By Jonathan McElrath
A longtime evangelical pastor made waves on social media last week with a Twitter thread announcing he is no longer a Christian. The thread has been set to private, but you can read most of it in this article, though the commentary provided in the article is fairly vacuous and I will not be addressing it here. To me, the thread reads like the genuine anguish of a person legitimately exhausted of trying to pretend to believe something he doesn’t. While it contained some loaded language, it did not strike me as the ramblings of a man who was calling himself a Christian but in fact had no idea what Christianity is in the first place. While he certainly takes a thoroughly negative view of religion, there was no obvious hostility or animosity toward Christians in general.
Most of the time, when I hear atheists talk about how they used to be Christians as if that somehow makes them credible, it quickly becomes fairly easy to identify where it went wrong. Often times, “I used to be a Christian” translates to little more than “I went to church a lot growing up and was involved with my youth group.” Other times, the person has a background in some kind of context where the true Christian faith is not taught to begin with, such as in the Word of Faith movement. A quick google search of his name, Dave Gass, brought me to a page advertising a marriage retreat at which he was to be a speaker, and that page identified him as the senior pastor of Grace Family Fellowship in Missouri. I went to Grace Family Fellowship’s website and it shows no signs of being a false church. Its statement of faith is perfectly orthodox, and it says it is affiliated with the Gospel Coalition, which, despite that organization’s obvious and concerning left turn over the past couple of years, is still a pretty good sign that the church is a legitimate, Bible-believing, conservative evangelical church. Granted, I have no idea when he was there, or for how long, so I can’t pretend to judge his entire Christian experience simply by the fact that he was a pastor there. However, it is worth noting that it does not appear to be a “hyper-fundamentalist” church the way Gass describes his background—perhaps that term means something different to him than it does to me. Beyond that, he shows a good sense of self-awareness. He is clearly familiar with the doctrine of Perseverance of the Saints, because he knows people will say he was not a true believer, or a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
I say all that to simply say the man is not coming from a standpoint of ignorance. He does not seem to be leaving an expressly heretical version of Christianity. This took me somewhat by surprise at first. It is uncomfortable to hear of someone who knows—even teaches—an accurate form of Christianity (at least, accurate as far as I can tell) and then walks away. However, as I was pondering this, it struck me: why would I find this surprising or troubling? I realized something important, which in hindsight seems obvious. Rather than undermining the truth of scripture, stories like this actually attest to it. Reading his story ended up strengthening my faith, not challenging it. I want to show why.
The story of his journey away from the faith starts off with him in 8th grade reading Greek mythology. He says, “It dawned on me how much of the supernatural interactions between the deity of the bible and mankind sounded like ancient mythology. That seed of doubt never went away.” He does not go on to explain exactly why this similarity caused him to doubt the truth or authority of scripture. Later in the thread, he talks of how he immersed himself in apologetics books, but found the answers to his questions to be inadequate. Unfortunately, he does not tell us what these questions supposedly were, or what books he’s referring to (there are a lot of terrible apologetics books, including some very popular ones). This is significant because he admits to doubt early on—years before going to seminary or becoming a pastor—which he carried for his entire Christian life.
After admitting to early doubts which never went away, he goes on to describe the futility of the Christian faith. In his own words, “It felt good to be in a system that promised all the answers and solutions to life. The problem is, the system didn’t work. The promises were empty. The answers were lies.” Again, what exactly the questions and problems are is never explicitly stated, nor does he explain exactly what he understood the answers and solutions to be. He never fully explains what “the system” even is, or what it means for the system to work. That aside, he goes on, talking about how his marriage was a sham, despite doing everything he was supposed to do—ranging from marriage workshops, bible reading, and prayer. Beyond that, he describes frustration in ministry. He never saw anything supernatural. He prayed for people to be healed and they weren’t. He saw children rebel against their parents, just like they do outside of the church. He also details bad experiences he had with power-hungry church members abusing one another, slandering him, and all sorts of general selfishness.
Eventually, he got too burnt out trying to be a “professional Christian” as he calls it. While this is a starkly negative take on his experiences in the church, that shouldn’t be surprising since he’s detailing why he is leaving. He does not say he had no positive experiences at all, or that his criticisms apply to everyone in the church. That being said, the bad definitely seems to have outweighed whatever good there was in his estimation. Nonetheless, leaving is difficult for him, and understandably so. After all, his entire support system—both socially and financially—has been the church. To suddenly leave that in the middle of your adult life is legitimately difficult.
In this difficulty, he has found a support system. Upon leaving the church, he says he found people who had no connection to Christianity following Christian teachings better than many of his church members did. After leaving, Mr. Gass says, “I learned that love is real. That acceptance is possible. That life is vibrant.” One can see how this story would resonate with anyone who has experienced hurt within the church and gotten along better with people outside of Christianity. Hearing this should give any Christian pause and cause us to reflect on whether we are living testimonies to Christ’s genuine love for people.
To any Christian familiar with good apologetics, there should be obvious concerns with his reasoning. For example, he claims to have found that love is real outside of the church, which requires him to have some meaningful concept of love apart from God in the first place. The lack of a rational basis for moral standards in an atheistic worldview in the first place should immediately make the kind atheist a non-challenge for our faith. There is plenty of evidence of faulty reasoning throughout the thread. That being said, he is presenting it as a story, not an argument. Going through and finding every logical pitfall is not my intent here. As I said before, I believe his story ends up affirming the scripture, and that is the point I want to focus on here.
Nothing Mr. Gass says in his thread is foreign to the scripture itself. In fact, what happened in his life is exactly what it tells us will happen. There is a biblical portrait of the one who falls away, and he conforms to it perfectly. James 1:2-8 speaks to this well: “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be complete, lacking in nothing. If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given to him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.”
Remember, Mr. Gass said this doubt started in 8th grade and never went away. Rather, it only increased over time. By his own admission, he was attempting to fake it until he made it. In light of this text, it should come as no surprise that “the system didn’t work.” The system is not scripture memorization and faithless prayer. If faith is supposed to be the means by which God works in our lives, then it should come as no surprise that there was no power where there was no faith.
Earlier I pointed out that Mr. Gass never did explain exactly what it’s supposed to mean for the system to “work” in the first place. That being said, I think we can gain some insight from the examples he gave of its failures, namely his marriage being a sham and the frustrations of not seeing people healed through prayer. Of course, happy marriages and healthy bodies are not the end goal of God’s work in our lives. God’s own glory displayed in our conformity to the image of His son is (Romans 8:28-29). Happy marriages and healthy bodies are blessings from God, but to use His gospel as a means to attain earthly benefit is worldliness. In fact, that’s the very essence of idolatry. Right fellowship with God Himself is supposed to be the goal, and it is God who uses both life’s joys and hardships to shape us into people who are fit for His kingdom. Truly, this is the whole point of counting it all joy when we meet trials of various kinds—we know He is using them to make us complete.
Given this apparent love for the world—and make no mistake about it, using religion as a means to attain worldly benefit, be it acceptance of men, happy relationships, or good health constitutes love for the world—we should not be shocked at all to see a departure from the faith. Longing for the things of this present world is exactly what prompted Paul’s companion Demas to leave the ministry. Surely Demas, if he was travelling with Paul, had assented to and taught sound doctrine as well. There is biblical precedent for exactly what Mr. Gass is describing. Worldliness will always cause one to either twist the Biblical faith (as in the case of the Pharisees) or desert it altogether (as in the case of Demas). The scripture is replete with warnings over this very issue, from the parable of the sower to the Hebrews warning passages.
Christians should also find his account of difficulties and heartaches in ministry to be unsurprising, albeit worth grieving over. Paul was no stranger to this, either. In addition to the aforementioned desertion by Demas, he was frequently targeted by people seeking to discredit him, even in churches he himself planted. He had to spend the first chapter and a half of his letter to the Galatians defending his own apostleship because of the Judaizers. He again had to defend his credibility to a church he himself planted in the entire eleventh chapter of 2 Corinthians. The experience was not limited to Paul, either. Jesus Himself was betrayed by one of his twelve closest companions, denied three times by another, and deserted by the rest at the time of his greatest trial. Seeing people use faith as a means for selfish gain confirms, not discredits, what the Bible says about man.
Lastly, his account of finding acceptance with people outside the faith should also not strike us as surprising if we believe the Bible is true. If it is true that Satan’s goal is to keep us from faith, then it would follow that he should make the departure from faith seem appealing. Paul himself makes this point, telling us in 2 Corinthians 11:14-15 that Satan “disguises himself as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants also masquerade as servants of righteousness.” We should not be surprised at all to see people who are not in Christ welcoming and affirming those who depart the church. If that were not the case, what would the incentive be to leave in the first place? Satan is no fool. If indeed his goal is to keep people from serving Christ and His church, then it makes perfect sense for him to make the alternative look far more appealing. This is the whole reason the saints have to persevere—it is difficult.This brings me to one last observation about love. It is true that love is often lacking within the visible church. It is also true that many people within the church are not born again in the first place. While stories of hurt within the church and acceptance outside of the church are appealing and relatable to many people, it has to be kept in mind that such occurrences provide no argument against the truth or authority of the scriptures. Whether you think you are loved or not will ultimately depend on what you understand love to be. Love, at least on a horizontal level, I think is best definable as a commitment of the will to the true good of another person. If the Gospel is indeed true, then anyone who encourages or affirms your rejection of it does not love you in any meaningful sense. If the Gospel is not true, then it becomes questionable if there’s such a thing as “true good” in the first place. In short, to say “I learned that love is real” by observing people outside of the church is to already assume Christianity is false.
The scriptures tell us that unchecked doubt leads to powerless religious activity. We know from the experiences and warnings of Jesus Himself as well as His disciples that the Christian life is full of hardship, some of which is brought on by people we think are on our side. Satan’s entire purpose is to draw people away from Christ, and he will use any means necessary to do so. He manipulates even our most genuine and sincere desires, and does everything he can to make rejecting Christ look more appealing than persevering in Him. This is exactly why our hope is not in the things of this world, but rather on the age to come when He separates the wheat from the tares, the goats from the sheep. Failure to set our minds on things above will always result in our falling out of the race. The scripture is clear on this truth, and Mr. Gass is, sadly, a perfect demonstration of its accuracy.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of other authors at Cogent Christianity.