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Is It a Sin to Go to the Movie Theater?

mary poppinsBack in the days of my youth, the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) churches I attended banned their members from going to indoor and outdoor movie theaters. Their logic went something like this:

  • By attending movies, you were supporting evil, immoral Hollywood.
  • By attending movies, you might cause other Christians to think poorly of you. What if they saw you leaving a multiplex theater that offered G-rated and R-rated movies? They could wrongly assume that you were watching an R-rated movie and not a God-approved G-rated movie. This would lead to you having a bad testimony in the eyes of other believers.
  • By attending movies, you could cause spiritually weaker Christians to stumble. If these spiritually immature believers saw you attending a movie, they would assume that it was all right for them to watch a movie too. And their spiritual immaturity could result in them watching non-G-rated movies.

This same logic was applied to watching television and eating in restaurants that served the Devil’s brew, alcohol. (Please see Catch-All Bible Verses: I Will Set No Wicked Thing Before My Eyes) Several years ago, I wrote a post titled, The Preacher and His TV. Here’s an excerpt from this post that best explains how IFB churches view things such as movies and television:

My wife and I married in 1978. One of our first purchases was a used tube console color TV that we purchased from Marv Hartman TV in Bryan, Ohio. We paid $125. We continued to watch TV for a few years, until one day I decided that watching TV was a sin. This was in the mid-1980s. After swearing off watching TV, I decided that no one, if he were a good Christian anyway, should be watching television. One Sunday, as pastor of Somerset Baptist Church in Mt Perry, Ohio, I preached a 90-minute sermon on the evils of watching television and going to the movies. I called on all true Christians to immediately get rid of their TVs and follow their preacher into the pure air of a Hollywood-free world.

To prove my point, I gathered the congregation out in front of the church for a physical demonstration of my commitment to following the TV-hating Jesus. I put our TV in the church yard and I hit it several times with a sledge-hammer, breaking the TV into pile of electronic rubble. Like the record burnings of the 1970s, my act was meant to show that I was willing to do whatever it took to be an on-fire, sold-out follower of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

Just before I hit the TV with the sledge-hammer, a church member by the name of Gary said to me, Hey preacher, if you don’t want that TV I’ll take itHow dare he ruin my sin-hating demonstration! I thought at the time. I gave Gary a scowling look and proceeded to knock the devil right out of the TV. I am happy to report that not one church member followed in my TV-hating footsteps. What church members did do is make sure that their televisions were OFF when the man of God made an appearance at their home.


In the early 1990s, I would, from time to time, rent a television from a local rent-to-own business. Two times come to mind: the World Series and the 1991 Gulf War. Outside of that, my oldest three children grew up in a television-free home. They were teenagers: 18, 16, and 13, before they watched TV (except for watching Saturday cartoons when they were little). Well, this isn’t entirely true. When they visited their grandparents, they were permitted to watch TV (even though I wasn’t happy about them doing so). Like Amish children, they were mesmerized by Disney movies and cartoons.

After our family attended their first movie, I decided I would buy a television, setting in motion seven years of what any competent psychologist would call bizarre behavior. While what I am about to share will sound hilarious to those who never spent any time in Christian Fundamentalism, at the time, there was nothing humorous about my actions.

From 1998 through 2005, I purchased and got rid of at least six television sets. I gave one TV to the local crisis pregnancy center. I also gave one set to my son. The rest I sold at a loss. Why all the televisions? you might ask. Simple. After watching TV for a time, like a moth to a flame, I was drawn towards watching shows that I promised God I would never watch. Dear Lord, I promise I will only watch G or PG rated programming, and if there is any nudity, cursing, or gore I will immediately turn off the TV. No matter how much I wanted to be holy and righteous, I found that I loved watching programs that contained things that I considered sin.

My “sinning’ would go on for a few weeks until the guilt would become so great that I would say to God, you are right God. This is sin. I will get rid of the TV and I promise to never, never watch it again. Out the TV would go, but months later I would get the hankering to watch TV again and I would, unbeknownst to Polly, go buy a television.

It is clear now that my beliefs made me mentally and emotionally unstable. I so wanted to be right with God and live a life untainted by the world, yet I loved to watch TV. One time, after I came to the decision to get rid of yet another TV, Polly arrived home from work and found me sitting on the steps of the porch, crying and despondent. I hated myself. I hated that I was so easily led astray by Satan. I hated that I was such a bad testimony. Look at ALL that Jesus did for me! Couldn’t I, at the very least, go without watching TV for the sake of the kingdom of God?

I have written before about my perfectionist tendencies. I wanted to be the perfect Christian. God’s Word said to abstain from the very appearance of evil. Psalm 101:3 was a driving force in my life: I will set no wicked thing before mine eyes: I hate the work of them that turn aside; it shall not cleave to me.

Television was a wicked thing, I told myself, yet I continued to battle with my desire to watch sports and other programs on TV. Needless to say, the advent of internet, brought into our home a new way for me to be tempted to sin against the thrice holy God I pledged to serve, even unto death. I’m sure that my children will remember me putting a sign above our computer that quoted Psalm 101:3. This was meant as a reminder that we should NEVER view inappropriate, sinful things on the internet.

My three oldest children, now in their 30s, continue to rib me about my TV-crazed days. One of them will periodically ask if I am ready to get rid of our flat-screen TV. Their good-natured ribbing harkens back to the day when their Dad acted like a psycho, buying and selling televisions. At the time, I am sure they thought I was crazy, and I wouldn’t blame them if they did.

In the late 1990s, I came to the conclusion that it was not a sin to watch a movie as long as it was G or PG-rated. One Saturday evening, Polly and I loaded our children into the car and drove to a nearby drive-in theater. Polly was fearful, thinking that God would judge or kill us for going to the theater. I told her that I was confident that God wouldn’t judge us for watching Air Bud and George of the Jungle. Not that I knew this, of course. I had concluded that some of our Fundamentalist phobias were legalistic nonsense, and the prohibition against movie attendance was one such phobia. Over time, we, however, proved that IFB preachers were “right” about movies; right in the sense that once you start watching movies, you are on a downhill slide that leads to R-rated, NC-17-rated, and even X-rated movies. Over the years, our viewing habits did change, especially once we moved away from Evangelicalism. We didn’t, however, turn into vile, evil people who thirsted for the things of the flesh. Today, we watch what we want to watch, regardless of the rating. We generally prefer PG-13 or R-rated movies or M-rated TV programs.

Several years ago, a monumental event took place with Polly’s parents; one that we NEVER, EVER thought would happen. Polly grew up in a home where movie attendance was verboten. Well, almost verboten. Her family had a dirty little secret. When they went on vacation to Florida, they would go to the movies. Their logic, if you call it that, was that no one from their church would see them. This same logic was played out at the college we attended. Female students were not permitted to wear pants. Students were also not permitted to travel more than ten miles from the school. One Saturday evening, while out on a double date, Polly and I stopped at a mall that was outside of the ten-mile radius. Imagine our surprise when we saw the college president’s wife and her daughter strolling through the mall wearing pants! They never expected to run into students, so they felt safe wearing sinful, wicked, immoral pants. So it was with Polly’s family and movies while they were on vacation: out of sight, out of mind.

While at home, Polly’s family NEVER attended the movies. Doing so was a sin. But Bruce, weren’t Polly’s parents (and preacher uncle and aunt) being hypocritical; living one way at home and a different way while on vacation? Sure they were, but such inconsistencies were common among IFB preachers and congregants. As the case for almost all Evangelicals, they made it up as they went along. Behaviors that were sins in the 1970s became approved actions in the 1990s. In the late 1970s, the church Polly’s parents attended believed having facial hair was a big, fat s-i-n. Today? It is not uncommon to see male church members sporting mustaches and beards — but no long hair. Their current pastor has a beard! I have concluded that IFB churches, standard-wise, are about 20-30 years behind the “world.” Just wait long enough, and things that once were sins will no longer be so.

Back to the monumental event that took place during the holidays. My oldest son and his children visited Polly’s parents over Christmas. While there, he and his cousins and their children got together and went to a movie. While the cousins claim varying degrees of Evangelical Christianity, none of them has a problem with movie attendance. The shocking part of this story is that Polly’s mom and dad went with them! This was the first time in over fifty years that they attended a movie on their home turf. All told, twenty-two of them went to see a racy, violent movie — Mary Poppins Returns.

Only one family member held to the IFB standard: Polly’s widowed aunt. Her husband had been a hardcore IFB preacher for over fifty years. She couldn’t bring herself to violate the standard her husband had preached over all those years. Of course, once the movie comes out on DVD or Netflix, well then it will be okay to watch it. I remember having a “discussion” with her preacher husband back in late 1980s about the inconsistency of his stand on movies. He preached against attending movie theaters, mainly because doing so supported Hollywood and could lead to a bad testimony. However, he had no problem renting movies at the local video store; a store which, by the way, had a special room where they stocked explicit X-rated movies. Hypocritical? Yep, but that’s the norm in Evangelical churches, including IFB congregations. If a preacher or congregants want to do something that violates the law of the Medes and Persians, well they will find a way to get around the law. My problem was that I was a perfectionist who demanded strict obedience to the law. If going to a movie theater was a sin, so was renting movies from a video store. In the early 1990s, I tried to live — quite comically — according to the standard of not doing business with any concern that sold alcohol. I found that it was IMPOSSIBLE to do so. Every grocery store and most gas stations sold alcohol, as did upscale restaurants. Thus, I had to — dare I say — compromise my beliefs. Purity of belief was impossible.

Today, things are far different for Polly and me. God and the Bible no longer have any authority over us. We are free to do what we want. Having such freedom makes for living peaceable lives. We no longer worry about God raining fire from Heaven down on our heads or afflicting us with leprosy. We are free to live our lives as we wish. This doesn’t mean we are hedonists, doing as we want without compulsion or fear of consequences. We still live our lives according to personal standards and cultural norms, but we no longer let Christian beliefs determine how we live.

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 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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    As well as the hypocrisy, the idea that others would assume you were going to a non-approved movie is the default, and that is the motivator rather than avoiding the temptation of non-approved movies is disappointing and sad. And that there isn’t any effort to evangelize through action by being seen going to approved movies. And supporting movies with approved themes – I’m thinking the awful Kirk Cameron ones that the like. The way some Evangelicals shove their views down your throat, going to those movies seems like a way to do that large-scale.
    It’s wonderful that Polly’s parents allowed themselves to enjoy themselves and be with the family. Huzzah!

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    Karen the rock whisperer

    I have lived all my life in the San Francisco Bay Area, where people are pretty liberal, as are state rules on alcohol. Most restaurants, apart from fast-food places and those run by Muslims, serve at least beer and wine. The more expensive places invariably serve spirits.

    In the mid-1980s, I spent a lot of time with colleagues in Pensacola, FL, installing flight trainers. Many of my colleagues were originally from the UK, and expected to drink beer or wine with lunch and dinner. I spent more than one long lunch with a couple of those people, filling their beer mugs from the pitcher and listening attentively as they figured out novel solutions to one of our last-ten-percent problems. Great learning experience for the young engineer that I was.

    But in Pensacola, we discovered a phenomenon unknown in our part of California: the Family Restaurant. These seemed to be regular restaurants, not ‘ethnic’, with large menus sometimes featuring local Gulf seafood. But we quickly learned that ‘Family’ meaning NO ALCOHOL. We didn’t understand. In our circle of friends, adults often had beer or wine with dinner, and yet still managed to raise their children on non-alcoholic beverages.

    I understand now.

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    At our Southern Baptist church, there weren’t strict prohibitions about going to movies. Some people went and others didn’t. I don’t remember my grandma ever going to a movie theater for the reasons you mentioned about one’s “witness”. But at my fundamentalist Christian high school teachers in their contract were prohibited from attending movie theaters. Yet most had membership at the video store and would discuss movies with their students. That kind of hypocrisy put me off. We students were prohibited from attending the roller skating rink on threat of suspension but many kids took the risk and went anyway.

    Those types of legalistic prohibitions are ridiculous and I am glad to be free of them.

    I am glad to hear that Polly’s parents had a good time with the kids, putting away a foolish “rule”.

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    This post brings back so many memories.

    I’ll never forget the day one of the men in the church handed us a petition to sign asking the government to not open stores/restaurants on Sundays.

    Biker Dude looked at him and said no. I didn’t get a chance to understand what was going on at the moment and asked BD as we walked away what that was about. He told me and I laughed. I said, they all go to the local restaurants after church!

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    The craziness of this can still be found. . This guy goes on about the “problem” of nudity in film. Careful, the stupid can hurt. This is the “best quote” from it: “Nudity is not like murder and violence on the screen. Violence on a screen is make-believe; nobody really gets killed. But nudity is not make-believe. These actresses are really naked in front of the camera, doing exactly what the director says to do with their legs and their hands and their breasts. And they are naked in front of millions of people to see.”

    I’ll be chuckling about this for a long time.

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    That Other Jean

    Blue Laws! I remember growing up with those in Virginia. The last of them–the ones concerning sex–weren’t repealed until 1988.

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    My parents bought and destroyed several TVs during my childhood (’80s of course). Years later my dad finally thought it would technically be OK to see a G-rated movie in a theater, but we still weren’t allowed to go because of the potential evil posters we would see.

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    We kids wanted to go to the local theatre to see a kids movie that was there but dad got very preachy serious and told us that ‘we’ don’t attend that place because they show women half-naked there.
    So began, for me. a lifelong love of film.
    Every point Bruce lays out demonstrates the aim of Christianity to undermine people, to screw them around with lies and deception for profit. Christianity like this is despicable: If you are a preacher out there reading this please know that we see what you are up to, little pine beetle. We see how you promise heaven and try to hide the built-in self-harm. We see how you speak hatefully of others and call it love. You are dirty little agent calling me from afar to tell me that my computer is infected or that the tax department demands I pay them today in iTune cards! Yes, that is you preacher, Sunday School teacher, Christian school professor. My what big teeth you have!

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    Rand Valentine

    Love your perfectionism, Bruce. I remember long ago reading a tract with a title something like “Others may, you cannot!” It set perfection as one’s personal standard, despite what was going on around you, what others were doing. That message is still with me today, even though I long ago left Christianity. There is something really rational in pursuing perfection, hopeless as it always is. It seems the only logical standard.

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    I’m guessing your folks wouldn’t have approved of the film ‘Spotlight’. Whilst they maybe could dismiss it as an issue for the Catholic Church, it’s clear from your articles that the problem is much more widespread and envelopes all religious denominations, IFB included. Let’s also be clear. Sexual abuse is something that is especially an issue in the religious context. It isn’t, of course, only the religious domain in which it manifests itself, but religion provides the perfect backdrop: vulnerable people, authoritarian relationships, and an environment that inhibits human nature.

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    Ben Masters

    “By attending movies, you might cause other Christians to think poorly of you. What if they saw you leaving a multiplex theater that offered G-rated and R-rated movies? They could wrongly assume that you were watching an R-rated movie and not a God-approved G-rated movie. This would lead to you having a bad testimony in the eyes of other believers.”

    Or, by even seeing a classic TV show on DVD (like Emergency!, Perry Mason [the 50s and 60s CBS Burr series], or even Barney Miller), some Christians would automatically wrongly assume that you were seeing some of the worst of today (in terms of that fact that all of them were made in Hollywood [in those “Christians”‘ eyes, Hollywood means immorality, whether it’s classic or modern, B/W or color, sex or lack of, violence or lack of]); I myself have fought that for many years ever since I hit my head on a doorframe in my house while seeing Get Smart on DVD (wanted to make sure I had my mother’s phone so if I was called, she’d know where I was [I ran to get it, and as I was going back, I jumped and hit my head]), and as such, many classic shows I would have otherwise enjoyed were automatically deemed immorality by the loud, screaming voice in my head of Ralph Sexton, Jr. of Trinity Baptist Church of Asheville, NC, despite that fact that they were classics.

    I don’t understand why these jokers have to act like something they don’t have to see if they don’t want to (I am a live-and-let-live type of person mostly) is automatically off-limits to even us who don’t subscribe to what they believe.

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    Merle Hertzler

    “While what I am about to share will sound hilarious to those who never spent any time in Christian Fundamentalism, at the time, there was nothing humorous about my actions.”

    What you just shared does not sound at all odd to one who grew up in Fundamentalism. It was a way of life. Salvation was “free”, as long as you didn’t read the fine print. But after you signed up, and read the fine print of what you signed up for, there was constant shaming to follow many such rules.

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    Back in the early 80’s my family (me and my wife, and young son) went without TV for a whole year, until her mother came for a visit and brought a small TV for us. I have no idea why she brought us a TV – how could she have known, unless my wife told her 🙂 I never asked. I also, a few years earlier, took all of my Rock record albums (about $700 worth in 1980 dollars) to my church (IFB) for the pastor to break in front of the children at the Christian school. I have regretted that for many years.

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    My younger brother married a girl whose family was part of the “Friends” (believe it is a Quaker off shoot denomination). He had a finely crafted cabinet built where they could hide their huge TV set (this was back in the 1980’s when TVs had those cathode ray tubes). When the in-laws came by for a visit the TV was hidden behind cabinet doors as though it wasn’t there.

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    I am laughing about this remembering all the ridiculous rules not to give the “appearance of evil”. Recently, I brought that up to my non-evangelical-raised husband who gave me one of those “WTF” looks in response. I get those a lot when explaining evangelical culture.

    • Avatar

      I know that look! My hubby has given it to me many times when I explain my discomfort with something. A few times he has laughed so hard as I was explaining the reason behind my discomfort I thought he might lose bladder control. Lately I’ve been at the “I’ll explain why and then we both will laugh at my ridiculous reasoning.”

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    MJ LIsbeth

    Mary Poppins is such a temptress!

    I grew up Catholic. It has its Index, to which most people don’t pay attention. There didn’t seem to be any discouragement of TV or movie-going in general, though we were sometimes cautioned not to watch particular shows or movies.

    In the Evangelical church where I later got “saved,” the pastor cautioned against the evils of big and small screens and named some shows and movies in particular. But I know for a fact that most church members at least had a TV set and, at least occasionally, went to the movies. The funny thing is that I was reading novels, plays and poetry that, had that pastor or some members of the congregation read them, would have marked me as at either a vulnerable pawn or active tool of Satan.

    For a year, I taught in an Orthodox yeshiva. The boys I taught were forbidden from going to the movies, watching TV or playing video games. (The Internet wasn’t yet in wide usage.) A few of the boys admitted to me that they went to “friend’s houses” (most of my pupils didn’t know kids outside their community) or “the library” where they saw something “somebody else was watching..” Once, I told a boy, “Yes, I understand” as I winked.

    Oh, and any reading I wanted to assign first had to be approved by the rabbis lest there was anything the boys “could read sex into.” I am a woman now, but I grew up as a boy, so I know that there isn’t anything a boy of that age can’t “read sex into.”

    Looking back on those experiences, I realize that ecclesiastical (or pastoral) prohibitions against television, movies, the Internet or any parts of popular discourse and culture work just about as well as this country’s 1919-33 prohibition against alcohol –or the so-called War on Drugs.

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    I have watched some movies in theaters that were so bad I consider it a sin to have paid good money for them (pretty much anything based on a video game franchise)….

    So, is God approved erotica okay for all ages? I never encountered a Bible with the pages of Song of Songs torn out or glued together, nor expressions like “lay with his wife” or “went in unto his wife” blacked out (that second one doesn’t even rise to the level of euphemism). What about Esther? She lived in a harem? These books are just laying around the church for anyone to pick up. Think of the children!

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    Karen the rock whisperer

    The root issue is that religion is often a well-crafted social management scheme, designed iteration by iteration to assert social authority over followers by denying them most of their inclinations toward happiness-producing behaviors. The individuals with power to evolve the religion further and further in this direction might be controlling jerks who enjoy bending others to their will, lovers of their coreligionists who are sincerely convinced of the overwhelming benefit of the rule-breeding, or somewhere in-between. The result is the same, a religious bubble with thick walls, inside of which members are made unnecessarily miserable by stupid rules that damage their wellbeing rather than enhance it.

    I know that it’s possible to have a sincere belief in a deity or deities, participate in a church community (or equivalent in another religion), and not have religious-based rules make life more difficult. I’m aware that some people are either involved with variants of belief that don’t require orthodoxy, or they shrug it off. But I think these outposts of religious happiness are far less common than groups where people get twisted in knots by the demands of their religion.

    • Avatar
      Ben Masters

      “But I think these outposts of religious happiness are far less common than groups where people get twisted in knots by the demands of their religion.”

      Locust Grove Baptist Church in Alabama (I visited that place a couple of times when I stayed with my one sister and brother-in-law outside of Huntsville) was one of those outposts; when I visited for the first time, I thought that they would be all KJB-only, hide-bound, rule-bound and all that good stuff (to my surprise, they were nowhere near what I expected, and their approach was refreshing for a Baptist church, and made me want to go again).

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    Green Eagle

    Bruce, just so you don’t think this sort of behavior is solely the province of Christians, I tell this story: I work in film production. Some years ago, I was a production designer on a film shot in Israel. Part of the plot of this movie involved freeing some Russian girls who were entrapped in prostitution, a phenomenon sadly common in the Middle East. Because of this, we had to visit several strip clubs in Tel Aviv to find a location for our shooting. In virtually every one of them, we saw Orthodox Jewish males, enjoying the spectacle, dressed in their typical 19th century Polish costumes. Yeah, of course they had a hypocritical rationalization for this behavior, which I will not bother you with, as it pretty closely parallels what you have heard from Evangelicals in your own family. We found this so offensive that it is one realistic detail we left out of our movie.

    Anyway, sorry to hear of the death of Polly’s mother- not that she sounds like a decent person in any way, but I know that when you have an unloving parent, there is always the hope that things will improve, and the end of any chance of that happening can turn out to be far more painful than you might have expected.

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Bruce Gerencser