NASHVILLE, Tenn. — 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
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?”