I blame no one but myself. I wasn’t listening very well, and I probably misunderstood what I heard. But I distinctly got the impression that everyone who didn’t do church like us was either going to hell or would be escorted to the back of line when heavenly rewards were being passed out. Only an impression, mind you; nobody actually taught me that.
Nevertheless, there we were, an island of true, biblical Christianity in a sea of liberalism. Together with our broadly-scattered allies, we were “Bible-preaching” churches, sometimes the only “Bible-preaching” churches in our respective areas, whether or not there were dozens of steeples within a 5K jog.
By “Bible-preaching,” we meant “Baptist,” “Independent,” and “Fundamentalist.” We were Baptist because we aligned with centuries of normative Baptistic doctrine and practice. Independent, because we were self-governing and only cooperated in ventures that allowed us some measure of authority. And Fundamentalist, because we separated.
A Little Background
Through an accident of publishing, orthodox Christians in the early 20th century received the pejorative Fundamentalist because they confessed the historical doctrines of Christianity and fought for the control of churches, seminaries, and denominations that were ready to abandon their beliefs. In most cases, the Fundamentalists lost control and ended up separating from the liberals in order to form their own conservative, orthodox institutions. Thus separation became part of the Fundamentalist creed.
As long as they were separating from liberals who no longer confessed faith in Christ’s vicarious atonement and bodily resurrection, they were separating from unbelievers. They rightly refused to call Christian that which denied Christ, and so fulfilled the Bible’s clear instructions to separate from unbelievers in matters of faith, as found in 2 Corinthians 6:17.
But separation was in their blood, and their heirs would debate among themselves just how far it should go. For some, it was not enough to separate from unbelievers; they must also separate from believers who wouldn’t separate. By the mid-20th century, the latter had shed the name “Fundamentalist,” and a major rift was growing between separatists and non-separatists. The separatists even began separating among themselves over more domestic issues so that eventually one would find millions of Christians all believing the same Bible, all affirming the same confession of faith, all desiring to serve the Lord in the practical matters of life, and yet all divided by music, clothes, colleges, celebrities, and personal convictions.
Leaving impressionable youth to wonder what was so wrong with the Christians down the street, and to come up with bizarre conclusions of their own.
Some Things Change
Today, Fundamentalist remains one of those unique English words that can be a swear word one moment and a badge of honor the next. A Fundamentalist is either an angel or a demon depending upon who’s speaking. For that reason alone, many Christians have concluded that the term is best avoided, while its idea is worth continuing.
We continue the idea at our church. We gave up on the term in 1950, when the church leaders found it to be doing more harm than good to our witness in the community. But we still cling to the historic doctrines of the Christian faith and are ready to draw a line in the sand over those beliefs we consider foundational. For the Gospel to mean anything, for Jesus to be the exclusive Savior of the world, we must separate the true from the false. And we are not ashamed to do so.
But we’re not willing to treat people like 2nd class Christians because they practice their faith differently. Today, I no longer drive past church buildings, pitying the poor souls inside who will be disappointed at their puny crowns on judgment day because they used Chris Tomlin songs on Sunday mornings. I embrace my fellow pastors who preach the Bible as the inerrant Word of God and share the Gospel of grace, without wondering if their denominational ties will relegate them to Heaven’s low-rent district. I hope that I’m more ready to celebrate the Savior we share than to argue over the opinions we don’t.
Not everyone thinks this way.
Some Things Don’t Change
Now there is a growing chorus of believers who have taken up the banner of separation for a new generation. They are the separatists of the separatists. Their grievances are new (grievances always are), but their philosophy has not changed. They are the New Fundamentalists.
Like the original Fundamentalists, they have retired from battle and chosen separation. Like later Fundamentalists, they have separated over issues few would consider fundamental. Like all Fundamentalists, their separation has not been silent.
And that’s because separation must be explained to the loyal, justified to the skeptics, and defended from the critics, though usually all of these fit under the banner: “Helping others to see the truth.”
Ironically, it is this banner that has given birth to the new movement.
The New Fundamentalists are not separating from liberals. They are not even separating from non-separatist evangelicals. The New Fundamentalists are separating from Fundamentalism itself because of the abuses they have perceived or experienced.
Abuse, not apostasy.
The New Threat
These abuses are not physical or sexual, for those horrors tragically cannot be limited to any single group.
The abuse is spiritual. A new idea for some, “spiritual abuse” occurs when a man or woman usurps the role of God in the life of another person. This can take several forms. The abuser may attempt to become the primary interpreter of Scripture for another, may attempt to direct the conscience of another, or may claim the role of sole spiritual authority for another. The result is that whenever a disagreement occurs, it is labeled “false doctrine,” “sin,” or “rebellion.” Other words may be used as fits the occasion, but the bottom line is that a man-made barrier has been erected between God and his children.
Jesus railed against this in Matthew 23:13, when he pronounced a curse upon hypocritical Pharisees who shut the door to God’s kingdom, not entering themselves nor allowing anyone else to enter. They had elevated themselves and their traditions to a place that had been reserved for God and His Word alone. Jesus said that they were teaching human opinions as if they were divine oracles, and he described them as “drawing near to God with their lips, but not with their hearts.” (Matthew 15:8-9) He said their worship was empty.
Would it be any wonder if a Christian living under such conditions should crave something different? And would it not be the gravest tragedy if a Christian had become so enmeshed in such a toxic environment that he or she could not imagine that anything different was possible?
This is the burden of the New Fundamentalists. Some of them have experienced spiritual abuse of this kind, where cults were called “Church,” tyrants were called “Pastor,” and Law was called “Grace.” They want out. And they should.
The Old Danger
But the danger of the New Fundamentalists is the same as the danger of the Old. Separation is in their blood, and in their zeal to rescue their brothers and sisters from the clutches of spiritual abuse, they may end up destroying much that is good.
Like the iconoclastic Karlstadt, some seem to prefer revolution to reformation.
Crusades against Tradition become boycotts of anything traditional. Denouncements of dictatorial pastors become denials of all spiritual leadership. Zealous opponents of legalism stumble past grace and into the arms of sinful license. These things are not uncommon, nor should they surprise anyone. Pendulums always swing past equilibrium.
But then, pendulums always come back. Fundamentalists rarely do.
The Present Confusion
The irony is that while the New Fundamentalists are separating for different reasons, their separation can often be just as loudly pugnacious as the Fundamentalists from whom they have separated. They can behave towards their opponents in the exact same way that they criticize their opponents for behaving towards others. Instead of seeking reconciliation with their brothers and sisters in Christ and embracing the unity of the faith, many have built just one more wall, serving the cause of those who would scatter the faithful rather than gather them together in one.
I want to understand. My experience with Fundamentalists has been vastly different than what is described on numerous blogs and websites. I will not deny that abuse has occurred, and I would never encourage a victim (of any kind) to return themselves to an abusive situation. I believe that many New Fundamentalists have separated because they were wounded in battle and had no choice. But I believe that there are plenty of others who simply prefer the safety of throwing rocks from a distance to crossing swords in close quarters.
So, because this article is already twice as long as it should be, and because no one has asked, I offer three suggestions.
To any New Fundamentalists
Please don’t be offended by the label. Your voice and perspective can be helpful, but if you adopt the attitude and tactics of your opponents, your message will never be heard by those who need it the most. Continue to rescue victims, and call out actual abusers. By name, if necessary. But broad brush strokes will only alienate those leaders, churches, and institutions that could benefit from words of grace. (A friend has written a plea along these lines.)
Many of you are rejoicing in your new-found liberty in Christ. I rejoice with you. And I challenge you – the wisest, strongest, most compassionate of you – to walk in fellowship with those whose opinions you despise, if only that the Lord might open their eyes by his grace. Celebrate the oneness of the body of Christ, which includes even those Fundamentalists with whom you most disagree.
To any Other Fundamentalists
Let’s be honest. Fundamentalists, like any other branch of the Church, have their problems. Deal with them. The New Fundamentalists may speak and act in ways you find highly offensive, but that does not mean that you have nothing to learn from them. (This is an example of their thought that contains much worth criticizing but also some things that are worth hearing.) All churches must continually fight to keep the Gospel of Christ central and the Scriptures in their place of prominence.
We all run the risk of allowing man-made traditions and human interpretation to eclipse God’s work. Every one of us – regardless of our Christian “camp” – ought to take a hard look at where we stand and ask God to examine us. And we ought not to be afraid to ask other believers to do the same.
To those who have no connection with any kind of Fundamentalists whatsoever
If you have actually read this far, please understand that this issue is not limited to Christians with a label that starts with “F.” Every new generation of Christians feels a certain freedom and even obligation to critique the faith that has been handed down to them. It is likely that such a critique will not be wholly accurate, but it will not be wholly wrong either. Can any of us claim to have done absolutely everything right?
If we are to perpetuate the faith once delivered to the saints, let’s renew our commitment to the Gospel of Christ and the authority of Scriptures, honestly admit our faults, humbly celebrate our virtues, and zealously pursue Christlikeness in all that we do.
Let our cry be semper reformanda, always reforming, always seeking the image of Christ in his Church before a watching world.