A couple of weeks ago, a blog post by Jeff Amsbaugh created some excitement among many of my friends, and for good reason. He titled it “Keeping Young Fundamentalists In The Camp,” and he proceeded to identify and criticize many of the abuses and errors found in the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist “movement.” Pedophilia, celebrity worship, and legalism all fell under his gaze as he scoured the movement for reasons some young preachers no longer wish to be associated with this group.
It certainly excited me! Finally, here was someone bold enough to name the sins and errors and encourage others to repudiate them. Here was someone with a voice, someone who could help to bring about reform from within this family of churches. Indeed, Pastor Amsbaugh has written for The Sword of the Lord, taught at Pensacola Christian College, and is associated with West Coast Baptist College, three well-known “hubs” for those who identify as “Fundamentalists.” Amsbaugh is an insider, and a respected one. He wrote a great article. May he keep blowing the whistle!
But since then, as I’ve read (and re-read) his post, it seems to me that something is missing. Rather, something could be added with profit. I’m a young-ish preacher with a fundamentalist heritage, a pastor of an independent Baptist church, who grows weary of saying, “…but not that kind of independent Baptist,” and there are two areas I believe have been neglected.
To say it differently, as my independent Baptist friends seek to build healthier churches, I’d like to point out two walls that may need propping up. If I may stand upon the shoulders of Pastor Amsbaugh for a moment, without speaking for him or for anyone else, I would challenge those who appreciated his article to…
Love the Scriptures
This does not go without saying.
Amsbaugh even alludes to it in his introduction by referring to preachers who “holler for the King James Bible” and “refuse to use it form their sermons.” However, it wasn’t one of his recommendations for reforming the “movement.” I humbly suggest it top the list.
(Of course, a love for God should top the list, but who can possibly love God while neglecting his Word? Who loves God while ignoring what he says? A love for Scripture is only slightly subordinate to a love for God and his glory.)
Had a love for Scripture permeated the independent Baptist movement, would the errors that Amsbaugh lists have been anywhere near as pervasive? Does Gospel-driven sanctification produce legalism? Do the passages on church discipline and mutual member ministry lend themselves to celebrity pastor worship? Does 1 John’s teaching on love for the brethren leave any room for Christian in-fighting? The irony is that despite all the talk about being “Bible-believing” and “Bible-preaching,” many independent Baptists have drifted into practices – chronicled by Amsbaugh – that are patently unbiblical.
Strangely, it usually happens in the presence, not the absence, of the Bible. In a sense, it’s wrong to say that independent Baptists don’t love the Scriptures. I grew up in an independent Baptist church, where the preachers always used the Bible. We were taught to read it and memorize it and bring it to church. Independent Baptists are nothing if not Bible champions! But apparently there is a way of promoting the Bible without being changed by it.
Is it possible we have merely upheld the Scriptures’ authority in order to assert our own? The Bible is a weapon, and like any weapon it can be misused. It can be used to nourish with grace or coerce behavior, to exalt Christ or promote the Pastor, to celebrate unity or create division, to invite repentance or demean those who disagree with us. Using the Bible does not imply using it well or rightly.
I think, then, there are at least two goals for Bible-loving independent Baptists – or any Christian, really – to pursue. If we truly love the Scriptures, let us…
1. Support Expositional Preaching
Some have defined “expositional preaching” as preaching where the point of the sermon is the point of the Scripture being preached. In other words, the Scripture is not used to support the sermon; rather, the Scripture forms the main idea, content, tone, and organization of the sermon. This shackles the preacher to the text, and allows the word of God to be heard.
Expositional preaching leaves no room for preachers who spin elaborate homilies from interesting phrases without regard to context or the Holy Spirit’s purpose for inspiring them. There’s no room for bouncing around the canon to bolster the preacher’s chosen topic. There’s no time to fill the sermon with entertaining and emotionally manipulative stories that often serve the preacher’s interests more than the congregation’s. There’s no place for the preacher ever to say, “Close your Bibles and look up here.” There’s no occasion to preach law to the exclusion of grace.
If we love the Scriptures, we will want them to be preached well. We will want to be able to follow the sermon on the page in our Bibles. We will want to know that God has spoken to us. We will want to hear his word preached in series that submit to his arrangement of subjects. We will want to be equipped to use the Scriptures in our ministry to others.
2. Support Biblical Theology
This is huge for independent Baptists because many preachers in the movement do not have a seminary education and aren’t interested in getting one. Of course, I know that’s not necessary to serve God well, but I wonder about the integrity of a movement that degrades those who want to learn how to study God’s Word better. (Ever heard a “seminary” referred to as a “cemetery?”)
And even if seminary isn’t the answer for everyone, surely a deeper dedication to the Bible doctrines is desirable. Deeper than one or two “proof-texts” to support what we believe. Deeper than quoting one verse to show why we’re right and someone else is wrong. Deeper than filtering difficult Scriptures through the grid of what we’ve already decided to believe. Or ignoring them completely.
I’m talking about the labor of studying behind those “proof-texts” to see if they really say what we think they do. I mean the courage of asking why Calvinists and Arminians, Catholics and Charismatics believe the Scriptures teach what they believe. I mean the diligence of tracing out the arguments of the New Testament epistles to see how doctrines and their applications originally developed. I mean looking to the Old Testament as a source of God’s self-revelation instead of as a collection of stories with morals and prophecies to be mentioned at Christmastime. I mean developing an understanding of the Bible’s unity and how all the parts fit together into one cohesive drama of Redemption.
I think there are a lot of independent Baptists who are content with their understanding of the Bible because they know enough to lead someone to Christ and help them live a holy life, and they bristle at the idea of studying more theology, especially if it threatens to rock their creed. But without diminishing evangelism and discipleship, I’m suggesting that it’s always worthwhile to dig even deeper if only to know more of God.
Love the Church
The second wall that could be propped up has to do with the fundamentalist’s relationship to the Church. By “Church,” I mean all those other churches in America and around the world that profess faith in Christ alone by grace alone and cling to the Bible as the inspired, inerrant Word of God. I mean those churches that agree on the fundamentals of the faith but either practice their faith a little differently or hold some different secondary beliefs.
I’m asking, Are the areas that divide us nearly as important as those that unite us?
Amsbaugh mentions unity as an important biblical principle in his article. He denounces mean-spirited separation. As he writes, “We must believe that compassion is not compromise.”
Love amongst the brethren! What a wonderful encouragement!
But I wonder how far it goes. In his introduction, he is clear that certain beliefs and practices are lamentable and that certain kinds of Christians are considered something “other.”
Of course, the title of the article is “Keeping Young Fundamentalists In The Camp.” Besides the questionable notion of being “kept,” I raise my eyebrows at the idea of Christianity divided into “camps,” especially the implication that we should stay in this one.
I know I am not alone in my reluctance to identify with a “camp.” Or a “movement,” for that matter. Such things inherently divide, sometimes unbiblically, and often pridefully. Such things are often at odds with the Biblical idea of unity.
There is a biblical doctrine of separation, as independent Baptists well know. The Bible teaches us to separate from unbelievers in matters of the faith, from those who preach false gospels, from unrepentant sinners, and from those who create unnecessary divisions in the Body of Christ. Apart from these things, though, unity seems to be the order of the day.
Which makes the idea of “camps” interesting, to say the least.
Look, I’m not saying that different fellowships or families of churches are wrong. I’m not even saying that different denominations are wrong, especially when people hold incompatible beliefs about Scripture’s teaching on certain practices (e.g. baptism or the best way to fund missionaries). Certain churches are going to have more in common, and there’s nothing wrong with acknowledging it. What’s wrong is looking at other churches who may differ only slightly and acting as if we share nothing.
The Scriptures may provide an illustration of what I mean. In Numbers 2, the Lord instructed Moses and Aaron how to organize the camp of Israel. To the east camped the tribes of Judah, Issachar, and Zeubulun; to the south, Reuben, Simeon, and Gad; to the west, Ephraim, Manasseh, and Benjamin; to the north, Dan, Asher, and Naphtali. Within this circle camped the tribe of Levi.
The Bible is clear: everyone was to pitch his tent within his own camp, under the banner of his own tribe. But no matter where they pitched, their tents were to face the blazing center of the entire camp – the Tabernacle, the earthly dwelling place of God. They lived, worked, ate, played, and slept in their own camps, but they worshipped together.
Some fundamentalists have forgotten this. Of course, some fundamentalists would remind me that we’re the church and not Israel, that OT narratives aren’t the best source for NT practice.
I agree. There is no Tabernacle today. No Temple. No earthly dwelling place of God.
No place, that is, except for the Church, the Body of Christ, with each local assembly and each member in particular.
To me, that’s an encouragement for greater, not lesser, unity.
I believe that independent Baptists – whether we self-identify as “fundamentalists” or not – could do a better job of recognizing the supremacy of Christ as the one who unites all believers. Some divisions are important, some inevitable. But we mustn’t allow matters of preference, practice, or interpretation to detract from the glory of God enthroned upon the praises of his people.
A Final Caveat
Just as I felt something could be added to Pastor Amsbaugh’s article, no doubt my own post falls short. I haven’t mentioned different strands of fundamentalists, such as those organized around Greenville, SC, or Ankeny, IA, or even those who like Hammond, IN. I haven’t mentioned a half-dozen other denominations that obviously have their own problems. I haven’t mentioned what to do about churches with good creeds and poor practice. I haven’t mentioned the slippery slope of compromise or the thin end of the wedge.
I have simply tried to affirm what Pastor Amsbaugh wrote and add my own two cents. My prayer is for healthier churches, more souls reached and disciples made, and more glory to God.