From Evangelicalism to Atheism Part Three

This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series From Evangelicalism to Atheism
somerset baptist church 1987

Bruce, leading music 1987

I am often asked, when did you first begin to doubt? This is not an easy question for me to answer. As I look back over my life, there were many instances where I had doubts about a theological or political belief. If there is one constant about life it is change. Over time, our beliefs and ideologies change. Sometimes the change is so subtle that we are not really aware of it until we look back on our life years later. Anyone who says that they have never changed their beliefs, and I know several pastors who say this about themselves, is either intellectually lazy or living in denial.

Every preacher leaves Bible college with a borrowed theology. His theology is the theology that his parents, church,  pastor, and college professors taught him. He believes what he believes because of the influence of others. Only when he is free of these influences does he begin to develop his own theological beliefs.

I have always been an avid student and reader. One of the frustrating things about the health problems I have is that I can no longer read like I used to. For many years, it was not uncommon for me to read 500 pages a week of theological and biographical books. To his day, I rarely read fiction. (currently, I am reading Another America: The Story of Liberia and the Former Slaves Who Ruled it)  Over the course of twenty-five years in the ministry, I accumulated a large library of books. These books were my constant companions and friends. When I left the ministry in 2003, I sold off my theological library on EBay.

While I learned many things as a student at Midwestern Baptist College, most of my theological education came from the countless hours I spent reading theological books and studying for my sermons.  It was in the study that I began to come to different theological conclusions than what I had been taught by my parents, former churches, former pastors and college professors. The most dramatic theological changes took place while I was pastor of Somerset Baptist Church in Somerset (later Mt Perry) Ohio.

somerset baptist church 1984

Baptismal Service 1984, Evangelist Dennis Corle baptizing new convert.

I started the Somerset Baptist Church in July of 1983 and pastored the church for eleven years.  At this point in my life, I was a typical Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) pastor and remained so until the Jack Hyles scandal rocked the IFB world in 1986. As I waded through the Hyles scandal, I began to question the gospel preached by many IFB pastors and churches. Noted preachers likes Jack Hyles, Curtin Hutson, and many of the preachers associated with the Sword of the Lord, believed that repentance was a change of mind. Simply put, the unconverted sinner was against Jesus and now he was for him. Around this time, John MacArthur came out with his book, The Gospel According to Jesus. MacArthur attacked the easy-believism gospel preached in many Evangelical/Baptist churches. MacArthur stated that repentance was not only a change of mind but also a change of conduct.  If there was no turning from sin, then there was no true repentance, and without repentance there was no salvation.

The Hyles scandal, my careful assessment of the gospel preached by many in the IFB church movement, and MacArthur’s book, led me to conclude that the gospel I had been preaching was a truncated, shallow gospel. I began preaching a gospel that demanded a repentance that included a turning from sins. I believed that if Jesus was not Lord of all your life then he was not Lord at all. I believed that if a person said they were a Christian then they should act like one.  Unless a person was willing to turn from their sin and fully embrace Jesus, there was no salvation for them.

A couple of years later, I began to rethink my eschatological beliefs. At the time I was a dispensationalist, pre-tribulational, and premillennial. Over the course of a few years, my eschatology gradually shifted and matured until I became post-tribulational and amillennial. At this point, I was clearly theologically wandering outside the boundary of my IFB heritage. This shift in eschatology resulted in some people leaving the church, however it also attracted new members who held a similar eschatological view.

In the late 1980’s, my theological beliefs dramatically shifted from the 1 point Calvinism (eternal security, once saved always saved)  of the IFB church movement to five point Calvinism. My introduction to Calvinism came through the preaching tapes of Rolfe Barnard, a former Southern Baptist and Sword of the Lord evangelist who died in the late 1960’s. Barnard’s sermons were powerful declarations of the gospel according to Calvinism. As I listened to these tapes, it was like a light went on in my head.  For a time, I was angry because I thought those who had taught me theology had lied to me. Why had no one ever told me about Calvinism? All they told me at Midwestern is that they were against Calvinism and anyone caught promoting Calvinism would be expelled.

somerset baptist church 1983

Polly, playing piano 1983

I began devouring books about Calvinism. I opened a book account at Cumberland Valley Bible Book Service. I read the books of Puritan/Calvinist authors from the 17th,18th, and 19th century.  I found out that Baptists, at one time,  were quite Calvinistic, and some of my heroes in the faith, like Charles Spurgeon, were five point Calvinists. I even found out that there were Calvinists, like the late Bruce Cummons, pastor of the Massillon Baptist Temple, in the IFB church movement.  From the late 1980’s until the early 2000’s, I was a committed, zealous five point Calvinist. My preaching style changed from topical sermons to expository sermons. I stopped giving altar calls and I began transforming the Somerset Baptist Church into a Calvinistic church.  This move cost me 99% of my IFB pastor friends, a handful of church members, along with most all of my Arminian friends.  For several years, I published a newsletter called The Sovereign Grace Reporter. I sent the newsletter to hundreds of IFB pastors, and this caused quite a shit-storm. Surprisingly, Polly’s uncle, James Dennis, pastor of the Newark Baptist Temple, was quite supportive. Keith Troyer, then pastor of Fallsburg Baptist Church, was also quite supportive. I would later be accused of leading Keith astray with the pernicious doctrines of John Calvin. (at the time, I considered Keith my best friend)

Probably by now, some readers are wondering, why the history lesson, Bruce? I think it is important for me to establish several things:

  • I am an avid reader of books
  • I am an avid student of whatever subject I am reading about
  • I am willing to go where the evidence leads me
  • I am willing to change my beliefs even if it costs me or makes me unpopular
  • Truth matters more to me than being accepted by my peers, friends or family

When I was a pastor, pastor friends and parishioners loved me for these traits. They applauded my willingness to be true to the Word of God, even if they disagreed with me. Now these same people think I read too much, study too much. I have been told that the reason I am an atheist is because of books! (and there is some truth in this statement) If I would only stop reading all these books and read THE BOOK, all would be well, one former parishioner told me.

Like the leopard who can’t change its spots, I can’t stop reading and studying.  Fifty plus years ago, my mother created an intellectual monster when she taught me to read. She wanted her eldest son to be like her, a devourer or literature, a person who valued truth above the approbation of men. I owe her a great debt of gratitude.

In the next post in this series, I will take a look at the theological and political changes that took place while I was pastor, from 1995-2002,  of Our Father’s House in West Unity, Ohio.

Series Navigation<< From Evangelicalism to Atheism Part TwoFrom Evangelicalism to Atheism Part Four >>

Comments (14)

  1. Becky Rogers Wiren

    I remember that attitude from my church. “So and so did too much READING and came to believe heresies.” Huh? However, I think I was able to preserve my own freedom of thought by beginning to read again. Hard to keep a mind closed that is always seeking truth, I think. Still, Bruce, it is painful to go on a journey that leads us away from people we were close to and beliefs that gave us comfort. But truth can hurt. I think that’s why so many people prefer lies.

    Reply
    1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      It still makes me sad when I look back and see how many friends I have lost over the years. Most of them walked away from me. And I understand it. Our friendship was predicated on certain things and I changed, so the bond that held us together was broken. When I was in college, an old preacher said, consider yourself fortunate if you have five friends in your lifetime. I thought then, are you crazy? I have all kinds of friend. 37 years later I now know how right he was. True, lasting friendships are hard to come by. If you have a handful of them, consider yourself fortunate.

      Reply
  2. sgl

    i look forward to hearing about your changing political views. reason being, i think only a subset of people are really concerned about abstract issues like pre-trib/post-trib, etc, while lots of people are extremely concerned with daily life issues, like women in ministry, gay marriage, long hair, pornography, republican vs democrat, abortion, etc. so i’d expect a much bigger backlash against any change in the latter vs the former.

    Reply
    1. PTSD

      I agree with you except the pre-trib/post-trib issue can also bleed into the political realm as well. Do we support Israel at all cost ? In the pre-trib worldview, Israel gets a blank check from the USA and and cash it any time.

      Reply
      1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

        No argument here. The circles I ran in were 100% Pro-Israel.

        Reply
    2. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      Surprisingly, the biggest backlash in my ministry came when we switched from only singing hymns to a blended worship of hymns and praise and worship music. Five families left the church I was pastoring at the time. Quite frankly, I was glad some of them left. Several of the them were complainers and required a lot of maintenance to keep happy.

      Reply
  3. Ciara Darren

    Hello Bruce, I’ve been reading your posts the last week. They’ve hit home, brought more ideas to mind and been part of the reading I’ve done to clarify to myself what I think. Thank you for sharing, especially your story. I’ve nominated you for the Liebster Award, following someone who chose to pass it to me, bascially a friendly neighbor blog recognition that goes around. See my post here: http://ciaradarren.com/2014/01/16/liebster-award/. Follow or not as you are disposed. No obligation, though I’m pretty sure you won’t feel any anyway, I hope.

    Reply
    1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      Ciara,

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

      I am so backed up right now…it is hard for me to add anything more. I do appreciate you thinking enough of my writing to nominate me. I did take a look at your site and I added it to my RSS feed reader. I look forward to reading your future posts!

      Bruce

      Reply
  4. Texas Born & Bred

    So Bruce, if you used to read lots of books about theology, what do you read now?

    A reading addict must still get his reading fix with something!

    Reply
    1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      I am a big magazine reader. I have subscriptions to:

      Digital Photo
      Discovery
      The Family Handyman
      Harpers
      In These Times
      Maximum PC
      Mother Jones
      National Geographic
      The Nation
      The Progressive
      Smithsonian
      Rolling Stone

      I tend to read books about history,environmental/social/political issues, and science. I do have a number of books that are atheist/humanist related, but I have not been interested in that kind of reading of late.

      My bigger problem is that I still tend to buy books like I did when I was a 500 page a week readers. So, my pile of books to read gets larger and larger. :)

      Reply
  5. Ian

    I love the whole too many books vs. only one Book argument. It is so subjective. If people like the changes in you they will either praise all of your books or only the Bible. If they don’t like what you believe, you should read more books or only the Bible. The Bible being a KJV, of course!!

    I have seen this so many times.

    When I left Christianity, it was because I had actually read the Bible. I set out to prove Christianity was the true successor to Abrahamic faith. That didn’t turn out so well. So, an open and honest reading of the Bible can actually be quite damaging.

    Reply
  6. Alice

    Very interesting. I’m anxious for the next part.

    Reply
  7. Harold

    Bruce, since you no longer believe the Bible ( to be truth ) what measuring stick do you use to determine what is true? I don’t know who said this but it went something like this, ” He who sits himself up as judge as to what is truth and knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the Gods ” The scientific method seems to only falsify (through testing) hypothesis that are incorrect. Some people can’t believe there is such a thing as truth and a some people could argue all day different meanings on what truth is. If you don’t have a discerning mind e.g. the ability to distinguish truth from error then you are in a position to believe anything. An “open mind” can be a dangerous thing if it is not a discerning mind. Why should a person love truth or for that matter seek after it? Is it because “lies” or the opposite of truth have terrible ramifications for those who care less about “truth”. Do “lies” then have an evil connotation for those who believe lies and act upon them? If lies are evil then truth must be good. To know truth and act upon it must be beneficial to a person or his loved ones lives. What is your measuring stick for truth e.g. water boils at 212 degrees, I test that and find out that is correct. I’m typing right now, self-evident truth, If I were being tried in a court I would want nothing but the truth, the whole truth and all the truth presented in my case. I believe Gods Word is truth and the source of all knowledge. What is your measuring stick?

    Reply
    1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      Harold,

      I don’t use the word truth because it a word loaded with too many religious presuppositions. I believe in facts, knowledge, probabilities, and the scientific method. I think humans are rational animals capable of understanding the natural world they live in. We have developed skills and methods to understand this world. These things are not foolproof and they are subject to change. Collectively,through what is called a social contract, we determine how best to govern ourselves and what our laws should be. I think evolution may play a part in this, but even if it doesn’t, we can use our collective experiences from the past and present to guide us.

      I reject the Bible as a measuring stick because it is unreliable, contradictory, and out of date. (it many have some value in some circumstances) Besides, no Christian uses the Bible as their sole source of truth and knowledge. No Christian believes and practices all the Bible. No two Christians can even agree on what it teaches. All the Christian really has is their own personal interpretation of an ancient book. This is a faulty standard by which to govern our lives or our society.

      I do not think people are necessarily found guilty or innocent in a court of law because of the truth. Many cases are won and lost by the skill of lawyers and the biases of the judge and jury. We now know “truth” like eye witness testimony is inherently unreliable and many times is worthless. Prosecutors manipulate witnesses to give the “right” testimony in exchange for a reduced sentence.Poor and black people often receive the short end of the stick in our legal system. So..knowing all this..in many cases, truth rarely is what is the deciding factor. Besides, “truth” can be presented in many different ways, truthful on one level, but untruthful on another level.

      Bruce

      Reply

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