When Pastors Shift Theology

When Pastors Shift Theology July 9, 2012

My questions are these: Does your church tolerate theological shifts on the part of the pastor? Do you know what your pastor/s believe about crucial topics? Pastors: What are your stories? Have you struggled? Where can you find a safe place for discussing your shifts, your theology, etc.?

What happens if you, as a pastor, shift from your church’s pre-millennial view to a more a-millennial view, or toward preterism? Are you expected to be on the side of the creationists and find yourself aligning yourself with the theistic evolutionists or evolutionary creationists?

Erin Roach, BP, sets the table for us today. To be sure, these are extreme examples, but the spectrum is from the benign (you call it “ordinance” but I call it “sacrament”) to the doctrinal (I struggle with one or more statement of faith) to very serious levels of doubt.

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.

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  • “Edward Hopper”

    Scot, you have aided and abetted my shift with countless wonderful book tips over the years, including: Chrysalis, Evangelical Universalism, A New Kind of Christianity, The Great Emergence, The Bible Made Impossible.
    James Fowler’s The Stages of Faith describes my own journey very well, leading to unitive faith.
    It has been surprising that few of my pastoral colleagues are interested in my learnings, and fewer still who indicate having the questions and curiosity and desire to understand that have pushed me to grow. But few of them read Jesus Creed. 🙂

    My story, in rough chronological order:
    Growing up in more liberal mainline churches – “becoming a Christian” (an Evangelical) through Inter-Varsity as a college freshman – thirty years of trying and failing to find a traditional theology that made sense (Calvinism, dispensationalism, arminianism were all seriously tried on for size) – embracing “heretical” open theism as most biblical alternative – learning that pseudonymity of some NT writings makes sense – discovering postmodernism and thus rejecting the ideological claim of certainty/seeing Evangelicalism as an ideology and one community among others – seeing that every theology presupposes a philosophy – seeing Christianity as a human construct, a religion among religions (which by no means implies that it is without value) – universalism – final rejection of inerrancy and the Bible as constitution in favor of Bible as conversation – seeing that traditional Christology is also a human construct – discovering the philosophical underpinnings of the creeds and the political processes by which they came into being – discovering process thought via family systems theory – embracing process theology as by far the most viable hypothesis (atheism was briefly tried and found seriously wanting) and seeing Emergence as real and the hopeful way of the future – shift of focus from Christianity as believing traditional doctrines to Christianity as practicing the teaching of Jesus and living a Jesus-shaped life.

    This theological and spiritual journey was long, wandering, often frustrating, and on a couple of occasions sickening and terrifying. It was worth it.
    The key to everything helpful: Seeing that there is a difference between an entity as it is and my idea of that entity. Examples of such entities include myself, my wife, each human being, God, the Bible. Once I admit that the reality is different than my idea of it, I become teachable, curious, open. And I embrace and learn to love the often joyous, sometimes worrisome uncertainty about life and the future.

    Yes, there has been discomfort:
    Within me (now resolved)
    With my wife at first and for a time, but her reading of Richard Rohr has been a great bridge to a newly shared faith. There has been greater comfort than before my shift with our no longer Christian adult children.
    With longtime friends (ongoing)
    With colleagues (ongoing)
    With my congregation (ongoing, but mitigated)
    There is Comfort with where I am now. Deep contentment and happiness, even. I can trust the process of which I am a part and through which God works, in me and all around me. There is a sense that I have come through the straits and out into a broad and good space.

  • Jeff Kimble

    I feel for these pastors, but think integrity should motivate them to make steps toward a new vocations (but as you said most of these reflect extreme examples). To your questions, Scot, I think congregations should distinguish between essential and peripheral doctrinal issues. By peripheral, I don’t mean unimportant doctrinal concerns but those that don’t undermine the touchstones of the faith. I grant that people draw these doctrinal lines differently, but Roger Olson’s “The Mosaic of Christian Belief” offers a helpful way to think about this. As Olson says, “all beliefs matter, but not all beliefs matter equally.” Belief in God’s existence, for example, matters. It’s essential to the Christian worldview. The mechanism that God used to create the world, on the other hand, is not essential (in my view) but peripheral and important and an area for discussion. The doctrine of human sinfulness is essential, but various Augustinian nuances of original sin, I would argue, are not. It seems to me that the Creeds and the Christian tradition in general help us identify (not perfectly but to some degree) where to make distinctions between essential and peripheral doctrines. I think pastors need the freedom to change their views on the peripheral issues without censure. Changing views on core issues, however, seems more problematic. Of course identifying “the core” issues makes this whole process a bit slippery, but some attempt at this seems to me a reasonable place to begin . . . in spite of the imprecision. I think it would at least provide churches with some broad outlines that would prevent good men and women from needless criticism when working though come of these doctrinal issues. Making peripheral doctrinal views litmus tests for orthodoxy always seemed counterproductive to me. Just my two cents.

  • After 5 years of ministry in 2 churches of which I disagreed methodologically and somewhat theologically, I do not think churches on the whole entertain a pastor shifting theologically. This is more so true in denominational churches which have distinguished themselves by a particular belief (e.g., baptismal regeneration). If the pastor comes to an understanding that contradicts that distinguishing mark, he/she is standing on one leg, and it’s only a matter of time before it’s obvious to everyone if he/she is preaching the text.

  • NJD

    I find the listed examples completely disheartening. The lack of integrity (personal, intellectual) is astounding. If you can’t in good faith lead a church, you should leave the church.

  • Steve Clem

    There’s a difference in “theological shift” and denying the very core of the gospel. For those so-called pastors that lie to their people by pretending to believe what they preach to hold on to their financial security one word comes to mind: “cowards”.

  • This was my story. I grew up in and pastored fundamentalist Baptist churches. In time, I came to reject the certitude of that literalist system. But I knew that if I let my doubts be known, it would cost me my job. I went through a terrible dark night of the soul, but eventually, I came out the other side and decided to leave fundamentalism and start a new church, a community where people can be authentic, doubts and all. These pastors are in a sad, gut-wrenching position. My heart goes out to them. I know the pain they feel.

  • Harold

    I wonder if there are two issues here.
    One, pastors whose personal beliefs shift outside of the realm of orthodoxy – but who refuse to leave the ministry because of financial pressures. If you can “act” at preaching, the real energy for ministry is already gone: you are hurting the people for your own gain. Sad. That’s not hypocrisy; that’s abuse.
    Two, pastors whose professional development causes shifts within the scope of orthodoxy, but in ways that may make their current congregation uncomfortable. It’s interesting that nearly every profession (medicine, law, tech) requires staying up-to-date; when pastors do that, however, congregations get nervous that their losing something. This is particularly a risk within confessional denominations where all the questions have been answered.
    Personally, I have shifted away/toward a number of things -still within the orthodox view. (women’s gifts, creation, broad Kingdom vs. narrower salvation view of God’s work) I’m glad to have also shifted to a congregation much less threatened by those shifts.

  • CGC

    Hi Everyone,
    I saw an interview on the news where some of these pastors told their stories, it gets worse, several of them don’t even tell their wives that they have lost their faith in fear of the consequences. The biggest elephant standing in the room is not that pastors or even many people in churches no longer “really” believe what many would call “essential” doctrines of the Christian faith. The elephant that nobody sees is so many churches continues along without the leading and power of the Holy Spirit. The picture in Revelation chapter three is not Jesus standing and knocking on the door of a person’s heart. Jesus is standing and knocking at the door of the church and wants in!

  • Robin

    I’ll let the pastors speak, but I would think for most theological drifting, it would be better to be in a congregation which had a clear standard. My church requires that pastors be able to affirm the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith. Drifting and moving within that framework (basically a Baptist copy of Westminster) is perfectly fine. It is only if you are outside of those fenceposts that you would need to confess it to the church and step down.

    At first glance it seems restrictive, but it also seems to me that pastors know they have wide latitude within the boundaries. They don’t have to worry about what happens if they switch from organs to drums, or from non-preterist to preterist. THe boundaries are clearly fixed.

  • Scott:

    Not sure where to start. When I started reading this post I was thinking how one might handle a situation with a pastor who moves from a “pre” to “post trib” rapture model when they work for a church which is doctrinally aligned to dispensationalism and pre-trib. However that scenario is vastly different than the rest of the pastors’ stories described in this post.

    First, I think that any “organization” that rejects the resurrection can not, with any real meaning to the word, be called a “church”, but then not much should be expected when they are lead by those who deny the very existence of God.

    Second, I can’t imagine how some of these “pastors” manage to sleep at night. None of these pastors show any integrity or character. They are exhibiting the very hypocrisy that Jesus came to rebuke and reject. I can only imagine the harsh words that Paul would have had for them and the harsher words Jesus will have for them.

    In these situations one could only hope that these “teachers” would “come-out” and remove (or be removed) from these positions. Maybe the church leadership and community could show the love of Christ and send them off with a severance package and then begin the healing process and hard work of finding a new pastor.

  • Phil Miller

    On one level, I wonder how many people these pastors are actually fooling. I know it’s not our place to judge the state of a person’s heart, but I’ve heard many pastors speak who seem to be “phoning it in”. They speak with as much passion as if they’re reading from the phone book. When you put it up against something that’s real, it becomes pretty apparent.

    I think a lot of this goes to how many denominations train pastors. They make it so most pastors are in a position where they have no other marketable skills, and so they are destined to be dependent on the church for their livelihood for the rest of their lives. I’ve always thought it makes sense for pastors to have some experience in other fields. I’m not suggesting that all pastors should be bi-vocational, but rethinking the way we do pastoral training is something worth looking into.

  • scotmcknight

    Dear Everyone,
    The examples in the post are from the news article and they are a starter, illustrative as I said of the extreme… we don’t need to discuss the extremes or what the absence of faith means for the pastor (most would say it’s a matter of integrity) … the post today is highlighted in the questions: what happened to you when you shifted? Does your church permit shifting?

  • Albion

    At first glance it seems restrictive, but it also seems to me that pastors know they have wide latitude within the boundaries.

    The difficulty comes when a confessional denom, in fear of slippery slopes, moves to define the boundaries more restrictively so that the pastor has little latitude and a much more concrete set of beliefs to which they must subscribe in order to stay in the job. Witness, for example, the debate at the recent PCA general assembly over whether it is appropriate to dip bread in wine (actually, grape juice) during communion. So a pastor’s theology may not be drifting at all and yet he finds himself out of accord with his church.

  • Larry S

    When I was in full-time pastoral ministry I was too busy to do much indepth study (or at least I thought I was). However, after leaving pastoral ministry I had the freedom to study without the doctrinal restraints of my denomination.

    And while in pastoral ministry I shied away from studying topics like evolution. I think I did so knowing that I would shift my perspective away from my denomination’s conservative stance.

    This Thread makes me wonder if there are other pastors currently in ministry who choose to stay away from more indepth study so they can remain safely within their denominational boundaries.

  • Tracy

    Perhaps the Quakers were right — paid clergy who are isolated in a role is the real problem. It means that following the Spirit is complicated by role expectations.

    Years ago I read about a wealthy person who set up a fund in his church so that no one would ever have to continue to work in a job or profession which violated their integrity. Perhaps we need to support clergy who are transitioning away from their calls for any number of reasons.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Edward (1)
    Your good words:
    “I can trust the process of which I am a part and through which God works, in me and all around me.”

     I’m not a pastor and will try to just be quiet and learn on this thread. But your statement cried out to be confirmed. God has made and continues to make everything possible that is described in Scripture as his ultimate will. His is a process (administered by the Holy Spirit) that we must trust.  We don’t have to know all the details, the mechanisms, to have him working in us and through us. Good results (growing into the likeness of Christ) are our only sure guide to whether or not we are getting it. 

    Kent Sparks’ recent book “Sacred Word, Broken Word” has much to say about essentially the same call to trust – of course his focus is how we interpret Scripture. He offers this summation of the situation “The actual life that we live in response to Scripture is the most important mark of valid biblical interpretation.” The following metaphor came to mind on finishing Sparks’ book and thinking about the essential balancing we must do with orthodoxy and orthopraxy. 

    It’s sort of like the fellow who the other day crossed Niagara Falls on a tight rope. Those on the bank were safe and secure admiring the majesty of the falls and getting soggy from the spray. Safe, secure, certain, and wet, but seemingly not in great need of balance. The guy on the high wire was also seeing the majestic torrent, but from an entirely different perspective – and, every step of the way his most precious possession was his balance. To fail to get the message of balance is to be like the customs agent waiting for this fellow on the other side to ask if he had anything to declare!

    We must continually pray for our pastors as they lead us to be better balanced followers of Christ.

  • Phil Miller

    Thanks for the clarification, Scot.

    I was never a full-time pastor, but my wife and I were campus pastors under the oversight of a somewhat large congregation. I would say that our theology shifted significantly during our time doing that, and ultimately that led to our stepping down from that position and leaving that church. It also had to with our interactions with the senior pastor at that church. I think the thing that did us in is that we are very reluctant to take simply accept someone’s word on issues. The pastor seemed to think that his opinion on issues was informed enough that we should simply believe him. When I hear that type of reasoning, it makes me want to investigate issues for myself.

    As far as what shifting theologically means for me, I’d say that right now I kind of feel like I’m in a spiritual limbo. There are elements from my past spiritual life that I feel that I can’t leave behind (I come from a Pentecostal background – namely the AoG), but there are a lot of things that make it very hard for me to fit in that type of church. But on the other hand, I find so many churches that are more accepting of different perspectives to simply be spiritually dead. So right now, I honestly am not sure where to go.

  • Ann

    In my denomination, Assemblies of God, we’re required to hold to our 16 Fundamental Truths – which are basic evangelical truths, with the addition of our distinctives regarding the baptism in the Spirit, speaking in tongues, divine healing, and the rapture of the church. Beyond that, we’re pretty free to believe anything. And even within the Fundamental Truths, when it comes to a pre-trib rapture, we’re allowed to hold other views if we keep them to ourselves (don’t teach or preach another view). I’m an A/G minister, but not pre-trib, and I’m fine with these guidelines. I would never preach something I don’t believe – but I can preach the return of Christ without going into details on when the rapture will happen! Apart from that, if I were ever to cease believing in our distinctives (not at all something I expect to happen!), I would consider it a matter of intellectual honesty to leave the denomination.

  • Ken B.

    My denomination, the Christian Reformed Church, saw this recently when a well-known minister who was the former editor of the denominational magazine, left due to changes in faith. (http://thebanner.org/news/2012/05/former-banner-editor-resigns-from-crc-ministry ) I appreciated his integrity in choosing to leave rather than violate his signing the form of subscription, the commitment of clergy to the Three Forms of Unity. The online discussion I saw concerning his departure appeared gracious, including from those who are on the opposite end of the theological spectrum.

  • Joe

    I think that pastoral friendships adjust when theology does, as well. A few of my friends claimed that they didn’t know who I was anymore because of some significant shifts theologically.

    Also, some come from settings where theological education is demonized, as if it will ruin the person’s faith the more they learn. I was the only pastor in staff with a Master’s degree and my comments were, at times, marginalized because “that’s all that book learning…”

  • scotmcknight

    Ken B, I will be doing some posts on John Suk’s book, Not Sure.

  • Ian

    My story is rather interesting. The Baptist church (seeker sensitive) I was a part of was launching a new church right when I was enrolling in seminary. I got involved as a Christian only in the faith for a year and a half. Starting off, I was fairly conservative because that was all I knew. The pastor starting the church was conservative, but expressed mainly his more progressive views which turned out to be rather short lived ideas he was toying with, it seems. Well, he convinced me and got me into reading Emergent authors, which led me down a path toward inclusion for homosexuals, border line universalism (though more inclusivist in my leanings), full acceptance of evolution, etc. When I confessed to him (because he was talking about hiring me) after working pastorally with him for four years, he seemed concerned but never enough to talk about it much with me. It didn’t become an issue to him until some of my views became public knoweldge when he then removed me from the staff team in February (though my wife is still on staff, working to resolve the hurt in her heart over this whole transition while I still am in the band). He slowly drifted back toward his more conservative roots and has now somehow landed near prosperity theology. We both have changed so much in these last 6 years. We still love each other, but I know he is heart broken over the situation and I am as well. Things got heated between us when I was first dismissed, but we resolved it. I meet weekly with the worship pastor now and we all have a good friendship. Though we disagree, I’m fine with it though I know they are not okay with my divergences in the least. I’m not looking to leave the church and they seem to want me there. My wife is kind of in between us theologically but supports me completely and sees why I have changed a lot, though our pastor’s changes seem a bit more troubling to her in some ways. Quite an interesting story, eh? I don’t think I would want to change a thing about it either 🙂

  • Phil Miller

    In my denomination, Assemblies of God, we’re required to hold to our 16 Fundamental Truths – which are basic evangelical truths, with the addition of our distinctives regarding the baptism in the Spirit, speaking in tongues, divine healing, and the rapture of the church.

    Ann, I’m glad you’ve found a place in the AoG. My dad was (still is, actually) a AoG pastor, and there are many things I do appreciate about it. But the one thing that prevented me from pursuing ordination in the denomination is that I couldn’t in good conscience affirm their 16 points. Even if all of them are true (I don’t think they are – particular their dispensational stance on eschatology), they certainly aren’t all “fundamental”. The term fundamental suggests that these are required Christian beliefs. There is clearly a lot of disagreement over some of these points.

    I guess my question is to you at what point can you say you still affirm these points, but yet have disagreements with them? You’ve already said you don’t really affirm the point about the pre-trib rapture.

  • Kristin

    Is it me or does the problem seem more rooted in job security (pastors afraid to admit theological changes/differences because they will lose their “job”) than anything else? This also seems like an unfair expectation for pastors to be the perfect believer until the end of time, with no room for change of any sort.

    This just reinforces to me that ministry isn’t a career and shouldn’t be viewed as such. Maybe I’m cynical. Changing theological views doesn’t really surprise me. What surprises me is that there is no acceptable outlet for pastors to “step down” and return to secular work, or part time, or volunteer ministry without it appearing to be some huge scandal.

  • T

    My church is a recently planted non-denom. Changes of theology are assumed and even encouraged, even though a rough evangelical/charismatic framework is also assumed and made explicit.

    I think we all (hopefully) want our leaders to remain disciples of Jesus, which means they will keep learning and changing. Our church is explicit about that, but is also explicit about the theological paradigm. We have no official position on end times theology, but we practice enough of the gifts (including tongues and prophecy) so that it would be difficult for a leader to have a theology that opposed those things.

  • scotmcknight

    The stories like those of “Edward Hopper” (#1) and Ian (#22) can really help the many who are struggling in these issues.

  • “Edward Hopper”

    A wonderful thing about the American Baptist (formerly Northern Baptist) denomination in which I serve is that there is no statement of faith. In 1922 the fundamentalist William Bell Riley intended to have the 1833 New Hampshire Declaration of Faith adopted by the denomination, but others beat him to it. The annual convention voted by a two-thirds majority that the New Testament is the adequate and sufficient basis for our faith and practice, and that other creeds and confessions are unnecessary. That gives one the freedom to follow the Bible wherever it leads. This can lead to other difficulties, but I wouldn’t trade our freedom of conscience and intellect for anything.

  • I often find it difficult to believe studies like this reflect a significant percentage of pastors in full-time ministry. And I often don’t feel I have time to participate in these kinds of studies when requested. I wonder if those who do so skew the data because they are motivated to participate. I even sometimes wonder if the most extreme responses are even truthful.
    Having said all that, I think it would be nearly impossible (and perhaps even a bad sign) if someone studied the Bible daily for 20-40 years and wasn’t somehow changed by that process. At the beginning of ministry one might tend to simply preach the tradition. At the end, I’ve found most who’ve stayed in the ministry to preach with great freedom and energy, drawing deeply from their own experiences with the Word and the life of faith in the midst of tradition. But it’s people in the middle years of ministry: (between 10-20 year point) who often have the hardest time. At that point you realize the church is often not an ideal community, you realize some of your own limitations, you get more concerned about financial matters, and see the precarious nature of denominational relationships. That’s enough to push any of us into doubt. By this time theological trends change and our own experiences make us realize our faith views are inadequate. If we decide it’s because the tradition is inadequate, faith will die and we should leave the ministry. But another option is to realize that our early convictions were a bit too shallow. If we can see signs of God’s activity in our journey, we can see this as an invitation to deepen our faith. We can choose to see the tradition through a richer lens. I haven’t had to reject my faith. I’ve had to reject my own reduced understandings of it which I was blinded to in immaturity. Although its impossible to say for sure about yourself, I think my faith is deeper and on firmer ground. As I’m approaching 20 years in ministry, I see areas where I need to grow still. But I haven’t lost faith in the Word nor what the Church can still be.
    My congregation is far from ideal, but one thing they’ve never done is try to squeeze me into one mold. I’ve been fairly transparent about questions I’m exploring and/or frustrations. But I’ve also shared fresh insights. They have usually been excited about these and attempted to gain from my experiences. I think it’s helped them explore their own journey more deeply.
    However, some have not wanted to make this trip and have voted with their feet for a more “packaged” or “brand-imaged” version of the journey. Some of these people have “needed” me to be “safer” and less prophetic. I have no doubt I have handled some of these situations imperfectly, but I’ve worked hard to preach faithfully the tradition-informed-by-a-journey-in-progress. I’m still at it. The people who know me best and the longest are still there, encouraging me and seeking to live their own authentic journey. I think that’s a good sign. But maybe it’s not as user-friendly for people who need or want faith to only be stabilizing, not challenging. So I’ve been exploring how we can help this kind of person more, without being dishonest about the challenges of the life of faith and setting them up for disappointment later.
    I’m greatful for a bit more dynamic Wesleyan-type tradition. I have no doubt my experience could have been very different in a more rigid denomination. I’m also thankful for ministry friends within and outside of my tradition who have kept me challenged and encouraged! For me, the way forward has not been to quash questions or tear down the tradition. So far I’ve found my tradition more than rich enough to feed me…

  • Terry

    I too am one whose idea of God (the Bible, the Chrisian life, etc.) shifted several years into leading as a pastor in a non-denominational setting. The issues causing the shift were immediate and traumatic, but the actual discovery, thinking, and consideration that were the shift took several years and still continue to this day. What began as a very conservative and fundamental theology, in a conservative and fundamental denomination, has given way to a personal theology that is a more open and moderate one.

    Within the denomination there has been no room for discussion; verbalizing questions that concern our status-quo met with a “kill the heretical theology” mentality, a “we will win this argument” posture, and constant warnings of slippery slopes (warnings toward essentials for certain, but just as dire for non-essentials.) I started — because I actually and naively didn’t know what was happening in my head and my heart — being fairly open and honest in my questions and conversations. At the time I assumed we were right and I just had to figure out, again, how to put all my questions to bed. It didn’t take long before I knew this was unwise as hand-wringing and even threats were leveled towards me and my very salvation. Today, if I were completely candid about every wondering/musing/shift I would likely be shown the door.

    Personally, I have never wavered on Jesus; the issues where shift has been evidenced are along the lines of eschatology (or at least the certainty thereof), creation, and for me, primarily related to inerrancy and a literalist hermeneutic — issues that seem pretty standard fare, but also issues that are termed essentials by some conservative groups.

    For the congregation, I have never announced a shift, but the metamorphosis has been noted over time. I have created no hills to die on, I have moved very (very) slowly even in wondering aloud on some of these things. About the only thing I have seriously sought to win the folks over to is the need to love in the face of all we might disagree on. Where changes could more readily be witnessed is that many of the old places to camp in a sermon aren’t visited any more and most of the “we’ve got it down and everyone else is in danger of apostasy” language has subsided. The biggest (only) change on paper is that I led the elders through a re-evaluation of our statement of faith, which in the end eliminated the non-essentials that we had once taken stands for/against and left us with a congregational document that basically says: we affirm the ancient creeds.

    Those who had hobby horses related to all of the peripheral stuff we had often zeroed in on, have moved on (but that is always the case); many who retained the fearful perspective of having to be right about everything in order to be saved and have God’s favor, sadly, left with angst over our not focusing on abating their areas of fear — this has been very sad and disconcerting for many of us. I continue to wonder what comes next, or how this will further play out.

  • Doug Pierce

    I am in the Covenant denomination so we are non-doctrinal. This makes things a bit easier as there is greater range for discussion. While I have theological differences with some members of my congregation they have not been fundamental. I actually wonder if the problem I would be more likely to face would be in taking political positions that were unpopular. It seems like msny Pastors and members of the congregation in Evangelical churches feel they cannot express more liberal political positions.

  • Quite frankly, I’m horrified by the examples you’ve given. I myself am a Christian Minister who most often preaches within churches called “Church of Christ”. I word the statement the way I did because a Church of Christ is not part of a denomination called “The Church(es) of Christ”. We also do not go by the term “pastor”, so I am not sure whether the person in your example is of the same belief system I am. Either way, the stark hypocrisy of going on in the position of a minister while not believing in God, or even just not believing the divinity of Jesus, is shocking.

    If you are in the ministry for the money, as some of these said they are – get out now. You are going to harm people’s souls. The harm you do to their souls will compound your judgment when you face the God in whom you claim you no longer believe. Ministry is for people who have been called to it – for those who can’t possibly do anything else because our burning desire is to teach the lost and strengthen the brethren.

    As for statements of faith, I’ll never have a problem from that. I have never and will never accept any creed or doctrinal statement other than the Bible. I am not a Baptist, Lutheran, Catholic, or anything else other than a Christian. “No name but Christian, no creed but the Bible,” is how Thomas Campbell put it just over 200 years ago – the same was true for 1700+ years prior, and the same is true today.

    On doctrine, it is another matter. I firmly believe that God never authorized the use of a piano, organ, or any other mechanical instrument for use in worship to him. He said to use our voices and to make melody in our hearts (Col. 3). Were I preaching at a church where they decided to bring in a piano, after opposing that as much as I am able if they still decided to go through with it, I would leave.

  • Richard

    I took over as the pastor on a church restart 3 years ago. I was the associate pastor 3 years prior to that. In 6 years we have worked hard up front from the pulpit, through Sunday School, leadership structures, and back channels to foster an atmosphere of mutual care and dialogue across generations. It hasn’t been easy but we’re able to accommodate most anyone without surrendering core tenants. We even have one young family attending regularly for 3 years now and the husband has just started having visions of Jesus in his meditation times and has become a confessing Christian again after a decade of “unitarian buddhism.” We’re unified by Christ’s work, not our proper belief in it.

  • Terry

    Tim, at 28, you posted while I was writing… Excellent thoughts and much wisdom. I think your reflections are spot-on; I especially resonated with: “I haven’t had to reject my faith. I’ve had to reject my own reduced understandings of it which I was blinded to in immaturity.”

  • tdsutter

    The question on the other side of the same coin it:
    What happens when the theology of the denomination changes and a pastor can’t go along with the change?

  • Kenny Johnson

    Our church, it seems, only requires our pastor (and those in leadership) to hold to a historic orthodox faith — with maybe a few distinctives. We’re part of the Evangelical Cov denomination, which I think makes a difference.

    Our church beliefs statement lists only the Apostles Creed , Nicene Creed, and the ECC’s 6 distinctives: The centrality of the Word of God, The necessity of the new birth, A commitment to the whole mission of the church, The church as a fellowship of believers, A conscious dependence on the Holy Spirit and The reality of freedom in Christ.

    So, I’ve felt quite comfortable talking to my pastor about my doubts on the inerrancy of scripture and other “controversial” topics.

  • Ann


    Here’s what the A/G Bylaws state regarding eschatology and ministers:

    e. Credentials jeopardized if made an issue. We recommend that those ministers who
    embrace any of the foregoing eschatological errors refrain from preaching or teaching them.
    Should they persist in emphasizing these doctrines to the point of making them an issue, their
    standing in the Fellowship will be seriously affected (Luke 21:34-36; 1 Thessalonians 5:9,10;
    2 Thessalonians 1:4-10; Revelation 3:10,19,20).

    That’s why I’m comfortable with disagreeing with the Fundamental Truths on this issue. So far as I know, this is the only Fundamental Truth the A/G allows differing opinions on. When I was credentialed I told the committee that I wasn’t sure on this point, so it’s not a secret. And, the fact that I don’t have a strong opinion on eschatology helps, too. I’m pre-millennial; my disagreement is with the pre-trib rapture. But I have no problem teaching the imminent return of Christ, so long as I can avoid getting into the whole tribulation teaching.

  • DRT

    We need a universal pastors union that will support pastors as their faith shifts and allow them the ability to leave a current job, with integrity, and find new ones. Pastors, perhaps more than anyone, need that support.

    Anyone in?

  • DRT

    Vincent J. Eagan, III #31, certainly you jest, right?

  • Andrew

    @ Edward hopper – thanks for your story- I suspect we are on similar trajectories and that I am a few steps behind.

  • Paul W

    “No name but Christian, no creed but the Bible”

    Sounds like a great statement of faith. Anyone want to contribute to it or build upon it? Any suggestions DRT?

  • Kenny Johnson

    One might even call it a creed.

  • @#41 Kenny Exactly!

    #31 is clearly a Church of Christ adherent even if he states that he is not part of the major denomination.

    Dismissing names other than Christian is just silly. While those names can certainly be problematic they are more often helpful. A reformed Christian and an Anabaptist Christian can both claim to be Christians but if they want to have a meaningful discussion on theology having such names is immensely helpful. That is, unless they have hours to kill by listing off each theological tenant to which they hold.

  • DRT

    “No name but Christian, no creed but the Bible, and no mechanical instruments in Church. Amen”

  • Bev Gordon

    Reading through this discussion I could not help but be reminded of George MacDonald’s novel “The Curate’s Awakening” (the edited version by Michael Philips). I want to recommend it as a wonderful summer read from an old master storyteller. It is a beautiful story of one pastor’s journey of facing the unbelief in his own heart, the willingness to wrestle with God, ultimately coming to a place of passionate joy in God. MacDonald himself had a huge shift in his ministry and paid the price of dismissal from the organized Church of Scotland. But the Ecclesiastical Sanhedrin could not silence his voice and the world is richer because of his dismissal. MacDonald left an amazing treasure trove of riches in his writing. At the height of his popularity his books sold second to Lewis Carroll. He greatly influenced C.S. Lewis and later Francis Shaeffer. If you take the time to read this book, have a marker handy, you will want to underline.

  • Hello, my name is Mark Stevens and I used to be an Assemblies of God pastor. Because the nature of Scot’s post is about changing theological beliefs as it relates to denominations and churches I will not go into the more person story of why I am no longer an AoG pastor or member. Although my story is filled with much personal pain and disappointment I am blessed to say that God was faithful and I am now able to look back at those years with a sense of gratitude and grace. But it took a while.

    As part of the credential process I was required to affirm the theological distinctive of the Assemblies of God. At the time I was unsure of how I felt about a second and distinct work of grace known as baptism in the Holy Spirit. I was told to say what I needed to say and be done with it. A little over 12 months later I returned my credential to the AG as I felt I could not hold it with integrity. But this was not the only reason. I had begun to feel incredible uncomfortable with the practical theology of the AG movement. The culture and ministry of the church were not something I was overly comfortable with.I felt it wasn’t the right fit for me. What is sad is there was no forum in which to discuss one’s disagreements and no room for me to teach what I felt was my views on the issue. I understand it has to do with identity and core values but still, I was ostracised from a group that was a large part of my formation.

    After I resigned I left the AG and we didn’t attend church for 3 years. But we kept our faith and gave ourselves time to heal. I enrolled at Tabor (Seminary where Scot recently taught In Adelaide). Within a good, healthy framework, my lecturers at Tabor, Graham Buxton, David McGregor and Mark Worthing, gave me room to think through my theology. They helped me explore what I believed about scripture and theology. It was a liberating experience. I found this an incredibly lonely time because most pastors I met with had little to no interest in such things.

    To cut a long story short after some time we moved into the Churches of Christ. They had been my wife’s denomination. Ironically, here they would sit more comfortably within the western-liberal mainline denominations. They allowed me to becomea pastor, they affirmed my call and ordained me. I have been pastoring a church that I love and appreciate. It is the perfect fit. The more liberal members of the denomination (and I say that respectfully) were the one’s who allowed me to explore what I believe. Don’t get me wrong I have not become a liberal. I believe a lot of what I once did, but now it is mine. I am less pentecostal in practise but still Spirit led (does that make sense?). But I feel like an outsider, a theological refugee. I don’t belong where I came from and I don’t belong here now. But they let me sit and give me grace.

    As for my church? They took a huge risk calling me. A former pentecostal. But it is working well. I fond I am still conservative but perhaps a little more thought through, thoughtful and gracious with what I believe. In fact, I am probably more conservative now than when I got here. But I pastor the church. My theology is mine. It informs how I read and teach scripture. But there are folks in our church who are liberal or moderate. We disagree and I make my point. It seems to work well. I would say that as long as I stick to the creed then I can stay.

    So where am I know? Alone but not lonely. A theological refugee. An Outsider. I work through my theology with friends and via my blog (a huge help) and the occasional vsiiting lecturer! 🙂 If folks want to read more of my journey they can do so here (http://theparsonspatch.com/category/from-pentecost-to-resurrection/)

  • DRT

    Sorry for goint off topic, but I want to offer a note to the folks who have contributed to this thread, whether in writing or in their heart.

    You all have one tough assignment. For me, integrity is defined by alignment between ones thoughts and their actions, and in this day we all have a difficult time performing our jobs with integrity. It is part of our lives.

    But Pastors have god looking over their shoulder as well as the expectation of integrity from the congregants. I can easily see and condone a Pastor performing her/his role while in doubt, and even when decided, but the cognitive dissonance and guilt, guilt, and guilt must be absolutely horrible. Please God bless all of you and give you strength.


  • I am a Church of Christ minister and want to respond in light of Vincent’s comment #31. Do preachers in Churches of Christ experience theological shifts? Of course they (we) do. The many, many ministers whom I know as friends and peers have many of the same struggles and challenges that pastors of other traditions have.

    Vincent’s characterization of Churches of Christ is very familiar. Yes, it still exists in many places. In fact, this is very much the mindset of what I grew up with.

    However, many, many church leaders (both elders and preachers) no longer hold to this exclusivist mindset. Many of us recognize that while we had no written creed, we certainly had an oral or assumed creed. Instead of pulling away from one another, many of us are more interested in learning from one another and appreciating faith wherever we find it.

    Do Churches of Christ still have room to grow? Plenty! Yes, we have some particular challenges due to our own history and background. Yet, at the same time, I can say that the impression that might be left in comment #31 does not characterize so many of the preachers and congregations that I am familiar with.

  • I pastored a small, yet growing, church in Ohio where the decades-long members were basically biblically illiterate. I encouraged them from the beginning to begin reading and studying scriptures – to not just sit and listen to whatever the pastor said. Some took that to heart and flourished and grew. In the time I was there, we did grow substantially with new to the faith believers and I got the honor of baptizing many people. However, as I tried to grow the understanding of the decades-long members, they began to resent and purposefully stop the growth of learning the scriptures. Through much discussion and prayer, I began to see they didn’t like to see what they didn’t know and what the scriptures – mainly the gospel – was calling them to do – to get outside the walls into the mission field. They themselves didn’t want to grow theologically and that became a huge issue. I am a reader and learner and it became stifling to me. There lack of wanting to grow was hindering my own growth. I finally had to make the heart wrenching decision to leave. A church plant has grown out of the outreach ministry I founded and I encourage conversations full of diversity, learning, and stretching our thoughts. I never want to be a pastor who thinks she has it all “figured out” and I don’t want members who only listen to me and my beliefs.

  • Just to clarify for our American friends, there is a big difference between the Churches of Christ denomination in Australia (like Mark #45) and in the USA (Vincent #31). Although the Australian church is descended from the same roots in the 19th century, in practice the denomination here is a more middle-of-the-road evangelical church. When we hired an ex-Baptist Pastor from the USA, he was initially a bit confused why we were even talking to him, until he worked out that the Aussie CoC is a very different beast.

    As a former (Aussie) Church of Christ member (and musician), I find Vincent’s post #31 very inconsistent – whilst claiming to not care for any sort of doctrinal statement, he is willing to leave a church that is contemplating introducing even a piano!? All based on a bizarre reading of Col 3 and ignoring the multitude of Biblical references to musical instruments. Off-topic I know, but my mind boggles at this.

    I also find Mark’s post in #45 very interesting as I have basically just made the reverse transition to him. After moving cities we have found an AoG church here to be the most comfortable fit. Although they are perhaps a bit more conservative on some issues than I am, they were the most welcoming and the worship style was what I like. Nothing in the preaching or services has bothered me theologically, however the “Baptism of the Spirit” thing came up on a couple of forms I had to fill in. In the end I decided to write the same date as my conversion/water baptism – because I believe that’s when I initially got filled with the Holy Spirit. Like Mark above, I don’t believe in a separate distinct Baptism of the Spirit, and although I am okay with tongues, I believe it’s quite explicit in the NT that not every Christian necessarily receives this gift. Anyway my AoG journey continues…

  • Just to clarify, the Churches of Christ I am a part of now is descended from the Stone/ Cambell movement and here in South Australia is perhaps most closely related to the Disciples of Christ in the USA. Having said that it is not a story I personally resonate with.

  • John W Frye

    The content of the Bible is stable and unchanging (as far as we’ve been told by good, evangelical textual critics). Theological formulations of the Bible’s content exist on a continuum from Bible-based, history-enduring, reason-affirmed, life-transforming essentials (one example: the Trinity) to the latest theological look out for the newest anti-Christ (I hear he’s Islamic now). Of course pastors are going to shift theologically if they pay attention to theology at all. Theological formulations are (and this may surprise some) NOT inerrant. Yes, there are a few groups whose theology petrified in the Reformation, but many others have moved on into the 21st century. Reformed and always reforming, cough, cough.

  • Jesse

    I studied to be a pastor in college and graduated six years ago, but have yet to be hired by a church. In the interim, I’ve done a lot of theological changing from a journey towards emergent to a hard swing to Reformed to, now, somewhere in the middle having an appreciation for both sides, but unwilling to land where either does on a number of issues.

    I’m confident that were I a pastor during this time, I would not have been welcomed by my congregation (though, that may have been easier were I a youth pastor…but maybe not).

    I currently volunteer with a non-denominational church where my pastor (an associate) and the senior pastor are changing and shifting in their theological beliefs. What began as typical evangelical (creationist, republican, etc.) is now somewhat more liberal, but with an unerring focus on Christ as the initiator and perfecter of our faith. I suspect that part will never change and, if it does, I suspect I will leave.

    I am grateful to have not been in ministry during my own theological shifting considering the damage I may have done to others or myself, dying on hills that I wouldn’t die on today. Theological shifts have a way of demanding allegiance when made public.

    I suspect I still have some shifting ahead of me but with some wise words from my pastor about allowing God to work in me internally for a good amount of time before making explicit or public my theological musings (okay in the presence of friends, etc.), I think I’ll fare okay in the pulpit and will be able to give others the grace they need to do some shifting of their own.

  • Ben Thorp

    (Apologies in advance for only skim-reading the comments)

    I’m not a pastor, although I am an elder in my church. We’re a Church of Scotland (thus Presbyterian). There is a fair amount of leeway of belief within the church, as tends to happen with larger denominations, particularly if they are nationalised. However, I do struggle with some of these stories who have reduced their “vocation” to merely a job, and are now in a position where they are no longer qualified for that job. Apologies for going all business-like, but in any other sector of business, if you are not qualified for a job, either at point of application, or further down the line, you should declare it and remove yourself from the job. Ironically, I am currently reading “Words to Winners of Souls” by Horatius Bonar, and he would definitely object to this current state.

    I would be interested to hear your thoughts on the other side of the coin – how/should a minister tolerate a theological shift within his/her denomination? What if that shift is approved of by their congregation? How can a minister continue to faithfully lead a congregation if they disagree substantially with their ruling body?

  • ktb

    I don’t understand why the pastors who are moving theologically do not attempt to transfer to a more like-minded denomination. I personally know Southern Baptist ministers who have become UMC ministers, and UMC ministers who have become UCC ministers, etc., etc., when their theological positions drifted (usually to the theological left). Granted, this may not be easy, and it would be impossible for those who have lost all faith. Also, I’m not a pastor (though I am an Elder in our church), so I an not speaking from direct personal experience.