The Predicament of Progressive Fundamentalism: The Breaking Points (Part 3)

This third article is written to help individuals and and churches make a marked departure from fundamentalism. Some churches work under the assumption that changing a handful of traditional practices (e.g., new music in their worship, a new translation, more relaxed clothing) signals a marked departure from fundamentalism. And it may indeed demonstrate an incipient form of emergence from the movement. But changing some external practices isn’t tantamount to emergence at all. In this article I’m going to suggest that departure from fundamentalism requires much more. It involves the following actions:

  1. You must let go of the prestige of the power politics of fundamentalism.
  2. You must be willing to enter unfamiliar waters.
  3. You must begin to minister to your community at the expense of allowing the church to be a place for fundamentalists to engage in their weekly stained glass masquerade.
  4. You must forcefully resist legalistic restraints on the liberties of the Body beginning with your leadership.
  5. You must introduce diversity into the church Body beginning with your leadership.
  6. You must preach a full Gospel.

For those of you asking, “why should I bother?”, I’ve written two previous articles on the problems of pursuing fellowship with fundamentalists and the blessings of pursuing relationships with the evangelical community.

You must let go of the prestige of the power politics of fundamentalism.

Fundamentalists look at leadership as power instead of service (cf. Luke 22.25-26). Remaining in the movement and connected to the power-players of the major institutions of fundamentalism is a huge draw for the pastors and leaders who desperately crave the validation of other leaders in the movement. Don’t fall prey to this trap. Yes, when you leave fundamentalism, you’re likely to become a nobody. You’ll be a tiny fish in the great big sea of evangelicalism. You won’t be able to namedrop anymore, and you won’t be invited to speak in conferences and whatnot. Count all your accomplishments and successes in the eyes of those who keep score as nothing but dog poop and cling to Christ with reckless abandon (Phil. 3.8-9).

Here’s what it may look like to let go of the prestige and power politics of fundamentalism:

  1. Don’t be afraid to name names and point out explicit cases of legalism where it poses a danger to the flock.
  2. Stop recommending fundamentalist schools to your high school students.
  3. Stop inviting/accepting fundamentalist speakers or organizations to your church.
  4. Reset: Leave your church and become a congregant/pastor at a non-fundamentalist church.
  5. Pursue an elder polity with a diverse set of leaders that divests the leadership of a strong central individual.
  6. Avoid referencing fundamentalist institutions from the pulpit or in small groups.
  7. Give recognition to and encourage those who don’t fit the fundamentalist mold.
  8. Develop meaningful mentorship and service relationships with Christians outside of fundamentalism.

You must be willing to enter unfamiliar waters.

One man who left fundamentalism years before I did warned me about three challenges in breaking free from fundamentalism. Those challenges are essentially the following: mental, principial, and emotional. The mental break often comes when we recognize that the movement is not truthful–what we’ve been told doesn’t match experience or Scripture. The principial break comes when our consciousness are no longer bound by the same taboos of fundamentalism; we are now practicing the things which we once condemned based on tradition. The emotional break comes when we are no longer comfortable remaining in fundamentalism–the relationships that held us there are gone. I tend to think that these breaks come in different orders for some people. For me, it was mental > principial > emotional, but I’ve heard many say that their experience is more mental > emotional > principial. Also, I think that some of these breaks are harder on some people than for others. For me, the mental and principial breaks came rather painlessly. The emotional break was very difficult.

I mention these kinds of breaks because the emotional break, for me, was tied to the awkwardness of breaking from fundamentalism. If you’ve spent all your life in fundamentalism, you probably don’t know many Christians who aren’t fundamentalist. You’ve had little to no experience in non-fundamentalist churches. Your family may become antagonistic. You’ve got a lot to lose by leaving the movement. You’re officially leaving the fishbowl, and life is going to get weird. Emotional stability because we know what to expect in our church or in our families is a hard thing to lose. Fundamentalists often lose emotional stability because their salaries are dependent on fundamentalist churches or parachurch organizations. Your emotional break from the movement is tied to a break from the financial security provided by your employer.

I know it’s idealistic for a young almost 30-year-old guy to say to you, “pick up and leave all you know, it’ll be worth it!” But I have it on the authority of someone much greater that the best things in life require taking up a cross and following a road of suffering (Matt. 16.24-26). For the fundamentalist, keeping the taboos and regulations isn’t a road of suffering, it’s a path of security and comfort. Jesus is calling you to reject that life. Are you willing to follow Jesus if it means that every relationship in your life is going to get turned upside down (Matt. 10.34-39)?

You must begin to minister to your community at the expense of allowing the church to be a comfortable place for fundamentalists to engage in their weekly stained glass masquerade.

My experience within mainstream and progressive fundamentalism has shown me that one of the greatest weaknesses within the movement is a failure to engage the culture. In these churches, there’s a tension between the desire to evangelize and the desire to make church comfortable to fundamentalists (both inside and out). And ultimately, the pull to make church comfortable to the legalism of fundamentalism seems to win out. All of this catering is done in order to maintain the status quo whereby fundamentalists who still ardently hold to legalistic rules can live their entire lives without the discomfort of any cultural adjustments.

But can you count on more than one hand the number of people who’ve been baptized in your church this year who aren’t church kids? Do the people in the pew have accountability and training on evangelism? Would the surrounding community miss your church if it disappeared this week? Is the church service one that your average 20-something would feel comfortable inviting his lost co-worker to visit? But the constraints of fundamentalist legalism often keep churches from contextualizing in order to reach people with the Gospel. Spiritualized standards on dress and music styles force fundamentalist churches to create their own subculture–a subculture to which the outsider must conform if they wish to join in fellowship. This results in 3 dangerous possibilities: (1) the outsider never comes to the faith because the subculture is too bizarre or oppressive, (2) the outsider comes to faith and feels like a second class citizen because she isn’t familiar with the subculture, or (3) the outsider comes to faith and also adopts the subculture, but is unable to distinguish between the two. Minister to your hurting community at the expense of the fundamentalists’ comfort.

I once knew a family who attended a progressive fundamentalist church and they had two pre-teen boys who were pretty spirited and would get in trouble often. After a number of run-ins, the leadership of the church told the parents that their kids would not be allowed to ride the church bus to activities and were required to pursue outside counseling. The family left the church shortly thereafter. My point here is that even within progressive fundamentalism, if someone doesn’t quite fit or looks a little too messed up, your church has no place for them. If broken people don’t fit in your churches, then you’re doing church wrong. If you only want the cleaned up Christian school kids and not the rough kids from the community, you’ve neglected the “least of these” (Matt. 25.40).

“If an individual had the right haircut, associations, clothing, music and entertainment standards then they were part of the club.  If a child or teen was compliant to the standards of cultural fundamentalism they were welcomed into the fellowship.  If the externals are not ‘correct’ then there is little patience or grace is extended.” – Mitch Nichols

You must forcefully resist legalistic restraints on the liberties of the Body beginning with your leadership.

There’s this idea that is prominent in fundamentalist circles that leadership must hold a higher standard than Scripture in a number of areas. While Jesus comes eating and drinking (Matt. 11.19), the fundamentalist pastor must abstain from alcohol or even the appearance of drinking alcohol. Even progressive fundamentalist pastors who recognize that drinking in moderation isn’t a sin still cater to the taboos of their congregation by hiding their beliefs or practices on the issue. Progressives behave similarly in terms of music and entertainment. In fact, most progressive pastors live in two separate worlds: in public they appear to hold every fundamentalist taboo, but in private they hold to basically none of the fundamentalist taboos. But until fundamentalist churches are ready to start tearing down the wall of legalism at the leadership level, the congregation only feels reaffirmed in their own legalism. Even in progressive churches, it’s common to see the pastoral leadership urge more progressive lay leadership to remain silent about their views on music, alcohol, or politics. I remember being told on several occasions an entire list of theological and practical topics that I couldn’t mention in my teaching in a progressive fundamentalist church. So I stayed silent unless the text addressed the matter explicitly (and even then, I often avoided hitting the issues head-on if possible).

Let me say this to my progressive fundamentalist friends: If your requirements on your pastors and lay teachers in terms of their standards of conduct and expectations of silence on certain issues would exclude even Jesus from serving at your church, you’ve lost track of the Gospel.

I was one of these recipients of forced legalist restraints. After studying Scripture and wrestling with the arguments on the issue, I came to the position that it wasn’t a sin for a Christian to drink alcohol in moderation. On a couple of occasions I spoke with those who were forcing their view on this issue on others and told them that they had no Scriptural ground for doing this. My approach (while in line with Scripture) got me branded as reckless or unbridled. But here’s the irony, throughout the entire time, I never drank alcohol myself (and still never have). One day my wife and I posted anniversary pictures in a fine dining establishment that served our non-alcoholic drinks in stemmed glasses. Months later, the pastor of my progressive fundamentalist church and I were discussing how I could help in the church and he proceeded to mercilessly attack me over this photo for being “insensitive to the consciences” of my fellow church members. He told me that my behavior was “not pastoral” and cast into doubt future opportunities for service in his church or any other church. Eventually the deacons and pastor of the church would tell me that, on a “subjective” basis, future opportunities for ministry had been significantly paired back and they encouraged me to leave the church. But this kind of unbiblical hard line on extra-biblical standards is necessary within the context of fundamentalism if a church wants to retain its position in the movement and avoid provoking any issues with legalists in the church.

There’s an even scarier bit of nonsense that floats around progressive fundamentalist churches, and it runs like this: “if someone is going to be disenfranchised in the church, it needs to be the Gospel-centered crowd, because the legalists complain louder.” I think this perspective likely leads to some of the glacially slow rates at which progressive fundamentalist churches address legalism in the congregation. Instead of moving the church in the right direction while the wind is in their sails, the progressive fundamentalists wait until the momentum has all but died out as they try to make the legalists comfortable. By the time that the progressive fundamentalist churches are ready to make the next move, those who were moving with them have abandoned ship. For many of us, it’s no longer a tenable option to wait another 5-10 years to be part of a healthy church. Pastors: stop putting a Gospel-centered course on hold at the expense of your flock. Both the progressives and the old guard fundamentalists need your leadership in a biblical direction.

Progressive fundamentalists have lines which they feel that they cannot cross due to their seared consciences (1 Tim. 4.1-5). No, these aren’t driven by their interpretation of Scripture, but by the sociological pressure of fundamentalism. Do your next-generation leaders have the freedom to publicly practice their Gospel liberties in your church, or are you running scared of the legalists and then have enforced those restraints on your sheep? Break the cycle! I’m all about telling someone that they probably shouldn’t order a drink when they’re out to dinner with a recovering alcoholic, but if you’re with a fundamentalist, go ahead and order two (both for the fundamentalist). The weaker brother may (but may not always) need to be accommodated (Rom. 14.1-12), but the legalist deserves no quarter (Col. 2.4, 8, 16, 18). Don’t adjust to the climate of the Body on these issues. Lead by example and shut down any possibility of being used as a reason for a congregation’s ongoing legalism.

Some of the legalistic restraints of fundamentalism that need to be addressed and pushed back are:

  1. Not allowing certain Bible translations.
  2. Expecting “Sunday morning best” (often set by the pastor)
  3. Not allowing or shaming women who wear pants to church
  4. Expecting monolithic views on issues such as eschatology and free will/divine sovereignty.
  5. Not allowing cooperation with other evangelical churches or ministries in your area.
  6. Not allowing the use of materials from evangelical writers or ministries in your church.
  7. Expecting full backing of the Republican political agenda
  8. Not allowing believers to openly use alcohol in moderation
  9. Not allowing for music in worship that has been written by evangelicals
  10. Not allowing for stylistic variation in music or worship liturgy
  11. Not allowing for alternate forms of church governance such as elder polity

You must introduce diversity into the church Body beginning with your leadership.

Leadership within fundamentalism is protected like a castle. Any semblance of lay leadership is vigorously defended; pastoral leadership is even more so. If someone doesn’t possess the proper fundamentalist pedigree or maintain the appropriate legalistic standards in public (see above), they’ll only be shut out of ministry at a variety of levels. I would urge the leadership of progressive fundamentalist churches to immediately begin pursuing diversity in the lay and pastoral leadership of your church. Encourage and equip men to teach who haven’t had a background within fundamentalism. Let the church learn from those who’ve been moved by God without sharing in their same linear background. Hire other pastors who have no familiarity with fundamentalism. In doing so, you’re helping to breathe life into your church and to equip the church to take steps to move beyond the gasping and choking movement.

I remember talking with someone who was involved in the hiring process for a position at a progressive fundamentalist church a couple years back. One of the men on the committee told me that they had a perfectly suited candidate, but he had received 100% of his education and mentoring in Southern Baptist circles. The committee member told me that “we discussed this with the pastors and we just don’t feel that the congregation is at the point where it’s ready to hear that Southern Baptists are okay, much less hire one.” That’s the predicament of progressive fundamentalism.

Another quick thought on diversity: diversity also means that leaders in your church are going to come to different opinions from you. This should be welcomed and mutually respectful dialogue should be maintained. A proper implementation of a plurality of elders allows for more than one perspective to be heard in the church. Your fundamentalist background resists this kind of diversity of thought, but the Gospel’s all-nations, slave and free, Jew and Gentile bounds reminds us that the diversity of the body and the diversity of the leadership is not just a good thing but a godly thing (Gal. 3.28).

You must preach a full Gospel.

Fundamentalism thrives where a small gospel is preached. The gospel of fundamentalism is the thing that people believe in order to get saved and to escape hell. The end. As mainstream and progressive fundamentalists have begun to appreciate the Gospel in its fullness over the past decade, there has been a decisive shift toward conservative evangelicalism. The Gospel’s power in the life of the believer is the problems I’ve outlined above. The Gospel shows us the Jesus of humble service rather than Pilate of political power plays. The Gospel shows us that God cares about the outsiders and the hurting even to the point of moving past those who think they’re okay (Matt. 9.12). The Gospel eliminates the need for legalistic standards that we use in order to make ourselves look better than others. The Gospel shows us a God who is passionate about diversity in his Church. A church that gained a deep appreciation for the Gospel will move away from fundamentalism.

So don’t neuter the Gospel. Progressive fundamentalists know that the Gospel strikes hard against the legalism of fundamentalism, and it’s easy to pull the punch of the Gospel in order not to hit legalism with all the power that Scripture allows. Many progressive fundamentalist pastors know that the Bible warrants preaching a full Gospel address of a particular topic. Let’s call this a 10/10. But instead, the preacher will beat around the bush and preach a 7/10 because he knows that he has some in the congregation who will get angry at what the Gospel has to say about their legalism. These 4/10 types will sit for years in the congregations of progressive fundamentalist churches and believe that they appreciate and apply the Gospel, but, in reality, they’ve just been coddled by church leaders who can’t or won’t be bold with the Gospel.

Preaching the Full Gospel

I recently heard of a progressive fundamentalist pastor who was bold enough to preach a message that addressed some of the legalism of fundamentalism explicitly. But a nearby fundamentalist parachurch organization that employs many of the members in the church conveyed to the pastor how disappointed they were about the sermon. A compromise was reached where the sermon available online was modified to leave out the most damning portions of the message in order not to convict the legalists. To me, this is Gospel equivocation. The Apostles would be ashamed of this kind of milquetoast behavior.

Don’t back down. Glorify God by making much of the Gospel. Give your people the hope that is found in the Gospel. Be Gospel Militant!

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