by Bruce Gerencser cross posted from his blog The Way Forward
Most homes and apartments have closets. We use closets to store things, keep things out of sight, and to maintain order. Metaphorically, a closet is a state or condition of secrecy, privacy, or obscurity.
A few years back my family and I lived in Yuma, Arizona. We lived in a beautiful home, the largest home we have ever lived in. (twice the size our present house) The master bedroom had a ginormous closet, bigger than several offices I’ve had over the years. This closet was perfect for a person like me. I have an Obsessive Compulsive Personality and I love order. I love everything having its own place.
So it is with Evangelical Christianity. Evangelicals have a ginormous closet they use to store the people and behaviors they don’t want other Evangelicals and the outside world to see. This closet is a metaphorical closet, a state or condition of secrecy, privacy, or obscurity.
Evangelicals believe the Bible is the inspired, authoritative Word of God. They believe the Bible is God’s guidebook for life, the roadmap for life, the divine standard for living. The Bible itself says:
According as his divine power hath given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness, through the knowledge of him that hath called us to glory and virtue: 2 Peter 1:3
According to 2 Peter 1:3, God has given the Evangelical Christian EVERYTHING they need pertaining to life and godliness. Filled with the Holy Spirit and armed with an infallible, supernatural Bible, the Evangelical has everything they need to live a Godly, holy, righteous life.
According to the Bible, Evangelicals should be the cream of the moral and ethical crop. They should be pillars of virtue in their communities. Surely, a person filled with God Spirit and having God’s written blueprint for life, should be head and shoulders above the rest of us mere fallible cretins.
Should be, yes, but are they? No. Every week there is yet another Evangelical pastor, evangelist, professor, principal, teacher, or para-church leader in the news because of a moral failing or some sort of criminal behavior. Every week we hear of another Holy Spirit filled Evangelical church member committing a crime, getting divorced, entering rehab, having an affair, having a baby out-of-wedlock, getting busted for drug possession, or getting a DUI.
We know Evangelicals are no more or less moral and ethical than their non-Evangelical counterparts. The Evangelical’s life is indistinguishable from the life of the non-Evangelical. In every way the Evangelical is just like everyone else. Take away from the picture the trappings of the Evangelical ghetto and all that is left is a life that looks pretty much just like everyone else’s life.
Foundational to Evangelical life is the notion that some actions are sin. The Bible defines sin as transgression of the law, law meaning the law of God. When an Evangelical does something that is on the official Evangelical sin list (and the list varies from Evangelical to Evangelical, pastor to pastor, church to church) they believe they are sinning against a thrice holy God. Every sin is an affront to God. Every sin is a repudiation of what Jesus did on the cross for the Evangelical.
Evangelicals hear their pastor and para-church leaders routinely delineate exactly what actions (and thoughts) are sins. Evangelicals are expected to NOT sin. They are expected to show in their lives that they are a follower of King Jesus.
While Evangelicals will likely deny it, a lot of emphasis is placed on looking like and outwardly acting like an Evangelical Christian. At an early age, Evangelicals learn to play the façade game. They learn the lingo and they learn what outward actions will make others think they are an Evangelical in good standing. Perception is what matters.
Evangelicals are taught that God wants them to be winners, to be victorious. The Bible says, speaking of the Christian, if God be for us who can be against us? Paul encouraged Christians to run the race that was set before them. They were to always keep their eye on the goal of crossing the finish line as the winner of the race.
Evangelical church services can best be described as a pep rally or a motivational seminar. How-to sermons are common and the goal is to help church members live up to the Bible-standard of conduct. Take a look around the average Evangelical church…a monoculture, people looking, thinking, and living the same way. Evangelicalism is the king of the religious manufacturing world, producing from one die Evangelical Christian after Evangelical Christian.
To the outsider, the Evangelical way of life seems to be worthy of emulation. Their demeanor and way of life, complete with perfect marriages and families, cause many an outsider to desire what the Evangelical has. The Evangelical façade gives the appearance that all is well in Evangelicalism, but if we look in the Evangelical closet we quickly find out that looks can be deceiving.
As I mentioned above, Evangelicals are not any different from their counterparts in the “world.” For the most part they live just like everyone else does. They have similar attitudes, desires, wants, and needs and therein lies the problem for Evangelicals. Many of their attitudes, desires, wants, and needs are considered “sin.” If they indulge these attitudes, desires, wants, and needs they are breaking God’s law and breaking God’s law results in them being out of fellowship with God and out of fellowship with their fellow Evangelicals.
Not only are they out of fellowship with God, according to the Bible, they will likely be chastised by God for being disobedient. Evangelicals fear God punishing them for giving in to “sinful” attitudes, desires, wants, and needs. Sunday after Sunday they are implored by their pastor to live right, get right with God, repent, be on fire for Jesus, and to so order their lives that Jesus would be proud to call them his own. They are told Jesus is coming soon and that they should want to be found faithfully serving Jesus when he comes again. After all, no Evangelical wants to be caught at an adult bookstore, bar, or rock concert, when Jesus comes again.
Every Sunday Evangelicals leave their places of worship with a heart set on living a life that is pleasing to God. And then…an hour, a day, or a week later…their “sinful” attitudes, desires, wants, and needs draw them back into the “world.” The Evangelical is caught in a constant struggle between their humanness, who they really are, and this struggle leads to fear and guilt.
The Evangelical knows their life must be lived a certain way in order for them to be pleasing to God, and more importantly, for them to be accepted by their pastor and fellow Evangelicals. Since they can not successfully keep from giving in to their “sinful” attitudes, desires, wants, and needs, they learn to give the outward appearance of having it all together.
They take all their “sinful” attitudes, desires, wants, and needs and shove them to the back of the Evangelical closet. Once in the closet, no one will ever know what really goes on in their life. As long as they outwardly looks and acts like an Evangelical all will be well.
If there is one thing I know about the Evangelical closet, it is this…what is put in the closet rarely stays in the closet. Human nature, human wants, desires, and needs will most always win over commands and demands from a religious text like the Bible. When a struggle between God and human nature breaks out, human nature usually wins the battle.
Evangelicals are taught that basic human emotions and desires like anger, envy, jealousy, and lust are “sins.” Eating too much,cursing, indulging in a smoke or a beer, having sex with the wrong person, watching the wrong programs on TV, voting for the wrong person, supporting the wrong causes, having the wrong kind of friends, wearing the wrong kind of clothes, not reading the Bible or praying every day, or reading the wrong kind of books, among countless other things, are “sins” according to the Evangelical interpretation of the Bible.
When in the company of fellow Evangelicals, the Evangelical thinks, acts, looks, and talks in the approved manner. Once away from the company of their fellow Evangelicals they often reverts to their base nature and as much as they try to keep their base needs, wants and desires in the closet, out they come.
Sometimes their “sinful” attitudes, desires, wants, and needs spill out for all to see, and once this happens everyone knows that the Evangelical is just like everyone else. They have the propensity to be a good or bad person just like everyone else. They are, outside of what they do with their time on Sunday, no different from the atheist, humanist,new-ager, or those they thinks worship false Gods.
The difference, of course, is that the Evangelical has presented themselves to the world as a righteous, holy, moral, and ethical human being. They led others to believe that they are above the fray, different and better than the “sinners” in the world. Their outward demonstration of Evangelical faith gives the appearance that they are a devoted follower of Jesus, a person committed to living a life of devotion, a life of godliness.
And then the truth comes out. Jack Schaap, David Hyles, Jack Hyles, Ted Haggard, Jimmy Swaggart, Bob Gray, Jim Bakker, and countless Evangelical men and women you have never heard of, are exposed as fornicators, adulterers, child molesters, or thieves. Out of the closet comes Evangelical men and women who are gay. Out of the closet comes Evangelicals with computers filled with pornographic images. Every behavior found among the unwashed, uncircumcised Philistines of the world is found among Evangelicals.
Evangelicals are shocked to find out that the people they trusted to lead them, to teach them the Bible, are hypocrites, living one way while telling them to live another way. Often they are shocked to find out the people they went to church with every Sunday are perverts, alcoholics, drug addicts, and tax cheats.
Those of us outside of Evangelicalism often have a perverse sense of delight when Evangelicals are exposed as being just like the rest of us. When a Jack Schaap, James Henderson, or a Ted Haggard is exposed for all the world to see we cheer and say, serves them right.
That said, those of us who were once Evangelicals often forget what we once were. We forget how we used to live our lives. We forget that we had our own secret “sins” that we stored ever-so-carefully in the Evangelical closet.
If we remember where we came from, perhaps we can then have a bit of sympathy and understanding for Evangelicals who find their humanness exposed for all to see. By being exposed they are now forced to come to terms with their humanness. They are forced to admit that, no they are not any different from the people they call heathens, sinners, degenerates, reprobates, or godless. It is hard for Evangelicals to admit, I am human, to admit that, for all their sanctimony and Bible-thumping, they are no different from atheists like me.
The first step in the twelve step embracing your humanness program is to admit you are not better than anyone else. This first step is hard for Evangelicals because they have spent their entire lives thinking they were special, that they were unique, chosen by God.
I am not suggesting that all bad behaviors by Evangelicals are just the Evangelicals being human and should be excused. We all know that certain behaviors are wrong regardless of who is doing it. Harmful acts against children are always wrong. Physically or sexually assaulting others is always wrong. We understand that there is a small set of human behaviors that must not be tolerated and should be punished. (like my counselor told me, we can all agree that killing, roasting, and eating a baby is wrong)
Many of the Evangelical “sins” are not what non-Evangelicals would consider wrong. It is the Evangelical moral and ethical code that says certain behaviors are wrong and often Evangelicals find themselves doing things that are contrary to the official Evangelical code of living. Their behavior is only wrong when viewed in the context of their Evangelical beliefs.
A central tenet of the Evangelical religion is self-denial. Evangelicals are taught and expected to deny who and what they really are. If the Bible says something is a “sin” then the Evangelical MUST refrain from doing it regardless of what their desire, want, or need is.
Consider this illustration. An Evangelical man knows he is a homosexual or bisexual. No matter how much he tries to deny his desires, no matter how often he tries to pray away the gay, he still has homosexual or bisexual desires. He may even marry a godly Christian woman, but buried deep in his Evangelical closet is the fact that he is a homosexual, that he desires to love men and have sex with men. All the self-denial in the world won’t change who he really is and what he really desires.
Evangelical Christianity considers every normal sexual desire a sin except heterosexual, monogamous, married sex. Homosexuality, bisexuality, sex before marriage, non-monogamous sex, and masturbation are all routinely labeled as “sins” against God. Looking at pornographic magazines, watching pay-per-pew porn movies, or perusing videos at youporn.com are all considered “sinful” acts that no godly Evangelical would ever commit.
The Evangelical is taught to fight against their humanness. They must deny the lusts of the flesh. They must die to self. They must crucify the flesh. But they can’t. No matter how much they try, their humanness still forces its way to the forefront and they end up doing things that their church, pastor, and fellow Evangelicals consider “sinful.”
It should come as no surprise that living like this often results in mental breakdown. Ex-Evangelicals like me often spend countless hours in therapy trying to reconnect with who and what we really are. Riddled with fear and guilt, our lives are in need of complete demolition and reconstruction. Everything must be stripped away before the true, authentic person can be found again. Who we really are was swallowed up by our devotion to God, the church, and the Bible, and only by casting those things aside can we find once again who and what we really are.
It often takes years and years to get back what was taken from us. As we regain our humanness, we are often confronted with angry thoughts and feelings. We feel betrayed and we wonder how could we have been sucked into the Evangelical way of life. We wonder…at what point did we surrender our humanness? For people like me, we surrendered our humanness as children. We lived with fear and guilt for decades, and even now we battle with an Evangelical guilt hangover. We wonder if we’ll ever truly be free from our past, free from those things that robbed us of who we really are.
I am an avid fan of the Showtime hit, Dexter. The main character of Dexter is forensic blood splatter expert by day, serial killer by night, Dexter Morgan. Dexter’s sister Debra is a detective, and she recently found out that Dexter is a serial killer. She has decided that she is going to keep Dexter from killing. In an episode of Dexter, Debra’s attempts to keep Dexter from killing cause a rift between her and Dexter. Why? Debra is driving Dexter crazy by trying to keep him from being who he really is. She wants him to stop killing and he want to follow what he calls his “dark passenger” and kill people he believes deserve to be killed. (Dexter follows a code given to him by his father Harry, a code that Dexter uses to determine who should be killed) Debra finally realizes that Dexter must be free to be who he is. Little does she know that he never did stop killing. Dexter is a serial killer, and killing is what serial killers do.
Evangelicals are humans, and like Dexter, their humanness calls to them and demands attention. No matter how long or how often they force their humanness into the Evangelical closet, it continues to call out to them. They can no more deny who they are than Dexter Morgan can deny that he is a serial killer.
The only hope for the Evangelical is to leave Evangelicalism. Its beliefs and practices are not healthy. Any belief system that requires a person to deny their humanness and calls normative human behavior “sin” is not healthy and should be rejected.
I am not suggesting that atheism, agnosticism, or humanism is the answer. For some of us it is, but for many people, atheism, agnosticism, or humanism will not give them what they need emotionally or spiritually. (and atheists are naïve to think otherwise) All of us need beliefs, connections, and interactions that celebrate and respect our humanness and give meaning, purpose, and significance to our lives. There are countless religious groups and beliefs a person can find meaningful without losing who they really are. The Evangelical must be willing to break free from the certainty that Evangelicalism purports to give and then embark on a journey of self-discovery.
This journey is called the human life, a life of embracing who and what we are. A life of depth and meaning that allows us to find a life that matters. This is a journey we must walk alone. There is no right or wrong path as long as we walk with openness, honesty, and integrity.
Above all…we must embrace who and what we are.
Comments open below
Bruce Gerencser spent 25 years pastoring Independent Fundamental Baptist, Southern Baptist, and Christian Union churches in Ohio, Michigan, and Texas. Bruce attended Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan. He is a writer and operates The Way Forward blog. Bruce lives in NW Ohio with his wife of 35 years. They have 6 children, and nine grandchildren.
NLQ Recommended Reading …
‘Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment‘ by Janet Heimlich
‘Quivering Daughters‘ by Hillary McFarland
‘Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement‘ by Kathryn Joyce