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How Fundamentalist Christianity Affected My View of Money and Material Things

somerset baptist church 1983-1994 2
Our hillbilly mansion. We lived in this 720 square foot mobile home for five years, all eight of us. We paid $2,800 for it. I tore out closets, replaced floors, etc to make it livable. We heated it with wood and coal. Such memories of the good life, right Polly?

Repost from 2015-2016. Edited, updated, and corrected.

These and other verses were the guiding principles of my life for many years:

Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. Matthew 16:24

Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. Matthew 6:19-21

No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon. Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment? Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they? Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature? And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith? Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed?(For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof. Matthew 6:24-34

For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows. 1 Timothy 6:10

I was a Baptist. Not just any old generic, run-of-the-mill Baptist either. I was an Independent, Fundamentalist, the-Bible-is-the-inspired-inerrant-infallible-Word-of-God Baptist. There were five things that every good Baptist church member was expected to do:

  • Read the Bible every day
  • Pray every day
  • Attend church every time the doors of the church were open
  • Witness
  • Tithe and give offerings

I will come back to the last of these, tithe and give offerings, in just a moment, but before I do I need to write a bit about how I looked at life in general.

I was a committed follower of Jesus. I believed God spoke to me individually through the Bible, prayer, and the still, small voice of the Holy Spirit. I believed that God led me or directed me to do certain things. It was important to “wait on the Lord.” and NOT trust my own understanding. My life verse was Proverbs 3:5-6:

 Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.

I knew God had saved me and called me to the ministry. For every church I ever pastored, I believed God led me to that specific congregation. It is important to understand this point because this line of thinking permeated my entire thought process.

cars I have owned
One of the many junk cars we owned over the years. Polly HATED this car and the kids were embarrassed when I would drive up and pick them up from school. Isn’t Jesus Wonderful?

When a small church came calling and wanted me to be their pastor, I never concerned myself with how much they could pay me. I thought, “If God wants me to pastor this church, he will make a way for me to do it.” As a result, I developed a willingness to live in poverty if it meant doing what God had called me to do. No matter how much suffering and difficulty it caused me or my family, the only thing that was important was being in the center of the will of God. I now see that God’s will was actually my own will and that the passivity that led me to “wait on God” wreaked financial havoc in our lives – such that we have not recovered from to this day.

The most I ever made as a pastor was $26,000 a year. Most years, my pay was more in the $10-12,000 range. I never had health insurance or any of the work-related benefits that almost every church member had. I am not complaining as much as I am explaining. I sincerely thought this is how God wanted me to live. I gladly sacrificed my financial well-being for the sake of THE CALL.

I did work secular jobs on and off over the years. Pumped gas. Sold insurance. Delivered newspapers. Managed restaurants. I always made significantly more money in the world. I viewed these jobs as a means to an end. Out of the 25 years I was in the ministry, I worked secular jobs for about 7 years.

Even when I worked a secular job, I still worked full-time at whatever church I was pastoring. I was of the opinion that every pastor should be full-time regardless of whether he had a secular job. I was taught this way of thinking in Bible college, and it drove me to burn the candle at both ends for most of the time I spent in the ministry. When I wasn’t working a secular job, I would take the extra time I had and devote it to the church. Either way, I was a consummate workaholic, rarely taking a day off or going on a vacation.

My view of life, God, and my call to the ministry deeply affected how I viewed money and material things. God was first in my life, the church second, the souls of others third, and my family came in a distant fourth.  As a sold-out lover of Jesus, I knew I was expected to die to self and live only for the glory of God.

Keeping the church going so it could be a light on a hill in the community was very important. My personal finances and well-being didn’t matter. All to Jesus, All to Jesus, All to Him I freely give . . . the song went, and I was quite willing to give everything to make sure the work of God continued on (and I taught my children to do the same). We tithed. We gave love offerings. We supported missionaries. We gave money to people who were poorer than we were. We gave cars, appliances, computers, and clothing to people in the church. We sold household goods so we could give the money to missionaries, evangelists, or help with some need in the church. We were givers . . . and, quite frankly, we shouldn’t have been.

jesus loves the poor

About year 20 in the ministry, I began to see how foolish this kind of thinking was. I started looking around and I noticed that while I was busy sacrificing and giving, most other Christians were busy building their kingdoms on earth. They were buying houses, land, and cars, contributing to their child’s college fund, and preparing for retirement. I was living in the here-and-now, with no thought of tomorrow, no thought of retirement. I had planned to die with my boots on. I realized I had been a fool. I came to see that neither God, Jesus, nor the church was going to take care of me or my family. (I was still a Christian and a pastor when I came to this conclusion.) If the church didn’t care about my financial well-being while I was their pastor, they sure as hell weren’t going to care about it when I retired. I could tell numerous stories of pastors and their families who were left destitute by churches who promised to care for them when they were old.

After realizing the error of my way, the first thing I did was stop tithing. If the church couldn’t pay me a living wage it made no sense to give money to the church so I could have less of an unlivable wage. The second thing we did was make a decision that Polly would go to work so we could have a better income and health/dental/life insurance. By the time we made this decision, I was already starting to have health problems.

These two decisions dramatically improved our lifestyle. For the first time in our marriage, we were able to enjoy life a bit. It was refreshing not to have to sacrifice our financial well-being for the sake of the church. Either the church stood on its own two feet or it didn’t. We still gave money to the church, but not like we used to. No more Sundays when the offering was bad . . . telling the treasurer . . . don’t pay me this week, I’ll be fine. I expected the church to pay me. After all, a laborer is worthy of his hire.

Decades of living at the bottom of the economic ladder have hurt my wife and me greatly. Low or no wages means a lower social security check when we retire. I never had a retirement program, so there is no extra money now that I have retired. When Polly retires in a couple of years, we will have to adjust and try to make it on social security. Maybe my 2021 book will become a reality and make it to the top of the New York Times bestseller list. One can always hope, right?  All we know to do is move forward and do what we can. We have no choice but to play the cards we’ve been dealt. Hindsight is a great teacher, but it can’t undo a lifetime of ignorance and stupidity in the name of God.

As an atheist, I have no God who is coming to rescue me or see me through to the end. I know that financial security comes through hard work and making a good wage (and a good bit of luck). I know planning for the future is important. While there is not a lot we can do about our own affairs, Polly and I have tried to teach and show our children a better way. We are quite happy about how most of them have taken to this better way. All of them are light years ahead of where we were when we were their age.

I am sure some well-meaning Christian is going to say, it seems Bruce that becoming an atheist has made you selfish and more focused on your family and not others. Yep, and I make no apology for it. I am still a giving person. I go out of my way to help others, BUT I am not going to sacrifice my financial well-being for the sake of a deity that doesn’t exist or to meet a need in the life of people I do not know. I do what I can, but I now realize that my wife, children, grandchildren, and yes, myself, come first.

Polly’s parents make for an excellent case study. They are lifelong Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) Christians. Dad, who died several months ago, spent over 30 years in the ministry. The year before Polly and I married in 1978, Mom and Dad bought a house in a working-class neighborhood. After retirement, Mom and Dad no longer had the money to care for their home. Their neighborhood changed from primarily owner-occupied homes to rentals. When they were finally forced to sell their home, it had lost 50% of its value. Mom and Dad moved to an apartment where their rent was almost three times their mortgage payment. While Mom is barely making ends meet and has had her own serious health problems of late, she still tithes, gives offerings, and contributes to every cockamamie financial appeal their pastor comes up with. What does she need to do? Stop giving to the church. They sacrificed enough during Dad’s preaching days. They have given enough. Let others pay the freight now. Take that tithe and offering money and spend it on self (most likely medical expenses). Surely Jesus and her church will understand, right?  But I know she won’t. Jesus and the church come first. After all, the Bible says:

Will a man rob God? Yet ye have robbed me. But ye say, Wherein have we robbed thee? In tithes and offerings. Ye are cursed with a curse: for ye have robbed me, even this whole nation. Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in mine house, and prove me now herewith, saith the LORD of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it. (Malachi 3:8-10)

For many years, I shuddered at the thought of robbing God — as if it is possible to rob a deity who supposedly owns everything. These days, I think God deserves to be robbed. He has all he needs. He has become a robber-baron who cares not for the suffering of his peasants. If he did care, he would pass a note along to all those preachers who say God talks to them and tell them to STOP fleecing their flocks. Maybe they could tell their congregations that God doesn’t need any money in 2021. Maybe they could tell their congregations God doesn’t need a new building, gymnasium, the latest AV equipment, or the latest, greatest, sure-to-make-the church-grow magic trick. How about emptying the church bank accounts and giving a rebate to every person who has sacrificially given their money so the pastor could have the best of everything?

I feel Polly shaking me . . . Bruce, Bruce wake up . . .you’re dreaming.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 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.

You can contact Bruce via email, Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube.

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22 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Elaine

    Doesn’t it feel good to be happy? I remember vividly, back in 2002, when I made the decision to give up religious belief… I felt like I had myself back after such a long time. Like a hollow place in myself had had its core restored. I don’t even know how to describe it. But from that time on, my motto has been “if it is to be, it’s up to me.” Blessings (the reality-based kind) to you and your family.

    • Avatar
      Jada

      I do get you. After dropping that garbage and walking away, for the first time in my life I felt like I had a core – something ‘tangible’ that I would never allow to be suppressed ever again. It’s far too valuable and hard-won to do anything that would compromise it.

  2. Avatar
    Troy

    This got me curious to see various opinions about clergy and church staff tithing. I’m not sure that tithing pursued by all churches, but for those that do I tend to think clergy should pay it. According to one forum I read it suggests that Pastors and staff that don’t tithe don’t tend to stick around that long. So maybe it is telling that when you gave up tithing you soon left the fold.
    There are a few ways it could be done. One is to make it clear that the Pastor’s salary has been diminished by 10% to represent the tithe. In the case where the pay check is reduced because of low donations, that should count as part of the tithe as a running tab.
    And how much should pastors make? It should be about the median salary of the congregation assuming the Pastor is full time. If they can’t pay that, then the church is non-viable and shouldn’t exist. And yes I think churches should pay most property taxes related to infrastructure, policing, fire, and public safety (but not taxes for things like parks and libraries) Once again if they have to depend on a handout from other taxpayers it isn’t viable and should go away.

  3. Avatar
    Karen the rock whisperer

    I grew up Catholic in a section of town that was mostly poor or lower-middle-class. Our parish was determined to provide an elementary school education to any kid whose parents wanted it, regardless of ability to pay; and in those days the primary goal was not to produce Good Little Christians, but kids who wouldn’t be sucked into the gangs/drugs local nightmare. The parish struggled. There was never enough money. Meanwhile, we heard tales of the opulence of the local bishop’s lifestyle, and the riches of the organization in Rome.

    In other words, I learned early on that church financing had a scam component.

    I briefly dabbled in Evangelical Christianity as a young adult. The church I attended had a wonderful pastor… who they declared was an Assistant Pastor. They paid a pittance and gave him and his family a substandard house to live in… while the Senior Pastor’s house stood empty next door. They weren’t searching for a Senior Pastor, either. They simply didn’t want to pay their pastor what he was worth. After a few years he simply couldn’t deal with it any more, and went on to a Senior Pastor job elsewhere. Husband and I were disgusted and left the church. Apparently the accountants in the Holy See in Rome and the elders of a small Evangelical church in Silicon Valley thought very much along the same lines.

    I respect everyone’s right to believe what they want, though I may not respect their beliefs. But forgive me when I roll my eyes at your description of your “wonderful church”, o churchgoer. I suppose I’m jaded, but I’m sure there is money misspent there, but no lack of demand for it.

  4. Avatar
    Randy

    No other subject has damaged my faith and my relationship with the church as much as money. Let me share just one example.

    My ten year old daughter was an unplanned pregnancy. I would not trade her for anything, but it caused a serious financial strain on our family at the time with medical bills and maternity leave. We were barely scraping by when my wife was hit with a serious heart condition. Our baby was three months old when my wife almost died by a congestive heart condition brought on by child birth. Suddenly the bills became overwhelming.

    Once my wife was home and we were struggling to pay bills and stay out of collections my pastor calls me in to talk to me. What do you think he talks about? My wife’s health? Our child? Our financial crisis? I had answered a call to ministry and he admonished me for not faithfully tithing at this time. I was devastated. I went home and told my wife and she burst into tears. We started tithing just to keep him off our backs. It frustrated and angered us. We began considering a new church home around that time, but it would be close to two years before it finally happened.

    This is just one incident. I could tell of so many others. It makes me feel like pastors are more concerned about my checkbook than my eternal soul.

    When I finally pastored a church, the leadership pressed me to preach on money because funds were scarce. I stood my ground with a firm, “No.” That was the beginning of the end of my ministry there.

    I just recently sat through a sermon on tithing and giving where the pastor told the congregation that even if they have bills piled high and they are down to their last dollars they should faithfully give. I was so glad I’d stepped down from leadership at the church a couple of weeks before because I don’t want my name associated with that kind of teaching.

    It’s like all pastors get brainwashed with this tithing / giving thing. I hate it. I think it is wrong, and I don’t think it has any root in the New Testament if one is a believer.

    It’s also crazy to expect pastors to give. The tithe was to support the priests and Levites in the Old Testament and I am not aware of them tithing on that. However, the church today insists that leadership must set the example if others are to give.

    I have sworn off giving to the church altogether. I give to those I see in need. I pay my bills first and make sure my family is taken care of and that we have some money to enjoy in our leisure. I’ve broken the shackles of tithing and eventually it will probably lead to another confrontation with church leadership. This time I won’t knuckle under.

    • Avatar
      Brian

      Yours is good news, Randy. I think that your wish to stay free of the money-grubbing is an informed one and I trust you and yours are healthy and happy now. Never knuckle under to spiritual authorities. They are not authorities on your life and vision; you are…. best wishes.

    • Avatar
      Geoff

      I had never realised the pernicious and insidious grip that tithing has in some US churches until I started reading here. It’s obscene, and is as graphic an understanding of how, at least some, religion has descended to a money grabbing scam. I’ve long been an auditor for my local church in the UK (it’s right next door, they know my views but there’s nobody else, and I haven’t the heart to let them down), and they hardly break even. There are some that pay regular amounts, especially those least able to afford it, but it is only a small proportion. Some small income is raised via the weekly collection plate, but otherwise most is obtained from the hiring of the hall, mainly for secular purposes.

      Is tithing just a IFB thing, or is it pretty universal?

      • Avatar
        Bruce Gerencser

        Tithing is common in Evangelical churches. Mainline churches tend to take annual pledges.

        In IFB churches there is the tithe, offerings, faith promise missions, building fund, revival offerings, love offerings, etc. The tithe is off the gross amount of income, btw.

        It is a pernicious system of manipulation meant to extract money from parishioners.

  5. Avatar
    Ahab

    I recall a fundamentalist friend who sacrificed his financial well-being on the altar of faith. Despite being poor, he faithfully tithed 10% of his gross income to his church. Despite being poor, he saved up thousands of dollars, which he then blew on a missionary trip to the Philippines. Despite being poor, he failed to take advantage of job opportunities that would have improved his standard of living because he never received a sign that it was God’s will. o_O

    Even though he and I haven’t spoken in years, I worry about him. All the money he tithes or spends on missionary jaunts is money that ISN’T being saved for a rainy day, invested in a retirement fund, etc. He gives so much money to his church, but in the end, what will he have to show for it?

  6. Avatar
    Steve

    We sure were in the wrong branch of Christianity, weren’t we, bro?

    Think of our lives had we been in the Creflo branch!!!

  7. Avatar
    Marco

    The IFB CULTure enables the behavior that often leads to poverty. Being poor seemed an acceptable fact of life for many fundies I grew up with. The normal ways that many people get out of poverty through education at a real college or learning a trade were not in their plans. A good fundie must either “serve the lord” or serve in the military. I watched many adults in the former fundie church suffer financially, but yet would never discourage their children from following in their footsteps. Two of my nieces attended Pensacola Christian College; one is about to marry a PCC graduate who is youth pastor, fundie school teacher and stocks selves at a department store. I tried to explain to both of them how terrible the job market is and that no one outside the IFB would respect their “college” education. But off to PCC they went.

  8. Avatar
    Ian

    My dad used to give over 30% of his earnings to the church, because it was needed. He truly believed you couldn’t out-give God. One time, a church needed a huge amount of money, sohe sold undeveloped land that he owned and gave alll the proceeds to the church. Had he held on to that land for another few years, he would have made several hundred thousand dollars. But, the church had a need and he stepped up. Now, as one of the deconverted, he is a 72 year old man who has no retirement because he believed you shouldn’t store up treasure on earth.

    He instilled in me the thought that Jesus was coming back soon, so future goals weren’t important. I was/am a hard worker and dedicated to every job I have had, but I never made any future plans. I never developed the habit of saving money or contributed to a retirement fund. I didn’t buy a house when I had no children and could have afforded it. My whole life was set up to see Jesus come back in the next few days. Myself and one other young guy were the only ones who did this. Now, in our mid-40’s, we are playing catch up. All of the other young people bought houses, went to trade schools, saved money, etc.

    I wish I would have truly counted the cost when I was 21.

  9. Avatar
    BJW

    Yeah. The tithes are supposed to be for the minister, so why should he tithe? In fact, Bruce, you were honest and decent. Look at all the rich ministers, especially that Paula White who was Trump’s so-called “spiritual” advisor. (I think she was some other kind of adviser.) Her prayers after Trump lost were amazingly crazy, I’m sure it was all an act. These people have shown that most of the rich pastors are grifters, nothing more. Joel Osteen refused to open his Houston Church to people needing a refuge back several years ago during that bad flood. American Christianity, by and large, is a failure. At least, American evangelical and/or fundamentalist Christianity is the failure.

  10. Avatar
    Brian Vanderlip

    We were encouraged, after being baptized, to tithe if we had any income at all, a paper route or part-time yard job. I remember feeling quite proud to have a little weekly envelope all my own. Not sure how I got out of that trap, just don’t remember…
    Why is it that so much harm can be done to us when we are ‘saved’ and somehow we just embrace it all as inevitable and a big plan from above? Collective trauma continues to have babies it feeds to the CULTure of endless war, race hatred, mammoth corporate greed… Sheesh.
    And BJW, to be clear, the tithe perhaps ought to go to the preacher for their regular abuse of people from the pulpit but the tithe goes to church expenses NOT the preacher first. My dad would have been so much better off if those envelopes were his! Instead, he got pocket-change and thanked Jesus for hurting us all with such love!

  11. Avatar
    Dave

    Not only did my church push for tithing we were also guilted into giving extra for several building campaigns. I never fully bought into the legalism of tithing but I had my share of guilt feelings for falling short in this area. After my deconversion I was happy to have all of that extra cash that used to go my church. I only wish that I had put all of my previous money into a 401k rather than pissing it away in church giving

  12. Avatar
    amy b

    I wonder if any of the god-botherers who bloviate about your not having been a real Christian have read this post, or similar ones.

  13. Avatar
    ObstacleChick

    I remember as a kid we did a skit in church service about Ananias and Sapphira as a kickoff for a fundraising or tithing campaign. I didn’t realize as a kid how icky it was that they used us kids in attempt to try to guilt adults into forking over more of their money to the church. Why does a supposedly omnipotent deity need my stuff, particularly my money? Can’t he poof whatever he needs into existence?

  14. Avatar
    mary

    tithing is a financial hole for most of us. when we climbed out of said hole, our financial picture improved right away. what a waste though! that’s our biggest regret. we enabled lazy entitled jerks to live w/o working except to bully others. but the past we can’t change. our kids are educated and would never consider doing tithes. also these so called pastors live off tithes and other grift from church members plus they don’t pay taxes on it if they cook the books the right way. what a racket!

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Bruce Gerencser