Tag Archive: James 2

The Evangelical Cult of Personality

church size matters

Cartoon by David Hayward, The Naked Pastor

Originally written November 2015. Updated, corrected, and expanded.

For it hath been declared unto me of you, my brethren, by them which are of the house of Chloe, that there are contentions among you. Now this I say, that every one of you saith, I am of Paul; and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas; and I of Christ. (1 Corinthians 1:11,12)

According to the Bible, the church at Corinth had become factional, with various groups saying that they were a follower of Apollos, Cephas, Paul, or Christ. In First Corinthians 1:13, Paul asked:

Is Christ divided?

Two thousand years later, we can answer Paul’s question with an emphatic YES! The followers of Jesus Christ have spent the past 2,000 years fighting amongst themselves. Their internecine warfare has caused schism, splits, and divisions, leading to the establishment of thousands of Christian denominations throughout the world (Wikipedia list of major Christian denominations).

Every Christian Bible has the following verses:

Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity! (Psalm 133:1)

By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another. (John 13:35)

For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit. (I Corinthians 12:13)

There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all. (Ephesians 4:4-6)

These four verses alone stand as an indictment of modern Christianity. The various Christian sects can’t even agree on basic beliefs such as salvation, baptism, and communion. Jesus said, I am the way, truth, and life, and almost every Christian sect thinks it has the way, truth, and life market cornered. Pick the wrong sect and, according to many sects, you will miss Heaven and spend eternity in Hell being tortured by God.

Evangelicalism, an inherently fundamentalist religious belief, (please see Are Evangelicals Fundamentalists?) has a unique problem in that its churches are generally a blend of sectarian divisiveness, Madison Avenue advertising techniques, and movie-star devotion to pastors, evangelists, and other “successful” Evangelical leaders. This has led to a cult of personality, similar to that which Paul was addressing in the church at Corinth 2,000 years ago.

Drive by many Evangelical churches these days and what do you see on the church sign? Sign after sign will have the pastor’s name prominently displayed. Why is this important? Why is it necessary to advertise the name of the pastor? If the church is one body worshiping the one Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, why call attention to the identity of the pastor? Why don’t churches put the names of the poorest church members on their signs as James suggests in James 2:1-4:

My brethren, have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with respect of persons. For if there come unto your assembly a man with a gold ring, in goodly apparel, and there come in also a poor man in vile raiment; and ye have respect to him that weareth the gay clothing, and say unto him, Sit thou here in a good place; and say to the poor, Stand thou there, or sit here under my footstool:are ye not then partial in yourselves, and are become judges of evil thoughts?

Isn’t giving the pastor top billing on the church sign showing the pastor undue respect? After all, the Apostle Peter said in Acts 10:34 that God is no respecter of persons. God may not be a respecter of persons, but his Evangelical followers sure are. Ask Evangelicals where they go to church, and they are just as likely to say, I go to Pastor So-and-So’s church as they are, I go to First Baptist Church.

In the average Evangelical church, the center of attention is not Jesus, the Word, or the sacraments. The focus is on the man standing behind the pulpit. He is the man of God, God’s messenger, the pastor. In some Evangelical churches, he is also the bishop, prophet, or apostle.  He is the main cog in the machine, without which the machine won’t run. If you doubt this, watch what happens when one of these superstar Evangelicals leaves his church. The membership inevitably declines, often because church members don’t like the new guy. Evangelicals then feel “led” to join a different church so they can be “fed.” Rarely will they admit that the reason they changed churches was that they were spiritually and emotionally infatuated with the previous pastor.

Megachurch pastors, in particular, are getting rich off the ministry. It is scandalous how these “profits” of God rake in millions of dollars from the churches they pastor, the books they sell, and outside speaking engagements. Even an atheist can see that these kinds of pastors are not following in the steps of Jesus. Instead of following the WWJD mantra, they are following what would a Wall Street profiteer do?

Any time I write about one of the Evangelical superstar pastors, people are sure to come along and defend him. I have attacked their god, and it doesn’t matter what the Bible or common decency says, they are not going to stand for it. Little do they realize that their defense simply illustrates my contention that Evangelicalism is a cult of personality.

I would love to be able to say to readers of this blog that I was different when I was a pastor, but I wasn’t. My name was prominently displayed on the church sign. I was the center of attention, the hub around which everything turned. People came to the churches I pastored because they loved my preaching and liked me as a person. When I pastored a fast-growing church in southeast Ohio, people would drive 30-45 minutes to hear me preach. Our church was exciting and growing, and I — uh, I mean God — was the reason.

What drives the cult of personality? Here in the United States, we are enamored with success. We tend to give respect to people who appear to be winners. One need only look to Donald Trump as an example of someone who gives the appearance of being a winner. Even in the blogosphere, we often judge the value of writers by the number of people who read their blogs and follow them on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. We forget that these numbers say NOTHING about the person. I have to constantly guard against this. I know my blog readership numbers, page views, and mailing list subscriber numbers are growing. Does this mean that I am “more” successful than I was years ago when a hundred people a day read my blog? Should people respect me more now that thousands of people read my writing? Of course not. Numerical success proves nothing.

size matters

For Evangelical pastors, size matters.

Within Evangelicalism, numerical success is everything. Success for a pastor is measured by the size of his penis — uh, I mean size of his church. The criteria for calling a pastor/church a success is not much different from the criteria used to judge a successful CEO in the corporate world: growing the business and maximizing profits.

The sure sign that a pastor has arrived is when he writes a book telling everyone how he achieved his success. When I was an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) pastor, almost every big-name pastor wrote a book detailing how he achieved numerical success. The subtle message was this: God is blessing me and this is why. Do you want God’s blessing? Do what I am doing!  Why is it that these successful pastors never write a book years later detailing the fact that “God’s blessing” didn’t last and their penis size shrank dramatically?

American Evangelicals love their conferences. Hundreds of Evangelical conferences are held each year. Who are the speakers? Those who have achieved “success.” These conferences always feature big-name pastors who pastor large, successful churches. When’s the last time Evangelical conference promoters had a Bro. Joe, who pastors 20 people on the backside of some hill in West Virginia, come and speak at their conference? It never happens.

One of the reasons people leave Evangelicalism is that they become tired of everything being about the pastor or of the focus being on the methods of the latest hotshot, knows-everything, successful pastor. They sincerely thought that Christianity was all about Jesus. They found out that Jesus was just the window dressing for their pastor’s ambition. Most Evangelical churches, thanks to their leaders, have lost all sight of what it means to be Christian. They proclaim that the Bible is their standard of faith and practice and then ignore its teachings and examples. Christianity should be about Jesus and his kingdom. From my seat in the atheist pew, it seems to me that Evangelicalism is all about the pastor’s kingdom and not the kingdom of Jesus they say they follow.

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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Jesus Said: Go Sell All That You Have and Follow Me

go sell everything

 And a certain ruler asked him, saying, Good Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life? And Jesus said unto him, Why callest thou me good? none is good, save one, that is, God. Thou knowest the commandments, Do not commit adultery, Do not kill, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honour thy father and thy mother. And he said, All these have I kept from my youth up. Now when Jesus heard these things, he said unto him, Yet lackest thou one thing: sell all that thou hast, and distribute unto the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, follow me. And when he heard this, he was very sorrowful: for he was very rich. And when Jesus saw that he was very sorrowful, he said, How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. And they that heard it said, Who then can be saved? (Luke 18:18-26)

Evangelicals would have us believe that the Christian gospel is mental assent to a set of theological propositions. “BELIEVE these things, and thou shalt live,” Evangelicals say. Believe the right doctrines, pray the right prayer, and bingo! you are saved and headed for Heaven when you die. Evangelicals preach up God’s grace and our inability to save ourselves through good works, yet Jesus, the man, myth, and legend seems to say something very different in the Biblical passage above. Nowhere in Jesus’ sermons/teachings do you find him preaching the gospel preached by modern Evangelicals. It was not until the Apostle Paul that we find a greater emphasis on “right” beliefs, as opposed to “right” living. James, taking issue with the Pauline gospel, said:

What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him? If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works. Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble. But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead? (James 2:14-20)

Pay close attention to how Evangelicals live and what they believe, and it’s hard not to conclude that they are following after Paul, not Jesus (or James). James was very clear: “faith without works is dead.” “Don’t tell me what you believe,” James said, “show me!”  While Evangelical pastors encourage congregants to do good works, it’s evident that the message is not getting through. The average Evangelical is Christian in name only, and certainly lives in contradiction to what Jesus and James said above. Worse yet, Evangelical preachers aren’t much better. Their time is spent at the golf course, at preachers’ conferences, coddling congregants, and making fat sheep fatter. If good works are the essence of the Christian gospel, is it not true, then, that most Evangelicals are not Christian?

In Luke 18, a ruler came to Jesus and asked what he needed to do to inherit eternal life. Evangelicals believe that preparing to meet God after death is THE most important thing any of us can do. Yet, few Evangelicals take the words of Christ seriously and follow in his steps. To the ruler’s question, Jesus replied, “Thou knowest the commandments, Do not commit adultery, Do not kill, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honour thy father and thy mother.” In other words, gaining eternal life was contingent on keeping the law of God. When the ruler said that he had kept the commandments from his youth forward, Jesus replied, “Yet lackest thou one thing: sell all that thou hast, and distribute unto the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, follow me.” Wow, what a demand! The ruler was quite rich, and selling everything and giving it to the poor probably seemed too much of a buy-in. The Bible says, the rich man went away sorrowful for he had great possessions.

Time and again in the gospels, Jesus demanded of people who wanted to be his disciples that they sell and forsake everything and follow him. This demand wasn’t optional. Inheriting eternal life hung in the balance. It should come as no surprise, then, that Jesus had few disciples. In the book of Acts we are told that after the death of Jesus, his followers gathered in an upper room to pray. All told, there were about 120 disciples. That’s it, after three years of public ministry. I suspect one reason for this is Jesus’ works-based gospel. Jesus demanded EVERYTHING from those who would follow him.

Two thousand years later, western Christianity has become little more than a cultural religion; one that is called on in times of trouble, and when children are born, young couples marry, and old people die. Imagine if Jesus came to the churches in your community and preached his gospel. Why, churches would empty out overnight. “Sell everything and give the proceeds to the poor, Jesus? Are you nuts?” I can’t speak to Jesus’ mental state, but I do know he said this about the path to life eternal:

Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets. Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it. (Matthew 7:12-14)

Jesus mentions good works, and then says the path to Heaven is a straight and narrow way, and few people find it. Billions of people claim to be Christians, yet few of them are walking the straight and narrow way. Why is that?

somerset baptist church 1983-1994 2

Our hillbilly mansion. We lived in this 720 square foot mobile home for five years, all eight of us.

In the late 1980s, I came to the conclusion that good works were essential to salvation. Thinking this, of course, led me to do all sorts of things that caused personal harm and harm to my family. I took Jesus at his word when he said to sell everything and follow after him. Polly and I, along with our six children, lived in poverty for years because I really believed what Jesus said. We lived like the Beverly Hillbillies BEFORE they came to California. Imagine eight people living in a 12’x60′ wreck of a trailer, with one dinky bathroom. Our winter heat came from a Warm Morning Stove in the living room. My oldest sons have oh-so-fond memories of putting wood and coal in the stove. It would get so hot in the living room that we would open the front door and use it as a thermostat of sorts.

During our “poverty years,” I gave away money, cars, clothing, food, and sold countless personal possessions to help fund the church and help others. I so wanted to be a man who followed in Jesus’ footsteps, even to the place of crucifying my flesh for him. Of course, the problem I had with my flesh is that it kept coming back to life. Over and over again I denied self and followed Jesus and his teachings.

The years spent in poverty left a deep and lasting mark on our family. While there were many lifelong lessons learned during this time, none of us has any desire to relive the “good old days.”  Were there “good” days? Sure, we were happy, at least within that paradigm. It was all we knew, so it seems normal and right to us. It was only when we escaped the Evangelical bubble that we were able to see how crazy our lives were; how foolish we were when it came to money and our family. Today, if Jesus came to me and said, “sell everything and become my disciple,” I would reply, “first, you are dead, a figment of my imagination. And second, if you really are alive, why do you need me to fund your work on earth?  Get to work, Jesus! Time  for you to whip out your Hogwarts wand and work some magic. You da man, right?”

I suspect I am not alone when it comes to being deeply affected by Jesus’ gospel. Long before I became an atheist, I was quite estranged from Christianity as a whole. I read passages of Scripture like the ones above, took them seriously, and did my best to implement them in my life. Why is it that most Christians didn’t do the same? Didn’t they want to be True Christians®?  Why was I different from so many other Christians and pastors? That, my friend, I will leave for another day. Suffice it to say, that subject has been a frequent topic of discussion in counseling.

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.

Thank you for reading this post. Please share your thoughts in the comment section. If you are a first-time commenter, please read the commenting policy before wowing readers with your words. All first-time comments are moderated. If you would like to contact Bruce directly, please use the contact form to do so.

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