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CULTURE DIGEST: ‘Unbelieving’ pastors?

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–A study by Tufts University has called attention to the presence of Protestant pastors who do not believe what they preach, something the authors describe as a nearly “invisible phenomenon” of “unbelieving clergy.”

Ambiguity regarding who is a believer in Jesus and who is a nonbeliever, the report said, is a result of the pluralism that has been fostered by many religious leaders for at least a century.

“God is many different things to different people, and since we can’t know if one of these conceptions is the right one, we should honor them all,” the authors wrote in summarizing the pluralistic view.

Rather than relying on statistical evidence to point to a conclusion, the study employs anecdotal stories of five ministers whose identities have been obscured. Even the authors admit they couldn’t draw any reliable generalizations from such a small sample of clergy, but what they found, they said, does deserve a closer look.

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.

“‘Preachers Who Are Not Believers’ is a stunning and revealing report that lays bare a level of heresy, apostasy and hypocrisy that staggers the mind,” R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote on his blog in March.

“In 1739, Gilbert Tennett preached his famous sermon, ‘On the Danger of an Unconverted Ministry.’ In that sermon, Tennett described unbelieving pastors as a curse upon the church. They prey upon the faith and the faithful. ‘These caterpillars labor to devour every green thing.’

“If they will not remove themselves from the ministry, they must be removed. If they lack the integrity to resign their pulpits, the churches must muster the integrity to eject them,” Mohler wrote at albertmohler.com. “If they will not ‘out’ themselves, it is the duty of faithful Christians to ‘out’ them. The caterpillars are hard at work. Will it take a report from an atheist to awaken the church to the danger?”

ATTORNEY GENERAL CONFRONTED ON OBSCENITY LAWS — Sen. Orrin Hatch, R.-Utah, confronted Attorney General Eric Holder in April regarding the enforcement of federal obscenity laws.

“There has been a pattern at the Department of Justice to prosecute only the most extreme obscene materials,” Hatch, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, told Holder.

“This particular type of material may virtually guarantee a conviction but is not widely produced or consumed and, therefore, its prosecution has little impact on the obscenity industry,” Hatch said.

“This approach of moving the prosecution line out to the fringe signals that material that is just as obscene though less extreme is let off the hook. I believe that approach is misguided and contributes to the proliferation of obscenity that harms individuals, families and communities.”

Hatch asked Holder if he would allow the director of the Justice Department’s Obscenity Prosecution Task Force to enforce federal obscenity laws without restricting him to the most extreme cases, and Holder replied that he would “certainly enforce the law.”

Donna Rice Hughes, president of Enough Is Enough, an organization seeking to make the Internet safer for families, said pornography has proliferated online with little push back from federal prosecution.

“Because it is easier to do, prosecutors often only pursue the low-hanging fruit — the most extreme material,” Hughes said. “Unfortunately, because many elected and appointed prosecutors have ignored the need to protect children from exposure to pornography, there is enough low-hanging fruit to keep prosecutors busy for a long time.

“Worse yet, purveyors of less extreme material receive a loud and clear message that they get a free pass,” Hughes said. “A wiser approach would be to aggressively prosecute the less extreme material meeting the three-pronged Miller test, which serves as the basis for the obscenity statutes.

“Successful convictions of the higher-hanging fruit would automatically send a message to producers and distributors of all prosecutable pornography to abide by the rule of law or risk the strong hand of enforcement.”

Hughes hopes others will join Hatch in encouraging the attorney general to make enforcement of the nation’s obscenity laws a priority. Concerned citizens can e-mail their requests to [email protected].

‘I CAN ONLY IMAGINE’ HITS 1 MILLION DOWNLOADS — MercyMe’s song “I Can Only Imagine” made history April 20, surpassing 1 million digital downloads and becoming the first song in Christian music to go platinum in the digital realm.

“Once again it is overwhelming to see the success that a song which is so personal to me has touched so many lives,” Bart Millard, lead singer of MercyMe, said. “We are honored that our fans continue to buy our records and support our ministry. God has been way too good to us.”

Millard wrote the song more than a decade ago after his father died, and it became a hit on Christian and secular radio, topping the charts by 2001 and winning three Dove awards in 2002.

“This award is a testament to the fact that a song can change the world,” Jeff Moseley, president of INO Records, said as he presented the group with a plaque commemorating 1 million downloads.

MercyMe will release their latest album, “The Generous Mr. Lovewell,” May 4. Millard said the title revolves around a fictional character the band created to remind them to love others well.

“For some of us, it means we need to put hands and feet on our ideology and rhetoric,” he said. “For others, it means that we need to continue in doing well but to not stop there. We need to let people know why we are called to make a difference. Our prayer is that this album would mobilize the body of Christ to encourage people in word and deed.”
Erin Roach is a staff writer for Baptist Press.

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