In August 1976, I packed my meager belongings into my dilapidated, rust-bucket of a car and moved two hours north to the Midwestern Baptist College dormitory. Midwestern, located in Pontiac, Michigan, was a small, Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) college. I planned to study for the ministry. Well, that, and chase girls. I thought, at the time, that Midwestern would provide me an ample supply of Baptist girls to date. Playing the field, was my goal. However, “God” had different plans. By the end of September, I was in a serious relationship with a beautiful dark-haired preacher’s daughter named Polly. To say that I was smitten is a gross understatement. In February of 1977, we became engaged, and in July 1978 we tied the knot at the Newark Baptist Temple in Heath, Ohio.
Forty-three years ago, I met a young woman who altered the course of my life. How we got to where we are today requires a book-length telling, but for today, let me share with you the story of our first Christmas.
Polly’s family gathered for Christmas on Christmas Eve. On a snowy Christmas Eve afternoon, I left my mother’s home in Bryan, Ohio and traveled four hours south to Newark, Ohio — the home of Polly’s parents and aunt and uncle. The family gathering that year was held at the home of Jim and Linda Dennis. Jim, married to Polly’s mom’s younger sister, was the pastor of the Newark Baptist Temple — an IFB institution. Both Jim and Polly’s father were graduates of Midwestern Baptist College.
Prior to the family gathering, a short, dutiful Christmas Eve service was held at the Baptist Temple. Jim, ever the jokester, pointed out to the congregation that his niece Polly had a guest with her. “They have a shirttail relationship. We just don’t know how long the shirttail is.” Polly and I were thoroughly embarrassed. No one in Polly’s family, at the time, thought that our relationship would last. I was Polly’s first boyfriend, so her family thought I was just a fad that would quickly pass.
After church, we drove to the Dennis’s home. Polly’s mom had her sister and cousin ride with us, just in case we did something nefarious; you know like hold hands or kiss. We safely arrived to Dennis’ home with our virginity intact.
Until my arrival in Newark, Polly and I had never kissed. That’s right, we had been dating for four months and had not yet kissed each other. The reason for this was simple. Midwestern banned, under threat of expulsion, all physical contact between unmarried dating couples. Called the six-inch rule, this ban caused all sorts of emotional trauma for dating couples. You see, it is normal for couples to desire and have physical contact with each other. “Normal” at Midwestern, however, was determined by the Bible, sexually frustrated preachers, and arcane rules imported from Bob Jones University — the college where the founder of Midwestern, Tom Malone, received his ministerial training.
Getting caught touching a member of the opposite sex was a sure way to get yourself “campused” (grounded from all outside activities, including dating). Repeat offenders were “shipped” (expelled). Polly and I both received demerits for breaking the six-inch rule. Our sin? I played on the college basketball team (not a big feat — think intramural basketball). One day at practice, I slapped at a basketball, severely dislocating a finger. I went to the local ER and oh-so-painfully had the finger put back in place. It remains crooked to this day. I had to wear a finger splint for several weeks. Male students were required to wear ties to classes. The splint hindered my ability to tie my tie, so I asked Polly to do it for me. Keep in mind we were standing in the middle of dorm common area when Polly tied my tie. If we had plans to break the six-inch rule, this would not have been the place we would have done so. Unfortunately, a couple sitting nearby turned us into the disciplinary committee. The next week, we appeared before the committee and were shamed for our licentious, immoral behavior. I suspect the only reason we weren’t punished more severely was because of who Polly’s uncle and father were (Jim was a college trustee at the time).
As you might imagine, by Christmas, our hormones were raging. We looked forward to getting away from the college and its rules so we could privately and intimately express our love to one another. Oh, college administrators warned unmarried students that the six-inch rule still applied while at home for Christmas break. I thought, at the time, “yeah, right. Catch us if you can.”
Polly’s parents lived in an apartment on Union Street. I spent a total of twenty-four hours with Polly that first Christmas. Our first kiss came when Polly’s mom asked her to go to the apartment complex’s laundry room to do some laundry. Seeing an opportunity for some old-fashioned necking, I went along, and it was there we had our first kiss. We did a lot of laundry that day.
Come Christmas Day, it was time for me to go home. Polly begged her mom to let me stay one more day, but she refused. Polly’s mom would spend the next fifteen months doing all she could to destroy our relationship — including forbidding us to marry. Needless to say, she and I have had an on-and-off-contentious relationship for years. In recent years, our relationship with Polly’s parents has improved. Age and impending death will do that, I suppose.
Many kisses would follow that first kiss on Christmas Eve 1976. After our return to Midwestern after break, Polly and I had a real problem on our hands. You see, we had crossed a physical line, and once that line was crossed there was no going back. We spent the next nineteen months breaking the six-inch rule, only double-dating with dorm couples who had the same “moral” standards we had. Summer breaks allowed us the freedom to act normally, but while classes were in session, we had to sneak around to just kiss one another. While we both were virgins on our wedding day, both of us knew that if we waited much longer to get married that we would likely have given in to our passions. A week or so before our wedding, Polly’s mom let us go to The Dawes Arboretum south of Newark without a chaperone. We spent several hours enjoying one another’s embrace, coming oh-so-close to rounding third and sliding into home. As it was, Polly was on a strict curfew, and we were late. Boy, did we get a lecture when we arrived home. Here we were getting married in a matter of days, and we were being treated like children.
One memory about our first Christmas stands tall in my mind. Polly and I were sitting on the couch, close enough to touch one another, but not so close as to arouse her eagle-eye mom’s attention, watching a TV special starring Captain & Tennille. One of the songs they sang was their 1975 number one hit, “Love Will Keep Us Together.”
Forty-three years later, that song is still true. Love, indeed, has kept us together.
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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Pastor Jim Dennis at a family outing in the early 1980s
Last week, James Dennis, the retired pastor of the Newark Baptist Temple in Newark Ohio, died from complications of myasthenia gravis at the age of seventy-five. Jim was my wife’s uncle, married to her mother’s sister. Jim attended Midwestern Baptist College in the 1960s, the same college Polly and I attended in the 1970s. Jim pastored the Baptist Temple for forty-six years. Known as a staunch Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB), Jim’s ministry was well-known in the IFB community. Jim’s three children are all in the ministry. His son Andy is an Evangelical pastor in Newark, his oldest daughter is married to IFB evangelist David Young, and his youngest daughter is married to missionary James (Jamie) Overton.
Jim came into Polly’s life as the young single pastor of the Kawkawlin River Baptist Church in Bay City, Michigan — the church attended by Polly’s parents. He later married Polly’s aunt, Linda Robinson. I first met Jim in 1976 during college Christmas break. Jim, along with Polly’s father, would marry us in a wedding held at the Baptist Temple on July 15, 1978. From that moment, Jim Dennis and I had a complicated relationship. There were times that I admired the man and coveted his advice. There were other times when I despised the man, especially after Polly and I left the ministry and later left Christianity. In the past decade, I talked to Jim a handful of times, never more than exchanging pleasantries.
The story that follows is my understanding of the past and my relationship with Jim Dennis. I am sure that others will object to my telling of this story or be offended that I dare to air Jim’s (and mine) dirty laundry. Their objections are duly noted, but I am a writer and this is a story I must tell. Readers are free to make their own judgments about what follows.
There was a time when Jim Dennis and I, theologically, were of one mind. Both of us were IFB preachers. Both of us were raised in IFB churches. Both of us attended IFB preacher Tom Malone’s “character building factory” — Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan. Both of us believed we were proclaimers of old-fashioned, Biblical Christianity. Our theological sameness, however, did not last. Jim would pride himself in believing the same things his entire life. Polly’s mom has remarked on more than occasion that she was proud of the fact that she had in her pastor Jim Dennis a man who never changed his beliefs. In her mind, he began the ministry with the right beliefs and he died holding on to those same beliefs. Bruce Gerencser’s beliefs, on the other hand, were constantly changing and evolving. Jim never read books outside of his theological rut, whereas I was willing to read authors who held different beliefs from mine. My reading habits are what took me from the IFB church movement to Fundamentalist Calvinism to generic Evangelicalism to Progressive Christianity, and finally, to agnosticism, atheism, and humanism. In Jim Dennis’ eyes, my life’s trajectory is a warning to those who dare to dabble in the world’s knowledge and goods. And in my eyes, Jim is a tragic reminder of what happens when someone refuses to read widely or investigate their beliefs.
Jim Dennis was known as the patriarch of the family; the wise sage who freely dispensed wisdom and knowledge to all, requested or not. Early on, I had conflicts with Jim over all sorts of issues, ranging from child rearing to whether it was okay to pick my wife up from work wearing gym shorts (Polly, at the time, worked for the Baptist Temple’s daycare. She was paid less wages than male employees because she wasn’t our family’s breadwinner.) In October of 1979, we moved from Northwest Ohio to Newark. We attended the Baptist Temple for 18 months. During this time, Jim and I had numerous conflicts — some minor, some major. Jim concluded that I had a rebellious streak, a view widely held by Polly’s parents and family, and I thought Jim was a closed-minded, authoritarian legalist. Our opinions about each other would only become more settled through the forty-two years we knew each other.
In 1981, Polly and I left the Baptist Temple to help her father start a new IFB church in Buckeye Lake, Ohio. Polly’s father had been the assistant pastor at the Baptist Temple for almost five years. He wanted to stay in the Newark area and pastor his own church. There were conflicts between my father-in-law and Jim that precipitated Dad’s resignation, but those stories are his to tell, not mine. Needless to say, Dad was happy to be on his own. I was the assistant pastor at Emmanuel Baptist Church in Buckeye Lake until July, 1983, when I left to start the Somerset Baptist Church in Somerset, Ohio.
I believed that it was vitally important for a pastor to live in the community in which his church was located. Polly and I moved to Buckeye Lake — a rundown former amusement park/lake cottage rental community — so we could effectively minister to congregants. (I would also work for the village for several years as a grant writer/program manager/building code enforcement officer.) Buckeye Lake proper was street after street of rundown houses. The poverty rate was the highest in the area. My kind of people, but not the type of people Polly’s parents wanted to be living next to. Our willingness to live among them, endeared us to many people, especially local teenagers. This led to the church growing rapidly. After we left, church attendance declined, and Dad later closed the church.
Bruce Gerencser, age 25, Ordination 1983, Emmanuel Baptist Church Buckeye Lake, Ohio
I don’t want to make myself out to be a saint, because that would be a falsehood. Living in Buckeye Lake, living in marginal housing, wasn’t something we would have done had it not been for the importance, in my mind, of living where you minister. During our time in Buckeye Lake, Polly’s uber-rebellious sister came to live for us a short while. One day, Jim Dennis showed up at our door wanting to talk to Polly’s sister. (Please read If One Soul Get’s Saved It’s Worth it All, a short post about Polly’s sister’s tragic death in a motorcycle accident.) Jim quickly became adversarial with Kathy, especially over the fact that she was wearing pants. Jim was an anti-pants crusader his entire life. Women who worked for the church or served in any official capacity were required to sign a statement that affirmed their obedience to his no-pants edict. As his anger towards Polly’s sister rose, Jim decided to physically grab a hold of her so he could “shake some sense into her.” His physical assault of her quickly came to an end when I threw him out of our home. Sadly, Polly’s sister would later repent of her “sin” and returned shamefaced to Jim Dennis and the Baptist Temple. She would do this repeatedly over the years up until her death in 2005.
From that point forward, I had an off-and-on relationship with Jim. Despite our conflicts, there was a part of me that still desperately wanted (needed) his approval. I had Jim come preach meetings at several of the churches I pastored. As I continued to move leftward politically, theologically, and socially, our relationship became distanced, with us only seeing each other on Christmas Eve for family Christmas. We used to go out to their spacious country home for Christmas Day, but word one year was passed down to us that we were no longer invited to their home. The reason given was the size of our family. This, of course, deeply hurt Polly. These were her uncle and aunt. Why would they shun her like this? No answer was forthcoming.
I could spend hours talking about the various conflicts between Jim Dennis and Bruce Gerencser, but for the sake of this post I want to share just one that I detailed in a post titled Christmas, 1957-2014:
With my parents being dead, we spent Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with Polly’s parents. This abruptly changed in 2010. I left the ministry in 2003 and abandoned Christianity in November 2008. In early 2009, I sent out my family-shattering letter, Dear Family Friends, and Former Parishioners. This letter radically changed our relationship with Polly’s fundamentalist family.
Christmas of 2009 is best remembered by a huge elephant in the middle of the room, that elephant being Polly and me and the letter I sent the family. No one said anything, but the tension was quite palpable.
2010 found us, just like every year since 1978, at Polly’s parent’s home for Christmas Eve. This would be the last Christmas we would spend with Polly’s parents and her extended family. We decided to blend into the background, and other than exchanging short pleasantries, no one talked to us. Not that they didn’t want to. We found out later from one of our children that Polly’s uncle wanted to confront me about our defection from Christianity. Polly Mom’s put a kibosh on that, telling her brother-in-law that she had already lost one daughter and she was not going to lose another. (Polly’s sister was killed in a motorcycle accident in 2005)
I appreciate Polly’s Mom being willing to stand up to the man who is generally viewed as the spiritual head of the family. I am glad she put family first. If Polly’s uncle had confronted me there surely would have been an ugly fight. Whatever our differences may be, I deeply respect Polly’s parents. They are kind, loving people.
Christmas of 2010 was two years after President Obama was elected to his first term. Polly’s family didn’t vote for him, and through the night they made known their hatred for the man, Democrats and liberals in general. Polly and I, along with many of our children, voted for Obama, so the anti-Obama talk and the subtle racism made for an uncomfortable evening.
Most years, a gag gift is given to someone. This particular year, the gag gift, given to Polly’s uncle, was an Obama commemorative plate one of our nephews had bought on the cheap at Odd Lots. One of Polly’s uncle’s grandchildren asked him what the plate was for. He replied, to go poo-poo on, poo-poo being the fundamentalist word for shit. This was the last straw for us.
On our way home the next day, I told Polly that I couldn’t do it any more, and she said neither could she. So, we decided to stop going to Polly’s parent’s home for Christmas Eve. We do try to see Polly’s parents during the holiday, but we no longer attend the family gathering on Christmas Eve. Making this decision saddened us, but we knew we had to do it. (BTW, our children still attend the Christmas Eve gathering)
Jim’s funeral was last Saturday. I did not attend, though Polly and two of our sons made the four-hour trip to Newark to represent the Gerencsers at what the Baptist Temple called Jim Dennis’ Graduation Service. Unlike Polly and our older sons, I have a hard time biting my tongue when I am around Fundamentalists. I wear my emotions on my sleeve and my face generally tells others what I think. While my health precluded me from making the trip, I suspect that deep down I simply did not want to go. I knew exactly how the service would go — two hours of praising Jesus and deifying Jim Dennis, complete with lies about where Jim went after death. Similar to their Evangelical brethren, IFB preachers often lie when preaching funerals. According to orthodox Christian theology, Jim Dennis is lying in the grave, waiting for his body to be resurrected from the dead. However, traditional IFB preaching says that the deceased is, instead, running around Heaven praising Jesus for his glory and grace.
Jim was an avid hunter. In his younger years he would take trips out west to hunt big game. I suspect more than a few funeral attendees thought that Jim was now hunting the mountain ranges of God’s Heaven. This, of course, led me to ask my son, so, there will be violence in Heaven? Ah the illogical lunacy that makes an appearance at funerals. The man, Jim Dennis, was glorified and presented as one without blemish or fault. The man, the myth, the legend. Those of us close to him know better. Yes, in many ways Jim was a good man. He loved his wife, children, and grandchildren. But, we dare not forget that he was also an authoritarian brute, a man who attempted to dominate and control the lives of others; a man who thought his advice to others was straight from the mouth of God; a man who believed he knew the will of God for others (a will of which he repeatedly reminded me). I have fond memories of us spending holidays at the lake with them. I also have good memories of the few times we went hunting together. These memories, however, do not erase the great psychological damage his preaching and behavior inflicted on countless congregants and church members. Polly and I bear deep scars from being excoriated by him over this or that “sin.” How could we ever forget him telling us that it was not God’s will for us to be poor or that it wasn’t God’s will for us to have more children (even though his own children now have large families). We can’t forget the lectures or the sermons that seemed directed right at us. You see, Polly married a man that NO ONE in the family wanted her to marry, and our current state of the affairs, to them anyway, is proof that they are right. If Polly had only married an obedient IFB preacher, why she might still be in the ministry today. Both Polly and I have made peace with the fact that we will always be on the outside looking in with her family. In the last decade or so, we have finally reached a place where we no longer give a shit about what family members think about us. We are who we are.
Let me conclude this tome with one more story. Seven or so years ago, one of the family’s preachers decided to try and understand our deconversion. We talked privately for a few days until Jim got wind of our discussions. The preacher was told to stop talking to me. I was a dangerous man, one given over to evil and false doctrine. The preacher, of course, complied. Jim was the family patriarch, and when he issued an edict everyone was expected to obey. That Polly and I were living in open defiance of his authority was not something that could be tolerated. Unfortunately, for Jim, we were safely beyond his reach, no longer caring about what came out of his mouth.
The patriarch is dead, but his religion lives on.
James Dennis’s obituary:
Newark – A funeral service for Pastor James Russell Dennis will be held at 11am on Saturday, January 13, 2018 at Newark Baptist Temple, 81 Licking View Dr, Heath, OH 43056. Dr. Charles Keen will be officiating. Family will greet friends from 4pm-8pm on Friday, January 12, 2018 and for one hour prior to the service at the church. Following the service, Pastor Dennis will be laid to rest at Newark Memorial Gardens.
Pastor Dennis, age 75, of Newark, passed away on January 9, 2018 at Licking Memorial Hospital. He was born on November 3, 1942 to the late Russell and Grace (Welsh) Dennis in Pontiac, Michigan.
Pastor Dennis was an avid hunter, but more than anything, he loved being a preacher. He loved to help people in his community and church family. In 1968, Pastor Dennis became the pastor of Newark Baptist Temple, until he retired in 2015. Following retirement, he continued to proudly serve his Lord until his death. He was a pioneer in Christian education; he founded Temple Tots Day Nursery School in 1970 and Licking County Christian Academy in 1972.
Pastor Dennis is survived by his loving wife of 51 years, Linda (Robinson) Dennis. He also leaves behind his children, Cilicia (David) Boelk, Bethlie (David) Young, Andrew (Jenny) Dennis, and Toree (Jamie) Overton; 19 grandchildren; 3 great grandchildren; and sister, Betty Freeman.
In addition to his parents, Pastor Dennis is preceded in death by his grandson, LCPL James Boelk, KIA Oct 10, 2010.
The family would like to give special thanks to Licking Memorial Hospital, 2nd Floor doctors, nurses, and staff, for all their care and compassion over the past month.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be sent to Newark Temple Baptist Missions, 81 Licking View Dr, Heath, OH 43056.
To sign an online guestbook, please visit www.brucker-kishlerfuneralhome.com.
It’s been 46 years since Pastor James Dennis began leading Newark Baptist Temple Church.
Although he still has an overwhelming passion for his role in the church, Dennis has decided to retire in November. It was a difficult decision to make, but he said he understands the need to bring new life into the church as it heads into the future.
“It has been a privilege to serve almighty God, to see people accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior. … It’s just a blessing to see how God can change the lives of people,” Dennis said. “But I also understand the need to get a fresh breath of air in here.”
Dennis was born and raised in Michigan, and after attending seminary school, he started a church in Bay City, Michigan. It was there that he met his wife, Linda, after her family began attending the church.
The two were happily married and living in Michigan when Dennis received a call from one of his friends who told him Newark Baptist Temple was looking for a new pastor. At the time, he had no plans to leave his home, but he felt God pushing him out of Bay City.
He accepted the position and moved to Newark in 1967. At that time, the church was still young, having been formed only five years earlier, and there wasn’t much for Dennis to do outside preaching. But through the years, the church expanded, adding multiple ministries and launching the Licking County Christian Academy.
The school was founded in response to what the church saw as a need for an educational experience grounded in morality and God’s word, Dennis said. Although it has remained small, the school provides an important component to education, and Dennis thanks the Lord for every student who leaves a graduate.
Newark Temple Baptist has very active youth and children’s ministries, and six years ago, it started Reformers Unanimous, a ministry that helps people with dependency issues.
“The Lord has been kind to us,” Dennis said of how the church has grown.
Although he is retiring, Dennis plans to stick around. He will continue to attend church at Newark Baptist Temple and said he might take on some speaking opportunities if needed.
One thing is for sure: He’s not done sharing God’s message.
“You may step down from a certain aspect of the ministry, but you never stop ministering. It’s an eternal calling,” Dennis said. “I know that God has a plan and a will for me.”
Bruce and Polly Gerencser, in front of first apartment in Pontiac, Michigan, Fall 1978 with Polly’s Grandfather and Parents
When I write posts like Leaving the Ministry: Dealing with Guilt and Regret, I am always concerned that someone might conclude that I was unhappy while I was in the ministry or that felt I was trapped in a job I didn’t want to be in. Neither of these conclusions would be an accurate assessment of the twenty-five years I spent in the ministry.
In October 1979, Polly and I, along with our newborn son Jason, packed up our meager belongings and moved from Montpelier, Ohio to Newark, Ohio. Polly’s parents lived in Newark. Her father was the assistant pastor at the Newark Baptist Temple, an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church pastored by her uncle James Dennis. For a few months, until we could find a place to live, Polly and I lived with her parents. Our first home in Newark was a duplex several blocks from Polly’s parent’s home. Living in the other half of the duplex was an older couple who attended the Baptist Temple. Later, we would move to a two-story home across the street from Polly’s parents. We lived there until we moved to Buckeye Lake, Ohio in 1982.
Both Polly and I agree that our time spent living in Newark was one of the most difficult and challenging times we have ever faced in our thirty-nine years of marriage. Polly started working at Temple Tots — the unlicensed daycare “ministry” of the Baptist Temple. In the fall of 1980, Polly found herself pregnant with our second son, Nathaniel. By then, she had started teaching first grade at Licking County Christian Academy (LCCA) — an unlicensed, unaccredited school operated by the Baptist Temple. (Polly was paid less money because she was not the breadwinner.)
I busied myself working in the church’s bus ministry, hoping that Pastor Dennis would make me the director of the bus ministry. He did not, telling me that it wouldn’t be right for him to give a family member the job. (Numerous family members would later work for the Baptist Temple.) James Dennis and I spent the intervening years in a love-hate relationship, with major conflicts seemingly bubbling to the surface every few years. While Polly’s family puts the blame for this squarely on my shoulders, a fair accounting of our conflicts shows that both of us bear responsibility for our inability to see eye-to-eye. Our history is long, complex, and littered with buried secrets that, even at this late date, could prove to be embarrassing. Age and health problems have pummeled James Dennis and me into submission, leaving us without the strength and will to continue the war. This is for the best.
After working for the local cable company repairing push-button cable boxes and working at several factories, in early 1980, I accepted a managerial position with Arthur Treacher’s — a large fast-food seafood restaurant chain located in Columbus, Ohio. My starting pay was $144 a week, or about $423 a week in today’s dollars. After my training and a few months as the assistant manager of the Heath, Ohio store, I was promoted to the general manager position of the Brice Road store in Reynoldsburg, Ohio. I would spend the next eighteen months daily driving back and forth from Newark to Reynoldsburg — about 27 miles one way. I worked long hours, six, sometime seven, days a week.
Bruce and Polly Gerencser, Sweetheart Banquet, 1985
With Polly busy raising young children and teaching at LCCA and me working long hours at the restaurant, we found ourselves estranged from one another. For a time, Polly and I were like two ships passing in the night. Polly, ever the awesome mother, focused her attention on our two boys, figuring that our marriage would be just fine. In her mind, the kids came first. I, on the other hand, ever the workaholic, poured myself into my job, often leaving for work early in the morning and returning late in the evening. Conflict with Polly’s parents and Pastor Dennis increased during this time, so I used my long work hours as a way to avoid interaction with her family. I was able to avoid family gathering by saying, I have to work, sorry. Polly’s family didn’t seem to mind that I was absent, believing then, as they do today, that I was “different.”
While Polly and I never talked about the dreaded D word, divorce, both of us recognized that our marriage was in trouble. We were deeply committed followers of Jesus and active in the machinations of the Baptist Temple. Despite my long work hours, I still worked in the bus ministry, went on visitation, and attended church services on Sunday. Polly helped with the nursery and sang in the choir. While we were busy, our life was not what we expected it would be when we left Midwestern Baptist College in 1978. Both of us believed God had called us to the ministry, so as long as we weren’t in full-time service for the Lord, our lives were not in line with the will of God. Polly and I saw this as one of the reasons we were having marital troubles. Decades later, now an old married couple with grandchildren, we now know that the root problem was immaturity and fanciful expectations. Our focus should have been on family and building financial security. Instead, we yearned to be Pastor and Pastor’s wife. In our minds, Jesus and the ministry came first. Wholeheartedly believing this would plague us for much of our married life.
Late in 1981, Mrs. Paul’s bought out Arthur Treacher’s. Mrs. Paul’s made all sorts of stupid changes, and after several months of working for them, I decided I had had enough and turned in my resignation. Several weeks later, I started working for Long John Silver’s as an assistant manager. Long John’s was rapidly expanding in the Central Ohio area, and I was part of a team of managers that helped open new stores. Polly had, by then, stopped teaching and returned to working at Temple Tots. Towards the end of the year, Polly’s Dad decided to leave the Baptist Temple — a long story in and of itself — and start an IFB church in nearby Buckeye Lake. He asked if Polly and I wanted to come along and help him with the new church. We quickly agreed, and I became the assistant pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Buckeye Lake, Ohio. Finally, Polly and I thought, we are back on track, doing that which God had called us to do.
Though much turmoil and heartache would await us in the years to come, we were happy to be in the ministry once again. Outside of a few months here and there when I was between churches, we would spend the next twenty or so years pastoring churches in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. No matter what trials and adversity came our way, we were happy to be serving the Lord. The Apostle Paul wrote that he had learned, regardless of the state of his life, to be content (Philippians 4:11) Over time, Polly and I became quite stoic about life. No matter what came our way, we smiled, put our trust in the Lord, and practiced the content Paul spoke of. Our commitment to Jesus gave us what the Bible calls, a “peace that passes all understanding” (Philippians 4:7). Life wasn’t easy for us, but it was satisfying. Difficult times were seen as tests from God (James 1:2-4) or loving correction (Hebrews 12:5-8) from our Heavenly Father. All that mattered was that we were in center of the perfect will of God for our lives (Romans 12:1,2). Believing that the calling of God was irrevocable (Romans 11:29), being in the ministry was what mattered most to us. Over time, the “ministry” swallowed up Bruce and Polly Gerencser, leaving us with no self-identity. We spent much of our marriage denying self and sacrificing ourselves for the cause. After leaving the ministry, and later leaving Christianity, Polly and I had no idea who we were. Our post-Jesus years have been spent reacquainting ourselves with who we really are. This process has been painful, yet satisfying. While we were happy in the ministry, our happiness was derived from “doing.” These days, we continue to learn that happiness most often comes from being, not doing.
If following the “Biblical” standard is so important, why don’t IFB preachers and congregants dress like this? Surely, dressing as Jesus did would be best, right?
Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) preachers are fond of saying, when confronted over their cultic, authoritarian, legalistic codes of conduct, that they are not legalists; that legalism is adding works to salvation. In this post, I intend to use a recent article by Bob Gray, Sr. to demonstrate that IFB preachers such as Gray are indeed legalists despite their protestations.
The first time I heard the argument that “legalism is adding works to salvation” was in the 1980s in a sermon preached by IFB luminary James Dennis, the now-retired pastor of the Newark Baptist Temple in Heath, Ohio. The Baptist Temple (as it is commonly called), as is the case with most IFB churches, had a long list of rules (standards) church members were expected to explicitly keep. Anyone who was in leadership or worked in any of the church’s ministries was required to sign statement saying that they would obey and practice the church’s standards. Women, of course, were not permitted to wear pants, and men were not allowed to have long hair or facial hair. There were other rules detailing what entertainments and social activities were forbidden. These standards were the Baptist Temple’s version of the unalterable laws of the Medes and Persians (Daniel 6:8). Refusing to sign the form meant you were not permitted to serve in the church and were branded as rebellious and unsubmissive to the will of James Dennis — I mean God.
When thoughtful people would object to the strict rules, they would often say that the church’s standards were legalistic. Pastor Dennis’ response was to remind them that legalism meant “adding works to salvation,” and neither he or the church was doing that! According to Pastor Dennis, the church’s standards were derived from the Bible and were simply a statement of how God expected Christians to live their lives.
Legalism is salvation by faith plus works! It is salvation plus baptism, plus church membership, plus keeping the law, plus communion, plus confession.
The Seventh Day Adventist doctrine, Church of Christ doctrine, Catholic doctrine, Armenian doctrine, Armstrong World-Wide Church of God doctrine, the Mormon doctrine, and the Jehovah (False) Witness doctrine are legalism.
Right off the bat Gray establishes with no justification other than what he has made up in his mind that legalism is “salvation by faith plus works! It is salvation plus baptism, plus church membership, plus keeping the law, plus communion, plus confession.” Thus, Seventh Day Adventists, the Churches of Christ, Roman Catholics, Armenians [sic], Herbert Armstrong’s Worldwide Church of God, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses all preach a legalistic, works-based false gospel.
Using his made-up definition of legalism, Gray then proceeds to share why he is most certainly NOT a legalist. Gray, the retired pastor of Longview Baptist Temple in Longview, Texas writes:
Legalism is not a godly mother who insists that her daughter dress modestly. Legalism is not parents enrolling their children in a Christian school that believes as they do about separation from the world. Legalism is not a dedicated aged godly dad who takes his son to the barbershop instead of a beauty shop every two weeks.
Legalism is not a faithful youth director who insists his teenagers dress appropriately. Legalism is not a hard-working pastor who insists that his Sunday school teachers not smoke, not drink alcohol, no tobacco use, no movies, they visit absentees, and go soul winning.
Legalism is not the careful godly educator who forbids his students to dance or listen to bad music. Legalism is not the man of God who cries aloud against mixed swimming, in essence, mixed nudity, against vampire lipstick promoting drugs, and young males with their Billy Idol bleached porky pine spiked chili bowl hair do!
Right has not changed and wrong has not changed just because you enter into a different century. Black is still black and white is still white. Good is still good and bad is still bad. Legalism is not the faithful man of God who cries aloud against sin.
Was Paul a legalist when he told men not to have long hair in I Corinthians chapter 11? Was Paul a legalist when he told the ladies not to have short hair in the same chapter? Sit still and read the rest of the article before you become mad!
Was Moses a legalist when he said, “Thou shalt not kill,” “Thou shalt not steal,” or when he said, “Thou shalt not commit adultery?” Was Paul a legalist when he said in I Timothy chapter 3 that the deacon should not be double tongued, or when he said a deacon should be the husband of one wife, or should be honest, or should be temperate?
Was Paul a legalist in I Timothy chapter 3 when he said the pastor should be sober, or the husband of one wife, or not greedy of filthy lucre? Was Titus a legalist if he obeyed the Apostle Paul in Titus chapter 2 when he told the aged men to be sober, grave, temperate, sound, loving, patient and the aged women to be holy and temperate? Was he a legalist when the told the young ladies to be discreet, chaste, keepers at home, obedient to their husband, and the young men to be sober and of sound speech?
As a result in our day, we find ourselves not fighting the vehicle of formalism; as Dr. John Rice boldly put at the top of his SWORD OF THE LORD paper in a banner. We find ourselves fighting INFORMALISM. The pendulum has swung to another extreme with the same cry against the rest of us who hold our feet to the fire on being separatist and are being called “legalist.”
It takes more than facial hair to make a man. Your flowery shirts and glass pulpits are not impressing the Holy Spirit at all. Your “worship teams” disguised as a singing group are not fooling anyone. , especially the Holy Spirit of God. Your colored lights to get the atmosphere you want is insulting to the Holy Spirit. When you decided to secretly follow Rick Warren you had to embrace the tactic of calling the rest of us “legalists.” You are substituting convenience for conviction.
God’s people have a choice! You can be free inside of the walls or you can be enslaved outside the walls. It bothers me when I hear God’s people using liberty as a license to sin. Liberty is inside of the Laws of God and not outside of the Laws of God. Every commandment, rule, or standard of God has been given for one purpose and that is to build walls around his people especially the young people.
Liquor, dope, elicit sex, Hollywood, cigarettes, bad music, etc., enslaves and is addictive. God’s do’s and don’ts build walls of protection for his people!
If fundamentalism is not careful we will lose everything that is near and dear to us! Being a fundamentalist is more than believing salvation by grace, verbal inspiration, plenary inspiration, preserved inspiration, virgin birth, sinless life of Christ, security of the believer, and vicarious death of Christ. Being a fundamentalist also includes having some rules and standards to live by so we can be free.
Those rules are bricks in a mighty wall that has been built by our founding fathers so that we might have a place of freedom in this world of slavery. Rules and standards have never enslaved for the truth is they liberate for all that enslaves has been placed outside the wall.
We know cigarettes enslave so we put nicotine warnings on the outside of the packages so why shouldn’t God’s people put them outside the wall. The same is true of marijuana, liquor, and dope.
I thank God every day for an old-fashioned wall building Mama, teachers, and preachers! Thank God for wall building schools, colleges, churches, Bible Conferences, and leaders who stand firm inside the walls. This is not legalism but rather it is liberty!
We need the walls to remain strong so that our young people can stay innocent and remain fearful of an enemy that lurks on the outside of the walls of protection where there is the bondage of compromise. Give me liberty inside of the walls.
The rules must be consistent between the pulpit, parent, and peer pressures. If all three are going in the same direction and provide the same consistency the odds are in favor of the follower being allowed to make right decisions! Liberty or legalism?
James Dennis, Bob Gray, Sr. and a cast of thousands would argue that keeping church standards doesn’t save anyone; that their standards are simply a statement of how Good Christians® should live their lives. However, in the real world, these legalistic standards are used to determine who is and isn’t a Real Christian®. Real Christians® will live according to church’s standard, uh I mean the teachings of the Bible. Real Christians® will want to willingly obey their pastor’s dictates. (It is always the pastor who determines what an IFB church’s standards will be. His words are law.) Real Christians® will live Christlike before the world, willingly dressing and behaving in ways that make them stand out.
When saved people refuse to obey, there is doubt cast upon their salvation. These doubts, of course, are rarely uttered aloud. Instead, they become fodder for gossip or Wednesday night prayer meeting. We visited one church where a mother stood before the church and detailed the “sinful” behavior of her adult son who just so happened to be in the service. He quietly bore her excoriation, yet I have no doubt that he wished she would shut the hell up. I felt embarrassed for the man. I have seen similar behavior in IFB prayer meetings where the “backslidden” ways of this or that church member were aired as “prayer requests.” What is implicit in these things is that the person mentioned has a “doubtful” salvation. Those truly saved, would live according to the church’s standards. That they don’t is a sure sign that something spiritually wrong with them; perhaps they aren’t even saved.
IFB preachers who deny that they are legalists will often say, it is up to God to save them on the inside and clean them up on the outside. While this statement sounds good, in the real world, new converts are expected, over time, to strictly obey church standards. If new Christians are reading the Bible, praying, and attending church every time the doors are open, it shouldn’t take a long time for the newly saved to see the “wisdom” of following their church’s code of conduct. A failure to do so means the person is backslidden, not right with God, worldly, or some other negative label. If change is not effected, pastors and their devoted rules-keepers will begin to wonder if so-and-so is r-e-a-l-l-y a Christian.
It is actually quite easy to “test” whether an IFB preacher is a legalist. Just ask him if a lesbian Christian can be a member, or if a Christian woman who recently had an abortion can join the church. Ask him if a woman who wears mini-skirts and low-cut blouses can be a part of their club, or if a man with hair down to the middle of his back can lead the congregation in prayer. Such questions will likely be answered in the negative, thus proving that IFB preachers really don’t leave it to God to clean up people on the outside. That’s their job, shaping them into the kind of Christians “God’ wants them to be. Offenders will be called into the principal’s, I mean’s pastor’s office and educated about how the pastor, uh I mean God, expects them to live. Make no mistake about it, the message is clear: You say you are a Christian, then LIVE like it, and living like means following the church standards established by Christ’s representative on earth, the pastor.
I hope that former IFB church members have some stories to share about legalism and church standards. If so, please share them in the comment section.
I should mention that, according to the gospel preached by James and John, a case can be made for works being required for salvation. James said, faith without works is dead (has not life). I’m inclined to think that, according to some parts of the Bible, that there is a direct connection between how people live and what they believe. We reveal our character by how we live, not by what we say.
Growing up in an Evangelical home, I knew that Christmas was all about the birth of our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. Gifts were sparse, often just two or three packages, but never far from view was the most wondrous gift of all, salvation through the atoning work of Christ on the cross. The churches I attended spent significant time each holiday season reminding congregants that Jesus was the reason for the season. Sermons against Santa Claus, consumerism, and idolatry were common, as were pleas for money to help the poor and disadvantaged.
Polly and I started dating in September 1976. On Christmas Eve of that year I drove from my mother’s home in Bryan, Ohio to Newark to meet Polly’s parents and attend her family’s Christmas gathering. This was the first time I had the opportunity to be alone with Polly, and we took advantage of it, using trips to the apartment complex’s laundry room to get as much kissing in as possible before returning to Midwestern Baptist College and its thou-shalt-not-touch six-inch rule. The family gathering was held at the home of Polly’s aunt and uncle, Jim and Linda Dennis. Jim was the pastor of the Newark Baptist Temple. Prior to gathering at their house, we dutifully attended the Christmas Eve service at the Baptist Temple. During the service, Polly’s uncle decided to thoroughly embarrass both of us by pointing out that Polly had a special visitor with her. He then said, “Bruce and Polly have a shirt tail relationship. We just don’t know how long the shirt tail is.” I can imagine Polly’s Mom saying to herself, not very long if I have anything to do with it.
After Christmas Eve service, we drove over to the Dennis’ home. As I walked in the door, I couldn’t help but notice the largest pile of Christmas gifts I had ever seen in my life. Jesus may have been the reason for the season, but it was quite evident that receiving a lot of gifts came in a close second. Prior to the gift-giving orgy, someone — I can’t remember who — gave a quick devotional, reminding all of us, yet again, as if we haven’t heard before, that Christmas was all about Jesus — his virgin birth, death on the cross, resurrection from the dead. Once the Sermonette for Christianettes® was duly delivered, it was time for the gifts to be distributed. Polly and I had already traded gifts, so I didn’t expect anything for myself. I was surprised (and embarrassed), then, to receive a gift from Polly’s parents — a leather belt.
After Polly and I married, we settled into a holiday routine that had us celebrating Christmas Eve with her family and Christmas Day with mine. Things continue this way until the late 1980s. I had stumbled upon material that purported to reveal the pagan history and true meaning of Christmas. Wanting to be obedient to Christ and untainted by the world, I decided, as the head of the home, that we would no longer practice Christmas. I can only imagine how heartbroken Polly was when I gathered up all of her Christmas decorations and donated them to Goodwill. I did make an allowance for us attending family Christmas gatherings. We bought no gifts for our children, treating Christmas as if it were just another day. For several years, our family drove to the Charity Rescue Mission in Columbus to help serve food to the homeless. Several families from the church I was pastoring at the time — Somerset Baptist Church — went with us. While I deeply regret becoming the Grinch that stole Christmas, I do think feeding the homeless put Christmas into perspective.
Somewhere in the 1990s, I realized that you could make Christmas into whatever you wanted it to be. Much to the surprise and delight of our children, we bought a Christmas tree and decorations. We also allowed for limited gift-giving. As I look back on this, I realize that I did with Christmas exactly what the Catholics did when they took a pagan practice and repurposed it for Christian use. Yes, Christmas was originally a pagan holiday, as were many of the practices associated with it, but I believed that such things could be used to further the gospel of Christ and give witness to Jesus. From that point forward, in the churches I pastored I allowed Christmas decoration to be put in the church auditorium. For the next decade, our home and the churches I pastored celebrated Christmas as most other American families and churches did. Jesus may have been the reason for the season, but gift-giving was a close second. To assuage the lingering guilt I had over consumer-driven gift-giving, I made sure our family and the churches I pastored gave liberally to missionaries and the poor.
Eight years ago, on the last Sunday in November, Polly and I attended church for the last time. For the longest time, we found it impossible to attend anything remotely associated with religion. We had just gone through a nasty divorce with God, and we didn’t want to go anywhere that would remind us of our ex. After a few years, the distance between deconversion and the present was sufficient that we were able to attend Christmas programs and concerts without wanting to commit homicide. If I remember right, our first foray back into the religious world was attending the production of Handel’s Messiah at a nearby church. That same year, we attended a Christmas concert put on by a Trans-Siberian Orchestra cover band — Siberian Solstice. One of the mainstays of the group is my counselor.
Evangelicals often deride me for practicing Christmas. How can an atheist practice a religious holiday? they ask. Christmas is all about Jesus, and are you being hypocritical if you celebrate a holiday set aside to worship a God you don’t believe in! I suppose that this would be a valid question if the evidence at hand showed me that, indeed, Christmas was all about Jesus and his virgin birth in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago. However, the evidence clearly shows that Christmas is all about family, food, and gift-giving. While many Evangelical churches will attempt to put Christ back in Christmas, most church families will practice Christmas in the same manner as their non-Evangelical neighbors. While Polly’s family still practices Christmas just as they did 40 years ago, it is now evident that the obligatory attendance at the Christmas Eve service and the devotional before presents can be opened are mere formalities — things to be endured until the real reason for Christmas begins.
Christmas Eve and Christmas Day fall on a Saturday and Sunday this year. It will interesting to see what local churches will do since Christmas falls on Sunday. The last time this happened, many churches held a short Christmas Eve service (so the tithes and offerings could be collected) and canceled Christmas Day services so congregants could spend time with their families. Some Baptist churches who normally held two services on Sunday canceled their Sunday evening service. Of course, wanting to show that they are not like “liberal” churches, a few Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) churches maintained their regular schedule of services.
As atheists, we thoroughly enjoy the holiday season. In fact, Polly and I both say that Christmas is far more enjoyable now than it was when I was pastoring churches. Quite frankly, the days between Thanksgiving and New Year’s were so busy that we had little time to enjoy the holidays. Like many Christian churches, who once a year want to show the poor and disadvantaged that they really, really care, we put together several food baskets and delivered them to the poor. (Isn’t it amazing that the poor only need food and help during the holidays?) Not only did we have to do obligatory alms to the poor, we also had to prepare for special services such as Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. By the time the new year rolled in, Polly and I were quite glad the holidays were over.
These days, we are free to enjoy Christmas without worrying about whether we are giving Jesus his just dues. For Polly and me, Christmas is all about family. We eat lots of food with no worries about waistlines. Polly loves to bake and I love to eat what she bakes, as do our children and grandchildren. For the next month, Christmas songs will waft through the air of our home — yes, even religious ones. You might be surprised if you stop by to hear us singing Joy to the World, Oh Come All Ye Faithful, or many of the other religious songs associated with Christmas. The lyrics of the songs are but reminders of our cultural heritage. This is why you will also find us singing Santa Claus is Coming to Town and Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer. For us, family and not Jesus is the reason for the season. If Christians want to focus on Jesus during Christmas, that is certainly their right to do so. However, I refuse to let them ignorantly suggest that Christmas is a Christian-only holiday. When confronted with such historical ignorance, I remind them that Christmas means different things to different people. It is a holiday that should bind all of us together, reminding us of the blessings of family and our common heritage. Evangelicals who stupidly say that there is a war against Christmas deserve a double barrel gun salute. There is no war against Christmas, and no matter how many times Sean Hannity says that there is, the fact remains that Christmas is a religious and a secular holiday. Christians are free to worship the baby Jesus and sing praises to his name, the rest of us are free to practice Christmas without the religious garb.
How do you practice Christmas now that you no longer a Christian? Are the holidays stressful for you? Do you still attend Christmas services? Please share your thoughts in the comment section.
What follows is a brief excerpt of a story about Jonathan Nichols. Jonathan grew up in the Newark Baptist Temple, the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist church (IFB) pastored, until recently, by my wife’s uncle, James Dennis. The Pastor (Jamie) Overton in this story is married to my wife’s cousin. He and his family are now missionaries. Polly’s parents have attended this church since the late 1970s. The Christian school in this story is the Licking County Christian Academy in Heath, Ohio. It is owned and operated by the Newark Baptist Temple.
The following story is excerpted from Part One and Part Two of Jonathan’s story:
My story is going to be slightly different than the others featured on this blog because I actually never attended Bob Jones University. However, before you stop reading, you should know that I would be finishing up my freshman year at BJU had I not been outed in high school, expelled, and ultimately forced to leave home. My parents are both BJU alumni, and the principal of my Christian school in Ohio was a BJU-pusher. In fact, while I was growing up, BJU was presented as the only viable choice of college by my family and a few teachers. Because of that, my story isn’t too different from the others here, I just went through the same things earlier, before I actually went to college.
I grew up in Newark, Ohio and attended an independent fundamental Baptist church since I was born. That church was more conservative than Bob Jones, and my parents were more conservative than the church. My mom, the church pianist and school music teacher, was forever busy taking the “sensual” triplets out of songs like “Some Trust in Chariots” and campaigning against songs like “As The Deer” and “Bow the Knee.” As you can probably deduce from that, practically no modern music was allowed in our household either. I grew up on classical music and only classical music and quickly learned that there was no such thing as likes and dislikes when it came to music. There was just good and bad. You are to listen to good music and not to listen to bad music. What music you “like” has nothing to do with anything.
That mentality was carried into every area of life.
I suppose being the music teacher’s son allowed me to be a little gay boy without thinking anything of it or being called out about it. I was totally into music and art and pretty things, and nothing was weird. I would play with scarves without feeling odd. Well, without feeling too odd. I knew that none of the other guys my age were playing with scarves. Fortunately, I didn’t think about it too much.
Ok, so I can’t really credit my discretion for keeping me in the closet for eighteen years… Like I said, I played with scarves and wasn’t careful about making it known that I was a musician and not like those “other” guys. The atmosphere was so anti-gay that no one even bothered to think that there could be a gay kid growing up there, regardless of how obvious I made it. Besides, I was still a kid. I didn’t even know what it meant to be gay. Heck, I didn’t even know that it meant anything besides “happy.” So in the minds of the church and my parents, there was no way I could have chosen to be gay yet. And since being gay is a choice, that meant that I was a good, straight little boy. Just like God intended. Right? Totally….
….wanted so much to be able to be honest with someone that I was actually in contact with. I hinted to my closest friend that my friendship with Ryan wasn’t just a friendship. She was, naturally for someone in our atmosphere, worried for me. So, despite her promises that she would trust me to do what I felt was right, she went to my youth pastor for help. He promptly told the senior pastor, who is superintendent of the school. The next day, I was called into Pastor Dennis’s office for questioning. Pastor Overton was also in the room, sitting to my left with a legal pad and a pen, taking notes. Dennis tried to start off nice enough, but it was obvious that they found out. I decided that a clean breast of the issue would be best, and went into my research on the matter, hoping at least to get an opposing rebuttal and at best to convince them. How naive I was. . . I don’t remember much of that conversation, but one thing rings vividly in my mind. I mentioned that the Greek word malakoi in I Cor. 6:9 was never elsewhere, in the whole of Greek literary writings, translated “effeminate.” It carried a whole different connotation. His response? He turned around, pulled his Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance off the shelf, looked up the word, and pointed to the definition. He never for one second imagined that Dr. James Strong was not infallible and that his concordance was not holy writ. In those several hours, my pastor beat me down. Hard. I was totally conquered, save in one regard. I would not tell him who I was “dating.” I did not see that it was my place to get someone else, especially someone I loved, in trouble like this. Dennis found out anyways. He had me break up with Ryan. I cried all night…