The Predicament of Progressive Fundamentalism: The Benefits of Leaving (Part 2)

Previously, I outlined some of my the problems with fundamentalism and offered a plea to my progressive fundamentalist brothers, but I didn’t want to just end there. With any journey out of something, you are also moving toward something else. As I’ve moved away from fundamentalism, it isn’t because I’m angry or merely disillusioned with the movement. Yeah, I’ve been kicked in the chops a time or ten by fundamentalist leaders. But I’m not leaving because of that. In fact, I was dead set on staying and getting busted on for the rest of my life until God showed me that not only did the fundamentalists not want me, but that I needed what my evangelical brothers and sisters had to offer.

So this post was only supposed to list 5 benefits, but after some of the comments on my previous post, I’ve thrown in an extra one for good measure. Here we go:

You will grow spiritually as a result of your substantial interaction with your evangelical brothers and sisters.

Fundamentalism tends to skew either toward an intellectual dryness or an emotional vapidity. In spending time with my evangelical brothers, I’ve found that truth and love tend to work more in equal parts. Having been more familiar with the cold intellectualism of fundamentalism, I’ve rediscovered an “affective” dimension of my faith even while interacting with academics in an evangelical seminary. In my experience, evangelicals do a far better job expressing love, engaging in humble service, and enjoying the work of the Holy Spirit in their worship and growth in sanctification than I’ve seen in fundamentalist circles. There are exceptions in both cases, but this has been the norm from my experience. All but a couple of my fundamentalist seminary professors seemed to have to flip a switch to transition from teaching theology or Greek to talking about pastoral implications of the doctrine or text. In my evangelical seminary experience, doctrine and life were more closely intertwined. I’ll never forget the very emotional moments in class when my professors would tear up as they shared how the text had impacted their lives.

From evangelicals I’m learning that love means more than just being nice to those who are nice to you. It means investing in the lives of others. From evangelicals I’m learning that joy means more than a smile when they pass you in church. It means delighting in Jesus and his people even when that doesn’t seem logical.  From evangelicals I’m learning that peace means more than avoiding open hostility. It means leaving your gift at the altar until the relationship is made right. You’ll grow in these basic Christian characteristics (Rom. 14.17; 15.13; Gal. 5.22) by seeking out your evangelical brothers and sisters.

Another area of growth will be clearer recognition of your own pride and legalism. As long as you remain comfortably within the fishbowl of fundamentalism, you won’t have to look far in order to find someone more legalistic than yourself. But once you start connecting wholeheartedly with your evangelical brothers and sisters, you’ll suddenly discover the legalistic bent of your own heart and the desperate need of your congregation in this area. I once tried to explain to a leader in a progressive fundamentalist church that legalism still existed in his church. I’ll never forget his blank look as he replied, “what legalism?” He insisted on pointing out how far the church had come and how different they were from other fundamentalists, but I urged that he consider that legalism is a bent of the heart (my own included) and could never be eradicated. So when I followed with the question, “so you would say that no one in your church struggles with legalism?”, his reply was simply: “no.” Remain in fundamentalism and you’ll be like a fish that doesn’t know that it’s wet.

So it’s simple: you and your church have much to gain by interacting more deeply with these brothers and sisters.

“Christians have no right to reject from their fellowship those whom God himself has accepted.” – Doug Moo

You will discover helpful viewpoints on issues that you may not have considered.

Fundamentalism suffers a great loss because of its sectarian disconnectedness from the rest of Christianity. I recently read an excellent DMin thesis from a fundamentalist seminarian who went to great lengths to convince his fundamentalist brothers that they were actually missing out on an excellent method for discipleship by not adopting small group ministry models. He saw one of his substantial hurdles in this thesis as the unwillingness of fundamentalists to adopt a practice that didn’t seem to originate in-house, as it were (81-83, 90-92).

But I think ministry models are only the beginning. While fundamentalists are often conversant with published knowledge in the evangelical community, their awareness of challenges and approaches on major issues (e.g., biblical approaches to same sex attraction, mandatory reporting, etc.) often woefully lags far behind. Growing up in fundamentalist circles, we were simpy told that homosexuality was a sin (it was often implied that it was a worse sin than others) and laws against same-sex marriage were championed as a means to keep homosexual sin at bay. So needless to say, I was woefully unequipped to speak with a friend who came to me and said: “I’m attracted to other guys; am I a Christian?” Evangelicals have a far better track record of approaching issues with same sex attraction and homosexuality both in personal discussions and political confrontations.

For another example, most fundamentalist churches (with only a few exceptions) simply don’t disciple well. Many from a fundamentalist background can identify with this statement:

“I personally received no follow up or discipleship after making my profession of faith.” – Mitch Nichols

Now we could argue that maybe evangelicals have an equal problem with discipleship, but I’ve personally seen consistent and concerted efforts toward discipleship in evangelical ministries, the likes of which I’ve never seen in fundamentalism. And if making disciples is what Jesus called us to do, then we need the benefit of learning from those who are fulfilling the Great Commission (Matt. 28.19). Frankly in areas such as discipleship, you and your church have much to lose by failing to interact with your brothers and sisters.

You will experience the freedom to engage your culture with truth in fresh ways.

Whether you are conscious of it or not, your fundamentalist baggage keeps you from freely engaging with your culture in lots of non-syncretistic ways. Just take a moment to look at your church’s Great Commission efforts. It’s either not happening or largely happening in culturally insensitive ways (e.g., knocking on doors). Evangelicals have, for years, been evangelizing postmoderns and those from post-Christian cultures. You have much to gain by learning from them.

In fundamentalist settings (although not exclusively reserved to fundamentalists), contextualization is rarely taught and both the results and practice of contextualization are often feared. And I think I know why. I remember sitting in a class under Dr. David Beale at Bob Jones Seminary when he drew parallels between various movements during the Reformation and H. Richard Niebuhr’s categories of Christ and Culture. I remember vividly the feeling of surprise that hit me: “you mean there are systematically thought-out methods of engaging with culture besides just creating our own subculture and hiding in it?!?” I was blown away. Over the following months I began pouring myself into studying contextualization, transitioned to another seminary, and gained fresh opportunities to engage with those who were contextualizing in a biblical way. I’d been looking for thoughtful, thoroughgoing, biblical ways to interact with my culture similar to those used by Christ and the Apostles. Fundamentalism doesn’t provide that, can’t provide that. The evangelical community engages with the culture in multiple ways (see Keller, Center Church) and not just the “against culture” approach modeled by fundamentalism.

You’ll be able to know that you did your best to point the next generation to Jesus and not to your subculture.

Countless thousands of kids growing up in fundamentalism have wanted nothing to do with Christianity after interacting with the pride and lack of love that pulses through the movement. All it takes is an awakening to the fact that the regulations we’re given don’t match up with reality and Scripture, and the whole system comes crumbling down. And for some, the frame of Christianity or orthodoxy comes down along with the facade of the fundamentalist movement. I’m not saying that your kids won’t leave the church if you leave fundamentalism. That’s been happening for decades. But it’s one thing to see your kids leave the church because they’ve been confronted by the Gospel and they don’t want it. It’s another thing to see them leave because of the stuff you’ve added to the Gospel.

I’ve watched all 3 of my siblings struggle with their faith in the subculture of fundamentalism. I’ve wrestled with my own faith and found myself defeated and questioning whether or not it was worth going on living. Yeah. The oppression and isolation of fundamentalism immobilizes and sucks the life out of your kids. The Gospel does the exact opposite. Ditch fundamentalism and give your kids the Gospel. Clear the clutter that will keep your kids from seeing Jesus.

When I got well-nigh excommunicated (to me, placing a cap on the degree to which a lay servant in the church is allowed to use his gifts is equivalent to excommunication if I am right that gifting = responsibility to serve) from my progressive fundamentalist church for “subjective” and non-doctrinal and non-ethical reasons (read: I was found lacking in fundamentalist sensibilities), I was faced with a decision. Do I try to find another progressive fundamentalist church, spend years gaining another congregation’s trust, continue to live my life in a way that keeps the legalists happy, and still risk making these progressive fundamentalists unhappy too, or do I go ahead and pull out of the movement entirely? The one thing that made me go with the latter option was my daughter. I saw her bouncing around on the living room floor, loving life and bursting with energy. The last thing I wanted her to do is to grow up with the dark struggles that I endured under fundamentalism. I want her to grow up watching her mommy and daddy praising Jesus and worshipping with people who are looking for the best in her. I want her faith to be a joy and not a burden. So I left fundamentalism. And you should too.

You and your congregation will be able to enjoy the freedoms that they have in Christ instead of enduring the bonds of legalism.

If you’ve begun to grasp the implications of the Gospel, you’re probably acutely aware of a bevy of personal life choices that you’re not free to discuss in private or on social media. You make dozens of decisions a day based on what will avoid raising the ire of the legalists. You encourage others in the church to do the same for the sake of unity. You’re constantly trying not to step on landmines of the fundamentalists–landmines that are largely preoccupied with things of earth (Phil. 3.19). Yes, ironically, fundamentalists seem preoccupied with separation from the world, but instead can’t stop talking about the things of earth: don’t wear, don’t drink, don’t listen. But this isn’t what Jesus saved you and your church to…not do(?). The motions that the legalists want you to go through aren’t necessary to keep them from slipping into sin; they’re yokes of slavery (Gal. 5.1). Their regulations won’t even overcome the power of the flesh, as the guardrail premise suggests (Col. 2.23). The legalist who seeks to enforce their rules on the people in your congregation deserves to hear a resounding “NO!” Breaking from the demands of fundamentalism allows you to stand with confidence and resist the fundamentalists’ extra-biblical militancy with the authority of Scripture (Col. 2.20).

“For me to draw dividing lines that He has not drawn grieves Him, hurts the body of Christ, and hinders the work of the Great Commission.” – Matt Olson

You will be able to speak truth without fear.

Pastors all have their concerns when they step into the pulpit regarding what they should say or not to say. But progressive fundamentalist pastors maintain an additional set of concerns when they step into the pulpit. You know that if you’re preaching through Colossians 2, for example, you’re going to remain a little coy about exactly what Paul was condemning when he spoke about those who tried to enforce rules on “eating and drinking” (v. 16). Right now you’re inhibited from speaking with all the force of the Apostle when he passionately lashed out against the legalists in defense of the Galatian believers (5.12). Gain the freedom to speak loudly where the Bible does.

To understand this issue at an individual level:

“Only in recent years has the movement begrudgingly acknowledged that it needs people like me, and seeks my support, my money and my time.  But it still only wants me on its own terms and that includes my silent acquiescence, and that is a price that the Gospel does not demand.”  – Mitch Nichols

Are you willing to continue to pay the price of silence? I’m not. I remember a time about 4 years ago when I heard the following statement from a fundamentalist leader:

“There’s a basic fallacy that is quite prevalent today in the matter of the worship of fundamental Bible believing people. The fallacy is this: it’s all about the gospel. That’s a fallacy. All kinds of compromise can come into the church under that false…premise.” – Bob Jones III

I posted that quote on my Facebook with no comment for or against. Within a few hours, my progressive fundamentalist pastor called me asking that I pull the quote down. He told me that citing that statement was tantamount to calling out this leader and that calling out a local Christian leader would absolutely jeopardize my future ministry. So I immediately deleted my post. I gave them my silence. Now it’s not that my pastor thought Bob Jones III was right; in fact, he agreed that the man was dead wrong. But progressive fundamentalists have to play the politics game with fundamentalism and aren’t allowed to directly call out the broken theology and practice of the movement.

When you break from fundamentalism, you’ll be able to speak out and protect the sheep in the way the Bible calls us to.  And that’s why you’re reading this post today.

Tomorrow I’ll discuss some of the breaking points (although I’m now non-committal on exactly how many points there will be) from fundamentalism as people and churches make the move toward post-fundamentalism.

11 thoughts on “The Predicament of Progressive Fundamentalism: The Benefits of Leaving (Part 2)”

  1. Philip, I am sitting here laughing out loud as I read your part 1 and 2. Not laughing in a mocking sort of way. More of a “yup, I remember feeling exactly that way” sort of way.

    I feel your angst and commiserate with your struggle to find identity. Along the way, I’ve made many of the same arguments you fleshed out in these two blogs.

    And yet, I have no problem today identifying myself as a fundamentalist. I’ll tell you why.

    First, and probably foremost, what I appreciate and have gained most of all from fundamentalists is the emphasis on biblical authority. There is a subset of evangelicalism (growing subset!) that also regards the scripture as final authority, but there are great struggles within the broader evangelical camp in matters of inerrancy and perspicuity. Fundamentalists, by and large, do not war over these areas.

    Second, notice that I refer to fundamentalists, rather than to fundamentalism. I do that intentionally, because I don’t believe the movement really exists in any kind of settled, universally-understood state today. There are cultural fundamentalists, progressive fundamentalists, “historical” fundamentalists, KJV-only fundamentalists, but no unified movement anymore. Go ahead. Try to define fundamentalism in 2015. I dare you. 😉

    It is true that there are as many, if not many more, subsets within evangelicalism as there are among fundamentalists. In fact, it could be argued successfully that fundamentalism (in the historic sense of the term) is one of those subsets.

    So, although fundamentalism is getting to be a pretty “dirty” word in our culture (e.g. Islamic fundamentalism), I still self-identify as a fundamentalist. It’s just not the only term I would use…

    I used to think I needed to jettison away from fundamentalism as from a sinking ship. But it was because I thought at the time that the fundamentalism in which I lived WAS fundamentalism. The movement was defined by the kind in which I grew up. What I have come to realize is that there are good fundamentalists who have none of the trappings of the more “legalistic” variety that have some of the loudest voices in our circles and among our schools. But because the movement has splintered so many times that it is unidentifiable, in my opinion, I don’t feel like I need to “leave” it. In fact, I don’t think I can.

    So how do I define myself? Fundamentalist, conservative evangelical, progressive dispensationalist, reformed in soteriology, “blended” in worship styles, Baptist, Christian. How’s that for starters?

    Will these labels change with time? Probably. So will I.

    I am not intending with this post to say, “Come on now, Philip. Once you get older and have less youthful angst, you’ll see things more my way.” On the contrary, I am sympathetic to your concerns and have shared them passionately. When one lives in an area like Greenville where there is such a strong and dominant cultural fundamentalism, I can understand the desire to “leave”; however, in the larger world, there is such a thing as a good and faithful fundamentalist. In fact, you probably still are one.

    (And as a slightly older brother in Christ, who has watched your journey both up close and from afar, I am so delighted with your growth in grace!)

    1. If my experience is any indication of what Phillip is going through, or has gone through, then I think identity is the least of his concerns. Frankly, I don’t see any need for an identity that is defined by a label(s). I left fundamentalism unintentionally. To make a very long story short, when God called me to step out in faith to start a church, I began following Scripture alone and holding all fundamentalist traditions up to the light of it. Subsequently, I became aware of all the fluff men have added to the faith due to a lack of trust in people to be led by the Holy Spirit. (Really though, it’s a gross misunderstanding/misapplication of the gospel.) This automatically made me an outcast, and the closer I grew in intimacy with God, the farther I grew away from the structure I was born into. I’ve been called rebellious, a non-conformist, disobedient, divisive, and one who is under the influence of Satan.

      Back to this issue… A major epiphany was realizing that labels are totally unnecessary. Why should I be identified by anything other than the free gift of God? I can be called born again (John 3) or a disciple (John 13:35) or a Christian (Acts 11:26). But I refuse any man-made titles. Yes, that makes almost everybody uncomfortable, especially fundamentalists. I believe the problem with that perspective is this: when I say that I believe in salvation by grace through faith alone, and hold to the word of God as my authority, it’s as if that is not good enough; as if something else is needed before they (God) will accept me.

      People like labels, though. We all feel a need to belong to something, to be identified with a group or movement. At its core I believe this is discontentment with what has been given us in Christ. In him, we are “accepted in the beloved;” what more do we need? Paul’s only question to the men at Ephesus was, “Have ye received the Holy Ghost since ye believed?” In Corinth he “determined not to know anything among you save Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

      Again, I don’t know Phillip from a hole in the wall, but I strongly suspect that “identity” is not his struggle. The departure from fundamentalism has opened his understanding of who he already is in Christ, and that he can trust the leading of the Holy Spirit as he grows in grace and knowledge apart from rigid structure of an unbelieving church.

      1. Dave,

        Great perspective on the identity concept! I absolutely agree that when our identity is found in Christ, our need to make other groups or labels our rallying cry diminishes. I understand the functional need for labels in simplifying some of our logical discussions, but too often they become unwieldy, inaccurate, or idolized.

    2. Pastor McCrorie,

      Thanks for your comment. I apologize for the delay in turning around a response. On the whole, I appreciated our resonance on so much of this issue. I think there’s a lot we agree about here. I did want to take a moment to interact with you on where I’m presently at on some of the points you’ve raised.

      >>> “Fundamentalists, by and large, do not war over [the inerrancy and perspicuity of Scripture].”

      On the one hand, this statement sounds like a positive thing. But I’ve found two observations regarding evangelicals and biblical authority that casts this in a different light. (1) I’ve interacted with a diverse set of evangelicals in seminary elsewhere (certainly not as diverse as I’m sure you’ve encountered), but I’ve never encountered a single one who denied the inerrancy or perspicuity of Scripture. I’m not denying that they exist (I’ve read articles and books by them), but I haven’t seen the problem as widespread as I had been led to believe. (2) I think it’s better to war over these areas. When fundamentalists go to war over these issues, it’s distant—it’s dealing with the demons and voices of 50 years ago. When evangelicals go to war over these issues, it’s personal. They’ve earned a voice with those who do not hold to inerrancy. Their words bear far more weight because of this. And maybe this is why I’ve heard far better defenses of inerrancy and other doctrines from evangelicals—because their beliefs in these doctrines have been honed in battle.

      >>> “I refer to fundamentalists, rather than to fundamentalism”

      I struggle to see a huge delineation here. The only two uses that I’ve heard of the term “fundamentalists” in Christianity is (1) a pejorative term used for conservatives, or (2) a term of honor used by those within some sector of fundamentalism. I’ve never heard anyone voluntarily self-identify as a “fundamentalist” who isn’t in some way shape or form associated with some circle of “fundamentalism.”

      >>> “Try to define fundamentalism in 2015. I dare you.”

      I think the defining foundation shared between the various groups that hold this name is a passion for separatism. Some of these separate in different ways than others, but they all lean in a direction of separation. Even the self-identified progressive or “historic” fundamentalists, aren’t fully and freely unified with their evangelical brothers; they still value separation over unity. So I guess that’s as close as I come to a definition of fundamentalism.

      >>> “although fundamentalism is getting to be a pretty ‘dirty’ word in our culture”

      I actually see this as another big reason (not one I wrote about, though) for not self-identifying with the term. I like labels when they simplify things rather than muddy them. Even if it weren’t for all the issues I see with the movement(s) of fundamentalism, the confusion that the term generates is enough to make me stop using the term.

      >>> “Greenville”

      I do agree that my geographical frame of reference influences a lot of my experience. And I don’t doubt that there are good and faithful fundamentalists in my context and elsewhere. I just feel that parting with the label and power structures in the movement is a healthy thing for me and many others here and elsewhere.

      >>> “you probably still are one”

      I’m actually fine with other people labeling me as a “fundamentalist.” That doesn’t actually bother me. I’m just not interested in carrying that banner anymore. I find that the culture behind most who self-identify with that label is toxic for me and my family.

      >>> “And as a slightly older brother in Christ, who has watched your journey both up close and from afar, I am so delighted with your growth in grace!”

      I’ve appreciated your grace toward me and your exemplification of the Gospel. I’ve learned a lot from you. And maybe if fundamentalism was made up of thousands of you, my situation would be different today. Thank you for your kindness and critique.

  2. This is absolutely beautiful and 200% true. My story mirrors yours except I’ve never been able to put my thoughts to words as organized as you just did.

    Thank you So Much For sharing this.

    It’s been a day by day JOYRNEY for me ever since I left. And I left 9 years ago.

    Beautifully written. I needed to read this today. Sometimes when everything clouds is just knowing someone else gets it is enough to subside our crazy. 🙂 so thanks for subsiding my crazy!!

    1. Heather: Thanks for commenting and sharing. 🙂 I once remember a very wise man telling me: “don’t let anyone steal your joy.” For far too long, I’ve let my joy be taken by the oppressive form of Christianity around me. Jesus gives joy, but sometimes some of his people are hell-bent on taking it away from others. By God’s grace I’m going to be a Christian who is full of joy and gives joy to others. Anyways…just rambling here. Thanks again for your kind remarks!

  3. I lost count years ago of how many of my old fundamentalist friends are now members of conservative reformed evangelical churches. The single most important decision I made in the last decade was to get my family away from fundamentalism and into a reformed congregation. It has truly been a life changing experience and my children will have a much deeper understanding of their relationship with Christ as a result. By the way, of the many I seen go from fundamentalist churches to reformed churches, none of them have gone back.

    1. Dan: You’re absolutely right. When I was a fundamentalist, I gauged the movement’s rightness by how few outsiders joined the movement. I saw the exclusiveness as a sign of our holiness. Now that I’m leaving, I recognize the movement’s wrongness by how many leave and how few enter it. I now see the exclusiveness as fundamentalism’s greatest danger. When you start thinking that you’re the only ones left, that’s when we’re in danger of Ichabod being written over our churches. God’s glory was removed from Shiloh, far be it for us to boast in “the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.”

  4. Philip, appreciate your interaction and don’t disagree strongly on anything you mentioned in counterpoint. I would just encourage you to keep thinking, keep reading, and keep exposing yourself to the larger body of Christ. It IS amazing what the Lord is doing to build his church all over the world. But the challenges to the faith are very real too (in both the broader evangelical and the fringe fundamentalist worlds). Glad to see how the Lord has given you clarity with regard to doctrine and direction.

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