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Advice for a Young Evangelical Bible College Student

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I receive all sorts of emails every day, everything from personal attacks to honest questions. Rarely does a week go by where I don’t receive an email that deeply affects me emotionally. Several days ago, I received one such email from a young Evangelical Bible college student. After reading and pondering his words , I thought his email would be a great subject for a blog post.

I have removed all personally identifiable information. People who email me in good faith can rest assured that I will always protect their privacy. Here’s what this young man had to say:

I am a Biblical Studies major in pursuit of becoming a pastor. Growing up, faith was all I had and everything that I held onto. Over the past year, I have learned things about the faith and the church that have left me confused and hurt. I am going into student debt to pursue this “calling” I feel in my life. Yet, this calling has slowly faded away and I am sitting here writing this, confused on what to do or where to go. I am scared to let go of my faith, although I am not sure why. It is hard for me to ignore hard facts and scientific explanations. They just make sense. I know you said you have 25 years of ministry, and my whole life has been built up for me to go into ministry as well. I am looking for answers, and I do not know who to turn to as all of my family and friends are believers, and I honestly do not feel comfortable coming to them. Please write me back any advice, book to read, or just honestly someone to share experiences with.

I want to applaud this man for being willing at such a young age to question his beliefs and seek out answers to his doubts and questions. I wish I had the courage this young man has back when I was a student at Midwestern Baptist College in the mid-1970s. Sadly, I was a true-blue believer, and with nary a question or doubt, I continued on a ministerial path that led me to pastorates in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. I was fifty years old before questions and doubts overwhelmed belief and I deconverted.

My objective in responding to this man is NOT to convert him to atheism. I have never been an evangelist for atheism, and I don’t intend to be one. My goal remains the same as always: to help people who have doubts and questions about Christianity or who have already deconverted. I see myself as a facilitator. To use a worn-out cliché, life really is a journey. Evangelicalism teaches — dare I say demands — believers to focus on the destination — Heaven or Hell, and not the journey. Life is little more than preparation for meeting and living with God in the life to come. I challenge people to see that life is all about the journey. Your destination is immaterial. Walk the path that is in front of you, following its course wherever it leads. In doing so, you will end up exactly where you need to be. My only regret is that I waited until I was in my forties before I realized this grand truth.

This man comes from a family who is devoted to Jesus. I can only imagine how painful his doubts and questions are as he thinks about how seeking answers might affect his relationship with his family. As many readers of this blog know firsthand, daring to step outside of the prescribed rut of Evangelical faith can lead to catastrophic consequences. Verbalizing such things can lead to estrangement and excommunication. That’s why I warn people in the post Count the Cost Before You Say I Am an Atheist to carefully consider confessing unbelief to Evangelical family and friends. Once you share your doubts and questions or admit you no longer believe, you no longer control what happens next. That’s why several commenters on this blog call themselves atheist Christians. Family (or economic) concerns prevent them from being out and proud. I would say to this young man: ponder carefully what you say or do going forward. Weigh the consequences carefully.

The email writer mentions having a “calling,” that he is attending an Evangelical college to pursue that calling. Evangelicals believe that men are “called” by God into the ministry. I wrote about that very subject two weeks ago in a post titled, I’m a Prophet, Preacher, or Evangelist Because I Say I Am. When you believe that God is “calling” you, it can be quite a struggle when you begin to doubt not only your call, but also your beliefs. I remember the struggles I had over trying to reconcile what I believed was a divine calling with my waning faith. In the end, my slide down the slippery slope of unbelief destroyed any notion of a divine calling. As an atheist and a humanist, I still have a sense of what I consider a “calling.” Not in a supernatural sense, of course, but I still feel drawn to helping others — Christian or not.

I am more than forty years older than this young man. I try to picture myself at the age of twenty-one sitting in my dorm room questioning my faith. This man is surrounded by people who appear resolute in their Christian beliefs, yet he has doubts and questions. Is there something wrong with him? Of course not, though Evangelical zealots will say that this man is being tempted by Satan, battling “secret” sin, or is not a True Christian®. Remember, questions and doubts are not really permitted in Evangelical circles. Oh, apologists will beg to differ, but the fact remains that doubts and questions are permissible only if they lead to Biblical answers. Straying outside of the safe confines of the Evangelical box is verboten, as is asking an ex-Evangelical-turned-atheist preacher for help. (Please see The Danger of Being in a Box and Why it Makes Sense When You are in it and What I Found When I Left the Box.)

When doubting Evangelicals ask me for advice, I typically suggest that they read Dr. Bart Ehrman’s books. The reason I do so is because Ehrman, a professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a leading authority on the New Testament and the history of early Christianity, is a former Evangelical. Ehrman began his ministerial training at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, and Wheaton College, in Wheaton, Illinois — both staunch Evangelical institutions. He finished his M.Div. and Ph.D. at Princeton Theological Seminary. Today, he is the author of numerous books on the history of the New Testament.

Evangelicals typically believe that the Bible is the inspired, inerrant, infallible Word of God. This belief is foundational to Evangelical faith, and that’s why I point doubters to Ehrman’s books. Written on a popular level, Ehrman’s books lay siege to and destroy the Evangelical notion that the Bible is in any way inerrant or infallible. Inspired? That’s a faith claim. Inerrancy and infallibility, on the other hand, are matters of facts and evidence.

I would suggest that this man read several of Ehrman’s books. Here’s a partial list of his works:

The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World

Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why

How Jesus Became God : the Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee

Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior

Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them)

Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth

Forged: Writing in the Name of God–Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are

God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question — Why We Suffer

Ehrman recently released a book titled, Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife. I am currently reading through this book. Fascinating, to say the least. I have concluded, so far, that there’s a lot I don’t know about Heaven or Hell from a historical or Biblical perspective.

I am confident that reading Ehrman’s books will disabuse all but the most stubborn of Evangelicals of their belief that the Bible is an inspired, inerrant, infallible text. While coming to an enlightened conclusion about the Bible does not necessarily lead to unbelief, it does render Evangelical dogma untenable. Once this happens, an Evangelical is ready to take a hard look at what it is he really believes. Once the Bible loses its power and authority over a believer, he is free to let facts and science determine the validity of religious beliefs. For me personally, skeptically and intellectually examining the core tenets of Christianity led me to conclude that these beliefs could not be rationally sustained. Your mileage may vary. Many ex-Evangelicals find ways to hang on to some sort of Christian faith. Any move away from the Fundamentalist tendencies of Evangelicalism is a good one. (Please see Are Evangelicals Fundamentalists?)

I hope this young man will continue to correspond with me. I sincerely wish nothing but the best for him, realizing that difficult days lie ahead for him if he continues to walk the path he is on. Unlike Evangelical family and friends, I am more than willing to help regardless of where his journey takes him. I have six grown children, all of whom were raised in Evangelical churches. Not only was I their father and prison warden, but I was also their pastor. After Polly and I left Christianity in 2008, I have watched as my children have struggled with matters of faith. Their respective journeys have taken them away from Evangelicalism, but not necessarily towards unbelief. The unbelief of their parents, especially their preacher father, gave them the freedom to wander; to seek knowledge and understanding outside of the narrow confines of Fundamentalism. I wish the same for this young man.

Bruce Gerencser, 63, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 42 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen awesome 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.

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12 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Bob Felton

    I’d suggest reading “Rescuing the Bible From Fundamentalism,” by Episcopalian Bishop John Spong. He dismisses the lurid imbecilities of conservative, evangelical Christianity (Albert Mohler et. al., say), but retains belief in an Invisible Friend. I suppose he’s a sort of Christian-oriented mystic, and his religion is a halfway-house. See here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SF6I5VSZVqc.

    • Avatar
      Brian Vanderlip

      John Shelby Spong speaks of acknowledging Christ in a life path towards being more fully human, not ‘saved’ or ‘born again’. I really appreciate the term ‘halfway house, Bob. I travelled from my imprisonment in childhood fear Christianity, a family of preachers and missionaries, through a youth riddled with guilt and joy and a whelming over in the world. I wrote my way through questions and journeyed through different flavors and concoctions of faith, trying so hard to find just the one Christ had for me to ‘be’. And then, far into adulthood, I realized that to be, I had to leave the halfway house of tentative freedom and go it alone: “I do not believe,” I said out loud and tears still come to my eyes this very day because I was more fully human than I had known before, completely unsaved but more ‘me’ if that makes any sense, a more mature me and not at all born again. I still admire the Christ of history for some of his words and some of his example in life. I don’t buy the magic or the idea that there is only one shepherd any more than there is only one poet in the world.
      And Bruce, I think this blog is a welcome place for thinking believers and non-believers alike. Evangelists take a licking here and so they should. To your young corresponder, may I add something Rilke said in a letter to a young writer? I would like him to feel, if only for a moment in his own heart that he is not a fallen creature, not unworthy and useless without God/Jesus.
      “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue.” -Rilke

  2. Avatar
    ObstacleChick

    To the student who wrote to Bruce, you are incredibly brave given your evangelical background to ask questions outside your circle. It can be terrifying to take those first few steps outside. As Bruce said, life is a journey, not necessarily in a straight line. You may stay in one place for awhile. At other times you may need traveling at 120 miles per hour. Both are ok. You are living in an incredible time when information is so readily available that you can reach out to others not in your circle. 10 years ago, that would have been more difficult. 20 years ago it would have been nearly impossible.

    I would suggest reading a variety of works, open yourself up to wherever your journey leads. Read Dr. Ehrman. Read Christian apologists. Read Sapiens by Dr. Harari. Read The Bible Unearthed. Read Love Wins by Rob Bell. Read works by the late Rachel Held Evan’s. You may change your mind a dozen times, and that’s ok, just don’t give up pursuing truth.

    And don’t think your degree was a mistake, even if you decide to go in a different direction. There are plenty of religious studies and Bible scholars who furthered their education after leaving evangelicalism. (Listen to Straight White American Jesus podcast by 2 former evangelicals who are religious studies professors).

    Good luck to you in your journey.

    • Avatar
      Brian Vanderlip

      “You may change your mind a dozen times, and that’s ok, just don’t give up pursuing truth.”
      Indeed, ObstacleChick, and I might even suggest that one WILL change one’s mind even a baker’s dozen times!

    • Avatar
      BJW

      OC, I’ve been looking for good podcasts lately. I’m a dedicated reader whose eyes are getting pretty tired. I’m going to give this one a try. Thanks for mentioning it.

    • Avatar
      Matilda

      I owe RHE a lot too. I was having doubts about my faith when I had to tell the story of Esther to a school assembly. Looking for a new angle, I googled it and her blog came up first. I didn’t know people like RHE existed and I read her avidly, I thought I was the only one to have these doubts. i can’t remember how, but she led me to Neil Carter, Friendly Atheist and here, to Bruce. They seemed to be saying exactly how I felt. I bookmarked them, then deleted them, satan must be tempting me to think like they do…but I was hooked and re-instated them and they, along with some other well-known atheist blogs, have been a lifeline to me for five years of un-faith which have been wonderful for me. I add my good wishes to this person in his honest searching for reality.

  3. Avatar
    Mike

    Wow! This blog post, the Biblical Studies majors dilemma, your advice, and the initial comments are profound to me.
    The student seeking advice has a lifetime invested this. Bruce, your counsel to him to “Count The Cost” before publicly voicing doubt or a change in beliefs is very sound. ( I will re-read that particular blog post you recommend to him. I do forget all the details in that post, but if I remember correctly, you point out some blowback and consequences that can arise, especially from family, friends, and mentors)
    A couple of things I wonder here. What school is the student enrolled at? How far along is he in his education? What is his interest and hobbies, if any , outside of fulfilling his “Calling”? How much time and money is invested in his education? Have family, friends, churches contributed financially to his education? These are just a few questions right off the top of my head.
    If there has been a major financial investment from others made toward the student and if he is fairly close to finishing his studies to receive a degree, perhaps he should seriously consider keeping his doubts as private as possible and completing his education. Just because a person has a bachelor’s degree in Pastoral and Biblical Studies doesn’t mean they must enter the ministry. Complete school, then get a secular job. Not with a Church or religious nonprofit. Work and earn his keep in the world. If God has “Called” him, he’s not wasting his life, he can “minister” to people as he does honest work and works out his own faith and calling in the process . Please don’t take a ministry position if your not sure. I believe that is a disservice to those under your ministry and to yourself. But there will be pressure to jump into a ministry. Finishing that education course can be very beneficial. Completeing thinks has value.
    If he only has a year or two in school, perhaps now is the time to step back and take a semester off. Take a break from school. Rethink that calling. Nothing wrong with that. Now there will be pressure to continue. He will be questioned and challenged by many interested parties about taking such action. I know I would be on my son’s back if he took a break from school. I would have a very difficult time being understanding. I have a interest and investment in my son and I want what’s best for him. (what I think is best) I would pressure him in his decision. Consider that kind of pressure on making a decision to delay school, drop out, or in changing schools. But don’t just sit around. Get a job. Travel. But he should live his life, not the life someone else chooses. Very tough things to consider.
    Bruce, I do consider myself a Christian. I go to Church. I read and believe the Bible, but I sure don’t understand it all.I have questions and doubts about many things. Saved 42 years. 35 years in IFB churches. I have not yet read any of Mr. Bart Ehrman’s books yet. Honesty, I’m a bit scared to. I do not have any college education. I did not attend a Christian School. But I am very familiar with the ACE , homeschooling, Bible College movements. While not a student myself, I do have personal, emotional, and financial investment and experience with Christian Education. Personal opinion, Christian Education has it’s place, it’s not for everyone, it’s a business, and it’s not all what it’s cracked up to be.
    20 some years ago a coworker shared something that happened to him. The moral or lesson he learned and shared with me was summed up in this statement, “Only a fool wouldn’t change their mind.” I
    I will finish off with this Nakedpastor cartoon. Bruce, thank you for sharing your experiences and life with us through your blog. I think it’s great that some Biblical Studies majors read your blog. And I’m excited about the Cincinnati Bengals Joe Burrow era. A fresh start.
    To the Biblical Studies major, take you time, count the cost, try to be honest and true to yourself. Best wishes to you.

    https://www.nakedpastorstore.com/blogs/news/the-complimentary-box

  4. Avatar
    Karen the rock whisperer

    Dear Student,

    Unless you only have a semester or two to finish, take a break from school. The people who love you will be baffled and worried about you, and you must find an excuse that is believable, not really a lie, and causes them as little concern about your soul as possible. Get a secular job, even if it involves making sandwiches or coffee drinks; this is temporary.

    It’s fiercely important that you not take up a ministry that doesn’t fit you. You’re probably working hard with your schooling, and starting a preaching career will require even harder, longer work. You might find yourself completely immersed for a few years, get married, start a family…and then find space to breathe, and have all your doubts resurface with fresh intensity. But then you will have far greater personal and financial obligations, and changing your path will be much, much harder. Please don’t do this to yourself.

    Other commenters have suggested lots of good books, and Ehrman is an excellent place to start. But don’t just try to resolve your doubts; think about other possible paths your life might take. I entered college with very defined goals, though mine were secular. While there I came across other paths I might have taken, that I think might have made my life far less of a struggle, but I didn’t allow myself to consider them. Now I’m 60 years old, and I regret not at least exploring those paths a little.

    I wish you an excellent life.

  5. Avatar
    Jen

    “ponder carefully what you say or do going forward”

    This is the most important thing I’ve learned so far. In my desire to be authentic, I had many unnecessary confrontations that ended up doing absolutely no one any good, and made some situations much, much worse. Being careful is not being a sellout—I had to relearn what it actually means and how it looks in a non-fundie sense.

    Escaping fundamentalism is basically escaping a cult. Deciding to leave is tough. Planning the escape is tough. Leaving is tough. Even freedom is tough at first since the old familiar support system is gone. It does get easier though, and you’ll find a deep strength you never knew you had. I promise it’s worth it.

  6. Avatar
    Neil

    A very wise and compassionate response to this young man, Bruce. It seems to me that in having ‘doubts’ and expressing them so honestly he has already turned on to a different path. I do hope he’ll continue to pursue and discover his own personal truth. He doesn’t have to, until he wants to, cast his pearls before swine (as someone once put it with such delicacy) but he will find he needs to be true to himself if he’s to discover peace and purpose.

  7. Avatar
    Autumn

    I too would recommend a break unless he has 3 semesters or fewer to go. Tell family that God is calling him elsewhere and get a secular job. Besides all the excellent reading, ask what other ways you can serve others. Could he be a teacher? a non religious counselor? A nurse or an EMT? If he is so close to finishing school that stopping out would be foolish, he could get a job as a teacher in a religious school and then, if that’s the calling he can go back and get a secular teaching degree. Many volunteer fire departments would love an eager young man and help him pay for EMT training and then possibly help get a paying job at a hospital.

    I would wish him well on his journey!

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