This item by Erin Roach appeared as part of the “Culture Digest” collection for April 30th at Baptist Press.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–A study by Tufts University has called attention to the presence of Protestant pastors who do not believe what they preach, something the authors describe as a nearly “invisible phenomenon” of “unbelieving clergy.”
Ambiguity regarding who is a believer in Jesus and who is a nonbeliever, the report said, is a result of the pluralism that has been fostered by many religious leaders for at least a century.
“God is many different things to different people, and since we can’t know if one of these conceptions is the right one, we should honor them all,” the authors wrote in summarizing the pluralistic view.
Rather than relying on statistical evidence to point to a conclusion, the study employs anecdotal stories of five ministers whose identities have been obscured. Even the authors admit they couldn’t draw any reliable generalizations from such a small sample of clergy, but what they found, they said, does deserve a closer look.
One pastor, a Methodist, said he no longer believes that God exists, but his church members do not know that he is an atheist. Most of them, he said, don’t even believe Jesus literally rose from the dead or literally was born of a virgin.
Another pastor, from the United Church of Christ, said he didn’t even believe in the doctrinal content of the Christian faith at the beginning of his ministry, but he continues to preach as if he believes because it’s the way of life he knows.
A Presbyterian pastor in the study said he remains in ministry largely for financial reasons and acknowledged that if he were to make known that he rejects most tenets of the Christian faith he would obliterate his “ability to earn a living this way.”
A Church of Christ pastor explained how he continues to lead his church despite losing all theological confidence.
“Here’s how I’m handling my job on Sunday mornings: I see it as play acting. I see myself as taking on the role of a believer in a worship service, and performing,” the pastor said.
He describes himself as an atheistic agnostic and said he still needs the ministerial job and no longer believes hypocrisy is wrong.
A Southern Baptist pastor included in the study said he was attracted to Christianity as a religion of love and now has become an atheist. If someone would offer him $200,000, he said, he’d leave the ministry right away.
“‘Preachers Who Are Not Believers’ is a stunning and revealing report that lays bare a level of heresy, apostasy and hypocrisy that staggers the mind,” R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote on his blog in March.
“In 1739, Gilbert Tennett preached his famous sermon, ‘On the Danger of an Unconverted Ministry.’ In that sermon, Tennett described unbelieving pastors as a curse upon the church. They prey upon the faith and the faithful. ‘These caterpillars labor to devour every green thing.’
“If they will not remove themselves from the ministry, they must be removed. If they lack the integrity to resign their pulpits, the churches must muster the integrity to eject them,” Mohler wrote at albertmohler.com. “If they will not ‘out’ themselves, it is the duty of faithful Christians to ‘out’ them. The caterpillars are hard at work. Will it take a report from an atheist to awaken the church to the danger?”
As for the cartoon, I traced a use of it back to an appearance in this blog post about doubt from a Christian perspective, but thought if you’re feeling really brave, you should consider this recent blog post about seminary education from an atheist perspective where you’ll also see the same cartoon.