My wife and I came of age in the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church movement. Polly’s father was an IFB preacher, and both of us attended an IFB college in the 1970s. In 1978, we walked down the aisle of an IFB church pastored by Polly’s uncle and declared our troth one to another. After leaving Midwestern Baptist College in 1979, we spent the next fifteen years pastoring IFB churches. Even after our public break from the IFB church movement, it would be years before we distanced ourselves from that sect’s theological and social Fundamentalism. To say that IFB thinking and beliefs coursed through our veins would be a gross understatement.
IFB churches are known for being anti-culture. IFB churches and their pastors have strict, well-defined theological beliefs and practices. Congregants are expected to adhere to the letter of the law, dotting every i and crossing every t. Deviating from the expected norm brought public judgment from the pulpit, private criticism behind the scenes, and ultimately ex-communication. There is no place in IFB churches for differences of belief and practice. IFB apologists will object to this characterization, saying that not everyone has to believe the same things. However, these differences of opinion are about trivial, peripheral beliefs, not those that make IFB churches stand out from other Evangelical sects.
While IFB churches have stringent core theological beliefs, it is their social Fundamentalism that they are most known for. For readers not familiar with social Fundamentalism: social Fundamentalism focuses on the conduct, lifestyle, and social engagement of the Christian. (Please see Are Evangelicals Fundamentalists?) If IFB churches and pastors are known for anything, it’s their rules and regulations, also known as church standards. While every Christian sect believes certain behaviors and practices are “sin,” IFB churches unapologetically believe that listening to rock music, women wearing pants, women having short hair, men having long hair, watching R-rated movies, going to the movie theater, drinking alcohol, masturbating, engaging in premarital sex, touching/kissing before marriage, LGBTQ-anything, going to a secular college, voting Democrat — to name a few — are heinous sins against the thrice-holy God of the King James Bible (and yes, I know not every IFB pastor thinks every behavior listed here is a “sin”).
In 2020, I wrote a post titled, The Official Fundamentalist Baptist Rulebook. I listed the “church standards” that are found in many IFB churches:
- Thou shalt obey the pastor at all times
- Thou shalt obey all adults at all times if you are a child or teenager
- Thou shalt obey your husband at all times if you are a woman
- Thou shalt obey your parents at all times
- Thou shalt obey the police and government unless the pastor says it is a sin against God to do so
- Thou shalt tithe
- Thou shalt give an offering
- Thou shalt give a faith promise missionary offering
- Thou give an offering any time the pastor says God is saying to collect a special offering
- Thou shalt attend church every time the doors are open
- Thou shalt read the Bible every day
- Thou shalt pray every day
- Thou shalt pray without ceasing
- Thou shalt pray for every meal, but ice cream at Dairy Queen after church requires no prayer
- Thou shalt only use the King James Bible — 1611 edition which is really the 1769 revision
- Thou shalt only use the Scofield King James Bible
- Thou shalt not have long hair (over your ears, collar) if you are a man
- Thou shalt not have a block cut hairstyle if you are a man
- Thou shalt not have facial hair if you are a man, but if you are a woman you can have facial hair
- Thou shalt not have tattoos unless you have prison tats from your life before Christ
- Thou shalt not take the hem out of your Levi jeans or alter your clothing in any way so that you look worldly
- Thou shalt not wear pants (britches) if you are a woman
- Thou shalt not wear shorts, but a woman can wear Baptist shorts — also known as culottes
- Thou shalt not expose any flesh if you are a woman, especially your thighs, breasts, or back
- Thou shalt only wear dresses with hemlines below the knees if you are a woman
- Thou shalt not have any physical contact with the opposite sex if you are unmarried
- Thou shalt not masturbate
- Thou shalt not have more than one hole in each ear if you are a woman
- Thou shalt not pierce any body part except your ear, and then only if you are a woman
- Thou shalt not watch TV, but if you are a carnal Christian and must watch TV thou shalt only watch Little House on the Prairie or Bonanza
- Thou shalt not go to the movie theater, but using streaming services is okay
- Thou shalt always have tracts in your shirt pocket or purse, ready to evangelize at a moment’s notice
- Thou shalt drive a car with church advertising stickers, IFB cliches, or Bible verses attached to the bumper
- Thou shalt park down the street when visiting the local strip club or whore house lest the pastor know you are there and stay away
- Thou shalt not dance
- Thou shalt not listen to secular music, especially rock music, which is from the pit of hell
- Thou shalt not listen to contemporary Christian music (CCM)
- Thou shalt not smoke tobacco
- Thou shalt not drink fermented alcohol — after all, Jesus drank Welch’s grape juice
- Thou shalt not dip snuff
- Thou shalt not chew tobacco
- Thou shalt not cuss, but saying darn, shoot, crap, freaking, and fudge are okay
- Thou shalt not date non-Independent Baptist girls or boys
- Thou shalt not have any non-Independent Baptist friends
- Thou shalt home school your children or send them to a Christian school
- Thou shalt only read pastor-approved Christian books
- Thou shalt never speak in tongues
- Thou shalt only believe what the pastor says you are to believe
- Thou shalt go soulwinning every week
- Thou shalt say you have victory over sin, even if you are lying
- Thou shalt adhere to the “perception is reality” rule
- Thou shalt send your kids to the same Christian college the pastor went to
- Thou shalt leave the church if you commit adultery, get a divorce, or get pregnant outside of marriage
- Thou shalt believe everything the pastor says even when you are certain he is lying, speaking evangelistically, or embellishing his illustrations
- Thou shalt wear a bra if you are a woman, and it can only be a white, underwire bra
- Thou shalt not mix bathe (Baptist for swimming with the opposite sex)
- Thou shalt not go to amusement parks unless the youth group is going
- Thou shalt not go to the prom
- Thou shalt not show emotion unless praising Jesus from 10:00 am to noon on Sunday or giving a testimony during Sunday evening service
- Thou shalt say AMEN during at the appropriate time during the pastor’s sermon, especially when he shouts, pounds the pulpit, or performs gymnastics
- Thou shalt not be angry even though the pastor is allowed to be angry, but that’s because his anger is righteous anger
- Thou shalt be for what the pastor is for and against what the pastor is against, because if you don’t, a bear might come out of the woods and eat you
- Thou shalt never use your brain
- Thou shalt ignore any science that contradicts the Bible
- Thou shalt never try to fix your own problems because the pastor is the official fixer of all problems
- Thou shalt takes notes on the sermon even if the rabbit wanders five miles off the trail or the sermon is incoherent
- Thou shalt always tell the pastor what a wonderful sermon he preached, even when you have no idea what he was talking about
- Thou shalt always tell Sister Bertha what a wonderful job she did with her off-key rendition of What a Friend we Have in Jesus
- Thou shalt not use canned (taped) music for music specials
- Thou shall not play the guitar or drums
The lists of rules and regulations found in IFB churches — both stated and implied — are endless. Since IFB churches are Independent (please see What is an IFB Church?) governmentally, each church has its own standards. Who the pastor is at the time is the final arbiter of what will be expected (demanded) of congregants.
Having spent the first 35+ years of our lives in IFB churches, both Polly and I were deeply affected psychologically by all the rules and regulations. What made matters worse was that I was a pastor, and Polly was a pastor’s wife. We were not only the gatekeepers and the enforcers of the church’s standards, but we were also expected to perfectly and joyfully obey every jot and tittle of the “law.”
We believed that if we didn’t live according to these rules and regulations — which we believed were taught explicitly or implicitly in the inspired, inerrant, infallible (King James) Word of God — that God would chastise us or withhold his blessing. As devout followers of Jesus, we daily strove to live sinless lives. And as sure as the sun came up in the morning, we failed. No matter how hard we tried to keep the rules, there was never a day when we could say, nailed it!
This brings me to the focus of this post, Polly’s secret. You see, despite striving to be holy in thought, word, and deed, Polly had secret sins in her life. Of course, so did her pastor husband. Our “sins” were very different, but both of us “sinned” because we were told we couldn’t. You see, when you are constantly told this or that behavior is “sin,” it is not surprising that you want what you can’t have.
Most readers will likely find what I share next quite amusing, but I hope you will understand this story in the context of the Fundamentalist Baptist bubble Polly and I lived in for decades. Breaking the rules brought overwhelming fear and guilt. We were in our 40s before we drank alcohol, went to the movie theater, or listened to rock music. Polly was 46 before she wore her first pair of pants. I still remember me pleading with her to buy a pair of pants for the first time. Polly literally thought God was going to strike her dead. He didn’t, but the look that Polly’s Fundamentalist mom had on her face after seeing Polly in pants for the first time suggested that judgment might be coming soon. Polly’s mom’s face had a similar look of displeasure the first time she opened our refrigerator and found a six-pack of beer. We have been disappointing her for years now.
During a recent discussion about how IFB beliefs and practices harmed us psychologically, Polly decided to come clean about a “sin” in her life, circa the 1980s. We laughed over her confession, but I am sure her “sin” caused Polly lots of guilt and consternation back in the day. What, you ask, did Polly do? Have an affair? Steal money from the church? Secretly peruse Playgirl? Nope. Her sin was far more sinister than these things. Polly read books.
Books? Yes, books. In IFB churches, reading was strictly regulated. Pastors and congregants alike knew that only certain subjects and authors were approved for consumption. I still remember stopping at our pianist’s home unannounced, only to find a stack of true-crime novels sitting on her living room table. Congregants knew to give their homes IFB-approved appearances if they knew I was planning a visit, but I caught Rose off guard by stopping by unannounced. Rose, a wonderful, Jesus-loving woman, knew she had been “caught.” She knew what was coming next: a Pastor Bruce lecture about reading such godless trash. Little did I know that she had also bought a TV that she hid from me every time I stopped by.
Rose confessed her “weakness” for true-crime novels, promising that she would stop reading them and only read God-approved Christian chick-lit. I suspect that she did neither. What I didn’t know is that Polly had a similar “weakness.” Come to find out, my mom — a voracious reader — was giving Polly unapproved, “sinful” books to read. Knowing that her holier-than-thou preacher husband would disapprove and likely burn the books to make a point, Polly hid the books under our bed, reading them when I wasn’t home (which was typically 10-12 hours a day). What a sinner, right?
Today, Polly continues to read fictional books, including those that have graphic sexual content. Of course, the difference between now and then is that she no longer fears God or feels guilty over what she has read. While both of us have deep, lasting scars from our IFB years, we relish and enjoy the freedom we have from the rules and regulations of our past. We are free to watch and read whatever we want without fearing judgment or chastisement.
Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 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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