One of the important things about growing up Southern Baptist is the concept of “believer Baptism.” This means that unlike other Christian sects which practice infant baptism, members of the Baptist faith choose their own timing for Baptism, based on when they feel they are ready. Many of my peers did this when they were around the ages of 8-14 (I was 12), often after a youth retreat or some other special service directed toward youth. There was no small amount of peer pressure and/or family pressure involved. The family pressure existed because (a) parents want to make sure their kids “get saved” so that they can enjoy eternity in heaven not go to hell and (b) parents often viewed it as a personal failure if their kid didn’t make a profession of faith; no one needed their Christian parental skills to be judged by the Smiths and Joneses in the congregation. Peer pressure played a role because (a) it was easier to make a profession of faith en masse with other youth rather than being the center of attention and going it alone, and (b) kids didn’t want to be gossiped about any more than usual by their peers as being “lost” or “unsaved” or “worldly.” There were some who may have chosen baptism as adults, particularly people who did not grow up in a church or who never had experienced baptism, or perhaps someone who had been baptized as an infant but wanted to have his or her own believer baptism experience. A lot of Baptist churches don’t consider baptism in other churches to be “Real Baptism.”
As children in the Baptist church, we would attend Sunday school on Sunday mornings, followed by the church service. Wealthier churches that could afford staff or could recruit volunteers would have a separate Children’s Church for the under-12 crowd. There was a time when our church had a Children’s Church, and I much preferred that to being in Big Church with the adults. Big Church was really boring. I liked the music, but once the sermon started, I was bored out of my mind and had to find ways to occupy myself while the preacher was giving his sermon. I was supposed to look interested or at least to behave and not fidget, but it was really hard. I would occupy myself by counting the chandeliers, counting the windows, counting window panes, counting the number of boards on the ceiling, or counting pews. Sometimes I would count how many people were wearing a certain color, then move on to the next color. Sometimes I’d try to read the words of the songs in the hymnal or less often would try to read the Bible, but the language of King James’ English was cumbersome. Big Church was just torture.
At the end of each service, there would always be the Altar Call. A mood-setting song was sung by the choir and congregation (often “Just As I Am”), and the preacher would stand at congregation level in front of the altar so that any who felt called could go down front and profess their faith in front of the entire congregation. Occasionally someone would go, but there were far more people who “rededicated their lives to Christ” or went to pray to confess some sin. Those who went forward to “get saved” or to rededicate their lives to Christ would shake the preacher’s hand, and then one of the deacons would take the person aside to ask questions and fill out a card with their information. The questions were generally about whether the person recognized that they were a sinner in need of God’s saving grace, and did they accept that Jesus died on the cross and rose again for their sins. Then when the song was over, the preacher would pray and thank God that a new believer had come forward, and after the prayer everyone would file forward to shake the hand of the new believer. Then we would all go home. At a later service, there would be a Baptism. The church usually tried to schedule several people together because performing the Baptism took a lot of work.
Because my grandfather worked afternoons and evenings, he had mornings free to do other things. When I wasn’t in school, he’d take me along with him on whatever errands he was doing. A lot of times we would go to the church so he could work on the air conditioning or refrigeration equipment that needed tending. He did this pro bono as a member of the church. He was a deacon and for a while was on the Buildings and Grounds Committee, so he took responsibility for making sure the church was taken care of in whatever way he could.
Going along with Grandpa meant that I got to explore the church on my own. Sometimes I’d hide items or notes around the church so I could find them later or to see if other people found them. One Monday morning we went to the church while Mr. Hall, the janitor, was cleaning out the baptistry. For those unfamiliar with the term, a baptistry in our church was a special “room” behind the choir loft in the Baptist church. Ours had a tall window with a short panel of glass, and the tall window reached to the top of the peaked ceiling. Long red velvet curtains were closed when the baptistry was not in use, but when it was in use the curtains were pulled back to expose the huge backlit cross, lights were turned on, and one could see the water sloshing along the surface of the glass. When Mr. Hall cleaned the baptistry, he emptied the water through the drain in the floor, and he had hoses and a bucket of soapy water so he could scrub the surface. He showed me how he mopped the floor and walls and rinsed the area with a hose, and the water went down the drain. There were concrete steps leading down into the baptistry from the women’s changing room on the left and the men’s changing room on the right. He let me look at the white robes hanging in the women’s changing room. They had special weights sewn into the hem so the robes wouldn’t float up in the water. When men were baptized they usually wore their pants and a white t-shirt. Mr. Hall showed me the white robe and fishing waders that the preacher wore. The robe was just like the choir robes except white instead of red, and it also had weights sewn into the hem. I was surprised that the preacher wore fishing waders – that’s how he was always able to be finished so quickly after the baptism, because he never got wet! Mr. Hall told me that one time someone accidentally filled the baptistry with too much water which spilled into the fishing waders, wetting the preacher’s pants, and the preacher had to send his wife home to get him a pair of pants so they could conclude the service.
When you are baptized in the Baptist church, the practice is full immersion. Before your baptism service, there is a rehearsal with the preacher. You practice walking down into the dry baptistry, turning to face a certain direction, and the preacher shows you how to hold your nose. He will put one hand on your neck or back and one hand over your nose, and after he says “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” you have to be ready to hold your breath and to bend backward while he lowers you into the water. The pastor is well versed in bringing people back up really quickly so they don’t have to be scared of drowning. Then you walk up the steps into the changing room where your mom or another lady in the church is waiting to help you out of the wet robes, dry off with towels, and get dressed again. Some ladies use a hair dryer (the sound of which can be faintly heard in the sanctuary) to dry their hair while others just towel-dry it. At the end of the service, you go back out so that the church members can file by and shake your hand to congratulate you. After your baptism, you are presented with a certificate signed by the preacher and the chairman of the deacons, and you get some other religious gift as well such as a Bible or a devotional book. After your profession of faith and baptism, you are considered a full member of the church and can take part in communion with the other members. You can be gossiped about and judged, but you can’t lose your salvation because, once saved always saved!
Until the past couple of years, I didn’t talk about my Evangelical Christian upbringing very much with my husband and kids. My husband’s family attended Catholic Mass on Christmas and Easter, and while he went through First Communion, he and his brothers didn’t really attend Confraternity of Christian Doctrine (CCD) classes very often. He and his two brothers were never confirmed as teens. As we stopped attending church when our children were seven and five, they don’t really know much about Christianity and barely remember going to Sunday school at the open and affirming Congregational United Church of Christ that we attended. But a couple of years ago, when my daughter announced that she wanted to leave New Jersey to attend college in the South, I started remembering some of the things that happened in Southern Baptist Church or in Fundamentalist Christian school where most of the staff were members of Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) churches.
Here are some of the things that I have told my family that elicited the WTF? response.
The concept that we are all sinners due to Original Sin brought onto the entire human race because Adam and Eve disobeyed God by eating a fruit they were told not to eat. Therefore, all humanity is doomed to toil and suffering on earth and eternity in hell. But wait! God decided he would impregnate an ignorant Middle Eastern teenager with himself/his son, preach, do some miracles, and stir up trouble for three years, get arrested, tortured and hung on a Roman cross, spend a weekend in hell (roughly a weekend depending on which gospel you read), rise from the dead and show himself to some people (how many and which ones depends on which gospel you read), and ascend back to heaven where he sits at the right hand of his father/himself along with the Holy Spirit/themselves and will come back to earth at some unknown point. Whew!
Making a Public Profession of Faith
When someone realizes that they need salvation in order to escape eternity in hell, they are required to show publicly that they accept the doctrine of salvation and that they are ready to be baptized and to become members in good standing of the church. Some people will say something, others will leave it to the pastor to introduce them. In any case, it is a REQUIREMENT that the person be seen publicly declaring that they’re a filthy, dirty sinner in need of the sacrifice of Jesus in order to be saved (from eternity in hell, don’t forget that part). The primary time that one makes one’s public profession of faith is during the Altar Call at the end of the service.
Every service concluded with an Altar Call in which the congregation would sing an appropriate hymn such as “Just As I Am” to encourage people to come forward to “make their profession of faith” or to “rededicate their lives to Christ.” If no one was coming forward, often the singing would stop, the organist would play, and the pastor would command, “Every head bowed, every eye closed” to encourage the shy to come forward without everyone looking at them. Sometimes I felt like someone would just go forward so the pastor wouldn’t feel bad that no one was going forward.
Baptism by Immersion
One of the hallmarks of being any brand of Baptist is to be baptized by immersion as (supposedly) practiced by John the Baptist of gospel fame. When people publicly make a profession of faith, meaning that they confess to being a worthless sinner in need of salvation by accepting that the sinless son of God, Jesus, came to earth to minister, die, and be resurrected as sacrifice for the sins of the world, and they promise to renounce sin, then they will be baptized. Baptism is a symbolic gesture that our sins are washed away by the precious blood of the slain Lamb of God and that we are clean creatures in Christ.
When the conservatives took over the Southern Baptist Convention in the 1970s and cleared house in their seminaries, the concept of Biblical inerrancy/literalism took hold. This meant that pastors must teach that the Bible was the inspired Word of God, that everything written in the Bible was literal and historical fact, and that the entire writings were indisputable. End of story. So improbable concepts are considered historical fact, such as a six-day creation of the universe and two human beings from whom every other human being descended; a worldwide flood that destroyed all living creatures and plants except eight humans and two of each living land creature (plus seven pairs of each “clean” creature) were saved and were the sources for repopulation of the entire earth; a talking donkey; a talking snake; a man who lived inside a whale’s digestive tract for three days; three men who survived after being inside a fiery furnace; a virgin birth; a couple of resurrections from the dead. Any findings from science or history that contradict what is found in the pages of the (King James Version of the) Bible are considered to be false deceptions from Satan. Of course.
I came of age in the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church movement. At the age of fifteen, I was saved, baptized, and called to preach at Trinity Baptist Church in Findlay, Ohio. Gene Millioni, Ron Johnson, and Bruce Turner were my pastors at the time. (Please see Dear Bruce Turner.) Trinity Baptist was a hyper-evangelistic church affiliated with the Baptist Bible Fellowship. My pastors gave a public altar call at the end of every service. I later would attend Midwestern Baptist College to study for the ministry. Students were required to attend nearby Emmanuel Baptist Church, pastored by college chancellor Dr. Tom Malone. Altar calls were given at every service. Most IFB churches sang Just as I Am during altar calls, but Emmanuel used There is a Fountain Filled With Blood (Drawn from Immanuel’s Veins), by William Cowper. Sinners needing salvation were asked to step out of their seats and walk down the aisle to the front of the church. Once at the altar, a trained soulwinner would kneel with them, share the IFB gospel, and help them pray the sinner’s prayers. This act of faith was called “making a public profession of faith.” Sinners evangelized during the week were expected to come to church the next Sunday and made their conversion public by walking down the aisle.
Baptism was treated in a similar manner. Being immersed in three feet of water in a church baptismal was considered a public declaration of faith. By being baptized, the sinner was saying, “I publicly identify with Jesus.” Many IFB converts are baptized right after the service or the next Sunday. Preachers would often joke that the reason Baptists baptized new converts right away is that they feared never seeing them again. I was saved one week and baptized the next. And several weeks after that, I went forward during the altar call and confessed to Pastor Millioni that I believed God was calling me to preach. I stood before my friends and fellow church members and told them what God was doing in my heart. My declaration was greeted with hearty amens from older congregants. I am sure more than a few of my friends thought, Bruce Gerencser, a preacher? Yeah, right. This too shall pass! It didn’t, and for the next thirty-five years, I preached some version or the other of the Christian gospel, seeking to help sinners see their need for salvation.
Over the first fifty years of my life, I watched thousands of people walk down church aisles and ask Jesus to save them. Often, high pressure, manipulative tactics were used to coerce sinners into getting saved. I heard countless preachers say, “the hardest decision you will ever make in your life is to step out of your seat, walk down the aisle, and make a public profession of faith.” The same line was used when cajoling people into getting baptized. “Publicly identifying with Jesus in baptism is the hardest decision you will ever make!” I later concluded that there was nothing “hard” about these decisions. Here you were among Christians. How “hard” could it be to get saved and baptized? And “public?” What’s “public” about going through the IFB salvation and baptismal ritual in the safety and privacy of a local church filled with likeminded believers?
Later in my ministry years, I stopped baptizing new converts at the church. Instead, we would go to a nearby public lake and hold a baptismal service. While not as “public” as the baptisms of first century Christian converts in the book of Acts, being exposed to the gazes of worldly vacationers helped cement the importance and cost of publicly identifying with Christ. Few churches, it seems, are willing to ask much, if anything, from new converts. As long as their asses are in the seats and their Benjamins are in the plate, all is well. It is not uncommon for IFB churches to leads hundreds of sinners to Christ each year, with few of them obediently following the Lord in baptism. Some megachurches these days have pretty much given up on baptizing converts. Once or twice a year, they will “offer” baptism to the unbaptized, but rarely, if ever, stress the importance of the rite.
These days, much to the consternation of IFB preachers and Evangelical pastors, cultural Christianity rules to roost. Christians have “personal” relationships with Jesus, and most of them never share their faith. Recently, the Southern Baptist Convention — the largest Protestant denomination in the United States — reported that their membership and baptism numbers continue to decline. Scores of SBC churches didn’t take in one new member or baptize one new convert. IFB churches, who still think they live in the glory days of the 1970s and 1980s, also face precipitous membership and baptism declines. One-time IFB megachurches now are a shell of what they once were, that is, if they are still in existence. In the 1970s, Polly and I attended Emmanuel Baptist Church in Pontiac, Michigan. Emmanuel was considered one of the largest churches in America. One Sunday, they had over 5,000 people in attendance — a rare feat at the time. Today, its doors are shuttered. The same could be said for numerous other IFB churches — churches that once proudly proclaimed that they were one of the top one hundred churches in America.
It is not uncommon these days for IFB and SBC churches to go weeks and months without “public” professions of faith or a “public” baptisms. More than a few churches, attempting to ward off algae growth or smells that come from stagnant water, have drained their baptismals and use the space to store Christmas decorations or old VBS materials. The best and brightest among such churches will come up with new programs and outreaches they are sure will stop the bleeding and import new life into their churches, but if the past is any indicator, they are doomed for failure. Perhaps, it’s time to admit that Americans are really not that into Jesus anymore; that all people want is eternal life insurance and a place to get married and hold funerals. In other words, IFB and SBC congregants are well on their way to becoming Roman Catholics — morning glories who only bloom on Easter and Christmas.
In one regard, the testimony of such Christians is indeed “public.” The unwashed, uncircumcised Philistines of the world “see” how these people live out their faith, and find themselves saying, “no thanks.” My wife and I visited over a hundred Christian churches after we left the ministry. We were desperately looking for a Christianity that mattered; a congregation that took seriously the teachings of Jesus. While we met all sorts of decent people, we didn’t find one church congregation that was different from the rest. We didn’t find one church that earnestly took Jesus’ commands, teachings, and way of life — as we then understood them — to heart. (Please see But Our Church is DIFFERENT!) We decided that despite differences in liturgy and denominational affiliation, these churches were all pretty much the same. In retrospect, I have no doubt this fact played a part in our eventual abandonment of Christianity. We came to understand that for all their talk about commitment, public professions of faith, and publicly identifying with Jesus, most Evangelical churches were little more than private social clubs for likeminded people; that such clubs attract people who need “forgiveness” and need someone to tell them what to believe and how to live. Sadly, the sheeple underneath the steeple far outnumber people who think for themselves. Those who are able to rationally and critically examine religious beliefs and practices usually end up outside of the churches they once called home.
Conservative Christianity still dominates the American social and political scene. Evangelical culture warriors continue to wage war against secularism, atheism, humanism, socialism, and a culture they believe is going to Hell in a handbasket. Try as they might, these crusaders are fighting a losing battle. Oh, they might win a few skirmishes in the short term — say over abortion — but history suggests that their days are numbered. One need only look at the arc of history in Europe and other Western countries to see where the United States is headed. Old curmudgeons such as myself are unlikely to see secularism and reason vanquish the Devil in our lifetimes, but we hold out hope for our grandchildren and their children. Thanks to global warming, their world will be very different from ours, but we have high hopes that their world will be one where religion has finally been driven back into the four walls of churches where it belongs.
About Bruce Gerencser
Bruce Gerencser, 62, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 41 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve 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. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.
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Humans can have great capacity for hope. The noun definition of hope is “a feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen; a feeling of trust.” The verb definition is to “want something to happen or be the case.” It is normal for people to desire better outcomes if things are not going well in their lives. Often people will go to extreme measures “hoping” for something good to happen. They may donate money to a religion or charity hoping that their deity will look kindly upon them and act in their favor (a modern-day version of offering a sacrifice). Some people with diseases may resort to alternative medicine, some of which may help and some of which may not help and perhaps may cause harm. People living in poverty can fall prey to get-rich-quick schemes, or they may squander money on lottery tickets hoping to hit the jackpot.
My mother was an extremely intelligent woman, born right before women started fighting for equal rights. My mom thought she had to become a homemaker, even though she was not really suited for that. As she was a National Merit Semi-Finalist in high school and 3rd in her high school graduating class, her guidance counselor suggested she should go to college. Being the passive, obedient girl that she was, she applied to a local university and attended for 5 semesters before dropping out to get married. Her marriage lasted a year, and she found herself with no degree and no real marketable skills. She could type well, was intelligent, and had good grammar, so she became a secretary. My mom then married an abusive man who did not want children, had a child (me), and was divorced not long after. With a dependent and no child support (as my father disappeared), my mom and I moved into her parents’ house. My mom was severely depressed but knew she needed to work to support us, so she went back to being a secretary. When I was 11 years old, she married my stepfather, who was also divorced. A year later, they had a child, and the rest of their lives they struggled financially.
After my mother’s second divorce, she started attending church at her parents’ Southern Baptist church. I suppose she was searching for several things – for friends, for comfort after a difficult divorce, for direction in where her life should go next, for meaning, for hope. My mom was at the time the only unattached divorced person attending our church regularly, and it was only when she married again several years later and brought her new husband to church that she was embraced more fully in the church community. Divorced women are often looked at as a threat by married religious women, as if the “depraved” divorced woman is so desperate for male attention that she is going to prey on all the good and decent Christian husbands.
My grandparents were firmly entrenched in the church – my grandfather as a deacon (at one point, chairman of the deacons) and my grandmother as a Sunday school teacher and Women’s Missionary Union teacher. My mom tried teaching children’s Sunday School one year, but she wasn’t really suited for that task. After she remarried, she brought my nominally Lutheran-raised stepfather to church. After he was baptized (because apparently Lutheran baptism isn’t good enough), it didn’t take long for the church leadership to recruit him as an usher (because as a divorced man he could not serve as a deacon). My stepdad was a mild, quiet, and sweet man who was well-liked.
My mom and stepdad moved to a different community in the early 1990s and away from the Southern Baptist church they had attended. My grandfather had passed away, and my grandmother was no longer attending that church after she got “fired” from teaching Sunday school (that’s a story for another day). So they shopped around for another church. After trying out a couple of different churches, they finally settled on a small Independent Fundamentalist Baptist church. When I visited them for the holidays and attended their church, I asked my mom, “What are you doing attending an Independent Baptist church with all its legalism?” She said they liked the people, and I couldn’t really argue with her. Most of the people in the church were uneducated farmers, nice folks who loved Jesus and took to heart what the preacher said. It made me sad to see my mom and stepdad fall further down the hole into bigoted teachings, but there was nothing I could do. They had found the hope and community they craved. After a few arguments about homosexuals, in which my mom and I were on opposite sides of the fence, we decided not to discuss much in the way of religion anymore. I also tried to avoid political conversations as she believed that God only approved of Republican pro-life candidates and that while Democrats may be “saved,” they were for sure misguided. My husband and I attended a progressive Christian church for a while before giving up religion altogether and becoming agnostic atheists. Living over 1,000 miles from me, my mom wasn’t sure if we were participating in religion or not, but I think she suspected that we weren’t.
My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2002 and went through radiation and surgery. She was cancer-free until 2009 when she was diagnosed with a recurrence just weeks before her own mother passed away from Alzheimer’s. After Grandma passed, my mom had a mastectomy, lymphadenectomy and chemotherapy treatment. My mom suffered from lymphadema in her left arm as a result of the lymphadenectomy, and she wasn’t consistent with her physical therapy — it was a nuisance and she didn’t want to be bothered. A couple of years later the cancer came back at her scar site, so doctors ramped up her chemotherapy. She got sicker and sicker with more and more side effects from the chemotherapy. But to her credit, she did continue to participate in the hobbies of jewelry-making and crocheting until just a few months before she died. She also sank deeper and deeper into religion, focusing on eschatology and study of what I can only describe as “Holy Land” Christianity. She became obsessed with what was going on in the Middle East, particularly surrounding Israel, and she watched a lot of Bible prophecy preachers. Like many other Christians, she was convinced that we were living in the “last days” before the coming of Christ. I guess that gave her some hope that she might be raptured away before succumbing to cancer.
My mom and I used to email a lot, which worked well for us because I could skip over the religious topics and respond to the actual events that were happening in her life. This particular entry below annoyed me though — it was written in January and she passed away in mid-November:
January 27, 2014: An odd thing happened today. I was watching a Perry Stone program this afternoon. He is a Bible scholar, writes books, has a TV program, and a large ministry in Cleveland, TN. One or both of his parents were part Cherokee. His father was a minister. I have been watching Perry on and off and reading his books and watching videos by him for many years. I just happened to cut his program on TV while he was teaching. He broke into his program and said he had a message for someone. He said this is something he rarely ever does (I’ve never seen him do that before). He said there was a grandparent with cancer who wanted to live long enough to have some time to spend with their grandchildren and their daughter was pregnant. He said that the health of that grandparent would get better and they would live longer. I think he said the cancer would be healed, but I’m not sure about that. Well, for several years I have prayed that I would keep living for awhile because I wanted to have time to be a good grandparent to my grandchildren. I’ve been too sick to do much for them lately. I wonder if, and hope that, he was talking about me. One never knows. God works in unusual ways sometimes. I’ve been thinking lately about all 4 of my grandchildren. I hope that each of them will be saved before I pass away. _______ [my brother] was about 7, _______ [me] was 9, I think, and I [my mother] was around 11 when each of us made some decision about Jesus. We may not have much time left to make this decision. Many people, both Christians and Jews, believe our time is short and the Messiah will come soon. If one has done any studying about this and has been paying attention to world events, it is easy to come to that conclusion.
(For the record, I was 12 when I “made a profession of faith” and was baptized. My family had been pestering me and pestering me to “get right with God,” and I’m a personality who does not respond well to being told what to do, so I dug in my heels and wouldn’t do it. I also didn’t see why it had to be a public matter – shouldn’t it be between you and God/Jesus/Holy Spirit? But finally I couldn’t take the pestering anymore so I chose a date and went down front during the altar call to get it over and done. It was a relief to be left alone about the subject.)
First, I see that she was still clinging to hope that maybe, just maybe, God would cure her of cancer or at least let her live longer. Second, she was clinging to hope that all of her grandchildren would be “saved,” ostensibly so she could see them again in heaven. And third, she was hopeful that the Messiah would come soon (perhaps sparing her from suffering from cancer any longer but still with the positive outcome that she and all her “saved” family would meet in heaven).
As for whether we were all saved, it depends on which brand of Christian you ask. I was raised Southern Baptist and my husband was raised nominally Catholic, meaning that he was baptized as a baby and went through first communion, but nothing else. So per Catholic standards, both he and I would be “saved” because he was baptized in Catholic Church and I was baptized in a Baptist church which is on the approved list of Catholic-approved Protestant baptisms. By most Southern Baptist and Independent Fundamentalist Baptist standards, I was “saved” because of the “once saved always saved” rule but my husband was not. By no one’s standards are my children “saved” because they have never been baptized and do not believe in deities of any sort. My children are thankful not to have spent hours in religious education as many of their friends have, and they see religion as a waste of time. As my 15-year-old son says, when his friends ask about his religious proclivities, “we aren’t doing religion right now.”
My brother, his wife, and his 9- and 10-year-old sons fit into the “saved” category, having all made their “profession of faith” and being baptized (though my brother baptized his boys in the bathtub because he hasn’t found a church that he agrees with yet). I’m not sure if bathtub baptism by a layperson counts . . . but he’s comfortable with it, and as he is very into the angry Old Testament god, the grace of Jesus, first century Christianity (whatever he thinks that is), and eschatology, I guess he has done his research. He doesn’t know that we are atheists, and I’m afraid that knowledge would irreparably damage our relationship.
So how did I answer my mother’s query about our salvation? I merely answered that we were fine and that she shouldn’t worry about it. Really, all she wanted was the hope that she would see her grandchildren again in heaven one day.
The Churches of Christ along with the Baptists and the Roman Catholic Church consider themselves to be the one true church of Jesus Christ. According to catholic365.com, there are five reasons the Roman Catholic Church is the true church:
1. Authority- Jesus gave specific instructions regarding dealing with members of the Church who were in sin. Matthew 18:15-18 says “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have won over your brother. If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, so that ‘every fact may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church. If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector. Amen, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” What Evangelical/Protestant Church has the authority to remove someone completely from the church? None. If an individual is removed from a ‘congregation’ then he/she can go down the street and join another ‘congregation’ of the same denomination. The congregations are individualized and have no authority outside their own denomination. That is not true with the Catholic Church. If removed from the Catholic Church, one cannot go to another city and join another Catholic Parish.
2. History- The Roman Catholic Church is the oldest and original Christian Church, therefore, the beliefs and teachings of the Church were directly passed onto the leaders of the Catholic Church by the apostles. The Catholic Church began with the teachings of Jesus Christ, around 1st Century AD in the province of Judea of the Roman Empire. The Catholic Church is the continuation of the early Christian community established by Jesus and no modern Christian Church can make that claim. By the end of the 2nd century, bishops began congregating in regional synods and to correct doctrinal and policy issues and by the time the 3rd century came around, the Bishop of Rome (Pope) served as the decisive authority, kind of like a court of appeals, for problems and issues the bishops could not resolve. This is identical to the Bible’s teaching. In Exodus 18 we see where the children of Israel brought their disputes to Moses and Moses settled those disputes. However, it also shows where leaders appointed by Moses also worked to settle disputes.
The Catholic Church remained the only Christian Church until the East-West Schism of 1054, which caused medieval Christianity to split and become two separate branches. The greatest division, however, came during the Reformation from 1517-1648, led by Martin Luther. The East-West (Great) Schism was caused by Patriarch Michael I. According to Titus 3:9-11, the divisions led by Patriarch Michael I and Martin Luther were sin. “Avoid foolish arguments, genealogies, rivalries, and quarrels about the law, for they are useless and futile. After a first and second warning, break off contact with a heretic, realizing that such a person is perverted and sinful and stands self-condemned..”
3. The Catholic Church gave Christians the Bible- The first official list of books contained is what is the Bible was done at the Council of Hippo in 393 and then again in Carthage in 397 and 419. However, the Council of Trent in 1556 was the first time the Church infallibly defined these books as ‘inspired’ because it was questioned by Reformers. We have to admit, the apostles did not walk around with nice leather bound Bibles in their hand. There are many parts of the Bible that are oral tradition which was written down because when early believers attended the Synagogue or church, the scripture was read. They did not have their own copy with their name engraved on the front. Oral tradition was the norm of practice long before writing and reading was a part of life. The Jews followed the Old Testament before Jesus was born and Jesus is pictured in Scripture reading from the Old Testament in the Synagogue. There were multiple writings from this time but it was only after the list of books determined to be the ‘inspired Word of God’ by the Catholic Church first with the Council of Hippo in 393 that the world had what is called “The Bible”. The Bible remained the original 73 books determined by the Catholic Church until the Reformation, when Martin Luther threw out 7 books of the Old Testament that disagreed with his personal view of theology…the same Old Testament adhered to by the Jews. He threw these 6 books out in the 16th Century. Luther also attempted to throw out New Testament books James, Hebrews, Jude and Revelation. In referring to James, he said he wanted to ‘throw Jimmy into the fire’ and the book of James was ‘an epistle of straw’ with no usefulness. After Pope Damasus I approved the 27 New Testament Books however in 382 AD, Luther agreed with the Pope and accepted the New Testament books but denied the Old Testament books …which remained out of his Bible. Non-Catholics will accept the Biblical books which are contained in the Protestant Bible but do not acknowledge they are accepting and trusting the authority of the Catholic Church because the Catholic Church was the one who proclaimed the entire list, as a whole, as ‘inspired’. The letters within the Bible are not the only letters and materials written by the Apostles so, as a result, those contained within the Bible had to be declared ‘inspired’ and it was the Catholic Church which did that duty.
4. The Sacraments are Biblical- The Apostles were given the power to ‘forgive sins’ in John 20:23, Peter taught in I Peter 3:21 that ‘baptism now saves you’, ‘anointing the sick with oil was shown in James 5:14-15, laying on of hands in Acts 8:17 and 2 Timothy 1:6, marriage in the Lord in I Corinthians 7:39 and Jesus stated numerous times that the disciples should participate in the breaking of bread (Eucharist) by stating ‘he who eats my flesh has eternal life’.
5. Sola Scriptura is not supported in the Bible- It is difficult to make a claim such as Sola Scriptura (The Bible Alone) when, in its very essence, the claim must be written within the Bible in order to be Biblical. The concept of “Bible Alone” says it is not truth if it is not contained in the Bible, therefore removing ‘tradition’, but the Bible refutes that principle. Jeremiah 25:3 says the “Word of the Lord” is “spoken”, not just written. Paul told us to hold to our traditions, which are taught by word and mouth or by letter, according to 2 Thess 2:15. The Bible also portrays where a Council was held to settle doctrinal disputes in Acts 15. (Who else has a Council to settle doctrine disputes and holds the authority to do such other than the Catholic Church?) The Bible also warns about ‘twisted’ interpretations of Scripture in 2 Peter 3:16 and I Timothy 3:15 says THE CHURCH is the pillar and the bulwark of the truth. The Catholic Church has one teaching…one unified teaching…as opposed to the now 43,000 evangelical (Protestant) groups currently established, with 2.3 added each day. Their views on everything from the Trinity, homosexuality, abortion, and salvation all contradict each other. Truth cannot be false at the same time and Truth cannot contradict each other.
Many Baptist churches also consider themselves to be the one true church. These Baptists believe that they can trace their lineage all the way back to Jesus and his apostles. In 1931, Baptist pastor J.M. Carroll published a booklet titled The Trail of Blood. This booklet detailed what is commonly called Landmarkism or Baptist Successionism — the belief that some Baptist churches are the church founded by Jesus Christ. Carroll gave ten infallible marks of a true church:
1. Christ, the author of this religion, organized His followers or disciples into a Church. And the disciples were to organize other churches as this religion spread and other disciples were “made.”
2. This organization or church, according to the Scriptures and according to the practice of the Apostles and early churches, was given two kinds of officers and only two–pastors and deacons. The pastor was called “Bishop.” Both pastor and deacons to be selected by the church and to be servants of the church.
3. The churches in their government and discipline to be entirely separate and independent of each other, Jerusalem to have no authority over Antioch–nor Antioch over Ephesus; nor Ephesus over Corinth, and so forth. And their government to be congregational, democratic. A government of the people, by the people, and for the people.
4. To the church were given two ordinances and only two, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. These to be perpetual and memorial.
5. Only the “saved” were to be received as members of the church (Acts 2:47). These saved ones to be saved by grace alone without any works of the law (Eph, 2:5, 8, 9). These saved ones and they only, to be immersed in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:19). And only those thus received and baptized, to partake of the Lord’s Supper, and the supper to be celebrated only by the church, in church capacity.
6. The inspired scriptures, and they only, in fact, the New Testament and that only, to be the rule and guide of faith and life, not only for the church as an organization, but for each individual member of that organization.
7. Christ Jesus, the founder of this organization and the savior of its members, to be their only priest and king, their only Lord and Lawgiver, and the only head of the churches. The churches to be executive only in carrying out their Lord’s will and completed laws, never legislative, to amend or abrogate old laws or to make new ones.
8. This religion of Christ to be individual, personal, and purely voluntary or through persuasion. No physical or governmental compulsion. A matter of distinct individual and personal choice. “Choose you” is the scriptural injunction. It could be neither accepted nor rejected nor lived by proxy nor under compulsion.
9. Mark well! That neither Christ nor His apostles, ever gave to His followers, what is known today as a denominational name, such as “Catholic,” “Lutheran,” “Presbyterian,” “Episcopal,” and so forth–unless the name given by Christ to John was intended for such, “The Baptist,” “John the Baptist” (Matt. 11:11 and 10 or 12 other times.) Christ called the individual follower “disciple.” Two or more were called “disciples.” The organization of disciples, whether at Jerusalem or Antioch or elsewhere, was called Church. If more than one of these separate organizations were referred to, they were called Churches. The word church in the singular was never used when referring to more than one of these organizations. Nor even when referring to them all.
10. I venture to give one more distinguishing mark. We will call it–Complete separation of Church and State. No combination, no mixture of this spiritual religion with a temporal power. “Religious Liberty,” for everybody.
In the 19th century men such as Barton Stone, Thomas Campbell, and Alexander Campbell took it upon themselves to restore Christian churches to their First Century Apostolic purity. Firmly rooted in Baptist soil, the Restoration movement caused numerous fractures and splits, leading to the establishment of groups such as the Churches of Christ and Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). While Landmark Baptists and Churches of Christ have similar doctrinal beliefs, neither considers the other part of the true church. These two groups have spent much of the last 160 years fighting over whether baptism is required for salvation. Put a Church of Christ evangelist in the same room with a Baptist elder and they will spend their time together arguing over the Greek word eis (for) in Acts 2:38:
Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.
The evangelist will argue that the word for means that a sinner must be baptized in order to have their sins to be remitted. The elder argues that the word for means because of. Christians are baptized, not to have their sins remitted, but because their sins have already been washed away.
Al Shannon is a Churches of Christ preacher who displays his theological prowess on the Biblical Proof website. In a May 20, 2016 post titled Are There Any Christians in Denominational Churches?, Shannon makes sure his readers understand that the only true Christians are those who are a member of a Churches of Christ congregation. Shannon writes:
Are there good people in all denominational churches? Are there any Christians once named among them? It’s a fundamental question because denominations profess to be Christians, yet they deny what it requires to become a Christian.
Most Christians understand that when someone obeys the gospel (Rom. 6:17) the Lord adds him to His church (Acts 2:47), of which is the only blood-bought (Acts 20:28) institution the Bible speaks. This is the “church” which Christ built (Mt 16:18).
The Bible speaks often of the Great Apostasy (2 Thess. 2:3-4 f; 2 Tim. 4:3-4). This manifested itself in Roman Catholicism, from which every denomination in the world today sprang (Rev. 17:5). Error truly does begat error.
The Bible also speaks of (and condemns) sectarianism and division, which is what denominationalism really is, as each term stands firmly against the Bible-based unity declared in Ephesians 4:4.
In Galatians 5:19-21, Paul lists “factions, parties, and divisions” as being “works of the flesh,” and warned all men everywhere and for all time that “they who practice such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.”
In trying to understand why there are no Christians in any denomination, let us consider three points. First, there was division at Corinth. Just a mere six years after the Corinthian church was planted some of these brethren had developed a sectarian spirit. In 1 Corinthians 1:11 Paul begs his brothers in Christ there to free themselves from all contentions.
Secondly, the overwhelming bulk of the denominations in the world today subscribe to most of the views of John Calvin, in particular the false doctrine of “faith only” (that they are saved at the point of belief, separate and apart from further obedience, regardless of what John 3:5 may say).
Therefore, those in the denominations have never obeyed the gospel. They have deceived themselves into believing a lie (2 Thess. 2:11-12), and will, therefore, be destroyed at the Lord’s coming (2 Thess. 1:7-9).
Finally, New Testament Christians must be careful not to make man-made laws for our brethren (as some sought to do in Acts 15:1-2). When such happens, a sectarian spirit will develop and will result in something other than New Testament Christianity (Psa. 127:1).
Based on what I have shared above, the Catholics, Baptists, and the Churches of Christ all claim to be the one true church of Jesus Christ. What makes things even more difficult is that there are numerous other groups that claim they are the one true church. How are people supposed to know which sect is the one true church? The Catholics, Baptists, and Churches of Christ all point to the Bible (and history) as proof for their true church declaration. In Ephesians 4:5,6 the Apostle Paul wrote:
One Lord, one faith, one baptism, One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.
Paul seems to be saying that there is only one true church. While Protestants will say (Baptists and Churches of Christ do not consider themselves Protestants) the one true church is comprised of the true Christians found in the various Christian sects, the Churches of Christ and many Baptists reject what is commonly called the Universal Church or the Invisible Church. They believe that the only church is local churches, each independent franchises of the One True Church Club®.
So what are sinners to do? Which church is the one true church? How can anyone know whether any sect is the one established by Jesus and the Apostles? You would think Jesus would come down from Heaven and make clear which group is his Church. Better yet, why not rain fire down from the skies and destroy every church that is not a part of the One True Church Club®. Surely unbelievers can’t be expected to figure out which church is the right one. Come on God, help us out.
If I were to ask Christian readers to define alien baptism, I suspect very few could do so. Alien baptism? Baptizing creatures from other planets? Baptizing people who are not legal residents of the United States? Nope. In the ersatz world inhabited by Independent Baptists, alien baptism is the re-baptism of people who were saved and baptized in churches other than Independent Baptist churches. If Methodist Joe Smith and his family move to Purity, Kentucky and want to join the local alien-baptizing Baptist church, they would be required to be re-baptized before being permitted to join the church and take communion. Now if an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) family moves to Purity, they would not need to be re-baptized. Well, most of the time anyway. The new church pastor, before accepting them as members, would make sure that their previous church was a like-minded Baptist church. If their old church was an IFB church but had different doctrine, the new church might require them to be re-baptized. Got all that?
Then there are churches that are commonly called Landmark (Baptist Brider) Baptist churches. These churches typically treat all other churches as alien, thus requiring new members coming from another church to be re-baptized. Landmark Baptists also practice close or closed communion. Churches that practice close communion will allow people who are visiting from a like-minded church to take communion. Most Landmark Baptist churches take communion (Lord’s Supper) every Sunday. Some Landmark Baptist churches practice closed communion. No one outside of the local church membership is permitted to take communion. Years ago, I preached for Jose Maldonado and the Hillburn Drive Grace Baptist Church in San Antonio, Texas. When it came time for the church to take communion, Joe whispered to me, we practice closed communion, brother. In other words, I could preach at the church, but not take communion with them. Welcome to the wonderful, wacky world of the Landmark Baptists.
The Trail of Blood Chart, showing that the Baptist Church is the True Church (Full size here)
These type of churches, similarly to the Roman Catholic Church, believe in Baptist successionism (Baptist perpetuity). Wikipedia defines Baptist successionism this way:
Baptist successionism (also known as “Baptist perpetuity”) is one of several theories on the origin and continuation of Baptist churches. The tenet of the theory is that there has been an unbroken chain of churches since the days of John the Baptist, who baptized Christ, which have held similar beliefs (though not always the name) of current Baptists. Ancient anti-paedobaptist groups, such as the Montanists, Paulicians, Cathari, Waldenses, Albigenses, and Anabaptists, have been among those viewed by Baptist successionists as the predecessors of modern-day Baptists.
To simplify things for readers: John the Baptist baptized Jesus, so that made Jesus a Baptist. Jesus baptized the disciples, so that made them Baptists too. This means that first Christian church was Baptist (First Baptist Church of Jerusalem). So there ya have it, the Baptist church is the one, true, historic church.
The Campbellite movement (Restoration movement) of the 19th century which birthed the Churches of Christ and Disciples of Christ, found its roots in the Baptist church. Thomas and Alexander Campbell, in an attempt to restore the Baptist church to its apostolic roots, contended that baptism was required for salvation. The Baptists believed that baptism was an outward sign that one has been saved, whereas the Campbells believed baptism was salvific, that sins were washed away in the waters of baptism. Today, Churches of Christ and Baptist churches bitterly fight over which church is practicing New Testament baptism. Most of the debate centers on the word FOR (Greek word eis) in Acts 2:38:
Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ FOR the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.
The Baptists believe the word for means because your sins have been remitted. Churches of Christ believe the word for means in order to have your sins remitted. Back in the days when I pastored churches in SE Ohio, I would preach sermons against the Churches of Christ. I would then take tapes of the sermons and mail them to local Church of Christ preachers. And they would do the same, refuting my Baptist ecclesiology and soteriology.
But Bruce, doesn’t the Bible says, ONE Lord, ONE Faith, and ONE Baptism? Doesn’t this mean that all Christian baptism is legitimate in the eyes of God? Silly you, to think such things. ONE baptism? Why that is Baptist baptism. All other baptisms are — drum roll please — alien baptisms.
Evangelicals would have you believe that the Bible is an inexhaustible book filled with the very words of God. Someone can read the Bible for fifty years and still not mine its depths. It’s the only book ever written that can never be fully understood, or so Evangelicals tell us. This is why no two Evangelicals can agree on exactly what the Bible says. As a Christian, I engaged in numerous discussions about a particular Bible text only to have my opponent say, well Brother, we’ll just have to agree to disagree. Each of us had a version of truth, each of us had proof that our interpretation was correct. If the Bible is what Evangelicals claim it is, shouldn’t truth be concise, clear, and easy to understand? Why all the disagreement and heated debate among Christians over what the Bible teaches? Doesn’t the Bible say that God is NOT the author of confusion? Yet, everywhere I look I see confusion.
One of the reasons for the confusion is the Evangelical (and Baptist) doctrine of the priesthood of the believer. Unlike the Israelites of the Old Testament, Evangelicals don’t need Moses or a priest to go before God on their behalf. They can directly access God without going through a middleman. The same goes for the Bible. Since God himself, the Holy Spirit, lives inside every Christian, they have no need of a human to teach them what the Bible says. God is their teacher, and who better to teach a Christian what the Bible says than the author, right? Here’s what the Bible says in 1 Corinthians 2:12-16:
Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God. Which things also we speak, not in the words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual. But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. But he that is spiritual judgeth all things, yet he himself is judged of no man. For who hath known the mind of the Lord, that he may instruct him? But we have the mind of Christ.
According to this text, the Christian has received the Spirit of God and is taught by him. The reason someone like me, a natural man, can’t understand the Bible is because I don’t have the Holy Spirit living inside of me. Only the Christian can spiritually discern what is truth. In fact, the Christian has the mind of Christ, Christ being God, so this means that the Christian has the mind of God. If this is so, why is there is there so much confusion about what to believe and what the Bible says about most anything?
Christian sects can’t even agree on the basics: salvation, baptism, and communion. Each sect thinks their interpretation is the one ordained by God and clearly taught in the Bible. Two thousand years of councils, decrees, confessions, and doctrinal statements reveal that Christians are incapable of coming to any common agreement on anything. Even the nature of Jesus and God are in dispute. Broaden the discussion to ecclesiology, eschatology, and pneumatology, throw in the endless debates over hermeneutics and orthopraxy, and you end up with endless versions of the faith which was once delivered unto the saints.
The Bible says one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism, One God. It also says that God’s chosen people are to be of one mind, dwell in unity, and love one another. Yet, everywhere I look, I see the opposite. Many Lords, many Faiths, many Baptisms, many Gods, many minds and disunity, dysfunction, disagreement, and internecine war with one another. Christians object when people like me point these things out. How dare I judge Christianity! All I am doing is using the same standard to judge Christianity and Christians use to judge my life and that of everyone else who is not a Christian. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, yes?
In 2003, I pastored Victory Baptist Church in Clare, Michigan. Victory, a Southern Baptist church, closed its doors a few years after I resigned. While many of the members were decent people, the church had a lot of dysfunction, thus qualifying it to be rescued by Bruce Gerencser. As I look back on the 25 years I spent in the ministry, I can now see that I was drawn to churches that I could either start from scratch or fix. Victory was a fixer-upper, a church I thought God and I could get back on track. Instead of fixing the church, it fixed me.
Victory had a traditional Sunday school, one that used quarterlies. I hated quarterlies, but I decided that I didn’t want the turmoil that would come from trying to change the Sunday school curriculum. One of the men in the church taught the adult class. Every week, the adults would get together and take turns reading the lesson and the appropriate verses. Then they would discuss what the lesson/verses meant to them. That’s right, each class member had his or her own opinion, and each opinion was given equal weight. It was like taking a test where there are no wrong answers.
One week, the lesson was on election. As a Calvinist, I had a good understanding of the various beliefs on election. It was quite interesting to hear the various ‘what it means to me’ interpretations of election. The Sunday school teacher, a man with no theological training outside of being able to read, said the word “election” in the Bible meant we get to choose. I tried to explain to him that no sect taught such a belief, but his mind was settled; election, like in voting for a president, meant each of us making a choice for God and Jesus.
Take the photograph at the top of this post. This photo was taken at a specific place on a certain date and time. It only has one meaning, yet using the ‘what it means to me’ approach someone might conclude that BONO, of U2 fame, started a Baptist church or there is a church named after him. Surely, every belief, every opinion should be given the same weight and respect, right? Of course not. The photo is of the sign for the Bono Baptist Church in Martin, Ohio, an unincorporated village in Ottawa County. The sign is located on State Route 2, across the road from I ‘Heart’ U, God sign I wrote about earlier today. I can vouch for the photo because I am the one who took it.
Now, multiply ‘what it means to me’ by the number of Christians and you end up with millions of Christianities. Catholics love to point out that this is a Protestant problem, but they have their own version of ‘what it means to me’. The pope, the vicar of Christ, God’s representative on earth, is quite clear about using birth control being a sin. Yet, most Catholic women, at one time or another, use birth control. The same could be said of a number of set-in-stone Catholic teachings. Both the Protestants and the Catholics have a paint-by-number Christianity that allows Christians to ignore the color guide and use whatever color fits their fancy.
So, when a Christian sect, pastor, priest, blogger, Bible college professor, or church member says THUS SAITH THE LORD, the BIBLE says, or THIS is THE truth, I hope they will forgive me for laughing. At best, Christianity is a religion based on personal interpretation and opinion, with each person, to quote the Bible, “being fully persuaded in their his own mind.” At worst, it is the faith of the uneducated who, thanks to tribal and cultural influence, mouth beliefs they have no intellectual ability or desire to defend.
Like my friend John Loftus at Debunking Christianity, I have come to the conclusion that every Christian sect and every interpretation of the Bible is correct. DING! DING! DING! They all win! The Bible, along with 2,000 years of Christian church history, can be used to prove almost any belief. Calvinists and Arminians have been squaring off and fighting for centuries, each believing that their interpretation is correct and God is on their side. And even here, there are uncounted shades of Calvinism and Arminianism, with each shade resolutely saying theirs is the right color. From the most ardent fundamentalist to the most liberal Christian, followers of Jesus use the Bible to prop up their beliefs. Yea! Go Team Jesus!