What would you do if your pastor one Sunday announced that he no longer believes in God? Sadly, this scenario has become a reality for some.
The Clergy Project, launched in March 2011, touts itself as “a confidential online community for active and former clergy who do not hold supernatural beliefs.” Now boasting over 300 members, the organization helps these men and women “move beyond their faith” as they “freely discuss issues related to their transition from believer to unbeliever.”
One of the first pastors to publicly announce his transition from professing Christian to atheist was Mike Aus, who once pastored Theophilus church in Houston, Texas. Rather than first sharing the news with the 80 members of his church, Aus opted instead to announce his lack of belief on the MSNBC show, “Up with Chris Hayes.” In this interview, Aus stated, “One of the dirty little secrets of Christianity is that hardly anyone reads the Bible. I think if they did, the whole thing would be in big trouble.”
Aus also noted,
It’s been difficult to say farewell to parts of my life that have meant something to me. It’s also thrilling to see the world in a new way, through Darwinian lenses for example, through the lens of behavioral genetics and cognitive science that are explaining so much about human nature, things that religion could never explain. Source
While Aus was celebrating the outing of his secret, his church members found themselves in a sudden state of shock. Houston’s KPRC reported:
The effect was immediate on his church with about 80 members. Weeks after his announcement, the church dissolved. Members did not want to talk with Local 2 on camera, but they said their pastor’s complete change in faith was devastating. Source
While affected church members seek to understand how a man can preach and profess Christ one day and turn from Him the next, The Clergy Project (TCP) claims to provide a “safe haven” for those ministers who find themselves caught with a profession of faith on their lips, but stark unbelief in their hearts. Perhaps unsurprisingly, TCP was made possible by a donation from The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science and ultimately was inspired by a 2010 pilot study by Daniel C. Dennett and Linda LaScola, “Preachers Who Are Not Believers.” The study identified five “brave pastors” who all were still actively engaged in the ministry at the time of their interview, and concluded by noting some shared patterns among them.
Bit by bit, day by day, they would like to lift their parishioners closer to their own way of seeing the world, but by not speaking their minds, their sincere minds, they squander most of the opportunities to lead their congregations to new ways of thinking. In fact, there is a sort of Hippocratic Oath that all five seem to follow: In the first place, do no damage to any parishioner’s beliefs. Source
Thus, these pastors find themselves constantly veiling and spinning the words they speak to their parishioners. One might imagine that the members of their churches would much prefer to know the truth—that their pastor does not actually believe in the God of the Bible—than to be lied to on a weekly basis.
On 30 April 2012, NPR conducted an interview with Teresa MacBain, the Executive Director of TCP. NPR reports on MacBain’s appearance at the American Atheist’s convention, where she first revealed her lost faith:
“My name is Teresa,” she begins. “I’m a pastor currently serving a Methodist church — at least up to this point” — the audience laughs — “and I am an atheist.”
Hundreds of people jump to their feet. They hoot and clap for more than a minute. MacBain then apologizes to them for being, as she put it, “a hater.”
“I was the one on the right track, and you were the ones that were going to burn in hell,” she says. “And I’m happy to say as I stand before you right now, I’m going to burn with you.”
A few minutes later, MacBain strides off the stage into a waiting crowd. One man is crying as he tells her that her speech is “one of the most moving things I’ve seen in years.” Another woman says she, too, had been a born-again Christian. “Join the club,” she says as she hugs MacBain.
While some of these unbelieving pastors claim to have lost or left their faith, or to have “become” an atheist, the question remains: Were they ever truly a Christian? While TCP claims to help these men and women in their “transition from believer to unbeliever,” is such a transition actually possible? The Apostle John seems to answer this question quite clearly and succinctly:
They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us. 1 John 2:19
This verse, and the reality that even some pastors are not true believers, offers a clear distinction between the visible and the invisible church. It is tragic to think that many pews are warmed by individuals who profess to believe in Christ, but who have never truly repented and trusted in Him alone for salvation. It may be even more devastating, however, to realize that there are those who stand behind the pulpit and preach weekly from the Word of God, yet do not believe what is written inside that great Word. Yet, our Lord alerted us that this very thing would happen, and that tares would grow among the wheat until the time of harvest (Matt. 13:24–30).
The words of the Apostle, then, may bring great comfort, as they also bring to light the reality that God never releases those who truly belong to Him. Of 1 John 2:19, John Calvin writes:
By saying, They went out from us, he means that they had previously occupied a place in the Church, and were counted among the number of the godly. He, however, denies that they were of them, though they had assumed the name of believers, as chaff though mixed with wheat on the same floor cannot yet be deemed wheat.
For if they had been of us He plainly declares that those who fell away had never been members of the Church. And doubtless the seal of God, under which he keeps his own, remains sure, as Paul says, (2 Timothy 2:19.) But here arises a difficulty, for it happens that many who seemed to have embraced Christ, often fall away. To this I answer, that there are three sorts of those who profess the Gospel; there are those who feign piety, while a bad conscience reproves them within; the hypocrisy of others is more deceptive, who not only seek to disguise themselves before men, but also dazzle their own eyes, so that they seem to themselves to worship God aright; the third are those who have the living root of faith, and carry a testimony of their own adoption firmly fixed in their hearts. The two first have no stability; of the last John speaks, when he says, that it is impossible that they should be separated from the Church, for the seal which God’s Spirit engraves on their hearts cannot be obliterated; the incorruptible seed, which has struck roots, cannot be pulled up or destroyed.
He does not speak here of the constancy of men, but of God, whose election must be ratified. He does not then, without reason declare, that where the calling of God is effectual, perseverance would be certain. He, in short, means that they who fall away had never been thoroughly imbued with the knowledge of Christ, but had only a light and a transient taste of it.
So while reports of unbelieving pastors ought to spur the Christian to remain even more firmly planted in the Word, they ought not bring debilitating discouragement. God does keep His own, and those whom He has broken and brought to repentance and faith may rest knowing that “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6).