Why I Left Conservative Evangelicalism

It’s hard to leave your spiritual family. But sometimes you must.

I vividly remember the day I realized that the conservative evangelical religion of my previous denomination no longer worked for me. Like Don McLean’s classic rock song “American Pie,” I remember “the day the music died.” I was a young pastor in my late twenties, attending a national meeting of ministers in my old church. A well-known speaker was preaching. During his sermon he said, “God does not hear the prayer of a Jew.” All around me pastors clapped their hands and enthusiastically shouted, “Amen!” and “Preach it brother!” His intolerant and hateful words about Jewish believers, combined with the positive response it elicited, literally made me sick to my stomach. I got up from my seat and walked out of the auditorium. On hindsight I probably should have left the meeting, driven home, resigned my church, left my denomination, and never returned. But at that point in my life, I wasn’t ready for such a drastic decision. It took another decade to finally arrive at that necessary ending.

I did not grow up in the life of the church. My first real experience with Christianity came at age fifteen. At the time I was a mixed-up young man searching for answers. Through a series of life-changing events, I landed in a conservative church in Muskogee, Oklahoma. At that church I first heard the gospel message, affirmed faith in Christ, was baptized, and fully immersed myself in the life of the congregation. Soon thereafter I felt a call to vocational ministry. After high school I attended a Christian college where I received an excellent education in religion. I had exceptional professors who taught me open-minded and progressive faith. After a few years of faith struggles and a short but positive career in the insurance business, I went to seminary. Upon graduation I landed at a county seat “First Church” pastorate. That congregation accepted, loved, and affirmed me, giving me a joyful and healthy birth into pastoral ministry.

It’s Hard to Leave Your Family

However, during that decade of college, seminary, and my first pastorate, my old denomination began a dramatic shift toward religious-right fundamentalism. I grew increasingly uncomfortable with the direction of my denomination. It felt toxic and grew worse every year. And then I attended the pastor’s meeting mentioned above where one of our major authority figures announced that God did not hear the prayers of Jewish people. Another speaker at that same event said, “Brothers (and all the pastors were men), you don’t need to seek truth. You already have all the truth you need.” Then, holding up his Bible, he said, “You just need to proclaim the truth.” I still remember thinking, “If I ever come to a time or place when I stop seeking truth, I hope somebody will put me out of my misery.”

So why didn’t I leave my conservative evangelical denomination right then? As many people know, it’s hard to leave your family, even when it’s dysfunctional. Plus, I was young and idealistic. I naively believed that I and other “moderates” in the church would eventually win the day. In the end, however, we lost the battle completely. I also had selfish reasons for staying. I served a large church for my age, with growing opportunities to speak, publish, teach, and serve on various boards and committees. I had a promising future ahead of me. And I was ignorant of the broader Christian community. For example, I had no knowledge of mainline churches. I did not know other places existed in the Christian family where people affirmed more progressive and open-minded faith. I had never even visited a Methodist, Episcopal, or Presbyterian church. My religious worldview was extremely provincial and narrow.

Over the next decade I continued to experience professional opportunities. I published several books with my denomination, wrote dozens of articles, was on the speaking circuit, and pastored tall-steeple churches. And then, at a young age, I was invited to work at denominational headquarters, working with pastors and music ministers throughout the country in the area of worship and preaching. Although uncomfortable with the direction of my denomination, I loved my work and had too much to lose to seriously consider leaving.

But the drumbeat of religious-right fundamentalism continued to overtake my denomination. Leaders demanded that members believe in biblical inerrancy (everything in the Bible must be interpreted literally), told women they could not serve as clergy and must submit to their husbands, and became intensively partisan in their politics. Large numbers of professors at our seminaries and leaders at our agencies were being fired or forced out for being “liberals.” The church that introduced me to Christ, who loved and educated me, and who had given me wonderful opportunities of service was, at least from my perspective, being destroyed. Finally, I came to believe the national leaders of my denomination were guilty of heresy. Not doctrinal heresy but heresy of spirit. Their mean-spirited, arrogant, judgmental, and intolerant positions were the exact opposite of the spirit of Jesus Christ. I could no longer avoid the new realities of my church. I faced a spiritual and vocational crisis.

The Cost of Staying

Sick to my soul over these developments, I scheduled a lunch appointment with an older, wiser, and respected pastor. He, like me, felt devastated over the toxic faith taking over our beloved church. However, with only a few years before his retirement, a denominational change was not a viable option for him. However, I was still in my thirties. During lunch I kept talking to my older pastor friend about “the cost of leaving.” I moaned about losing my status, my financial compensation level, my publishing and teaching opportunities, and the only church I had ever known. He listened with compassion. But then he said, “Martin, you’ve been telling me about the cost of leaving. Now I want you to tell me about the cost of staying.” His question was a burning bush epiphany for me. I knew at that moment I could no longer stay in my church of origin. The cost of staying—loss of integrity, identifying with a denomination I could no longer affirm, and constant anxiety—was much higher than the cost of leaving. It was time to go.

However, I want to be clear that I deeply appreciate the many gifts my old denomination gave me. They introduced me to Jesus, loved me, educated me, and gave me exceptional opportunities of service. And I want to affirm that my old church is full of wonderful laypeople and clergy who love God and serve Jesus faithfully and who are fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. My controversy was not (and is not) with the people in the pews or most of the people in the pulpits. My problem was with the national leaders who, in the name of religious purity, engaged in ruthless ecclesiastical power politics and decimated a beautiful and wonderful religious tradition.  And so, in 1994, I left my old denomination (and conservative evangelicalism in general) and aligned with a more progressive mainline church. I’ve never regretted that decision.