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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!

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.

The Predicament of Progressive Fundamentalism: Intro (Part 1)

Defining Fundamentalism

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):

  1. His loyalty to an organization, movement or leader is unquestioning.
  2. His stance on extra-biblical or anti-biblical issues is militant.
  3. He views any form of association with another believer as full endorsement of even their errors.
  4. He is unable to receive criticism.
  5. He views academia and Christian intellectuals in a negative light.
  6. He holds nonessentials as tests of fellowship.
  7. He sees militant political action as essential.
  8. 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.

Colossians as a Paradigm for Handling Today’s Tough Issues

rr1I think I’ve heard a lot of Christians claim that the modern era is unique in terms of the in-fighting and rifts between Christians.  I would say that I’ve seen enough to fill a book, but I don’t think that this is necessarily something new.  In the earliest generations of the church, Paul found himself dealing with challenges in churches.  One such challenge was visible in the church at Colossae.  Now I won’t take much time digging into the nuances of what sort of group Paul was addressing in his little letter to the church in that town, but I think we can observe a little about the general approach of the group and Paul’s critique of the group as instructive for the Church today.

In approaching the Christian life (and Colossians, in particular), I think it is helpful to think of the walk as something of a path or road.  I suppose that this image is rather biblical in that the life of a Christian is often referred to with the Greek verb περιπατεω (Eng: to walk, cf. 3 Jn 1:16; 1 Thess. 2:12; Colossians 1:10; Phil. 1:27; Eph. 4:1).  I would imagine this road as delineated by Scripture.  In other words, think of cliffs where the Bible places cautions.  Think of Paul’s vice lists, the 10 Commandments, and so on.  Think of the road as where the Bible gives positive commands.  Think of Paul’s virtue lists, the Great Commandments, and so on.  The Bible lays out the road and the cliffs to avoid.  Christians have everything they need in Scripture to live a life which glorifies God (2 Peter 1:3).

Now even the most holy person reading this today would have to admit that they know of a cliff or two that they are most prone to lean towards.  I think Jesus spent a lot of time debunking the myth of the life with no spiritual struggle.  I mean, we have the rich young ruler who had everything going for him, but the cliff of covetousness loomed large in front of the headlights of his life.  We all have these kinds of struggles.  So, to summarize my tedious argument thus far, the Christian walk is like a path along which we all tend towards certain cliffs.  Fair?

But what about stuff that the Bible doesn’t talk about?  What about unhealthy foods, and alcohol, and Halloween, and Bible translations, and worship styles?  How do we deal with these issues?

I would suggest that the Bible has given us some help on how to deal with things that it doesn’t explicitly speak to.  I’m not suggesting that this approach is a be-all-and-end-all, but I do think that it will help lend perspective to some debates in Paul’s day as well as our own.

In Colossians 2:16, Paul begins an attack on a group that some refer to the Colossian heretics.  These folks were likely well-meaning people who wanted to help the fledgling church in town hold to high ethical standards in order to affect the overall morality of the city.  And here is how it began.  They held to Jewish laws regarding “food.”  In their day, I can imagine, a Jewish dietary system would have been a source of immediate fixation in the midst of a Gentile city.  Think of the attraction of the lost to those with a spiritual dietary system!  And think of how common or conformist someone may have appeared who simply just kept eating the same old pork he used to eat before he was baptized.  Let’s reserve judgment on this for a moment and draw a parallel or two.  Today gluttony (Phil. 3:19; Prov. 23:20-21) is a folly that many Christians have fallen prey to.  It limits both testimony and lifespan.  On the other side, you have Christians who emphasize exercise and rigorous dieting to avoid the pit of gluttony.  We also have Christians who avoid the sin of gluttony as well as the greed and recklessness of the meat industry and pursue vegetarian or vegan lifestyles.

To sum up the point on eating, we have a cliff that is spelled out in Scripture and we have a reaction by Christians to avoid that cliff.  But there’s more here than just a reaction.  So let’s examine a little closer.

At the beginning of verse 16, Paul says that the people who don’t follow the other peoples’ food laws should not let anyone “pass judgment” on them.  In other words, Paul is primarily concerned about how non-observant believers are being treated by believers who have erected the “higher” standard.  The people who fall under the Apostle’s condemnation saw a cliff and erected a guardrail.  They saw some positives on the opposite side of the road, and put out traffic cones in the road and began diverting traffic to the their side of the street.  Paul is making the point here that, while directing traffic away from the cliff on one side of the road, the Colossian heretics missed the cliff on the other side of the road, namely, legalism.  In trying to help the Christians avoid pitfalls in their lives and in their community, they had unknowingly gone off the road into the chasm of self-righteousness.

Once again, I’ll summarize my point thus far: the Christian walk is a road which is has cliffs on both sides which believers tend to move towards.

Let’s move through the rest of the cliffs that Paul identified as areas in which the Colossian heretics pulled Christians away from and the “higher ground” that they called them towards, and then let’s draw a few more applications.

Second, the area of “drink” is identified.  Now in the Old Testament, there were a lot of laws about eating, but I can’t think of any that applied to the whole of Israel regarding what they drank.  In fact, alcohol is dealt with variously in the Old and New Testaments.  So it seems that the heretics in Colossae had identified the sin of drunkenness (Eph. 5:18) as one of the dangers of their society and were adding to the Old Testament in order to pull their culture from the cliff.  Not much contextualization is needed here as this very issue has been at the forefront of American Christianity since the beginning of the 20th century.

Third, Paul discusses “festival, new moon, and Sabbath.”  These celebrations would have been calls away from the pagan holidays.  Here Paul again condemns the attempt to turn the wheel sharply away from the danger.  Today we still deal with whether or not Christians should work on the Sabbath (now transformed into Sundays), whether or not liturgy should reflect celebrations of Christmas or national holidays, and how Christians should handle other events such as Halloween.

Fourth, Paul addresses “asceticism” in verse 18.  I suppose that a monk beating himself in a crypt seems like a far cry from 21st century sins, but I think it strikes closer to home than we might be aware.  How many times do Christians decry or besmirch good gifts of God in an attempt to avoid their abuse?  I remember hearing one pastor hold as an example to his flock the fact that he only engaged in intercourse with his wife for the purpose of procreation.  At times women have been held to repressive ascetic standards, such as being required to dress in a debasingly archaic fashion to avoid immodesty.  The list could go on.

Fifth, Paul points out the danger of the “worship of angels.”  This phrase could connote either “angelic worship” or “angel worship” (think of the similar construction “love of God”).  In either case, the Colossian heretics thought that the worship of the Church (cf., 1:15-20; 3:16) was somehow lacking something.  This was the 1st century “worship wars.”  Today you have the hip churches decrying the old-fashioned churches who don’t reach out to their culture.  And then you have the traditional churches who declare their more contemporary brothers as conformists.  In both cases, they think that they have the special sauce that the other side is missing.

Finally, the issue of uber-revelation is addressed.  In verse 18 you have people with special visions and insights that went far above and beyond Scripture.  No one else was privy to their deep insights.  This sort of approach is exactly what I see in those who hold to a single Bible translation.  Further, I’ve run across this in individuals who have interpretations of Bible passages or current events that no one else sees (except some blogger in Iowa).  Special privilege and insight easily lead to a sort of spiritual superiority that does not belong in the Church.

I suggested earlier that the Bible may have more to say about unhealthy foods, and alcohol, and Halloween, and Bible translations, and worship styles than we’d like to think.  What I’m suggesting is that the Bible indicates that there is not just one cliff in any given issue.  Often we tend to focus on the cliff that threatens our brothers rather than looking at the cliff immediately at our side.  While we’re busy proclaiming the evils of fast food, wine, holidays, Bible versions, and other peoples’ worship styles, it is so easy to miss that we have a cliff of legalism that we’re flirting with or perhaps have already careened off.  The best intentions in the world do not excuse saying more or less than what Scripture says about these issues.

But maybe you think I’m minimizing the real danger here.  Maybe someone will get drunk or fat because I’m not preaching them into a more rigorous lane.  But this was the problem of the Colossian heretics!  My goal isn’t to preach someone into being like me!  I’m supposed to encourage them to be like Christ!  And thankfully that means that not everyone will look and act just like me.  We’re so busy looking at where others are at and looking at where we’re at, we’re not looking at (to continue the illustration) the road ahead.  The road ahead is the Gospel.  When we look at Christ and stop looking at all the things around us, the cliffs no longer pose the threat to us that they once did.  As I remember my dad telling me once: “keep your eyes on the road ahead, and not on the car next to you.”

The final objection I’ve heard to this point is that perhaps by encouraging us to keep our eyes focused ahead, we’re going to not be very helpful to those who are truly going into sin.  My response is that we need to be very clear about where the road ends and where the cliff begins.  We need to speak clearly to where caution on a given matter ends and where legalism begins.  We also need to speak clearly on where moderation ends and recklessness and loss of control begins.  When we stop articulating what Scripture says and start putting up our own guardrails and traffic cones, then the real trouble begins.  This is why I’m encouraging believers to adopt a biblical paradigm for handling the tough issues of life.  God bless!

Myths about Gospel Living: #5

Gospel-centered sanctification will lead to lawlessness.

Wasn’t this the objection of the Catholic Church when Luther proclaimed justification through faith alone?  They objected that if people were taught that they would be saved simply through faith, they would leave off the mass, almsgiving, prayers, confession, and all other good works and sacraments.  To this we all object that the Gospel in justification does not keep us from doing what God commands, but all the more motivates us to do what God’s Word teaches.  And why not so in sanctification as well as justification?  If the recognition that I can offer God nothing that will gain me merit in my justification does not lead to lawlessness, then why should the same recognition in regard to my sanctification do the same?  No one is looking to make grace abound because of sin, rather, we look to the Gospel as the powerhouse of sanctification.  Being good and glorifying God does not result from my intense self-discipline.  It is a result of the Gospel.  The more I come to see His righteousness in my place, the more I will be motivated, no, find the power, to live out who I really am in Christ.

Myths about Gospel Living: #4

Unity cannot be achieved around the Gospel; unity must be achieved through doctrinal affirmation.

To some extent, our problem, once again, is a flawed understanding of the doctrine as it has been presented.  When referring to the Gospel, we are not simply referring to the concept of justification through faith alone (the simplistic view), but rather the fact that the whole of Christian doctrine finds its source in the Gospel and the whole of Scripture focuses on the Gospel.  For example, how do we learn that God is love outside the Gospel (I John 4:10)?  How do we worship without an understanding of the Gospel (“Word of Christ” – Col. 3:16)?  What was the purpose of the prophecies and the moving of the Holy Spirit in the work of inspiration but to proclaim the Gospel (I Pet. 1:9-12)?  Through the lens of the Gospel, there is no doctrine, whether eschatology, anthropology, ecclesiology, hamartiology, or even angeology, that remains untouched.  So when a pastor calls his people to Gospel unity, he does not call them to unify around justification through faith alone (and thus to unite with Pentacostals, Presbyterians, Methodists, Luthrans, Baptists, and cool church up the block), he rather calls them to unity around the full implications of the Gospel in every area of doctrine that it touches (which is essentially analogous to the fundamentals of the faith).

Myths about Gospel Living: #3

It’s all about Calvinism.

This objection is often presented because the chief proponents of the movement are Calvinists.  On a surface level, this statement seems to have much merit, but in reality it is quite lacking.  Should we reject the teachings of Luther because of his “Calvinism”?  Should we burn our copies of Pilgrim’s Progress?  Should we ignore the contributions of men like Jonathan Edwards?  No!  Should we reject the use of Nouthetic counseling?  Just because someone may believe in what may or may not be a flawed system, it does not negate the entirety of their dogma.  In other words, this objection is flawed because it attempts to negate the doctrine by questioning another aspect its sources rather than wrestling with the argument.