Ex Congregational Methodist

sent in by PastorPrime

I was brought up in a Congregational Methodist family in the Southeast US. Congregational Methodism (http://congregationalmethodist.net/churches.htm) is Wesleyan in theology (John Wesley; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Wesley). In its governance, each church is controlled by its own congregation, not by some bishop apart from the local church, and is in this way unlike United Methodist churches. It differs, also, from most United Methodist churches in its conservatism and biblical literalism.

In my youth (1960s), I learned from my parents that I was to believe in God; I was to read my Bible and pray; I was to learn from preachers and Sunday School teachers. These things I did. I love history and enjoyed Bible stories, especially from the Old Testament. The Bible was the most readily available way for a boy to indulge his natural interest in violence and warfare…and sex! I took it very seriously and learned to be quite dogmatic. And, why not? After all, the “Truth” is the truth!

Church services had a regular format: congregational singing; public lead prayer; offertory (collection of tithes and offerings); special song; preaching; “alter call”; closing prayer. Alter call was the closing exhortation to come forward in church and kneel at the alter rail to pray and ask God for forgiveness or for blessing.

Much of the preaching was an internal argument on interpretation. That is, it was about the “world” within the biblical writings themselves—what the Bible says and means, and how absolutely consistent and infallible it is. Religious belief is an attempt (usually futile) to make biblical writings relevant to the real world. Therefore, my family (and nearly everyone to whom I am related) went to church twice on Sundays. Many went again on Wednesday evenings for the regular Wednesday “prayer meeting.”

Most of the preachers and church leaders in Congregational Methodist churches took their training in a college sponsored by the church. First located in Dallas, Texas, and, later, at Tehuacana (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Westminster_College%2C_Texas), the college is now in Florence, Mississippi, and renamed Wesley College (www.wesleycollege.com). I pretty much wasted two years of my life at Wesley College. (Note that it is wesleycollege dot COM! Why is it not dot edu? I do not know, but it could be because Wesley College fails to merit that designation.)

The college has never had enough money to operate comfortably. Teacher salaries are sacrificially low. When I was there, the president made a point of turning off the lights in the hallways during class to save money. Quality instruction was inconsistent. The best teachers were in religion. Courses needed to do well at other colleges and in the real world were worse than mediocre.

Wesley College was an indoctrination mill. When I was there in the 1970s, every class tended to be Guilt 101. Original Sin-R-Us. It was constantly drilled that the devil was after us young (virile, passionate, borderline degenerate, carnal) people and your rear-end had better be hiked in the air with your face at the alter at least several times a year during alter call at the twice-weekly chapel services. You had to learn to be emotional and show emotion about your faith. The CM church and the college took a stand against the charismatic movement (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charismatic_Movement) and we did not have to learn to “speak in tongues.”

Those readers who know Wesleyan theology will know that the Congregational Methodist Church teaches the doctrine of “sanctification,” by which a believer who really really really really seeks God’s blessing can receive a “special indwelling of the Holy Spirit” that will cast out the carnal and purify the person. Despite the Guilt 101, rest assured that we learned we could be free from guilt by becoming sanctified holy. But, hey, what’s a holy person to do? Read on.

Wesley College’s mission is to produce Christian “workers” to staff churches and to be missionaries. The highest status workers of these categories are church pastor, evangelist (a kind of super preacher), and missionary to a foreign country. Guilt 101 contained the message that we were not serving our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ if we were not seeking the “calling” into full-time Christian service. I am sure that most of us secretly dreaded that fate. Many of us heard and heeded the calling, however, and began spending our lives in service to the “God” we had been taught to fear and revere. Sanctification and service…or guilt. What’ll ya have, Bub?

After taking the two-year degree, I struggled valiantly for many years to maintain my faith. A huge part of my identity consisted of my association with like-minded believers. Subsequent real education allowed me to free myself from dependency on belief.

I remember talking with a faculty counselor at the college I attended after Wesley College. The fellow was a Ph.D. graduate of Notre Dame. He looked at my two-year transcript from Wesley and marveled at the number of credit hours I had in religious studies. He said to me, “I wish I had your background.” I was flattered that he had acknowledged evidence of my piety. I puffed myself a bit and told him, “Yes, I have been taught the Bible though the fundamentalist perspective.” I could not see that my mind had been closed; therefore, I was actually proud to be a fundy! I am still embarrassed by my ignorance.

Something that I would really like to know is, are there others who went through Wesley College or its predecessor, Westminster College, who have cast off the chains of religious belief? Maybe some have had their eyes opened, but I bet there are very few if any—so deep was the indoctrination.

I want to include here one thing that should have caused some Wesley College people to think. At Wesley, when I was there, there was an older female teacher of religion, Ms. Mary Alice Langton. A sweet, saintly widow lady, Ms. Langton had earned a master’s degree in theology from Reformed Theological Seminary (http://www2.rts.edu/). She taught a course on the Pauline Epistles and was the resident mother in the girls’ dormitory. Who did I think closer to God? Nobody! Ms. Langton was rewarded for a life of sacrificial service to her precious Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, by being given a holy dose of cancer. She suffered painfully for a long time and was in utter poverty. Through church and college publications and other means, requests went out for donations to help defray medical expenses as this saint of God, who had testified of longing to go to Jesus in heaven, fought by means of godless science to stay alive! For her faithfulness to the universe-size space alien, she was reduced to a beggar for herself. I cringe.

Many things killed the religious urge in me. For one, the illogicality of spatially anchored spirit that is supposed to live inside us. Another, an understanding of the scientific method of conjecture and refutation (http://www.public.iastate.edu/~cfehr/201%20n%20Popper%202002.htm) that no religion can tolerate. Another, understanding that there are fact-based non-supernatural explanations of our existence, combined with a realization that primitive man turned to the supernatural to explain his ignorance. More, seeing the ridiculosity of Western man embracing a religion with its cultural roots in the craziest part of the world, the Middle East! Learning that Jesus rehashed some philosophical sayings of Rabbi Hillel from several years before him. The centrality of the Apostle Paul, not Jesus, in the creation of Christianity. The admixture of Paul’s mithraism culture from Tarsus (http://www.vexen.co.uk/religion/mithraism.html) in his Christianity. The senseless cat-and-mouse game life is if god were to exist (yeah, man is the mouse).

It became clear to me that man had created the Jewish and Christian god in his (man’s) own image. I could afterwards read the Bible and see the god there as a pompous, jealous creation of political leaders inventing their own political support.

I think the proper stance toward religion is to recognize that, for the religious person, “God” is the belief in God. That belief is what zealous fools the world over are fighting about—to protect that precious belief. They are unprepared to live free from their religious chains. For me, atheism is not a belief. I do not “believe that there is no god.” Rather, I have the same belief in any god as I do in any unicorn: simply no belief.

Exchristians well know that Christian prayer (and, I suspect, all prayer) is carefully non-specific, never really wanting to pray God into a corner and have him need either to perform or else be revealed as impotent, unlike Elijah did in 1 Kings 18:21-40 (http://www.gracegems.org/JM/e08.htm). At Wesley College and in other Christian churches, I have heard countless times the old reliable “Be With” prayer. It is perfectly illustrated by the comedian known today as “Larry the Cable Guy” when he prays for forgiveness after telling an especially crude joke. Larry says, “Lord, that therer’n jist wudn’t right. I apologize fer that’un, Lord, and please be with the starving pygmies down in New Guinea.” Perfect! All dear ol’ God has to do is merely “be with” people who might be desperately in real need. Nevertheless, as long as Christians pray “be with” prayers, God is never on the hook to do anything. Smart! Pray all you want and keep that faith!

It is that faith (ultimately, faith that God exists) that is the religionist’s problem. I do not accept that it makes any sense to retain any religious belief in absence of evidence—real, replicable evidence, not words in a book. (Yes, I have read Josh McDowell’s books.) If someone is no longer a “fundamentalist” Christian but claims now to hold some variety of substituted mysticism or religion, he is vainly clinging to faith as a path to knowledge. I utterly reject such thinking as nonsense because it promotes belief in the absence of evidence.

Recommended Reading: http://www.stupidwish.net/religion.html

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