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