I want to address a part of our story that I haven’t heard too much about as a possible underlying cause for some of the continued issues within the Independent Fundamental Baptist “movement.” It relates to the training (or lack thereof) of zealous preacher boys and sending them out to start or work in churches with some training on how to “grow/run a ministry” (I use that loosely), but very little training on how to actually study Scripture or prepare BIBLICAL messages. What I see happening is zealous and eager to serve, but Biblically ill-equipped young men being sent out by numbers -focused men and ministries. It seems that they get them busy and involved in doing ministries within the church or college, like soul winning, bus ministry, teaching a SS class, etc., but that seems to comprise the bulk of their training. They may have some classes on hermeneutics, but it seems that many of these training institutions don’t even know how to (appropriately) do that themselves, so how can they possibly train others? Here’s an observation we have made – it seems that the basic doctrines and main talking points of Baptist fundamentalism are taught – specifically the KJVO position, the “tradition or compromise” position, standards, music (which will vary based on what area of the country you’re from or what school you went to it seems like), but more emphasis is put on “doing” than on “knowing” and “being” maybe? I’m not sure how to articulate that… But it seems like as long as they check all of the boxes such as: they don’t make waves, they uphold the standards, work themselves to exhaustion in every ministry they are involved in (the more the better), and be loud/exciting when you have your turn to preach, you are deemed “ready.”
Our experience that ultimately led us out of this movement stems from these very concerns. Unfortunately, and looking back now, embarrassingly, it took us a little while to see it. But what we’ve learned is that once you see it, you can’t “un-see it.”
A little background:
We moved out of state and were looking for a church that would have a particular specialized ministry. We had heard of a new church plant that specifically focused on this specialized ministry, saw in doctrine we were the same, so we jumped in with excitement to be involved in a new work and to have the opportunity to serve in this specialized area. I grew up on the outskirts of IFB, if you will. There were some IFB hints in our home church, but our pastor avoided connecting us to any “camp” in particular, and he was a great Bible teacher and preacher (no screaming necessary), doing verse by verse studies through the books of the Bible. So while our feet were wet in that movement, we hadn’t really been in TOO deeply. I did have more experience with some of the other issues from my Christian school experience and other neighboring churches, however.
To be clear, the pastor at this new church is a good man, with a good heart, and good intentions. But his training has not equipped him properly. Consider this – he didn’t get into church until he was 17 years old, and by 22 was being sent out by his pastor to start a church from scratch. How can someone that young, with only a few years in church, have enough life experience and wisdom to manage a church start up from scratch? At first we looked at those “stats’ and thought, WOW! That’s amazing! (We were his second church plant 11 years later). But as time goes on and you realize that while your pastor has zeal, he has “method” and he has charisma, he doesn’t really exhibit the wisdom that he should in some situations, and you see that he doesn’t really know how to really teach and preach the Bible without cherry picking verses for an outline or twisting things from their context to make them say what he’s trying to preach. Then you look back to his testimony of getting in a Bible preaching church for the first time at 17 to being sent out at 22, and you hear about how his pastor had a goal to start 50 churches in their state and you begin to see that he was a victim of the system. I can’t prove this, but my gut says his zeal, charisma and love for God were seen as a potentially successful option for checking off another box for that big pastor’s goal for church planting. So much in this movement is numbers driven. In fact, that was one of the first things we picked up on soon after moving to this new church – that when someone is referred to either in a message, or to introduce to the pulpit, it’s like we need to hear his resume of how many souls have been won, or how many churches started, or how many this or that… It’s a man-praise-fest.
Since we weren’t there when he was sent out so many years ago, we can’t say definitively that he was sent out ill-equipped, but you can’t help but let it cross your mind when you know the mindset within the system, and experience the results of it firsthand. We still love our former pastor and his family. We considered them good friends and leaving was very difficult at first. When we first began praying about it, it was hard to even fathom not being a part of this specialized ministry. Also knowing we would likely be cut off from their fellowship, it was very heavy and difficult decision to make. But at the end of the day, we had to choose the spiritual health of our family over the friendship and the specialized ministry.
Once our eyes were opened, the frustrations that we began to feel seemed to grow with each service we attended, which in some ways made the decision easier.
Here were some of our observations/concerns.
1) An eagerness to have all the “bells and whistles” that an established church has but as soon as possible. Even before God opens doors or there were enough people to warrant it. One example of this is bus ministry. This was the be-all-end-all it seemed. He’d talk about bus ministry like it was like the one mark of a truly good church and he couldn’t wait until we could have one. He’d even (from the pulpit) criticize other churches who used to have bus ministries but no longer did as cowards or not trusting the Lord/they don’t have faith.
2) A very caustic sounding/harsh attitude/tone toward any person/group who doesn’t believe as he does. There were times he would try to give a disclaimer, but the truth of how he felt would be evident through his tone and accusations.
3) To seek to change the above attitude was considered to be wishy-washy compromising. Read – lack of grace. Again, this is complex because out of the pulpit he can be very gracious, but it was hard to know which was the real him, if that makes sense.
4) Outward appearance trumps the heart. This would never be admitted to, but the volume of comments/preaching as relates to a person’s outward appearance v. core heart issues proved it to be true. Probably 80+% of the preaching would mention one or more of the following: tattoos, body piercings, pants on women, dressing up for church, hairstyles…
5) Preaching is more often Scripture used out of context than in context. Most of the time a passage is read and a phrase is pulled from that passage and shoved into an outline that has nothing to do with the passage at all. OR a character in the Bible is misrepresented by twisting scripture, reading partial passages, etc., simply because using the illustration in that way fits the narrative of the message. Ex. Peter doubted God, after he had the audacity to argue with God from Acts 10. Hmmmm… Peter wasn’t arguing with God as much as he was more likely trying to prove himself (like being tested). But even if you could say it was arguing, you cannot say he was doubting GOD in verse 17 that says Peter doubted in himself what these things should mean. However, when preaching the passage our pastor stopped reading after the word doubted, and then went off on Peter for doubting God and not having faith or listening to God’s voice – because that was the outline. Or that Naomi had backslidden so far and was so sin-hardened that people didn’t even recognize her when she finally came back. But the passage actually reads that when they saw her afar off they DID recognize her and asked each other if that was Naomi coming back to town… The thing is, the book of Ruth is a passage of redemption, not a message on backsliding. And why/how would Ruth have said she wanted Naomi’s God to be her God if Naomi was so sin-hardened and backslidden? But see, those things don’t matter . What matters is finding scripture to fit an outline about whatever it is you want to preach. I could continue with examples, but I will move on.
6) Constantly putting down generations, specifically today’s kids or millenials with sweeping generalizations. But how can we reach them if all we do is criticize them? If they’d even darken the doors of the church, they’d think, “You mock me and my perspective out of one side of your mouth and then you tell me you and God love me out of the other side of your mouth? Conflict.” I wondered what my own children were thinking about this – that their generation was a lost cause? Or would they become self-righteous because they are “better” than what is mocked simply because of how they are raised…
7) Boasting about Fundamentalism and Independent Baptists when neither of these things are in Scripture. There is NOTHING in Scripture that confirms you are better simply because you have that name on your church sign.
8) Micro-managing adults with all sorts of rules. Ex. – no verses projected on a screen for Deaf to be able to read while also seeing the interpreter because then the hearing people will stop using their Bibles and just read the screen, or we have to tell men to take off their hats in the building, or we have to tell mothers “we have a rule” no babies in the services, or if you get up to use the bathroom or deal with an emergency, don’t come back in, or no open-toed shoes on the platform (they are immodest on the platform, and make men lust, but some how when off the platform they lose their immodest appeal and are completely appropriate, go figure…), or signing contracts for dress code on church property to be able to work in any ministry , or a fresh contract is too be signed if you wish to attend any trips with the church such as another church’s meeting or going to an activity, or Sight and Sound production, even down to what you will wear in your hotel room, and the kind of shoes permitted (no flip flops). P.S. – We now referred to the open toed shoes thing as “cuticle lust” or “toe cleavage.” 😉
9) The humanity of the flesh is screamed about, instead of teaching the believer how to live through the power of the Holy Spirit that dwells within us. This is a hobby horse of mine – this kind of “pull yourselves up by the boot straps and just do it, bless God” teaching is what causes people within the IFB to hide our struggles, weaknesses and failures… We need to make sure all of the visible boxes are checked while suffocating under the pressure of unattainable perfection expected for approval. Can we even practice Gal. 6:1-2 in this kind of environment? Absolutely not! Who will be vulnerable and admit they need restoration? And those that do, how often are they actually restored, rather than thrown under the bus for their failure, used as a sermon illustration and shamed over and over again?
10) There were more stories and illustrations than Scripture used to support a point. While the stories are sometimes entertaining, sometimes impactful, they cannot cause true growth on their own. Scripture applied causes growth. In a 30 minute message, more than 1/2 of that time (I’m being generous) is spent telling jokes and stories, etc. And over time, those stories were the same stories again and again. Has God not done anything else for you since that time? That’s the same illustration over and over!
11) Sunday school lessons (taught to folks most of whom had been in a Baptist church as long as he’s been alive) were about the Baptist Distinctives, the role of the pastor, the role of a deacon, the role of women, church ordinances. We were there 5 years and we went through those lessons twice each. No substance, no challenge.
12) Preaching in response to the political narrative of the day consumed the messages. Opinion and civics lessons were given more time than Scripture. We’d hear more quotes from USA Today, statistics, news articles, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights than scripture. What that would make me wonder is how much is my pastor preaching through the power of the Holy Spirit and how much is he preaching through the his fleshy angst and his ax to grind? I didn’t have great confidence that he was in the Word preparing to teach us what God said as much as he was in the Word preparing to convince us of all of his opinions on all of the issues. None of them were issues that pertain to the growth of the believer. None of them.
13) Preaching against people who “think they know better than the pastor!” Enough said.
14) Breeding/feeding self-righteousness in folks through a strong “us v. them” emphasis in the preaching
15) The more strict you are, the more elite status you can earn with God. Again – this wouldn’t be admitted to, but by the volume of preaching on this, it’s obvious this is the mindset. Bragging that to be called “too strict” is a badge of honor, because “the military is strict, and look what kind of greatness they achieve!! Look at what those Navy Seals can do and have accomplished! Tell them they are too strict!!” The problem, as you know, is that all of this “strictness” relates to extra biblical man-made rules. Scripture doesn’t teach us that adding these commandments of men (taught as Biblical doctrine) makes us more approved in God’s sight. These “strict” standards preached never relate to issues actually taught in the Bible that WOULD make me more Christ-like. It was never preached to be more strict with how much food I ate (gluttony anyone?), or more strict about how I loved my enemies, or how I loved my neighbor (if he read that passage he would always refer to bringing my neighbor brownies and digressed into the “good ol’ days” when neighbors knew each other.)
16) This one was a big one – not sure if you’ve heard this “doctrine” before. I have been in church my whole life and had never heard this before we started attending here. “The phrase that God hates the sin but loves the sinner is inaccurate, and in fact, God HATES the sinner.” He said John 3:16 says the word loveD, past tense. God only loved on that one day when Jesus was on the cross. Ps. 5:5 and Ps. 11:5. So he would often cite these and say that God HATES you until you accept his son as your Savior. This didn’t seem right and kind of messed with my head for a while. I’d actually like to hear what you would say in response to this.
Another layer within the IFB is the issue of women. There seems to be a spectrum here, but one underlying belief that the value of the women is less than the value of a man. Some are extreme and will blatantly put that view on display with comments like “long tongued heifers” and garbage like that. However, some think they have a high view of women, but the real truth is revealed in their preaching and comments. For example, they will say you should treat a woman/wife like a queen – because that way she will treat you like a king. That isn’t really scriptural. That’s not how Christ loved the church and gave himself for it. That’s self-serving. Or they say things like, “Women, we need you, because we don’t know how to pick up our socks, or cook a meal,” as if that is our main value – their housekeeper. Or they say things like men aren’t better than women, it’s just that we have different roles. However, it is revealed in their preaching that they DO view men as better because they view a man’s role as more important. I am 100% for living my role as a woman, but I am also able to see through the double speak. Our pastor made the comment that even as it relates to homeschooling that the father should be running the homeschool, not the mother; if she needs to be the one to teach them then that’s fine, but the father should be coming behind making sure every t is crossed and i is dotted; if they attend public or private school then it shouldn’t be the mother calling or having the meetings at the school, it should be the father. He also frequently said that in his ministry experience he has learned one thing – that when a family leaves a church it’s usually for one of two reasons, the teenager doesn’t want to come anymore and the parent won’t stand up to them, OR “the woman gets sideways and starts complaining to her husband until he can’t take it anymore so he agrees to leave. But what he ought to say is “Woman, this is what we’re gonna do, suck it up and deal!‘” A little off topic, but when talking about people leaving a church he often would say, “Were they right to join in the first place and are they wrong now, or were they wrong to join in the first place and are they right now??” As if the only option for wrong was on the member, either they never should have joined or they never should have left, but it couldn’t be that there was a legitimate concern about the church/pastor. This kind of talk actually played a part in how long it took us to leave.
We wanted to sit down and talk with him about our concerns, but two messages preached in our last 3 weeks there told us it was fruitless to ask him to change. He wouldn’t hear our concerns as we were intending them. He would hear them through the filters he received in training, which is to label anyone who objects to this kind of thing as a compromiser and/or rebel. To ask that he stop preaching politics will be viewed as asking him to stop “standing for the truth!” To ask him to stick to only preaching what Scripture says instead of what he wants it to say (extra biblical standards) and to allow the Holy Spirit to lead the life of the individual believer on issues that are not clear in Scripture will be viewed as “rebels” who just don’t like any rules at all. To ask that he not use his pulpit as a bully platform when he has concerns about kids, but to go to the parents directly instead is to be thin-skinned and not able to handle the truth. (That’s another story all together.) To question a rule is to show an un-submissive heart. This wouldn’t be said out loud, but it’s how it’s viewed.
At the end of the day, it’s shallow Christianity. “Living for God” means attend every church service with a dress or suit/tie, serve in some capacity in the church, tithe, soul-win and of course, when you’re outside of the church, make sure you still look the part or you’d be a hypocrite (read – make my church standards your personal standards). Those are the things mentioned when “living for God” is preached. But that’s not it at all. That’s religion! Going to church is good. Sharing the gospel is good, being modest (in ALL things, by the way, but we only ever hear it as it relates to a woman’s body) is good, serving others is good. But all of these things can be done WITHOUT living for God. Living for God is an inward thing – its a result of the heart, the Holy Spirit bearing fruit in our lives in ways that aren’t always visible! Why do we not hear about this? Because it’s not “measurable” as you said in one of the podcasts. It’s sad. I still wrestle with the self-righteous legalism even now. It’s so ingrained in the way I think after all of these years. I’m grateful for the influences in my life and the Scriptures that show me what a real relationship and walk with the Lord can and should be. There is so much more I could say but I’ve said enough already. I wish there was a way to rescue those good hearted souls blinded by the only thing they’ve ever known, or the only thing they’ve ever been taught. I still wrestle with whether we should have been this direct with our pastor when we left or if just saying the Lord was moving us on letting go like we did was best. How can he have an opportunity to grow and change if no one speaks up? But what’s the point of speaking up if you can’t be heard? They would have to have more respect for us than they do for the preachers they look up to who trained them to think and live this way, the ones who scream about how the movement was better off when they were preaching against things that weren’t even wrong…and we know that even though they once respected us, there was little chance they would hear our voice over the screaming voices of the “men of God.”