Controversy Piety

The Fundamental Problem with Fundamentalism

Let me preface this by saying that my qualifications to express an opinion on fundamentalism are not so much scholarly as experiential. I am not drawing on my rather scanty reading of studies of fundamentalism, so much as on the fact that my upbringing was among fundamentalists. Of my American acquaintances, the majority in my generation wound up going to Bob Jones University –or to institutions which considered BJU as somewhat deficiently conservative. Harold Sightler was a familiar voice from his sermons on tape: my father was an admirer of Carl McIntire. I believe the first theological topic I became conversant with was the doctrine of separation: and I first learned to pour scorn on labels by being taught to see through those who mocked the pursuit of purity in the church as “secondary separation”. For many years I have been part of a church with historic ties to Dr. Ian R.K. Paisley. In my own upbringing, it may suffice to point out that I did not enter a movie theater for the first time until I was in my twenties, and drinking, smoking, gambling, and listening to rock music were all placed on the same level of unbelievable and intolerable wickedness which perhaps someone might have done once years ago before they were saved. I believe, in other words, that I have enough experience among the fundamentalists to say something about them.
And let me say as well that it is not my purpose to undervalue fundamentalism. They have certainly opposed liberalism and apostasy and compromise. They have not been afraid to call error by its own proper name. They have been generous: they have sent out many missionaries; they have been certain enough of the Bible to stand out against contemporary culture on the strength of it. I think it is indisputable that without them the numbers of those who actually believe that the Bible is God’s word would be much smaller. In my own experience, the most shining examples of hospitality, of generosity, of prayerfulness, of zeal have usually come from my fundamentalist, rather than from my Reformed or broadly evangelical acquaintances
And yet it is obvious on the face of it that there are problems within the movement. Doctrinal minimalism (and at least at times a sort of anti-intellectualism) is one point that springs to mind. Instead of keeping a full-orbed confession, they have deliberately shaved doctrinal statements down to a minimum. In close connection with this, there has been a massive emphasis on points of external conduct, and many are more zealous for maintaining a code of standards than for upholding the law of God or preaching the Gospel of Christ. They have seized on ancillary points (sometimes legitimate, sometimes without even that) and elevated them to absolute criteria for fellowship, obscuring more fundamental concerns. Naturally in many cases this has led to a great deal of hypocrisy.
Obviously in many cases there has also been an undue belligerence. The separatists have become schismatic, and in an ironic turn have become those who cause divisions, whom, according to the apostolic precept, we must avoid (Romans 16:17). In connection with this must be mentioned the lack of self-control manifested in fits of temper and self-righteous outbursts which have plagued many adherents of the movement. And of course there is a great lack of love manifested in and strengthened by this tendency. And these points often show up in graceless, legalistic, browbeating preaching which is nothing short of spiritual abuse of the sheep of God’s flock.
But these, I think, with the possible exception of the doctrinal minimalism, are symptoms rather than the disease itself (in part because of the exceptions which I, and anyone well acquainted with fundamentalism of the variety I am describing here can easily come up with). There is a common thread which binds these different defects together, and is clearly seen in the grasping for power and control, the hunger for notoriety, which can often be observed within the movement. Closely allied to this is the spin, the way of excusing or justifying or concealing obvious abuses within the institutions. Dissenters are vilified: people who leave are sadly prayed for as being in spiritual peril, or denounced as spiritual traitors. Authority and influence (legitimate or illegitimate) are systematically used and abused for the preservation of people and institutions, to achieve the continued hegemony of a particular leader, organization, or platform.
Our Lord makes two statements which I believe sum up the root of the problems that fundamentalism has been plagued with since its inception (to pursue this further may I recommend the sympathetic history by David O. Beale called In Pursuit of Purity and published by Bob Jones University press). These words cut through the pretenses and lay bare the real suppurating wound in the heart of this Christian movement.
John 5:44 “How can ye believe, which receive honour one of another, and seek not the honour that cometh from God only?”
John 7:24 “Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment.”
There is a real, in many cases a patent, ignoring or twisting of God’s word in order to maintain a certain position within the world of fundamentalism. Preachers who seem to be polar opposites in methodology and what theology they have, nonetheless invite one another to preach: politics dictates who is “godly” and “a good preacher” and “a great man of God”. Fawning introductions are given in introducing guest speakers. And of course this can only be sustained by a persistent refusal to look on anything except the outward appearance –and even that, only in a limited sense.
In what may seem like a paradoxical twist, the fundamentalists who are constantly mocked by the world, have developed a consuming concern for their own reputation for respectability. Many times this eagerness to be thought well of is concealed under or justified by an exaggerated concern to “have a good testimony”. This seems paradoxical, because of course many fundamentalists are perfectly willing to be scorned by the world and be written off as crazy, illiterate, behind the times, or fanatical. But those are not the points on which they pride themselves: their positive self-image does not depend on favorable views from the world. But it does depend on being perceived as godly, anointed, steadfast, fearless, in the right. This is the explanation of their externalism: “we must look godly.” This is the explanation for a lot of their rage: “those who might make us look bad must be so thoroughly discredited that no one who matters will ever believe them.” Hence the rather frequent question, “Are you going to take the word of some malcontent over that of these godly men?” But what if the malcontent has documents, recordings, witnesses? And what if the godly men aren’t actually godly?
In other words, my thesis is that the explanation for the defects of fundamentalism is almost brutally simple. They have fallen prey to worldliness. The pride of life has consumed them (see this previous post for a documentation of worldliness with regard to the ministry). Their zeal has become a zeal for their own righteousness –a paltry, external thing that must be propped up by unbiblical standards and maintained in the minds of other fundamentalists whatever the cost. We thought that in the last days men would be lovers of themselves (though we didn’t always see that it would be in their own self-righteous self-image); we knew that they would be boastful (though we haven’t always understood that it would be in how well they kept their precious standards); but what we didn’t see was that these people would be in the church, that they would have a very impressive form of godliness.
What if there was always a creeping worm of self-righteous pride at the back of this movement? And what if it has become a mighty dragon of worldliness, an insatiable longing for being acknowledged as godly? It would certainly not mean that there are no true believers within that movement: it does not mean that even among the leadership there are not many who will sit down in the kingdom with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, instances of people who having been redeemed by the Lord have become holy, and humble, and happy. But it does mean that many have lost their first love: it does mean that many have a name that they live and are, in fact, dead. And it does mean that we are called upon to turn away from such as have the form of godliness, but deny the power of it (2 Timothy 3:1-5).

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