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That Look Your Therapist Gives You When You Tell Her About Your IFB College Years

My wife, Polly, and I attended Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan from 1976-1979. Midwestern, founded in 1954 by Dr. Tom Malone, the pastor of a nearby megachurch, Emmanuel Baptist Church, was known for its tenacious defense of Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) Christianity. Calling itself “a character-building factory,” Midwestern churned out male pastors, evangelists, and missionaries. Women attended Midwestern too, but their educational opportunities were limited: church secretaries or Christian school teachers. Many single female students went to Midwestern to look for a preacher boy to marry. Polly was one such woman. She believed that God wanted her to be a preacher’s wife; all she wanted to do in life was be a helpmeet to her God-called preacher husband.

Both Polly and I came of age in IFB churches. We attended churches that had strict codes of conduct, especially when it came to dating and sex. Physical contact between boys and girls was forbidden. No handholding, no kissing, no embraces. Frequently reminded from the pulpit and in youth group that petting, oral sex, intercourse, and even masturbation were wicked sins against God, teens feared God’s judgment and public exposure of their “sin.” Of course, this didn’t stop teens from breaking the rules. Raging hormones always win over God. 🙂

When Polly and I arrived at Midwestern in August 1976, we were already conditioned and indoctrinated to believe that Midwestern’s Puritannical, anti-human rules were “normal.” Polly never had a boyfriend before me, so the rules seemed normal to her. I dated a few girls in high school and had one serious relationship before arriving at Midwestern. I was definitely the more experienced of the two of us, but that’s not saying much. I was still quite naive about sex. I thought that the rules were just godly older adults looking out for me; that they knew best. Both Polly and I would later learn that not only didn’t they know best, but that their rules actually caused us harm; harm that would carry through into the first decade of our marriage.

Dorm students were required to follow a strict code of conduct. Failure to obey resulted in a student being given a demerit slip. This required a face-to-face appearance at the weekly disciplinary meeting. Students were also allowed to snitch on other students. They could write an offending student up, and then put the demerit slip in a box outside the dean’s office. This led to all sorts of retaliatory snitching.

Virtually every aspect of life was strictly regulated. One time, I got written up for borrowing a unisex parka from Polly. Students were not allowed to borrow from one another. When I appeared before the disciplinary committee, I thought I would use the Bible to plead my case:

[Jesus said] Give to him that asketh thee, and from him. that would borrow of thee turn not thou away. (Matthew 5:42)

That didn’t go very well. I received a stern rebuke and ten demerits.

The most severe punishment was reserved for those who broke the six-inch rule. Couples were not permitted to be closer than six inches to each other. Breaking this rule could result in expulsion. During our sophomore year, Polly and I broke the six-inch rule. I played on the college’s basketball team. Don’t think too much of that. Think intramural basketball. One practice, I slapped at a basketball and severely dislocated the middle finger on my left hand (I’m lefthanded). I had to go to the emergency room to get the finger reset. For several weeks I had a hard time tying my tie for classes. One day, Polly was waiting for me in the dorm common area, so I asked her to tie my necktie for me. Sitting nearby was a couple known for being Pharisees. They secretly turned us into the disciplinary committee for breaking the six-inch rule. Polly and I both received 50 demerits for our “crime.” I had other demerits on my record, so I was close to being campused for the semester.

polly shope bruce gerencser 1977
Polly Shope and Bruce Gerencser, February 1977, Midwestern Baptist College Sweetheart Banquet, the only time we were allowed to be closer than six inches apart.

As I told my therapist today about my experiences at Midwestern she got that look on her face; you know THAT look; the one that says “this is nuts.” We had a lengthy discussion about how decades of legalistic indoctrination and conditioning affected not only me personally, but also my marriage and children. My therapist appreciated me telling her these things, saying doing so gave her better insight into my past and how it affected my psychology.

However the IFB church movement is labeled — is it a cult? — one thing is certain, long-term exposure to IFB beliefs and practices can and does cause psychological harm, and at times, can cause physical harm. Sexual dysfunction is rife among IFB adherents. Is it any wonder? It took Polly and me years to understand, appreciate, and experience healthy sexual practices. It took kicking God, the church, and the Bible out of our bedroom before we could truly enjoy sexual intimacy. It’s not that we had a bad sex life as much as we had a dysfunctional one; one infected with legalism and Bible prooftexts.

As mentioned above, Midwestern was started by Dr. Tom Malone, a powerful orator who was raised in rural Alabama. In the 1920s, Malone attended Bob Jones College. It was here that he was exposed to rigid, cultic, legalistic Fundamentalism. Many of the rules at Midwestern were imported from Bob Jones. And therein lies the danger of IFB theology and practice. Both are like a virus that spreads from generation to generation, infecting everyone that it touches. I don’t blame Malone and my professors for the harm they caused. They too were indoctrinated in the “one true faith.” They did what they know to do, not out of malice, but because they thought doing so was godly and right. One of the hardest things for me to come to terms with is that not only was I a victim, but I was also a victimizer. Yes, IFB churches, pastors, and professors led me astray, causing untold harm, but I also did the same. I passed on to Polly, our children, and the people I pastored the only things I knew about life, faith, sexuality, and Christianity. What I “knew” was ignorant and harmful, but it was all I knew. It took a crisis of faith for me to realize that what I had been taught and what had been modeled to me was not merely wrong, it was harmful, not only to me personally, but also to the love of my life, our six children, and the people who called me preacher.

This blog is, if anything, an act of penance; my way of atoning for my sins. I may not have known any better, but I still must account for my behavior. And in telling my story, others who were swallowed whole by the IFB church movement, will hopefully hear my words and find them helpful.

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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    It amazes me how the college could punish people for a simple act of kindness (helping with a tie, lending a jacket, etc.) Hardly the same as passionate fornication in public. At least that kind of fun would be worth a few demerits 😈
    Seriously, if a student stopped breathing, and a student of opposite gender had to give CPR (mouth to mouth resuscitation) would the school punish them? Wouldn’t surprise me if they did.

  2. Avatar
    Mike Armstrong

    I was sent to detention for playing solitaire in dorm room because a fellow student came in for a haircut from my roommate and he saw me playing cards on my desk. He told me, “I feel it is my ‘Christian duty’ to turn you in.” Another time I was sent to the disciplinary committee for returning to campus five minutes past our weekday curfew. A student, who was with us turned himself and the three of us in because we went to Wendy’s. Legalism at its best. I did not attend an IFB school, it was another denomination with the same strict guidelines.

  3. Avatar
    MJ Lisbeth

    Missi—Your question about CPR is a good one. What if you touched a member of the opposite sex to save their life?

    Bruce—Was anyone ever disciplined or expelled for making physical contact with a member of their own gender? Were their tactile ventures ever seen as surreptitious expressions of the most forbidden (in the religious world, anyway) kind of love?

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      Yes, MJ, I read of a charity which sends swimming teachers to Bangladesh, which has massive frequent floods. They teach women to swim, cos if females get out of their depth in a flood situation, no man who is not a relative can dive in to rescue them. They also do something to help the women swim in their long restricting robes….guess those IFB-ers might even approve of those drownings!

    • Avatar
      Melissa Montana

      MJ, I was thinking of a few years ago when those girls were allowed to burn to death in their school dorm because the Muslim clerics decided they couldn’t be rescued unless they had full coverings. Can’t remember what country it was. These IFB preachers are not far away from such thinking.

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    Yulya Sevelova

    Bob Jones University….. wasn’t this the famous college always in the news for it’s racist policies and scandals related to that ? The place sounds familiar.
    So Tom Malone came from Alabama ! Well, that explains a LOT. No wonder he was such a hardcore nutball ! And unfortunately, he set the tone for Midwestern and other institutions. That’s too bad. As a new Christian and regular churchgoer years ago, I couldn’t help but be rather vexed at the high proportions of ministers and pastors from the Deep South, with all that cultural baggage dominating their outlooks and behavior. Finding a preacher without this contaminant, even in California was difficult. Don’t know about today. Oh, it’s SO good not to be near such people anymore !!🤩👍

  5. Avatar
    Yulya Sevelova

    CPR- important point ! Hadn’t thought about that one. The kids turning each other in so dutifully, this reminded of how the Communists and Nazis used informers to keep tabs on, and enforce fear, to control the people. Very similar ! Christofascism is a real thing ! I’m watching the 2024 presidential races with a fair amount of dread.

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    I didn’t remember the story about being disciplined for borrowing a jacket! That’s definitely nuts!

    I also found it fun to educate my therapist on the legalism of evangelicalism. She was familiar with Jewish Orthodox legalism, but evangelicalism was new to her.

    Religious legalism is indeed a harmful virus that affects so many people. Look at the way our laws are being shaped by it with so many trying to oppress women, people of color, LGBTQ people, immigrants….. I am getting an education in voting restrictions as I visit my daughter in Tennessee. She has a driver’s license and a voter ID card, and apparently several voter ID cards are sent before an election which confuses people regarding which is the most recent card they have received. You can only vote if you produce the most recent card.

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Bruce Gerencser