Should We Condemn Non-Believing Ministers?

I'm republishing this post. Some Christians don't understand why a non-believing minister stays in the ministry. See what I wrote about this here. Some doubt that it’s from a real person, but I assure you it is. I’m being asked why I did not condemn this minister, and I don't. Since there are several ex-ministers here, what are your thoughts?


John W. Loftus said...

My answer:

Life has a way of helping us all realize how difficult is it to tell someone else what he or she should do in such situations. The older we get the more we will face troubling circumstances and conflicting obligations ourselves.

Since I believe that a person's motivations for his or her behavior are irrelevant to assessing whether he or she is doing right, then this minister who doubts his or her faith may not be doing anything wrong.

After all, he or she is still comforting the afflicted, offering hope to those in the pews, etc. It would all depend upon his or her internal conflicts and whether he or she thinks they will be resolved. It depends on how long it persists, and what ethical view they hold to (as I described above).

I know a Christian Seminary professor friend I was having conversations with, who agreed with my assessment of Christianity on the whole. But he continued to teach anyway

Then one day I received an email from him cutting off our conversation by saying he had just recommitted his life to Christ.

Who knows what'll happen, right?

Jason said...

This is an ethically gray area. The preacher has an interesting opportunity to use Straussian esotericism to wean the intellectually fit away from Christianity. However, Strauss' deceptive methods have made him and his disciples unpopular in some circles. All I can say at this point is that I'm glad I'm not in that preacher's shoes.

exbeliever said...

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John W. Loftus said...

Let me give you an analogy. But you'd have to experience it before you can understand it, and many of the younger crowd will not be able to do this.

Let's say you fell out of love with your spouse. What do you do? Do you instantly divorce her? No. The divorce would really hurt your kids and the people around you. So you try to work it out, going to a counselor if possible. But nothing changes.

There are a great many marriages that stay together for appearances sake. The charade of it all is better for all involved than a divorce.

And I am not in a position to judge. After all, many marriages go through cycles and revive themselves, just like ministers do who doubt the very faith they are to exemplify.

Boy, if a minister had to step down every time he or she doubted, then for several of them it would be an up and down and up and down experience.

But if I was convinced that my marriage was over, or if I was convinced that Christianity was false, I would make plans to leave as soon as I could.

And herein lies the rub. How can I tell from one e-mail where this minister is in the faith? I cannot. The call is not mine to make. Maybe plans are being made. Maybe the nail is not yet in the coffin. I don't know. So I don't judge. But I do believe this person is rational enough to make his or her own decisions, just like I was.

Condemnation however, is something Christians repeatedly do, and this is something I am repulsed at, if for no other reason but that they judge others so very quickly before walking a mile in their moccasins.

Imago phileos said...

Wise words John W.

Karl Barth, the prolific 20th century philosopher/evangelical theologian, states

"No theologian, whether young or old, pious or less pious, tested or untested, should have no doubt that they in some way are also a doubter."

When I was a Christian, I was able to discuss my doubts openly with my Christian community, and I would be supported, emotionally and logically.
As an atheist now, I have yet to find a fellow atheist that ever openly doubts thier atheism. We all seem so sure that we are right, with no humility about our opinions. Do any of you doubt you stance, cause I quite honestly and openly do.

Amy said...

John, thank you for your understanding. I'm posting to say "John did not invent my quote. I am a minister who continues to pastor a church despite the realization and reality that I am no longer believe in God." I did not choose to stop believing in God, neither can I now choose to renew my faith. For years I absolutely believed in God, the Bible as his Word, and devoted my life to spreading the Gospel; I would have died rather than deconvert. But like many other Christians, once I began to ask the hard questions about Christianity, I gradually awakened to the truth. Had I kept my mind shut down, I would still be a theist.

For many reasons it's not possible to leave my church at this time, yet I still have more peace than I've had in years. John, I appreciate knowing I'm in good company; thanks so much for this blog.

Jason said...

"Do any of you doubt you stance, cause I quite honestly and openly do."

I've been around the block long enough to be fairly confident that I'm right. I haven't doubted atheism in any substantial way pretty much since I rejected Christianity. It's not that I'm being dogmatic - I'm willing to doubt if there's reason to - it's just that it's such a strong position.

Paul Manata said...

you support lying and stealing, John.

Immorality and bad charachter are okay in a non-believer but not in a believer, huh John?

Anyway, what about that debate?

DagoodS said...

I have gotten to know (on-line) two pastors who continued in their church, despite being atheists. One eventually could not do it, and quit. The other continues to this day (as far as I know.) Each person is different. Each church is different. Each church’s need(s) are different.

There is quite a bit in the Bible about good moral living. I could easily see someone preach out of it for the rest of their life on the morals therein. Funny that the question is how honest this would be—to never preach on the deity. It is in the pragmatic field that Christianity is a titanic failure; maybe more preaching in that regard and less on the deity is needed!

I am familiar with pastors who had affairs with members of their church, pastors who are addicted to internet porn, pastors who are crack addicts, pastors who embezzled 100,000’s of dollars from their churches, pastors who beat their wives and children, pastors who frankly aren’t qualified to lead a hiking party, let alone a church, yet they remain in the ministry. They are allowed because they can be “forgiven” for being a human sinner.

An atheistic pastor who teaches the pragmatic side of Christianity could be a relief.

Sandalstraps said...

I agree that some good, at least in the life of the church, could come from an atheist pastor. But I would have to wonder about that pastor's long-term mental health.

I am still a Christian, but my faith has changed. When I was a pastor my doubts really affected the way in which I related to my family and my congregation. My position required me to preach on things which I no longer found plausible. I felt like I was living a lie.

That double life - even though there was no moral component to it - was not sustainable. To that end, I would worry for a pastor who was a closet atheist.

Homosexuals have long known that closeting your fundamental identity - the way in which you idenitfy your very self - can do serious harm.

Of course, given the way in which I was grilled by my church, I would worry even more for an outed atheist in the pulpit. If Bible thumpers got mad at me because I disagreed with their definition of God, how much more angry would they get at someone who denied God altogether?

An additional question: Is the "unbelieving minister" having a temporary crisis of doubt (I say "crisis" here not implying that doubt necessarily implies distress, but saying that to experience doubt while pastoring a church certainly produces distress), or do they now have the heartfelt conviction that there really is no God - or at least not the kind of God that their church is selling?

If pastors were never permitted to doubt or question their faith, then they are never permitted to grow.

I've long held that if there is a God, then God is totally independent of our beliefs about God (by this I am including the belief that there is no God). As such when we doubt or question God, we are not doubting or questioning God as God, but rather only the ideas about God which we have encountered.

If there is a God independent from these ideas, then surely that God would not be threatened when we grapple with the ideas. In fact, God might want us to get rid of all the ideas as they are currently stated, since

a.) they aren't working anymore, and

b.) they aren't God, but just our ideas about God.

Of course to many theists this sounds like total nonsense. I wonder how it sounds to atheists.

Democracy Lover said...

It seems to be that the role of a Pastor is to teach, to provide comfort to the afflicted, to counsel those in crisis and to serve as an administrator for the local congregation. None of these roles require one to believe anything specific about God. (Talk to your local Unitarian Universalist minister by the way.)

The only areas that are problematic are preaching/teaching and presiding over the liturgy if your denomination has one. In the latter case, I think you would find that many priests in liturgical denominations (Episcopalian for example) do not believe literally in the Nicene Creed, but encourage their members to interpret it for themselves and to experience the liturgy rather than endow it with magical qualities.

As for preaching/teaching, there is much in the gospels that is worthwhile fodder for teaching ethical living and one can quite easily discuss the meaning of the passage independent of its historical and scientific veracity.

I see no problem with clergy who are "unbelievers", unless they pretend to believe and teach/preach things they don't believe. I'm not sure either is necessary and certainly I don't think lack of belief disqualifies one from leading a group of people toward more responsible, ethical living.

Brother Crow said...

You can guess some of my thoughts on this, because I too am a former minister who struggled with belief and eventually deconverted. You can read my tale in this blog site, and even read some comments about it.

I have so many ideas on this, it is so big my head spins and I don't know where to start. First, I am very cynical about the educational system in our country, and the culture of work that demands that a twenty-something year old (who is little more than a bag of overheated sexual hormones) make what will be a life-changing decision about a career at such a young age. Huge amounts of time, energy and money are committed to a course of action that (in my humble observation) leads many to very unhappy career paths.

Most ministers become ministers by graduating from college and attending seminary. Personal maturity, theological reasoning and self-knowledge (much less depth of knowledge about the issues of life) are overlooked in favor of grooming them for ecclesiastical leadership.

After years of dealing with real life, these ministers often find themselves of being unable to embrace much of the doctrine they espouse...but what to do? How do you discount years of education, money spent, time spent, career identity, and even personal identity? Well, you don't discount that! You can't, because it won't go away and leave you alone.

There are many "non-believing" ministers out there...witness Ted Haggard. Regardless of what he says, he did not believe - at least not what he says he believed. I never personally knew one that did, and I knew hundreds (some of them with name recognition). Because there are other skills that are sought in congregational leaders, it is easy to hide the dissolution of belief.

Finally (for now) a word about "HONESTY." I am with Pilate - "what is truth?" Not that honesty is overrated, but honesty about something as subjective as faith and belief is about as slippery as a dog trying to eat jello. Honesty changes, because people change (not honesty about what happened, but honesty about why it happened, etc.). Can a minister struggle with, or even embrace, non-belief and be honest if he chooses to stay in the career? Probably not, but that does not discount his/her experience and does not evaluate their motives.


Joseph said...

Great comments all around. My family has DEEP roots in the church and in public ministry, spanning back well over a century. Hence, I am still very much involved in my church, though I have taken more of a step back in some aspects of ministry since my faith crisis began. Will many of the Christians and atheist who visit here understand why I attend church regularly with my wife and participate in the life of the congregation? Maybe, but I'm doubtful. That's ok. You don't have to understand. I do. When it comes down to it, I still believe that the church (or at least my church) does a lot of good in folks' lives and I'm happy to be a part of the positive aspects of that. It is a warm, loving, and supportive fellowship.

So here's a question for everyone: am I still a Christian? Or have I ceased to be because my faith has given way to doubt? I think that in many ways I still am a Christian, namely because I was baptized into Christ and have a deep respect for the spiritual and social values that Christ taught. Having said that, I am definitely more comfortable with a skeptic's hat on these days than an evangelical's. I no longer walk lock-step with the doctrine, dogma, and apologetics of fundamentalist Christians. I am more apt to give a frank opinion about thorny theological problems like the problem of evil, inerrancy, and the atrocities of the Old Testament.

Here's some more food for thought: many of the great thinkers of science (Galileo, comes to mind) were Christians, but did not adhere to the dogma of the church. Even Voltaire didn't consider himself to be a complete atheist (he believed in a deistic God, but thought the Bible was a lot of nonsense). They brilliant men and women had to do and say certain things to survive in their particular religious climate (as do many of the ministers who participate in this forum), but their writings and work reflected a more thoughtful side of them. Were they being hypocrites or simply choosing Jesus' favorite tactic, i.e. "wise as serpents, harmless as doves"?

Prup (aka Jim Benton) said...

A fascinating discussion. I may not be qualified to add much, but I can't help trying.

One thing that struck me was the minister's name, "Amy." If this is truly her name, then she is obviously not a minister in one of the more noxious types of evangelical-fundamentalist Christianities, which would not permit a woman to preach. (Interestingly enough, I saw a discussion -- I think by Ehrman -- arguing that this was a later interpolation into Paul's Epistle by someone such as Tertullian -- that Paul's recommendation of women as his 'ambassadors' makes it highly unlikely he would have prohibited a woman from preaching.)

I think the denomination matters greatly in this discussion, and the concepts that the preacher feels required to teach. Like many atheists, I find much to admire in Jesus' teaching (and in the Old Testament, much as I blast it). I could not, myself, teach much of it -- mostly because so many of the ideas come from the belief in the impending "new age." But I could not condemn someone who did.

But if, as a 'requirement of the job' the preacher had to teach the more malevolent ideas that have crawled into Christianity, ideas that are truly damaging to the listener such as homophobia, salvation through faith alone, biblical inerrancy, or the fear of hell for basically innocuous actions -- perhaps even the fear of hell alone, then I might have different thoughts.

So let me ask two questions of Amy (and Joseph, and Brother Crow, and John and Joe and the other ex-ministers here.)

1) How much attention did you give to the effect that doctrines you felt required to preach would have upon those who believed them?

2) At what point did you feel it necessary to 'draw the line,' and say "I can't teach that doctrine because it is not only untrue, but it hurts those who believe it"?

Joseph said...

"1) How much attention did you give to the effect that doctrines you felt required to preach would have upon those who believed them?"

A lot. One of the things that motivated me to get into the ministry as a new Christian the preaching I had been raised under--it was fear-based and put up walls between people--and that in my estimation was defeating the cause of Christ. I think I preached a total of two sermons on hell early on in my ministry. I preached against women working outside of the home for a time, until I realized I was just parroting the convictions of my own mother. I preached against homosexuality before I met real live, walking, talking gays for myself and became aware that much of what I had believed about them was off by a mile. Oh yeah, and I preached a series on the Flood of Noah and how it explained the Geologic Column. After a few years of this, I felt more like an activist than a pastor ministering to people's needs. This is not to say that there haven't been plenty of church members who would've loved to hear more sermons damning evolution and exploring the dangers of hellfire. I just didn't see it as the best way to motivate people to live the Christian life.

"2) At what point did you feel it necessary to 'draw the line,' and say 'I can't teach that doctrine because it is not only untrue, but it hurts those who believe it'?"

That question is harder to answer definitively. I have gone back and forth on what to preach positively for/against and what to simply AVOID preaching altogether. I found the latter to be a much easier alternative when it came to subjects on which I was divided. I, for one, did not think it profitable to anyone to use this position to undermine the Bible and the Christian faith. Nor could I manage the cognitive dissonance of preaching dogma that I didn't believe (i.e. if you aren't baptized or don't worship certain ways you are going to hell).

ReallyEvilCanine said...

John, I have to disagree with the divorce analogy because I don't see where keeping up appearances is protecting anybody in this situation. On the contrary, were this priest to make public his disbelief, it could spur others to give their own beliefs more careful consideration.

As to the original question, "Should we condemn non-believing ministers?", I condemn anyone who calls for engaging in war after having himself gone to great lengths to avoid military service. I condemn any homosexual politician for stirring up homophobia and proposing/passing anti-homosexual laws in order to get into office. I must also condemn the man who would continue to push others to believing falsehoods after he himself realises what he's saying can't be true.

I've been in a similar position, having had the rug pulled out from under me and finding out that everything I believed -- everything I knew to be true -- wasn't. Black was white, day was night, truth was a lie. It was extremely painful. Once I accepted the facts however, the pain subsided and I became better for it.

I'd rather live in a difficult world knowing the truth than in an easy one believing lies.

David said...

What was the flap about Mother Theresa? She doubted her faith or felt far away from God as I read (shamefully only headline reading here).

It would seem if you felt far away from God or doubted your faith, you could continue on doing your work simply to be found faithful when he returns. If you've decided God can't be real, I think you are doing yourself and the congregation a bit of a disservice. You should probably pull aside a trusted elder or deacon to talk about it. Maybe get some counseling to help crystalize your thoughts. Doubts are a normal part of the Christian life. Probably part of an atheist life too i would imagine (not looking to pick a fight here).

"So here's a question for everyone: am I still a Christian? Or have I ceased to be because my faith has given way to doubt?"

My opinion would be once you reach 'given way to doubt', you cease to be a Christian since you no longer seek or have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

Former_Fundy said...

This is one of those situations where it is very easy to judge if you have not been in the same boat. I have been in the same boat. ITs scary when you have a wife and kids and a mortgage and all of your education is in theology and there are no real job options for you. I carried on for a short while (two or three months) but I could not continue beyond that. Its hard on you psychologically to live a lie.

On the other hand, I could see how someone might rationalize that since God is not real anyway and these people are deluded, what does it hurt to continue the sham? I am not going to judge someone for doing this but I could not.

Prup (aka Jim Benton) said...

Former Fundy:
I think you may be doing the 'doubting ministers' a disservice here. I doubt if any of them reasoned "that since God is not real anyway and these people are deluded, what does it hurt to continue the sham?"

I would instead think that they felt that "I am doing good as a minister. The people I am talking to have certain beliefs that I must play into to continue to be able to reach them. If I leave, I'm likely to be replaced by someone who isn't going to be helpful because he really does share those beliefs."

It is a religious equivalent of the "Fulbright dilemma." For those of you who don't remember Sen. Fulbright, he was a great Senator, but he came from Arkansas, at the time a very racist state. He was not, himself, a racist, but he'd seen Arkansas Congressmen -- particularly Brooks Hays -- who fought the racism defeated, and replaced by the 'howling Neanderthal' types. He was, he knew, being one of the better Senators -- particularly in foreign affairs. He didn't want to see his seat occupied by the sort of idiot he knew would run against him in a primary. So he 'voted the right way' on racial matters, and even gave lip service to a mild racism to keep his seat. After 40 years, I'm still not sure if his decision was right or wrong, but I know it is the hardest decision an elected official must face.
I think the ministers we are talking about face the same thing in religious terms, and I am not surprised at those who make either decision.

Joseph said...

David, I have to play Devil's advocate here for a moment. Does 1 Timothy 2:13 says, "If we are faithless, he will remain faithful, for he cannot disown himself." So then a doubting minister, however lost he is in his doubt, is "faithless," correct? So, even if he is wrong, and the God of the Bible is correct, he has nothing to lose by exploring his doubts because God will save him regardless.

David said...


I think you're right about the Timothy passage (2nd Timothy). He has nothing to lose and actually much to gain by exploring his doubts. I feel my faith is stronger by hanging out around here or with my atheist buddy.

JZ said...

maybe non-believing ministers aren't necessarily non-believing. maybe they believe in mystery. maybe what they believe in is not concrete.

Former_Fundy said...


In my opinion the scenario you have laid out is certainly dishonest. If a pastor continues in a conservative church with the idea of converting them to atheism eventually, I find that frauduluent and dishonest.

Prup (aka Jim Benton) said...

Oh, my, did I really come across as saying THAT? If I did, it was simply poor writing. What I was trying to say is that a minister could see himself as doing good, and teaching his flock to be ethical and better human beings, by speaking to them in terms they understood, maybe adapting those terms in such a way as to bring out the good interpretations.
And I didn't even say that this was a preferred position. (It might in fact HAVE been better for Fulbright to confront the racism than to pay lip service to it. I described the choice as the most difficult one a politician could make.)

But, honestly, can't you see a situation where you -- a non-believer who hasn't revealed this by this scenario -- and a truly neanderthal preacher were the possible choices for a pastoral job. If you reveal your true beliefs, you soothe your conscience, but you know how destructive the alternate will be to people you have come to like. Again, I'm not sure which way to go, and a number of deconverted ministers here have said the same thing.