I call it “The Purge.”
No, I’m not talking about the horror film franchise depicting an annual night where any and all crime is 100% legal. Nor am I referring to the notable but unequivocal free fall in church attendance that began during mandatory COVID-19 lockdowns and has if anything accelerated, especially among the young, singles, and progressives.
I mean pastors seem to be getting fired, and ministers are losing their credentials at an increasing rate. I’m not a statistician, but some researchers have noticed a few disturbing trends that collectively seem to indicate many evangelical churches are circling their wagons, activating a “Fundamentalist Final Solution” to expel people with politics they find disagreeable:
- Accelerating over the past few years, several denominations have experienced schism along ideological lines over social issues such as the ordination of women and LGBTQIA+ affirmation, including The Anglican Church, Southern Baptist Convention, The Episcopal Church, The Lutheran Church, and The United Methodist Church among smaller splits and other churches experiencing extreme discord such as The American Baptist Church, The Presbyterian Church, The United Church of Christ, and The Church of the Nazarene.
- More and more pastors are getting fired for having ideas and opinions that may differ from those in power.
- Post-Covid, many churches are still focusing on “bringing people back” to some kind of event (and pay tithes) rather than becoming a community that loves like Jesus.
- Fewer people than ever see Jesus in the actions and motives of the church…but they can smell Pharisees from miles away.
Notably, this seems to be happening more in fundamentalist churches that have been struggling anyway. Whether wrapped up in the past or privilege, the problem is that oftentimes these churches chase away anyone and everyone who dares to be different, whether that be hungry or homeless individuals, those who care about social justice, or members of the LGBTQIA+ community.
The pastors that actually are trying to effect change and make disciples by loving the least of these are the ones getting purged.
Of course, it would be unfair to lump local congregations together in blame; certainly there are good, loving people that support their maverick pastors, even in fundamentalist denominations.
Squeaky Wheels Get the Grease
Two principles are at play: as said by Dr. Martin Luther King, “One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” That’s all well and good, but Voltaire’s observation is equally valid: “It is dangerous to be right in matters on which the established authorities are wrong.”
Especially narcissistic fear-mongering church leaders have adopted a conform or be cast out mentality. Though “The Purge” is definitely happening on a local level to some degree as a result of the ongoing culture war, denominational leaders appear to be practicing ecclesiastical colonialism on a global scale.
This exploitation is not only ideological but economical. As small churches are foundering, many pastors have accepted lower salaries, and in some cases are now unpaid.
I am personally aware of small church pastors who have worked with zero compensation and paid from their own pockets to keep church utilities connected. One pastoral family with children even gave up living in their house for weeks at a time, and began sleeping and bathing in the church building because they could only afford to pay one electric bill, not both. Their denomination was unwilling to contribute anything to alleviate the situation, but did purchase a brand new colorful church sign to attract passing motorists to scheduled services.
Lack of financial support, especially when pastors have children, can be an effective way for parent denominations to “unhire” ministers who demonstrate independent thought without the bad PR of a defrocking.
This famine of resources is not universal; one denominational leader devoted almost double the word space of a regional church press release to call for prayer and the presumption of innocence for a pastor charged with manufacturing child pornography than he spent acknowledging the victims of the same crime. Rightly, that predator pastor was convicted and is serving a lengthy sentence in a Federal penitentiary.
Too many denominations are spending precious time and resources protecting predators and firing pastors who vocalize a need for change.
More Than Just Cancel Culture
By and far, one-sided witch hunts like this one against innocent and often courageous ministers are happening more and more. One could say that the “cancel culture” (derided originally by many on the right) invaded the church, but fundamentalist ideologues in the church have always purged here and there—only now it has become normalized.
In the late 1990’s, it was always a surreal joke how the Southern Baptist Convention boycotted The Walt Disney Company.
Today, what is old is new again: fundamentalists are boycotting not only Disney, but Target, Kohl’s, Hallmark Channel, Budweiser, Garth Brooks, non-supporters of Jason Aldean, Barbie (the film and the plastic doll), The Little Mermaid (2023 film), and Cracker Barrel, in addition to stupid pointless ongoing bans against American Airlines, Barney (the dinosaur), Beauty and the Beast (2017 film), CNN, Delta Airlines, The Dixie Chicks, Ford, France, Jen Hatmaker, Lego, M&M’s, North Face, Teletubbies, The New York Times, and Starbucks just to name a few.
So, many Fundamentalists are more worried about where they spend money than when the church they fund with tithes and offerings fires people who devote their entire lives to Christlike discipleship.
I used to think that the church—you know, the body of Christ—was like a dysfunctional family, that we all sat at the same communion table with Jesus. Around the table we might have grudging hostilities and disagreements (not unlike so many families during the holidays), but when we join together and take the bread and the cup, we are connected in love with one another and with Jesus.
It’s a nice thought, one I’ve even written of before, but now we are so separated, I’ve slowly come to believe a different narrative could be taking place.
A Parable About People
As recorded in the Gospel of Matthew, when Jesus told the Parable of the Talents, he illustrates two kinds of people.
First, there are those who work to maximize and develop the resources they have been entrusted with. As Jesus explains it, some may receive more than others—one was given five talents (or bags of gold, depending on the dynamism of your English translation) by a master going on a long journey, and another was given two—“each according to his ability” (Matt. 25:15).
Now, even a single talent was a lot of wealth in that day and time, equivalent to approximately twenty times an average worker’s annual salary. These people were asked to be stewards of something on a massive scale. And though the parable uses wealth as an example, churches and denominations are certainly stewards of not just money and real estate, but people.
The church isn’t a bank account or bricks and mortar, it’s not a fund, or the deed to land where one could build a tax-free university. The church is people—the body of Christ, the beautiful hands and feet of Jesus that bring good news.
In this parable, both who invested what they were entrusted doubled their earnings. I consider this a gorgeous illustration of the theology of ordination in most Christian churches.
Although minor details between denominations exist, ordination begins when God calls individuals to a life of ministry. In response, churches recognize and confirm God’s calling in the life of the individual by developing them educationally and experientially and eventually authorize them to minister on the church’s behalf.
When God gives people to these church organizations, we have a responsibility to not merely equip them as ministry leaders, but to truly invest in who they are as individuals created in the image of God and called by him to serve and sacrifice for his kingdom.
Many ministers have devoted their entire lives to follow a calling they received from the Lord. This is more than going to seminary and serving as a volunteer—most have dedicated their entire lives and forsaken any other future to serve in ministry. Rather than dreaming of being an Astronaut or fireman, those called of God set aside their own ambitions to simply go wherever God leads them.
Church professionals and leaders whom are entrusted with the careers, lives, and very futures of called ones have an important but sacred task: to invest in these ministers, to pour into their lives whatever can maximize their success.
There Will Be a Day
But we must remember there is the second kind of person Jesus spoke about in the parable, the one who was given just a single talent. He dug a hole in the ground and hid it.
More than just squandering what could be the most valuable thing God has blessed them with, when churches and denominations fire pastors for expressing Christlike thought, they are burying their heads in the sand.
As with the Parable of the Talents, it is infinitely harder to fire or defrock ministers than it is to equip them. The stewards in the parable didn’t have to go to great effort to protect and invest in what they had received, yet the one who buried what he was given in the sand not only made a dumb decision, he doubled his work by having to dig it back up.
Unlike the other stewards who had invested, gained, and then been rewarded as good and faithful by the master upon his return, when the man who buried the talent told his master what he had done, everything was taken from him. The master denounced him as wicked and lazy, and threw him out of the kingdom into a darkness of sorrow and suffering.
Churches purging pastors take note: there will be a reckoning.