Can an Atheist pastor a Christian Church?

Recently, a story has come up in Canada regarding a pastor of a United Church is who is fighting a decision by the United Church of Canada to fire her – a move she says is completely unprecedented. In an interview with CBC News, Rev. Gretta Vosper stated that the congregants support her view that how you live is more important than what you believe in, and that she doesn’t believe in God, adding that using the word gets in the way of what she wants to share.

Before going any further, I want to make it clear that I personally have nothing against anyone who changes their mind on faith, and their beliefs. Some of the most intelligent, interesting people I know (particularly some I’ve found through blogging), are in that situation.

But, the first thing I take issue with is that this Reverend immediately makes it clear that teaching about ‘god’ in a church no less (oh my word, the BLASPHEMY), gets in the way of what SHE wants to get across. Now, we all know that as leaders of a church, they are allowed some leeway in their teachings, but all churches also have a mission statement and belief system which the leaders of their churches must adhere to, much like any other job. Part of their job description IS to teach the Word, to believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and to help lead their congregation in a lifestyle requested by Christ, while following Him. The job requirement IS a belief in God, in Christ, and in the teachings of the Word.

Specifically, in the United Church of Canada, part of their ordination vows include affirming a belief in “God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”

In any other job anywhere, when your actions and words, when what you are doing begins to go against the mission statements, goes against the requirements that you claimed to fit, that is automatic reason for dismissal. It’s not unprecedented.

Even as a journalist, I am allowed to utilize my job as a platform, to a small degree, to speak my mind. That comes in the form of a column I get to write once in a while. But, in the rest of my work, it requires an impartial direction, reporting on the news and situations as is – writing based on the facts and commentary I am given by the people I am interviewing. Were I to begin utilizing my stories as a way to put my personal opinion across, to use it as a platform to share my personal beliefs, I am over-stepping the boundaries of the job, and that would be reason to be fired.

Based on the article, and the comments Vosper has made, she seems to believe that the rules of a job, that a job description and requirements should not apply to her. A church is a place of faith, a place to worship, to learn about the Word, and to grow in one’s relationship with that faith. Recently, the bigger outrage over Vosper’s beliefs have not come from her Atheism itself, but because of her choice to remove the Lord’s Prayer from the church, and to identify the Bible as a part of mythology.

Towards the end of the article, Vosper says “If the cost of that is that we are no longer welcome within that denomination, it will be because that denomination has defined us out of it, not because we have defined ourselves out of it.”

Vosper believes that both the mission and beliefs of the Church, particularly in that of God, are part of an outdated worldview, and believes it needs to change.

I’m sorry, but no. The United Church of Canada did not define you out of their denomination, because a definition of their denomination, particularly in their leadership, includes the need to believe in God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

A church, which is the meeting-place of a congregation of people believing in God, in Christ, in the Holy Spirit, does not owe you the right to try to force your beliefs (aka lackthereof) on them. They do not owe you the right to allow you to stand on the pulpit and tell them that their faith is fake, that their god is false, and that their beliefs are nothing more than a myth.

I am all for Vosper’s right to change her mind about her faith, to explore different avenues, and even to share her discoveries with friends and colleagues she has made through the church. Many of the discussions I’ve had with true, good atheists, are ones that have not only challenged my faith, but have made my faith stronger because they’ve forced me to look beyond just what I am told to believe to find what I really believe.

But that right to change belief does not include the right to force a church, to force a denomination to change their beliefs solely so someone can keep their job.

If someone working in a women’s shelter decided that they no longer believed that marital rape, or that abusing one’s spouse should be illegal and punishable, they would no longer be able to work in a shelter, because they would not be teaching these women who have been victimized how to get their lives back, and that they have the right NOT to stay in those relationships.

If someone working at Planned Parenthood decided that they were 100% Pro Life and started pursuing that mission, they would be fired for standing against what Planned Parenthood Represents.

If a butcher decided he was now a vegan and could not condone the killing of animals; guess what, he too would lose his job for being unable to fulfill his job.

I’m sure I could go on for hours with more examples. But I won’t. Instead, I will conclude this. From the little I’ve read about Vosper and her fight, she is not someone who is fighting on principal. She is fighting on a belief that she is somehow better than the Church, better than what the Church is about, because she has determined that their faiths are based in fantasy. She believes that she is more enlightened, and therefore should have the right to supersede the qualifications that all other church leaders should have to adhere to. This is an argument based on sheer arrogance, and when this goes before a tribunal, I truly, truly hope that the tribunal rules on the merits of the job, rather than the supposed superiority of her beliefs.

Comments

  1. Brittany Pines

    First question- why does she WANT to stay? Just because she already has a platform of people listening to her? If you don’t agree, that’s fine, just stop being a part of the organization that does.

    Secondly…just no. I’m not even saying an athiest couldn’t add to the conversation within church (as you’ve stated, sometimes discussing things with those who disagree makes you even more sure of your faith) but as a pastor whose vowed to uphold certain beliefs and responsibilities- no, she is no longer doing her job. Pastors step down/are asked to leave for “moral failings” ALL the time, how can asking someone who blatantly defies the mission and belief of the church to do the same at all unprecedented?

  2. Dan

    I totally agree with you here and thats coming from an athiest viewpoint. Obviously there’s no reason that athiests can’t go to church and get involved with conversations there but being a pastor is ridiculous. Its fine to have a viewpoint like she says but she is definitely not going about sharing it in the right way. I get the impression she’s just another person with a sense of power misuing it.

    Also, love your examples- it really clearly shows how ridiculous the woman is!

    1. Post
      Author
      TabithaWells

      Dan, thank you! I don’t know that I would go as far as to call her ridiculous though. Despite disagreeing completely with her concept that she should still be able to pastor a Christian church, I think what she wants to do is admirable. I just continue to feel that believing that she could take over a place of worship, where people go for a faith in God, to learn more about that, is arrogance. It becomes that attitude of ‘well what I believe is truth, so I should be able to teach it wherever’.

      In honesty, we all feel that what we believe is the ultimate truth. I believe that God, the Bible and Christ are truth. But that wouldn’t give me the right to join an Atheist organization and start telling them ‘well, I’ve come to find truth and it’s not what you believe, so I’m going to start teaching what I believe here, and you can either accept it, or go elsewhere.’ That would have been their place first. It’s the same in this situation. Granted, it’s less likely to happen on the flipside, but the comparison still stands.

  3. gretta

    Hi there,
    It’s not that simple, actually. The UCC has allowed two tracks of theological, and biblical understanding carry it through its entire history. One is an academic track, which I was taught in a UCC theological college and it, using scholarly tools like critical inquiry, allows you to talk about the human construction of the Bible, God as a metaphor or humanly constructed concept but not an all-knowing, supernatural being with interventionist powers, the gospels as the four books out of a couple of dozen that won the political battles that took place in the early church community, and the trinity as something that isn’t even biblical but was made up way later. The other track is the one you’re supposed to stick to from the pulpit: use the language but mean something else while you’re using it so that you don’t disturb people’s security and introduce fear into pastoral situations. I mean, if someone has cancer, are you going to tell them there is no heaven? Likely not then, anyway. But if you’ve already shared that with people, the conversations about death and life and everything we do to create meaning in our lives and beauty in the world – well that all gets richer because it isn’t looped into a story you were essentially taught not to believe when the church educated you.
    So, given these two tracks of knowledge, when you are ordained, you have to be approved by a committee. You sit with that committee and answer its questions about what you believe. Those questions may or may not go through the whole list of doctrinal statements that the church has posted on its website. In fact, I know they wouldn’t include all those questions. Article 19, my personal favourite, says that we believe the finally impenitent will be cast into eternal damnation. Huh? There are few, if any, students who finish theological education in the United Church who would believe that. The committee, given whatever it is you have said, and I would not have used the word “Father” to describe my concept of God even then, gets to decide if you can answer the questions that will be asked of you at your ordination with a Yes. You don’t get to say decide that; the committee gives you permission to say “yes.” Effectively, what they do is listen to you and say, “Hmmm. Well, that sounds like it is in ‘essential agreement’ with the UCC’s statements of doctrine. You’re good to go. Yes! and High Fives all around!”
    So, essentially, I haven’t changed what I’ve believed a whole lot since I was ordained. But fifteen years ago I said enough with the crossing my fingers behind my back, saying “God” when I mean “creating love in the world,” or “Jesus is Lord” when what is meant is “socialism is the best form of democracy” (which is essentially what another UCC minister told me he meant when he used that phrase. I’ll bet his congregation doesn’t know that is what he means!!). And for that whole time, even after publishing two books, one of which was a bestseller and advertised in the UCC’s magazine, no one from the church came to talk about what we were doing at West Hill or why I was speaking without theological language.
    It isn’t simple. But it is about making the world a better place. About allowing church to be a place where anyone who wants to be part of a community that might inspire them to be better people – better to themselves, to others, to the world – or who just needs a community to care for them can feel welcome and not have to learn what I mean if I use theological language all the time. If someone shows up at our door, there should be no learning curve they have to master before they know we care. That’s really what this is about. If anyone at the UCC had come and asked, that’s what we would have told them. They never did so maybe they just don’t know.
    Thanks for letting me blather on! Hope it was helpful!
    gretta

    1. Post
      Author
      TabithaWells

      Gretta,

      Thank you for taking the time to read my post about this. I’ll admit, I was in shock when I saw a comment from you sitting in my inbox.

      I completely understand what you are saying, and am grateful you took the time to explain your position. I do however stand by my original beliefs on this – a church is not the place to do this. While a church is part of a community, it is also a place of faith – and by preaching from the pulpit as an Atheist with your beliefs, you’re essentially telling your entire congregation that they are wrong, because you are preaching what you believe as truth.

      That being said, one idea might be to create an entirely new type of church that falls under what you are talking about. I just don’t think that forcing a church within denomination to basically let go of their roots/faith is the way to do it.

  4. Buford Bourns

    Although, Hamilton said that to the Christian atheist, Jesus is not really the foundation of faith; instead, he is a “place to be, a standpoint”. Christian atheists look to Jesus as an example of what a Christian should be, but they do not see him as God.

    1. Post
      Author
      TabithaWells

      You can’t be a Christian atheist. Jesus as the son of God is the foundation of Christian faith, whether you like it or not. It is what separates Christianity from the other Abrahamic faiths. You may like the idea of Jesus as a man and see him as an example, but that does not make you a Christian. You cannot be both a Christian and an atheist, and anyone who claims that lacks complete understanding of Christianity.

  5. Tim

    I don’t know that I agree that someone who is suddenly 100% pro-life would be fired from a Planned Parenthood. If such a firing were to happen, that would open Planned Parenthood up to a giant lawsuit that would likely come in very short order. Likewise, someone who has changed their religious beliefs should not be required to leave their job in a church just because of their change in beliefs. Granted, as some of the other commenters have said, I don’t understand why you would stay working for a church if you’ve become an atheist, you are also not obligated to leave.

    The concept of a Devil’s advocate was employed by the Catholic church to argue against the canonization of church members and was used to great effect. What is to say that a church could not employ someone who is atheist in a similar manner to help improve their arguments that come from people who don’t share their faith? I feel like it’s a logical extension by a church if they want to continue to hone the arguments in favor of their doctrine.

    1. Post
      Author
      TabithaWells

      That was why I mentioned the pursuing that… as in denying abortions, turning women away, the likes.

      I don’t think employing someone in the sense of a Devil’s advocate-style position is a bad thing. I also don’t think having those kinds of conversations are bad things. But the Pastor is the leader of the Church; having a belief in God is necessary. One cannot lead a church in faith in God, Christ and the Bible if they all believe it is fiction.

      If this pastor was fighting to have just that kind of role in her church, I’d think it was a great idea. But she doesn’t – she wants to remain as the pastor, teaching the church that their beliefs are fictional. Not exactly appropriate.

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