The New Fundamentalists: Unlikely Separatists

6807976973_b7fd5b6468I 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.

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24 Responses to The New Fundamentalists: Unlikely Separatists

  1. Joshua Teis says:

    Awesome! Truly well done.

  2. Ryan Hayden says:

    Aaron,
    This is a great article. I don’t know whether I would be considered a “new fundamentalist” or not, (I’ve never advocated a come out approach to errant fundamentalism) but I certainly spend a lot of time fighting against the issues of the “ism.”
    I read a quote by some 18th century philosopher that said “beware when you fight the monsters, lest you become one.” I think we are seeing that happen with young guys around us. For my part, I try to hide my disdain for unbiblical ministry from no one, but I also work hard to build relationships with IFB pastors in my area who I have strong disagreements with.
    You’re a good writer, keep it up.

    • If you can track down that quote, I’d love to know where it came from!
      It seems we probably have a lot in common, and I appreciate your willingness to combat error while continuing to appreciate the good.
      Thanks for your comments!

  3. Ryan Hayden says:

    Nietzsche was the one who said it. I’ve never read anything he wrote, just saw the quote once and it stuck in my mind.

  4. Matt West says:

    Very well done, sir.

  5. One of the deepest regrets I have is burning too many bridges when I left “latter Fundamentalism.” I was angry and arrogant. Though I have no desire to return to those days and disagree with much of Fundamentalism has come to be known for today, I need to show a little grace myself. There’s still many within that movement who have had a profound influence upon.

    • Thank you for your transparency, Kevin. I, too, have many men and women for whom I am extremely grateful, and though one man’s good experience does not invalidate another man’s bad, I have been helped by remembering that none of us (Christians, that is) is so depraved that he does not have at least an ember of grace. And none of us is so sanctified that he cannot stand further refining.

  6. John Allen says:

    Aaron, well thought-out and well written. I get to meet with many Independent Fundamental Baptist pastors and people, and many are wondering what to do. You offer a balanced response.

  7. Nate Allen says:

    Aaron,
    Thank you for continuing the conversation on this issue. I certainly resonate with your Andreas Karlstadt reference. It seems that many of the Reformers sought “revolution” over actual “reformation.” Thank you for advocating a far more tame brew of denominational reformation. In the long run, I truly believe reformation will be the key to drawing the largest number of God’s people in our movement back to His Truth. I also appreciate your perspective on tempering our frustrations with Christian love. Keep writing good stuff like this, bro. It was truly encouraging.

    • Thanks, Nate. Our church just watched the old Martin Luther movie a couple of weeks back. That’s probably why Karlstadt was on my mind. But you’re right: our faith, and the truth to which it is anchored, it nothing without love. Appreciate your comments!

  8. David Horsford says:

    Hi Aaron,

    I’m so thankful you chose the objective route with a heart to maintain the “unity of the faith in the bond of peace”; I can see your heart and growth into one, who is more kingdom-oriented than building your own kingdom. Truedat, moving forward must be done wisely; true doctrine must be preserved, while the voices of those who are genuinely abused given voice. Tyrant pastors, pride-filled churches must not be heralded as exemplary but notorious. My concern in reading your blog is that you keep people-centered, allowing the abused to voice their feelings though they’re feelings may come through in a muffled, vitrolistic way at times. Labeling them “New Fundamentalist” may make for a pithy phrase but it tends to alienate them and cause others to discount their words. Many of these spiritually abused ones have actually been abused verbally, physically, and sexually as well. Abuse usually does not happen in a vacuum. Specific abuses in church circles needs to gain mention. When people like the Mahaney, the once leader at Soveriegn Grace, are taken to task for his tacid enabling of child abuse in his group; he cannot be treated as anything but possibly culpable, human and accountable for his actions. It’s worth noting that the voices of abused people may be muddled because of the psychological damage we’ve experienced, but as we are encouraged to gain confidence in time we state names and rid Christian leadership of the leaders, who’ve ruined others and hurt the kingdom-thanks for the track that your going down. Our love affair must always be with people who need help, their welfare and not ideas. To enable those who indoctrinate and infiltrate evil teaching and practice would be counter to the way of Jesus.

    • David,

      You’ve got great sympathy and wisdom here. Indeed, Christ must be our model, and I find it interesting how he cautions his followers in the opening verses of Matt. 23. He basically says that the doctrine of the Pharisees is accurate, though their practice is faulty (putting it mildly). I don’t think we need to parse that too finely; probably he was saying that as far as the Pharisees were teaching the OT (which they were), then they were teaching truth, though they weren’t in any way living by its spirit. And he goes on to teach his followers to live differently, mostly to be humble, as opposed to Pharisaic pride.
      In our situation, when the “abused” adopt the errant stance, attitude, and practices of those whom they are opposing, then I tend to think “New Fundamentalist” is an apt label. When someone says, “Listen to me criticize you, but don’t bother responding because I’ve already heard all your answers,” I don’t hear the voice of humility. They have become what they despise, and they shouldn’t be the last ones to know. (Actually, I hope that the term itself might cause some to stop and say, “Is that what I sound like?”) Some of them have too much good to say to sacrifice it on style.
      The other danger is also what Jesus mentioned, in that by rejecting the practice, they might also reject the confessed doctrine. In other words, in rejecting abusive Christianity, they may end up rejecting legitimate Christianity as well. One of the sad side-effect of spiritual abuse is that the abuser fills the horizon and becomes the only representative of the faith. And sometimes it may seem like rejecting the abuse means rejecting the faith as well.
      And that’s where I think your words are helpful, noting how the abused may take some time to grasp the proper language and confidence to communicate. But I would ask – sincerely – just how much space should be allowed for suggestions given by those who are still disoriented?

      • David Horsford says:

        My perspective may alarm, but I think the abuse alarms out there will continue unchecked for some time; also, the voices defending “the faith” will continue to defend. It’s somewhat of a system of checks and balances. I have some very defined beliefs, which I count unchangeables, but I’ll admit to “grey areas.” Many think there are no grey areas. I think it’s important that we have voices heralding orthodoxy but voices on the fringe demanding orthodoxy, which doesn’t carry it to unnecessary extremes- an orthodoxy which doesn’t allow for bullying or abuse excess in any form whether sexual, verbal, spiritual or other. Each must know what he needs to do; the calling is a matter worry considering here; my work is with recovering homeless, abused, and addicted; hence I focus on excesses, bullying, and brainwashing in Chriatianity, which opens the gates for more people in my mission as they aid and abett abuse in Christian circles-makes my work at the mission more difficult. I think it’s important to let be to a certain extent, but allow people the freedom to express their feelings without the policing, which has a way of keeping excess in check. Name calling, exclusivity, and plain hatred are appropoes.

      • David, I’d love to hear more about your work at the mission. It sounds very interesting, and quite necessary. And if I’m following you correctly, I think I agree with the idea of checks and balances. Unfortunately, when that happens, the church begins to resemble the world – take our political processes in the USA, for example – or the difference between conservative and liberal media outlets. Extremists end up setting the agenda, and in their great tug-of-war, the truth is lost.
        As far as allowing people the freedom to express their feelings without policing, I would first begin to question the therapeutic value of “venting.” Only question. I don’t have any solid answers on that, though I think it should be examined carefully through a Gospel lens. Still, perhaps some would feel less need to “police” if the “venting” didn’t become so personal or strident or sectarian. It’s one thing to voice one’s experience; it’s quite another to attempt to build a tribe in opposition to others. That’s not to say that problems shouldn’t be addressed, only that belligerent separation may not be the best way to do it. Creates a checks-and-balances, like mentioned above, where both are playing a zero-sum game by the other team’s rules. The truth is easily lost, and the separatists are the last to know.
        And there’s one other question: does public “venting” really keep excess in check?

  9. David Horsford says:

    Here’s a very balanced read, which is related to your perspective.
    http://frankviola.org/2012/02/20/evangelicalism6/

  10. “Remove not the ancient landmark, which thy fathers have set.” – Proverbs 22:28

    I had the privilege of being discipled in a great Independent Fundamental Baptist Church, Mountain View Baptist Church in Holyoke, MA by a fantastic Pastor, Eric M. Tharp. Then I had the privilege to train for 4 years at Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, MI. The Founder, Dr. Tom Malone Sr. was still the President while I was there, and is one of the finest Christian gentlemen, pulpiteers, Pastors and Church-builders with which it has been my fortunate privilege to cross paths with during this mortal pilgrimage. I am truly blessed and honored to follow in their footsteps (Cf. II Tim 2:2 & 3:14).

    Each year, Dr. Malone would walk us through the student handbook. He would remind us that “Each of us was there to learn, not teach” and also that while we may not understand each of the rules in the handbook, “Each rule was there for a reason”.

    What I learned from both Pastor Tharp and from Dr. Malone was to not only be Biblical in my convictions, but also principled and Biblically conservative and considerate in my preferential positions; and for both of these, the key is saturating yourself with, memorizing, studying and knowing the Bible so that you can think Biblically.

    A Biblical conviction is something that you would gladly lay down your life for; Biblical convictions would include The Inspiration and Preservation of Bible, The Virgin Birth of Jesus Christ, The Atoning Death, Burial and Bodily Resurrection of Jesus Christ, The Return of Christ, the Church, etc.

    All Pastors must draw the lines concerning preferences where they Scripturally comfortable.
    However, Biblically conservative and considerate in preferential positions, are of necessity derived from the principles of the Bible, much in the way, the infant in the womb is dependent upon and derives all of her nourishment from the body of a mother. These “preferences” are the pieces of “rebar” that fasten together the Fundamental Foundations are derived from thinking Biblically. Thinking Doctrinally Biblical, which includes a heart desire to be obedient to revealed truth, will lead to Biblical Philosophy, which leads to Biblical culture which leads to Biblical Practice.

    What some are unwittingly doing through “questioning norms” is they are sowing the seeds of doubt (Cf. Gen. 3:1 & John 18:38) in the minds of those that follow them (sheep, other leaders and weaker brethren), and they have unknowing removed some of “rebar” (Cf. Pro. 22:28) of Biblically conservative and considerate preferential principled positions that fasten together the Fundamental Foundations. This is not their intention, but an unintended consequence nonetheless; and while they accuse others of being Pharisaical Legalists (which is untrue because a Legalist is someone who adds something to the plan of salvation) in their preferences (Cf. Mark 7). They themselves refuse to accept that they…

    1. are at best, guilty of “walking too close to the edge”

    2. perhaps using “…this liberty…” of theirs which may “…become a stumblingblock to them that are weak.”

    3. and at worst, are slowly weakening Biblical foundations

    As someone who…

    • is a Pastor

    • watches for the souls of men, women and families

    • influences preachers that look to me

    • will one day have to face “The Chief Shepherd”

    …when it comes to preferential positions; I would rather be Biblically principled, conservative and considerate and (spiritually speaking) build a fence at the top of the cliff that says, “DO NOT GO PAST THIS POINT”, than to have an ambulance at the bottom and say, “Oops. Sorry.” It is my view that being Biblically conservative and considerate in preferential principled positions builds such a fence.

    “All things are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but all things edify not.” – I Cor. 10:23

    “And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works:’ – Hebrews 10:24

    • Rich, thanks for sharing your experience and background. It does seem like a very short step from saying “Biblically conservative and considerate preferential principled position” to saying “Biblical,” doesn’t it? And I think that’s part of the problem for some, who heard “Biblical” but found the teaching to be something less.
      Another concern is that anyone can build a fence of preferences without faith, grace, or the work of the Holy Spirit. That’s probably what has led to the cries of “legalism.” In other words, if no work of man could save me from sin, how could a man-made fence keep me from sin? There’s no Gospel there.
      At the same time, I think you’re right in observing that when people suddenly discover liberty, they may end up indulging a little TOO much. Where the blame should be placed is a matter for debate. Probably it should be shared. However, I did come up with a quote from Not a Fan by Kyle Idleman that I found interesting, “When following [Christ] becomes about following the rules, people end up walking away from both.” (p. 77)

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