I came of age in the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church movement in the 1960s and 1970s. IFB churches are known for fighting amongst themselves, often over trivial matters. These internecine wars are fueled by pastors who are certain their beliefs and practices are not only right but also straight from the Bible — God’s inspired, inerrant, infallible Word. Prooftexts abound. Every point of contention is justified by one or more King James Bible verses. No issue is insignificant. If it’s in the Bible, IFB preachers say, how dare we trivialize God’s Word! Thus, churches split, pastors resign, and fellowship groups dissolve over issues trivial and insignificant.
I’ve seen or heard of open warfare between followers of the Prince of “Peace” over things such as:
- Long hair on men
- Short hair on women
- Pants on women
- Wearing blue jeans
- Wearing jewelry
- Wearing wire-rimmed glasses
- Wearing shorts
- Wearing culottes (Baptist shorts)
- Playing cards
- Going to movies
- Eating at places that sold alcohol
- Beard and mustaches (on men) 🙂
- Bible translations
- Rock music
- Contemporary Christian music (CCM)
- Mixed swimming
- Physical contact between unmarried teens, young adults
- Sending your child to a secular college
- Sending your child to the wrong Christian college
These things are just a taste of the conflicts that go on in IFB churches. Sometimes, church members leave and go to another church over points of disagreement. Other times, they stay and work behind the scenes to foment disunity. After all, God cares about these things; shouldn’t they? Or so the thinking goes, anyway. More than a few churches have split over such issues.
From 1995-2002, I pastored Our Father’s House in West Unity, Ohio. This church was a delight to pastor, but we did have conflict one time over a monumental, life-changing matter: using contemporary Christian music in our worship services. 🙂
I started the church as a traditional Independent Baptist church. We sang hymns and choruses. I decided to introduce contemporary Christian music into our worship services using what is called blended worship — a mix of hymns, choruses, and contemporary music. Our three oldest children started taking music lessons. Our oldest played the bass, and the other two played electric/acoustic guitars. We bought an expensive electronic keyboard — a Clavinova. A woman in our church, classically trained, played the piano and led worship, and Polly and another woman sang too. I was quite proud of what we had put together. The music was phenomenal — relevant and inspiring. Every week we sang a mix of classic Baptist hymns, contemporary music, and choruses. Everyone loved the music except for three families, aged 50s to 70s. They demanded change, I said no, and out the door they went, never to be heard from again. (This story is a bit more complicated than this, but I will leave its telling to another day.)
I pastored seven churches over the course of twenty-five years. In every church, I had people get upset, raise a ruckus, and leave. The issues that upset them were almost always trivial in nature, often little more than differences of opinion over how to interpret this or that verse or how to properly live out the teachings of the Bible. And sometimes I was the problem. I remember one dear couple, Terry and Wendy Broceus, leaving the church because I insisted Wendy only wear dresses/skirts. Terry drove one of the church buses and Wendy sang specials during worship services. They were (and still are) devoted followers of Jesus. They regularly attended church, tithed, and participated in various church ministries. Yet, because I had a strict code of conduct for ministry participants, I expected them to play by the rules. So, the Broceuses left. My unwillingness to bend on the pants issue cost the church a good family. Several years ago, I apologized to Wendy for what happened. (Please see A Letter to a Former Parishioner: Dear Wendy.) Such skirmishes and conflicts were/are common in IFB churches. At pastor’s fellowships, preachers would get together and share war stories, gossip, and complain about contrarian church members. Rare was a preacher who didn’t have one or more stories to share. Quite frankly, without conflict, most IFB preachers wouldn’t know what to do.
Other Evangelical sects have similar problems too. Take the recent skirmish over whether men should paint their fingernails. Worship singer Corey Asbury recently said that he didn’t have a problem with men painting their nails. He called opposition to the practice a “social construct” that needs to change:
That is cultural, it has zero to do with the Bible, Jesus, Christianity, moral code at all in general.
Asbury’s pro-colored fingernails stance caused several Evangelicals to get their panties in a twist. Marcus Rogers said that Asbury was promoting something that could lead people astray:
Say it’s just a culture thing that men can’t wear lipstick, you know, or men can wear hoop earrings, men can wear dresses and things like that. You go down that rabbit hole and things don’t stop.
I am a sixty-five-year-old curmudgeon. I don’t get the nail painting thing. One of my sons occasionally paints his nails. My youngest daughter will paint my youngest grandsons’ nails now and again. This practice is quite foreign to my boomer brain, but that’s okay. I don’t have to “get” it. I might laugh, sigh, and go “hmm,” when I see certain things, but I’m not going to get in a fight with people over how they dress, cut their hair, or paint their fingernails. To put it bluntly, who gives a shit? Think for a moment about all the serious issues facing the human race, yet Evangelicals spend time fussing and fighting over non-important, trivial matters. Want to paint your nails? Go ahead. Don’t want to? That’s fine too. This approach could be applied to 99% of the things Evangelicals fight over. Each to their own. Of course, religious Fundamentalism demands conformity. They fight because EVERY issue matters. Diversity of thought is never welcome. One IFB evangelist said, “fellowship is a bunch of people in a boat rowing in the same direction.” God forbid if a church member thinks differently, dresses differently, or paints his or her nails red, white, and blue. Does anyone really believe that when they stand before God (I’m speaking as an Evangelical) that he is going to care about what color they painted their nails? “Only clear coat was approved by Me! You shall be banished to a cheap cabin on Trump Drive for wearing turquoise polish!” Will “This Was Your Life” Judgment Day really be all about the trivial, superficiality of life? I suspect that most of the things IFB preachers spent an inordinate amount of time preaching about will not even be on God’s radar on Judgment Day. If the Bible is true, as Evangelicals say it is, we do know what will actually be on God’s mind when they stand before him:
When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: and before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: and he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: for I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not. Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee? Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me. And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.
As an atheist, I don’t think the Bible is true. However, I do support caring for the least of these; those who are sick, hungry, and dying. Jesus and I seem to agree on this matter. 🙂 Haha — an atheist taking the Word of God more seriously than Evangelicals. What’s up with that? 🙂
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 agree 100%. I remember there was 2 big IFB churches in Jackson, Michigan. (There were others but I speak of the “big 2”) anyhow they constantly accused the other of being “worldly” and “unseperated” yet both were IFB, KJV etc. the big deals?
One allowed women to wear pants and shorts but refused to allow “canned music” (background tapes) even visiting groups they only allowed live instrumentals. The other church allowed canned music and had many visiting concert groups. Yet, women had to wear skirts, dresses etc. and they had a pool table which of course was evil LOL
Looking back now, I just find it dumb.
Thumbs up, Bruce! I’m just one year behind you in the curmudgeon category, and I’ve come to the conclusion that the people who uniquely walk a path that’s contrary to cultural conformity and express themselves in an uncommon independent way are the people I want to get to know. They exhibit a proud “I-don’t-give-a-shit-what-you-think-of-me” aura that I find inspirational.
I’ve been there. Not only did I have the Bible to support my view, but I had God’s spirit inside me telling me I was right (or so it seemed to me.) The problem is that others also had God’s spirit telling them I was wrong (or so it seemed to them).
If we are really hearing from God, then doing what God is telling us, instead of what rational thought says, is actually humility. For who are we to go against the spirit of God? And thus we see “humble” Christians humbly demanding that the spirit in them is right and the spirit is not directing others to do otherwise. That, my friend, is a recipe for church splits.
If people can deny empirical truths—or, at least, things for which there is more than ample evidence, they’ll go to war over how they see something that’s open to interpretation.
Religion, by definition, is based on things that are open to interpretation. What makes the fighting so vicious—and makes Christians, especially Evangelicals and Fundamentalists feel so entitled to intrude in other people’s lives—is that those things that are open to interpretation are taken as empirical facts. So the sort of fighting Bruce describes seems all but inevitable.
I was shocked as a new x-tian, aged around 15yo. Newly baptised and welcomed into member ship of my baptist church, I proudly attended my first church meeting. There seemed to be a lot of adamant opinions about……….what colour we should choose for the re-painting of the sanctuary and a heated debate which seemed kind of wrong to my young mind!
Here in my welsh village, the anglican church could no longer support a welsh-speaking vicar for the welsh church and an english one for the english one a mile away. So, a joint vicar was appointed. In order to celebrate both Eucharists, one after the other, she had to change the time of the welsh service from 10am to 9 30am….you’d have thought the world was about to end, the unpleasantness this caused. Poor woman was blamed and disliked by some 10am-ers for years afterwards and numbers dropped. It was so hard for her to make sense of her unpopularity, she had good people-skills and I felt very sorry for her, that these petty folk couldn’t see the logical reason for the new timetable and left the church cos of it!
When I was 16, I had to undergo a cervical fusion. Those of you who are American football fans, this is functionally the same surgery Peyton Manning had. For those who are not, this is the same sort of surgery Gloria Estefan had to have on her spine after her bus accident in 1990(ish?) but hers was done to her thoracic spine; mine was done to my neck bones.
In any event, the surgery left me with a five-inch scar bisecting the back of my neck. I had to wear a soft collar on my neck for six months after surgery.
A few days after I was discharged from the hospital, my younger sister came into the room while my mother was changing the dressing on the incision on my neck. She took one look at it and vomited.
This interaction informed my decision to deliberately grow something of a half-mullet, wearing my hair long enough in the back to cover the scar … but I’m an Army brat, so the front and sides were accordingly kept short.
My freshman year of college was my first encounter with a sidewalk preacher who singled me out from the crowd. First he told me I was visibly a sinner because I have a disability and walked with crutches (because apparently John 9:3 wasn’t in his Bible).
Then he told me I was visibly a sinner because I wore my hair long. I may have mobility limitations and weighed 110 pounds soaking wet at that point (ahh, those were the days …) but it took four people to drag me away from him.
The next day I found him before he started preaching and tried to explain about the scar. He didn’t want to hear it.
Several years later, I found him on Facebook. He remembered me – it’s not every day a man the size of Danny DeVito with a Frankenstein-like scar waves his crutches in your face, I suppose – but even with a picture of the scar, he stood by his claims about the length of my hair. He said “the scar’s not even that bad.” (This is quite true. Most scars look better after they’ve had 25 years to heal, which is why I now wear my hair short in the back again.)
He also rejected the idea that I had since become a believer. According to him, people who seek him out later who have really become believers tend to have a Hallmark moment where they break down sobbing and thanking him for showing them the light.
Not that I want him to attract unwanted visitors, but I understand there may be genuine curiosity about him. In the interest of facilitating satisfaction of that curiosity, this is his Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/jim.gilles.5
By the way, he also has a policy of not responding to DMs. I suppose if you don’t think you’ve ever done anything wrong, there’s no reason anyone would try to follow Matthew 18:15 to talk to you about it. So, of course, any followup you may want to do should be done publicly.
Apparently such disagreements are nothing new. ages ago I read something about Christians about 1000 years ago. Monks from different monasteries got into arguments, if not actual brawls, about the proper way to wear the hair. some shaved the top of the head, others shaved the front of the head from ear to ear. Jonathan
Swift ridiculed such behavior in Gulliver’s Travels. he describes the people from Lilliput fighting about whether to cut a soft boiled egg open at the larger or the smaller end. (Gulliver ends the war by “kidnapping” both navies)
“Haha — an atheist taking the Word of God more seriously than Evangelicals. What’s up with that?”
Jesus was definitely onto something, and if we take his advice seriously, we make our own lives and those of many others better. We ex-Christians can know that while much of the Bible is all about controlling people, somehow the men who codified the text realized that this advice was helpful. (Not that I mean to paint them in a bad light; they were people of their time, leading the flock the best they could. Some of what they did was outstanding,)
But my experience with Paulists (because Evangelicals are far more into Paul’s words than those of Jesus) is that they’re all about performance. What you wear. What your kids wear. How little a woman can contribute in church, regardless of whether she has all day to study at the feet of the local preacher, while her husband works. (Paul was a misogynist jerk, but normal for his time.) The Catholic priests and nuns of my youth understood that Paul and the other New Testament letter writers were working out of a fiercely restrictive environment, cut them lots of slack, and tried to share their message in end-of-twentieth-century terms.
The Evangelicals didn’t get the memo.
Skimming through this post again, I noticed that one of the points of contention is eating at a restaurant that serves alcohol. Where I have lived most of my life, in the San Francisco Bay Area in California, nobody in their right mind opens a dinner restaurant without a license to at least serve beer and wine. But back in 1985-1987, I spent a fair amount of time traveling to Pensacola, Florida, on business My usual companions were fellow engineers, but the guys were imports from England, and they couldn’t conceive of dinner without a beer to accompany it.
We discovered the hard way what the term “Family Restaurant” in that area means: no alcohol. Damn, the guys were annoyed. I didn’t care, I ordered “unsweet” iced tea. (Another cultural difference between California and the Southern US: where I’m from, iced tea always comes unsweetened, and there are sugar and artificial sweetener packets on the table,)
The food was really good. We never ate there again.
Bruce, this is hardly a phenomenon only of evangelicals. The fringes of every political movement fragment into myriad lunatic, cultlike groups. I don’t expect anyone to pursue this suggestion, but if you read Lenin’s masterful analysis of the left wing movements in Russia from 1900 until the revolution, you will encounter the exact same phenomenon. If you are interested, I would suggest starting with “Left Wing Communism- An Infantile Disorder,” which is readily available online.
The subject of this blog is Bruce’s journey from evangelicalism to atheism and humanism. He is a subject matter expert on evangelicalism and especially the IFB as he spent 25 years pastoring evangelical churches. There’s a name for what you’re doing here. It’s called “whataboutism.” If you want to delve into fringe movements on the Left in human history, you are perfectly free to do so on your own blog or start one for that purpose. It is not Bruce’s stated purpose to cover those matters.
While it isn’t Bruce’s stated purpose to delve into communist movements, comparative organizational history studies is a helpful subject for those who have the time, helps people understand how groups with radically different beliefs could act in similar ways.
And BTW I don’t think “whataboutism” applies in this situation. You may be looking for a situation like when the USA raises the Uyghur issue, the PRC responds with “what about black slavery”?