Christians who label themselves “fundamentalist” come in all shapes and sizes. When some hear this term, they pejoratively associate it with all Christians with more “conservative” positions than they themselves hold. But the way I’m using the term here is different. I’m using it of a particular segment of people who are part of a particular sociological movement within conservative Christianity. This movement claims a heritage that stems from the fundamentalist-modernist controversy in the early portion of the 20th century, but has, in reality, abandoned its historical roots in pursuing theological conservatism (Beale, In Pursuit of Purity, 5 – “Historic fundamentalism has changed.”). Today fundamentalism pursues cultural conservatism (conserving elements of seemingly holier bygone eras) and has added a singular approach to doctrinal error (distanced separatism). But in reality, the conservative evangelicals from whom they have separated are the true fundamentalists, waging battle royal for the faith against liberalism and the far left of evangelicalism. They are the front line of infantrymen. Fundamentalists are the artillery troops who conveniently find themselves huddled miles from the fight. And instead of dropping shells on the enemy, they safely lob shells at their own front line troops. I say “safely,” because they rarely/never receive a return volley, but, rather, kind accolades. I think this is for two reasons: (1) they have no substantive relationship with evangelicals, and (2) evangelicals have legitimate issues that they’re battling against rather than the groundless critiques of the fundamentalists.
The Problem of Fundamentalism
The problem of fundamentalism is visible at a foundational level. The movement’s pursuit of separatism in an attempt to reach the highest ground of Christianity has been the path that has placed fundamentalism on the cliff. This spirit has been helpfully and powerfully critiqued by Phil Johnson (see “Dead Right” Part 1 and Part 2). Another excellent critique on sound biblical grounds comes from my friend and colleague Stan McCune. I’ll add a little to the already solid argument against fundamentalism as I set up my plea to progressive fundamentalists.
Why Distanced Separation is a Problem
I really have no simpler argument on why the fundamentalist preoccupation with separation is a problem than to point to the Pharisees. Most of you who’ve been raised in fundamentalism, like me, are already rolling your eyes. You don’t get the connection. Here it is: the word “Pharisee” is Aramiaic for “Separate Ones.” And for whom did Jesus reserve his strongest, loudest, and longest critiques during his ministry? Was it the liberal Sadducees? Was it the corrupt politicians? Was it the sinful prostitutes and murderers? Nope, nope, and nope. It was the Pharisees. Separate ones: Jesus is pointing at you.
An Example of the Problem: Broken Scholarship
One recently noted result of the fundamentalist separatism is that fundamentalist scholarship, at its best, is intentionally not currently contributing to the scholarly community and is even fearful of publishing with reputable evangelical publishing houses. And I firmly believe that they’ll continue in this insular vein of academics because it’s rooted in the very core of what fundamentalism is all about–separatism. As the dean of a fundamentalist seminary once wrote me:
“Our purpose in our PhD programs is to train men for academic leadership [in] fundamentalist, separatist ministries, not in broader evangelicalism, so we are not much concerned about their responses to us and whether their doors are opened or closed.”
Another Example of the Problem: Fear of Evangelical Scholarship
This broken form of separatism is exemplified by my interaction with one of the upper echelon leaders at Bob Jones University (probably referred to as a “mainstream” fundamentalist organization). I asked him about connecting with churches in the movement and he didn’t even bother asking about my theology; he immediately told me:
“With all due respect, you’ve sought out seminary training outside of fundamentalism, and so you frankly have no place in fundamentalism. I couldn’t recommend you to fundamentalist churches with your kind of background.”
Rather than valuing those who’ve existed outside of their fishbowl, fundamentalists immediately slander, mark, and avoid those who aren’t fully inbred within the movement. This has been blatantly apparent to me since my first visit to my regional ETS meeting.
The Obvious Problem: Hyper-Fundamentalism
I’d like to briefly dive into the fishbowl of fundamentalism in order to broaden our perspective of what’s wrong with fundamentalism. The much maligned hyper-fundamentalist is the go-to bogey man of fundamentalism. A self-identified fundamentalist once described this person as maintaining some or all of the following eight characteristics (adapted from Kevin Bauder in Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism, 43-44):
- His loyalty to an organization, movement or leader is unquestioning.
- His stance on extra-biblical or anti-biblical issues is militant.
- He views any form of association with another believer as full endorsement of even their errors.
- He is unable to receive criticism.
- He views academia and Christian intellectuals in a negative light.
- He holds nonessentials as tests of fellowship.
- He sees militant political action as essential.
- He practices double standards in his personal ethics.
Bauder sees these behaviors as indicative of the most extreme wing of the movement (FVSE, 44), but those who’ve had thoroughgoing interaction with the movement would likely see elements of this behavior more widespread–behavior which breeds easily in a culture which prizes distanced separatism from the rest of Christianity.
“You may be thinking that I am pointing to a discomfort with hyper-fundamentalism, and in some cases that is true. However, the subculture as a whole seems to blur the Gospel and even at times consciously or unconsciously attempts to add to it.” – Mitch Nichols
Why the Hyper-Fundamentalist Problem isn’t Going Away
Part of the fundamentalist’s inability to see the scope of their problem is rooted in their sectarian mindset. By remaining largely within the confines of their own movement, they don’t see their own pride or legalism because they’re constantly comparing themselves to the behaviors of the more radicalized fundamentalist. The insular and sectarian tendencies of the movement ensure that hyper-fundamentalist tendencies are allowed to grow and thrive because no fundamentalist has to look far to find someone more “hyper” than themselves.
In spite of the fact that the characteristics of hyper-fundamentalism which Bauder defines permeate more of the movement than I think Bauder can admit, I do agree that there is a more moderate segment of the movement (for a more extensive interaction with the work, see my review here). And I also agree with him that this segment of fundamentalism is rapidly diminishing (FVSE, 46) in favor of either the radicalized extreme of the movement or a more progressive brand of fundamentalism that appreciates more of what their conservative evangelical brothers are doing (FVSE, 45). It’s this progressive wing of fundamentalism that I’ve been involved with for the past 6 years in particular, and my article is aimed at addressing some of the issues in this portion of the movement.
The Predicament of the Progressive Fundamentalist
Yes, by comparison, the progressive fundamentalist seems like a less abrasive kind of fundamentalism, but there are some major challenges with this segment of fundamentalism. From my perspective, in a taxonomy of fundamentalism from hyper to mainstream to progressive (some prefer “old-time”, “traditional”, and “historic” as labels that slightly overlap what I’m aiming for here), progressive fundamentalism can be bifurcated into divergent fundamentalists and emerging fundamentalists. Divergent fundamentalists accept some theological or practical outliers from mainstream fundamentalists (e.g., use of “sanctified” CCM or willingness to study at evangelical institutions), but still stand resolutely committed to remaining embedded in the fundamentalist movement. On the other hand, emerging fundamentalists accept both the theological and practical outliers from mainstream fundamentalism, but (in contrast to divergent fundamentalists) are decisively and inevitably headed out of the fundamentalist movement and desire renewed fellowship with conservative evangelicals. A church or pastor would be considered post-fundamentalist after they have finished parting ways (often a result rather than an intention) with the movement of fundamentalism and its unbiblical practices and have begun substantial new mutual relationships with the broader conservative evangelical community.
I think that most progressive fundamentalists would agree with me that fundamentalism is a deeply flawed movement. Most progressive fundamentalists have begun to deeply value the Gospel’s role in their sanctification and now recognize the legalistic prohibitions that fundamentalism places on the leadership and congregants in their churches. Most progressive fundamentalists (and even hyper and moderate fundamentalists) see problems, but do they see the solution? They’ve seen the issues for at least a decade now. But who’s willing to do what needs to be done for the sake of their own souls and for the souls in their care? Or will progressive fundamentalists continue to sit on the fence while they acclimatize to their “safe” forms of legalism and pride on the fringe of a toxic movement? There are a few in the movement who recognize the problems and are fighting to retain the next generation of leaders, but they presume (1) that reform is actually possible and (2) that the value of remaining in the movement is somehow greater than leaving it. They tell us that the their movement is not on sinking sand, but that the issues we’re seeing are the mere foibles of a few–problems with the edifice and not the foundation of the movement (McLachlan, Reclaiming Authentic Fundamentalism, 3-4). But I would strongly contend (1) that reform is not broadly welcomed (even hotly resisted) even in the “moderate” wing of the movement and (2) that the dangers of remaining in the movement are far worse than leaving it (I’ll get to that soon). And I think that my generation sees these two points acutely. In our experience, fundamentalism has only doubled down and pushed us out. The divergence and emergence of fundamentalists has driven the rhetoric of hyper and mainstream fundamentalists into a furious frenzy. They don’t want you and your efforts to reclaim or reform the movement.
A Plea to Progressive Fundamentalism
My plea to my conflicted progressive fundamentalist brothers is to immediately and decisively pursue full fellowship with your evangelical brothers at the expense of relationships within the broken fundamentalist movement. The movement is radicalizing toward hyper-fundamentalism and diminishing in the middle, and you’re in the danger of maintaining sole or primary fellowship with believers who have a radically inferior view of the Gospel, which could tempt you to become dormant in your pursuit of the Gospel and proud of your standing. I plead with divergent fundamentalists to begin emerging from the movement. I plead with emerging fundamentalists to stay the course and become post-fundamentalist. You need the benefit of Gospel-centered fellowship and the removal of fundamentalist restraints on your church and people. You need to leave the unbiblical movement behind you for the sake of your own spiritual health.
The “moderate” fundamentalists scorn your position as a reckless experiment, from which you will return groveling in hopes of acceptance back into the fundamentalist network.
“Ridicule from the New Fundamentalists is not at all surprising, but most of our friends are keeping their head down hoping all this will pass over. In five years you will hear a large collective ‘Oops’ after we have lost an entire generation of our preacher boys.” – Fundamentalist Pastor quoted approvingly by Rick Arrowood
Surprisingly, I’m going to tell you that these fundamentalists are partly right. If you see progressive fundamentalism as an end in and of itself, if you think that you can carve out a safe existence on the fringe of fundamentalism (i.e., becoming a clan of “divergent” fundamentalists), you’re grossly mistaken. Your church and organization will dwindle out of existence by attrition; those who are still enamored with separatism will leave, and those who you’ve shepherded toward the Gospel will continue moving while your church slams on the brakes to avoid leaving the movement. Your personal growth in the Gospel will be hindered as you continue to exemplify the legalistic constraints of fundamentalism.
But here’s where I hope the fundamentalists are dead wrong: I believe that “emerging” fundamentalists truly don’t intend to stay in the fringes. They rightly want to pursue full fellowship with conservative evangelicalism even if it results in the loss of fundamentalist connections. And I hope to urge these believers to take the next step in this awesome journey. In the next two articles, I will offer 5 [edit: now 6] benefits in letting go of fundamentalism and 5 [edit: now 6] breaking points you need to push through as you and your church leave fundamentalism.