This article was first published in 2011 on the blog No Longer Quivering. Corrected, revised, and updated.
As an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) pastor, I taught parishioners that the Bible clearly defined the roles (a hierarchy) of men (husbands), women (wives), and children. The Bible, from an IFB perspective, is clear: the husband is the head of the home and the wife is commanded to submit to his authority and rule. Much like the pastor in the church, the husband is the final authority in the home. It matters not if he is worthy of such responsibility. A husband is disobedient to God if he refuses to be the head of the home. The wife, if she refuses to submit to her husband’s authority, is a Jezebel and risks the judgment of God.
I taught women that God’s highest calling for them was marriage, having children, and keeping the home. I discouraged women from going to college. After all, why waste money going to college if you are going to be busy having children and keeping the home.
I taught men that God’s highest calling is for them to be a leader. Men are called by God to lead the church, the home, and the government. The strength or weakness of any nation, culture, church, or home depends on whether men are fulfilling their divine calling to lead.
Children are at the bottom of this hierarchical system. They are under the authority of God, the Bible, the pastor, their father, and their mother. Children have one divine calling in life: obedience!
This kind of hierarchical family structure has been a part of American society since the day the Pilgrims stepped ashore on the eastern coast of America. Over time, due to social, political, and economic pressure, the hierarchical family structure has weakened. As women gained the right to vote, began working outside of the home, and began using birth control, they realized they could live without being under the control and authority of a man. Modern American women are free to pursue their own life path, free to live lives independent of men. When women marry, they are no longer considered the helpmeets of their husbands. They are equal partners in marriage. Their values, beliefs, and opinions matter.
However, in the IFB church movement, women still live in the eighteenth century. Bound by commands and teachings from an antiquated book — the Bible — they live lives strangely and sadly out of touch with the modern world. Every aspect of family life is controlled by what the Bible teaches. Better put, their lives are controlled by what authoritarian pastors and authoritarian husbands/fathers say the Bible teaches.
I have no objection to a woman willingly choosing to live and participate in a hierarchical family structure. If an Amish woman wants to live as the Amish do, then I have no reason or right to object. It is, however, difficult to determine if they willingly choose. Is it a free choice when there are no other options? So it is with women in the IFB church movement and other Fundamentalist sects.
For my family and me, moving away from a hierarchical family structure was and is difficult. We had to relearn what mattered in life. We had to examine sincerely held beliefs and determine if they still were applicable to the new way we wanted to live our lives. I realized that I had lorded over my family. I had dominated and controlled their lives, all in the name of Jesus. By doing so, I had robbed them of the ability to live their lives independent of my control. Every decision had to have my stamp of approval. Nothing escaped my purview. After all, God had commanded me to be the head of the home. Someday, I would give an account to God for how I managed the affairs of my family. I took the threat of judgment seriously. This motivated me to be a “Biblical” husband, father, and pastor.
The biggest problem we faced was that since I was the one who always made the final decision, my children and wife lacked the skills necessary to make good decisions. My children quickly adapted to their newfound freedom, shouting a Martin Luther King Jr-like FREE, FREE AT LAST. However, my wife, Polly, did not fare so well.
Raised in a Fundamentalist home, her father an IFB pastor, Polly had spent her entire life under the thumb of someone else. She rarely had to make a decision because there was always someone else making decisions for her. To say our newfound freedom was difficult for Polly would be a gross underestimation. Suddenly, she was forced to make decisions on her own. For a time, she panicked when faced with making a decision on her own. Simple decisions, like what to order at the fast-food drive-thru or whether or not to put gas in the car, were monumental decisions for her.
Over time, Polly’s decision-making skills improved. Years ago, she was promoted to a management position at a local manufacturing concern, Sauder Woodworking. One night, she came home from work all upset. She told me that she had made a decision about something and several people were now upset with her. I laughed and told her, rule number one about making decisions: you will likely piss someone off.
In 2010, Polly returned to college. She struggled at first, and it took quite a bit of willpower for me not to bail her out. Over time, she adapted to using the computer (she was computer illiterate) and doing the various things necessary to be a good college student. In 2012, Polly graduated with an Associate of Arts degree from Northwest State Community College. I wept as I saw her walk down the aisle on graduation day. Her graduation was a reminder of how far both of us have come (Polly actually has five years of college credit. Unfortunately, three of those years were spent at an unaccredited Bible college).
Polly was forty-six years old before she wore her first pair of pants. Same goes for going to the movie theater, drinking alcohol, cutting her hair short, reading a non-Christian romance novel, etc., etc., etc. As many people know, the IFB movement is all about what a Christian CAN’T do. Some of these choices were fearful choices, God lurking in the shadows of the mind, ready to punish her for making“sinful” choices.”
With change comes newmany ways, we have been “born again.” In 2005, I left the pastorate and we began a slow, painful process of reexamining our Christian beliefs. For many years, my family believed what I believed, went to church when I went to church, and obeyed any and every command I gave, complete with proof texts from the Bible. Now it is different.
We left Christianity in 2008. I told Polly and our six children that I was setting them free. I am no longer the spiritual head of the home or the patriarch of the family. They are free to be whatever they want to be. I sincerely mean this. If they want to be Wiccan, Christian, Buddhist, Pagan, or atheist, I am fine with it. The bottom line is this: I want them to be happy. If they are happy, I am happy.
This last decision has caused quite a bit of controversy and conflict. Freed from my control, my entire family quickly abandoned the Evangelical church. I am now an atheist, Polly is an agnostic, and our children, for the most part, do not attend church. Religion is still a big topic of discussion in our family and I still like a rousing debate or discussion about religion, politics, or sports. The difference now is that there is no test of fidelity. No, “did you guys go to church today?” No, “what was the sermon about?”
Our family remains a work in progress. Polly continues to work on her decision-making skills, and I’m learning that the world doesn’t revolve around me. I am learning to shut up and allow my family to make decisions for themselves, even when I think their choices are ill-advised. I have a new rule I live by: if I think someone is making a bad decision on an important issue, I will voice my opinion, but that is the end of it. I stay out of my children’s business, even when they want me to meddle. They are responsible adults and I support whatever decisions they make, even if I disagree with them.
We are far from a finished product. Polly still freezes at the drive-thru and I still know what I want before we pull into the restaurant. We still have the same peculiar character traits we’ve always had. You know, those things that annoy and bug the hell out of each other. The difference now is that we have learned to embrace each other’s peculiarities, knowing that these are what make us unique individuals.
I have Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD) and Polly is happy with clutter. Ours is a match made in hell. For many years, my OCPD dominated everything. I have had to learn that while I have every right to want things perfectly ordered, everything in its place, Polly also has the right not to want things perfectly ordered, everything in its place. We each have personal spaces where we are free to practice our peculiar habits and traits. We know to stay out of each other’s “stuff”. In the common spaces, we try to find a happy medium, though I must admit I have a hard time doing this. MY declining health has helped me with my obsession with order. I simply can no longer keep everything perfectly ordered. At times, this frustrates me, but I am learning to embrace my new reality.
It is good to be free.
Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen 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.
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