I Apologize for Thinking Independently October 20, 2008

I Apologize for Thinking Independently

David Hayward draws this cartoon:

Come to think of it, we rarely hear about Christians who disagree with their pastors — and dare to say so publicly.

If you used to be a Christian, did you ever call your pastor out on anything s/he said in church because it was wrong or misguided? (That is, before you became an atheist.)

Some of you reading this are current Christians.

Has anyone in your church criticized (with good intentions) your pastor to his/her face?

Is that something that ever goes on, is it kept on the down low, or does it never happen at all?

(via nakedpastor)

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  • A friend of mine still attends the Congregationalist church in New England that I grew up with. A couple of years ago, he told me about a case of talking back to the pastor, though not quite in the way you were asking.

    Apparently at a church committee meeting where the decision was put forth by the pastor to allow gays to attend the church if they so wished, one member ranted at the pastor and then stormed out, never to return.

    The non-discrimination motion was passed, btw.

  • I have questioned my pastor on several occasions. I have not done this publicly such as in the middle of a service or large business meeting. But, he and I have agreed to disagree on certain issues where we have very different perspectives and opinions, not necessarily about our faith but it can include issues related to Christianity such as interpretation of the Bible (literal vs. figurative/historical, etc.) and other issues.

  • g

    I was a Christian for many years, and quite often took issue with things clergy had said. They rarely seemed to mind — in fact, I think they generally appreciated it — though occasionally the response was basically “nope, you’re wrong, end of story”.

  • I have not attended a church in years (convenient as I no longer believe in any of the stuff I was taught as a child), but I have many friends and family who do.

    In the churches that I am familiar with, it is openly known that many in the congregation disagree with the clergy, no secret is made of it. However, I know of no cases where this has led to confrontations with the clergy over these disagreements.

    Although it’s probably not the sort of example that you were looking for, the current schisms in the Episcopalian church are due ot people confronting both the clergy and hierarchy when they disagree – of course, this is because they feel that the clergy and hierarchy are not relying enough on mindless dogma, so probably not quite what you were asking about.

  • sc0tt

    The guy on his knees looks like he doesn’t have any pants on.

  • I used to disagree with my youth pastors in high school rather frequently — but only because their theology didn’t match my mom’s. Since she had a master’s degree in Theology, she was frequently openly the voice of dissent in her churches, which caused her to switch churches every couple years.

    Come to think of it, my mom’s independent approach to theology and my desire to emulate that independent streak might have had something to do with my eventual distancing myself from Christianity.

  • HP

    I’m not a Christian, but my parents are, and this sort of thing goes on all the time. Where do you think all these myriad Protestant denominations come from? Why do you think small towns have so many churches?

    Protestant congregations are constantly splitting up and reforming. Congregants leave churches; pastors leave (or are asked to leave) churches.

    Most recently, in my old home town, one of the Lutheran churches formed a study group to look into The Jesus Seminar, with the pastor’s approval. About half the church left, and went to the other Lutheran church in town, about a quarter of which packed up their bags and went to the first church.

    So now, instead of two moderate Lutheran churches, the town now has a hardcore conservative Lutheran church and a touchy-feely liberal Lutheran church.

  • Polly

    Protestant congregations are constantly splitting up and reforming.

    Our church (if I can still say that) broke up when I was a kid, I believe. The other church is exactly across the street. They are literally less than 100 yards apart spatially, while the animosity used to set them worlds apart.

  • I remember once sitting in Bible class and the discussion was on the Book of Job. Why would God suggest to Satan that Satan could harm Job’s family? Why didn’t God destroy Satan right there and leave Job out of it?

    The preacher called me into his office a few days later and asked if I was still a Christian.

  • Rex

    It was a long, long time ago. About 1961, I think. I was 16 at the time. As a child I had been forced to go to Sunday school and Church at the local Methodist thing in small town Tennessee. The force was the implied, and often articulated threat of physical violence from my family. Note that they never went. On a warm spring day I said that I was not going to church that day.

    My uncle Peter had heard me make the statement before and pretty much had had enough of it and he was going to deliver on his oft made threat of violence. He came at me fists clenched. I was ready. A quick jab followed by a strong right hand set him on his ass, stunned. I told him if he got up I was going to put him in the hospital for a week. I made him sit there, in front of family for half an hour.

    That was the last time anybody in the family ever mentioned me going to church ever again. The incident is never talked about. Peter is gone now, but when I was about 30, he called me aside and sort of congratulated me for standing up for myself. We remained at least cordial to his death.

    I never confronted the hell-fire and damnation preacher. Right, Methodists don’t ordinarily do hell-fire and damnation, but this one did. My solution to the church was simply walk away. There was nothing to be accomplished by confronting him. Even then I knew that you cannot try and teach a pig to sing. It wastes your time and it bothers the pig.

    I’ve not been in a church since. I’ll not likely ever go again either.

  • Becky

    No…. but now I really regret not questioning everything at my private christian high school. Near the time of Jr/Sr. year I was starting to lose faith and questioned contradictions to my christian step-mom, mostly because she wasn’t a higher authority like in school, and the fear of being ostracized. I was a tad mean about it and I feel bad about it today. I wish I was a bit more rational back then. 🙁

  • Wow, nice comments. And the stories! I’m a pastor of a church. My experience with pastors being questioned, by me, has been largely negative. And to admit it, as a pastor, it is a challenge to invite and embrace diversity of thought within one community. But if you believe in unity with diversity rather than homogeneity, then you have no choice. And it makes for a richer community when this works. Thanks for showing my cartoon.

  • Pseudonym

    I’ve never been to, or even sat in, a church where the clergyperson wielded any form of unquestioned authority whatsoever. Or, indeed, much political authority at all.

    And it’s not just churches which use the word “pastor”, having been to quite a few Lutheran services.

    I must say, of all the stories here, Rex’s shocks me most of all. A hell-fire-and-damnation Methodist?! I can’t get my head around that one. Good on you for leaving.

  • chancelikely

    I grew up in a UMC, and one of the two youth leaders was a hellfire-and-brimstone sort in training. (The other was your typical Methodist sort.) Anyway, they do exist, just not in number. There are Methodist churches everywhere, so a Methodist who doesn’t fit can usually find a Baptist or Reformed or Screaming Fundie congregation where he’s more at home.

    Anyway, I’d say, and I imagine there are a lot of other atheists out there who’d have the same experience, that my open disagreements were basically the last stage before my leaving. (Well, not really. I wasn’t allowed to leave until I was out of the house. But my mental leaving of the church happened shortly after a series of disagreements with the pastor.)

  • Has anyone in your church criticized (with good intentions) your pastor to his/her face?

    Is that something that ever goes on, is it kept on the down low, or does it never happen at all?

    It was a regular and expected part of the weekly gathering both in the church I used to lead as well as the one where I currently attend that folks would speak up during the sermon and publicly disagree with the pastor. It’s no fun if everyone just agrees.

  • Catherine

    There can be a surprising amount of bickering between pastors and their congregations. I’ve never personally seen it over theology though (although I know it does happen). Most of the drama seems to be generated over differences in how the church is run.

    One of the churches I grew up in actually ceased to exist after a bunch of people left because they didn’t along with the pastor (she could be a very unpleasant person to work with)

  • Autumnal Harvest

    I think this one depends a lot on the specific church (as the comments show). I know you asked about Christian churches, but I’ll mention that my (limited) experience with Reform Jewish synagogues is that people there definitely can question the rabbi. He or she is (hopefully) respected as a knowledgable teacher, but certainly not regarded as unquestionable. (Since the synagogues I visited regarded Moses as a respected, but not unquestionable, teacher, it’s hardly surprising they felt free to question the rabbis.)

    P.S. Pseudoynm, I don’t know if you remember, but thank you for your previous Holloway reading suggestion. It was excellent. (If perhaps a little disorienting.)

  • GERG

    When I was in my early teens my mother switched us from a Presbeyterian church to a Baptist church (New Jersey cuddly baptist, not weirdo southern baptist). As far as I could tell they were pretty much the same in every way as the old church except one: they wouldn’t let the children take communion. It’s that whole baptized as an adult thing.

    I told the pastor that this wasn’t fair and didn’t make any sense. First of all the previous church let me take communion. If we’re all Christians then what’s the difference? Secondly I quoted the new testament passage about the adults who wouldn’t let the little children “come unto me” (only now to I see the creepiness in that story, but I digress). I told the pastor that his preventing me from taking the communion was just as bad as those people in the bible keeping kids away from Mr. Jesus.

    He allowed me to take communion. So maybe it was OK from his point of view because I had already at least been baptized as a baby, but I still count it as a victory. I was never that strong in my faith, it was the principle of the thing.

    It was only a couple years later that I stopped going to church entirely. I suppose what I really learned from that confrontation was that I COULD question not only the authority figures, but the logic of the whole religion. And another Atheist was born!

  • Awesomesauce

    I believe administering electric shocks every time one of us sheep strays from the flock ought to cure our heathen questions.

    Hell, I’d convert.

  • Seth C.

    Fortunately, when I was in high school and especially now that I’m in college, I’ve had pretty good people, including my youth pastor, to discuss and form my theology with.

    However, the current pastor of the church of my high school years told me that if I kept thinking the way I was thinking, I was going to end up in hell one day after reading a paper I wrote on the book of Daniel. I basicially said that the first six chapters of Daniel are myth/metaphors and that the last six were prophecy recorded after the fact up until about the death of Antiochus IV Epiphanies. At that point, it “predicts” his death happening in the wrong location and by the wrong causes.

    It just goes to show you, Liberal theology will scare the hell out of a fundie any day and because it does, they’ll try to condemn to a place that has very fuzzy connections in the Hebrew and Christian Bible.

  • At first I was tempted to laugh at this comic and even post it on my blog. But then I realized that in my experience it’s not really true. I was only in one church where you probably would have been kicked out or at least ostracized for disagreeing with the pastor. Christians disagree with their pastors all the time — quite often over theology — and many change churches frequently because of these types of disagreements. And my family left the church I mentioned here because we disagreed with their draconian theology. Unfortunately, many who have disagreements over and over again — often spanning decades — never come to the conclusion that they disagree with the entire religion, they keep saying things like “we can’t blame Jesus for the imperfections of his followers” or come up with other reasons why it’s all of the individual pastors who are wrong about details, but the core of the Christian message (whatever that is), is still the absolute truth.

  • steve

    Sure. There was this one time I got eviscerated for doing an interview with a friendly atheist at my church. Glad I still have my job. 🙂

  • Ryan

    Yeah, I’d have to agree with the consensus here that this comic is really not true. I’ve stated disagreements with various pastors and other Christian leaders over the years and never gotten a response like “nope, you’re wrong”. They’ve always been able to explain why the belief/action is why it is, and although I’m not always convinced for myself, I can always at least see where they’re coming from enough that we can agree to disagree on those issues.

  • Anonnie Mouse

    I grew up AOG, Vineyard and Four Square, and from my limited experience questioning one’s pastor was not looked kindly upon. Asking scriptural questions regarding interpretation was one thing, but outright challenging the dogma– however politely– would get a person snubbed. Worse yet, labeled “backslider/lukewarm.”

  • Stephan

    I’m in the middle of a rather healthy dialog with my pastor regarding presidential candidates. He knows how I feel, I know how he feels, and we are still quite civil despite a rather strong disagreement. I’m sure there are authoritarian churches out there, but I’ve never belonged to one.

  • T’s Grammy

    It took me a total of about 10 years (long, long ago; been labelling myself Atheist 22 years and Agnostic 4 before that) to break free of my childhood indoctrination and I stopped believing Jesus was the Messiah before I stopped believing altogether.

    The reason I bring this up:

    My short answer — no, wouldn’t have dreamed of it or dared. Dreamed of because their word was sacred; dared because you are not supposed to question.

    I damned near converted to Judaism once upon a time in my foolish youth and my first Sabbath in a synagogue instead of Sunday in a church, my jaw damned near dropped to the floor when congregants would interrupt the sermon with a quiet but rabbi and ask a critical question. And the rabbi? He loved it. He ate it up and answered them politely and respectfully. He was pleased they were paying close attention and thinking about what he said.

    Something incomprehensible in the Protestant churches I grew up in where you were just supposed to listen and quake in fear for being such a sinner.

    That said it was a Conservative temple I went to, not an Orthodox. Men and women sat together and everything.

    Fortunately, I didn’t go through with the conversion and me, my daughter and grandson are not Jewish according to Judaic law.

  • Spurs Fan

    When I was in college (and an Evangelical Christian), I once had a debate with my pastor in his office about the death penalty. I challenged him to justify his support of it using the Gospels and New Testament and despite being slightly intimidated (he’s a very calm, intelligent person), he couldn’t come up with a defense. When I kept spitting (yeah, I said spitting) solid objections to his viewpoints, he got a little frustrated and ended our conversation with “look, it’s a matter of justice, okay?” and we left it that.

    In my experience, pastors generally don’t have a problem with questioning, especially in the the right setting. Yet, I’ve noticed a lot more animosity if you start spreading your “wrong views/ideas” (especially if they are theological in nature) to other members of the congregation. Then you’re asking to get kicked out of your congregation.

  • Pseudonym

    Autumnal Harvest, I didn’t catch it, but you’re welcome.

  • Matt

    Almost 20 years ago I was a member of a popular pentecostal church in Australia (the denomination is one of the best known American exports) and was heavily involved in many aspects: the usual services, bible study, youth group (and its band), church singers, outreach and mentoring, and was just beginning bible college with the intention of becoming a pastor. It was during the latter that I began to investigate what I was reading, both in the bible and the coursework, and what I was hearing from the pastors and elders, so naturally I approached them for advice. Advice. Unfortunately all I received were glib, canned responses at best, or outright hostility at worst.

    It was the continued questioning that was my downfall, and helped me extricate myself from the near-cultish nature of that kind of church. The pastors and elders began by excluding me from contact with new or impressionable youth group members (which was largely my raison d’etre in the youth group), then the youth group as a whole, then the choir, and eventually my studies. I should point out that I was by no means being confrontational – simply that I had questions that I quietly and sincerely sought guidance on from the elders.

    I eventually reached a point where I decided to stop attending all church-related events completely to see what would happen, and was shocked to my core that not one single person visited, called or otherwise made contact. The church at that time was my life, and by the simple act of no longer getting in my car I found myself cut off from everyone – even those church members I considered best friends.

    It was almost 10 years later that I eventually met one of the pastor’s daughters on a bus, and she explained that the church elders had advised everyone that I had gone to another church and did not want to be contacted by anyone involved with my previous church. Needless to say that was not true – the leaders of a large, popular church had lied en masse to its members.

    So now my position is that faith and thinking do not belong in the same room: they are polar opposites. It can be argued that faith is the opposite of reason: to believe despite the absence of proof – that is faith. To rationalise, explain or otherwise prove ones religion or holy book is to insult whatever deity you value.

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