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Evangelical Dualism: It’s Not Me, It’s Jesus 

crucifying the flesh

Christians will tell you that the good works they do are all because of Jesus. Several years ago, an Evangelical woman named Pam left several comments detailing her battles with perfectionism. It was only when she learned to let go and let God that she could find victory over her perfectionist tendencies. According to Pam, the flesh is the problem, and the only way Christians can live fulfilled, happy lives is to die to self and allow Jesus to have absolute control. It was Jesus himself who said to those who would be his disciples, let a man deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. It was the apostle Paul who said that without Christ, he could do nothing. Paul reminded Christians that they must deny the flesh and give themselves over, without reservation, to Jesus. In First John, Christians are reminded that if they love the world and the things in the world, then the love of the father is not in them. In fact, the writer of First John tells Christians that if they sin, they are children of the devil.

Now, everyone knows Christians sin. It’s obvious, right? We know that Christians live lives that are, for the most part, indistinguishable from the unwashed, uncircumcised Philistines of the world. How, then, do Christians square what the Bible says about how they should live their lives with how they actually live?

Christians believe that humans are either bipartite or tripartite beings — body and soul or body, soul, and spirit. This dualistic understanding of human nature allows Christians to rationalize and reconcile conflicting teachings in the Bible about human nature and God’s demands. It’s the body that sins. It’s the flesh that Satan can take control of, resulting in Christians committing all sorts of sinful acts. The Bible teaches that Christians are to walk in the spirit and not the flesh. Over and over, the Bible reinforces the belief that Christians, indwelt by the Holy Spirit, are dualistic creatures that will spend their lives on earth in constant battle with competing desires, needs, and influences.

For 2,000 years, Christians have been practicing some sort of self-flagellation meant to crucify the flesh, rendering them dead to sin and alive to Christ. Over the years, I heard countless illustrations (and gave many myself) about the battle between the spirit and the flesh. I remember one pastor saying that this battle is like having two dogs — spirit dog and flesh dog. The strength of these dogs is determined by which dog we feed. If Christians want to live victoriously, then they must feed the spirit dog. Feeding the flesh dog leads to lives of sin, carnality, and the chastisement of God. This cosmic battle between good and evil can be illustrated in many different ways. What most Christians don’t know is that this dualistic understanding of human nature comes from Gnosticism, a system of belief judged heretical centuries ago. In fact, if you listen carefully to what Christians say, you will quickly conclude that in 2021 Gnosticism is alive and well.

In Romans 7, the apostle Paul talks about this battle:

Wherefore, my brethren, ye also are become dead to the law by the body of Christ; that ye should be married to another, even to him who is raised from the dead, that we should bring forth fruit unto God. For when we were in the flesh, the motions of sins, which were by the law, did work in our members to bring forth fruit unto death. But now we are delivered from the law, that being dead wherein we were held; that we should serve in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter. What shall we say then? Is the law sin? God forbid. Nay, I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet. But sin, taking occasion by the commandment, wrought in me all manner of concupiscence. For without the law sin was dead. For I was alive without the law once: but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died. And the commandment, which was ordained to life, I found to be unto death. For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it slew me. Wherefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good. Was then that which is good made death unto me? God forbid. But sin, that it might appear sin, working death in me by that which is good; that sin by the commandment might become exceeding sinful. For we know that the law is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold under sin. For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I. If then I do that which I would not, I consent unto the law that it is good. Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do. Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me. For I delight in the law of God after the inward man: But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin.

From these verses and others, Christians conclude that their flesh (body) is sinful and that the good deeds they do are not their own works, but the works of God who uses them for his own purposes. This is why Christian zealots can ignore the commenting rules for this blog, and post comment after comment filled with Bible verses, sermons, and other acts of Evangelical masturbation. You see, it’s not them saying/writing these words, it is Jesus. They are just conduits through which Jesus speaks to poor deluded atheists and other unbelievers. In many ways, these zombies for Jesus are not much different from Madam Zelda, who channels dead loved ones so she can give messages to those they have left behind. Evangelicals must daily crucify their flesh. The use of the word crucify reminds them to the degree they must be willing to go to be used by Jesus. Jesus was willing to be brutally, viciously beaten, ultimately dying on the cross, so that atonement could be made for human sin. Wanting to be like Jesus, Evangelicals physically and psychologically flagellate themselves, hoping by their acts of self-denial that Jesus will find them worthy and use them for his purpose and glory.

Lost on Evangelicals is the fact that their very acts of self-denial are they themselves doing works. They are the ones dying to self. They are the ones crucifying the flesh. They are the ones taking up their crosses and following Jesus. No matter how far along the Christian experience you want to go, eventually, human action will be found. This is why I have argued that Christianity, at its heart, is not a religion of faith/grace. It’s all about works, and it always has been. If God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, then he cannot and will not change. The Old Testament is clear, God had a prescribed way his chosen people were required to live, under the penalties of judgment, death, and eternal damnation if they did not. In the Gospels, Jesus made it very clear in the Sermon on the Mount that if people wanted to be his disciples, they would have to live a certain way. Paul continued this works-based thinking in his epistles when he contrasts the works of the flesh and the works of the spirit. James says that faith without works is dead, and the writer of First John spends five chapters listing the works that must be in the lives of those who say they are followers of Jesus. Even salvation is a work. For sinners to be saved, they must accept the gospel message, repent of their sins, and believe in Jesus Christ. They must put their faith and trust in Jesus alone. No one becomes a Christian by sitting at home and just waiting for it to happen. The new birth — being born from above — requires an act of volition. Christians will go to great lengths to explain why these acts of the will are really God’s doing, but the fact remains that it is unbelievers who are making conscious choices to either accept or reject Jesus Christ.

Dualism, of course, is a theological construct that is used to explain the contradictory teachings of the Bible. There is no possible way to reconcile Jesus, Paul, James, and John without resorting to some sort of dualistic magic. Those of us who are atheists have an entirely different view of human nature. We recognize that our lives are affected by biology, environment, personal choices and decisions, and being at the wrong/right place at the wrong/place right time (to name a few). We also know that luck plays a big part in who and what we are.

My life is an admixture of good and bad works and good and bad decisions, with a healthy dose of neither good or bad thrown in. As a Christian, I ascribed the good that I did to Jesus and the bad that I did to Satan and/or the flesh. As an atheist, I accept full responsibility for what I do, and when I do good things, I rightly accept the praise and approbation of others. After all, it is I, not God or some other person, who did the good work. While I may deflect the praise of others through humility, realizing that others often play a big part in the good things that I do, I now know that is okay for me to say (and for others to say) good job, Bruce. I also know that when I do bad things, I need to look no further than me, myself, and I. While my wonderful, loving, awesome, super, fabulous, beautiful wife of 42 years can irritate the hell out of me, if I respond to her in anger or impatience, I have no one to blame but myself. I am in control of my actions, words, and, to some degree, my destiny. As I am wont to do, I can look back over my life and see how the various decisions I have made have affected where I am today. While I know the reasons for my health problems are many, some of which are beyond my control, I also know that the choices my parents made and choices that I have made play a part. Who among us hasn’t said, I wish I had done __________. I believe it was George Foreman that said that his obituary will one day read that he died of one too many cheeseburgers. Foreman understood the connection between choices and consequences. Our lives are complex mixtures of many factors, all of which are rooted in naturalism and materialism. I need not look far to find the reasons and answers for who and what I have become. Voltaire was right when he said, “Each player must accept the cards life deals him or her. But once they are in hand, he or she alone must decide how to play the cards in order to win the game.” Believing that a deity is the master of my universe and the controller of my rudder complicates things, so cutting him out of my life allows me not only to make my own decisions but also accept responsibility for what good or bad comes as a result of the choices that I’ve made. While I still have moments when I wish there were someone to blame — say, the devil or the flesh — I know that when I look in the mirror, I see the one person who is responsible for how Bruce Gerencser lives his life. To quote an oft-used line, the buck stops here.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

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.

You can contact Bruce via email, Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube.

Your comments are welcome and appreciated. All first-time comments are moderated. Please read the commenting rules before commenting.

Blood Washing the Past

blood of jesus

Anyone raised in the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church has likely sung numerous times the hymn There’s Power in the Blood. The lyrics reinforce the IFB belief that the forgiveness of sin, any sin, is but a prayer away. According to 1 John 1:9, if a Christian confesses his sin to God, he will find instantaneous forgiveness. This is only possible because of the atoning blood of Jesus. Through the shed blood of Jesus on the cross, the sinning and confessing sinner’s transgressions are washed away, never to be remembered again. Sing with me now (shouting the word power):

Would you be free from the burden of sin?
There’s pow’r in the blood, pow’r in the blood;
Would you o’er evil a victory win?
There’s wonderful pow’r in the blood.

Refrain:
There is pow’r, pow’r, wonder-working pow’r
In the blood of the Lamb;
There is pow’r, pow’r, wonder-working pow’r
In the precious blood of the Lamb.

Would you be free from your passion and pride?
There’s pow’r in the blood, pow’r in the blood;
Come for a cleansing to Calvary’s tide;
There’s wonderful pow’r in the blood.

Would you be whiter, much whiter than snow?
There’s pow’r in the blood, pow’r in the blood;
Sin-stains are lost in its life-giving flow;
There’s wonderful pow’r in the blood.

Would you do service for Jesus your King?
There’s pow’r in the blood, pow’r in the blood;
Would you live daily His praises to sing?
There’s wonderful pow’r in the blood.

No matter what Christians do, the blood of Jesus washes their sin away. Many Evangelical sects believe that any sin committed BS — before salvation — is forgiven and forgotten once a person is saved. One pastor I know refuses to do background checks on church workers because crimes committed before the super-duper blood of Jesus washed away their sins are remembered by God no more. And if God doesn’t remember the sin, why should we?

Another man, an evangelist, was accused of having sex with minors. He refused to talk about his past, claiming his past behavior is under the “blood.” Unfortunately, there are allegations that he continued to prey on minors after Jesus washed away his sin. But, don’t worry, forgiveness is but a prayer and a blood-washing away. Young girls can rest easy, at least until the blood of Jesus loses its power and the evangelist seeks out new potential victims to molest. Why is it that a Jesus’ blood transfusion is only temporary? If he is who Evangelicals say he is, shouldn’t his miraculous blood protect children from Christian sexual predators? Evidently not. (Please see the Black Collar Crime Series.)

Consider how amazing the blood of Jesus is. No matter what Christians do, no matter how heinous their behavior is, a quick prayer to Jesus asking for forgiveness will unleash the sin-cleansing power of the blood of the Lamb. This supernatural blood allows Evangelical Christians to escape accountability for bad behavior. Just pray, Evangelicals are told, secretly confessing the sin to God, and forgiveness will be granted. This is no different, by the way, from what goes on in Catholic confessional booths. No matter the crime, Jesus will forgive. Even repeat offenders can find forgiveness if they sincerely plead for the blood of Jesus to be applied to their sin-darkened hearts. Dear Lord Jesus, please forgive me for watching porn. I know this is a sin. I ask you to forgive me and wash away my sin. In Jesus’ name, Amen. Two nights later . . . Hey Jesus, it’s me again, Pastor Billy Bob. The devil got a hold of me and I looked at porn again. I’m so sorry for my sin. I ask you to forgive me and wash away my sin. In Jesus’ name, Amen. A week later, Hey Jesus, it’s me again . . .

And so it goes. Evangelicals sin, feel guilty, pray for forgiveness, promising, with fingers crossed behind their backs, that they will never, ever sin again. Rather than being held accountable for bad behavior, Evangelical sinners are given get-out-of-jail-free cards to be used any time they “sin.”

Those of us who are agnostics or atheists have no way for our bad-behavior slate to be wiped clean. All we can do is admit what we did and make restitution. In some instances, we’ll carry the stain of our “sin” until we die. Unlike Evangelicals, we acknowledge that bad behavior can and does have lasting consequences.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

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.

You can contact Bruce via email, Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube.

Your comments are welcome and appreciated. All first-time comments are moderated. Please read the commenting rules before commenting.

Life in the IFB Church: Polly’s Secret

bruce polly gerencser midwestern baptist college 1977
Bruce Gerencser, Polly Shope 1977

My wife and I came of age in the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church movement. Polly’s father was an IFB preacher, and both of us attended an IFB college in the 1970s. In 1978, we walked down the aisle of an IFB church pastored by Polly’s uncle and declared our troth one to another. After leaving Midwestern Baptist College in 1979, we spent the next fifteen years pastoring IFB churches. Even after our public break from the IFB church movement, it would be years before we distanced ourselves from that sect’s theological and social Fundamentalism. To say that IFB thinking and beliefs coursed through our veins would be a gross understatement.

IFB churches are known for being anti-culture. IFB churches and their pastors have strict, well-defined theological beliefs and practices. Congregants are expected to adhere to the letter of the law, dotting every i and crossing every t. Deviating from the expected norm brought public judgment from the pulpit, private criticism behind the scenes, and ultimately ex-communication. There is no place in IFB churches for differences of belief and practice. IFB apologists will object to this characterization, saying that not everyone has to believe the same things. However, these differences of opinion are about trivial, peripheral beliefs, not those that make IFB churches stand out from other Evangelical sects.

While IFB churches have stringent core theological beliefs, it is their social Fundamentalism that they are most known for. For readers not familiar with social Fundamentalism: social Fundamentalism focuses on the conduct, lifestyle, and social engagement of the Christian. (Please see Are Evangelicals Fundamentalists?) If IFB churches and pastors are known for anything, it’s their rules and regulations, also known as church standards. While every Christian sect believes certain behaviors and practices are “sin,” IFB churches unapologetically believe that listening to rock music, women wearing pants, women having short hair, men having long hair, watching R-rated movies, going to the movie theater, drinking alcohol, masturbating, engaging in premarital sex, touching/kissing before marriage, LGBTQ-anything, going to a secular college, voting Democrat — to name a few — are heinous sins against the thrice-holy God of the King James Bible (and yes, I know not every IFB pastor thinks every behavior listed here is a “sin”).

In 2020, I wrote a post titled, The Official Fundamentalist Baptist Rulebook. I listed the “church standards” that are found in many IFB churches:

  • Thou shalt obey the pastor at all times
  • Thou shalt obey all adults at all times if you are a child or teenager
  • Thou shalt obey your husband at all times if you are a woman
  • Thou shalt obey your parents at all times
  • Thou shalt obey the police and government unless the pastor says it is a sin against God to do so
  • Thou shalt tithe
  • Thou shalt give an offering
  • Thou shalt give a faith promise missionary offering
  • Thou give an offering any time the pastor says God is saying to collect a special offering
  • Thou shalt attend church every time the doors are open
  • Thou shalt read the Bible every day
  • Thou shalt pray every day
  • Thou shalt pray without ceasing
  • Thou shalt pray for every meal, but ice cream at Dairy Queen after church requires no prayer
  • Thou shalt only use the King James Bible — 1611 edition which is really the 1769 revision
  • Thou shalt only use the Scofield King James Bible
  • Thou shalt not have long hair (over your ears, collar) if you are a man
  • Thou shalt not have a block cut hairstyle if you are a man
  • Thou shalt not have facial hair if you are a man, but if you are a woman you can have facial hair
  • Thou shalt not have tattoos unless you have prison tats from your life before Christ
  • Thou shalt not take the hem out of your Levi jeans or alter your clothing in any way so that you look worldly
  • Thou shalt not wear pants (britches) if you are a woman
  • Thou shalt not wear shorts, but a woman can wear Baptist shorts — also known as culottes
  • Thou shalt not expose any flesh if you are a woman, especially your thighs, breasts, or back
  • Thou shalt only wear dresses with hemlines below the knees if you are a woman
  • Thou shalt not have any physical contact with the opposite sex if you are unmarried
  • Thou shalt not masturbate
  • Thou shalt not have more than one hole in each ear if you are a woman
  • Thou shalt not pierce any body part except your ear, and then only if you are a woman
  • Thou shalt not watch TV, but if you are a carnal Christian and must watch TV thou shalt only watch Little House on the Prairie or Bonanza
  • Thou shalt not go to the movie theater, but using streaming services is okay
  • Thou shalt always have tracts in your shirt pocket or purse, ready to evangelize at a moment’s notice
  • Thou shalt drive a car with church advertising stickers, IFB cliches, or Bible verses attached to the bumper
  • Thou shalt park down the street when visiting the local strip club or whore house lest the pastor know you are there and stay away
  • Thou shalt not dance
  • Thou shalt not listen to secular music, especially rock music, which is from the pit of hell
  • Thou shalt not listen to contemporary Christian music (CCM)
  • Thou shalt not smoke tobacco
  • Thou shalt not drink fermented alcohol — after all, Jesus drank Welch’s grape juice
  • Thou shalt not dip snuff
  • Thou shalt not chew tobacco
  • Thou shalt not cuss, but saying darn, shoot, crap, freaking, and fudge are okay
  • Thou shalt not date non-Independent Baptist girls or boys
  • Thou shalt not have any non-Independent Baptist friends
  • Thou shalt home school your children or send them to a Christian school
  • Thou shalt only read pastor-approved Christian books
  • Thou shalt never speak in tongues
  • Thou shalt only believe what the pastor says you are to believe
  • Thou shalt go soulwinning every week
  • Thou shalt say you have victory over sin, even if you are lying
  • Thou shalt adhere to the “perception is reality” rule
  • Thou shalt send your kids to the same Christian college the pastor went to
  • Thou shalt leave the church if you commit adultery, get a divorce, or get pregnant outside of marriage
  • Thou shalt  believe everything the pastor says even when you are certain he is lying, speaking evangelistically, or embellishing his illustrations
  • Thou shalt wear a bra if you are a woman, and it can only be a white, underwire bra
  • Thou shalt not mix bathe (Baptist for swimming with the opposite sex)
  • Thou shalt not go to amusement parks unless the youth group is going
  • Thou shalt not go to the prom
  • Thou shalt not show emotion unless praising Jesus from 10:00 am to noon on Sunday or giving a testimony during Sunday evening service
  • Thou shalt say AMEN during at the appropriate time during the pastor’s sermon, especially when he shouts, pounds the pulpit, or performs gymnastics
  • Thou shalt not be angry even though the pastor is allowed to be angry, but that’s because his anger is righteous anger
  • Thou shalt be for what the pastor is for and against what the pastor is against, because if you don’t, a bear might come out of the woods and eat you
  • Thou shalt never use your brain
  • Thou shalt ignore any science that contradicts the Bible
  • Thou shalt never try to fix your own problems because the pastor is the official fixer of all problems
  • Thou shalt takes notes on the sermon even if the rabbit wanders five miles off the trail or the sermon is incoherent
  • Thou shalt always tell the pastor what a wonderful sermon he preached, even when you have no idea what he was talking about
  • Thou shalt always tell Sister Bertha what a wonderful job she did with her off-key rendition of What a Friend we Have in Jesus
  • Thou shalt not use canned (taped) music for music specials
  • Thou shall not play the guitar or drums

The lists of rules and regulations found in IFB churches — both stated and implied — are endless. Since IFB churches are Independent (please see What is an IFB Church?) governmentally, each church has its own standards. Who the pastor is at the time is the final arbiter of what will be expected (demanded) of congregants.

Having spent the first 35+ years of our lives in IFB churches, both Polly and I were deeply affected psychologically by all the rules and regulations. What made matters worse was that I was a pastor, and Polly was a pastor’s wife. We were not only the gatekeepers and the enforcers of the church’s standards, but we were also expected to perfectly and joyfully obey every jot and tittle of the “law.”

We believed that if we didn’t live according to these rules and regulations — which we believed were taught explicitly or implicitly in the inspired, inerrant, infallible (King James) Word of God — that God would chastise us or withhold his blessing. As devout followers of Jesus, we daily strove to live sinless lives. And as sure as the sun came up in the morning, we failed. No matter how hard we tried to keep the rules, there was never a day when we could say, nailed it!

This brings me to the focus of this post, Polly’s secret. You see, despite striving to be holy in thought, word, and deed, Polly had secret sins in her life. Of course, so did her pastor husband. Our “sins” were very different, but both of us “sinned” because we were told we couldn’t. You see, when you are constantly told this or that behavior is “sin,” it is not surprising that you want what you can’t have.

Most readers will likely find what I share next quite amusing, but I hope you will understand this story in the context of the Fundamentalist Baptist bubble Polly and I lived in for decades. Breaking the rules brought overwhelming fear and guilt. We were in our 40s before we drank alcohol, went to the movie theater, or listened to rock music. Polly was 46 before she wore her first pair of pants. I still remember me pleading with her to buy a pair of pants for the first time. Polly literally thought God was going to strike her dead. He didn’t, but the look that Polly’s Fundamentalist mom had on her face after seeing Polly in pants for the first time suggested that judgment might be coming soon. Polly’s mom’s face had a similar look of displeasure the first time she opened our refrigerator and found a six-pack of beer. We have been disappointing her for years now.

During a recent discussion about how IFB beliefs and practices harmed us psychologically, Polly decided to come clean about a “sin” in her life, circa the 1980s. We laughed over her confession, but I am sure her “sin” caused Polly lots of guilt and consternation back in the day. What, you ask, did Polly do? Have an affair? Steal money from the church? Secretly peruse Playgirl? Nope. Her sin was far more sinister than these things. Polly read books.

Books? Yes, books. In IFB churches, reading was strictly regulated. Pastors and congregants alike knew that only certain subjects and authors were approved for consumption. I still remember stopping at our pianist’s home unannounced, only to find a stack of true-crime novels sitting on her living room table. Congregants knew to give their homes IFB-approved appearances if they knew I was planning a visit, but I caught Rose off guard by stopping by unannounced. Rose, a wonderful, Jesus-loving woman, knew she had been “caught.” She knew what was coming next: a Pastor Bruce lecture about reading such godless trash. Little did I know that she had also bought a TV that she hid from me every time I stopped by.

Rose confessed her “weakness” for true-crime novels, promising that she would stop reading them and only read God-approved Christian chick-lit. I suspect that she did neither. What I didn’t know is that Polly had a similar “weakness.” Come to find out, my mom — a voracious reader — was giving Polly unapproved, “sinful” books to read. Knowing that her holier-than-thou preacher husband would disapprove and likely burn the books to make a point, Polly hid the books under our bed, reading them when I wasn’t home (which was typically 10-12 hours a day). What a sinner, right?

Today, Polly continues to read fictional books, including those that have graphic sexual content. Of course, the difference between now and then is that she no longer fears God or feels guilty over what she has read. While both of us have deep, lasting scars from our IFB years, we relish and enjoy the freedom we have from the rules and regulations of our past. We are free to watch and read whatever we want without fearing judgment or chastisement.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

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.

You can contact Bruce via email, Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube.

Your comments are welcome and appreciated. All first-time comments are moderated. Please read the commenting rules before commenting.

Avoiding the Appearance of Sin

hear see speak no evil

The Bible says in 1 Thessalonians 5:22:

Abstain from all appearance of evil.

Eighteenth-century theologian Matthew Henry explains I Thessalonians 5:22 verse this way:

Corrupt affections indulged in the heart, and evil practices allowed of in the life, will greatly tend to promote fatal errors in the mind; whereas purity of heart, and integrity of life, will dispose men to receive the truth in the love of it. We should therefore abstain from evil, and all appearances of evil, from sin, and that which looks like sin, leads to it, and borders upon it. He who is not shy of the appearances of sin, who shuns not the occasions of sin, and who avoids not the temptations and approaches to sin, will not long abstain from the actual commission of sin. (E-Sword Bible Program)

For those of us raised in Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) or Southern Baptist churches, we likely heard numerous sermons about abstaining from the appearance of evil. These sermons often included lists of things we should abstain from because the pastor, uh, I mean God, declared them to be sinful/evil. Sometimes, Ephesians 4:27 would be quoted: Neither give place to the devil. Not abstaining from the appearance of evil meant you were giving the Devil place in your life.

In the churches I grew up in, the IFB college I attended in the 1970s, and the churches I pastored in the 1980s and 1990s, abstaining from the appearance of evil meant not doing anything that looked like you were sinning. As you will see in just a moment, this kind of thinking led to all sorts of laughable and bizarre behavior.

As a pastor, my interpretation of 1 Thessalonians 5:22 evolved quite a bit over the twenty-five years I spent in the ministry. As a young preacher, I was quite the literalist. I obsessed over being seen doing something that others might view as sinful. In particular, I made sure that church members never saw me doing anything that would lead them to conclude that I was sinning. Baked into this thinking was the notion that what could be seen was the problem. If I wanted to do something that might be perceived as sin, I just made sure no one saw what I was doing. Let me share two stories that should illustrate my point.

From 1983 to 1994, I pastored Somerset Baptist Church, a thriving IFB congregation in the Appalachian foothills of southeast Ohio. The congregation was dirt poor. Though most of the men in the church were gainfully employed, poverty was common, and that included Pastor and Mrs. Gerencser and their six children. It was not uncommon for me to preach the Puritan work ethic and trusting God for all your needs from the pulpit. Congregants were expected to trust God, not the government, to meet their daily needs. Of course, this was an impossible standard for many of the church families to live by. When God failed to provide, families turned to the government for assistance. Many of the families were on food stamps — now called SNAP. There was a sense of guilt in the church over this, but when given a choice to go hungry for Jesus or have food on the table, church families turned to the government for food.

The church went through a difficult spell financially in the late 1980s, and I went unpaid weeks on end. During this time, we applied for food stamps. Boy, were we embarrassed. At the time, we thought that we were letting God (and the church) down by accepting government assistance. I suspect my pride played a big part in how I felt at the time, but with a family of eight to feed, my pride had to take a back seat to meeting our needs.

Thanks to our family size, we received a huge food stamp allotment each month — more than we could actually use. After we received our first food stamp coupon booklets, I told Polly that she was NEVER to use them at local grocery stores. We had to avoid the appearance of evil/sin, and in IFB circles, accepting government assistance was indeed considered sinful. Instead of buying groceries locally, we would drive an hour to Columbus to buy groceries. Twenty minutes away, Zanesville had several groceries, but since many of our church members shopped at these stores, we couldn’t do our shopping in Zanesville.

Polly’s uncle, James (Jim) Dennis, pastored the Newark Baptist Temple in Newark, Ohio. The Baptist Temple was a strict IFB congregation, with rules and regulations governing virtually every aspect of life. Congregants were not permitted to attend the movies. Doing so meant you were supporting evil Hollywood. Even lingering around the entrance of a movie theater was viewed as giving the appearance of evil.

As a child, Polly and her parents would vacation with the Dennis family in Florida. Remember 1 Thessalonians 5:22? Abstain from all appearance of evil. Well, this verse took on a whole different meaning in Florida. With no church members around, the whole family would go to the movies. That’s right, a Baptist preacher who preached one thing but did another!

During the almost twelve years I spent pastoring Somerset Baptist Church, I developed an elaborate code of conduct fueled by avoiding the appearance of evil at all costs. I never wanted church members to see me doing something that could be construed as sin/evil. Of course, what they didn’t see couldn’t hurt them. Polly and I became experts at playing the game. We could be having a big row as we drove to the church house, but as soon as we pulled into the parking lot, we put on our “Oh, How I Love Jesus” faces. You see, appearance was everything in my book. Lest someone come to the wrong conclusion, I had a deep love for Jesus and sincerely desired to walk in his steps. Unfortunately, I was human AND a Fundamentalist — a sure recipe for failure. Sure, I wanted people to see me in a certain light — who doesn’t, right — but I also loved the Lord, my God, and wanted to follow his commandments.

I should mention in passing the Biblical idea advanced by the apostle Paul that Christians should not do anything that would cause another Christian to “stumble.” Even if a particular behavior was not sinful, if a weaker Christian thought a behavior was sin or it could cause him to fall, you should not do it in his presence.

Let me conclude by illustrating how avoiding the appearance of evil/sin worked out practically in my life. I know these illustrations will seem absurd, but former Fundamentalist Christians will likely shake their head and say, “yep, been there, done that.” I hope readers will come away from this post understanding how Bible literalism and Fundamentalist thinking can deeply affect one’s life.

The following illustrations all took place from 1983-1994.

One day, I received a letter from the Somerset Ministerial Group asking me to join them for their monthly meeting at the Little Phil Restaurant. The letter was signed by the pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church. Unbeknownst to these clergymen was the fact that IFB pastors were hyper-separatists who didn’t fellowship with anyone but their own kind. How could I break bread with pastors I believed were preaching a false gospel and leading people to Hell?

I wrote the Lutheran pastor a scathing letter, point by point, telling him why I would never join them for their meeting. Besides, the Little Phil served alcohol, and I didn’t eat at restaurants that served booze. The Lutheran pastor sent me a short reply, gently trying to show me the error of my way. He concluded by asking me to reconsider. “Just remember, Bruce, even Jesus ate with sinners.”

I refused to eat at any restaurant that sold alcohol. This meant that my idea of a good steak was Ponderosa (pound-a-grossa), and I ate far more fast food than was good for me. This also meant that we didn’t buy groceries at stores that sold booze or buy gasoline from gas stations that sold alcohol (or porn-lite magazines such as Playboy). This made life quite challenging for us at times, but I sincerely believed God wanted me to abstain from ALL appearances of sin. How could I preach against drinking alcohol if I was giving my money to businesses that sold the Devil’s elixir?

My views began to change after I left Somerset Baptist, and the last decade of my time in the ministry was very different lifestyle-wise from the first. As anyone who has carefully read my story knows, my beliefs and practices bumpily moved over the course of twenty-five years from Bruce, the Fundamentalist to Bruce, the generic Evangelical to Bruce, the progressive Christian. Intolerance begat tolerance, and in the end, I no longer believed that I was accountable for how people lived their lives. My preaching moved from thundering sermons on sin to emphasizing the two great commands: loving God and loving others. Now, this doesn’t mean I didn’t preach against sin, I did. But my sin list changed, becoming smaller and smaller over time.

I want to think that the cancer of Christian Fundamentalism has been excised from my life, but I know better. I still battle the notion that appearance is everything, that I always want people to see me in the best possible light. As a social construct, I suppose this is fine, but it does, at times, get in the way of me being my authentic self — warts and all.

As a Christian, how did you interpret the verses mentioned in this post? Did your pastors preach about abstaining from the appearance of evil/sin? Please share your thoughts in the comment section.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

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.

You can contact Bruce via email, Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube.

Your comments are welcome and appreciated. All first-time comments are moderated. Please read the commenting rules before commenting.

Is God Punishing Me for My Sin?

god of love

Repost from 2015-2016. Edited, updated, and corrected.

One of the saddest questions I see in the blog search logs is this: I have ____________________. Is God punishing me for my sin?

If a person believes the Bible is God’s Word, then the answer to this question is Yes. God does afflict people because of their sin. God maims, sickens, and kills people, all because they violated one or more of his laws. No disobedience is too trivial for the thrice-holy God to punish. Remember Uzzah, the man who broke God’s law by touching the Ark of the Covenant, a gold-clad chest containing the Ten Commandments, Aaron’s rod, and a pot of manna? David commanded the Ark be moved by cart from one place to another. As it was being moved, the oxen pulling the cart stumbled. Fearing that the Ark would topple over, Uzzah, a Levite, reached out to steady the Ark. God rewarded Uzzah for his saintly effort by striking him dead.

In the Old Testament, God is shown using affliction and destruction to either make a point or to get someone to do what he wants them to do. God is definitely a hands-on kind of deity, punishing sin to the third and fourth generation. In the New Testament, we are told God often afflicts Christians to test them or make them stronger. Sometimes, God uses heartache and tragedy to get Christians’ attention. I’ve been told by numerous Evangelicals that the reason I’m in so much physical pain is that God is trying to get my attention. I’ve even been warned that God might kill me if I continue to ignore his (their) warnings.

Then there are the times that God maims, afflicts, or kills people because he wants them to give praise and glory to his name. God, ever the adoration-seeking narcissist, will go to great lengths to get people to worship him. In the still of the night, God comes into the bedroom of the infant daughter of Christians Bobby and Isabelle. Is God there to admire the beautiful little girl? Perhaps he wants to tell her that she will some day grow up and be a woman greatly used by God. Sadly, on this night God had a more sinister plan in mind. He reaches into the crib and puts his nail-pierced hand over the baby’s mouth and quietly suffocates the child to death. Why would a supposedly loving, caring, and kind God do such a thing? For no other reason than, come morning, he wants the dead child’s parents to give praise and glory to his name. No explanation will be forthcoming. Bobby and Isabelle will be expected to act as if their daughter’s death is all part of God’s wonderful plan for their life.

Christians believe God is the creator of the universe, and as the Sovereign ruler of all, he has complete and absolute control over everything. When Christians face sickness, disaster, or the loss of a loved one, they are reminded by their pastor and friends that God is bigger than their circumstances. Just trust God, they are told. Surely, he is using your troubles to make you stronger and draw you closer to him. Suffering Christians might even be asked to search their hearts for some sort of secret sin that lies buried deep within. Perhaps God is trying to get them to acknowledge and forsake this secret sin.

The things I have mentioned above are some of the reasons I am no longer a Christian. What kind of God operates in this manner? Of course, I am sure someone will tell me, a la Romans 9: Bruce, how dare you question God! For many Christians, God is above reproach. Even when he acts like a psychopath, God is given a free pass. After all, the Christian says, God’s ways are not our ways. We must trust and believe that God knows best.

Sadly, many Christians are so disconnected from reality that they cannot or will not see things as they are. If a mere human did what the Bible says God did, he would be tried before a world tribunal for crimes against humanity. And I have no doubt that he would be convicted on all counts and sentenced to death. Perhaps God deserves the same judgment and punishment.

It’s better to believe that shit happens in life — no deity required. People get sick, face untold suffering, and die. Through genetics, environment, and lifestyle choices, people are afflicted with all kinds of diseases. In many cases, these diseases are what will eventually kill them. It’s far better to believe that this is how life is than to think that there is a God in Heaven set on afflicting us for our sin or because he needs his ego stroked.

The liberal Christian is likely to scream foul and say, God is love. Yes, according to the Bible, God is love, but he is also everything else I have mentioned in this post. To liberal Christians I say, please take off your blinders and read ALL of the Bible. Ignoring the portions of the Bible that make you uncomfortable or make God look like a mean, vindictive, son-of-a-bitch, doesn’t change the fact that those passages ARE in the Bible. If these accounts are not to be accepted as an accurate description of God and how he operates, why should we then be expected to believe that God is love or that Jesus is who and what Christians claim he is? Where’s the instruction manual for playing the pick-and-choose Bible Game®? From my seat in the atheist pew, it looks like many Christians are just making up the rules as they go.

If God is unchanging and Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever, then Christians have no other option but to accept God as he is described in the Bible. If Christians are unwilling to do so, then they need to be honest and admit that they have fashioned a God in their own image. Either that or Christians must admit that the Bible is not a divine book; that it is just a work of fiction written by men thousands of years ago.

For most of my adult life, I lived as a stoic, come-what-may, Christian. No matter what suffering, trial, or adversity came my way, I believed God was either punishing me for sin, making me stronger, or teaching me a lesson. Much like John Bunyan’s Pilgrim on his way to the Celestial City, no matter what came my way, I continued to endure and run the race set before me.

My wife and I are quite matter-of-fact about life. This drives some people crazy, but we have been deeply influenced by Christianity and its belief that we are to bear whatever adversity comes our way. We believed for most of our adult lives that God was faithful and would never give us more than we could bear. This kind of thinking can make someone quite passive about life. Since God is behind everything, Christians are expected to keep trusting and believing right up to the moment they draw their last breath. No kicking, no screaming, no defiance. Just a sweet, thank you Jesus smile as they are carried away by angels to Heaven.

smile god loves you

This kind of thinking makes people less human. It often robs them of their will, their desire to live. Many Christians are like the Apostle Paul, who wished he could die and go to a better place. After all, according to the Bible, this world is such a sinful, wicked place that death becomes the sweet release. But what if Christians are wrong about life, suffering, and death? Let me use here what I call reverse Pascal’s Wager. What IF this life is all the Christian has? What if death really is the end? Shouldn’t Christians want to enjoy THIS life to its fullest? Wouldn’t they want to live every moment of every day in such a way that reflects the brevity and finality of their lives? Instead of living according to the notion that they are most miserable if this is all there is, how about seeing that life is a great blessing, even if there is no afterlife.

Despite the physical struggles, pain, and debility that dominate my life, I am grateful to be counted among the living. I’m not ready to become worm food, nor am I ready for people to say lies about me at my funeral. I refuse to go “gentle” into the night (Dylan Thomas, Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night). I will not stand like a lemming in line waiting for the Wraith to come and turn me into food. Life is worth living, and I don’t need the promise of eternal life to make it so. And I sure as hell don’t need to concern myself with thoughts of a mythical, sin-punishing God who finds some sort of perverse pleasure in pulling the wings off his creation.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

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.

You can contact Bruce via email, Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube.

Your comments are welcome and appreciated. All first-time comments are moderated. Please read the commenting rules before commenting.

Bruce Gerencser