In the mid-2000s, my wife and I drove to Pontiac, Michigan to have lunch with a couple we attended college with at Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan from 1976-1979. We hadn’t talked to each other in almost twenty years. We had a delightful time, but it became clear to me that we were living in very different religious spheres. (Our renewed friendship ended after I became an atheist in 2008.)
By the mid-2000s, my theology had moved from Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) to generic Evangelical to Emerging/Emergent church. A few years later, I would deconvert and become an atheist. Our friends had moved leftward from the IFB theology and practice of their college years to garden variety Evangelicalism. In their eyes, they were free of the legalism and extremism of the IFB church movement.
Yesterday, I stumbled upon several websites and podcasts dedicated to helping people free themselves from IFB legalism. I call this the ex-IFB movement. I listened to several podcasts, coming away with troubling thoughts about their objective and goal: freeing people from IFB legalism and extremism while remaining Fundamentalists.
There’s no question about whether the IFB church movement is legalistic and extremist. It is. Any move away from IFB beliefs and practices is a good one. IFB churches and pastors have caused incalculable harm, both psychologically and physically. That said, many of the people fleeing the IFB church movement for kinder, gentler sects and churches are, in fact, still Fundamentalists. One ex-IFB preacher said that many people have been bloodied by IFB churches and pastors. He compared them to a wounded deer running in the woods. According to this Baptist preacher, wounded believers run away from the churches and pastors who have bloodied them, but often keep on running, away from Jesus. The solution, according to him, was for these bloodied Christians to run to Jesus, the man who shed his blood for their sins. I found his sermon (and the church service) to be quite Fundamentalist.
I have long argued that Evangelicals are inherently Fundamentalist; that Evangelicalism consists of two Fundamentalist components: social and theological Fundamentalism. I talk about this fact more thoroughly in a post titled Are Evangelicals Fundamentalists? If you are not familiar with my thinking on this subject, please read the aforementioned post.
Evangelicals (of which the IFB church movement is a subset) have core theological beliefs. To be an Evangelical, you MUST believe these things. While there is theological diversity within Evangelicalism, when it comes to foundational beliefs, Evangelicals pretty much believe the same things. Take inerrancy. All Evangelicals believe the Bible is inspired, inerrant, and infallible. What, exactly, these words mean varies among Evangelical sects, churches, colleges, and pastors. Ask a hundred Evangelicals if they believe the Bible they carry to church on Sunday is without error, the overwhelming majority of them will say, Bless God, Yes!
It is social Fundamentalism that often causes people to leave IFB churches for friendlier confines. These disaffected Fundamentalists don’t like all the rules (church standards) so they seek out churches and colleges where social standards are relaxed. What’s troubling is the fact that such people often just trade one form of Fundamentalism for another. Their former churches had lots of rules. Their new churches? Fewer rules, but every bit as legalistic. One can’t be a Bible literalist and an inerrantist without having Fundamentalist beliefs — both theologically and socially.
Those leaving the IFB church movement are seeking out churches where they would have more personal freedoms. I understand their motivations, however, when quizzed about their “freedoms,” they reveal that they still have Fundamentalist tendencies. They may want to drink alcohol, smoke cigars, go to movies, wear pants (women), cuss, and watch R-rated TV programs. However, when asked about abortion, LGBTQ rights, Transgender people, same-sex marriage, premarital and extramarital sex, and a host of other personal freedoms, you quickly find out that they still have narrow Fundamentalist beliefs. (And let’s not forget that more than 80% of white voting Evangelicals voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020. I suspect this percentage is even higher among IFB adherents.)
Religion is inherently legalistic. If you want to be part of a Christian church, there will be rules of some sort. Any time humans congregate together or form tribes (even atheists), written and unwritten rules govern the behavior of participants. Even families have social rules family members are expected to adhere to when the family gathers together. To return to the preacher’s wounded deer analogy, wounded, bloodied IFB church members should exit their churches as fast as they possibly can. Run! And keep running until your former IFB church and its pastors are distant in the rearview mirror. However, instead of running to another Evangelical church, take a deep breath and survey the religious landscape. You have been conditioned to view liberal and progressive Christian churches as evil or apostate. They are not. You might find such churches are a breath of fresh air, places free of most (not all) of the legalism found in IFB and Evangelical churches. Better yet, you might ponder whether religion itself is the problem. Maybe atheism or agnosticism is the solution. Maybe attending a Unitarian-Universalist church might give you the sense of community you are seeking. Don’t settle for a less intrusive brand of Fundamentalism.
The wounded deer runs through the woods, hoping to avoid hunters, be they IFB preachers or ex-IFB men of God. The deer recognizes that guns are guns regardless of who is shooting them. To reach a place where he or she can heal, the deer must find a place deep in the woods inaccessible to hunters; a place where healing can take place without sermons, Bible verses, and religious dogma. Ex-IFB preachers still want to mount your head on the wall or put you in a reserve where their brand of Fundamentalism controls your life. Sure, living in a deer reserve is better than being meat in an IFB preacher’s freezer, but living out your days in a fenced-in reserve is a poor substitute for running free in the fields and woods.
Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 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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I have a friend who left a pretty conservative church. She is the definition of having freer social rules, while still believing that the LGBTQ community is bad. But she also voted for Trump so what did I expect? (THIS. I expected this.) While not IFB her sect shared many of the same ideas.
The problem is not just the bible, but it’s insecure men who are insecure about themselves, and their authority (because they don’t really have authority), coupled with a lack of real training. If a Pastor/church leader went on some managerial training, genuinely reported to someone like a manager (say a bishop) they would be far more qualified. The truth is that most Pastors have little experience in responsible jobs never mind experience/training in management, yet they deserve ‘respect’.
So problem is instead of having the ability to appreciate and work with different personalities and people (parts of the ‘body’ – corinthians) there ends up ill considered legalistic rules and view points.
Having attended a few of so-called counselling sessions with pastors, I felt that they had no real training in psychology (or worse, thinks that all psychology is of Satan). They hold clueless assumptions and are sometimes riddled with mental issues of their own.
And yet, they are held up to be the example of holiness and wisdom. I used to harbour automatic reverence towards pastors and members of the clergy, but after all the scandals and my own bad experience, not anymore.
I’m not sure they’d be far more qualified if they had to report to someone like a bishop. Catholic priests do indeed report to such a person and a lot of THEM are insecure, have no real authority, and are prey to (putting it mildly) some very odd ideas. I speak as someone who was brought up in the CC. (I’m now very much an agnostic as far as belief goes, and I have nothing to do with organized religion.)
I think your point about most pastors having little experience in responsible jobs is very valid. Regardless of my own disaffections, I have noticed that the most effective clerics, the best listeners, the ones who are the most sensible and the most balanced psychologically, are people who have had other jobs that are nothing to do with religion. Accountants, social workers, teachers, manual workers, I’ve known all these. It’s not a GUARANTEE of decency, obviously, but I do think such people have a healthier and more realistic view of the world and the people in it.
For far too many, the church is a bolthole from issues they don’t feel able to face or don’t want to acknowledge. They get a power structure which enables them and bigs them up, while most other jobs would show up their flaws.
nothing more than typical christian cannibalization.
Clubschadenfreude: You’re absolutely right! I remember reading a Mormon woman’s article about how she left the LDS, but where did she end up? You guessed it — at a fundamentalist church! Just a lateral move, really.
Clubschadenfreude: You’re absolutely right. I read a Mormon woman’s account of how she left the LDS. And where did she end up? You guessed it – in a fundamentalist church. Just a lateral move, really.
yep, agreed. they’ve just changed fantasies
I think we need some kind of groups to help people get away from absolutist systems some of which are religious. The problem for a lot of these people is when they leave the group they also lose their family and friends. Some people may have to do it in smaller steps.
For example the Catholic church is debating whether to deny communion to President Biden because he does not agree with them about abortion. I think he has the strength to survive their nasty decision, but other Catholics in the House of Representatives or Senate may not.
Capitalism has become a like a religion. I do not have the right to question anything. I must believe in it to be part of certain social groups.
The sick part of the conservative bishops’ attack on Biden is that he really is a good Catholic, as much as he is a good President. In private, his own religious beliefs oppose abortion; but he is the president of a secular country, so his personal beliefs should not, and do not, intrude into his public actions. The bishops still aren’t satisfied.
I hope that Pope Francis, who has already told them once to knock it off, calls them to the Vatican and reminds them who’s boss in the Church. I wouldn’t mind seeing them all sent to monasteries north of the Arctic Circle, for a while. I hope that Biden, Catholic believers in Congress, and the Catholic members of the Supreme Court are not influenced by all the noise these bishops are making about Biden’s refusal to subject the country to his personal beliefs.
I don’t think he’s that great to be fair. I remember watching a clip of him telling a BBC news reporter he doesn’t care about the BBC because he’s Irish. What? He is a bigot or something?
I saw that as a wry response. I don’t read him as a bigot. (Brit-without-Irish-connections speaking here.)
Kel and Karuna–I think you’re right about their insecurity. Since most the pastors and preachers are men (and I lived as one for the first three-quarters of my life), I believe that in conveying authority, supposedly conferred by God, to men over their families and congregations affirms their maleness, manhood and masculinity for them.
Also, more than a few are in denial about their sexual proclivities or even their gender identities. (Do I ever know about that!) Leaving an authoritarian structure that gives them a “manly” role leaves them exposed, if you will. So of course they would run for cover.
Barbara–While their is little, if any, nutritional value in a communion wafer, I have to wonder what other organizations tell their members, “Agree with us, or you don’t eat!” Anyone who did that to a family member would be charged with abuse and, if the one denied is underage, child abuse.
You’re spot on in your analysis. Christians in my previous church were ardent champions of complementarianism and “male headship”.
And with regards to your observation on these leaders’ sexual proclivities, one highly popular Evangelical pastor did once say that the more prominent one’s role is within the hierarchy, the more “heterosexuality” is expected of them.
If your sexual orientation or gender identity doesn’t lie within the approved boundary, this type of environment can indeed mess with your brain. Every Christian is a worm before the thrice holy God, but you’re thrice the worm they are.
Unfortunately, I’ve known this from personal experience, too. I’m still conflicted about my orientation, but I’m really glad to know that you no longer have to lie about yourself.
Pentacostal sects have the same thing going for them, almost identical to the IFB churches. Only difference between the two is that Pentacostals do believe in supernatural events, gifts, all that. Same church standards for sure,lol.
“Religion is inherently legalistic.”
I will disagree. Obedience to the rules is not legalism. Obedience to God’s rules is not legalism. if there are no rules, then there is nothing to offer anyone. You have to have rules so people know what is right and what is wrong. God set that example. Unfortunately, people like power and added some of their own rules or have decided they can take those rules away.
Disagree all you want, religion is inherently legalistic. I view this from a sociological and cultural perspective, not a “Biblical” or theological perspective.
Ha Ha H just like MM. you won’t accept the truth no matter what. Just because you change your view does it mean that the truth has changed,
Why do you deliberately ignore the rules by changing your name? What sort of example do you set by deliberately ignoring the instructions of God in Romans 13?
This is Bruce’s blog, he is the higher authority who sets the rules and you are to submit yourself to his rules. That you do not have the conviction of disobeying the bible instructions would say that as a Christian you are far from God. For the rest of us you just set a poor example of a self-proclaimed religious man.
Theology, if I was inclined to listen to you your immature type responses kill that desire. In the over 30 years since I became disenchanted with the Christian church I then attended, ministers seemed to respond seriously to people. Of course, since then the popularity of the internet has turned too many people into trolls. And your comment is trollish at best. However, I’m also aware that a large percentage of fundamentalist Christians like trolls, since the master troll was president for 4 years.
Sounds like a projection here ‘people like power’. Not everyone does Mr T 🙂
Of course churches are legalistic, each one has their own set of rules, yet apparently from the same bible.
No David, rules aren’t about what is right and wrong, rules are about ensuring the efficient running of society, from rules that children have to follow attending nursery, or doctors have to follow for reasons of hygiene, or that courts follow in delivering justice. Underlying the rules, of course, are concepts of right and wrong, that have been developed and refined over countless aeons of human culture. God has no place in this structure because as a concept it interrupts this natural process and allows individuals to distort right and wrong.
Rules are NOT just about right and wrong. For example, Orthodox Jews have to take dishes to a mitzvah for ritual cleansing, to be declared kosher. There’s no soap used – it’s just a ritual of dunking in water. Now, when ancient Jews came up with this rule – or Yahweh did if that’s your take on it – people probably didn’t realize that they needed soap in order to clean the dishes. As human knowledge progresses, some rules don’t make sense anymore. So what’s the point of submerging dishes in a pool of water when you’re not getting them clean? It’s a rule, but it doesn’t accomplish anything but a symbolic gesture. So is it truly necessary anymore? Is it based in a morality?
As usual, one can count on D.T. to get ” Teed off ” about something. Rules are to prevent anarchy, and some rules are more logical than others. Church standards are anything but logical. It’s extra- biblical, at best. Adding burdens to people. I had to laugh about the glasses not having rims being forbidden. Who comes up with such tripe anyway ?
I’ve always wondered about people who need long lists of rules to follow. The people who need to make long lists of rules, and the people who feel bound to enforce such rules.
I’m talking about the voluntary stuff, not the rules we make to keep society running smooth-ish.
Do the rule followers and enforcers have an unaddressed anxiety disorder? Do the rule makers have that plus inflated egos or more serious personality disorders?
I also wonder about the ones who try to enforce rules on people outside their little anxiety club.
Aside from religious groups you can have other groups pulling this nonsense, the example that leaps to mind are home owners associations, with rules about how many cars are in the driveway, whether or not you can hang a clothes line or if your garage door needs to be open or closed.
Why do we do this to ourselves?
Maybe we should write a list of rules that boil down to how not to be a jerk to ourselves and others. Call it
The relationship between different branches of Christianity has often fascinated me. It’s like a strange, often angry, and at times violent competition. ‘My version is the most peaceful, and I’ll destroy anyone who claims otherwise!’ The history of Europe is woven with tales of Catholics and Protestants persecuting one another at every available opportunity.
Bruce, I’d love to know your thoughts on whether or not Protestants and Catholics could actually be of any use in combating the fanaticism of the Evangelicals?
“Bruce, I’d love to know your thoughts on whether or not Protestants and Catholics could actually be of any use in combating the fanaticism of the Evangelicals?”
They can be IF they are willing to stand up to Evangelicals. I live in an area that is dominated by right-wing Christianity and Republican politics. Even mainstream churches skew right. I only know of two mainstream pastors who are willing to voice their opposition to Evangelicalism.
Great point, Autumn ! There’s not enough of those rules for sure !