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No Books Needed: I Just Read the Bible

john ruskin bible

One Sunday twenty years ago, several young families walked into the door of the church just before the start of the evening service. We rarely had visitors on Sunday evening, so their attendance was rather a surprise. After the service was over, I engaged one of the visitors, a young husband, in a bit of get-to-know-you banter. The man had little interest in chit-chat, immediately asking me several pointed theological questions. I did my best to answer the man’s questions, but I could tell that he didn’t approve of my answers.

Always the polite pastor, I told the disapproving man that I had a book that might prove helpful in answering his questions. The man curtly replied, I am not interested in reading a book. I just read the Bible and that is all I need. And with that, he said good night and his family walked out the door never to return.

Sadly, this kind of thinking is quite common in Evangelical churches, even among pastors. I know of one pastor who is proud of the fact that his study library consists of only a handful of books. In his mind, without any proper theological training, he is quite capable of properly interpreting the Bible. This pastor believes God, through the inner workings of the third part of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, teaches him everything he needs to know. In other words, he is an Evangelical version of the Pope. God speaks to him directly as he reads and studies the Bible. However, when church members profess the same, and those members’ interpretations of the Bible differ with his, why they are deemed to be wrong. If it is the Holy Spirit who teaches and guides Evangelicals, wouldn’t he be teaching each Christian the same thing? Yet, Evangelical churches are awash in competing theological beliefs, with each adherent believing that his interpretations are the right ones.

Years ago, I attended a preacher’s meeting (a monthly gathering of pastors for food, fellowship, and preaching) in Lancaster, Ohio. One of the speakers, a rather obese man, even by fat-man Bruce Gerencser standards, fashioned himself to be what he called a “Biblical” preacher. His sermon had no form or structure. He would read a verse, stop, and then say what God was “leading” him to say. As with the two previous illustrations, this preacher thought his personal interpretations of the Bible were the equivalent of God’s.

Many Evangelical pastors love to hide behind flowery theological sayings which are meant to convey the thought that their sermons are straight from God’s Office of Sermon Distribution. The truth is, their sermons are just their opinions of what the Bible says. That they refuse to read any other books but the Bible (and often read only one translation of the Bible) actually increases the likelihood that their interpretation is errant and fallible. These Bible-only people have, in effect, turned themselves into the final authorities on what God has said.

If I were still a Christian and looking for a church to attend, the first thing I would do is take a look at the pastor’s library. You can tell a lot about a man by the books he reads. If looking at a pastor’s library reveals a paucity of commentaries and language aids, you can be sure that man is not fit to teach others a religious text that is, by all accounts, a complex, difficult text to interpret and understand. Only in Evangelicalism is ignorance praised as a virtue. This thinking will, in the end, prove to be the death of Evangelicalism.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 63, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 42 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.

You can contact Bruce via email, Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube.

Your comments are welcome and appreciated. All first-time comments are moderated. Please read the commenting rules before commenting.

Is Christianity a Religion or a Relationship?

christianity a relationship

Repost from 2015-2016. Edited, updated, and corrected.

I’m sure you’ve heard it before: Man gives us religion, but Jesus gives us life; True Christianity is not a religion, it’s a relationship; Religion kills, Jesus gives life. According to this line of thinking, religion is bad and Jesus is good. I have often been told that my reactions and objections to Christianity are really about religion, not Christianity. In fact, I’ve been told, more than a few times by Evangelical zealots, that I never had a real relationship with Jesus at all. I had religion, but not Jesus.

There is this assumption that if somehow, some way, we can get back to a pristine version of Christianity; first-century Christianity; a Christianity that is pure and free from the trappings of 2,000 years of history, we will end up with the Christianity of Jesus.  This, of course, is bullshit. Western Christianity is actually the Apostle Paul’s baby, and I doubt most of those trying to find authentic-Jesus-Christianity would really want it if they found it. In Matthew 5-7, Jesus makes it clear what it means to be his follower. Modern-day Christians ought to contemplate these verses a bit before they say, I am a follower of Jesus.

Is there any such thing as pure Christianity? Even if we go back to the first century, we find division and controversy among those who called themselves Christians. They weren’t unified, and shortly after the death of Christ, we find a huge controversy between Peter and Paul over whether a person had to be circumcised to be saved. The early church was made up mostly of Jews, and many of them thought it proper to expect Gentile converts to adhere to the teachings of Judaism. As history shows, the followers of Jesus were considered a subset of Judaism for many years. And then we have James’ and John’s take on what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Their gospels bear little resemblance to that of Paul.

From day one, Christianity was a controversy-filled religion. Christianity was not something that was new. It was a culmination, completion, or extension of something that was old. According to theologians, Jesus was the fulfillment of all the Old Testament types and shadows. The New Testament church (the elect) became the covenant people of God. Without understanding Judaism it is impossible to understand Christianity. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say Judaism was not a religion, it was a relationship. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say religion kills, but Judaism gives life. Yet, one would be right to suggest that without Judaism (or the Bible) there would be no Christianity.

Judaism is a religion and so is Christianity. I realize that some people want to distance themselves from the modern Christian church. The church is a monolithic behemoth full of corruption and perversion, and there is little within the church that is worthy of emulation. But just because you don’t like organized Christianity doesn’t mean it’s not what it says it is.

Who is it that gave us the Bible? Men. Who is it, then, that told us about Jesus? Men. Who is it that tells us everything we know about the teachings of the Bible? Men. It is clear that men gave us Christianity. Using the logic set forth in the first paragraph, Christianity is indeed a religion. How could it be otherwise? If true Christianity is this mystical I-feel-it-and-I-know belief, how could people know for sure that they have the real thing? Well, the Bible says___________. Yes, and that brings us right back to the men at the center of Christianity.

For those who believe in the distinction between religion and Christianity, I would ask them to describe the differences between the two. I would ask them to tell me what this pure Christianity looks like and where I can experience it. I would ask them to explain to me how they can square the teachings of the Bible with their belief that one can have Christianity without the church.

This kind of thinking primarily exists in the United States. We are a nation of individualists, and that’s why we are attracted to individualistic (narcissistic) forms of religion. If the Bible teaches us anything, it teaches that Christianity is a communal religion with every believer being a part of the whole. The Bible speaks of the church as a body, and that every part is vitally important to the rest of the body.

Let me be clear, it is impossible for people to claim Christianity and reject the church. Without the church and the Bible, there is no such thing as Christianity. Since the church wrote the Bible, it is the church that gave us Christianity. To be a Christian requires a communal connection with a visible body of believers. It has always been this way, and it is up to the Christianity-is-not-a-religion crowd to show why it shouldn’t continue to be this way.

Feelings and personal opinions don’t matter here. What does the Bible say? Is the Bible the bedrock of Evangelical Christianity? I maintain that there is no Christianity without the Bible. It is up to those who disagree to prove otherwise. Show me how it is possible to have Christianity without the church or Christianity without the Bible. From my seat in the atheist pew, the church and the Bible are joined at the hip and each needs the other to survive.

I’m sure someone is going to ask why this matters to me. After all, I’m not a Christian, so why do I care? This issue matters to me because I write a good bit about Evangelical Christianity. Whenever my writing gets too uncomfortable for Evangelicals, they like to suggest that I am not writing about their brand or their version of Christianity. They like to suggest that I have confused religion with Christianity. When family members do bad things, they like to divorce themselves from their relatives and pretend there is no familial connection. But, like it or not, every Christian is connected to other Christians, and the crazy uncles and aunts are part of the family.

I will tell my Christian readers this: it is your Church, live with it. When you attempt to have a Christianity without the Church, you are in effect starting your own religion, the Church of the Churchless Christ-Followers. You are simply doing what Christians have been doing for 2,000 years, spawning tens of thousands of sects.  If you don’t like what you see, start something new, right? But no matter how much you try, and no matter how often you reinvent yourself, Christianity will always be a religion.

Wikipedia states it succinctly:

Religion is the belief in and worship of a god or gods, or in general a set of beliefs explaining the existence of and giving meaning to the universe, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.

Christianity was, is, and always will be a religion.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 63, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 42 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.

You can contact Bruce via email, Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube.

Your comments are welcome and appreciated. All first-time comments are moderated. Please read the commenting rules before commenting.

Does the Bible Command Parents to Beat Their Children?

dennis the menance being spanked

Repost from 2015-2016. Edited, updated, and corrected.

The Bible speaks, you decide. And please, no revisionists who hilariously say that a “rod” is actually a shepherd’s crook used to gently guide the sheep (children) along.

The Bible says:

  • Children, obey your parents in the Lord: for this is right. Honour thy father and mother; which is the first commandment with promise; That it may be well with thee, and thou mayest live long on the earth. Ephesians 6:1-3
  • Children, obey your parents in all things: for this is well pleasing unto the Lord. Colossians 3:20
  • In the lips of him that hath understanding wisdom is found: but a rod is for the back of him that is void of understanding. Proverbs 10:13
  • He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes. Proverbs 13:24
  • Foolishness is bound in the heart of a child; but the rod of correction shall drive it far from him. Proverbs 22:15
  • Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die. Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell. Proverbs 23:13,14
  • A whip for the horse, a bridle for the ass, and a rod for the fool’s back. Proverbs 26:3
  • The rod and reproof give wisdom: but a child left to himself bringeth his mother to shame. Proverbs 29:15
  • My son, despise not the chastening of the LORD; neither be weary of his correction: For whom the LORD loveth he correcteth; even as a father the son in whom he delighteth, Proverbs 3:11,12
  • If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not? But if ye be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, then are ye bastards, and not sons. Furthermore we have had fathers of our flesh which corrected us, and we gave them reverence: shall we not much rather be in subjection unto the Father of spirits, and live? Hebrews 12:7-9

These verses are often used to justify the brutal, violent beating of children and teenagers. God demands obedience, and children who refuse to obey should be beaten into submission. Through the centuries, countless Christian parents have used paddles, whips, hairbrushes, books, belts, or anything else that was handy, to beat their children. Better to beat them than lose them to the devil, right?

spanking

Most of us who were once Bible-believing, sin-hating, devil-chasing Evangelical literalists now see that our disciplinary methods were abusive, cruel, and ineffective. It’s hard to look back at how we disciplined our children as “unto the Lord” and not feel regret and shame. I know that’s how it is for me.

I was a stern taskmaster. I believed the Bible laid out the pattern I had to follow IF there was to be any hope of my children turning out well. I can now say that my children turned out well DESPITE the whippings I gave them. Their love, respect, and forgiveness overwhelm me. I don’t deserve it.

They know I was just doing what I thought God commanded me to do, but knowing that I inflicted unnecessary pain on my children is heartbreaking. I am often asked if I think all spanking — which is actually beating — is child abuse. In general, yes I do. I think there are better ways to discipline children than by hitting them. While I make some allowance for slapping a toddler’s hand now and again, I do not think hitting, punching, or slapping a child is the best way to get them to obey or conform.

Yes, the Bible says ___________________, and we who desire to live in a less violent world must be willing to say that the Bible is w-r-o-n-g. The authors of the Bible likely reflected the way children were disciplined during their time, but we have come to the place where we now know that beating children, for whatever reason, is not only unproductive, but it is also abusive.

spanking with belt

If you are a parent with young children, how do you discipline your children? I am an old man, the product of an era gone by, an era when violence against children was the rule and not the exception. If we truly want to live a nonviolent way of life, it must begin with our treatment of those who are innocent, weak, and vulnerable. If you had to give discipline advice to a young father or mother, what would you tell them? Please share your advice in the comment section.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 63, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 42 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.

You can contact Bruce via email, Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube.

Your comments are welcome and appreciated. All first-time comments are moderated. Please read the commenting rules before commenting.

Evangelical Literalism: A Day is a Day Except When it Isn’t

bible literalism

Repost from 2015-2016. Edited, updated, and corrected.

All young-earth creationists are literalists, that is except when they aren’t. Let me illustrate this for you.

Six times in Genesis 1 the Bible says, the morning and even were the first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth day. Young-earth creationists are emphatic that these days were literal 24-hour days.

In Genesis 2:1, the Bible states that on the seventh day God ended his creative work. According to other verses in the Bible, God rested on the seventh day. So God only rested one literal 24 hour day? I don’t know of any young-earth creationist who believes this.

God gave Adam the following command in Genesis 2:15-17:

And the Lord God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it, And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.

Did Adam eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil? Did Eve? Of course they did. Did they die on the very day they ate the proverbial apple? Nope. According to Genesis 5:5:

. . . and all the days that Adam lived were nine hundred and thirty years: and he died.

Do you see the point I am making? Young earth creationists are literalists until it contradicts their interpretation of the Bible, then all of a sudden Adam dying on the day he sinned is meant to be taken metaphorically, or the word “day” really means a period of time.

I will repeat what I have said countless times: no one, not even Ken Ham, takes every verse in the Bible literally. Whenever it suits them or whenever it will bolster their arguments, Evangelicals are quite willing to abandon literalism.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 63, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 42 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.

You can contact Bruce via email, Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube.

Your comments are welcome and appreciated. All first-time comments are moderated. Please read the commenting rules before commenting.

Bruce, You Are Wrong!!

garfield never wrong

Repost from 2015-2016. Edited, updated, and corrected.

Over the past thirteen years, various people have taken it upon themselves in emails, blog comments, Facebook comments, tweets, letters to the editor, sermons, and blog posts to emphatically tell me “Bruce, You Are Wrong!!” Be it my liberal politics, the teams I root for, or my humanistic, atheistic beliefs, these beacons of absolute truth are infallibly certain that I am wrong.

Let me confess right away that I have been wrong many, many, many times. I bet you didn’t know that, right? In fact, there’s not a day that goes by that I am not wrong in some moment, circumstance, or detail.

Usually, when someone writes to me to tell me I am wrong, they have a deeper, more sinister meaning for the word “wrong.” For the most part, I write about Christianity — particularly Evangelical Christianity and the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church movement. Occasionally, I write about politics, education, sports, photography, and other sundry subjects, but Christianity and all its trappings is my main focus. I spend a great deal of time telling my story, detailing my journey, as only a good, humble, narcissistic ex-pastor can. This blog, whatever else it may or may not be, is this: “Bruce’s Story, Told by Bruce, According to Bruce, the Best He Can Remember It.”

When I am telling my story and my understanding of the journey I am on, I have little patience with those who tell me I am “wrong.” They dissect my life with the razor knife of their own experiences and beliefs, and determine that I am/was not what I say I am/was. They tell me I was never saved, never a Christian, never a real pastor, and I suspect someday someone will even challenge my circumcision.

These kinds of people want to control my storyline. My Evangelical critics want to set the standard by which my life — the one I lived, the one I am presently living — is judged, and it infuriates them when I won’t let them do so. I refuse to allow my story to be co-opted, controlled, or judged by any other standard than my own experiences. It is my life, and I know what I believed, how I lived, and I am certain I know my life better than anyone who only had this blog to judge me by. My dear wife of forty-two years is my best friend and she knows me pretty well, but she doesn’t know everything about me. Almost everything, but not quite. (Polly is wondering, “what the hell is Bruce keeping from me?)

Foolish is a person, armed with only printed words on a computer screen, who would judge a person’s life without any further evidence or knowledge. I certainly want people to enter into my story — in fact, I invite them in. But my readers are just visitors. They only know what I am willing to tell them. If my lover and best friend or my counselor can’t pierce Bruce Almighty’s inner sanctum, don’t think for a moment any outsider can. I’ve been reading the blogs of certain people — Zoe and Andrew Hackman — who have frequented this site for years. I am friends with them on Facebook. I know lots of things about them, but I would never arrogantly say I intimately “know” them. The same can be said for my editor. She’s been editing my writing for almost five years. We have never met in person, and it is likely we never will. I consider her a dear friend. We text each other almost daily. I know a lot about her past life and present life, about her spouse, children, grandchildren, etc. However, I would never presume on our relationship by saying I “know” everything there is to know about her. Yet, countless Evangelical critics think that my reading a few posts on this site that they “know” me, and are in a position to render infallible judgment. 

Sometimes, charges of being wrong are hurled my way because of something I have written about Christianity, the ministry, the Bible, or some other facet of Western Christianity. They vehemently disagree with my interpretation of a particular Bible verse, or they object to particular word usages, words such as Christian, Evangelical, or Fundamentalist.

What is the foundation of their charges against me? Why, their own beliefs and interpretations, or the beliefs and interpretations of their particular sect. Ultimately, the Bible becomes the focus of these kinds of accusations.

According to my eristical interlocutors, I am wrong because I have misread, misunderstood, misapplied, or distorted what the Bible teaches. How do my critics know this? Because they read, understand, and apply the Bible differently from me, and we all know that every Evangelical is infallible in his or her understanding of an allegedly divine religious text, written by mostly unknown authors thousands of years ago.

I could be wrong. In fact, I am quite certain that some of my interpretations of the Bible are wrong or could be better stated. I have no way of proving whether they are. All I have is my mind and my ability to read, and using these skills, I try, to the best of my ability, to discern and understand what a particular text in the Bible says. People are free to differ with me, but why should it be assumed that I am wrong and my critics are right? How do we make such a determination?

The Bible has the unique ability to be whatever a person wants it to be. Most people have a bit of Thomas Jefferson in them, scissors in hand, cutting out the things they disagree with or the things that weaken their theological, political, and social beliefs. The short of it is this: if you need to prove something, go to the Bible. You will likely find the answer you are looking for.

I am quite aware of the fact that I read the Bible differently from the Evangelical Christians who think I am wrong. The one-up I have on them is that I used to read the Bible as they do. I understand their hermeneutics and theology, and I am well aware of their interpretations. That said, I have no compulsion or need to read the Bible as Evangelicals or progressive/liberal Christians would read the Good Book. I have no need to make the Bible fit a peculiar systematic theology grid, as Evangelical Christians do. Instead, I try to read the Bible like the average, unenlightened Bruce would read the Bible. I try to transport myself back in time in hopes of getting a historical and cultural perspective on the passage I am reading.

In Genesis 1:26, God says “let us make man in our image.”  When I read this passage, I say to myself: this says there is a plurality of Gods. Let US. As I read the Old Testament, it is very clear to me that the Israelites were polytheistic and over time became monotheistic (or as oneness-Pentecostals would assert about Trinitarian Christians, they still ARE polytheistic).

Of course, those who think I am wrong say: but the New Testament says______ and they import their Trinitarian theology into the Genesis text. That’s all well and good if you are an Evangelical Christian, but I am not. I am quite free to read the Bible as it is written without forcing myself to put all the pegs in the right holes. The Christian has the burden to make it all fit, not I.

I may be wrong, but it is a leap of faith to assume that because I am wrong, you are right. There is no way to “prove” who is right or who is wrong when it comes to the Bible. Baptists and Campbellites (Church of Christ) spar often over one Greek word, eis, in Acts 2:38. Who is right? Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know all the arguments from both sides of the fence. Who is right? All of us have to determine for ourselves what we believe about God, Jesus, the Bible, and Christianity. This blog is simply my take on these things.

Seriously, the amount of skin I have in this game gets less and less every day. Talking about the Bible and what it purportedly teaches is all fun and games. Since the Bible no longer has a mystical, supernatural hold on me, I am quite free to ignore it at will. I am free to be wrong because being wrong about the Bible is like being wrong about picking the wrong players for a fantasy football league — not the end of the world.

My bigger focus is on those who are considering leaving Christianity or who have already left Christianity. I try to be a good example of a person who successfully broke the chains of bondage and left Christianity. I do not call on people to follow me or to do what I did. All I am is one guy with a story to tell. If my story helps someone, if it gives them the strength to take the big step they need to take, then I am grateful and humbled by being a small measure of help to them. However, if all I do is piss you off and make you think you have scabies, perhaps your short life would be better served reading other things than this blog. Telling me I am wrong will not bring the effect you desire. I will gladly admit to being wrong. Next?

Perhaps you are really hanging out here because, deep down, uncertainty is pulling at you, and you are trying to suppress it by lashing out at the poor, deluded, deceived, ignorant Evangelical-preacher-turned-atheist named Bruce. If me being your whipping boy leads to your deconversion, whip away, my friend, whip away.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 63, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 42 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.

You can contact Bruce via email, Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube.

Your comments are welcome and appreciated. All first-time comments are moderated. Please read the commenting rules before commenting.

Bruce Gerencser