Our search took us to many churches. We found that Christian churches, regardless of the name on the sign, were largely vapid, empty places, filled with good people who were more concerned with church amenities and programs than following Jesus. We came to the conclusion that, whatever Christianity might have been 2,000 years ago, it died long ago. In its place has grown up an institutionalized church more concerned with power, money, and right beliefs than following after the Prince of Peace, Jesus the Christ.
The last church we attended was the Ney United Methodist Church, pastored by a fine young pastor I greatly admire. By this time, we were already at the back of the church with one foot out the door, and in November of 2008 we turned around, put the other foot out the door, and walked away from Christianity.
There was nothing wrong with the Ney United Methodist Church or its pastor Ron Adkins. Great people. Kind people. Good people. And they were just like every other Christian church we visited. We came to see that churches really are social clubs, especially here in rural northwest Ohio, where churches are often filled with people with similar last names. The churches are like a family reunion every Sunday.
I pastored for the last time in 2003. After being badgered by several colleagues in the ministry about using the gifts God had given me, in 2005 I candidated at several Southern Baptist churches in West Virginia. While two churches wanted me to consider being their pastor, it became clear to both Polly and me that we no longer wanted to be in the ministry. We were burnt out, no longer willing to work for poverty wages and few benefits. Between 2003 and November 2008, various Christians who knew me labeled me as burnt out, depressed, under an attack by Satan, or a good man gone bad. I was still viewed as a Christian, but due to my changing theology, many of the Evangelicals who knew me now considered me a liberal. Those of you who began reading this blog in 2007 will remember my word battles with Pastor John Chisham, aka PastorBoy, over the gospel and salvation. (Chisham is now divorced, remarried, and no longer a pastor.)
Like many Evangelicals who become atheists, I took a long, bumpy, winding train ride to get to atheism. I started out as an Evangelical, then a Progressive Evangelical, then an Emerging Church Evangelical, then a Red-Letter Christian, then a Liberal Christian, then a Universalist, then an Agnostic, and then, finally, I arrived at the Atheist station. Polly arrived at the station not too long after I did.
All told, I was a Christian for almost fifty years. I spent three of those years in Bible college, preached for thirty-three years, and pastored churches for twenty-five years. During this time, no one ever said, I doubt Bruce is a Christian. No one ever doubted my commitment to Christ or my desire to follow Jesus.
But now it is different. Because I am now an atheist, Christians are quick to say I never was a Christian or that I was a false prophet, a wolf in sheep’s clothing. How else to explain my story, right?
Some Christians take a different approach. They question my character, my truthfulness. They say things like, “IF Bruce Gerencser’s story is true” or “Bruce Gerencser CLAIMS he was a Christian.” If you search the internet, you will find claims like this on blogs and forums. Several years ago, Lee Shelton, the Contemporary Calvinist wrote:
Bruce Gerencser, an atheist who claims to have once been a Christian…
This is a classic example of the passive-aggressive approach Christians take with me when they read my story. They seem to be unable to accept my story at face value, Of course, I know why. My story doesn’t fit their neatly defined theological grid. Lee Shelton is a five-point Calvinist, and since I didn’t persevere in grace that means I never really was a Christian. I was a temporary believer, not one of the elect to whom God has extended his special, discriminate grace. Of course, I could just be on a time-out and someday I will return to Christianity and persevere to the end. Shelton doesn’t consider THAT possibility.
Here’s what I think. Many Christians find my story threatening. They wonder, if a man like Bruce Gerencser, a lifelong Christian and a pastor, can fall from grace or live a long life of deception, perhaps this could happen to me too. None of the people who called me pastor or considered me a ministerial colleague ever doubted that I was anything but a dedicated, sold-out-for-Jesus Christian. So, either I really was what I claim I was OR I am the best liar and deceiver who has ever lived. And trust me, I am a terrible liar.
Everywhere I look, I see agnostics and atheists who were once devoted followers of Jesus Christ. Pastors, youth directors, worship leaders, missionaries, deacons, evangelists, soulwinners, bus workers, and Sunday school teachers; on-fire, filled-with-the-Holy-Ghost Christians. Thousands of former followers of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords read this blog. Were all of these washed-in-the-blood Christians deceived, never having tasted the goodness of God? Would a scientist doing a study on this group conclude that they were false Christians? Of course not. In every way, they were once numbered among those who followed the lamb wherever he went. When Jesus said “follow me,” they cast their nets aside, forsook all, and followed him. No matter what they now are, the past cannot be erased by the wave of a magic theological wand.
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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Republished from August 2010 with slight grammatical corrections.
The Sunday edition of the Defiance Crescent-News has the first, of what I am sure will be many more, letters to the Editor concerning my recently published rebuttal letter.
My youngest son asked me today if anyone has ever written a letter to the editor in support of my views about religion. I laughed and said No. As far as I know, I am the only person who has written to the newspaper and said “I am an agnostic.” (Some days I wonder, “what was I thinking”?) I hope my willingness to stand up and be counted will encourage others to do so. I know I am not alone. I have received their letters and email. They fear what might happen to them socially or economically if their agnosticism or atheism were made public. Their fears are well-grounded and I would not encourage anyone to take the same path as I have.
My children have to live with the fact that their dad is “the man who writes in the newspaper”. They have to field questions like “are you related to Bruce Gerencser”? If they answer yes, what often follows is a queer look, a look that says I want to tell you what I think or I want to ask you a question or two. Usually, once my children affirm their connection to me a nervous silence ensues,. It’s like, the questioner, all of a sudden, finds out he has been working alongside a spawn of Satan.
The first letter to the editor response I want to deal with is written by Ron Adkins, pastor of the Ney and Farmer United Methodist churches. I know Ron personally. Our family attended the Ney church for a number of months and it was the last Church we ever attended. One might say our last experience proved to be the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. (though we met many wonderful people at the Ney church)
Ron is a young man. This is his first pastorate. Prior to this he was a professor at Ohio Christian University. Ohio Christian University is a fundamentalist institution affiliated with the Churches of Christ in Christian Union. (I am sure Ron will chafe at the fundamentalist label but he also knows what my response is to that)
Ron has pastored the Ney/Farmer churches for about 2 years. When I asked him what his philosophy of ministry was he told me it was “loving on people”. Evidently, as you shall see from his letter, that doesn’t include me. Some of what Ron writes in his letter reflects personal, private discussions he and I had during the time we attended the Ney church. One could object saying “I told you that in private” but one thing I know about preachers, “don’t tell them anything you don’t want others to know.” (I take privacy far more seriously NOW than I did when I was a pastor)
From reading Ron’s letter to the editor it is safe to assume that my rebuttal letter upset some people in his church. Here I am, almost two years removed from attending church, and I am still causing trouble. I realize my letter put Ron in a no-win situation. He is a great guy and he doesn’t like conflict. He has a wonderful wife and great kids. The last thing he needs is to tangle with Bruce. But, my heresy demands an answer, so Ron penned typed a reply to my letter.
As you shall see in a moment, Ron tries to avoid making this personal. He never calls me by name. Instead he calls me THE agnostic. Since the is a definite article and I am the only agnostic that has written to the paper, it is safe to assume that THE agnostic=Bruce Gerencser.
Now to Pastor Adkin’s letter. Ron’s letter appears as normal type. My response appears as bold italics.
To the Editor:
I have been averse to reading the latest letter to the editor from the agnostic because I personally find agnosticism trite for two major reasons.
Let’s get one thing out of the way right away. Ron is writing about my letter, and since I am the only agnostic who has written to the newspaper, he is directing his response to me and what I have written. Of course, his greater objective is to cheer on the faithful.
My response is personal. I guess I could hide my response target by saying I am responding to THE pastor, but, I am not one known for such subterfuge so I want to make it clear that my response is directed to Pastor Adkins and his letter to the editor. I do hope that the faithful will be challenged and forced to ask hard questions about Christianity, the Bible, and their certainty that what they say they believe is the truth is really the truth. I also hope my fellow atheists and agnostics will be encouraged to continue on the path of intellectual freedom.
I am amused somewhat that Ron considers agnosticism trite, yet he expends quite a bit of verbiage in his attack of the agnostic view. Perhaps it was not as trite as he thought is was.
First, agnosticism is predicated on the premise of skepticism concerning the existence of God. The agnostic doubts the absolute truth about God (although some may believe in a First Cause), yet states an absolute truth by claiming God does not exist and that the answer is a humanistic worldview. If consistent, the agnostic would doubt his own statements, and furthermore, would doubt his own doubt that God does not exist, thus resulting in the probability that God could exist.
I don’t believe I have ever said God does not exist. I am, after all, an agnostic. In fact, Ron might be surprised to know that I have quite a bit of room in my agnostic worldview for a god (or gods). (much to the consternation of some hard-core atheists) I am fairly certain that the gods that man has created so far are not gods at all. I can not state categorically or infallibly (I’ll leave that to the Pope) there is NO God. Even Christopher Hitchens does not say there is No God.
The best answer,the best philosophy of living, in my humble opinion, is humanism. With humanism the focus is on reality, the here and now. Surely, Ron, the history major that he is, knows that many humanists have a spiritual or religious dimension to their beliefs. But, the humanist always comes back to what they can see. The humanist does not have time to spend on pining about a future in heaven, the rapture, and the many other events in the eternal future that preoccupy and keep Christians from engaging a suffering, hurting, and dying world.
What is humanism? The best statement I have found comes from the Humanist magazine:
“Humanism is a rational philosophy informed by science, inspired by art, and motivated by compassion. Affirming the dignity of each human being, it supports liberty and opportunity consonant with social and planetary responsibility. Free of theism and other supernatural beliefs, humanism thus derives the goals of life from human need and interest rather than from theological or ideological abstractions, and asserts that humanity must take responsibility for its own destiny.”
Christians often prop up the straw man of absolute truth. Everyone believes in absolute truth, they claim. Evidently Ron needs to meet a few real agnostics and atheists before he claims such a thing.
Personally, there are many things I believe to be true or factual. Based on what knowledge and information I have at hand, I have concluded that certain things are factual and true. I know that the earth revolves around the sun and that the earth is not flat. I am relatively certain the science behind these claims is true. If I was left with only the absolute truth of the Bible, I would have to ignore what science teaches and I would be forced to accept that the sun revolves around the earth and the earth is flat. (among countless other incredible, yet false claims found in the Bible)
Ron writes of the absolute truth of God, and by God, lets be clear, Ron means the Christian God. Where does one find this absolute truth? The Bible. Ah, finally a concrete piece of information we can weigh in the balances. And that is exactly what I have done. I have weighed the claims of the Bible in the balances and found it wanting.
I find the claims made by academics like Bart Ehrman and Robert Price to be compelling. I find Richard Wright’s book The Evolution of God to be a fascinating alternative story to the monotheism of orthodox Christianity.
My agnosticism rests squarely on the belief that the Bible is not what it claims to be and that it is not inspired, divine truth. At the end of the day it all boils down to the Bible. If I do not accept the claims of the Bible, or the claims of what Churches, denominations, popes or pastors say the Bible says, then I can not believe in the God that the Bible presents. I may still believe in a god but not the god of the Christian Bible.
Ron, I am sure, will appeal to nature and conscience as proof of God, but I would counter how can one necessarily conclude that the God who gave us nature and a conscience is necessarily the Christian God? Would a person not initiated in Christian thinking come to the conclusion, by looking at nature, that there is a God and that that God is the triune God of the Christian religion? Doubtful. In fact, I can say impossible. Such a faith requires the Bible to give it structure.
Second, if then, the agnostic is not a true agnostic,because of the self-defeating premise, then there is another motivation behind his self-proclaimed agnosticism.
Answered above, so I assume this makes mute the next point Ron makes. But, Ron gets personal (divulging a bit of inside information about me) in what follows so I want to deal with it.
I have found that agnostics, who are not true agnostics,typically are angry at God because God does not operate the way they think God should operate. At other times they are angry because they have not received what they wanted from God. Like the undisciplined child who is angry at a parent using their only means of power, knowing they are powerless, will proclaim, “I hate you!” Nothing could hurt a parent more, and they know this.
The agnostic stands before God and proclaims in anger,‘”You don’t exist!” Isn’t it interesting then that humans, created beings, desire God to act the way they perceive God should act? Furthermore, I find it pathetic to claim a humanistic worldview in which there is nothing, or no one, greater than ourselves to rely.
Anger. Ron, is right about my anger but he is wrong about the focus of my anger.
The Christian God, the God of Ron Adkins does not exist. Why would I be angry at a fictional being?
No, my anger is directed towards organized religion. My anger is directed at Evangelical Christianity. I am angry over what was taken from me over the 25 years I spent in the ministry. I am angry over the wasted time and effort spent “doing Church”. I am angry over my own selfish ambitions and my attempts at building a kingdom in my own name. (as all pastors do, after all why is their name on the church sign?)
I am angry over what the ministry and the church did to my wonderful wife and children. I am angry over countless parishioners whose lives are now shipwrecked because they drank from the well of organized religion.
Yes, I am angry and it feels good. For 33 years I lived in denial of my emotions, serving a God who was no god at all, a god that demanded self-sacrifice and self-denial. It feels good to be out from under such a burdensome weight.
Ron may consider humanism pathetic, and I might be tempted to say back at ya, but what humanism provides for me is reality. It is rooted in the common humanity we all share. I no longer have need to pray, fast, tithe, and attend. What humanism demands of me is doing, It demands of me the very things Jesus spoke of in the Sermon on the Mount. Humanism calls me to be fully human, in an imperfect, marred world. It calls me to use what talents I have for the betterment of my fellow man.
Becoming an agnostic and a humanist has forced me to admit that most of the supposed altruistic works I did as a pastor had an ulterior motive. I didn’t love people for who they were. I loved them because I wanted Jesus to change them . If Jesus changed them then they would become a part of the church I pastored . End result? Bigger attendance and bigger offerings. (Trying to get a pastor to admit this is nigh impossible.)
It is an exhilarating experience to truly love people as they are.
Last, I would like to briefly answer the question which became the title for the agnostic’s editorial, “Writers espoused different views.”
I am glad of one thing……..Ron used the word last. I despise the use of the word lastly. Ron gets 1 brownie point for using last instead of lastly.
I hope Ron is aware that the newspaper determines what the letter title is. I have been writing letters to the editor, op-ed pieces, etc for over 28 years and I have yet been allowed to write my own title.
First, let me give some advice to all of those wonderful Christians who have been troubled by THE Agnostic. Remember an agnostic asks questions based on skepticism. Don’t feel as though you are in a corner. The quote at hand read, “Every letter writer has their own version of God and what constitutes a right, saving relationship with that God. This shows me that there is no such thing as Christianity (singular) in America”.
Truth is an objective fact expressed in a subjective way. It is obvious that one comes to the truth of Christianity or more generally religious truth, differently than one would come to scientific truth. God is not an object to be observed. God has made himself known. Faith, therefore, is a response in obedience, the thing agnostics hate.
I find Ron’s statement here astounding. Ron writes “Truth is an objective fact expressed in a subjective way”. Ron certainly believes the Bible to be absolute truth. I would love to know if he really, really, believes the Bible is absolute truth. (I have my doubts) Ron, without any evidence, believes that what the Bible teaches is objective fact.
How does one know this? By a subjective experience with God. God has made himself known. How do we know that? Because the Christian says so. Because Ron says so. Ultimately, it is a matter of faith.
If it is a matter of faith, why do so many Christians try and prove the truth of Christianity? Why do they attempt to use scientific methods to prove the veracity of the claims the Bible makes?
If it is a matter of faith then why write letters to the editor attempting to discredit and refute my rebuttal letter? Would it not be better to rest in the belief that the God of faith, through the holy Spirit will take care of things? Surely God can take care of one lowly, insignificant, pimple on the ass, agnostic named Bruce?
Ron might be surprised to know that I still have faith. I have faith in the gods I can see, my fellow human beings. In my Christian days I put my faith in a God who I said was always there, but quite honestly I never really could find him. God was all-knowing and all-powerful. He was supposedly intimately involved in the minutia of my life, yet when it came to things that mattered, matters of life and death, God was nowhere to be found.
I would assume that Ron considers his weekly sermons to be subjective? After all he is preaching absolute truth in a subjective manner, yes? I don’t know of any preacher that would embrace such a claim, especially an Evangelical preacher. After all, the preacher is the man of God who speaks the word of God to the people of God.Not much subjectivity here.
I find no conflict in the different responses to the agnostic because the different individuals have expressed their belief and experience (“Pascal’s Wager”) in the one, absolute God in different ways. Faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God and the Savior of the world is truth and is experienced by individuals.
Ron is being disingenuous here OR his two years in the Methodist church has worn down his Evangelical resolve. I realize he is preaching to the choir here, but any cursory reading of the letters written in reply to either of my recent letters will reveal full-blown heresy. Is Ron suggesting that subjective heresy is fine as long as it is done with the right intention? If so, it is time to give all the heretics of the past a place at the orthodox table once again. Each of them had sincere intentions. They loved their version of Jesus. Welcome Brother Pelagius!
It is clear for all who are willing to see……….no two Christians have the same version of Christianity. Christianity for most Christians is akin to going to a buffet, taking what you want and leaving the rest. I don’t have a problem with this approach, but I would, at least, like Christians to admit it. They speak of orthodoxy and common belief, but such singularity does not exist except in denominational or church confessions or theological texts. Real world experience tells me that every Christian believes what they want to believe and ignores the rest. (any righteous men out there that want to offer their virgin daughter to the men of the city as righteous Lot did?)
This is why all Christians can describe some kind of personal experience, or relationship, with God through the Holy Spirit. Christian faith is an assent and obedience to the revelation of God.
On this point I agree with Ron. It is all about the revelation of God. In other words it is ALL about the Bible. As I have said time and time again, there is no Christianity without the Bible. I am an agnostic because I reject the truth claims of the Bible. I reject its claim that it is a supernatural, divine book that reveals God to humankind. It is a spiritual book written by men thousands of years ago. Certainly the Bible has much to offer in way of personal spiritual guidance, but it is just a book and it has no authority in my life. It has as much authority, and is just as inspired, as the writings of Mark Twain. (And no Christian can prove otherwise because the doctrine of inspiration is presupposed and can not be empirically proved.)
Ron knew I was heading down the slippery slope towards agnosticism. Surely he can recall our discussions about the Bible. He, at one time, read my blog. Yet, when I stopped attending his church that ended our interaction. Evidently time was better spent rescuing those who wanted rescued.
Yet, one would think that over the course of two years, in a town of 325 people, Ron or someone from the church would have stopped by and looked in on us. As I have struggled with debilitating neurological problems, problems Ron was well aware of, one would think that a visit might be in order. How can we help? Is there anything you need? One never knows what love and kindness might accomplish.
As is always the case…why spend time helping people who have no intentions of joining the happy band. If their ass is not in the seat why bother?
This is my subjective experience of the objective truth called the Church.
There are six churches within a few miles of the home where my family and I reside. Prior to my recent coming out as an agnostic, our family would have been a great catch for any church. We are clean-cut, clean-livers. We look like Christians. We are talented. We have skills that any church would be grateful to use. We are loyal, faithful people. We are loving and kind. We are great non-Christian Christians.
But, not one pastor, one church leader, one church member, ever knocked on our door to invite us to their church. Even after we visited four of the six churches, no one bothered to try to befriend us and love us as Jesus would.