A Few Thoughts on People Who Say, “Praise God, I Have Never Changed my Beliefs”

i shall not me moved psalm 16One common refrain often heard in some corners of the Evangelical world goes something like this: Praise God, I have NEVER changed my beliefs. I am seventy years old and I still have the exact same beliefs I had at age twenty — fifty years ago. There is this idea floating on the backwaters of Evangelicalism that posits that change is bad, or even sinful. Pastors and congregants pride themselves in having held the one true faith their entire life, that their Christology, soteriology, ecclesiology, eschatology, rheumatology, and hamartiology is the same yesterday, today, and forever. These theological purists will also say that their behavior hasn’t changed either. The sins they were against in the 1970s are the same sins they oppose today. These “just like a tree planted by the waters, I shall not be moved” Christians believe that they love what God loves and hate what God hates; that their interpretations of the sixty-six books of the inspired, inerrant, infallible Christian Bible align closely with God’s mind; that thanks to the Holy Spirit living inside of them as their teacher and guide, they are spiritually mature people who feast on the meat of the Word of God, not the pablum most Christians eat. (1 Corinthians 3:1-3 and Hebrews 5:11-13)

In most spheres of life, learning new things and discarding old beliefs, practices, and ideas is desired and expected. Not in Evangelicalism. Evangelicals cherish certainty. The Apostle Paul told young Timothy the preacher in 2 Timothy 1:12, KNOW in whom I have believed. Pastors challenge congregants to have a know-so salvation. Is it any wonder then, that because a premium is placed on certainty it breeds arrogance and leads to people to think that their beliefs have never changed? Bruce, are Evangelicals who think this way glorying in ignorance? Yes, and the Bible gives them cover for their ignorance in Acts 4:13:

Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were unlearned and ignorant men, they marvelled; and they took knowledge of them, that they had been with Jesus.

For the Bible-believing Evangelicals, being considered unlearned and ignorant by the “world’ is a badge of honor.  What Evangelicals doesn’t want it said of them, they had been with Jesus?

Paul warns the church at Colossae in Colossians 2:8:

Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.

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Evangelicals are frequently warned by their pastors to beware of the philosophies, traditions, and rudiments of the world. Better to be ignorant and know Jesus than to have a PhD and go to hell. A quick survey of Evangelicalism reveals all sorts of beliefs that lie deeply rooted in certainty-driven ignorance. Creationism, King James-Onlyism, Rapturism, and Landmarkism, to name a few, require adherents to deliberately and resolutely tune out any data that contradicts their beliefs. Science tells us that creationism is false. Evangelical solution? Ignore science and by faith believe that what the Bible says in Genesis 1-3 is literally true. The same goes for King James-Onlyism, Rapturism, and Landmarkism. When Evangelicals holding these beliefs find themselves intellectually challenged, they run to the safety of faith, ignoring anything that shows their theological and historical beliefs are false. Charismatics and Pentecostals do the same. They KNOW that God works miracles, baptizes people in the Holy Ghost, and gives spirit-filled people the ability to do mighty works in Jesus’ name, including speaking in tongues. Believing that their interpretations of certain passages of the Bible is infallibly correct, these swing-from-the-chandelier Christians reject anything that suggests otherwise.

More than a few Evangelicals will object to what I have written here. While they will admit that there’s a lot of ignorance in Evangelical churches, their churches and pastors value intellectual pursuit, saying that learning is a lifelong process. While this sounds good, when these claims are more closely examined, what is often found is a pseudo-intellectualism. While these intellectual “giants” of the Evangelical faith do indeed read books and spend significant amounts of time studying — I know I did for most of the years I spent in the ministry — it is WHAT they read and study that is problematic. True intellectual inquiry requires following the path wherever it leads, leaving no stone unturned. Such inquiry requires people to meet truth head on, not retreating or attempting to veer around. As a former Evangelical pastor and now an atheist, I challenge Christians to carefully examine what they say they believe. Surely, any belief worth having can withstand scrutiny and investigation, right? Evidently not. When Evangelicals have doubts or find their beliefs challenged, what do they do? Many of them run to their pastors for encouragement and support. Keeping asses in the pews is crucial — no asses, no offerings — so when congregants come to them with questions and doubts, these men of God will often recommend for reading “safe” books written by Christian apologists or approved Christian authors. Some pastors, especially those who pride themselves in having three books in their library — Bible, concordance, and dictionary — will tell doubters to, by faith, cling to Jesus, read the Bible, and pray, reminding them that DOUBT is caused by Satan and his emissaries in the world.

Evangelicals who pride themselves in being “widely” read — commonly found among Evangelical Calvinists — do spend significant time studying and reading. It is what they read that is the problem. While these Evangelicals will, at times, venture beyond the safe confines of the Evangelical bubble, most of their reading and study is of authors considered orthodox. In other words, they only read books that reinforce their presently-held beliefs. While there is some lateral movement in Evangelicalism — Arminians becoming Calvinists, Baptists becoming Charismatics, Premillennialists becoming Amillennialists, Non-cessationists becoming Cessationists, and rigid, far-right wing Fundamentalist Baptists becoming generic Evangelicals — most believers continue to hold on to the peculiar beliefs of their tribe, sect, or church. Their theological pursuits rarely, if ever, take them beyond the safety of their current beliefs and practices. Rare are Evangelicals who are willing to risk losing their faith in their search for truth.

Is it any wonder, then, that a premium is placed on being steadfast in the faith once delivered to the saints?  Revered are men and women whose theological roots run deep and who can always give an answer about the hope that lies within them. As an Evangelical pastor, I learned early that congregants wanted certainty. They wanted a pastor who firmly stood on the Word of God and had unmovable, unshakeable faith. If I had questions and doubts about this or that belief, church members didn’t want to hear about it. Tell us the unvarnished truth, Pastor Bruce. The reason, of course, for such desires is that many Evangelical church members have a borrowed belief system; that what their pastor believes is what they believe. Years ago, my theology shifted from the Baptist theology of the IFB church movement to Calvinism. As I began preaching expositionally and teaching congregants what Calvinists call the doctrines of grace, I was shocked by how few church members had a problem with the seismic changes in my theology and preaching. Looking back on this now, I have concluded that what mattered to members was having a sense of community, having a church family to call home. Most of them were never going to read the books I did or spend hours a day studying the Bible. Unlike their pastor, who had a job where he was actually paid to read and study, they had secular jobs that demanded their time and attention. They also had families to care for. What congregants wanted most of all was assurance that they were on the right path; that what they believed squared with the Bible. They were willing to trust that what I said was true. After all, I was the man God had chosen to be their pastor. Surely God and his man had their best interests at heart, right?

I pity and feel sorry for Evangelicals who pride themselves in never changing their beliefs. Many Evangelicals are just like people who never travel far from home. They have never experienced the rich diversity that lies beyond their doorstep. Years ago, during my Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) days, a large group new people showed up one Sunday to attend our morning service. I thought, at first, which nearby IFB church had a split? This group was not, however, disgruntled Baptists. They were Methodists. Once a year their church cancelled a Sunday service so attendees could visit a different church. Their pastor believed it was good for church members to be exposed to the heterogeneity found in Christianity. I thought, what an odd and dangerous thing to do — exposing members to potentially heretical teaching. Of course, I was glad they came to Somerset Baptist Church — The Fastest Growing Church in Perry County. God brought them my way so I could teach them the TRUTHWhy, some of these Methodists probably aren’t even saved, I thought at the time. If they were really, really, really saved, they wouldn’t be members of a liberal church.  Later in life, I came to see how wise the Methodist pastor was; that attending a wide spectrum of churches is a cure for arrogant, self-assured Fundamentalism. The next-to-last church I pastored (for seven years) — Our Father’s House, West Unity, Ohio — used an advertising slogan that stated, The Church Where the Only Label That Matters is Christian.  As pastor, I was willing to embrace all those who claimed the name Christian — Baptists, Catholics, Episcopalians, Methodists, and Pentecostals, to name a few. The catholicity of Christianity was more important to me than theological orthodoxy.

I slowly came to realize that I didn’t know as much as I thought I did; that my theological underpinnings were just one of many ways of interpreting the Bible. I finally learned that I wasn’t infallible, and neither was the Bible. I suppose, had my experiences been different, my changed understanding of Christianity and faith might have led to mainline Christianity, liberalism, or Universalism. Instead, questions and doubts pushed me down the slippery slope Evangelical preachers warn about. Better to rest in certainty of belief and practice than end up like Bruce Gerencser, Evangelical pastors warn. Look at what happened to him! He is now, of all things, a God-hating, sin-loving atheist.  I may, indeed, be a cautionary tale, but I am here to tell readers that a wild, woolly, wonderful world awaits those who will abandon certainty of belief and allow intellectual inquiry to lead the way. Life becomes about the journey instead of the destination. Will you join me? (Please read Gone but Not Forgotten: 22 Years Later San Antonio Calvinists Still Preaching Against Bruce Gerencser and Ralph Wingate Jr Uses Me as a Sermon Illustration)

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14 Comments

  1. Neil

    It’s a great ride. I haven’t regretted starting out on it one bit. BTW, Bruce, I’ve never listened to Podcasts, ever, so don’t really know what some of the questions in your questionnaire mean!

    Reply
  2. Connie

    Bruce,

    I’ve enjoyed the journey reading your blog for however long I’ve been reading it. I found once I focused on the journey instead of the destination the issue of time faded from importance. It is always here/now when in my wise mind. 😉

    I know several people who fall under the certainty umbrella. I feel sorry for them as I see them woefully unprepared to deal with the rocks life tends to toss about willy-nilly. At one point I thought I could expand their horizons but nope. The old adage of a horse and water is very true. Plus, if all they have is their unshakable faith that their holy book is factual… Well, I don’t want to be the monster that wakes them up.

    Thinking of you, health, and family. Hope all is a good as can be expected.

    Reply
  3. Trenton

    ignorance may be bliss but i am much happier without it

    Reply
  4. Karen the rock whisperer

    There is so much comfort in certainty. Plus, being challenged is scary as hell. What if I’m not a good enough Christian, strong enough in the Spirit, and am swayed by some evil but wily argument put forth by the likes of Bruce? Much easier to turn the brain off at that point. Besides, if you have the Truth, why go looking for mere truth? It’s about as productive as cuddling alligators in the mind of a true believer.

    Reply
  5. Brian

    I love the altar-call at the end there, Bruce. Will you join me in this unholy walk among devils and such? Will you leave your shiny, dusted pew and take off your Sunday-best to walk downtown? C’mon, what’s a little sin among friends!
    You know, even as I live my unbelief, I still sometime ‘practice’ with the old methods, hymn-singing for instance, howling it out for fun and feeeeling. Yesterday, driving a six-lane maniac driver highway where you have to speed well over the limit to stay with traffic, I opened my windows and started howling:
    Ittttt isss wellllll, It is wellllllll, with myyyyyy souuuuullllll! Just the refrain, over and over again in ever increasing volume until my Pavarotti collapsed on me. I was feeling good and felt like it. I did not feel at all in the old religious fold or trapped and reduced in any manner. I felt free and clear. (And I think I was driving okay as well but….;-)

    Reply
    1. anotherami

      Careful with that free and clear stuff Brian, or the Scientologists will be after you. 😉

      Reply
    2. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      I still listen to Southern gospel music from time to time. I don’t believe one word of the lyrics, but there is something about the music itself that appeals to me. Polly, on the other hand, despises all religious music. She’s asked me to not play Southern gospel music until she leaves for work. 😀 I comply because I like to eat. Oh, and because I love and respect her. 😀

      Reply
  6. Veronica

    Bruce,

    Interesting article. As a Christian I agree with you on more than one point. Some Christians do a poor job of understanding why they believe what they believe, and because of this they are unable to justify their beliefs to others. I have learned that IFB churchs, or at least the one I know about in my area, tend to encourage their congregation to stick closely to their instructions on what they expose themselves to doctrinally. When I first encountered this 13 years ago I was concerned because of the control this type of mentality can have over people. This definitely does not encourage congregants to have a full understanding of their beliefs. I had never attended any churches that taught that way, and I still won’t. What I don’t understand is why you describe yourself as God hating? How do you hate a God that does not exist?

    In my absence on your Facebook page I have been listening to debates between Christians and atheists. Of the ones I have listened to, two of them were between Richard Dawkins and John Lennox. I have thoroughly enjoyed the debates, but still come to the same conclusion. I am a believer in Jehovah God. I have not been convinced by the arguments presented to abandon my faith. (I found Dawkins to be genuine, however, I was concerned when it was revealed that in his book, The God Delusion, he said that there are many historians that believe Jesus never lived when this was false. It came out in this debate https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J0UIbd0eLxw) I don’t feel as though the atheists I have listened to have a solid foundation for why they believe what they do. They seem to have many questions regarding Christianity that they feel are unanswered and therefore leads them away from that religion. However, I have not seen an affirmative reason for atheism. With regards to science and religion, atheists seem to believe that to believe in one means to not believe in the other. I don’t see why that has to be. They are not contrary to one another. (When did science tell us creation is false?) Have you listened to these types of debates and what did you think? Does it represent the atheistic perspective well or is it lacking?

    Thank you
    Veronica

    Reply
    1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      Thank you for commenting.

      Atheism is simply the absence of belief in the existence of gods. That’s it, though to be totally transparent, some atheists want atheism to be more than this. From this starting point, atheists believe all sorts of things. A small percentage of atheists voted for Donald Trump. I don’t understand how they could have done so, but they did nonetheless. Some atheists are even pro-life. Generally, atheist adopt some sort of humanistic worldview. In my case, if I have a “religion” it is humanism. If I have “faith” it is in scientists and the scientific method. These beliefs provide a way by/through which I understand the world and my place in it.

      As far as “some” historians not believing in the historical existence of Jesus, a handful do embrace the mythicist position. Richard Carrier is the first historian that comes to mind (and some readers might debate Carrier’s educational background/credibility, while a handful of readers might defend Carrier’s mythicism). My position remains the same: Jesus was a historical figure who lived and died in first century Palestine. The miracles ascribed to him did not happen, including Jesus’ supposed resurrection from the dead. Further, I am of the opinion that what we currently call Christianity is more Paul’s baby than Jesus’s.

      As far as an affirmative reason for atheism, I would argue that Christianity rests on an unsupportable foundation — the Bible — and the central claims of Christianity — ranging from creationism to Noah’s flood and from Abraham/Moses to the miraculous works of Jesus — his virgin birth, resurrection, ascension included — are false. I can, based on the evidence at hand and the near zero probability that Christianity is true, adopt an atheistic view of Christianity. The same can be said for all extant human-created religions. When asked, I put it this way: I am agnostic on the God question. I have weighed the world’s religions accordingly and determined they are false. That said, there may yet be a God of some sort that will reveal itself to us. The probability of this happening is quite low, but I do account for its possibility in my thinking/worldview. When new evidence comes to light, I will consider it. Until then, I live my day-to-day life as an atheist and a humanist. I see no reason to live any other way. That said, I realize most people are religious. If people want to worship a god, I want them to have the freedom to do so. As long as a strict separation between church and state is maintained and religious people don’t push their beliefs in my face or think their religion deserves preferential treatment, I am inclined to be indifferent towards religion. Unfortunately, here in America, there is a full blown religious war going on, with Christian zealots trying to establish a theocracy and promote anti-science, anti-human ignorance.

      Reply
    2. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      I should add that I’m not a big fan of debates. I prefer discussions, books, articles, to debates. Debates are often more about debating expertise than they are knowledge/facts/evidence. Some atheists are terrible debaters. I wish they would stop debating Evangelicals. These atheists are often superb authors, but this quality does not translate well when they debate. I was an effective public speaker most of my adult life. When I started writing, one of the first things I had to learn is that writing and speaking require different skill sets. Even as a Christian, I learned that powerfully delivered sermons often don’t translate well to the printed page.

      Reply
      1. Veronica

        Thank you for your thoughtful answers. I like debates because I find that when listening to one side of an argument it is easy to be convinced of something because of the way that something is presented. I find it is more authentic when accountability is immediate in the form of a debate. Kind of like watching cable news during election season. I think your observation of some people being terrible at public speaking is something to consider when watching.

        What I am hearing from atheists is that they are not so much running towards atheism as they are running from God. They don’t provide affirmative reasons for being atheist, just that they are atheist because they cannot affirm God. It appears to me that it is a default position. Like saying well I can’t be a theist so my only option is atheism/naturalism. They have chosen that answer because they have issues with organized religion. I know from your previous response that atheists say they don’t have a world view, that atheism is just an absence of belief in a God. Due to that absence of belief, atheists do have a foundation, without God, upon which they view their world. So I would think that, from the passion I see, that they would have more affirmative support for their belief system. Am I seeing this wrong? This is a hard concept to put into words. Definitely something for me to chew on a while.

        Reply
        1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

          Yes, you are seeing things wrong. 😀

          Atheists tend to fall into several catagories:

          1. People raised in secular homes without religious belief. They see no need for religion and often have a hard time understanding why anyone would want to worship one or more of the thousands of gods humans worship.

          2. People who are indifferent towards religion — often without serious consideration of the various systems of belief — and when asked if they believe in God/Christianity they say, no, I’m an atheist. I find that many Christian apologists who say they are former atheists fall into this category.

          3. People who are former _______________ (Fill in blank with name of religion). Often, people in this category were devoted believers. In my case, I was a Christian for 50 years, a pastor for 25 of those years. I lived and breathed Jesus/Bible/Christianity. When it comes to their former religion, these atheists tend to be well-read and have a deep understanding of, for sake of argument, Christianity. When these people deconvert, they do so knowing exactly what they are doing and what their rejection says about their former beliefs. While their reasons are varied and complex, all would agree that they find Christianity intellectually lacking.

          These are very broad, and not all encompassing, categories. The best way to know what a specific atheist thinks and believes is to ask them. Dawkins, Harris, Dennett, Coyne, Loftus, and others do not speak for all atheists. In fact, they can’t since atheism is simply a statement about the absence of belief in the existence of gods. Atheism is not a religion. There are atheists membership groups, but most of these groups require no statement of belief beyond the fact you are an are atheist (or humanist). I am a member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, American Atheists, and the American Humanist Association. I’m also a AAA member. 😀

          There are times when certain public-facing atheists write or say certain things, I wish they would shut up. Several of the atheists mentioned above have made careless, ignorant, inflammatory statements about religion — particularly Evangelical Christianity. But, outside of writing about their errant words, there is nothing more that I can do. Thousands of former Evangelicals read my blog. I look to them to point out when I am off the rails. I also listen to believers who question certain things I write. I may not agree with their judgments, but I do my best to listen to them if they act respectfully and politely. Sadly, many of the people in your tribe are arrogant, hateful, threatening assholes — including more than a few preachers. I give no quarter to such people.

          As far as giving an affirmative defense of atheism — there is no need to do so. It’s up to believers, in your case, Christians, to provide evidence for the existence of their God and the truthfulness of their beliefs and practices. It is believers who make extraordinary, supernatural claims, so it is up to them to provide proof for their claims beyond quoting Bible verses.

          Atheists do know how most people come to adopt particular religious beliefs. I plan on writing a post this week titled, Understanding Religion From a Sociological and Economic Perspective. This post will explain the why of religious beliefs.

          Atheists aren’t running from God (or towards the Devil). Why would we run from mythical beings? Imagine me running through town screaming, “I’m running away from Santa or Zeus.” Why, in short order I would be involuntarily committed to the local psych ward. So it is with God — your God. He/she/it is a mythical being so there is no one to run from.

          Reply
          1. Brian

            To win an involuntary admission to a psych ward, one must actively demonstrate a danger to self and/or others. You go right ahead and run from Santa down main street and nobody will pay much attention. You might get some YouTube time and likely Polly would kick your butt home but you won’t end up in the psych ward.
            I think what you are really suggesting is that those of us who know and love Santa and the gifts he gives, might think you belong in a psych ward for running away from his love and free stuff. Just ask HIM, Bruce! It’s free stuff!

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