Why Beliefs Matter
When I was younger, I thought beliefs were a private matter.
I had the right to believe what I believed, and others
could believe what they wanted. As long as people didn't
force their beliefs on me, I was happy to allow them to think
things I considered ridiculous. Beliefs weren't dangerous. It
was attitudes and actions that caused harm.
In the summer of 1986, I discovered this was a naive belief.
That June I was hired to pastor a small rural congregation.
I'd been studying theology in college and was eager to
put my newfound knowledge to work. That church allowed
me to preach, visit the sick, and learn why the world
won't be saved by a committee. They also taught me why
My first couple of months with them went well. It was
the proverbial honeymoon -- we each proclaimed our fondness
for the other loudly and often. There was, on both our parts, some give and take. They preferred their hymns aged
like a fine wine, and so I didn't suggest they clap their
hands, buy a drum set, or sing lyrics projected on a screen.
They discovered I was soft-spoken and bought a new microphone
rather than insist I shout. We thought any other
differences were minor and easily resolved. In the third
month, we found we were wrong.
I can't remember my exact words, but something I mentioned
in a sermon caused an elderly woman in the church
to wonder whether I believed in Satan and hell. She approached
me after worship and began questioning me.
Lacking a well-honed ministerial radar and eager to prove
my theological sophistication, I answered her questions directly
and honestly. This was before I learned that answering
theological questions directly and honestly is generally a
bad idea, and that ministers go to seminary precisely so we
can master the theological language necessary to bewilder
people when pressed to provide answers they might not like.
I told her I didn't believe in Satan. Nor did I believe in a
place where people were endlessly tormented. I then told
her she was perfectly free to believe those ideas. I patted her
hand and turned to speak to someone else, never realizing
she and I differed on far more than Satan and hell. I believed
then, and I believe now, that faith is a matter of inward
conviction, not outward compulsion. She believed
strict conformity was a requirement of faith. If I'd known
this, I might have noticed the whispers during the pitch-in
dinner after worship. Instead, my wife and I left church that day grateful God had called us to such a warm fellowship,
unaware I'd soon feel its heat.
That week I immersed myself in my studies and sermon
preparation and the next Sunday morning arrived at church
brimming with excitement. It was Palm Sunday. I planned
to speak on how quickly the crowd went from cheering
Jesus to jeering him. It turned out to be a timely sermon.
The head elder approached me as I entered the church.
"We're not holding church this morning," he said. "We'd
like to meet with you instead."
A minister with a sermon in his pocket being an unstoppable
force of nature, I told him we should worship before
meeting to talk. This also gave me time to figure out what
I'd done. I quickly eliminated all the usual pastoral indiscretions.
I hadn't had an affair with the church secretary. We
didn't have one. I hadn't visited the local tavern. I couldn't
afford to drink on what they were paying me. I hadn't used
church stamps for personal correspondence. I had no idea
why they wanted to speak with me, but suspected anything
that would cause them to cancel worship on Palm Sunday
must be serious.
The head elder reluctantly agreed to postpone our meeting
until after worship. When the last hymn was sung and
the closing prayer offered, I filed downstairs with him and
sat at a folding table in the church basement. The elders
"This is an awkward matter," the head elder said, "but
I'm afraid we're going to have to let you go."
I asked if I had done something wrong.
"There have been concerns raised that you don't believe
in Satan and hell," he said.
"That's right," I said. Then, eager to display my theological
prowess, I asked if they wanted to know why.
They declined my offer to enlighten them.
I began to panic. The job didn't pay much, but I was
concerned that being fired after only three months might
not look good on my résumé. "I do believe in the love of
God. Isn't that enough?"
I realize now what I didn't understand then -- beliefs
matter. Beliefs are not harmless. They have the power to
shape our world, for good or ill. Some beliefs unite us in a
great and common good, while others divide us, reinforcing
prejudices and diminishing our humanity. Religious beliefs
are especially potent, shaping how we think of and act toward
God, others, and ourselves.
I'd thought the idea of Satan and hell negotiable. They
didn't. They considered a belief in a demonic personality
and eternal damnation essential. They thought those who
didn't believe in hell were deceived by Satan and destined
for the lake of fire. Fearing I'd lead them astray, they fired
me, giving me fresh insight into the origins of that expression.
After the meeting, I walked out to the car where my
wife was waiting.
"What happened?" she asked.
"It's good news."
"What is it?"
"We get to sleep in next Sunday."
We drove home and ate dinner, then I lay down on the
couch to take a nap. The phone rang later that afternoon. It
was an elder from another small rural church near our
"We'd like you to come be our pastor," he said. "Are you
"As a matter of fact I am," I told him .Continues.