A Godless Fundamentalist: Chapter 9 “The Fool’s Gold of Freedom”

abandoned church

by John Ellis

In hindsight, God’s refusal to let me have my way is somewhat humorous, not to mention, and more importantly, a tremendous blessing. Granted, I didn’t see it that way at the time. Living with constantly having my plans thwarted and my path redirected was increasingly frustrating. However, that frustration was in the future because waking up in Pensacola early July of 1996, after escaping the Bill Rice Ranch and with more than one foot well outside the Christian fundamentalist door, I had no idea that God’s plans didn’t match my plans. I didn’t even believe in God, for that matter. I also didn’t really know what my plans were. Stepping into the oppressive humidity of the Panhandle’s summer, all I knew was that I was free!

At first, I gave little thought to what came next; I had high school buddies to catch up with, girls to chase, and freedoms to enjoy. My future was now. Except, it didn’t take long for that “future” to need money to pay for all those freedoms I wanted to enjoy. The immediate solution presented itself in my family’s new front yard. Or, rather, my family’s front parking lot.

While I was away at the Ranch, the church my dad had been pastoring split. Upset that they couldn’t control him, the deacon board forced my dad to resign. The board was filled with old men who had been elected deacons for life and who, while at odds with each other, found a common enemy in my dad. Like so many of these things do, it came down to control. The battle and subsequent split were the result of years of tension, gossip, and power struggles. In fact, from a human standpoint, it was an inevitability the moment my dad took the job eight years earlier. Only after accepting the call did my dad find out that he had been the compromise between two warring factions in the church. In their minds warped by lust for power, they viewed my dad as a blank slate to be manipulated. With two sides involved, though, a game of tug-of-war over my dad’s fealty ensued. From the moment he stepped into the pulpit, he was viewed as a pawn to be fought over. To his credit, my dad refused to play their games and didn’t take sides, focusing, instead, on leading the church in ways that he believed were right and honoring to God. Refusing to take sides, though, earned him the vitriol of both camps within the church.

For the first few years, things went well, at least on the surface. New families joined and my dad was blessed to have the support and encouragement of those who were unaware of the politics roiling the deacon board. My dad also had the support of a couple of the deacons who had joined the church after my dad became pastor and, so, weren’t part of decades old dissension. If you were to ask him, my dad would probably tell you that he was greatly encouraged during those first few years by the direction of the church. However, Pensacola is a Navy town and most of those who joined the church shortly after my dad became pastor moved within a year or two. Among those who moved were the new deacons. Disunity and anger resurfaced.

Parents are often unaware of how much their kids hear and understand. While he never complained to me about the deacons or the conflict within the church, I would eavesdrop while he and my mom worried over the situation. I heard about the loud and angry deacon meetings that left my dad exhausted and discouraged. I knew that men were plotting behind the scenes to undermine my dad and to steer the church in a direction that served their agenda. And so, adding more fuel to my doubts and my desire to rule my own life, I dismissed the adults at church as frauds. The hypocritical politics became a ready-made excuse for me to ignore any and all instruction and teaching I heard. To top it off, I despised the smiling old men who would extend their hand to me every church service while cracking lame jokes about how I was going to grow up to be a preacher just like my dad. As far as my dad and those who supported him, I considered them weak fools. “There’s no way I’d ever let those old men yell at me,” I smugly believed. I’ve since learned differently.

In God’s providence, a hard providence but a providence nonetheless, I’ve been a pastor who has been asked to sit quietly and listen while church members yelled untrue accusations at me and my fellow pastors. I’ve stood in the pulpit and worried over how many people sitting in the pews want me gone. I’ve learned the pain that comes with shepherding sheep who bite and kick as they attempt to bend the church to their will and agenda. I’ve agonized with my fellow pastors as we attempted to prayerfully discern the best way to handle the growing conflict. And I’ve done so silently, attempting to guard the unity of the church, call the contentious sheep to repentance, and protect people’s privacy. I no longer think of my dad as a weak fool. I now honor him for his quiet faithfulness and his willingness to absorb the slings and arrows for the sake of ministering to those who were unaware of the power struggle, not to mention the willingness to endure in the prayerful hope that the biting sheep will repent.

One of my last Sundays before leaving for Tennessee in May, I observed my dad’s quiet faithfulness. Sitting through a loud, chaotic business meeting at the conclusion of the evening service, I watched my dad stand in the pulpit while angry member after angry member stood up and shouted accusations at my dad. Refusing to respond in kind, my dad answered with humility and graciousness, even going so far as to gently yet firmly keep his supporters from interrupting angry accusers who had the floor. Sitting there, I continued to inwardly roll my eyes at Christianity and the local church but marveled at my dad’s ability to respond with kindness. For some reason I couldn’t comprehend at the time, how he responded during that business meeting deeply affected me. For years after, I was unable to shake out of my mind the memory of my dad standing in the pulpit that evening. It became one of the many pricks the Holy Spirit forced me to kick against.

Many of the accusations directed towards my dad were simply not true. The others were patently absurd. All of them motivated by a lust for control and power and designed to lead to a scripted ending. For example, one of the issues that the deacons and their allies had with my dad was that he allowed his children to do ministry work during the summer. According to them, my brother, sisters, and I should’ve been home during the summer working in the church. To the deacon board, that was evidence that my dad did not prioritize the church and, therefore, should be removed. One of the untrue accusations was that my dad didn’t have a heart for evangelism, as evidenced by the low number of professions of faith and baptisms during his tenure as pastor. Listening to that thrown in my dad’s face, I thought about the weekly door-to-door visitations my dad organized for the church. For most of those visitations, my mom and dad were the only two participants; faithfully knocking on doors to tell people in our community about Jesus. Sitting in the pew that evening, I could care less about the number of professions of faith and baptisms, but I knew that the people yelling at my dad were the problem and not my dad.

So, it was no surprise that while I was away at the Ranch, my dad and a handful of members began holding services in a funeral home. The newly formed church wasn’t the only ones that had to find a new home, though. Since our double-wide trailer was on the old church’s property, my family had to move, too.

With no money (the wealthy deacons intentionally kept my dad’s salary low so that he would have the “blessing” of depending on God) and no real job, my family relied on the generosity of friends. Namely, my parent’s best friends who left the church with my dad after he resigned. They lived in a double-wide trailer behind the bakery they owned. Graciously, the couple moved into their R.V. and allowed my family to live, rent free, in their home.

They were in a transition themselves, being in the process of closing their bakery and moving to take a job as the head bakers in Bob Jones University’s dining hall. And that brings me back to filling my need for money that July of 1996.

Not only did they ask my brother, who had been working in the bakery, and I to watch over their large yard sale held every day in the parking lot, they let us keep all the money. At first, the money rolled in. As the best items sold and the sales began lessoning, my brother wisely took a job at a tree service company. I held strong.

My entrepreneurial yard selling days abruptly ended about two weeks later after I blew through several hundred dollars trying to impress a girl while on a first date. The next morning, realizing that I had wasted pretty much all my money and with nothing of real value to sell anymore, I finally concluded that I too needed a real job. The tree service company where my brother worked seemed as good a place as any. Or, rather, my dad poked his head in my room and announced, “I got you a job at the tree service company.”

Out of all the many different types of jobs I’ve had, working tree service during the Florida summer, without question, is the worst. Just to give you an idea, we would soak towels and freeze them overnight and then tie them around our heads or necks the next day while working. By the time the sun went down, which is when we quit for the day, having started when the sun came up, we were covered in sap from loplolly pine trees, cut up from feeding the branches into the growling chipper, muscles screaming at us, clothes drenched with sweat, and barely able to drag ourselves to the work trucks. I hated that job. It didn’t help that I got off to a bad start.

My first day on the job, having never used a chainsaw before, I poured straight gasoline into the tank. Those who are familiar with chainsaws or other two-stroke engines can guess what happened. For everyone else, the chainsaw seized up, owing to my failure to mix oil with the gas. Needless to say, my boss was not happy. A state of affairs that became par for the course until my termination roughly five weeks later.

My brother, whom our boss liked, left two weeks into my employment. His job at BJU’s Campus Store required him to be back early. As much as I hated to admit it, I found myself envying his escape. Turns out, my freedom wasn’t as much fun as I’d hoped. Working long hours at a job I hated for a paycheck that was laughable left me with little time, energy, or resources to do the things I wanted. Cutting down trees for over ten hours a day was not what I imagined myself doing while staring out the window of my dad’s car while we drove south on 1-65 back in July.

The one positive aspect of the job was in the form of a co-worker who had recently moved to the area from Phoenix. Not having a car, he depended on me to give him rides to and from work. After work, we would often stop at the convenience store around the corner from his trailer, spend what little money we had on cheap hot wings and cheaper beer, and then waste away the evening sitting on the front steps of his dilapidated singlewide, eating, drinking, and talking.

Many of our post-work conversations included openly scoffing at Christianity. Still getting my non-Christian “sea legs” under me, he was a gold mine of skepticism. He loved regaling me with the number of ways that he believed Christianity to be a racist and overall harmful religion. Years before I heard of the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible (and years before it even existed, I think), he introduced me to the Bible’s contradictions. One of his favorite proofs for the Bible’s unreliability that he loved laughing about was the story of Joshua and the sun standing still.[1]

“Think about it,” he scoffed. “First off, the sun doesn’t travel around the earth. You would think that the Being who supposedly created everything and supposedly wrote the Bible would’ve at least gotten that right. It’s just the reflection of the unscientific nonsense believed by Bronze Age tribal people who concocted tales like this to make themselves feel better in a hostile world. Besides, what do you think would happen if the earth did stop moving?”

I had never thought about it before.

More than his picking apart the veracity of the Bible, though, his underlining of the Bible’s problem with morality resonated deeply with me and built on what I had read that previous spring in books by Bertrand Russell and Mark Twain. Slavery. The condoning of rape. Polygamy. Required child abuse. The arbitrary violence of God. The deep unjustness of condemning billions of people to eternal punishment for being guilty of being born at the wrong time and wrong place and having no access to a Bible or church.

“Even if God does exist, he’s a moral monster,” my coworker pointed out. “Why would anyone want to trust a God like that?”

Having next to zero instruction in Biblical Theology at the time, I was ill equipped to handle his criticisms even if I had wanted to. And I most definitely didn’t want “to handle” his take-down of the Bible and Christianity. Here was someone who could educate me on the ways of non-Christians, I thought. I ate his wisdom up and added it to my growing intellectual foundation upon which my dismissal of Christianity was built.

(I probably don’t need to point this out, but the previous paragraphs are written from my past perspective, not my current one. I do not believe that God is a moral monster, nor do I believe that the Bible is untrustworthy.)

Just as impactful on my deepening unbelief was the front row seat I had to greed and exploitation.

The main climber at work, the guy who had the difficult and dangerous job of scaling tall trees with a chain saw, was a friendly guy named Hugh. It was rare that Hugh didn’t have a smile on his face or a joke to tell. And he was the one person I could count on to answer my questions about the job without mocking my stupidity. He was also an incredibly hard worker; a fact our boss took full advantage of.

We were paid pitifully low wages considering the type of work we were doing. Not only was it physically difficult, tree service work is also considered one of the most dangerous jobs out there. It goes without saying, but climbing trees with chain saws, rigging large sections of trees to be dropped to the crew waiting below, and the unpredictable nature of the wood chipper amount to danger at every aspect of the job.

Although President Clinton signed a bill into law that August raising the federal minimum wage to $5.15 an hour, the increase didn’t begin applying until that October. At the time, the minimum wage was $4.25 an hour. I was getting paid $5.00 on hour. Also, because of a loophole in the overtime laws, me and my coworkers didn’t get paid for the overtime we worked every week. Even though we worked between 50 to 60 hours a week, we got paid for 40. I’m not sure all the ins-and-outs of the loophole (for all I know it didn’t exist and our boss was lying), but the money was paid out after our employment was over in weekly increments of 40 hours a week at our hourly rate (not time and a half) until all of our overtime was paid out. Again, I’m not sure how it worked for all of my coworkers – I can’t imagine those who had worked at the company for years were still waiting to be paid their overtime – I only know how it worked for me. And it was aggravating to work so much and get paid so little. Hugh had even more reason to be aggravated. But, true to form, he wasn’t.

While Hugh obviously made more money than I did, I don’t remember how much he got paid. I do remember being aghast when he told me (if I remember correctly, it was around $10 an hour). Doing the calculations in my head, I quickly figured that he was living below the poverty level. I was making poverty wages, too, but I also didn’t have a family to support. And I wasn’t climbing trees with a chain saw, risking my life to enrich our boss.

“Dude!” I advised. “Considering your skill set, Asplundh will pay you much more, plus benefits.”

“Yeah,” he laughed. “But I’m helping Bob build his business. Staying here will pay off in the end.”

I knew that wasn’t true. It was obvious that our boss had little to no concern for us. That was evidenced by our low wages contrasted by the new toys, like boats and trucks, he kept buying for himself over the few weeks I worked for him. It was also evidenced by how he and his son would show up late in the afternoon, after we had been on the job for over eight hours, and ream us out for not having as much energy as he believed we should have. During those times, Hugh would continue to smile while he worked as Bob reminded us that whatever money we made was owing to his largesse and not to our worth as employees. So, yeah, it was obvious to everyone but Hugh that Bob was a greedy, self-serving man who only cared about his profit with no thought to those earning him that profit. I tried my hardest to warn Hugh, but he insisted that I was wrong about Bob.

Sadly, my perspective ended up being prescience. Months later, I found out that while working a job for Bob off the books, Hugh fell out of a tree and broke his back. At that point, Bob no longer had a use for Hugh and let him go. No health insurance. No job. And a family to support while having a broken back.

Around the same time I heard the news about Hugh, I had checked out another book by Bertrand Russell. A book about socialism.

I didn’t need to hear the tragic news about Hugh to push me in that direction. That summer, watching our employer take advantage of us caused me to question the politics I had been taught were right my whole life. Prior to then, my questions and doubts revolved almost exclusively around theology and personal ethics like alcohol and sex outside of marriage. I began my employment at the tree service company a committed Republican. That summer, though, I began to see the Bible Belt’s religion of God and Country for what it was – a self-serving dismissal of loving and serving others above loving and serving yourself. Unfortunately, my ideological position swung to the exact opposite side.

Not long after God graciously saved me from my sins and gave me faith in Christ, I was asked what are some things that might’ve changed my trajectory into full-blown atheism. After thinking about it for a minute, I responded, “Books that critique capitalism from a Christian perspective.”

I still get asked that question, but I no longer give that answer. For one thing, the problem was my heart and not my ill-informed and myopic understanding of economics. For another thing, I have since learned that there are books critiquing capitalism from a Christian perspective. I also want to add that I am not opposed to capitalism. But I also don’t blindly follow its tenets, especially of the laissez-faire variety. Unfortunately, though, and more needs to be written about this (but not by me), it is true that much of Christianity in America is unhelpfully married to an intransigent embrace of a particular political/economic theory. In fact, whether American Christians want to accept it or not, many people believe that Christians in this country worship capitalism and all its worst excesses. Beginning the summer of 1996, based on what I had been taught my entire life at home, school, church, and by almost every single adult figure in my life combined with my experience working for that tree service company owned by a professing Christian, I believed that. And I quickly learned that I wasn’t the only one. While it’s true that the reason I became an atheist wasn’t owing to the mistreatment of Hugh, as Christians we need to be willing to evaluate whether or not our political ideology is a stumbling block for our unbelieving friends and family members.

During August of 1996, though, I wasn’t thinking about all that. All I knew (or thought I knew) was that my professing Christian boss was a greedy man exploiting his mostly non-Christian workers and that his free market actions were condoned by Christianity. Besides hating the actual job, my anger at my boss began to grow. However, my anger didn’t have long to grow because he fired me about three weeks after my brother had returned to BJU.

I’ve been fired four times in my life, and three of those firings were my fault. This time, though, I can honestly say was the one time that I did not deserve to be fired.

At the end of what turned out to be the last day of my tree service career, the guy who had hooked up the woodchipper to the truck forget to connect the safety chains. After the error was discovered back at the shop, the company’s owner blamed me.

“If that thing had come unhitched on the road, it would’ve destroyed the chipper,” Bob screamed at me. “You don’t make enough money to pay me for it!”

I knew who had hooked the woodchipper up, but I wasn’t about to rat him out. All I could do was insist that it wasn’t me. My enraged boss became angrier and angrier while he cussed me out, adding that if the chipper had come undone it could’ve killed someone and it would’ve been my fault.

He ended his screaming session by firing me. Frankly, I was relieved since I hated that job.

At home, as I related the story to my dad, I didn’t even think about the fact that this was the second time I had been fired that summer. My dad didn’t say anything about the firing, but sighed, “Son, I know that you’re not as smart as your brother and sisters; I just want you to do your best.”


Man, that made me mad. Of course, I was as smart as my brother and sisters. Smarter, in fact, I believed. Besides, what in the world did that have to do with me being unfairly fired?

To this day, I don’t know if he was using reverse psychology on me or if he really meant it. A couple of years ago I asked my dad why he had said that, but he didn’t remember saying it. “If I did say it, can you blame me?” he asked. Point taken, Dad.

Regardless of what his motive was, it offended me. So much so that when he approached me the next day about returning to BJU, I agreed.

While I mainly assented to his suggestion because I wanted to prove him wrong, I did so with the assumption that it was too late, classes had just begun. I thought it was safe for me to go along with him. There was no way the school would let me enroll after classes had already started. I could get credit for agreeing to go back to Bob Jones but without having to actually do it.

Boy, was I wrong.

I should’ve known better than to discount the power of personal connections within fundamentalism. My dad called his friends in BJU’s administration, and the next day, to my shock, I found myself on the way back to Greenville, SC.

During the eight hour drive up, I realized what I had done. By the time my dad happily deposited me back on campus, I was fuming.

[1] As a good apologetics resource that provides solutions to the so-called contradictions in the Bible, I recommend the New International Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties by Gleason L. Archer.

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