RE: Can Atheists Be Pastors?

Free Will, Soul Freedom, and Freedom to Be Creedal

There were a couple of blog posts I came across today that had my eyes glued to them as I was asking myself questions. First was from Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed, When Pastors Shift Theology that linked to a survey by Baptist Press, linked here: Cultural Digest: Unbelieving Pastors? about a number of anonymous pastors admitting that they are now atheists performing as ministers of the Gospel on Sunday Mornings. My initial reaction was a little frustration, since I have some suspicions given my experience in seminary and in church circles. There’s a number of unemployed ministers right now looking for a church to work for.

It’s so funny because last night I watched the series 1 finale of the BBC Two t.v. programme, Rev., a hilarious take on the life of a Vicar, almost a mockumentary style much like The Office U.K. and U.S.A. (I highly recommend Rev., btw, it’s entire Series 1 is on for USA readers here: Rev. on Hulu

In the episode, “Ever Been to Nando’s?,” our Reverend Adam Smallbone, the vicar of Saint Saviour’s is having a crisis of faith after some anonymous commenter leaves a poor grade for his sermon online, a post that his archdeacon reads and mocks Adam for. Adam throughout the episode, denies God’s existence, questions his own vocational calling, and even hosts a “Vicars and Whores” party in the sanctuary of Saint Saviours. As a back story, the police are looking for a man posing as a vicar who has gone around town harassing women. It turns out that the culprit, by the end of the episode, is none other than Adam’s homeless friend, Colin, a British version of BrothaMan (from the 1990’s Fox series Martin).

It’s interesting that both of these hilarious but serious stories are being told by the producers of Rev. Adam is posing as a Vicar throughout his questioning of his faith, while Colin, whose among Smallbone’s most faithful congregants, pretends to be a minister for his own reasons. In the end however, Smallbone realizes that it was silly to look for approval from human beings, a random online criticism by the way, and Adam goes about his duty as Vicar at the conclusion.

The other blog post was by Steve Ramey from Religion Bulletin: “Can An Atheist Believe In God?” linked here. Honestly, I cannot understand from my limited context where Christians who become atheists (or vice versa) come from. I have always believed in a higher power from a very young age and the debates over doubt versus faith (i.e., beliefs in propositional truth statements) have always remained too abstract for me. I’m a Christian, but I have the same response to fundamentalist Christian apologetics as skeptics do, they just utterly fail, especially in regards to proving an invisible personal God (whom I fully trust but need no empirical evidence for).

The problem I think lies in many good Christians’ belief that our beliefs take priority over practice. Doubt versus faith, as I have written before, is not the problem, at least not according to Scripture. Rather, it is a struggle of faithfulness versus faithlessness. Now, in the study, there were pastors from both creedal and non-creedal traditions. With creedal traditions, ministers are bound by their words, their very promises to their superiors and congregations. For example, Presbyterians are bound by a number of Reformed Confessions, and sometimes in many places, these confessions take priority over Scripture itself. I would say an atheist in creedal tradition as such has a duty to come clean because it is part of their vocational contract with their denomination. The broken covenant between bishops and the pastor-turned-atheist probably should lead to a resignation.

As for non-creedal traditions, free churches such as Baptists and Congregationalists, it is a little bit more complex. I personally affirm the truth of most creedal statements in formulas prior to the Protestant Reformation, but that is my free choice. Orthodoxy should be a free choice that women and men make each day as a habit of practice, thus, orthopraxis comes before and yet remains equal to orthodoxy. The doctrine of Soul Freedom is denied by creedal denominations (Methodists, Presbyterians, Anglicans, Catholics, Eastern Orthodox) because this freedom is about the ability of every human being to have a relationship with God unmediated, with the capacity to decide for themselves. Orthodoxy thus redefined is the freedom and space to do orthopraxis. Pastors who become atheists in their churches should come clean in front of their congregations, for lies can be damaging once they accumulate up to a certain point. The individual congregations in non-creedal, free churches should alone decide the pastors’ fates.

So I ask you, should churches be lead by seekers? Should communities of faith who are filled with seekers be called “churches” in the first place? Should churches hire non-believers, for musicians or sound technicians or even nursery positions?

I look forward to hearing your thoughts. Especially Optimistic Chad’s.

7 thoughts on “RE: Can Atheists Be Pastors?

  1. Brian LePort

    I think that someone who has forsaken the faith should not continue to lead. I get that in some sense we all remain “seekers,” and I understand that we have doubts (as the episode of Rev. which you mentioned so wonderfully depicts), but if someone has come to the point where they are comfortable saying they no longer believe in God then remaining at a church seems to me to be no more than job security. As you mentioned, there are trained, faithful men and women who could use a job. Step aside and let them have a shot.

    In other words, if I were a committed atheist the last thing I would do with my Sundays is spend that at church with Christians. Go Steelers!

  2. david driedger

    It seems that perhaps the question of time or duration is important here. When does one become and atheist (or Christian) for that matter? I am becoming increasingly ‘low’ church in this regard and am considering fellowship as a reflexive community of redemption that is not maintained through priestly mediation of another plane (Church as grounded by an ontological Other). That does not make these questions unimportant but it does shift where the markers might lie, as well as the exit door (in both directions).

    1. RodtRDH Post author

      Yeah, this is true, David. What if a woman or man in the pulpit is only an atheist for a few weeks. Sabbaticals could be taken, whatever the church decides.

      This is exactly why I think the free church tradition is better, more equipped to handle (ideally) situations such as these.

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