FAQ #5: So What Do You Preach?

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IF YOU’RE AN ATHEIST WHO IS STILL A WORKING PREACHER, WHAT DO YOU PREACH?

Excellent question!  This is obviously the most difficult part of my job.  So much of being a pastor doesn’t require you to actually believe anything, you just need to be a person with empathy.

I don’t need to be a believer in order to :

  1. Hold the hand of a dying person
  2. Counsel an older gentlemen who is coming to grips with his daughter being an alcoholic
  3. Help estranged sisters find closure after the death of their abusive father
  4. Visit and rejoice with brand new parents at the maternity ward
  5. Organize volunteers and run a kids program
  6. Fix the church gutters
  7. Get prices on new A/C units for the sanctuary
  8. Show the building to potential renters for a wedding
  9. Run a church counsel meeting
  10. etc

But preaching, this is where I tell people what they should believe and how they should live.  How the heck can an atheist preach in a conservative evangelical church?

With much difficulty.

However, the Bible is a very versatile document (or rather collections of documents).  While I may not believe in it’s stories, that doesn’t mean I don’t think people can learn and benefit from these stories.  There are grand themes of scripture that I think our culture can benefit from.

  • The Bible loves the underdog.  Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Gideon, David, Jesus, et al.  There is no room for biblicaly minded people to be elitist.
  • Sacrificial love.  We can see the impact of Ghandi and MLK, the world could use more love and less revenge.
  • Forgiveness
  • Humility a la “The Tax Collector and the Pharisee”
  • Confidence even with there is little cause for hope.  “Faith the size of the mustard seed can move mountains”
  • Hospitality – Turning water into wine, feeding the 5,000
  • Care for the poor, the widow, the orphan, the alien, the prisoner, the “other”
  • Community
  • Charity
  • Love of enemy and neighbor

In essence I preach the best of the Christian life, drawing upon Christian spirituality as motivation.  In many ways my sermons are very Humanist friendly.  But alas, they obviously cannot be secular.  I do preach and teach that Christ was sacrificed for the sins of mankind.  That salvation comes only through the blood of Christ.  That it is the Holy Spirit who gives us strength to love God and others.  That it doesn’t matter how hard we work, grace is given to us because we are sinners and not because we are holy.  I preach an evangelical gospel.  Conservative Christian Humanism is probably the best way to describe my sermons.  Which leads to obvious problems.

Since I cannot contradict the conservative faith, I must allow the congregation to continue to believe in things that are morally repulsive to me such as Hell or “Traditional/Biblical Marriage”.  I also have to allow them to believe in things that are just plain stupid to me like Creationism or you know… the existence of an interventionist God.

HOW DO YOU HANDLE THE TOPIC OF HELL?

Even when I believed in Hell, I didn’t talk about it often.  I didn’t think scaring people into believing was an effective way to create loving disciples.  But the sense of final judgment is in fact a necessary element to Christian theology.  I speak of final judgment in more allusions and assumptions.  I’m far more likely to say “The only way to be saved is through faith in Christ” than I am to say “You will go to hell if you don’t believe in Jesus.”  The difference is subtle, but ask any orthodox believer and they’ll tell you I’m not giving the whole “truth”.

There is a saying, “The Gospel assumed, is the Gospel forgotten.”  I allow Hell to be assumed (and not contradicted) and to be the subtext of discussion on final Judgment.  This allows true believers to maintain their belief.  But by not teaching it explicitly, I’m not forcing people to believe in it explicitly.  Perhaps those not being told about it explicitly won’t hold to it too tightly.

But I’m still doing what I’ve always done.  When I must explicitly talk about Hell, it is most often as a reminder to those who are “saved” that they have no reason to feel superior to the “lost”, since the saved deserve Hell as much as the lost do.  Christian theology teaches that Christians deserve Hell, but are saved from it because of the work, love, and goodness of Jesus Christ.  Therefore Christians should have compassion on those who don’t believe since Christians are not different than them. “God wishes none to perish, but all to come to repentance.”  “Do you not know that it is God’s kindness that leads you to repentance.”  “God wishes all men to be saved.”

I use Hell as a tool to remind Christians to be humble when interacting with nonChristians.  After all, if Jesus loved and died for the Christian when they were the “enemy” of God, how then should we treat our enemies? (Romans 5)

HOW DO YOU HANDLE HOMOSEXUALITY?

Much like I handle Hell.  I quickly remind people that divorce is a violation of the same commandments, and divorce is far more likely to threaten your marriage than two men you’ll never meet who get married.  Even when I still believed, it always astounded me how quick Christians will excuse divorce but how virulent they’d attack gay marriage.  Hypocrisy!

When I was a believer, I firmly believed that the only thing a homosexual person could do to maintain a “relationship with God” was to remain celibate.  I very quickly realized that being gay wasn’t a choice and it wasn’t something you could just pray away.  But I also regularly preached in such away that straight Christians would see that being gay isn’t just about sex, it’s also about love.  We were asking gay men and women to never be loved like I can by my wife.  This was one of the big reasons I came to reject the bible as a moral authority.

Now what do I teach?  Nothing.  I’m a silent on this issue.  More silent than I am about Hell.  Since I’ve always thought American Christians were far too focused on this subject, I find plenty of other topics to preach on.  NOBODY is going to be happy with that answer.  Gay rights people will want me to explicitly teach acceptance, Christians want me to explicitly teach rejection.  If I preach acceptance I am instantly fired.  If I preach rejection and I won’t be able to live with myself.  If I was forced to preach a conservative message on “traditional marriage” I would just resign instead.  While I’m not doing much to combat bigotry, I refuse to actively promote it.  “The Gospel assumed is the Gospel forgotten.”  By not actively preaching on it, it will allow the wider culture to inform the views of more impressionable Christians.

WHAT ABOUT CREATIONISM VS. EVOLUTION?

Fortunately I had already rejected Young Earth Creationism.  I had also always taught that it doesn’t matter how old someone thinks the Earth, a Christian is defined by belief in Christ and not their view on Gen 1.  It’s interesting to note that prior to Darwin, there were some very famous Christians who believed that Genesis 1 was not a literal account of creation.

DO YOU TEACH THE BIBLE IS THE WORD OF GOD?

Yes I do.  In fact, I actively promote reading it all the way through.  I have yet to read 1 book on atheism written by an atheist, but I’ve read the Bible multiple times.  That was enough to disabuse me of my faith.  The Bible, especially the Old Testament, is the best book for creating atheists.  I don’t even need to try, I just read the book and say “yep, this happened” and it’s usually so repulsive to people, that they stop reading it.  It’s that odd moment where being biblically faithful actually makes me feel good about what it might do to someone’s faith.

Church member: Pastor, did God just threaten to kill babies and have the women raped?

Me: Yes He did.  If Israel would not return to God, that meant God wouldn’t protect Israel from her enemies.  And these enemies, by the will of God, would over take Jerusalem.  Armies being armies, they’d kill the men and the children, rape the women and take some as wives.

Church member: Why would God do that?

Oh, because that’s how God loves his children.  And welcome to the path towards atheism.

Do you have any other question about how I preach or what I preach on?  Ask in the comments below, and I’ll try to respond.

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17 thoughts on “FAQ #5: So What Do You Preach?

  1. I’d hate to be in your position, having to preach what you don’t believe. That would be excruciating. I don’t know how you can stand it!

    1 It is sometimes possible to use a form of words that distances yourself from what you are preaching. “The Bible tells us that…” or “Jesus said…” can be used to this effect. (I used it on one occasion – I won’t say which – when I was induced to read a passage from a prayer book. It was one of those occasions where an absolute refusal would have created a scene. Therefore, I read the passage. However, whenever I came across words that I disagreed with, I said, “The words say…” I said that quite a lot, but I didn’t walk out and spoil the occasion.)

    2 Surely it’s possible to say this in answer to this question:

    Church member: Pastor, did God just threaten to kill babies and have the women raped?

    Pastor: Well, the Bible says that if Israel would not return to God, God wouldn’t protect Israel from her enemies. And these enemies would over take Jerusalem. Armies being armies, they’d kill the men and the children, rape the women and take some as wives. That is horrific, but that is what happens in wartime.

    Church member: Why would God allow that to happen?

    Pastor: I don’t know, but I do know that this is the kind of thing that happens in wartime. And if it’s any help, I also wrestle with questions like this. Passages like this don’t allow any simplistic answers, I’m afraid.

    3 Would it be possible to subtly change your preaching so that it said this:

    I do preach and teach that the Bible tells us that Christ was sacrificed for the sins of mankind and that salvation comes only through the blood of Christ. The Bible says that it is the Holy Spirit who gives us strength to love God and others. That it doesn’t matter how hard we work, grace is given to us because we are sinners and not because we are holy.

    This would still be an evangelical gospel, but it would come from the Bible and not you. And I don’t think anyone would object. After all, that is the kind of wording that Billy Graham used!

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      • Subtle changes of phrasing are more than semantic games. Let’s take the matter of divorce. The Bible says many things about it. See point 4 in http://atheistfoundation.org.au/article/the-bible-humbug-and-horror/ If you were to teach about divorce, I hope you would take advantage of the let-out clauses in Matthew and 1 Corinthians rather than the flat prohibitions in Mark and Luke. I think it would be more helpful (and honest) to say that the prohibition of divorce in Mark and Luke has been tempered by the other texts.

        Similarly with the creation stories, I believe it is only honest to point out that if they are taken literally they contradict. You can also say, with complete honesty, that faithful Christian scholars have known this for many hundreds of years, and the conclusion that they came to was not to reject the stories but to realise that they are not meant to be taken literally. (It’s like the story of the Good Samaritan. It would be nice to think that there actually was one, but whether or not that is so, the message is still the same.)

        Of course, silence is golden. Just like the priests who avoid talking about the prohibition on birth control, Protestants can avoid talking about the castration text in Matthew 19 (except to explain it away when necessary).

        Of course there are people who would object to such teaching as being too liberal, but you can’t please everybody.

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  2. Think about your departure, and preach to that. In other words, go over the importance of trying to understand and care for those who disagree with you, because your congregation will soon be forced to do just that. If your lesson takes hold, you will still be seen as a good and resourceful person. If not, you will encounter great contempt and anger.

    You said you didn’t preach about hell because you didn’t think fear should be or makes much of a motivator, at least not in the long run. That reminds me of reading profiles for these dating services where some women say they want a “God-fearing man.” WTF? Tremble at the thought? Do the right thing because you’re scared? That remark alone tells me that the woman’s IQ is quite questionable. Next.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Dear Reverend No Faith,

    First off, thank you for your honesty and vulnerability. I have a very similar background to yours (former pastor, free thinker etc.) and have all but completely rejected the church. Several years ago I went through a very similar process to yours however ended up coming to very different conclusions than you have. In no way do I condemn your conclusions, in fact I have read every single blog post you have written and introduced a number of former pastors to your blog as I find it refreshing and fascinating.

    Several years ago I started listening to material from well known atheists. Most of them have come as a result of the fact that I listen to Penn Jillette’s podcast. So I’ve extensively listened to Hitchens, James Randi, Ryan Bell etc. I actually listen to more atheists than Christians these days.

    I say all of this to preface my question for you so that you know where I am coming from: I am not your typical Christian (I don’t even know if I would call my self a “Christian”). When I ask the following question please do not sluff this off as some moron who’s stuck in a cultural bubble. I am a former pastor who has not attended church of any kind for nearly 10 years. I am also not some crazy dude who preps for the end times etc. I’m just a pretty normal guy like you who cusses a lot and drinks an inordinate amount of microbrews and whiskey…Ah the whiskey. I also have found a successful career outside of the ministry. I will address that in a separate email but suffice it to say, you DO have marketable skills. You just need to market them correctly.

    So here is my question: I have read every single post on this blog. I keep reading sentences like this: “But the sense of final judgment is in fact a necessary element to Christian theology.” and “It’s interesting to note that prior to Darwin, there were some very famous Christians who believed that Genesis 1 was not a literal account of creation.” and “Tell me what’s easier to believe: A loving God watched this happened and did nothing because of some fucking plan, or… or… that water is dangerous?”

    I may be missing something but what I hear over and over in your reasoning for not believing in a God is a specific cultural understanding of Christianity and from a VERY specific viewpoint of how the Bible should be read and what part it plays in the life of a Christian. In fact I see a very Anabaptist based view of Christianity. The question is, why is it all or nothing as opposed to a different kind of faith?

    The older I get the more I have come to believe that if you look at the Bible, not as Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth (gag!), but rather as a collection of writings pertaining to how a specific group of people interacted with God in a given time period, I see something striking: God (who never changes) Changes his interaction with humans.

    Just like you interacted with your children differently at age 2 than you would with an adult child, he continues to evolve how he interacts with human beings. In a society that didn’t even have a concept of the number zero and were sacrificing their children to the equivalent of totem poles, God would need to reveal himself differently than to a society that as every bit of human knowledge in their pocket and understand in detail string theory.

    This thinking is radically different than the traditions I grew up in. Some would even think it a tad bit universalist, but again i have to ask this question: Why the jump from God to No God, as opposed to alternate expressions of faith, considering that many of those alternate versions may actually give you as much reason and comfort as atheism.

    Please understand I am in NO WAY trying to change your thinking, but rather understand your perspective as I think of my self as a reasonably intelligent human being, who asked the same questions and come to some very different conclusions.

    BTW. The more I read your blog the more I cannot WAIT for you to come out, because if my suspicions are correct we may live in similar parts of the country and I would LOVE to buy you a beer and hear all of the things you could not write in this blog. If you would be open to free beer.

    In conclusion, I won’t lie, I won’t be praying for you. But I do think fondly of you and your family and wish you only the best! If you would like more info on my transition between Pastoral Vocation and the career I now have, let me know and I’ll share anything I can!

    Thanks again for you honesty and bravery! it is truly inspiring!

    Chris Cochran christophercochran@gmail.com

    >

    Liked by 2 people

    • The irony of your question is that I spent all morning writing FAQ #6 on this very topic. I’m hoping to get it published tomorrow. I hope it answers your questions. Thanks so much for your support, for reading, and for sharing.

      Out of curiosity, what part of the country are you from. Obviously I can neither confirm nor deny where I’m from, but if you do live close, then you might get an email from me. I can be bribed by free beer.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Funny, I saw that post and was unsure if it was coincidence, or if I had encouraged it. I live in Seattle. I assume since you have only 2 breweries in your town and there is a local “celebrity pastor” you live in a fairly small town. If you are not in the NW, then I’ll just wait until your book tour and buy you a beer at that time!

        Also if you want to discuss marketable skills for former pastors, etc. email me, I can give you some tips that worked for me.

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    • Well, CC, I hope we haven’t heard the last of you. You bring a very different point of view, and ask some tough questions, which I haven’t fully understood on the first reading. I came to my atheism, little by little, over 50 years ago, so I haven’t been too concerned in recent decades about the “truth” of rejecting all religions. I have been more concerned about being stoned by some love-thy-neighbor types however, so I am glad to see the clan is growing and speaking out. We even have an atheist group here at Fort Bragg, and they managed to get Dawkins to come speak, so “atheists in foxholes” are now recognized as here to stay. Whoopee.

      Then I see that you listen to Penn and James Randi, among others, and I have to urge you to do more than that. Go see them, and the horde that gathers every year in Vegas. Actually, I just remembered that this is Randi’s last year of speaking at JREF, but Penn and Teller will almost certainly be there for years to come. And Dawkins came to one of those some years back. Anyway, they have some great sessions. About two years ago, James and Jamy Ian Swiss took about fifty of us on a cruise to see the “end of the world” in Belize. That was fun….all those earthquakes, volcanoes….wow. Anyway, that trip, and getting to be so close to Randi for a week, will be one of the brightest highlights of my life, so I will urge all of you who are participating in this to do more than be passive partners. Get involved. You won’t believe how many talented and bright, and nice and honest, people you will meet.

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  4. Hope you don’t mind a theological question. I sometimes ponder the differences between Christian sects, in particular the difference between the Lutheran faith of my youth and evangelicalism. For whatever reason this post brought a particular topic to mind. Luther’s Catechism had the concept of the “Office of the Keys”, which meant that the clergy had the power to either grant or withhold divine forgiveness. Does evangelicalsm have an equivalent? If so, how does that get implemented within your church?

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  5. On a positive note, the Bible can become far more interesting when you view it as a human document. Here are some examples:

    In Matthew 1, the genealogy contains the name of four women. That is extraordinary in itself, but it becomes more extraordinary each of these four women had a sexually questionable past. Tamar seduced her own father-in-law, Judah, and thus became the mother of all the Jews! Rahab was a prostitute, who let the Hebrew spies out of Jericho and who saved herself and her family from the genocide that followed. Ruth a young widow, spent the night in the barn with a man who later became her husband. And finally, Bathsheba had an adulterous relationship with King David.

    Why does Matthew refer to these four women? And why, by quoting Isaiah 7:14 does he allude to what Isiaah did next, when, according to the Bible, he took witnesses and then conceive a child with the “prophetess” (Isaiah 8:1-4)?

    How can you establish a virgin birth with this parade of sexual shenanigans?

    You can’t of course, but that’s not the point. The point demonstrates that Jewish critics of Jesus’ birth (pregnancy out of wedlock) have got it all wrong, for if Jesus is illegitimate, so is the royal lineage of King David (descended from a Moabite) and so are all the Jews (all descended from Tamar who seduced her own father-in-law). Could it be that this story is a counter-attack on those who criticised Jesus’ uncertain paternity?

    And what about the Good Samaritan? Jesus was called a Samaritan because of the circumstances of his birth. (John 8:48) Understand that simple fact, and the parable of the Good Samaritan becomes a highly political story, and an attack on the priests and levites who notoriously passed by on the other side when they saw a wounded man.

    Or what about Sarah and Hagar. In Genesis 21:9 Sarah catches Hagar’s son Ishmael playing with Isaac. But the word is used to describe sexual play as in Exodus 32 6. With this simple fact we can see that when Sarah went ballistic it could well have been for that reason. Follow that line and the harsh actions of both Sarah but also of Hagar towards Ishmael in Exodus 32:15-16 becomes understandable. Anyway the story tells us that at the end, Ishmael’s mother finds a wife for him. One can take from this the message that even though children do some pretty confronting things, they can turn their lives around – if they have support.

    In 1 Samuel 2, Hannah rejoices in her long-awaited pregnancy, but the anger she expresses in the verse is something to behold! See verse 1 and see what she says about women who have many children (like her co-wife) in verse 5. The jealousy and hatred revealed about this plural marriage is an object lesson and a warning!

    Is the Bible full of violence and hatred? Of course! But its most difficult books can sometimes be shown as teaching a subversive message that you would not expect.

    It’s well known that Job can be read as an attack on the notion of God’s goodness, but the Book of Judges, which is so violent, can be read as a crypto-feminist attack on male violence and cruelty (In Judges 1:14, a smart woman negotiates to get the water springs in the Negev. In Judges 4:21-22 it is a woman who slays a famous warrior. In Judges 7:5, the men sent to fight are the ones who lapped water like dogs. In Judges 11, Jephthah’s daughter becomes the innocent victim of a literalist interpretation of taking an ill-considered vow. Significantly, in verses 39 and 40 we are told that this woman’s fate was commemorated each year for four days by the daughters of Israel. In Judges 19 and 20, the notorious story of the Levite’s concubine (should be the concubine’s Levite) shows an abusive relationship, and how a violent man was able to manipulate her death to slaughter one of the tribes of Israel.

    Read the Bible through secular eyes. Don’t look for disproof texts. Just read it as a human book. Then watch it come alive in all sorts of unexpected ways. Not all of the ways will be things you could discuss from the pulpit, but some are, and the last sermons you give could take on a new freshness and relevance.

    Liked by 3 people

    • You had me all the way up until “crypto-feminist”. LOL, actually your perspective on the Bible has been what keeps it interesting for me. While I have read other so-called holy text, I’ve been thinking about rereading them from this same perspective.

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      • Read Judges 4. consider the actions of Deborah and Jael.
        Then Read Judges 5:27 and note who bowed to whom.
        In Judges 9, Abimelech turns for support not to his father’s family but to his mother’s family.
        In Judges 9, 53 and 54, Abimelech shows what a sexist fool he was.
        Then put these texts together with the texts I have already quoted and ask yourself if this only happened by accident.

        I think that a clever woman may have written much of the book of Judges, just as freethinkers wrote Ecclesiastes and Job, and whoever wrote 1 Samuel portrayed David as having a love affair with Jonathan.

        There’s more going on in the Bible than most churchgoers would even suspect. I think much of the Old Testament may have been cobbled together from essentially secular writings, but topped and tailed with enough piety to fool the believers. Even so, quite a bit of useful stuff can be recycled for use in the pulpit.

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