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How the IFB Church Turned My Wife Into a Martyr

polly gerencser late 1990s
Polly Gerencser, late 1990s, carrying water from the creek to flush the toilets. An ice storm had knocked out the power.

My wife, Polly, and I were raised by parents who believed Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) churches preached the true gospel and adhered to the right doctrinal beliefs. Both of us spent our preschool years in non-Baptist churches, but neither of us remembers anything about these congregations. Our earliest religious experiences were with IFB churches. Both of us made our first professions of faith as kindergartners. I asked Jesus into my heart during junior church at Scott Memorial Baptist Church in San Diego, California. Polly gave her heart to Jesus by her mom’s bedside. As teenagers, both of us “really” got saved and/or committed our lives to Jesus. I also believed that God was calling me to be a preacher, and Polly believed her calling in life was to be a preacher’s wife.

During our high school years, I attended a large public high school in Findlay, Ohio — dropping out of school after my eleventh-grade year. Polly, at the time, lived in Bay City, Michigan. At the age of thirty-five, her father felt called to preach and moved his family to Pontiac, Michigan to attend Midwestern Baptist College.  During her father’s four years at Midwestern, Polly attended Oakland Christian School — a large Fundamentalist high school. Polly’s father graduated from Midwestern in May 1976. He then moved his family to Newark, Ohio, to become the assistant pastor for the Newark Baptist Temple in Heath, Ohio. The Baptist Temple — as it is commonly called — was an IFB church pastored by Jim Dennis, Polly’s uncle. (Please see The Family Patriarch is Dead: My Life With James Dennis.)

In August of 1976, a full-of-life redheaded boy packed his meager belongings into his beater Dodge Dart and made his way north to enroll for classes at Midwestern. A beautiful dark-haired girl would do the same, making the five-hour trip north in a six-year-old AMC Hornet. God’s perfect will was aligning for both of us, and we soon began dating. It was not long before we both were smitten with the other. Six months later, on Valentine’s Day, I asked Polly to marry me. She said yes, and I put on her ring finger the $225 quarter-caret diamond ring I had recently purchased for her at Sears and Roebuck. We then wonderfully broke Midwestern’s rules forbidding physical contact between unmarrieds. (Please see Thou Shalt Not Touch: The Six-Inch Rule.)

Polly and I threw ourselves into our studies, knowing that we couldn’t — thanks to a college rule forbidding marriage as freshmen — get married until the summer of 1978. Polly’s mom used the intervening eighteen months to try to derail our marriage plans. In February of 1978, Polly’s mom let her know that she could not marry me. End of that, I am sure Mom thought. Little did she know that full-of-life Bruce had rubbed off a bit on quiet, reserved Polly. After giving serious thought to eloping, we decided to get married with or without her parents’ blessing. Polly told her mom that she wanted their blessing and very much wanted to have the wedding at the Baptist Temple, but if not, she was marrying her red-headed bad boy anyway. This was the first time that Polly ever stood up to her mom.

In July of 1978, we tied the knot at the Baptist Temple on a ninety-five-degree July day (the church did not have air conditioning). Polly’s dad and uncle performed the wedding. Our wedding entourage was made up of friends from college, close friends, and family members. It was very much an IFB affair, with one exception, anyway. The soloist for our wedding was a college friend of ours. Two of the songs we asked him to sing were We’ve Only Just Begun by the Carpenters and The Wedding Song (There is Love) by Peter, Paul, and Mary. These were the FIRST secular pop songs ever sung at a Baptist Temple wedding, and they were most certainly the last. For the past forty-two years, thanks to us using secular songs in our wedding, Baptist Temple couples must have their wedding music approved before it can be used. We truly made a “mark” on the church.

After our honeymoon in French Lick, Indiana, we returned to Pontiac to begin our junior year of college. The first week of classes, Polly informed me that she was pregnant. How could that be possible? We were using contraception! Of course, we never had any premarital counseling or instruction about birth control. We were just two dumb, naïve young adults who thought reading Fundamentalist Tim LaHaye’s 1976 book, The Act of Marriage, was comprehensive sex education.

Polly was quite sick during her pregnancy. Her obstetrician was a country doctor who thought it was good for her to gain as much weight as she wanted. All told, she gained sixty-eight pounds, some of which is still with her today. Polly’s health problems forced her to reduce her class load. I maintained a full class schedule while also working a second shift job at a Detroit-area machine shop — Deco Grande. In January of 1979, I lost my job, and we were immediately plunged into a financial crisis. Polly and I sought counsel from the college dean, Levi Corey, thinking that it might be best for us to drop out of school for a semester. The dean told us that it was God who led us to Midwestern, and he never uses quitters. We would hear the “God never uses quitters” mantra many times during the next few weeks. He suggested we borrow money to pay our tuition bill. We did, but that only staved off destitution for a short while. In February 1979, we dropped out of college, packed up our belongings in a small U-Haul, and towed them with a 1967 Chevrolet Impala to the place of my birth, Bryan, Ohio. I was twenty-one, and Polly was twenty.

Our experiences at Midwestern generally reinforced what we had been taught as youths. We were taught a John R. RiceThe Home: Courtship, Marriage, and Children patriarchal/complementarian view of marriage. The Sword of the Lord website describes Rice’s book this way: 

Too long have people had to depend on lewd and crude books, written by ungodly men or women, people who think more of the body than of the soul, writers who study more to excite human passions than to make godly homes. This book shows the normal plan of God about marriage, about children and the Christian principles of a happy home.

I was the head of the home, and all decisions were to be made by me. Polly’s role was to care for our home and children. A greater burden was placed on Polly because she was taught that since her husband was a pastor, she and her children would always come second to the church. Polly was often reminded, both in classes and from the pulpit, that she would have to make great sacrifices for the sake of the ministry; that she must never complain about her preacher husband’s tireless service to Jesus; that men greatly used by God always had wives who understood their husbands’ supernatural calling; that if she would humbly walk in her husband’s shadow, that God would greatly reward her after death. Being naturally passive and reserved, Polly adapted well to her calling, as did I, an outspoken, passionate, quick-to-make-decisions pastor. These teachings would, over time, turn Polly into a martyr.

After leaving college and moving to Bryan, we lived with my sister and her husband for a few weeks while I secured employment and found us suitable housing. Polly, at the time, was six months pregnant with our first child.

As hardcore Fundamentalist Baptists, our first order of business was to find a church to attend. We had been taught that missing church was a grievous sin, a transgression that brought swift judgment from God. Family and friends thought that we would attend First Baptist Church. After all, it was the church I attended before college, and it was pastored by a distant relative, Jack Bennett. My sister and her husband were attending Montpelier Baptist Church, pastored by Jay Stuckey. Polly thought First Baptist was an aging, dead church, with little to offer a young family such as ours. My feelings were a bit more conflicted because I knew many of the people at First Baptist, but I knew Polly was right. So, instead of going where everyone expected us to go, we started attending Montpelier Baptist Church.

Montpelier Baptist was a young church affiliated with the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches (GARBC). The church’s pastor and his wife were a few years older than we, and many of the congregants were young adults. The nursery teemed with newborns, and there was an excitement in the air as, week after week, the church continued to grow. Pastor Stuckey was what I would now call a newspaper-headlines-preacher. He preached sermons about the end times, the rapture, and the Illuminati — the things you find in Chick Tracts.  For those who were interested in prophecy and evangelism, Montpelier Baptist was the place to be.

Several weeks after we started attending the church, Jay asked me to be his assistant, working with the bus ministry and the church’s evangelistic efforts. The position paid me exactly zero dollars and zero cents, even though I would, in a few weeks, find myself working at the church over thirty hours a week. Fortunately, I had secured a union job working at ARO in the shipping and receiving department, so money was not a concern.

Between the church and ARO, I was gone from home almost eighty hours a week. Polly was left alone most days, rarely seeing me until late in the evening or at church. I quickly became consumed with the work of the ministry, neglecting my wife for the sake of the supernatural call God had on my life. Polly saw my devotion to the church as the way pastors were supposed to be — sold out, on fire for Jesus. As my wife, Polly knew that God, ministry, and church came before her.

No matter how many hours I worked or how long I was away from home, Polly never said a word. She could see that God was blessing my work at the church. Thanks to my labor with the bus ministry and the church’s visitation program, church attendance grew rapidly. We were bringing so many children in on the buses that they had to sit on the floor at the front of the church. The crowded pews lent themselves to the congregation’s belief that God was doing something great at Montpelier Baptist Church. In October 1979, nine months after I started working with Jay, the church had a record attendance of five hundred. 

Three weeks later, Polly and I, along with our newborn son, would again pack up our belongings, this time so we could move to Newark, Ohio. During our time at Montpelier Baptist, it became clear that I was a workaholic; that I was unable to rest and relax when there was work to do for God. Shortly after our record attendance, I started having health problems that landed me in the hospital for several days. The doctor determined that my problems were stress-related.  During my hospital stay, Jay never came to see me. He never bothered to ask how I was doing. It was during this time that I was also facing a layoff at work. I went to talk to Jay about the difficulties we were having financially — thinking that the church might help us a bit since I was devoting so much of my time to its ministries — and he suggested I apply for welfare. Jay’s indifference towards us was quite hurtful, and later that day, Polly and I decided we would move to Newark. We went over to Jay’s home to tell him, thinking he would understand. He didn’t. Jay became quite belligerent (as did his wife), laying a guilt trip on me for wanting to leave. He so shamed me that I changed my mind about leaving.

A week or so later, it became clear that we were going to have to move. I went to Jay’s office to tell him we were moving, and he looked up from his desk and basically said to me, see ya later, and then went back to whatever it was he was doing.  By the end of the week, we had packed up our belongings and moved to Newark to live temporarily with Polly’s parents until I found a job.

In all of this, Polly was a passive bystander. It was my job to be the head of the home, to make all the decisions. She was taught, and believed, that her God-called preacher husband was led by the Holy Spirit and knew exactly what he was doing. I don’t remember her ever questioning our moves from college to Bryan and from Montpelier to Newark. She was content to follow me wherever I went, and whatever difficulties, burdens, and trials came her way, she would gladly bear them without a word of complaint. As far as patriarchal thinking goes, she was the perfect wife.

These experiences, and many others like them, turned Polly into a martyr. No matter what I said or did, she just smiled and obeyed — the perfect IFB pastor’s wife. Instead of giving her opinion or standing her ground, she quietly followed in my footsteps. It was not until we were in our forties that we realized this was no way to live; Polly was supposed to be my partner, not my slave.

The past 20 years of marriage have been transformational, to say the least. Our decision-making process has changed dramatically, and Polly isn’t afraid to express her opinion or say that this or that is a bad idea. Going back to college and graduating in 2012, and being promoted to second shift supervisor for her department at Sauder Woodworking have allowed Polly to step outside of my shadow, be her own person, and make her own decisions. Deconverting in 2008 helped too. Once freed from an authoritarian God and his rule-book, Polly was free to chart her own course and captain her own ship.

There are times when both of us lapse into our former IFB ways. We are not much different personality-wise from when we got married 42 years ago. Sure, we have mellowed with age and our priorities have changed, but what’s really changed is our values and how we treat each other. Both of us can say that our marriage today is better than it ever has been. We deeply love one another and realize that we are lucky that our marriage survived decades of IFB indoctrination. We are far from perfect, but strive to be a better friend, lover, and spouse to each other every day. Now, if we can just quit fighting over the blanket. 🙂

Bruce Gerencser, 63, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 42 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen awesome 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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IFB Bullies in the Pulpit

angry preacher

I recently read a blog post on another website that talked about bullies in the pulpit. For those of us raised in Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) churches, we are quite aware of so-called men of God bullying church members under the guise of preaching the Word of God or sharing what God laid upon their hearts. Let me share a couple of illustrations I believe will aptly illustrate my point.

In the early 1980s, my wife and I attended the Newark Baptist Temple in Newark, Ohio. The church’s pastor was James (Jim) Dennis, Polly’s uncle. Jim graduated from Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan in the 1960s. Polly’s father would later attend this college, as did Polly and I. Midwestern was known for producing fire-breathing, authoritarian preachers. Tom Malone, the chancellor of Midwestern and pastor of nearby Emmanuel Baptist Church, took a ” my way or the highway” approach to ministry. Legalistic thinking permeated both the church and the college. Run afoul of Malone, and you were shown the door. I vividly remember someone leaving a church service at Emmanuel and Malone stopping his sermon to address the man leaving. Much to the man’s embarrassment, Malone said, with his Alabamian drawl, “don’t let the door hit you on the way out.” The only phrase missing was “on the ass.”

Jim Dennis followed in the footsteps of Malone when it came to being a bully. While Jim could have a winsome personality, cross him and he would quickly put you in your place. The Baptist Temple was his church, end of discussion. God had called him to be its pastor, and as God’s chosen oracle, his word was law.

The church was going through a difficult time financially. Jim decided that he would inspect the tithing records to see which church members were giving and how much. Jim was shocked to learn that many of the teachers and staff in the church’s Christian school were not tithing. Never mind that teachers and staff members were paid pathetically low wages and had few, if any, benefits. Polly taught first grade one year at the school. She made $180 a week before taxes. She also worked in the church’s daycare the previous year. Polly’s total gross wages in 1980-81 were $9,111. I made almost three times as much money working for Long John Silver’s (and had full benefits) as Polly did teaching and caring for the church’s children. Worse yet, women were paid less money than men. Why? Because men were breadwinners, not women. Employees were expected to treat their jobs as a ministry of sorts, the equivalent of a Baptist vow of poverty. It should not be surprising then that many teachers and staff members couldn’t afford to tithe and give offerings. When you are in the poorhouse, it is hard to justify giving money to the church.

One Sunday, an angry Jim Dennis — righteous anger, right?— took to the bully pulpit and savaged his selflessly serving teachers. He demanded that they immediately start tithing, and if they didn’t, he would have their tithes deducted from their paychecks. While I’m sure Polly’s IFB family would wish I didn’t write stories such as this, I think it is important to expose this sort of behavior for what it is: bullying.

Let me share another story before moving on to my own abhorrent behavior. In the 1980s, a fire-breathing Fundamentalist named Mike Lee was the pastor of Montpelier Baptist Church in Montpelier, Ohio. Montpelier Baptist was the first church I worked for after leaving Midwestern in 1979. The pastor I worked for, Jay Stucky, later left and Lee became pastor. My sister and her husband were members of the church both while I was there and after Lee took over the helm. After my sister’s marriage fell apart, Lee would have her followed to see what she was up to. Granted, her behavior didn’t measure up to the IFB standard, but deacons following her to the local bar and grill to observe her behavior? My sister, of course, left the church.

Several years later, the good pastor Lee decided to address the burning issue of church teenagers attending their high school prom. In the minds of Fundamentalists like Lee, attending the prom was among the vilest of “sins.” After his sermon was over, Lee told the congregation that he had something he wanted to talk to them about. Wanting to make sure that no one could leave the church auditorium, Lee had the ushers lock the doors. How do I know this happened? A couple who would later join the church I pastored in West Unity were visiting Lee’s church that day. They were scared witless by his behavior. There’s one word to describe this pastor’s behavior: bullying.

These two illustrations likely seem beyond the pale to non-IFB Christians, but trust me, such behavior is quite normal among IFB pastors and churches. Why is that? Most IFB pastors are anti-culture. I suspect most of them voted for Donald Trump in the last election. Authoritarians love other authoritarians. Many IFB pastors run their churches in a fashion similar to the way Trump ran his businesses and the federal government. IFB pastors, to the man, believe the Bible is the inspired, inerrant, infallible Word of God. Couple this with a literalistic interpretation of the Bible, a belief that pastors are divinely called by God to speak on his behalf, and that their opinions and personal interpretations have the weight of law, is it any surprise that many of them are bullies?

I grew up in IFB churches and attended an IFB college. My pastors, professors, and colleagues in the ministry all modeled bullying behavior to one degree or another. I heard it at pastor’s conferences in the stories preachers told about their churches, and I witnessed it when I visited other IFB churches. People wrongly assume that Steven Anderson, an IFB pastor in Tempe, Arizona, is an outlier, an aberration. He’s not. The same goes for the late-Fred Phelps, pastor of Westboro Baptist Church.

It is not surprising, then, that I was an authoritarian and bully as a pastor. I may have been kind, compassionate, and may have gone out of my way to help church members, but I expected congregants to heed my pronouncements. I expected them to recognize and bow what is called in IFB circles “pastoral authority.” This false notion was reinforced in my sermons, private interactions, and church business meetings. Church members were warned that failure to obey the man of God would lead to judgment and chastisement from the Almighty. And surprisingly, hundreds of people bowed to my authority, believing I was in some way or the other chosen by God to be their “shepherd.”

The good news is that I stopped being a bully long before I left the ministry. I came to see that the church didn’t belong to me. It was “our” church, not my personal fiefdom. Did I totally lose my authoritarian bent? Sadly, no. I learned that many church members were quite comfortable with me making all or most of the decisions. They were fine with me telling them what to believe and how to live. I endured countless church business meetings where I would plead with congregants to share their opinions, only to see them stay silent or let me have the final say. This was frustrating, to say the least, but it is hard for me not to conclude that every church I pastored had cultic tendencies.

After leaving the ministry in 2005 and Christianity in 2008, I have repeatedly apologized to former parishioners for my bullying behavior. While I have been forgiven by those I have harmed, it’s hard for me to live with the damage and harm I caused to others. Sure, I was a product of my environment and training. Sure, I did what was modeled to me by my pastors, professors, and other IFB pastors and evangelists. All that is true and makes for a great psych profile, but the fact remains that I was a bully, that I harmed other people, including my wife and children.

Alas, there are no do-overs in life. All I know to do is tell my story and hope that others will be warded off from authoritarian pastors. Not all pastors are bullies, so I suggest potential church members carefully pay attention to how a preacher conducts himself before committing one’s time and money to a particular church. Bullying behavior can be found in other sects too. In general, Evangelicalism has a problem with bullies in the pulpit, men who are engorged with power and control. The only way to end such behavior is to stop giving these bullies an audience. When all the students stay off the playground, the bully has no one to harm. It’s time for Christians to leave authoritarian pastors to their own devices.

Bruce Gerencser, 63, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 42 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen awesome 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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The Making of a Fundamentalist: First Baptist Church, Bryan, Ohio — Part One

first baptist church bryan ohio
First Baptist Church, Bryan, Ohio

MMy memories of Christian Fundamentalism began in the 1960s as a member of First Baptist Church in Bryan, Ohio. In the early 1960s, my parents moved to San Diego, California. I was five. Dad was chasing the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. What he found was more of the same — Ohio, with better weather. Dad ended up selling aluminum awnings and driving a truck — not much different from the jobs he left behind in Bryan, Ohio. Dad’s California dream ended after my second-grade school year with our move back to the rural northwest Ohio community of Bryan — my father’s birthplace. One thing, however, remained: my parent’s newfound Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) faith.

Mom and Dad were nominal Christians before their move to California. Our family attended Episcopal and Lutheran churches in Bryan. Why my parents sought out an IFB church after we moved to San Diego is unknown. Perhaps someone invited them to church. Or maybe, Dad saw an opportunity for sales referrals. Regardless, the Gerencser family started attending Scott Memorial Baptist Church (now Shadow Mountain Community Church) in El Cajon. While there, Mom and Dad made public professions of saving faith and were baptized by immersion. As a kindergartener, I did the same. From this time until my parents divorced in 1972, the Gerencsers attended IFB churches, and were front and center every time the church doors were open.

One such church was First Baptist Church in Bryan, Ohio. Established in 1954, First Baptist was originally affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, but later become an IFB congregation. When my parents returned to Bryan in 1965, the church was located on Alpine Drive, and was pastored by Donald Linz. In 1967, Mom and Dad moved us to Harrod, Ohio, leaving behind the First Baptist congregation. We returned 18 months later. By then the congregation had purchased the old Wesley United Methodist building on the corner of Beech and Butler. Linz had moved on, and in his place was Jack Bennett, a pastor married to the sister (Creta) of two of my uncles. Bennett would pastor First Baptist for thirty-one years. Currently, the church is located on a fifteen-acre plot on the edge of Bryan. Currently, home-grown John MacFarlane is the pastor. MacFarlane has pastored First Baptist since 1999.

letter-from-first-baptist-church-bryan-ohio
A “personal” letter my son who lives in Bryan received from First Baptist Church in October 2016

After starting ninth grade at Ney Junior High School in 1969, my parents moved away yet again, this time to Deshler. One year later, they would load up their earthly belongings and move to Findlay. Dad started selling vacuuAfter I started ninth grade at Ney Junior High School in 1969, my parents moved our family away yet again, this time to Deshler. One year later, we would load up our earthly belongings and move to Findlay. Dad started selling vacuum cleaners for Kirby. After a brief stay at Calvary Baptist Church, Mom and Dad joined Trinity Baptist Church — a fast-growing IFB church pastored by Gene Milioni. I would remain in Findlay for my ninth through eleventh grade school years.

In the spring of 1974, I returned to my mother’s home in Bryan, Ohio. I once again joined First Baptist, and would remain an active member there until I left college in 1979. With my pregnant wife by my side, I returned to Bryan, but decided that it was time for me to move on from what I called the “family church.”

My sister and her husband attended Montpelier Baptist Church — an IFB congregation affiliated with the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches (GARBC) in nearby Montpelier. The pastor at the time was Jay Stuckey. Stuckey asked me to be his assistant, primarily working with the church’s bus ministry and visitation program. Thus ended my connection with First Baptist.

Several months after my defection from the family church, I ran into Mom Daugherty at the grocery store. Mom, along with her husband Pops, were pillars of the church. I believe they were founding members. Mom Daugherty told me, at the time, “Bruce, why are you attending that ‘other’ church? You know where you belong.” I politely and briefly explained to her why I joined Montpelier Baptist. She would have none of that, telling me that she hoped I would return “home.”

This series will focus on my experiences with First Baptist Church and its pastor Jack Bennett. I’m sure daring to tell these stories out loud will upset some current/former members and pastors of the church. How dare I speak ill of the dead — or the living, for that matter? These stories need to be told, and now is the time.

Bruce Gerencser, 63, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 42 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen awesome 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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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. Donations are always appreciated. Donations on a monthly basis can be made through Patreon. One-time donations can be made through PayPal.

1979: Canoeing on the St. Joe River

bruce and polly gerencser 1978
Bruce and Polly Gerencser, in front of first apartment in Pontiac, Michigan, Fall 1978 with Polly’s Grandfather and Parents

In February, 1979, Polly and I left Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan and moved to the place of my birth, Bryan, Ohio. I had vowed never to return to rural northwest Ohio — with its flat land and monoculture — but thanks to me losing my job and Polly finding herself pregnant six weeks after we married, we needed to move somewhere where we could get help and find work. That place was Bryan and the home of my sister and brother-in-law. We had gone to the dean of students for counsel about how to deal with our predicament. His advice? Pray, trust God, and above all else, do NOT drop of school. He advised us to borrow money, if necessary, to pay our tuition bills and to stay in school no matter what! Of course, his advice was terrible counsel for a pair of twenty-something, soon-to-be parents. Never mind that fact that Polly and I were clueless about money, budgeting, and credit. Fortunately, no one would loan us enough money to cover our college debt, so we decided to drop out of school and move to Bryan.

On the appointed day, we packed our meager belongings in a U-Haul trailer and towed it with our 1967 Chevrolet Impala to the home of my sister and brother-in-law. We lived with them for a month. Polly and I shared a bunk bed. I quickly found work at General Tire. However, after a few weeks, I was moved from first to third shift. I decided I didn’t want to work that third shift, so I looked for a new job, and quickly found work at ARO Corporation — a large employer who made pneumatic pumps and other air equipment. I worked in shipping and receiving making $7 an hour, including top-shelf, free medical insurance. My brother-in-law worked at ARO, as did my uncle and several of the men I attended church with at nearby First Baptist Church.

My local friends assumed that I would return to First Baptist, the family church pastored by Jack Bennett, my uncle’s brother-in-law. Much to everyone’s surprise, Polly and I decided to attend Montpelier Baptist Church. My sister and her family attended church there. The church was a stridently Fundamentalist church affiliated with the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches (GARBC). Running about 150 in attendance, the church was poised for growth. (Montpelier Baptist reach 500 in attendance on our last Sunday at the church. Yes, Skippy, I had a lot to do with the attendance growth.) After we visited the church several times, its pastor, Jay Stuckey, came to my sister’s home and asked if I would be interested in being his assistant — a full-time, unpaid position. Eager to get busy serving Jesus, I said yes, and for the next seven months I worked at ARO full-time and devoted the rest of my waking hours to helping Pastor Stuckey. I primarily worked with the bus ministry and visitation program. Strangely, Stuckey never asked me to preach. I did, however, preach several times on Sundays at the Funny Farm Campground. The owners attended the church and were looking for someone to preach to the campers. I’d go preach a short sermon, give an altar call, and then a love offering would be taken. The money was dumped in a paper bag and given to me as I was leaving. Pretty good pay for less than an hour of work. It was, by the way, more money than I ever received from Montpelier Baptist. The church had the means to provide me some sort of stipend, but chose not to.

My sister married at the age of fifteen. Several months pregnant, she married a man who was one day younger than I was. He and I were in the same hospital nursery in June 1957. Initially, I didn’t like my brother-in-law. He was a pot-smoking hippie who listened to rock music! However, between the time they married and my return to Bryan, they found Jesus and were actively involved in various church ministries at Montpelier Baptist.

My brother-in-law seemed to really love Jesus, outwardly anyway. We got along quite well, and when I needed help driving one of the church buses, he gladly volunteered. One day, my brother-in-law asked if I would be interested in going canoeing with him. At the time, I was an outdoorsman — quite fit — so I said, sure!

Up to this point, the only canoeing I had ever done was at youth events at canoe liveries near Loudenville, Ohio. These canoe trips were quite docile, with little threat of drowning. Little did I know that the trip my brother-in-law had in mind would be, on one hand quite thrilling, but on the other hand, quite dangerous.

It was late March, and the St. Joe River was flooded from early spring runoff. The water was cold, in the thirties, temperature-wise. We planned to canoe from Montpelier in the north to Edgerton in the South — a 12-15 mile course. I was excited about making this trip, though I did worry a bit about the coldness of the water. What happened if someone fell in the water? I thought. I quickly dismissed my concern, jumped into the canoe, and my brother-in-law pushed us off from shore. Being a good swimmer, I didn’t wear a life preserver. What could go wrong, right? Little did I know, my carelessness almost cost me my life.

The St. Joe was quickly moving thanks to all the runoff swelling its depths. This, of course, made for swift currents — just what two athletic young men wanted. Towards the end of our trip, we came into some fast-moving water that was partially blocked by a fallen tree. My brother-in-law navigated our canoe towards the right side of the river, and when we came close to the tree, I attempted to push us away with my paddle. To this day, I don’t know for sure what happened next. Somehow, my pushing movement caused the canoe to become unstable, and before I could help right it, I was catapulted over the side. As I hit the freezing water, I found myself gasping for breath. This resulted in me taking in a bunch of water — choking. Little did I know, I was moments away from drowning. Fortunately, my brother-in-law realized I was in serious trouble and, grabbing ahold of the neck of my coat, he pulled me back into the canoe. He literally saved my life.

My brother-in-law paddled the rest of the way down the river with me lying in the bottom of the canoe. We arrived to our destination, loaded the canoe onto our vehicle, and quickly made for home. Boy, did I have a story to tell my bride of eight months! My brother-in-law and I never canoed together after that. I suspect he didn’t want to put his life in the hands of someone as inexperienced as I was. I learned a valuable lesson: ALWAYS wear a life preserver when you are on the water. Unfortunately, this did not steer me clear of doing other dumb, dangerous stuff. When God is with you, no worries. right? Except it was a human, and not God, who pulled me from the chilly waters of the St. Joe on that fateful day. If I had waited on God to “save” me, my wife would have been a widow, and my unborn son an orphan.

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.

Donations are always appreciated. Donations on a monthly basis can be made through Patreon. One-time donations can be made through PayPal.

Just Remember Girls, No One Ever Got Pregnant Who Didn’t Hold Hands With a Boy First

angry preacher

Now concerning the things whereof ye wrote unto me: It is good for a man not to touch a woman. Nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband. (I Corinthians 7:1-2)

The Apostle Paul told the church at Corinth that unmarried men should not touch women. Touch not, want not, right? If men couldn’t contain their sexual desires, then to avoid fornication they were to marry. In other words, marriage was a considered a cure for horniness. Countless Evangelicals have been taught that if they cannot contain their sexual desires — remember masturbation is a sin — then they should seek out someone of the opposite sex to marry. Hey Betty, I am horny. Will you marry me? 

Many Evangelical preachers use I Corinthians 7:1-2 as justification for the Puritanical rules they use to regulate physical contact between unmarried teenagers and young adults. I came of age in the late 1960s and 1970s. I was a member of Trinity Baptist Church in Findlay, Ohio — an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church affiliated with the Baptist Bible Fellowship (BBF). Public displays of affection were forbidden. This prohibition forced church teens to turn to secretive means to show their “love” to their boyfriend or girlfriend. We learned how to hold hands in church or on the church bus so no one could see us. There was something exciting about flaunting the rules, even more so when we spent time necking in out-of-the way church hallways or in the shadows of the parking lot. My favorite necking time was Wednesday evenings when the adults were having choir practice. Church teens were left to their own devices, and many of us used the time to fornication-lite. One girl I dated for a short time told me recently that I was the first boy who kissed her — in the back of the church while the adult choir was practicing Bill Gaither’s song, He Touched Me.

I had many such dalliances, but that is as far as they went. I was a true believer, so I limited my physical intimacy with the opposite sex to hand-holding and kissing. I was one of the few flower children who didn’t get laid before marriage. Conversations in recent years with people who were in the youth group with me have revealed that there was a lot of fucking and sucking going on, but none involving preacher boy Bruce Gerencser. I assumed, at the time, that everyone was on the straight and narrow as I was. I now know that their spirits were willing, but their flesh was weak.

In the fall of 1976, I entered Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan to study for the ministry. A dark-haired beauty by the name of Polly also enrolled for classes. Polly’s goal was to find herself a preacher to marry. I thought of college as being a place of plentiful dating opportunities, and I planned to play the field. I dated a girl by the name of Peggy for several weeks and then turned my romantic interest towards Polly. We quickly hit it off, even though we had little in common. She was a quiet, shy preacher’s daughter. I was a motormouth with a bit of a rebellious streak. Polly would tell me later that she thought of me as her “bad boy.” Polly’s parents saw me as a bad boy too; bad as in not good for their innocent daughter. They spent the next eighteen months trying to discourage our relationship, even going so far as to tell Polly that she couldn’t marry me. A short time after this papal edict, Polly informed her parents that we were going to get married with or without their blessing. This was the first time Polly stood up to her parents.  If my mother-in-law had to sum up her son-in-law in one sentence, I suspect she would say, Bruce is “different” and he ruined our daughter.

Midwestern was an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist institution. Established by Dr. Tom Malone in the 1950s, Midwestern had a strict code of student conduct. Single students were required to live in the dormitory, and every aspect of dorm life was strictly regulated. Students could only date on the weekends and had to double-date. Dating couples were not permitted to touch each other — no hand-holding, kissing, snuggling, or other displays of affection. Keep in mind, most of the dorm students were ages 18-30 — the raging hormones years. And it was the 1970s, the freaking 1970s!

i would rather be fornicating

Single students were expected to keep at least six inches distance from the opposite sex — six inches being the width of a church hymnbook. (Please read Thou Shalt Not Touch: The Six Inch Rule) Breaking the six-inch rule brought severe punishment. Repeated infractions resulted in expulsion. While there were a handful of couples who self-righteously obeyed the letter of the law, most students quickly learned who they could double-date with without getting in trouble for holding hands with or kissing their date. More than a few students rounded third and slid into home, with several girls becoming pregnant — or so it was rumored anyway. Students caught fornicating were immediately expelled from school.

Polly and I married after our sophomore year. A year later, we left Midwestern and moved to Bryan, Ohio — the place of my birth. A few weeks after our move, I became the assistant pastor at Montpelier Baptist Church — a young, growing IFB church. After spending seven months at Montpelier Baptist, I resigned and we moved to the Central Ohio community of Newark. Polly’s dad was the assistant pastor of the Newark Baptist Temple. Her uncle, James Dennis was the pastor.  We joined the Baptist Temple, and when Polly’s father decided to start a new church in nearby Buckeye Lake in 1981, we joined him. I became his pastoral assistant (primarily working with the youth of the church), a position I held until June of 1983.

In July of 1983, I started a new IFB church in Somerset, Ohio — thirty miles south of Newark. I would pastor Somerset Baptist Church until March of 1994. At every stop along my young ministerial career, I was exposed to and worked with men who believed it was a grave sin for unmarried teens and young adults of the opposite sex to touch each other. I carried this belief into my first full-time pastorate. Church teens likely remember Pastor Bruce preaching against all forms of physical/sexual intimacy between unmarried people. I am sure they remember me famously saying — oh how I wish I could forget — “no girl ever got pregnant who didn’t hold hands with a boy first!” (Yes, I really did say this, and I did so many times!)

I viewed hand-holding as a sexual gateway drug. I thought, if I could shame teens and young adults into not touching one another (or touching themselves), then there would be no fornicating going on and no teen pregnancies. I pastored Somerset Baptist for eleven years. During that time, no unmarried church female became pregnant. Does this mean that none of the church unmarrieds was having sex? Of course not. Having talked with a handful of church teens who are now in their 30s and early 40s, I now know that they were lustily ignoring my preaching. I am grateful that there were no unwanted pregnancies that I knew of, though I suspect several girls might have gotten pregnant and secretly had abortions.

Is it any wonder that so many IFB married couples have sexual dysfunction? What in my preaching taught these couples a healthy, scientific, rational view of sex? Nothing that I can think of. Instead, I used guilt and shame in my attempts to get them to conform to an anti-human, irrational view of human sexuality. Thousands of Evangelical preachers continue to preach the Thou Shalt Not Touch gospel to church teenagers. Ironically, these preachers didn’t heed this gospel when they were teens, and they surely have to know that neither will their church teenagers. Hormones, need, and desire win every time. Wouldn’t it be far better to teach church unmarrieds how to own their sexuality, preparing them for the day when they engage in sex for the first time? I know, the Bible says, the Bible says, the Bible says, but Christians have been trying to live by Puritanical beliefs about sex for centuries. How is that working out? Perhaps it is time to shelve the Bible with its archaic sexual prohibitions and embrace a healthy, natural view of sex. Sorry preachers, but everyone IS doing it. You can live in denial all you want, but the fact remains that by age nineteen, seven out of ten teenagers have had sex. And now that people are waiting until their mid-twenties to marry, I can safely say that most of the singles listening to your antiquated sermons have likely engaged in some form of sexual activity.

Were you raised in an Evangelical/IFB church? How did your pastor handle I Corinthians 7:1-2? What do you remember your pastor saying about necking and premarital sex? Did you feel shame and guilt when your pastor preached about sex? Please share your experiences in the comment section.

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 60, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 39 years. He and his wife have six grown children and eleven 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.

Donations are always appreciated. Donations on a monthly basis can be made through Patreon. One-time donations can be made through PayPal.

How Independent Fundamentalist Baptist Churches Deal with Unwed Mothers

fornication is a sin

If you are unfamiliar with the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church movement, please read the following posts:

The Official Independent Baptist Rulebook

What is an IFB Church?

Independent Fundamentalist Baptist Lingo, A Guide to IFB Speak

The IFB River Called Denial

An Independent Baptist Hate List

Let’s Go Camping: Understanding Independent Fundamentalist Baptist Camps

How to Start an Independent Baptist Church

Tony Soprano Would Make a Good Independent Baptist Preacher

If I were to ask you what it is that Independent Fundamentalist Baptists value most, many of you would say things such as: Jesus, the B-I-B-L-E, hard preaching, and potlucks. However, these four articles of the IFB faith pale in comparison to the one thing valued above all others: the virginity of teen girls and never-married women. Valued above Jesus? Yes, even above Jesus. Intact hymens are the holy grail of the IFB church movement. This fact is best illustrated by a dating couple who came to an IFB pastor and asked if they only had butt sex would that mean the woman was still a virgin? The pastor, of course, told them that anal sex was the same as vaginal sex. But why would this question even be asked? Why would anyone think that anal sex (or oral) was not “real” sex. Because in IFB churches the only hole God made for sex is judiciously protected against insertion of anything besides tampons. No penises, fingers, vegetables, or battery operated devices allowed. (And on the extreme end of the IFB church movement, there are pastors who believe that married couples should only engage in vaginal sex, missionary position, while thinking how wonderful it would be if Bro. Billy Bob’s sperm hooked up with Sister Mary Lou’s eggs.)

From their teen years forward, IFB girls hear repeated warnings about having premarital sex and losing their virginity. These girls are told that only whores have premarital sex and that those who let boys score with them are like dirty rags fit for the trash. I have heard countless sermons — and preached a few myself — that focused solely on causing fear, guilt, and shame. While the young horn dogs of IFB churches, along with their wandering-eyed fathers, hear purity sermons from time to time, most of such sermons are directed at what IFB churches believe is the weaker sex. Women are reminded that they are the gatekeepers. It is up to them to protect not only their own holy virginity, but that of the boys and men. This is why there are so many rules about how women dress. The goal is to destroy their visage and beauty, those things that cause teenage boys to have wandering thoughts about youth group girls instead of their pastor’s weekly Biblical tirade.

Despite the Baptist burkas, hot-and-heavy sermons, and puritanical rules governing dating and male/female interaction and physical contact (there are no gays in IFB churches), unmarrieds do have sex. And thanks to Just Say No sex education, some girls do become pregnant.

In IFB churches, there’s nothing worse than one of the church girls getting pregnant. Whether the girl is fourteen or twenty-three, it matters not. Becoming pregnant without the benefit of marriage is a deep black stain, not only on the mother-to-be, but also the church, the girl’s parents, and her pastor. By spreading her legs before marriage and “allowing” Deacon Noah’s son to plant his seed, she has repudiated everything her church, parents, and pastor believe about the sanctity of sex.

abstinence

With such extreme thinking, wouldn’t it be best for all sexually aware IFB girls be put on the pill? This way, the threat of embarrassment and scandal for IFB churches, pastors, and parents is eliminated. Makes sense, right? Why not take preventive measures, especially since any honest IFB preacher knows that more unmarrieds than not will eventually do the dirty deed. When I was asked this very question years ago, I told the questioner that allowing girls to use birth control was akin to saying to them that it was okay to have sex. This same logic was used for drinking alcohol, using drugs, and other behavior deemed a sin. JUST SAY NO was the only proper response to temptation and sin. It didn’t matter that most married adult IFB church members failed to just say no. All that mattered was maintaining the virginal illusion that when young IFB couples walked down the aisle, their lives were living testimonies to the rightness of the IFB doctrine and practice.

I want to conclude this post with several anecdotal stories from my days as a student at Midwestern Baptist College and as a young IFB pastor.

As many of you know, the college I attended in the 1970s had (and still has) a strict no-contact-with-the-opposite-sex policy. If you are not familiar with this policy, please read Thou Shalt Not Touch: The Six Inch Rule. While an infinitesimally small number of unmarried students kept the six-inch rule, the rest of us broke the rule with gusto. While some students were able to keep their virginity intact, other students scampered around the bases and slid into to home. Those caught breaking the six-inch rule were usually campused (not permitted to leave campus) on first offense. Further offenses, pregnancy, or whispers of sexual romps in cars, motel rooms, or the dormitory laundry room were harshly met with immediate expulsion. Not only were offenders shamed in front of their fellow students, many of whom were guilty of the very same sexual “crimes,” they were shipped home to their IFB churches, parents, and pastors to be face further humiliation.

My first ministerial position post-college was as the assistant pastor of a General Association of Regular Baptist Churches (GARBC) congregation in Montpelier, Ohio. During my seven-month stay at Montpelier Baptist Church, one of the girls in the church became pregnant. The pastor decreed that she and the father of the baby were to immediately wed. (My sister went through a similar circumstance, marrying at the age of fifteen.) Not only were they to wed promptly, but only immediate family could attend the wedding and the girl would not be permitted to wear a white dress. The pastor told the pregnant girl that the color white was reserved for girls who were virgins on their wedding days. Her mistake was confessing her sin. Had she quickly and quietly run to the altar as other church women had done, she could have worn white and maintained the virginity illusion.

Years later, I attended a church service where a “loose” pregnant teen was brought before the church congregation and made to publicly profess her wickedness. Once she was sufficiently shamed, church members came to the weeping, shaking girl and embraced her, praising God for cleansing the girl from her sin. I have no doubt that many of these hugging super saints were guilty of the very same sin years ago. Sufficiently distanced from their own mortal sins, these holy saints of God likely felt no irony or guilt as they continued the shaming ritual.

Some IFB churches choose to make to pregnant teens disappear. IFB parents who find out their daughters are pregnant will usually immediately (and frantically) contact their pastors to find out what they should do. Knowing that their daughters “sins” will sully church testimonies (and abortion is not an option), parents often choose to ship their pregnant teens to IFB group homes. These homes, which are frequently little more than prisons or reeducation camps, purportedly turned whores, sluts, and fornicators into blood-washed, white-as-the-driven-snow lovers of Jesus, the King James Bible, and the IFB way. Often, their babies are given up for adoption.

I hope readers who were raised in the IFB church will share their own experiences in the comment section. To outsiders, what I have written here sounds out of this world, but these stories and practices are repeated in countless IFB schools, colleges, churches, and homes. Since the IFB church movement prides itself on being the same today, yesterday, and forever (if it was good enough for Jesus and Paul, it’s good enough for me), the shaming rituals and abuse of years ago are often practiced today.  As long as church teenagers keep having sex, there will be bastard children and women to ritually humiliate. Indeed, the IFB God is an awesome God.

Bus Ministry Promotion: Tar and Feather the Bus Pastor

montpelier baptist church 1979
Montpelier Baptist Church bus, Montpelier, Ohio

In February of 1979, Polly and I moved from Pontiac, Michigan to Bryan, Ohio. Polly was six months pregnant. For a short time, we lived with my sister. Once I found suitable employment, we rented a place of our own. Bryan is the city of my birth. When I moved away in 1976 to study for the ministry at Midwestern Baptist College, I planned to never return to Bryan. However, marriage, an unexpected pregnancy, and job loss turned my “never” on its head. Over the years, we have lived in or near Bryan several times, and in 2007 we bought our current home in Ney, a small village five miles south of Bryan. Try as I might to get away from Bryan and the flat lands of rural northwest Ohio, I keep returning home. I have now resigned myself to the fact that this where I will live out my life.

Not long after we first moved to Bryan, Polly and I began attending my sister’s church, Montpelier Baptist Church in Montpelier, a community ten minutes north of Bryan. Jay Stuckey was the pastor, and after a few weeks Jay asked if I would be interested in becoming the church’s bus pastor (an unpaid position). I quickly told Jay yes! In a post titled, Bruce, Were You Happy in the Ministry? Part One, I detailed our time at Montpelier Baptist Church:

In February of 1979, we moved to Bryan, Ohio, the place of my birth and the home of my sister Robin. After living with my sister for a short while, we found a house to rent on Hamilton Street. I began working at ARO, a large local manufacturer of pumps and air tools. ARO paid well, but I still desired to be a pastor. As with every job, I viewed secular work as just a means to an end — me pastoring a church. My sister attended the Montpelier Baptist Church in Montpelier, Ohio. When we first moved to Bryan, we thought that we would attend First Baptist Church, the church I had attended before enrolling at Midwestern. Though I knew everyone at First Baptist, we decided to go to Montpelier Baptist, a young, growing GARBC church pastored by Jay Stuckey. This decision did not sit well with the people at First Baptist. One of the matriarchs of the church told me, “Bruce you know you belong at First Baptist!”  At the time, First Baptist was pastored by Jack Bennett. Jack was married to my uncle’s sister Creta.

I had previously preached at Montpelier Baptist, so I knew a bit about  Stuckey and his ministry philosophy. Stuckey was a graduate of Toledo Bible College, which later moved to Newburgh, Indiana and became Trinity Theological Seminary.  After attending the church for a few weeks, Stuckey asked me to help him at the church by becoming the bus pastor and helping with church visitation.

The church had one bus route. It brought in a handful of children every week and little was being done to increase ridership numbers. Enter hot-shot, get–it-done, Bruce Gerencser. In less than a month, on Easter Sunday, the bus was jammed with eighty-eight riders. I vividly remember arriving at the church with all these kids and the junior church director running out to the bus and frantically asking me what I expected him to do with all the children. I replied, that’s your problem, I just bring them in. Needless to say, this man was never very fond of me.

A short time later, the church bought a second bus. I recruited bus workers to run the new route and before long this bus was also filled with riders. On the first Sunday in October, 1979, Montpelier Baptist held its morning service at the Williams County Fairground. A quartet provided special music and Ron English from the Sword of Lord preached the sermon. Five hundred people attended this service and about 150 of them had come in on the buses. Less than two weeks later, I was gone. Polly and I, along with our newborn son Jason, packed up our meager household goods and moved to Newark, Ohio.

As mentioned in the above excerpt, I quickly went to work building up the church’s bus ministry. Using the skills and gimmicks I had learned while working in the bus ministry as a teenager and at college, I rapidly grew the bus ministry, and bus ridership numbers exploded. Key to increased ridership was a system of regular bus promotions. Every Saturday, bus workers would meet at the church and I would motivate them to, as Luke 14:23 says, go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled. Like the Apostle Paul who said, I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some, I was willing to use whatever means necessary to entice children to ride our buses, The goal, of course, was for them to hear the gospel and be saved.

One such promotion was Tar and Feather Pastor Bruce. I told the bus workers that if the total bus attendance was such and such a number that I would let bus riders cover me with Karo syrup and goose feathers. Sure enough, bus workers scoured the area looking for new riders, and in a few weeks they exceeded the attendance goal.

Here’s what happened the following Sunday after the morning service:

montpelier baptist church 1979

montpelier baptist church 1979

Yep, that is me. Stupid, stupid me. It took me an hour, in a steaming hot shower, to get all the syrup and feathers off my skin. Needless to say, I never did this promotion again!

Jesus is Coming Soon: The Antichrist and the Mark of the Beast

jack chick tract the beast
From Jack Chick tract, The Beast

Growing up in the Evangelical church, I was exposed to eschatological preaching which purported to divine the future. Based on a literalistic interpretation of the book of Revelation, Evangelical preachers tell of a day when Jesus will come to rapture (remove) Christians from the earth. After the rapture, God will, for seven years, pour out his wrath on the earth.  This period of divine slaughter and judgment is called the Great Tribulation.

During the Tribulation, the Antichrist, a powerful figure who wages war against God, will rise up and exert dominion over the earth. While Evangelicals have multiple interpretations of who and what the Antichrist is, all agree that he is one of the central figures of the Tribulation drama. According to the book of Revelation, the Antichrist will ultimately be defeated by Jesus and cast into the Lake of Fire.

Most Evangelicals believe the Antichrist is a real person. This belief has led to speculation about this or that person being the Antichrist. Some Evangelicals believe the Antichrist is alive today and could be someone such as Barack Obama or Pope Francis. What is interesting about these predictions about who the Antichrist might be is that the potential Antichrist always has political views opposed by Evangelicals. This is why some Evangelicals find it quite easy to label President Obama as the Antichrist, even more so of late since it has been reported that Obama might head the United Nations after he leaves office. (Many Evangelicals believe the United Nations will be used by the Antichrist to take over the world.)

According to many Evangelicals, during the Tribulation the Antichrist will take control of the world’s economy. No one will be able to buy or sell anything without having the mark of the Beast. The Biblical basis for this belief is found in Revelation 13:16-18:

 And he causeth all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads: And that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name. Here is wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast: for it is the number of a man; and his number is Six hundred threescore and six.

Prior to the modern technological era, many Evangelicals believed that the mark of the Beast was a tattoo of the number 666 on the hands or foreheads of the followers of the Antichrist. In recent decades, Evangelicals have suggested that the mark of the Beast could be some sort of bar code, a mark that can only be read by using a certain type of light, or an embedded chip. I remember one preacher who was certain that supermarket scanners were paving the way for the Antichrist and the mark of the Beast.

While the character of  the mark has changed over the years, the importance of it has not. Anyone receiving the mark of the Beast will be doomed forever. Revelation 14:9-11 states:

And the third angel followed them, saying with a loud voice, If any man worship the beast and his image, and receive his mark in his forehead, or in his hand, The same shall drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is poured out without mixture into the cup of his indignation; and he shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels, and in the presence of the Lamb: And the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever: and they have no rest day nor night, who worship the beast and his image, and whosoever receiveth the mark of his name.

According to these verses, anyone who takes the mark of the Beast will face the fury of the wrath of God. Suffering and painful death await all who take the mark.

The 1970s and 1980s were the heyday for literalistic interpretations of the book of Revelation. Evangelical pastors regularly preached sermons on the end-times, featuring subjects such as the rapture, the Great Tribulation, the second coming of Christ, the millennial reign of Christ, and the great white throne judgment. Filled with illustrations from newspapers, these sermons inflamed the passions of Evangelical church goers. As the headlines changed, so did the sermons, but the focal point remained the same: Jesus is coming soon.

end of the world

After the 88 Reasons Why the Rapture will be in 1988 debacle, Evangelical passion for future events cooled. I am of the opinion that the rise of the religious right, a political movement with plans to take over America for Jesus, turned Evangelical attention from the future to the present. Instead of seeking after the kingdom of heaven, Evangelicals began to focus on building God’s kingdom on earth. Gone, for the most part, are prophecy conferences and literalistic sermons from Revelation and Daniel. Instead, pastors focus on felt-needs and personal fulfillment. There are certainly Evangelicals pastors who continue to preach newspaper headline sermons, but such preachers are on the fringes of Evangelicalism (most often found in charismatic, Pentecostal, and Independent Fundamentalist Baptist churches).

As I came of age in the 1970s, I heard frequent end-time sermons. Preachers warned that we were the last generation, those who would see the second coming of Jesus Christ. Men such as Jack Van Impe predicted Russia would invade and take over the United States, thereby ushering in the Great Tribulation. Many preachers believed that the rapture and the second coming of Christ would take place sometime between 1984 and 1988. The thinking went something like this: Israel became a nation in 1948, a generation is 40 years long, thus, at the very latest, Jesus would return to earth in 1988.

In the late 1970s, I was a pastoral assistant to Jay Stuckey, pastor of Montpelier Baptist Church, a General Association of Regular Baptist Churches (GARBC) congregation. Stuckey, as many preachers of his era, was obsessed with prophecy, the Illuminati, and numerous other conspiracies. Calls to evangelize were driven by Stuckey’s belief in the imminent return of Jesus; imminent meaning, at any moment. Forty years later, Stuckey and I are no longer in the ministry, Montpelier Baptist, a church that one time had over 500 in attendance, is closed, and those who were once obsessed with the soon-return of Jesus have turned to more earthly matters such as marriage, children, jobs, houses, and economic prosperity. While these people still tacitly believe that Jesus will someday return to earth, their lives are no longer dominated by eschatological thoughts. In other words, they grew up.

Were you once part of a church that was obsessed with the end-times? Please share your experiences in the comment section.

Note

I am well aware of the fact that Evangelicals are not in agreement about how the books of Daniel and Revelation should be interpreted. That said, it is not hard to find Evangelical blogs, websites, and news services promoting the eschatological beliefs mentioned in this post.

You can read the complete text of 88 Reasons the Rapture Will Be in 1988 here.