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Bruce, Did You Encourage Church Members to Think for Themselves?

think for yourself

Several years ago, I asked readers to submit questions they would like me to answer.

Appalachian Agnostic asked:

When you were a pastor, did you encourage church goers to think for themselves or did you prefer that they accepted everything you preached without measuring it against their own perceptions?

If I had been asked this question when I was an Evangelical pastor, I would have answered YES! I encouraged people to read and study the Bible. I recommended books that I thought would be helpful in their walk with God. Some of the Fundamentalist churches I grew up in discouraged intellectual pursuit. In their minds, all Christians needed was the Holy Spirit, a theologically sound Bible preaching church, a God-called pastor, and a Scofield King James Version Bible. Church members were encouraged to be “people of the book.” Better to know THE one book well than to have read thousands of books and not thoroughly know and understand the one book that matters.

By the time I started pastoring churches, I had begun reading orthodox theological books, never straying beyond safe, theologically correct authors. So, I recommended church members read and expand their theological horizons, but I made sure they only read books that were written by Evangelicals. I was encouraging them to “think” but only within the box I provided for them. So the real answer to the question is NO!

I never would have recommended books written by liberal Christians or people such as Bart Ehrman. According to the Bible, I was to watch and care for their souls, making sure they weren’t led astray by false teachers. In doing so, I kept them safe from the wolves that roamed outside the door of the church. I wrote about this in 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.

While I expected people to check my preaching by the Word of God, I also expected them to trust me. After all, I was the man of God, the elder God had appointed to be their teacher. And quite frankly, when it came to knowing and understanding theology, I was at the head of the class in every church I pastored. As is the case in most Evangelical churches, members take their preachers’ word for it. In the churches I pastored, their theology was actually my theology. At one church, I became quite Calvinistic in my theology and began aggressively teaching the five points of Calvinism. Only one family had a problem with what I was preaching. Everyone else? “Sure preacher, we’ll take your word for it.”

Generally, I found that most church members were not interested in diligently studying the Bible or reading theology books. One reason for this is that they had a life and very little time to devote to such pursuits. I was paid to study the Bible and read books. A great gig for someone like me, but it is unfair for a pastor to expect church members to spend the same amount of time he does studying the Bible and reading theological books. When church members did read, they read light Christian romance novels or fiction. This used to drive me crazy. I was, and still am, a non-fiction reader. I very rarely read fiction. My thinking is this: why read fiction when you can read TRUE stories? I now know that church members often read fiction because it allows them to escape or to fantasize. Fiction allowed them to check out from the grueling grind of life and enter a world of suspense, intrigue, and temptation. John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion were no match for Erica Jong.

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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4 Comments

  1. Avatar
    kittybrat

    Bruce,
    I adore your answer to this. How far you have come in your understanding of yourself! Think for yourselves, but within limits! LOVE it! After all, one should never lean unto his own understanding, eh?
    I do understand, however, the frustration of wanting people to at least read THE book of their religion. After all, it is supposed to be GOD’s WORD!
    Sigh…
    Methinks that people, in general, are just not that curious, and that is depressing.

    • Avatar
      Karen

      “Methinks that people, in general, are just not that curious, and that is depressing.”

      Methinks like youthinks. (Sorry, couldn’t resist. “methinks” is just a word that begs to be played with.) I have this insatiable curiosity, which has led me into science. My training is in geology, but I like to read on subjects like archaeology, anthropology, psychology, environmental science… and nonscientific topics like history. It just doesn’t make sense to me that other people *aren’t* curious. But they aren’t.

  2. Avatar
    Yulya Sevelova

    I know this posting goes back to 2015, even so, I want to say here that at no time during my church- going phase did any pastor or lay person ever tell me to think for myself. Just those quotes to study to show one’s self approved by God. That’s it.

  3. Avatar
    ObstacleChick

    In fundamentalist Christian school we were told to “study to show thyself approved unto God” which meant to study material approved from a Christ centered perspective. Everything was censored – literature, history, science. Academic excellence was encouraged as long as one stayed inside the box. Physics? Astronomy? Geology? Fine, but stay away from any of age of the universe stuff as that conflicts with (our interpretation of) Scripture and isn’t Christ-centered.

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