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The Fear of Losing Face: Why Many Evangelical Pastors Refuse to Change Their Minds

i am right

Evangelical preachers are known for being obstinate, bullheaded, arrogant creatures. Rare is the preacher who changes his mind or admits he is wrong. My wife’s uncle, the late James Dennis (The Family Patriarch is Dead: My Life With James Dennis), pastor of the Newark Baptist Temple in Newark, Ohio, stated more than once that his beliefs had never changed; that the beliefs he had when entering the ministry were the same beliefs he had fifty years later. Polly’s mom, a member of the Baptist Temple, was proud of the fact that her pastor was resolute in his beliefs. In her mind, certainty of belief is a desired trait — well, as long as the beliefs were the “right” ones.

I entered the ministry in the 1970s as an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) preacher. My beliefs were almost identical to those of James Dennis. While Jim’s beliefs remained static over the years, mine did not. Over time, many of my beliefs changed — sometimes dramatically. This, of course, should be the norm. Every preacher leaves college with a borrowed theology — that which was taught to them by their pastors and professors. We all have to start somewhere, right? However, over time studious reading habits should lead to careful examination of borrowed theological beliefs. I know it did for me. I spent thousands and thousands of hours reading and studying the Bible, along with voraciously reading theological tomes. As time went along my beliefs evolved. By the late 1980s, I abandoned my IFB beliefs and embraced Calvinism, and in the early 2000s, I shelved Calvinism for a liberal Mennonite view of theology and practice. The same can be said for my eschatological beliefs. I entered the ministry as a pretribulational, premillennial dispensationalist (borrowed theology). In the mid-1980s, I embraced Marv Rosenthal’s midtribulational position, and by the 1990s, I had abandoned my former eschatological beliefs for posttribulational, amillennial beliefs (a common eschatological position among Calvinists). Over the years, virtually every one of my beliefs changed to one degree or the other. I shared with my counselor today how my beliefs about family and children had evolved over the years. Polly and I planned to have three children. By 1984 we had accomplished our goal. Five years later, firmly Calvinists who believed in the absolute sovereignty of God, we stumbled upon the Quiverfull movement. This led to us having three more children before we finally saw the light (out of medical necessity) and rediscovered rubbers. 🙂

Several years after I deconverted, I received a scathing email from Keith Troyer, an IFB preacher who was my best friend back in my days pastoring in southeast Ohio. I hadn’t heard from Keith in years. He made no attempt to reconnect or find out how we were doing. No, in classic IFB-fashion, Keith laid into me, saying I was mentally unstable and under the influence of Satan. In Keith’s mind, my history of changing beliefs was proof that I had a screw loose. Keith, on the other hand, is still preaching the same stuff he was preaching in the late 1980s. I have listened to a number of Keith’s sermons on Youtube. I was struck by how little his beliefs and preaching have evolved.

In most professions, intellectual growth and maturity are encouraged. Not in Evangelicalism (and I speak broadly). Why is this? Why do so many Evangelical preachers refuse to change their minds about their beliefs and practices? Let me posit several reasons why this is so.

First, Evangelical preachers believe the Bible is the inspired, inerrant, infallible Word of God. Its words are perfect, without error. This leads preachers to believe that their interpretations of the Bible are perfect, without error too. They pass this certainty on to their congregants through their preaching and teaching. This is why it is almost impossible to have thoughtful discussions with Evangelicals. There is no room in their worldview for being wrong. In their minds, if they are wrong, God is wrong, and since God is never, ever wrong about anything — including slavery, genocide, treating women as chattel, and drowning children for their parent’s sin — they can’t be wrong either. If this blog has done anything over the past fourteen years, it has provided rich documentation for the fact that many Evangelicals are intractable, unable to consider any belief or worldview but God’s, I mean their own. I promised not to talk about TEWSNBN in 2022, but I can’t miss this opportunity to present him as the poster child for Evangelical intractability and arrogance. He is not, in any way, special or unique. Countless TEWSNBNs have commented on this blog or sent me emails over the years. All of them have one key character trait: certainty. They are absolutely certain that their beliefs are right, and anyone who believes differently from them is wrong and could end up in Hell for their wrong beliefs.

Second, Evangelical preachers are viewed as men of God, oracles and dispensers of divine truth. Their churches expect them to be certain about their beliefs. No one wants a pastor who isn’t confident in his beliefs. Why? Most church members have borrowed theologies — their pastors. Most church members believe whatever their pastors believe. In the late 1980s, I embraced Calvinism. The church I was pastoring at the time had nary a problem with my radical change of beliefs. One family left the church, but everyone else went along for the ride. You see, my church implicitly, and without reservation, trusted me. “Preacher would never lead us astray,” church members thought. Little did they know that, according to my critics, I was a godless false prophet the whole time.

Third, standing in the pulpit and saying to the church “I was wrong” is viewed as a sign of weakness and lack of faith. Evangelical church members want preachers who are “winners,” men who know what they believe and stand firm on those beliefs. I can’t remember a time when I ever heard an Evangelical preacher admit from the pulpit that he was wrong about something. Imagine a preacher telling his church that the voice in his head that he said was “God” was actually his own. Imagine him abandoning all the “spiritual” language about the Holy Spirit’s leading and admitting that the reason he wants to do X is that he wants to. “God is leading us to put blue carpet in the auditorium,” the preacher tells his church. Imagine him being honest: “We are putting blue carpet in the auditorium because blue is my favorite color.” Why, this preacher would be run out of town on a rail!

Fourth, the Bible says in James 1:8 a double-minded man is unstable in all his ways. According to my former friend Keith Troyer, I am a double-minded man. My double-mindedness has made me unstable in all my ways. How else can he explain how I went from being a sold-out follower of Jesus to an atheist? There must be something wrong with me. Not the religion, not the beliefs, me. If I could ever get Keith to honestly and openly and with intellectual rigor examine the central claims of Evangelical Christianity, I know he would see he is wrong about many things — especially King James-onlyism. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that will happen. Sunk costs keep my former friend tethered to the Old Ship of Zion. Years ago, after learning I was no longer King James-only, Keith told me that even if I could show him an error in the King James Bible he wouldn’t believe it (and I provided him a list of errors in the KJV). Keith went on to tell me that by faith he believes the KJV is the perfect words of God. Imagine what would happen if Keith finally admitted that KJV-onlyism cannot be rationally and intellectually sustained. Why admitting this out loud would destroy his career. This is why many Evangelical preachers do have doubts and questions about their belief, yet never say they do to anyone.

In Evangelical churches, perception is everything. Preachers are expected to portray strength and certainty. Church members want to see confidence, not doubt. Preachers who display these character traits do well, and those who don’t end up working at Radio Shack or selling used cars. Evangelical churches continue to thrive and grow because they present themselves as dispensers of absolute truth. Greg Locke, a bat-shit crazy Evangelical preacher in Tennessee, attracts hundreds of people to his church. Why? He preaches the gospel according to QAnon and Donald Trump. In a world that is ever-evolving, Christians want certainty, and Locke and others like him give them the certainty they crave.

Of course, an increasing number of Evangelical preachers do have questions and doubts. Unable to reconcile their evolving beliefs with those carved in stone, these men (and women) have three choices: openly share their changed beliefs with their churches and get fired; say nothing, hiding their changing beliefs, hoping to make it to retirement age; or quietly resign. I chose the latter of these. When I could no longer rationalize the central claims of Christianity, I walked away. I make no judgment of preachers who chose a different path. For me personally, I found it impossible to keep my mouth shut and fake it.

Please share your thoughts on this subject in the comment section. Are you an ex-Evangelical preacher? I would especially love to hear from you.

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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.

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4 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Ben Berwick

    You’re not wrong about him, he continues to mention you, no doubt in the hope of provoking.

    To comment on the wider post, you’re absolutely right. Evangelicals (indeed, any form of religious fundie, or fundie full-stop) are incapable of changing their minds, on just about any subject. Winning the argument is more important than facts. Saving face matters more than honesty. They have a deep psychological need to hold on to their views, as though their views are some form of emotional crutch they cannot bear to be without.

  2. Avatar
    ObstacleChick

    It’s funny that a pastor like Greg Locke would preach the Gospel According to QAnon and Donald Trump as if those things were eternal truths as neither was relevant a mere decade ago….. (of course, QAnon is really just Satanic Panic 2.0 and Donald Trump is just another representative of far right wing politics -indeed, he is the image of what many populist neo-fascist white supremacist Christian nationalist folks desire in a leader).

    I have a handful if friends from my evangelical past who are openly struggling with what they see and experience evangelical as now. They are in this belief system that teaches inerrancy of the Bible and that God’s word doesn’t change, but they are witnessing and personally experiencing how real people are being hurt by all that. I feel for them.

  3. Avatar
    Buck

    Life is hard, confusing and in many ways uncertain… So far, I’ve observed 100% of people die. We might then cease to exist. What if Jesus is right? Just a thought..

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Bruce Gerencser