How Evangelicalism Attempts to Supplant Family Relationships

family of god

Many Evangelical preachers promote the idea that the bond Christian church members have with one another is better than the one people have with blood relatives. Blood is thicker than water, the old saying goes, but not in Evangelical churches. The water of baptism unites fellow believers together into what is called “the family of God.” In this sense, water is indeed thicker than blood. One of the selling points of Evangelicalism is that it provides people with unique relationships with not only God, but also their fellow members.

Years ago, a popular song among Evangelicals was The Family of God by Bill and Gloria Gaither:

For I’m part of the family,
the family of God.

You will notice we say “brother
and sister” ’round here-
It’s because we’re a family
and these folks are so near;
When one has a heartache
we all share the tears,
And rejoice in each victory
In this family so dear.

I’m so glad I’m a part
of the family of God-
I’ve been washed in the fountain,
cleansed by His blood!
Joint heirs with Jesus
as we travel this sod,
For I’m part of the family,
the family of God.

From the door of an orphanage
to the house of the King-
No longer an outcast,
a new song I sing;
From rags unto riches,
from the weak to the strong,
I’m not worthy to be here,
But, praise God, I belong!

I’m so glad I’m a part
of the family of God-
I’ve been washed in the fountain,
cleansed by His blood!
Joint heirs with Jesus
as we travel this sod,
For I’m part of the family,
the family of God.

Yes I’m part of the family,
the family of God.

You will notice we say “brother and sister” around here, the Gaither’s wrote, and we greet one another this way because “we’re a family.” Gaither goes on to say that when brothers and sisters have troubles, the church is there for them, just as the church rejoices with them when they have victories. From the outside, the notion of church members all being one, big happy family is appealing. One of the common things ex-Evangelicals miss is the social connection and camaraderie they had with fellow Christians. And not just during Sunday services either. The churches I pastored over the years had frequent potluck dinners, dinner on the grounds, and banquets, along with social events that drew congregants together.

If you come from a dysfunctional family as I did, it is not hard to see how the church could supplant your blood relatives. “I don’t need my parents, siblings, and extended family! I have my church family. They love me unconditionally and are always there for me!” Or so the thinking goes anyway. What ex-Evangelicals learned is that, unlike blood relatives whom you are related to no matter what, the “family of God” has certain requirements for participation. Don’t play by the rules, don’t have the right beliefs, or don’t march in lock-step with the preacher’s edicts, and you will find that that “unconditional” love is anything but, and the people who promised to always be there for you are nowhere to be found.

Those of us who left Evangelicalism and became atheists/agnostics quickly found out that the “family of God” was not what we thought it was; that the people we called friends distanced themselves from us or turned on us. I was part of the “family of God” for fifty years. I had scores of intimate relationships with fellow Christians and colleagues in the ministry. I naively believed that if I were honest about my loss of faith these people would at least “understand” and continue to be friendly. Instead, once word of my unbelief became common knowledge, it was not long before my church family turned on me. I received countless emails and letters from former congregants and colleagues in the ministry decrying my atheism. The very people who loved and respected me set me on fire with angry, hateful words. I wish I had saved their correspondence, but their words hurt me to such a degree that I threw them away after receiving them.

One letter, in particular, came from a couple I had known since I was a teen. Their older boys were my age. I spent countless hours at their home hanging out. They were instrumental in me becoming the pastor of Olive Branch Christian Union Church in 1995. We were close, to say the least. In early 2009, I sent out Dear Family, Friends, and Former Parishioners. After, receiving my letter, this couple sent me a scathing letter that, in essence, told me I was possessed of the Devil. Their words were beyond hurtful. Several months later, I received another letter from them — an apology of sorts. Unfortunately, the damage was already done. I tend to believe that people say what they mean the first time, and usually apologies are just them feeling guilty about being assholes.

What my post-Jesus experiences taught me is that the beliefs I had about the “family of God” were largely untrue; that membership in the family required fidelity to certain beliefs and practices. From a sociological perspective, I understand why this so. All of us are drawn into relationships with people who have similar beliefs, experiences, hobbies, and the like. As social creatures, we like to hang out with likeminded people. When I divorced Jesus, I broke the bond I had with congregants and colleagues. Fine, but you’d think that, at the very least, they would treat me with love, kindness, and respect, if for no other reason than the possibility that my loss of faith was temporary. Instead, they burned our relationships to the ground. “No Jesus? Rot in Hell,” their sentiments seemed, at the time. My best friend so savaged me that I am not sure I have emotionally recovered to this day. When he first emailed me, I couldn’t believe how nasty he was. I hadn’t heard from him in several years. I replied, “Really? How about asking how I am doing?” We traded several emails after that, but it was clear, at least to me, that all that we had shared together over the years mattered not to him. All that mattered was fealty to Jesus and the Bible.

I was fifty years old when I left Christianity; when I lost a lifetime of friendships and social connections. This, I suppose, was the price I paid for being open and honest. If I were to repudiate atheism and swear allegiance to Jesus again, I have no doubt that I would regain many of these lost relationships. That’s not going to happen. It’s too late, age-wise, for me to build new social connections and friendships. Sure, I have a few heathen friends and I am grateful for the relationships I have through this blog. Maybe, if I live long enough, I will write a song called The Family of Reason.  Deconversion has forced me to focus on the family that really matters: Polly, my children, grandchildren, and my siblings. Contrary to what I believed for fifty years, blood really is thicker than water.

Please share your experiences with the “family of God,” both as a Christian and as an ex-believer in the comment section. Do you still have close friends from your church days? If not, what have you done, if anything, to build relationships with likeminded unbelievers?

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 62, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 41 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

Are you on Social Media? Follow Bruce on Facebook and Twitter.

Thank you for reading this post. Please share your thoughts in the comment section. If you are a first-time commenter, please read the commenting policy before wowing readers with your words. All first-time comments are moderated. If you would like to contact Bruce directly, please use the contact form to do so.

Donations are always appreciated. Donations on a monthly basis can be made through Patreon. One-time donations can be made through PayPal.

8 Comments

  1. ObstacleChick

    Bruce, I am sorry your friends treated you like dog feces after your deconversion. They are taught to do so by their Holy Scriptures, so really, they are just being Teue Obedient Christians. They believe their fealty to their deity is more important than their fealty to a human, and it’s a good excuse not to have to deal with nuances of real human relationships. Bruce thinks he is an atheist? He must be possessed by Satan. Satan is bad, therefore Bruce is bad so I can’t associate with him anymore.

    My grandma loved any song written by the Gaithers. She had a Gaither song book and would play the piano and sing the songs. I thought “joint heirs” was a weird phrase when I was a kid.

    The older folks at church used to refer to each other as Brother Bob or Sister Sue, and I thought it was stupid and weird.

    I told only one trusted friend from childhood that I am an atheist. She has been very open and accepting of all friends, atheist or religious. Even she got weird and defensive when I told her, so I haven’t had the courage to tell anyone else. And my brother and I are so diametrically opposed politically and religiously, I am afraid he will cut me off from his family. He is in the far right wingnut spiritual warfare culture war end of the spectrum, and he would see me as literally walking around with Satan inside me, bringing Satan and demons into his home. I try to keep my mouth shut and maintain a relationship, and fortunately we live far away so exposure is limited.

    Reply
    1. Bob Felton

      “They are taught to do so by their Holy Scriptures, so really, they are just being Teue Obedient Christians.”

      I’m glad you drew attention to the role of Scripture. The 1st-century church was a cult, the New Testament is the literature of a cult, and, just like any other cult that ever fouled the earth, Christianity understands that healthy marriages and families undermine its ownership and control of believers.

      Reply
  2. ... Zoe ~

    I remember one day saying to Biker Dude, how Christian are we to ignore our family just so we can meet the demands of church attendance and expectations. For years, every Sunday morning twice, evening once, youth programs throughout the week, prayer meetings, business meetings, youth ministry prep, youth programs, conferences, choir practice, planning meetings, running hither and tither in the dizziness of church church church . . . while constantly ignoring family relationships.

    From that point on we did not ignore our visits to family parents and grandparents when they fell on a Sunday. We’ll never regret our decision. The church response was not positive.

    Like you Bruce, I came from a vulnerable place re: family. I was ripe for another family. What could be better than God’s family? Now we know. 🙁

    Reply
  3. Brian Vanderlip

    The family of God that was my experience (IFB-like Fellowship Baptist) was a suit-wearing, smiling thug, a gentle Jesus with switch, Sunday scruel, chest medals for levels of indoctrination, lessons in lying to myself and others…
    I had fun sometimes. Mostly, I find scars where my heart showed too much but I learned, I learned.
    Dear Fellowship Baptist Church,
    FUCK YOU! very much,
    -Brian

    Reply
  4. Justin

    Bruce, my experience was that I lost the relationships before I ever left the church. Ask the wrong question or show even a hint of disagreeing with the [o]rthodox views and beliefs, and you’re out. We’ll tolerate your abominable presence at services, but we won’t acknowledge your existence beyond that. And don’t stop tithing.

    When I left, it was actually anticlimactic. Not a soul bothered to notice. This has happened so many times I cannot count.

    “They are taught to do so by their Holy Scriptures…”–IMHO, no, those folks don’t get let off that easy. I refuse to blame an inanimate object for those folks’ behavior. “True Believers (TM)” have a choice of whether or not to be a-holes.

    Thanks, Bruce,
    –Justin

    Reply
    1. Bob Felton

      I won’t presume to speak for ObstacleChick, but since I approvingly quoted the identical passage, I suppose a word of explanation might be in order.

      Certainly, I do not mean to relieve Christian cultists of their moral responsibility for their sometimes very bad behavior. It does bear mention, however, that those who are raised in this nonsense live in an environment where cult ethics are the norm — and the New Testament affirmatively does cultivate cult ethics (see Matthew 12:46-50 for a famous example). Such people are reared with an Us (People of God) vs. Them (the wicked, wicked, world) worldview. They are incapable of seeing themselves as skeptics see them, and very often do sincerely believe their bad behavior pleases an Invisible Friend.

      Maybe Bruce could weigh-in and let us know what he taught on this subject when he was preaching?

      Reply
      1. Justin

        Mr. Felton,

        Indeed, I was too was raised in an environment where cult ethics were the norm, the nonsense you speak of. It was the air I breathed. Everyone I lived with sincerely held the beliefs described. Herein lies my rejoinder. The air we breathed was indeed based on the text(s), and I was heavily encouraged to study the texts to solidify the worldview in my mind. Yet, the shining north star which justified all of the aberrant practices and behavior influenced me to something different. My reading didn’t match theirs. The same 1611KJV “told” me something different than it “told” them.

        In the final analysis, these people would have acted the same with or without the text… it was simply a convenient object they could impart meaning and justification upon–a proxy. If they could do it, I could too. So I took courage in both hands, accepted responsibility for myself–and for the a-hole-ish things I did–and left.

        In the end, that is all any of us can do. We only have ourselves to blame for how we act and live. People stay in cults to meet a need or desire–it’s their own choice. You can’t blame the bible or Bill Hybels or any other strong personality for the [strong] influence they exert. Ideas don’t have any power we, ourselves don’t allow them to wield over us.

        Thanks.

        Reply
  5. Chikirin

    In college I was part of a college ministry and yes they definitely pushed the idea that they were providing a family of sorts. But then there were outlandish frats and sororities (white, black, and latino) doing something similar.

    After college my friends from the group all got married and started actual families and I never did. I was angry in my twenties and thirties that I never started a family but now in my forties I guess I’m ok with it. I’d probably have made a mess of it.

    Reply

Please Leave a Pithy Reply

%d bloggers like this: