Should an atheist remain as a pastor?

One of the stories in the news lately has been that of Gretta Vosper, who is the minister of West Hill United Church in Toronto. Normally the media does not care about pastors unless there has been an affair or financial misconduct. In this case, there is neither. Rather, Gretta Vosper does not believe in God.

The United Church of Canada is traditionally a very liberal denomination (although I know a number of evangelical pastors within the UCC). However, atheism is a stretch even for the United Church. A recent report from the Toronto Conference stated that if she attempted to be ordained today, she would be rejected.

Despite much criticism from within and outside the UCC, the congregation of West Hill seems to largely support Vosper. They love their pastor and are willing to stand by her as she faces opposition. As a pastor of a church, I respect the loyalty of the congregation toward their pastor.

It seems that Vosper wants to remain in ministry and West Hill wants her to remain as their pastor.

Is this appropriate?

I have no problem with an atheist motivational speaker who leads a group of interested followers. But is that a church? A church that is affiliated with a Christian denomination has certain features, one of which includes belief in God. Vosper and her vision for her congregation seems to be in conflict with this.

I’m not suggesting that Vosper should be fired because I’m angry and I think she is a horrible person. I’m sure she is very nice and that she truly cares for her congregation.

But I would argue, if there was a leader of a humanist association who became a Christian, was vocal about their Christian faith and was bringing fellow humanists to faith in Christ, that it would not be appropriate for that leader to remain with that organization.

Many years ago, I was a youth pastor at a Pentecostal church. I was beginning the process to be credentialed with that denomination. However, I soon realized that I did not hold to the Pentecostal distinctive of speaking in tongues as the initial evidence of the baptism of the Spirit. I had no problem with Pentecostals, but I could not in good conscience have a formal relationship with a denomination that I disagreed with on a major issue.

I would suggest that the best thing would be for Vosper to end her relationship with the United Church and start her own organization that reflects her beliefs. Those of West Hill who agree with her would surely follow.

It just seems inconsistent to try and be a minister of a church when there is no belief in God.

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About the author


ChristianWeek Columnist

Stephen J. Bedard is an author, blogger and speaker. He is interested in discipleship, apologetics and disability advocacy. He co-wrote the award-winning book, Unmasking the Pagan Christ, which was also made into a documentary. He is the director of Hope’s Reason Ministry and editor of Hope’s Reason: A Journal of Apologetics. Additional writing can be found on his website stephenjbedard.com

  • Kevin R McCoy

    She is being honest Most clergy of any religion or sect knows they are preaching falsehood. Thy won’t admit it. Its all about power over the masses.

    • Stephen J. Bedard

      “Most”? Do you have some data to back that up?

  • ice

    It seems to me she should resign; but it seems that she will not.
    The interesting concept here is that her congregation supports her.
    This is interesting to me as the United Church I grew up in experienced a change when an evangelical pastor came to the church many left (others joined) and they returned after he left.
    Thank you for the article.

  • ksed11

    I would suggest that the best thing would be for Vosper to end her
    relationship with the United Church and start her own organization that
    reflects her beliefs.

    A reasonable person would view this as a reasonable course of action.

    • Katara c.

      Agreed. That’s a very reasonable way to manage the situation.

  • Richard Smith

    Over 40% of many protestant Christian denominations identify as Christian Atheists or non-realists (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_atheism). Christian Atheism of Non-Realims has been taught for over 100 years in seminaries (http://www.questcentre.ca/blogs/view/christian-atheism) including by the great 20th Century theologian Paul Tillich. It is a widely accepted position among many clergy and laity (http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/atheism/types/christianatheism.shtml)

  • Katara c.

    That is just crazy to have an atheist as a pastor. I agree that she probably is a very nice person, and I’m sure she cares for the congregation. But that does not make a pastor – a pastor is someone who’s supposed to provide leadership and guidance to people in their walk with God. You wouldn’t allow a doctor who doesn’t believe in medicine, or a police officer who doesn’t believe crime exists…. why would an atheist “pastor” be any different?