Do Atheists Make Good Church Members?

March 28, 2006

A few days ago I blogged about Robert Jensen, the professor from the University of Texas who calls himself a “sort of” Christian even though he doesn’t believe in God or that Jesus was the son of God or that he rose from the dead. Even so, he recently joined St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Austin, Texas. I wondered why a man who doesn’t believe what Christians have historically believed would want to join a church or why a church would accept such a person as a member.
Now Jim Rigby, the pastor of the church, writes to defend the decision to admit Jensen as a member ( HT to Carlos Stouffer for the link). Here is the key section of his essay:

The religion of Jesus is both spiritual and political. Jesus said in his first sermon that he had come to preach good news to the poor. He taught that love fulfills the law and the prophets, and spoke of a coming movement of God that would lift up the poor and oppressed. Jesus let a doubter like Thomas serve that cause long before the disciple could affirm any creed. Jesus said that people who blaspheme him or God would be forgiven but those who blaspheme the Spirit (of love) would not be. Religion is not about groveling before a savior, it’s joining in the work of saving our world.
One last irony is that early Christians were sometimes accused of being atheists. Like true Muslims and Jews, the early Christians refused to worship human images of God. While I have nothing against the creeds per se, if they do not sing of a love for all humankind they are evil and must be renounced as idolatrous. Surely the essence of Christianity or any religion is not found in dogma but in the life of love of which the creeds sing. If God had wanted us to simply recite creeds, Jesus would have come as a parrot.
Is there still room in the church for Thomas? Doubters are an essential part of the team. The atheism of Ingersoll and Kropotkin is very much like the mysticism of Schweitzer and Dorothy Day. In fact, I cannot help but imagine they would all join in common cause to serve our world had they lived at the same place and time.
“Whoever has love has God.” That’s what the Bible says. So the question before my church was not whether Dr. Jensen could recite religious syllables like a cockatiel, but whether he would follow the core teachings of Jesus and learn more and grow more into Christ’s universal love of which the creeds sing. This he pledged to do.

I do think the pastor makes one useful point. Doubters are welcome in the church. I’ve made that point a number of times myself. But Jensen is not a doubter. He’s a self-professed unbeliever. And I would argue that even unbelievers should be welcome to attend our services, listen to the sermons, accept or reject whatever they choose, come to our classes, engage in discussion, sit in on our prayer meetings, come to the concerts, attend the picnics, watch the children’s programs, and sing the songs if they want to. As far as I’m concerned, they are totally free to give money when the plate is passed if that’s what they want to do. But we shouldn’t accept unbelievers as members. They should be welcome to attend, but membership belongs to those who believe the essential core of Christian truth and openly confess Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.
One other note. I commend Pastor Rigby for openly defending the decision to accept Robert Jensen as a church member. Although I disagree with virtually everything he says, I’m glad he spelled out his rationale. The essay reminded me again that liberalism is really another religion altogether. Though using similar words, it bears little resemblance to the theology of the New Testament. I daresay John Calvin would agree with me on that point.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?