I grew up hearing that mental health disorders and illnesses of every kind were evil.
Because I was told these things from an isolated world of fundamentalist Christianity, I was not surprised to see Pastor Greg Locke’s sermon suggesting autism, epilepsy and other mental health disorders are actually demon possession. I’ve heard this countless times while sitting in the pews of independent fundamental Baptist churches.
A screaming child was said to be a rebellious child who the devil was using. I recall the preachers saying often, “How many lost souls did those ‘tantrums’ lead into hell?,” berating children and the parents who tried to calm them in the process.
Greg Locke has been controversial for some time now. I admit, he fell off my radar because I wasn’t interested in a preacher who utilized what is much of the same talking points as the independent fundamental Baptist churches. Ironically, Locke is former independent fundamental Baptist, graduating from one of their colleges, Ambassador Baptist College located in Lattimore, N.C. Locke may technically no longer carry the title of independent fundamental Baptist, but his antics, his hateful rhetoric and his ignorance on health speak to the fact he has yet to remove himself fully from fundamentalism, the same brand of fundamentalism that has mentally and spiritually injured so many who sat under preachers just like him.
A clip of Locke’s controversial sermon “Desperate for Deliverance” went viral, and the comment section blew up by Christians and non-Christians alike. Followers of Locke’s defended the controversial preacher, some current followers became former followers, and many parents of children with autism, epilepsy and loved ones of those with mental health disorders shared how hurtful the preacher’s words were.
In spite of this, Locke stood firm, defending his ignorant interpretation of the Bible and not offering an apology to parents or loved ones he hurt by his statements. The refusal to admit to the wrongness of such statements or to even acknowledge the hurt caused by them points to the fact Locke is still very connected to his old roots.
“Locke stood firm, defending his ignorant interpretation of the Bible and not offering an apology to parents or loved ones he hurt by his statements.”
While an independent fundamental Baptist, I regularly heard teachings that were very harmful to followers and their families. Suggesting that medical illness or mental health struggles were the result of some sin on a person’s part was one of them. I had loved ones who battled depression, ADHD and other illnesses who were told they needed healing and deliverance from such “oppressions.”
I witnessed chemo patients ridiculed for missing church services, autistic children who were told they needed to be beaten to stop their “rebellion.” These pastors often asked if someone had sinned if they suddenly came down with an illness.
As someone who at the time had undiagnosed chronic illnesses and had missed two weeks straight of services, God was suddenly beseeched by fellow church members on my behalf to do whatever it took to bring me back, including killing me if God needed to. I was seen as backslidden and a nonbeliever because I was sick. I cannot express how hurt I was after learning that. It aided in me finally leaving what was a hurtful church and the larger movement it belonged to.
Beyond my experiences, I’ve heard from countless others who survived such teachings. Some autistic children were sent to children’s homes within the movement where they were extremely abused. Adults with mental health disorders were sent to programs like Reformers Unanimous that Josh Duggar attended. Medications were forbidden or taken away, and God and the Bible were to be the only cure.
A Christian wasn’t praying enough, or not living a godly life enough, or not “saved” enough if they had a physical or mental illness. The independent fundamental Baptist movement and Pastor Greg Locke shame those with epilepsy, autism and other mental and physical illnesses. They point fingers from a pulpit and pews and declare that to be sick is to be sinful. That the devil is using demonic oppression on a person who is ill and that they alone are solely responsible for the oppression and the remedy, which is said to be seeking deliverance from God.
“They point fingers from a pulpit and pews and declare that to be sick is to be sinful.”
They say they are “pro-life” and then go on to ridicule those very same lives, suggesting that they no longer believe that every human being is born in the image of a God they believe made humans. The hypocrisy is so rampant, along with abuse in the independent fundamental Baptist movement. The Pastor Greg Lockes of the world who say they leave such movements are continuing the harm they should be leaving behind. These negative attributes are a byproduct of an environment reeked with such hurtful beliefs and hateful rhetoric.
So, while Greg Locke’s comments anger me (and they do), they’re not surprising when given his other rhetoric and his roots that he still closely reflects. Sure, women in his congregation get to wear pants unlike most fundamentalist congregations. Sure, their music is more “liberal” than that of most fundamental churches that I remember. And yes, there are some differences in theology. But overall? He’s fundamentalist to his core, and fundamentalism has a history of harming its followers and the world around them.
Because Locke has such a following and a platform where he can do good, he instead uses it in ways that only go on to hurt already hurting people who look to him for guidance.
This isn’t solely a Greg Locke issue, although he absolutely needs to be called out on his harmful and disrespectful statements in his recent sermon. No, this is a fundamentalist issue.
“I don’t believe any God would look at a child with epilepsy, autism or any other mental or health issue and suggest the devil is in them.”
As a former fundamentalist, I know it’s hard to shed that fundamentalist attitude. I know it’s difficult to unlearn hurtful rhetoric, theology and viewpoints that were so deeply held because we were taught it was “truth.” The conditioning we experienced, the tribalism, is real. We had a great calling to be separate from the world, told we hurt it more by being “Christian.”
I’m not going to suggest that Greg Locke is not Christian. That’s not my place. What I will say is I don’t believe any God would look at a child with epilepsy, autism or any other mental or health issue and suggest the devil is in them. Christians shouldn’t either. Human beings shouldn’t, period.
Greg Locke has a fundamentalist issue going on. Fundamentalism can be unlearned, but it has to stop benefiting the person who embraces it first. They have to be willing not to hurt others with their words or actions, and so far, Greg Locke hasn’t decided to do better after leaving what was so wrong.
Lydia Joy Launderville is a freelance writer in Ivor, Va., who covers an array of topics, including health and lifestyle, with a special focus on religious abuse and trauma recovery. She also volunteers for a nonprofit helping victims of religious abuse.
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