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Is it Possible to Reform the IFB Church Movement?

for sale sign midwestern baptist college
For Sale Sign in Front of Midwestern Baptist College

I was interviewed recently for the Preacher Boys podcast by Eric Skwarczynski. The primary purpose of Eric’s podcast is to expose abuse within the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church movement. Eric is a Christian, but we share a common purpose when it comes to sexual abuse and clergy misconduct in IFB churches, so I was more than happy to lend my voice to his noble cause. The podcast will be available soon. I hope readers of this blog will find our discussion insightful and helpful.

At the end of the show, Eric asked me whether I thought the IFB church movement could be reformed. I told him I didn’t think it could be reformed and that I hoped to be alive when the IFB church drew its last breath. I want to be the person standing bedside with pillow in hand, smothering the last breath out of a religious movement that has caused incalculable harm. I have seen first-hand (and participated in) the carnage caused by IFB churches, colleges, and pastors. I have talked to and corresponded with countless people whose marriages, families, and personal lives were ruined in the name of the IFB God. The psychological wounds and scars run deep. The widening exposure of abuse within the IFB church movement is a sign that people are no longer willing to be cowed into silence by men who value protecting their reputations and their ministries more than they do victims. This exposure is in its infancy, so we can expect to see more and more abuse stories come forth in the days, months, and years ahead.

While it is certainly true that some IFB churches and pastors have “reformed,” I have found that the changes that they have made are largely cosmetic in nature. I don’t know of an IFB church that embraces progressive theology, liberal social values, or inclusivism. Big change in “reformed” IFB churches usually means they use translations other than the KJV, use drums, have praise and worship teams, allow women to wear pants, and permit men to have hair over their ears. Real “reformists” now let congregants go to movie theaters, drink beer from time to time, or read books not published by the Sword of the Lord or Bob Jones Press. Why, some IFB churches are so liberal that high school graduates are now permitted to attend colleges other than the ones attended by their pastors. Talk about unholy ecumenism! Such changes, however, are window dressings meant to give the appearance of a new, improved IFB. Once in the store, people find the same authoritarian practices and exclusionary doctrines. The fundamental problem with the IFB church movement is their beliefs and practices. These things will never change. They can’t. The very foundation of the IFB church movement is the notion of certainty and right belief. Countless IFB churches and pastors believe that they alone have the truth; that they alone are God’s voice and God’s chosen people in their communities. The IFB church movement has always been separatist in nature. I haven’t seen anything in recent years that suggests this has changed.

gary keen bruce mike fox greg wilson midwestern baptist college 1978
Gary Keen, Bruce Gerencser, Mike Fox, Greg Wilson, Midwestern Baptist College, 1978

The only cure for the IFB church movement is death. And the good news is this: IFB churches, colleges, mission agencies, and parachurch organizations are in numerical and economic decline. The heyday of the IFB church movement was 40 years ago. In the 1970s, many of the largest churches in the United States were IFB churches. Today, many of these same churches are either closed or shells of what they once were. From 1976-1979, I attended Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan — an IFB institution started by Dr. Tom Malone in 1954. Midwestern was never a big college, but today it roughly has ten percent of the students it had in the 1970s. Its website is outdated, and current information about the college hasn’t been posted in ages. The spacious 32-acre college campus has long since been abandoned and, I believe, sold. Midwestern is now an ancillary ministry of Shalom Baptist Church in Orion, Michigan. Its president, David Carr, like his father Harry Carr, is a Midwestern grad. I predict that there is coming a day when I will hear that the college has closed its doors.

Dr. Malone was the pastor of nearby Emmanuel Baptist Church. A product of Bob Jones College, Malone started Emmanuel in 1942 after becoming increasingly troubled over what he perceived was liberalism in the Southern and American Baptist conventions. In the uber-sanitized authorized biography Tom Malone: The Preacher from Pontiac, Joyce Vick shares the following apocryphal story:

People ask me all the time, “Brother Tom, to what group do you belong? Of what association are you a member?”

I answer, “None.”

They ask, “Are you a Missionary Baptist?”

“Yes, I am.”

It may sound like a lie, but they do want to know what I am. “Are you a Southern Baptist?”

I say, “I am Southern and I am a Baptist.”

“Are you a Conservative Baptist?”

“Sure, I am conservative.”

“In what association book does Emmanuel Baptist Church appear?”

“Don’t have any.”

“Where are your headquarters?”

“I don’t have one.”

“You mean you don’t belong to anything?”

“No, I belong to the same thing to which the church at Antioch belongs. There is only one tie between New Testament churches, and that is the tie of fellowship. Each church is a local, autonomous church within itself. We have God, El Shaddai, and that’s enough.”

I have never felt I was called to preach for anybody, but I have felt I was caused to preach to everybody. I am not preaching for anybody but Jesus. There is nothing so wonderful, nothing so wholesome, as for a preacher to know there are no strings attached.

Thank God, I don’t have to fit into a denominational program. Thank God, I don’t have to get my orders from some national headquarters. Oh, thank God for the privilege of going to God for my directions! (pages 303, 304)

for sale sign emmanuel baptist church pontiac
For Sale Sign in Main Entrance Door, Emmanuel Baptist Church, Pontiac, Michigan

Emmanuel would be a new kind of Baptist church: an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist congregation. In the 1970s, Emmanuel had over 7,000 active members, and had attendances on special days over 5,000. Today? The doors of the church are shuttered, and its few remaining members scattered to other Fundamentalist churches in the area. The same story could be said of countless other IFB churches. Even First Baptist Church in Hammond, Indiana, pastored by the late Jack Hyles and once arguably the largest church in the United States, is a shell of what it once was. Sure, you can find growing IFB churches here and there, but most of them are dying. Oh, they will still brag about the number of souls saved, but actual attendance numbers don’t lie.

My wife’s uncle, the late James Dennis, graduated from Midwestern in the 1960s. After pastoring a church in Bay City, Michigan, Jim moved to Newark, Ohio in 1968 to assume the pastorate of the Newark Baptist Temple. A church plant by the Akron Baptist Temple (started by Charles Vaden), the Baptist Temple, as it is commonly called, would see exciting numeric growth in the 1970s and early 1980s. However, by the time Jim died, after serving the Baptist Temple for forty-two years, the church was a shell of what it once was. Its one-time large Christian school was forced to drastically reduce its staff. Licking County Christian Academy (LCCA) at its inception was an Accelerated Christian School (A.C.E.) institution. It would later morph into an unaccredited traditional K-12 school. Today, a skeleton crew of staff use prerecorded Abeka videos to instruct students. Some of our relatives currently attend LCCA, as did our three oldest children for a short time.

emmanuel baptist church 1983
Emmanuel Baptist Church, Buckeye Lake, Ohio, Bruce Gerencser’s ordination April 1983

Polly and I attended the Baptist Temple for a short time decades ago. I could write for hours about our experiences there — good and bad. We left the Baptist Temple in early 1981 to help Polly’s father, a 1976 graduate of Midwestern and Jim Dennis’ pastoral assistant, to plant a new church in Buckeye Lake, Ohio. I continued to have interaction with Jim and the Baptist Temple into the early 2000s. When our family briefly relocated to nearby Frazeyburg, Ohio in late 1994, people were shocked that we decided to NOT join the Baptist Temple, choosing instead to join the Fallsburg Baptist Church, an IFB congregation pastored by my former best friend Keith Troyer.

Over the years, I have watched the Baptist Temple “evolve.” While the church and its leaders are no longer as dogmatic as they once were over “church standards” (extra-Biblical rules used to govern and control the behavior of congregants), they are still a hardcore, right-wing, King James-only authoritarian congregation. When asked what I think has “changed” at the Baptist Temple, I laugh, and reply, “men are allowed to have facial hair now.” I suspect that this is not the kind of “reform” Eric Skwarczynski is talking about.

IFB institutions don’t reform. At best, they pretty themselves up a bit, hoping to attract unsuspecting visitors. Most IFB churches, however, remain committed to what they call “old-fashioned” Baptist beliefs and practices. They are proud to never have changed anything except their underwear. James Dennis was proud of the fact that be believed the same Biblical “truths” when he retired that he believed when graduating from Midwestern years before. No one should wear unchangeability as a badge of honor. “I have never changed my mind on anything. Bless your heart, my beliefs have never changed! Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and so am I. Can I get an AMEN?” And it is for this reason alone that I am convinced that it is impossible to reform the IFB church movement. The movement has chosen to die on the twin hills of arrogance and certainty. All any of us can do is to help them swiftly meet their end.

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen 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.

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  1. Avatar
    dale M

    Lo! Why help them to their demise? They’re doing a pretty good job of it themselves. But no one is stepping up to replace them. And herein lies our core failure.

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    I wonder if the demise would be like the late 70s demise of Disco music? The zeitgeist became annoyed with the style and the cool kids were going around saying, “disco sucks!”…but then it just came back…just with a different name.

    • Avatar
      Bruce Gerencser

      I see similar beliefs and practices in other corners of the Evangelical tent. One diluting factor is the obsession with multi-campus megachurches. The bigger churches become, the harder it is to keep absolute control over congregants. I think many of these megachurches will become quite progressive/liberal in years to come. There will always be Fundamentalist churches. There will always be people who want/need someone to tell them what to believe and how to live.

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    My aunt was telling me about the nondenominational church she attends in the Nashville area. It sounds more inclusive on the surface than some evangelical churches, and she felt comfortable bringing her gay friend there. Until one Sunday the older head pastor who is near retirement said they had been through the Bible and couldn’t find anything that allowed them to perform wedding ceremonies for LBGTQ couples. Not content to let the statement stand alone, he preached for an hour about how their church wasn’t going to conduct weddings for LBGTQ members. Oh, sure, LBGTQ people can still go to church there, serve in leadership, be “loved”, they just can’t get married. My aunt said she had never been so saddened and mortified, her friend was saddened and mortified, and he never went back to that church because he felt dehumanized. Months later a new, younger pastor came in and preached a sermon about things the Bible talks about that aren’t applicable today, like slavery, misogyny, and anti-homosexuality. My aunt went to him and told him about the utter humiliation her friend had felt, and the young pastor said that’s a point of his ministry, to modernize the church. But look how many people have already left because of the church’s bigoted teachings?

    I don’t see the more conservative branches surviving past a couple more generations, at least not en masse.

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    Brian Vanderlip

    When self-harm is codified, scriptures blacksmithed to fit and songs written to praise harm done, then I would hazard that the IFB suicide is foundational, built-in from the get-go… That some make it through their preaching/faith lives without realizing how utterly damaged they are, well, this means the church has been entirely, or almost entirely successful. But human beings are not only injured lives and broken hearts. They are creatures with imagination who are able to learn from experimentation and adapt to new knowledge. When they have been sorely damaged in early life, certain human potential with thought and feelings can be so crushed that it seems to have never been but with learning, with honest effort and some fortunate help along the way, crushed hearts can renew and come alive again, can learn to laugh from their deepest core and weep too, fully as a baby weeps. What is lost can be found again.
    That someone would tell this freed person, this whole person, that they must never wear pants or wear their hair so it covers their ears, would only make that person guffaw and roar with laughter at the completely absurd babble coming out of the ‘ruler’s’ mouth.
    My fellow unbelieving friends almost all have those silent, give your head a shake moments, where they express being dumbfounded by the fact that they ever fell for it all, that they gave away their hearts and minds, that they harmed their faculties with woo.
    Ya know what, IFB preacher: Your only hope for a less painful death is to move completely into music and singing. Completely abandon preaching and party down with praise. Buy more drums and pass them out to the congregation. Turn up the amps! Some of us miss the singing. None of us miss the message. Work with what remains and your death with be delayed for a time but nothing can finally save you.
    Thank goodness for that…

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    Richard Brout

    Bruce, as a God fearing bible believing Christian in Michigan in the same areas you left… I want to thank you for your honesty and for being instructional to me.
    You are an unabashed Apostate that has embraced his decision. I had left the Church and on was on the path of becoming an apostate myself when God intervened. One thing that always bothered me since then is WHY I was on the path of becoming an Apostate, and also how someone as yourself could become an apostate. You were an Enigma that contradicted my IFB upbringings of “Once Saved always saved”. It was the Bible and God’s word that showed me my error (or incomplete understanding)… 1John 2:19. and also Tares and Wheat describes your condition.
    Your are (now) no more a mystery to me than is Judas who worked Directly with Jesus. If Judas could be an apostate, certainly someone as yourself who was fed a tainted perspective of Christianity from a dysfunctional family and controlling hypocritical “religious” leaders is possible! But both cases are the same… “They were never with us”.
    You don’t offend me, you only prove God’s word to me to be true. You offer comfort to fellow apostates, but you also offer validation of God’s word to true believers, even if that is not your intent.

    Bruce, consider this… If I am wrong and self deluded and you are right, I suffer no damage after I die. If I am self deceived, I still count the Peace I attribute to Jesus and Gods Grace as doing far more good in my life than what I was without it and pass onto oblivion in ignorant bliss. But If the Bible is right, if God is real, it is not the same for you. You will hear those terrible words.. “depart from me, I never knew. you” as you pass on into eternity in outer darkness where the only question left is, will you be a wailer or a gnasher…
    That brings me no Joy I don’t want that for you. I believe you were made in God’s image and loved by God so much that he Died for you before you denied him. I don’t want you to end up separated from God for eternity, but it’s not up to me. You can equally find both high profile apologetics that have made arguments defending the bible and also die hard Apostates breaking apart the bible to fit their narrative… But God is the ultimate author of our (your) faith. Bruce, I love you and I don’t want you to die in your sin.

    Take care.

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    Pascal’s wager is not (and never was) a belief unto itself. It was an existential musing not a belief system nor a basis or article of faith.
    A Saved person (one who has put their trust and life in Christ) can appreciate and identify with Pascal’s Wager in a purely existential framework. An atheist with denial and enmity towards God (or the concept of God) see’s Pascals wager as a direct personal insult and falsely attributes it as a basis of faith, a cheap trick, or worse an evil pious delight. It’s anything BUT that. Pascal’s wager is meaningless of itself as you could adopt Pascal’s wager to Islam or any monotheistic faith. It only has relevance as an existential muse for a person of faith in God or one open to the possibility.
    Both the atheist and the Christian make a subjective claim to their own quality of life. As an atheist, it may be your subjective belief you couldn’t possibly live a better life as a “deluded” Christian cutting yourself off from carnal delights and wordily love and are much better off as a humanist. As a Christian, it is my Subjective belief I am far better off (even in this life) with God laying my path. We both have our subjective experiences to back up our faith claims. You have your enjoyment at carnal and worldly love that fuels and fulfills you. I have my experience being fulfilled and having a peace that the bible describes as “passes all understanding”. Why can’t we both be right? We are both living the best possible life NOW for how we want to live it.
    Pascal’s wager is a muse that both of us can be right in declaring we are fulfilled on this side of life. In addition to that truth, the person of faith in God looks beyond and past this life specifically at the question of (If) there is an eternal Hell as God promises. Well, in the eternal outcomes are very different. Where the Christian needs to be VERY careful though, is invoking Pascals wager in a way that is Boastful since Grace is a Gift of God not of works that any man should boast.
    Pascal’s wager won’t bring you to Christ. The only thing that can bring you to Christ is for God to first work in and on your heart. But how can God work on your heart when you deny his very existence, his his nature, his law, his Son.

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Bruce Gerencser