Tag Archive: Guilt

How IFB Churches Handle Premarital Sex and Unwed Mothers

fornication

The Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church movement believes that the Bible is the inspired, inerrant, infallible Word of God. Within its pages, True Believers® will find everything they need pertaining to life and godliness. The Bible, then, is a roadmap or a blueprint for life. Follow it and all will be well. Don’t follow it and you risk chastisement/judgment from God. IFB adherents are literalists who believe that all one needs to do to be pleasing to God is to strictly follow the commands and teachings of the Bible. Much like other sects, IFB congregants pick and choose which commands to practice and which to ignore. Their buffet line may have different foods from, say, Orthodox Presbyterians or Southern Baptists might have on their buffet, but the end result is the same: individual believers pick and choose the foods they want to eat, ignoring the rest.

Most IFB preachers believe that while each Bible verse has only one meaning, it has many applications. It is in applying the various commands/laws/precepts of the Bible that IFB churches and pastors develop what are called standards. These standards often become an extra-Biblical law that True Believers® are expected to follow. Failing to follow these standards will cause fellow church members to question your devotion and commitment to Jesus/church, and in some instances may cause them to doubt that you are a Christian. Thus, it is not uncommon for IFB church members to outwardly conform to these standards even if they don’t actually agree with them. All that matters is that you look the part.

When it comes to sex, all IFB churches are puritanical, believing that sexual intercourse should be reserved for monogamous, married, heterosexual couples. While there are many behaviors which will bring the ire of the church’s gatekeeper (the pastor), illicit sexual activities are viewed as sins above all sins. Spend three months attending an IFB church and you are sure to hear preaching against fornication, adultery, and homosexuality. In the minds of many IFB preachers, it is important to frequently remind church teens and adults of what God/church expects of them sexually. Virtually everything IFB preachers say about sex runs contrary to normal, healthy sexual desires. Thus, Sunday services all too often feature preachers screaming about sexual sin while countless congregants feel guilty for violating the Bible’s/church’s/pastor’s sexual mores. Of course, the root problem is the fact that humans are sexual beings, and it is healthy and normal to want/need/desire sexual intimacy.

What happens when it becomes public knowledge that a congregant violated his or her church’s interpretation of the Bible; when a church member gives in to their worldly, fleshly desires and commits adultery or fornication? Most IFB churches are anti-birth control for unmarrieds. They ignorantly and foolishly believe that teens and adults will wait until marriage to have sex, so there’s no reason for anyone to be instructed in how to use birth control, This, of course, leads to church girls occasionally getting pregnant. How do IFB churches respond when one of their “virgins” end up pregnant?

Some IFB churches try to hide these things from view by sending offenders away to Christian reform schools or homes for unwed mothers. Out of sight, out of mind. Other churches demand immediate marriage. Believing that the sex act binds a couple to one another, marriage is viewed as the Christ-honoring thing to do. Years ago, in one church I worked in, a sixteen-year-old girl got pregnant. The pastor told her that she had to immediately marry her baby’s father. A private, close family-only wedding service was held, with the bride forced to wear a non-white dress. The pastor told her that white was reserved for virgins, and since she was no longer “pure” she forfeited the right to wear white. This sham wedding, of course, didn’t last. After a few years, she and her husband divorced, bringing a fresh wave of condemnation from the church congregation and its pastor.

Back in my college days, one of my wife’s friends had sex with her boyfriend before they were married. They had planned to get married soon, but as was often the case, their raging hormones won out over Jesus/Bible/church. Unfortunately, this young woman bled profusely after having sex, alerting her parents to the fact that she had broken the law of God (and her hymen). Her father forced her to drop out of college and immediately marry the man who robbed her of her virginity. She never returned to school.

Some IFB churches publicly shame and humiliate teens and adults who engage in sexual sin. My wife and I were visiting an IFB church one Sunday when the congregation and its pastor had a pregnant teen stand before her family, friends, and fellow church members and confess her sins. I felt so sorry for the girl. Her bulging abdomen was not enough shame for her, oh no! It was necessary to heap Bible-inspired judgment upon her head. Of course, once she had repented with wailing and gnashing of teeth, the church body surrounded her and showered her with ‘love.” One might ask, what kind of love is this? IFB love. A warped love that is conditioned on obedience. An abusive love that is extended only after the person has been violently assaulted with the Bible.

It should not come as a shock, then, that there is a lot of sexual and marital dysfunction in IFB churches. From the pulpit to the youth group, you will find True Believers® who have warped understandings of human nature and sexuality. Instead of embracing their sexuality, IFB congregants are in bondage to the Bible and a fallible man’s interpretation of an ancient religious text. Giving in to the “flesh” leads to a constant cycle of sex/guilt/forgiveness. Try as they might, once IFB church members drink a milkshake at the Dairy Queen, they always want to stop for a shake every time they pass a DQ. So it is with sex. Once you have experienced raw, exciting sexual passion, there’s no going back. Instead of acknowledging this fact, IFB preachers demand offending congregants put the proverbial genie back into the bottle and live chaste, “Biblical” lives.

If I have learned anything about IFB churches it is this: there’s a lot of fucking going on. The only difference between what goes on in secret in IFB churches and what goes on in the world is that True Believers® feel guilty afterwards. The unwashed, uncircumcised Philistines of the world don’t worry about what the Bible says about their behavior. Yes, some worldlings have problems with guilt too, but more often than not, you will find Fundamentalist religion lurking in the shadows of their lives.

How did your church/pastor handle sexual behaviors deemed sinful? Did any of the unmarried girls in your church get pregnant? How did your church/pastor respond to their pregnancy? Please share your thoughts in the comment section.

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 61, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 40 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.

Bruce is a local photography business owner, operating Defiance County Photo out of his home. If you live in Northwest Ohio and would like to hire Bruce, please email him.

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Hangovers from Our Religious Past: Easy Like Sunday Morning

guilt

Cartoon by David Hayward

A Guest Post by ObstacleChick

A Sunday morning in June in New Jersey can often be warm, sunny, and beautiful. Many people are outside biking, walking, running, gardening, walking their dog, or just sitting outside enjoying the day. I’m a runner, and in the running community, one typically plans one’s longest run of the week on Saturday or Sunday morning when one is most likely to have two to four hours to spend on a run. We even have a phrase for it for those who choose Sunday — the Church of the Sunday Long Run.

This past Sunday, I went out for a nice run and took a slightly different route that led me past a small Lutheran church. About thirty to forty people were outside in folding chairs listening to the minister conducting the service. It makes sense when you have a small congregation to take them outdoors on a nice day. But what struck me were the automatic split-second thoughts and reactions that entered my brain.

First, there was a sense of guilt and shame for not going to church on Sunday morning. I haven’t attended church services (outside the occasional funeral) in more than 10 years. I stopped believing in God and Christian doctrines several years ago as well. My husband is also an agnostic atheist, and we have raised our now-teenaged kids without religion. But somehow, that quick jolt of guilt and shame flooded my brain. This was followed by the second thought: “Oh, crap, I’m wearing a tank top and shorts and am running during church time in front of all these religious people.” I don’t believe there is anything bad about someone wearing a tank top and running shorts while they are running. It’s appropriate attire if the weather cooperates and the runner feels comfortable in that attire. But I recognized the deep-seated “indoctrination” surrounding appropriate attire for church and for “religious people” to see.

These thoughts were a bit of a shock for me, but they indicate just how thoroughly indoctrinated people can be, especially when they are brought up in a religious setting from childhood. From the time I was three years old, my family attended Southern Baptist church twice on Sundays and once on Wednesday evenings. If you didn’t go to church at one of these times, you’d better be throwing up or in a hospital. There were rules about appropriate attire for each type of service. Sunday morning attire was the most formal, as Sunday morning church service was the week’s first worship event, where we showed God our reverence for Him by donning our best clothing and (theoretically at least) donning our most submissive and humble spirits. Sunday and Wednesday evening services were more casual — I suppose one could say that “business casual” was the appropriate attire for those services. A tank top and shorts would not have been deemed acceptable for any of these services.

In the fields of education and psychology, it is well established that children develop abstract reasoning skills during the age range of 11-16, with most children developing abstract thinking around age 13-14. This is why children in seventh grade are often tested to find out if they are ready to take algebra in eighth grade (about 13-14 years old) or if they should wait. Abstract thinking involves the ability to think about objects, concepts, or ideas which are not physically present. Within abstract thinking is the ability to think critically, to use the scientific method, to use reasoning skills, to be able to conceptualize and manipulate objects in one’s mind, and to develop spatial skills. Most religious groups understand that it is vitally important to indoctrinate children in the 4-14 age group because once they reach the stage of abstract reasoning, many will reject religious indoctrination. As many of Bruce’s readers who were indoctrinated as children know, it is VERY difficult to undo doctrines that were taught to us during those critical years. Conversely, my nonreligious kids read all religious stories in the same vein that they read “Harry Potter” or any other literary works of fiction. Religious folks understand that if you don’t indoctrinate them when they are young, you have to wait until people are at their most vulnerable and then approach them with a “cure-all” salvation message.

In 1977, the song “Easy” by the Commodores (written by Lionel Richie) became popular. Before my mom became more religious, we used to listen to the easy listening radio station that played this song a lot. As a kid, I never understood the chorus. Sunday morning was never easy. How could the Commodores claim that Sunday morning was easy? We had to get up early – not as early as for work and school, but early still – eat breakfast and get dressed in our best for an hour of Sunday school and at least an hour of worship service. Afterward, we would go home and have pot roast or whatever else Grandma was able to put in the oven to cook slowly until we returned home for Sunday dinner. Sometimes, as a special treat, my Grandpa would go to Kentucky Fried Chicken and pick up a bucket of chicken and sides for us. We would be home for a few hours before having to go back to church for Sunday evening worship. For being a day of “rest,” Sunday was pretty busy. Only heathens, apostates, atheists, Jews, Seventh Day Adventists, and backsliders did not go to church on Sunday, so I figured the Commodores must fall into one of those categories. That was too bad, because I kind of liked Lionel Richie.

As a deconvert, I learned that the Commodores were right – Sunday morning CAN be easy.

“Easy” by Commodores

Chorus:
That’s why I’m easy
I’m easy like Sunday morning
That’s why I’m easy
I’m easy like Sunday morning

Link

How many of you who were raised in a very religious household still experience a sudden pang of guilt or shame in reaction to some religious stimulus? [I call these experiences Fundamentalist hangovers. Ten years after my divorce from Jesus, and I still occasionally have guilty feelings such as the ones mentioned in this post. – Bruce]

Learning to Be Human Again After a Lifetime of Self-Denial

self denial john macarthur

Originally written in 2009. Edited for grammar and clarity.

Evangelical Christianity teaches that followers of Jesus must practice lives of self-denial. Self is the problem — the flesh wars against the spirit, the spirit wars against the flesh. Far too many Christians, thanks to this teaching, live guilt-ridden lives. Guilt over giving in to the flesh, guilt over letting self have control.

It goes something like this…

Anger is bad. Anger is a sin. Yet, anger is a common, normal human emotion. In fact, people who never get angry have either taken too much Zoloft or there is something seriously wrong with them. So Christians perpetually battle with anger, often becoming angry over being angry. They tell themselves the Holy Spirit lives inside of them. There are no reasons for them being angry. They need to get right with God. Prayers are uttered, sins forgiven, slates wiped clean. Dammit, why did that idiot cut me off in traffic? Can’t he see that makes me angry?  Now I’ve sinned against God.

And like children on a merry-go-round, around and around go Evangelicals, from sin to forgiveness, sin to forgiveness, over, and over, and over again. Is it any wonder then, that many Christians live such conflicted lives?

Let me pose a question to my readers:

What if it all is a lie? What if the very premise of self-denial has no basis? What if envy, pride, lust, greed, anger, and the other venial and mortal sins are a normal part of the human experience? Perhaps self-denial is the problem and not the solution. The flesh, who we really are, is not evil. It just is.

Evangelicals profess to believe that God created everything, including the first two humans, Adam and Eve. The creator God gave to humankind emotions. Evidently, God thought emotions were a good, even necessary part of being human.  But along comes Christianity with the beliefs of original sin and depravity. All people are inherently sinful, broken, and living lives without meaning, purpose, or direction. Unless people accept the sin “fix” of the blood of Jesus, they will live lives of desperation, ultimately dying in their sins and going to hell.

In accepting the sin “fix”, newly-minted Christians are expected to lay their lives at Jesus’ feet. They are told they must deny human nature, even going as far as to die to self. When Evangelicals get up in the morning and look in the mirror, the only face looking back at them should be the visage of Jesus. Yet, no matter how much they try, the only face they see in the morning is their own.

This is, of course, an impossible way to live. I have come to see that self-denial, at its basic level, is a lie. I can no more deny the emotions of self than I can survive without food and water. Certainly emotions can run wild and there is always the danger of extreme and excess, but denial is not the answer.

I spent most of my life suppressing who I really I am. Few people know the real me. The man they know is not who I really am. They only know the caricature. They know the façade.

As I attempt to find the real me there is some ugliness. A life of repressed emotions, a life of self-control, once freed from the constraints of Christianity, tends to be like a wild horse freed from a stock pen. Once free, the horse will never willingly return to its prison.

Maybe you are saying to yourself, I could never let my emotions have free reign. If I allowed my emotions to control me, I would certainly do terrible things. Are you sure? Or is that just what you have been told?

Evangelicals are taught that there is a slippery slope that must be avoided at all costs. The Bible says that Christians should avoid the very appearances of evil; that every thought, word and deed must be brought under control. The slippery slope argument goes like this: look at an attractive woman and say nice ass and you are on the path to becoming a rapist. If Evangelicals entertain anger in their hearts, according to the slippery slope theory, they are well on the way to becoming murderers. Many Evangelicals believe drinking alcohol is a sin. One drink and they are on their way to becoming alcoholics. Extreme? Sure, the Bible does say that Christians should pluck out their eyes or cut off their hands if they cause them to sin. Sounds pretty extreme to me.

Evangelical church members get a steady diet of sermons about the importance of denying the flesh. They are warned that if they give in to their desires, they are setting in motion things that will lead them to disaster. It is the same logic that suggests that watching violence on TV makes people violent, or that viewing porn turns men into sexual deviants. Countless hours are spent in therapy trying to undo such thinking.

Do some people who watch violent TV programs commit assault and murder others? Sure, a very small percentage pick up firearms and kill people. But the overwhelming majority of people can watch a horror flick without turning into Freddy Krueger. Do some men who look at pornography become child molesters or rapists? Sure, but again, most men can look at naked women on a computer screen and not turn into sex offenders.

Most of the ex-Evangelicals I have met through this blog have had to go through an extended period of reconnecting themselves with self. They have to relearn what it means to be human. They have to dredge up thoughts and emotions that have lain buried for years in the bottomless pit of repressive Evangelical faith.

The journey out of Evangelicalism is one of rediscovering who and what we are. This trek is exciting, frightful, ugly, and often contradictory, but it is honest and authentic. Shouldn’t that be the goal for all of us?

Let’s Talk About Sin, Guilt, and Human Behavior

original sin

Several months back, I asked readers to submit questions they would like me to answer. If you would like to ask a question, please leave your question here.

Ewan asks:

Do you have a philosophical view of the word ‘sin” anymore?

How is homosexuality defined in your worldview? What of extramarital sexual relationships? or premarital? Are they ‘sin’?

What is an atheistic view of sin? Does it really matter? If there is no sinful behaviour, where does guilt come from?

The power of sin in a xian worldview is guilt. If I were to have an extramarital built on love, is this sinful? What the heck is ‘sin’?

I do not use the word sin to define my understanding of human behavior. Sin is inherently a religious term, and since I am not a religious person, I have no need for the word sin and its theological consequences. Based on cultural and societal norms, humans act in ways that are considered good, indifferent, or bad. What we consider good, bad, or indifferent behavior changes with time, circumstance, and place. Currently, these things are still deeply influenced by religion, yet religion is losing its primacy and this is why we see religious zealots raging against perceived sins and slights of God and his timeless moral code.

Homosexuality is a science term, a word used to describe same-sex attraction. It has no inherent moral quality. Once we remove religion from discussion, there is less need to concern ourselves with sexual attraction or whom someone marries.

Marriage is a contractual agreement between two people. If this contract includes a commitment to monogamy, then I would consider it bad behavior to commitment adultery. However, many people marry for reasons other than sex. I pastored a few couples who had sexless marriages. One woman thought sex was for having children. Once her children were born she was done with having sex and she had no problem with her husband seeking sexual gratification elsewhere.

When it comes to premarital sex, I see no reason to consider it bad behavior. We have laws that govern the age of consent, and as long as the sex is consensual I see no reason to demonize teenagers and young adults for acting on their biological needs and urges. Our goal should be to make sure every person receives state-mandated education about human sexuality and birth control. The overwhelming majority of teenagers engage in premarital sexual activity, so it is in everyone’s best interest to make sure teens are sexually educated and on birth control until they are ready to have children. Doing so would greatly reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies, a goal all of us support.

There is no atheist position on sin. Atheism is a belief about the existence of deities, not a statement about ethics or morality. It is humanism that gives many atheists, including myself, a moral and ethical framework. The Humanist Manifesto III states:

Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.

The lifestance of Humanism—guided by reason, inspired by compassion, and informed by experience—encourages us to live life well and fully. It evolved through the ages and continues to develop through the efforts of thoughtful people who recognize that values and ideals, however carefully wrought, are subject to change as our knowledge and understandings advance.

This document is part of an ongoing effort to manifest in clear and positive terms the conceptual boundaries of Humanism, not what we must believe but a consensus of what we do believe. It is in this sense that we affirm the following:

Knowledge of the world is derived by observation, experimentation, and rational analysis. Humanists find that science is the best method for determining this knowledge as well as for solving problems and developing beneficial technologies. We also recognize the value of new departures in thought, the arts, and inner experience—each subject to analysis by critical intelligence.

Humans are an integral part of nature, the result of unguided evolutionary change. Humanists recognize nature as self-existing. We accept our life as all and enough, distinguishing things as they are from things as we might wish or imagine them to be. We welcome the challenges of the future, and are drawn to and undaunted by the yet to be known.

Ethical values are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience. Humanists ground values in human welfare shaped by human circumstances, interests, and concerns and extended to the global ecosystem and beyond. We are committed to treating each person as having inherent worth and dignity, and to making informed choices in a context of freedom consonant with responsibility.

Life’s fulfillment emerges from individual participation in the service of humane ideals. We aim for our fullest possible development and animate our lives with a deep sense of purpose, finding wonder and awe in the joys and beauties of human existence, its challenges and tragedies, and even in the inevitability and finality of death. Humanists rely on the rich heritage of human culture and the lifestance of Humanism to provide comfort in times of want and encouragement in times of plenty.

Humans are social by nature and find meaning in relationships. Humanists long for and strive toward a world of mutual care and concern, free of cruelty and its consequences, where differences are resolved cooperatively without resorting to violence. The joining of individuality with interdependence enriches our lives, encourages us to enrich the lives of others, and inspires hope of attaining peace, justice, and opportunity for all.

Working to benefit society maximizes individual happiness. Progressive cultures have worked to free humanity from the brutalities of mere survival and to reduce suffering, improve society, and develop global community. We seek to minimize the inequities of circumstance and ability, and we support a just distribution of nature’s resources and the fruits of human effort so that as many as possible can enjoy a good life.

Humanists are concerned for the well being of all, are committed to diversity, and respect those of differing yet humane views. We work to uphold the equal enjoyment of human rights and civil liberties in an open, secular society and maintain it is a civic duty to participate in the democratic process and a planetary duty to protect nature’s integrity, diversity, and beauty in a secure, sustainable manner.

Thus engaged in the flow of life, we aspire to this vision with the informed conviction that humanity has the ability to progress toward its highest ideals. The responsibility for our lives and the kind of world in which we live is ours and ours alone.

(If I have a “religion” it is secular humanism. My religion’s code is summarized in the Humanist Manifesto.)

The question of guilt is a good one, one that I am not sure I can adequately answer. Some guilt is driven by the pervasiveness of religion and its sin-punishment-reward system. However, I think guilt also flows from being a part of a particular culture and tribe. I am sure there are some behaviors that elicit guilt among the Gerencser children that might not cause guilt in a different family’s children.

jesus spanking sinners

The more absolute one’s moral beliefs are, the more likely they are to cause guilt. As I have stated many times before, my sin (bad behavior) list now fits on a 3×5 card, and I suspect by the time I die it will fit on a post-it note. Once the church, the Bible and sin-loving, yet sin-hating preachers, are removed from the equation, guilt often assuages.

I grew up believing drinking alcohol was a sin. I was fifty years old before I took my first drink. Now that God and the Bible no longer factor into my moral and ethical beliefs, I am free to drink alcohol, as much or as little as I want. Last Saturday, I spent some time with friends who love to drink. While I didn’t drink as much alcohol as they did, I did drink some and I thoroughly enjoyed it, as did my wife. At no time did I have a twinge of guilt over drinking the devil’s brew. I drank responsibly and acted in a way that did not harm others; no sin, no guilt.

What atheism and humanism have given me is personal autonomy and freedom. And a very small sin list.

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Leaving the Ministry: Dealing with Guilt and Regret

no regrets

A friend of mine, a former devoted, committed Evangelical pastor’s wife, wrote me recently and asked:

I’ve been struggling a lot lately. re: all the wasted years, harm my kids experienced, folks I hurt as a pastor’s wife and later a (sic) homeless shelter for women, fundamentalist BS I taught and lived. I know you’ve talked about how you deal with such stuff before. If you can direct me to previous links or have any advice I would be oh so grateful! Thank you!

Over the years, I have corresponded with a number of people who were at one time an Evangelical pastor, pastor’s wife, evangelist, youth pastor, missionary, or college professor. Having walked or run away from Evangelicalism, they are left to deal with guilt and regret . For those who were true-blue, sold-out, committed, on-fire followers of Jesus, their past lives are often littered with the hurt and harm they caused not only to themselves, but to others. The more former Evangelicals were committed to Jesus and following the teachings of the Bible, the more likely it is that they caused hurt and harm.

Literalism and certainty — two hallmarks of Evangelical belief — often cause untold mental, emotional, and physical harm. It is often not until people deconvert or move on to a kinder, gentler form of religious faith, that they see how much damage they caused. I was a Christian for fifty years. Twenty five of those years were spend pastoring Evangelical churches. I think I can confidently say that Evangelicalism made me the person I am today. Every aspect of my life was touched and shaped by Evangelical beliefs. No area of my life was unaffected. Any sense of self-worth was sacrificed at the altar of self-denial. I sang with gusto, All to Jesus I surrender, All to him I freely give. I lived and breathed Jesus. Everything, including Polly, my children, my parents, my siblings, and my extended family, was secondary to Jesus and his call to follow him.

I was, in every way, a fanatic. A fanatic is one who is intensely, completely devoted to a cause. No matter how Christians try to say that I never was a real Christian, those who knew me well in my pastoring days know that I was part of the 100% club. (see You Never Were a Christian and Jose Maldonado Says I Never Was a Christian) My ministerial work ethic put most pastors to shame. While they were busy taking vacations, going to Cedar Point, or golfing, I was working night and day trying to win souls and raise up a God-fearing, Christ-honoring church. I had little tolerance for lazy preachers who gave lip service to their calling, or Christians who thought coming to church on Sunday was all that God required of them.

As I look back on the twenty-five years I spent pastoring churches, I see that I caused great harm to my family and parishioners. I expected everyone to work for Jesus as hard as I did. Polly will tell you that I hounded her about reading her Bible more and spending more time in prayer. Never mind that she had six children to care for and taught in our Christian school. Never mind that I was the one paid to pray and read/study the Bible. Devotion to Jesus always came first.

Setting impossible expectations, not only for myself, but for my family and the church, resulted in a constant feeling of failure. No matter what I did, no matter what my family did, no matter what church members did, it wasn’t enough. Hell was hot and Jesus was coming soon. The Bible taught that we were to be watchman on the wall, ever warning the wicked to turn from their sinful ways. Since the Bible contained everything necessary to life and godliness, every Christian had a duty and obligation to, without hesitation, obey its teachings. Pity the person who was not as committed as I was.

Guilt and regret are the products of living life in this manner. Let me be clear, I am not saying that this was the wrong way to live life. If one believes the Bible is the inspired, inerrant Words of God, how can he NOT live in this manner?  If Evangelicals really believe what they say they believe, how can they NOT give every waking moment to the furtherance of the gospel and the Kingdom of God? If God is who and what the Bible says he is and judgment awaits every one of us, how can any Evangelical idly sit by and let the world go to hell?

Guilt. I had little time for Polly and the kids. No time for vacations. No time for leisure. No time for enjoying nature. No time for relaxation. No time for anything that took away from my calling. I even scheduled the one big vacation we took around preaching for a friend of mine. Road trips were to visit churches or attend conferences. The old acronym for Joy, Jesus First, Others Second, Yourself Last, had no place in my life. It was Jesus first, period. Polly and the children were along for the ride, mere appendages to my ministerial work.

Regret. As the old gospel song goes, wasted years, oh how foolish. I gave the best years of my life to Jesus and the work of the ministry. I worked night and day building churches, winning souls, and preaching the unsearchable riches of Christ. While most of the people I pastored and many of my colleagues  in the ministry were living the American dream, accumulating wealth, houses, and land, and preparing for the future, I was living in the moment, busily waiting for Jesus to split the eastern sky. Thousands of hours were spent doing God’s work, God’s way, and to what end? Here I am with a broken body and most of my life in the rear view mirror. No chance for a do-over. No chance to make things right. No chance to correct the harm and hurt I caused.

Bruce, you sound bitter. I know this post might sound like the acerbic whining of an old man, but it’s not. It’s just me being honest I know I can’t undo the past. It is what it is. I am simply reflecting on how life was for my family and me. Who among us doesn’t look back on the past and wish they had the opportunity to do things differently? Unfortunately, there are no time machines. All we can do is make peace with the past and try to move forward.

A few years ago, a man who was raised in one of the churches I pastored came to visit me. This man attended our Christian school and sat under my preaching for almost a decade. He had the full Bruce Gerencser experience. This man is gay. I’ve often wondered when he decided he was gay. I preached a lot of sermons on the sin of homosexuality. Thinking about the pain I might have caused this man still grieves me to this day. As he and I talked, I apologized to him for my homophobic, harsh, judgmental preaching. I told him I had guilt and regret and wished I could go back in time and make things right.  I’ll never forget what he told me:

Bruce, everyone who sat in the church was there because they wanted to be or their parents made them. The truth is, a lot of people want someone to tell them what to do. A lot of people don’t want to think for themselves . You were that someone. If it wasn’t you it would have been someone else.

His words have greatly helped me as I continue to battle with guilt and regret. As I told someone recently, I was a victim and a victimizer. I was schooled in all things Evangelical from kindergarten to my days at Midwestern Baptist College. I was indoctrinated, much like a cult indoctrinates it members. That I turned out as I did should surprise no one. It should also be no surprise that I then took what I had been taught and taught it to others. How could it have been otherwise?

What my pastor’s-wife friend really wants to know is how to deal with the guilt and regret. If she is like me, she wants it to go away. Sadly, it doesn’t. A person can’t spend his or her life deeply immersed in something such as the ministry and not come away with scars. While I have found atheism and humanism to be transformative, I still bear the marks and scars of a life spent working for the Evangelical God.

Two things greatly helped me post-ministry and post-Jesus. The first thing that helped me was this blog (one of the many iterations of this blog, anyway). When I started blogging, I cared little if anyone read what I wrote. My friends Zoe has written about this, as have many of my other heathen friends. Putting feelings into words is therapeutic. Over time, other former Evangelicals began to read my writing and my words resonated with them. They saw that I understood, having experienced many of the things they were going through. Now, seven years later, the raw, painful emotions that filled me as I walked away from the ministry and God have faded into the background. They are still there and can quickly be resurrected in the wrong circumstance, but my focus is now on helping others who are at the same place I was a decade ago.

Second, I sought out professional, secular counseling. When I left the ministry and later left Christianity, I burned the house to the ground. Now what?  All I have is a heap of ashes, the sum of a life that no longer exists. It took seeing a counselor for me to rebuild my life and rediscover who I really am. Self had been swallowed up by Jesus and the ministry. After I deconverted, I had no idea who or what I was. My entire being was wrapped up in being a pastor. The same for Polly. She spent most of her adult life being a devoted pastor’s wife. Now all of that was gone. Bit by  bit, my counselor helped me reconstruct my life. That process continues to this day.

As I answer the emails of those who were once in the ministry, I encourage them to put their thoughts and emotions into words. Even if it is just a journal–write. I also encourage them to seek someone to talk to, someone who will listen and not judge. If nothing else, correspond with someone who will let you vent. Over the past seven years, I have entered into email discussions with hurting former Evangelicals. Some of them still believe in God, others are not sure what they believe, and still others have lost their faith. Their letters are filled with mental and emotional pain and anguish. Writing me provides them with a sounding board, a secular confessional. Sometimes all a person needs is to know someone cares and is willing to listen.

Are you a former pastor or pastor’s wife? Are you a former on-fire, sold-out follower of Jesus? How did you deal with guilt and regret? What advice would you give to my friend? Please leave your wise thoughts in the comment section.

Note

The next-to-the-last church I pastored was Our Father’s House in West Unity, Ohio. I was there for seven years. It was at this church that I seriously began questioning how I had done things in the past. Bit by bit, I became like those lazy pastors I once condemned. I learned to take a break, go on vacation, and enjoy spending time with my family. What pushed me in this direction? Getting sick. It’s amazing what sickness will do to a person’s priorities.

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Guilt — the Essence of Evangelical Christianity

guiltWhat would Evangelical Christianity be without guilt?

Guilt, despite what preachers say, is the engine that powers Evangelicalism.

Often preachers will try to hide guilt by giving it other names like conviction. But no matter how they try to hide it, guilt plays a prominent part in the day-to-day lives of those who profess to be followers of Jesus Christ.

Think about it for a moment. The Bible presents God as a righteous, holy, judging, wrathful, deity. In the Old Testament this God was unapproachable except by a  few chosen people. People who got too close wound up dead.

Who can forget the story about the man who put out his hand to steady the ark of the covenant and God rewarded this man by killing him. Or the story about God killing the entire human race save eight people (and yet, Evangelicals say God is pro-life).

From Genesis to Revelation we see a God who gives no quarter to disobedience or sin. He demands worship and expects perfect obeisance. He is a God who not only hates sin but hates those who do it. (the-hate-the-sin-but-love-the-sinner line of thinking is not found in the Bible.) Evangelicals often remind people such as myself that someday every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord. Bow now or bow later, the thinking goes.

No matter how much the writers of the New Testament tried to cover this up with talk of love, grace, and mercy, the God of the Bible was not one to be trifled with. Those who trifled with him ended up dead. The Bible says, it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

There are hundreds of commands in the Bible, commands that God expects every Christian to obey without question or hesitation. After all, according to the Bible, God himself lives inside every Christian. According to the Bible, the Christian has the mind of Christ. The Bible also says that Christians are to be perfect even as their father in heaven is perfect. Lest one doubt whether God is serious, the writer of First John reminds his fellow Christians that he who sins is of the devil.

The Bible message is clear, obey God lest you fall under his judgment, a judgment that could lead to your death. Put in words that any child can understand: do what God says or he is going to get you. Remember this is a God who killed two people in the book of Acts for lying. This is the same God who brutalized his son on the cross because of what other people did. This is also the same God that will someday savage the earth and its inhabitants and torture in hell for all eternity all those who are not Christians. The book of Revelation reads like Quentin Tarantino movie script. The vengeful God will pour out his wrath upon the earth, killing billions of people and destroying the earth in the process.

It should come as no surprise then that many Evangelicals live with a backbreaking load of guilt. They know what God expects and they fear him, but, in spite of all their hard work, they still can’t measure up to what God expects of them. What deepens their guilt is preachers who say they speak for God, adding more rules and regulations that God demands every Christian obey (also called church standards).

I spent most of my life in the Evangelical church. I desperately wanted to be a good Christian. I felt God had called me into the ministry and I wanted to be the best pastor possible. I was willing to sacrifice everything for God. And so that’s what I did. I sacrificed my family, my health, and my economic well-being for God. I held nothing back and I was willing to die for my God if necessary.

A while back someone made a comment on Facebook about my being an atheist. This person has known me for 37 years. He said that he was shocked that I was an atheist because if anyone was a committed, true blue believer, I was. Most people who knew me in my Christian days would give a similar account of my devotion to God.

As a pastor I gave 100% to the cause. I worked long hours without regard to whether I got paid. Most of the churches I pastored paid a poverty wage, but that didn’t matter to me. I would have gladly worked for free, and, in fact, I did work many weeks and months without receiving a paycheck. It was never about the money. It was all about faithfully serving God and fulfilling his calling on my life. It was all about being obedient to the commands and teachings found in the Bible.

One would think that someone as committed as I was wouldn’t have guilt, but guilt played a prominent part in my life. Striving for perfection quickly reveals how imperfect one is. Sometimes I envied Christians who could take a minimal, carefree approach to God and his commands. Why couldn’t I be nominal just like everyone else? I’m not sure I have an answer for that. All I know is this, I worked for the night is coming when no man can work and the more work I put into my Christian faith the more guilt I had.

I often pondered the work of Jesus on the cross. Jesus had given his all on the cross for me. Shouldn’t I give my all to him? I took seriously the command to walk in the steps of Jesus. I tried to pattern my life after the example of Jesus and the apostles. I wanted to be found busy working for the advancement of God’s kingdom with Jesus came back to earth.

The Bible teaches that this life of ours is but a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away (like a steam from a radiator on a cold winter day). Rather than spending time building a kingdom in this life that will soon pass away,  I sincerely believed my  time was better spent  laying up treasure in heaven. Why bother with the transitory, material world that will soon pass away? Better to spend every waking hour serving Jesus than to spend one moment chasing the baubles of this world. Yet the harder I worked the more guilt I had.

I prayed in the morning, in the afternoon, and at night, and numerous times throughout the day, yet I feared I was not praying enough. After all, the Bible commands us to pray without ceasing. No matter how many people I witnessed to, there were always more people I needed to evangelize. There never seemed to be an end of souls that needed saving. How dare I spend one moment taking care of my own personal needs while countless souls were hanging by a bare thread over the pit of hell. I had no time for talk of heaven or eternal reward. There was too much to do.

I know some readers of this blog will read this post and say, no wonder you were guilty all the time. Look at how motivated and driven you were. Yes, this is true, but I ask you, where do I find in the Bible the laid-back, nominal, easy-come-easy-go, Christian life? While certainly such a life would have lessened the amount of guilt I had, how could I live such a life knowing what I did about the teachings and commands of the Bible?

Look at the examples given for us in the Bible of people who were devoted followers of Jesus Christ. Show me the nominal Christian. In every instance nominal Christianity is roundly condemned. God expects — dare I say demands — 100% devotion and anything less than that is treason against  God.

So, for many years I lived with guilt almost every day. I felt guilty when I stopped to enjoy life. I felt guilty when I stopped to attend to my personal wants and desires. I felt guilty when I spent money that could have gone to the church or to missionaries. Why could I not be like the Apostle Paul? Or why could I not be like Jesus himself?

Of course the real problem was that I was a human being. A life of selfless devotion to God was an impossibility. Now that I’ve left the ministry and left the Christian faith, my problem with guilt still remains. I’m no longer guilty over my lack of devotion and I’m certainly not guilty over committing what the Bible calls sin, but I do lament the amount of time, money, and effort I gave in devotion to a God who does not exist. As the old gospel song goes, wasted years, oh how foolish.

I also regret leading people into the same kind of life. I regret causing parishioners to feel guilty over not measuring up to the commands found in the Bible. As I have often said, churches would be empty if it weren’t for guilt and guilt’s twin sister fear.

Perhaps my penance is this blog. I am sure there are many people who read this blog who know exactly what I’m talking about.  Atheism and a humanist worldview have allowed me, for the most part — aside from what I have mentioned above — to live a life free of guilt (and fear). I no longer have to fear or feel guilty over not keeping God’s commands. No longer are my actions checked against God’s sin list. My actions on any given day are good or bad and when I do bad things I need to make things right if I can and try not to do them again. There is no need for me to be threatened with hell or promised heaven. All I want to do is be a good human being and be at peace with others. If my actions fail this standard then I need to do better.

How about you? Do you still struggle with guilt post-Jesus? Please share your thoughts in the comment section.

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