Pastor Paul Bergmann

Pastor Paul Shares His Evolving Story of Faith

This is my story.

Pastor Paul on Easter Morning 2013, Lake Casitas.

Pastor Paul on Easter Morning 2013, Lake Casitas.

I was born into the ’60’s, my parents were immigrants, having survived war, revolutions and concentration camps. My dad was an agnostic, my mom a Christian with simple beliefs in God and Jesus. She had a toddler bible level of theology.

There was God, his son Jesus, savior of the world, who loved, healed and forgave. He was executed by jealous religious and political types, buried and raised to life for more of the same mission. He invites his followers to join in, loving, healing, forgiving people, and having no fear of death. She believed that God loved everybody, that we shouldn’t judge, only God could do that. Like the toddler bibles there was no eternal damnation, hellfire and brimstone. God and Jesus were for everybody, even people who didn’t know or believe yet. She was a woman of grace and peace.

And while I loved and respected my dad, his doubts about whether God existed didn’t resonate with me as a boy.   Jesus did.

Jesus fit the 60’s as well. Despite the unfortunate destructive excesses for some, the “LOVE “generation was something I related too. “Make love not war”seemed a decent proposition as I watched my older sister’s friends die in Vietnam Nam, something Jesus might say. The 60’s love for nature, living in community, helping the poor, living less materialistic lives, were themes that looked an awful lot like “the way” Jesus called us to live.

My mom also taught me to pray. I followed her example, praying for all people, giving thanks, asking God to forgive us and help us all, even our enemies, just as Jesus did.

We never went to church so what I knew about Jesus came through Mom and movies. I loved the biblical movies. The cool revolutionary hippie Jesus, who defended the marginalized and powerless, but laid into the greedy rich and powerful. The message of acceptance, simplicity and love.

I also found God outdoors, in trees, mountains, streams, oceans and starry nights. Sierra Club count me in. I found God in creation and in the animal kingdom, diverse, mysterious, fascinating, gentle and wild.  Creation, through my eyes, was something to protect not exploit. This was pretty much my connection to God growing up through college.

I married the love of my life, played professional football for 4 years ending my career , like so many, with an injury. It was a tough time, and I prayed often and felt Gods hand and direction. I had simple faith that things would work out.

It was then that I thought, “I need to start going to church.” I chose the church we were married in. I had no idea what kind of church it was, it just was the only church I knew because we had a wedding there. I started to attend Sunday School in addition to the service.

Here there was an air of certainty, confidence, authority, right thinking. None of the fuzzy or don’t know for sure shrugs my mom gave me. These people had the “TRUTH”. They could point out all the lies. It was black and white, cut and dry, clear and simple, in and out, no mystery, doubt or confusion. The bible was without question, error, absolutely true in every facet. Theology was systematic, just study the system. Learn the facts, believe the statement of faith of our church. Read books by RC Sproul and John MacArthur.

Guest speakers came from The Institute of Creation Research, to teach us how evolution and science lie! The earth is 6,000 yrs old, and God is gonna burn it up in the end! We all descended from Adam and Eve, all animals come from those spared on the Ark, they are ours to be used. Public education is of the devil.  Oh and how we talked about the devil. More than Jesus, quite frankly, much more.

He was behind everything, but you could identify him! How? If anything undermines what we have defined as truth, it’s of the devil. Even if they call themselves Christian and say they love Jesus don’t be deceived. If they question the bible, believe in evolution, doubt, question a god who tortures people in hell, they are deceivers used by satan. Oh and did we talk about hell. We learned that God Is holy and all mankind sinful, in fact totally depraved.  Even the best person you know is deserving of unfathomable, unrelenting, eternal punishment and torture in hell. However, because God is good, he is going to save a few by his unconditional election, not by any merit or choice of their own but simply by his grace and choosing. Jesus died for the salvation of these few elect individuals.

I came to believe Jesus died for me.  I became one of the few, the chosen, the “elect” and that gave me the right to join the cult of  “Institutional Evangelical Christianity”.   Armageddon was coming but “Evacuation” theology told me I had no worries, I will be sucked up in the rapture and the world will go up in smoke. Good bye Sierra Club, I now could use and abuse the earth, pour motor oil down the drain, kill animals indiscriminately. No more tree hugging environmental concerns. People were depraved scum deserving damnation. Everyone and everything was going to hell, except for a few that now included me.

My job was to tell everybody “you’re hell-bound.  Turn to Jesus or else.” The few elect will respond.  This was the “good news”. And boy (as I was strongly encouraged) did I let everybody know. My mom and dad: goin to hell.  Sis, nephew, friends, family:  hell.  All Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Mormons, Jehovahs Witnesses, anyone “not-us”:  eternal damnation.  Even most so-called Christians were gonna burn: a billion Catholics because John MacArthur would remind us that the Catholic Church was the great whore of Babylon! Mother Teresa, in hell. Ghandi: hell, MLK: hell.Wrong kinda baptist, liberals: hell.  Homosexuals, evolutionists: hell. For that matter so were all the wolf in sheep clothing heretic liberal churches, Episcopalian, charismatics, Methodists, non denominationals, and so on and so on. “we” are in and everyone else is out.

I went into “ministry”, got “ordained” to “be used by sovereign God to pluck a few off the conveyor belt to hell” as one bible teacher told me. The ministry i joined was a subversive group, that would stealthily get into the cradle of evil, “public schools”and get kids saved. We’d lie through our teeth, use our sports platform and a bait an switch talk on good choices then lead them in a prayer of salvation right there in the school. Then we’d get them to check mark a card and count the saved. Then we’d show our donors the number of decisions for Christ, keep the money comin! Whatever trouble came to the school, no matter who we offended: no worries, the offended are all going to hell.

I climbed the ladder of evangelical fame, speaking all over the country, visits to the White House, speaking to legislators and congressmen, working crowds into a frothy frenzy as i railed on gays, public schools, atheists, ACLU, unbelievers!

Holy God, it was intoxicating!

However, when it got quiet, i had this nagging question, a twist deep in my gut, a voice lingering on the fringe of my conscience, haunting, whispering. I’d try to drown it out with more noise, louder voices. The question that haunted me was simply “is this really what God is like?”.

Over a decade I traveled as a vagabond evangelist, domestic missionary with a message of salvation or else, speaking to more than a million people. However over those years that message would be challenged by flesh and blood people. All kinds of people, from all kinds of religious traditions and beliefs. It wasn’t just their ideas but more importantly the actions of these people that affected me. Acts of grace, mercy, generosity, tolerance, kindness, love.

Cracks began to develop in my concrete exterior, and the certainty with which I had been indoctrinated began to diffuse. I was ending up with more questions than answers and questions I learned, are a good thing. Ironically the very people I was trying to save, began to save me. Good people, loving people, generous people, kind people, gracious people, forgiving people, optimistic people, accepting people, smart people.

And while I believed God to be holy and righteous, and just, (and i still do) there was one label I could not give him anymore, Loving. The God of my faith could be many things, but a God who could throw these people, good people, into a place that would make Hitler’s concentration camps something on par with Club Med, could not be called loving anymore. No, a God who could cast people into a place of eternal conscience torment simply because they are confused by the din of competing voices or were born into the wrong culture, tribe, religious tradition, place in history, because they did not possess the highest intellect, missed the memo, got the wrong info, were late to the revival, could be a God of a lot a things, but love was not one of them.

My church spewed a lot about the wrath of God in the Old Testament , a lot about the apostle Paul , a lot about the devil. But on the back burner was the one who I initially fell in love with and lost in church. Jesus!

Over those years through all kinds of people I began to slowly get reacquainted with Jesus. Other followers would let me bellow and blow about doctrine and orthodoxy and inerrancy and Paul’s epistles, then they’d take me back to Jesus, loving, forgiving, feeding, healing, indiscriminately. I had such an encounter with Brennan Manning who simply told me to “love,” and with Tony Campolo who simply said ” be loving”. A book by a man who became a friend and mentor Dr.Charles Ryrie, caused a major crack in my MacArthur theology. Chuck Swindoll’s book on grace , another by Lucado, Philip Yancey, Manning’s “ragamuffin gospel” caused more than a crack, the foundation buckled.

I had to look in the mirror and admit I didn’t like who I’d become following this God. I no longer believed God could be like that. I had to take the chance, and admit I may be wrong. I actually hoped in my gut i was. So I read more, studied more, listened more, and focused more on Jesus. I read the forbidden books by those liberal theologians with PhDs from those liberal evil schools like Princeton, Harvard, Yale. I listened to the forbidden pastors, teachers, who had different interpretations of the Bible.

I began to study the bible with new vigor and a open mind. I listened to both sides of a opinion, argument, interpretation, point of view. And for the first time I chose for myself, thought for myself, because i have to live with myself and answer to God myself. I entered into “conversation”and left “indoctrination”.

What I discovered, slowly realized, was i didn’t have a clue to what I was talking about for so many years. I studied church history and came to realize few christians have any idea of the tumultuous, ever changing landscape of Christianity’s past 2000yrs. I studied the evolution of Christian doctrine and theology, I studied Judaism the parent religion learning from the Jewish roots. I studied the original languages, understanding then how much is lost in translation. I read the forbidden books that didn’t make the cut under Emperor Constantine. I studied the culture, history and context context context of what I read in the bible. And man do we blow the context.

All the while Jesus began to grow larger, more beautiful, more meaningful in my life. I started to listen and get this, apply his teachings. I could think again. I was free. I found God again in nature and people, all kinds of people. Today I no longer believe the earth is 6000 yrs. old, which promptly put me on the receiving end of the kind of condemnation that Copernicus and Galileo experienced when they contradicted the biblical understanding of sun and universe circling the earth. They recanted under threat of death, but still they knew. I no longer believe Adam and Eve poofed into existence and all humans come from them, or all animals are traced back to Noah’s Ark. A God guided evolution seems best bet to me today, and for me is no less miraculous. I don’t believe in the bible the way I used too, as a magic book who’s every word comes perfect from God.

The text comes with mystery , beauty, complexity, danger and yes errors, many human errors. The errors that are inherent to translation, time, personality, politics, understanding and interpretation. Ive come to realize the whole book is wide open to interpretation, always has been, always will be and that makes it so beautiful, so relevant, inspiring and bloody dangerous!

I still believe the bible to be sacred, inspired and inspiring in many ways, in fact it is far more powerful to me today than ever before and more necessary to study than ever before. For me the genius of scripture is not whether Adam, Eve, the garden actually happened but that it happens, all the time! Temptation, fear, rebellion, blaming, shame, hiding and a God who beckons us to come out of hiding. Floods still happen to our lives, we still need to build lifeboats in a desert. In the bible I find the sheer genius of the one who the bible describes as the “fullness of God in bodily form”.

I believe that, not because the bible says it, but because I’ve tasted the sheer genius of Jesus teachings. Loving your enemy, forgiving those who have trespassed against you, madness till you do it and are set free! He is more real and divine to me than ever. People will use the bible how they want, to love and hate, heal and kill, care or care less, give or take, build bridges or fences, include or exclude, release or oppress. But not so with Jesus, he always chooses the former over the latter, his way is narrow, harder to get around because it’s so broad and inclusive.

Of course religious people do get around him everyday. I did. But in the end I chose to follow Jesus, not Paul, not Moses , not the bible, not a denomination, not the institution of Christianity. I filter it all through the lens of Jesus now. He loved unconditionally , for real, not like how the church says it then adds conditions. He dispensed forgiveness as a gift, by his grace, freely. Not the way the church says your saved by grace as a gift but then makes you pay for it over and over or lose it. He was radically inclusive, healing the outcast, marginalized, powerless, loving the prostitutes, drunks, swindlers, uneducated, the wrong races, cultures, religions, all who came to him. He ate with and drank with them, they felt his acceptance and love and were drawn to it, moved by it, saved by it. He did not stand on a soapbox megaphone in hand screaming at sinners, passing out stupid tracts to strangers walking by! No, they became his “friends”!

Ultimately Jesus gave me the God I could believe in. One of power, mystery, surprise, grace, who could never be limited by systems, lists, or be made predictable. Most of all he gave me a God I could say is, love. A God who I could love, and not just fear.

It’s Interesting that Jesus never attacked or shouted at the “sinners”, but boy did he lay into the religious elites, the ones who had in their minds the right doctrine, truth, rituals, membership, pedigree, ordination, culture, heritage. He blistered the chosen, elect, saved, bearers of inerrant truth.

How did they respond?

They called him a devil, a sinner, a drunk, a heretic and they killed him. Jesus was not murdered by the dredges of society but rather by the pious and devout, and get this, he loved them even as they did it! He asked his father to “forgive them ” with his last breaths, because what they do, they do out of ignorance. Wow! He said a mouthful. I’ve banked on that forgiving prayer after so many years of preaching hate, judgement and prejudice instead of love.

Recently I become friends with a guy that for a long period I only knew by podcasts of his outstanding teaching and New York Times best selling books. In his blockbuster “Love Wins.” he challenged many of the assumptions by Christians about the eternal fate of every person who ever lived. The mass of U.S. evangelical Christianity for example, believes the bulk of the seven billion persons alive today will go to a place of eternal conscience torment called “hell”, and yes that means really good people like Ghandi and Mother Teresa .

My friend Rob did a great job of challenging that notion biblically and historically in a intelligent and easily readable book. It’s the book I would have liked to write but am thankful he did! It wasn’t controversial to me at all, i’d studied the history, knew how the doctrine of hell evolved, but it quickly became the center of controversy in U.S. evangelical Christianity. He made the cover of Time magazine, voted one of the 100 most influential persons in the world by Time and the book became another one of his best sellers. All the while he also became one of the most vilified, condemned, hated personalities in U.S. evangelical Christendom.

I am talking hatred of such toxic proportions coming from people who call themselves Christians against one who calls himself a Christian. Why??? Because the book posits the notion that Ghandi, could be in heaven by the grace of God and the mission of Jesus’s life death and resurrection.

As Rob is a man who would unequivocally call himself a follower and lover of Jesus, who went to Wheaton bible college, received his masters from Fuller theological seminary, is a voracious student and teacher of the bible and pastored Mars Hill bible church for 15 years. It’s safe to say Rob’s approach to these questions are not simplistic or with out deep thought and regard for other views. All that said, he was made out to be a heretic and devil by the lot of Christian fundamentalist.

But many other followers of Jesus like myself, found the book refreshing and badly needed. So i endorsed it whole heartedly! Still do. However due to the continuing evolution of my beliefs and my association with the likes of Rob Bell and other progressive Christians, I suffered many of the same attacks.

I thought we could engage in fresh and stimulating conversation but i was a bit naive for sure. Many people left my church shooting up the place on the way out and continuing to snipe. Im certain many think they are doing Gods will and me a favor. I know that because that was me many years ago. I’m sure that a large number of those who crucified Jesus thought they were doing God a favor as well. People threatened, bullied, attempted to intimidate me or enticed me to prostitute myself into recanting my beliefs.

They demanded I disassociate myself from these individuals, condemn their teaching or pursue having me fired. I’ve been labeled a heretic, unorthodox, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a deceiver, false teacher, a practitioner of satanic ritual (in a private church dungeon don’t you know), I’ve been told in letters I’d be struck down (as in death by God), am not a real Christian, not welcome at the table, and of course am going to the “deepest darkest pit of hell reserved for me and my like minded friends” quote unquote.

And this was from people whom I thought of as friends! People with whom i’d married and buried their loved ones, baptized, prayed with thru, divorce, loss, addiction, struggles, health crisis, supported financially and helped find grace for the skeletons in their closets.

None the less in the end, because i held a more optimistic view of Gods love in Jesus for everybody, i was excommunicated from their lives.

This is Christianity. This is why I am no longer interested in the institution of Christianity.

So despite heresy trials, where I gave a biblical, historical defense of my current positions (that was easy actually), i never recanted. I would not, could not, dream of disassociating and or labeling these loving, Jesus people as heretics. I mean if I’m going to hell with all of them rather then heaven with all the haters, hell would be more like heaven anyways! I never asked or fought to keep my job, nor bent the knee to intimidation, and yet, amazingly I’m still here, and I’m so glad and grateful.

I have found in the new community of the few who stayed, and the rest who’ve come looking for healing, acceptance, grace, hope and unconditional love, my true calling. It’s a place where you can question, wonder, doubt, think for yourself and be yourself. It is a place where I see God healing, where people who have given up on Christianity but not Jesus have found community.

Our focus in Christ is to allow him to mold us into better more loving people and through us make the world a better more loving place. Today I am the most blessed, happy heretic you could know, and the love of Jesus has never been more real!

I have healed from the hurt, I harbor no ill wishes against those who disagree with me, I have no desire to argue, convert anyone, debate, win. I still believe those with a narrow view are Christians, I just don’t agree with them. I believe they will be seated together at the great banquette to come, right next to Martin Luther King and Ghandi.

I believe God cares deeply about the sin on earth, not so much maybe about whether we cuss or have pre marital sex, but absolutely about greed, hate, prejudice, oppression, abuse of power to exploit the land and people on it. I believe there are plenty of real hells on earth and he wants us to deliver people from them. I believe god will put an end to sin, extinguish it, put it down and out. I believe god will judge with righteous justice, however i believe it’s purpose is restorative over punitive. Im a hopeful universalist, like many early church fathers and brilliant modern ones. I’ve got a hope that all people, the best and worst of us, in this life or the next could be healed and put into our right minds just as Jesus did unto the man who was so evil, that his name was Legion, because he had 6000 devils in him. Without a request Jesus healed that man, put him into his right mind and he chose to follow Jesus. Who in their “right” mind, meeting the “right” Jesus wouldn’t? Thats my opinion anyways.

In the meantime i will continue to follow Jesus as best as i know how.

This is a sort of coming out in public letter. I have nothing to hide, never have. It will confirm for many their worst fears. It may encourage others to continue to try to “take me down”. Whatever. I personally suggest you look for something more constructive to do in a world that needs more love.

Rob Bell, Paul Bergmann, OVCC

Rob Bell and Pastor Paul at OVCC 2012.

Recently Rob came to share with our community. It was a beautiful time, a uplifting experience for all. I did not hire him to come, he came simply as a friend with a word of encouragement. I’ve lost many friends, I’ve also found many new ones. We were two happy Jesus loving heretics. Two hopeful survivors with a message of really good news.

I’ve harkened back to the simple but deep love of Jesus that I learned from my mom. Twenty five years of bible study brought me full circle to what she taught me. Thank you mom, as you taught and I teach today, in the end love truly wins. Genius I tell you!