t even have better judgment, don’t you know that your heart is deceitful and desperately wicked?), Christianity has a consent problem.

When the liberals, atheists, non-Christians, LGBT+ community and all others that Christianity by and large decries as sinful and reprobate are the ones who teach love, acceptance, respect, and community better than Western Christianity as a whole ever has, Christianity has a consent problem.

There are individual exceptions to this, of course. Certain groups within Christianity who are different, truly respectful and loving and inclusive. I’m unendingly thankful for the Christians in my life who tirelessly work to make their religion a better, safer place. People who strive to teach that you are your own,46 in fact, and fight against the awful lie that we’re damaged goods,47 and lead the charge of liberation for the oppressed.48 I’m equally thankful for other former Christians like me, who write about our experiences in the faith and outside the faith,49 offering solidarity to other former Christians in an overwhelming Christianized nation,50 providing valuable critique51 of the framework of Christianity and how to live as an actualized person when you’ve realized that everything you’ve ever known is no longer available to you, and fighting to make sure that the church and state remain separate for the good of all in our country.52

I can’t tell you how freeing it is to realize that I belong to me, and no one else. I get to decide what happens to my body, what kind of interactions people are allowed to have with me, and what sort of people and activities and possessions I want to have in my life. I’m my own person, and I get to decide who that is.

And until Christianity as a whole takes a good look at its refusal to recognize or honor the boundaries of others and work to change their rampant tendency to control the lives of all they can in the name of God, consent be damned…Christianity is not a safe place for anyone. And more and more people like me will have to leave it to find any sort of freedom, respect, and dignity.


Thanks to Amy, Suzannah, Abi, Christina, Blair, and Josh for helping me brainstorm for this, and also to Sarah, Dianna, Jes, Lindsey, Paige, and Michael for being my extra sets of eyes.

  • Sheldon Cooper

    Someone said “praise the Lord” when told about your sexual assault?

    What. The. Fuck. ?

    I want off this planet….

  • Emily R

    Well done. Seriously. Extremely well written and incredibly true/insightful.

  • I know he meant well. Like, there wasn’t even a hint of animosity. Which is part of what made it so damaging. Most of the people who started private messaging me when I started talking publicly about various traumas and mental health issues weren’t malicious at all. They were genuinely concerned about me. But they simply had no concept whatsoever of what was appropriate to say or do, and even less concept that they didn’t have the right to do and say what they were.

  • Faithless follower

    Really nice work Danni. I think my wife and I vicariously live through some of your posts. We feel almost exactly the same way. Yet the strings of life currently bind us to a weak Christian conformity despite the causticness of the faith.

  • Neil Carter

    This is brutally good. Thank you for working so hard on it The amount of thought put into this is obvious, and was well worth it.

  • I know that feeling well. I think it’s okay to do what you have to do to cope — you’re the best judge of what’s right for you to do. I hope that you find strength and encouragement and peace.

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  • Alice

    Thank you, this summarizes the consent issues in Christianity really well. It’s something that has troubled me for a while now. Especially since learning that a person cannot meaningfully consent to a relationship when the other person holds a great deal of power over them and there could be serious ramifications to saying no. Christians talk about having a relationship with God, but a deity-human relationship would be the ultimate imbalance of power.

  • dagobarbz

    I want THEM off this planet. You can stay. :)

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  • joshuauptosomething

    You’re saying that the only possible response are either violent displacement or mutual disdain? That is no solution. Assuming “The God” who made the Universe is a Person, and that Person’s nature is reflected what the sages and mystics have seen, you have a “Power” which seeks to elevate you towards equal status with [them]self.

    Western Evangelical Christianity doesn’t espouse this view, but they are hardly anything like the people who were first labeled “Christian” in any case.

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  • poetrymafia

    I know this is a pretty old post, but I feel the need to send you a quick thank you. I just deconverted from Christianity this year, and it’s a bit like breathing fresh air and feeling stifled at the same time. Your story is like mine in some ways, although I didn’t go through the same abuse and strictness you did, and I can’t tell you how much it means to me that someone else has gone through it and found life on the other side! So thank you. Thank you, thank you.

  • Ahab

    This was breathtaking. It rang true in so many ways for me as an ex-Christian. Thank you for posting this.

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  • Eliza10

    Yes, they likely meant no ill at all, but simply had no concept of what was right. Being told how to think for too long inhibits the ability to reason normally, I do believe.

    I experienced my husband having an affair which broke up our bad marraige. The good thing was no more verbal/emotional abuse in close proximity, but a new bad thing was a new first for me, and what bad timing: experiencing grave financial instability, while single parenting. :(

    So in my new difficulty I was resenting my ex’s paramour, who happened to make out QUITE WELL financially in this situation she was a major player in. So in order to receive communion worthily I confessed this resentment of her and of my husband with a particular local priest, who was not particularly known for his holiness or piety. (He was conveniently located and not someone whose advice I would have sought – I was just seeking the Sacrament) He said, “Actually, you should wish them both happiness” – which did NOT go over well with me, you can be sure!

    Yet, in SOME respect, there is at least a GRAIN of truth to that, as well as what you were told. Because we CAN praise God in our difficulties… eventually. Now, years forward, I can look back on the long bad marriage and the bad ending with thanksgiving. Because I can see that for me it took those difficulties for me to know and trust God in this new whole and sure way. I so value that knowing and that trust of our loving and merciful God that if i could do it over I would choose the same road again. I am even THANKFUL for the difficulties!

    But I think in the average case for us average folks you just cannot conclude such higher things till much later. Certainly not in the thick of things!

    A book, “Don’t Forgive Too Soon” gave me more immediate perspective. Before you forgive, you have to truly acknowledge how you were hurt. You probably have to go through the Kubler-Ross stages of grief, all of them, before you can know that hurt and before you can forgive. Like anger, you need to experience true anger about the trespass against you, and even stay with it awhile, in order to truly perceive it, before you forgive.

    If instead you deny the trespass, or try not to think of it, make yourself “be thankful” for it, or just hurry and and “just forgive”, before you have worked through the natural feeling-stages that God designed us to have, its likely not a real worthwhile act of forgiveness, as you never internalized/realized what you are forgiving.

    Hope that makes sense. Its been awhile since I read it. The bottom line is, a person needs to work though all their feelings. Telling an offended person they ought to forgive – wow, you have to be careful about that. You have to really deeply know them and their situation to know if this is an appropriate suggestion, if ever. We all need to focus on our own areas of needing to forgive because we all have them. When another person is hurting, we are NOT called not to tell them how to think and act, but to mourn with them. NOT tell them to get over it. Or to rejoice! :(

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  • Darcy

    I just discovered this article and I’m blown away. I feel every word of this. I didn’t know I was fully, truly my own until I was almost 30 because of being raised with these teachings. Thank you so much for so eloquently putting this struggle into words. So many don’t understand. “Why didn’t you just do what you wanted?” I get asked all the time. Thank you for explaining the why.

  • Maryflorence

    Wow just wow. My husband and I are sitting here discussing and just in awe that you so eloquently captured what we both feel and think and why we choose not to raise our kids in church. I am still a believer but i choose to live it outside of organized religion. Thank you for writing. We have been looking into anti trauma type readings about leaving the faith and this is excellent. How long have you been away from church? I am curious how long it took you to gather your thoughts and feelings? Especially because this didn’t read with bitterness or contempt to me.

  • I stopped going to church with any regularity in 2011. I’d been processing the toxicity of fundamentalism since early 2010, and had a few years where I would have days that I was a Christian and days that I was an atheist. I’m not sure how else to describe it: some days I believed, and some days I didn’t, and I could make myself go one way or the other. I finally realized in 2013 that I would never be a Christian again (not without literal divine intervention that presented in a quantifiably demonstrable way). I’m still processing so much of how I was brought up, the beliefs and the impact those teachings have had on every aspect of my life. Thank you so much for your kind words — they mean a lot!

  • You’re quite welcome! I hate that question, as well. When your entire world is focused on a set of beliefs that devalue your very personhood and dismiss the validity of your own experience of your own life…you just literally have no vocabulary for analyzing or even realizing what’s wrong.

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