have i left fundamentalism?
I no longer am a part of a church body that considers itself “fundamentalist.” That’s not to say that I (or by extension, my church) do not believe in essential Christian doctrine (i.e., orthodoxy), but there has grown to be a difference between churches that are “fundamentalist” and those that simply believe in a set of fundamental doctrine.
I feel that this distinction is important enough to warrant its own post explaining where I stand. My goal isn’t to attack any specific individuals or institutions but to point out what I’ve seen broadly within fundamentalism that doesn’t adhere to sound doctrine – the things that have caused me to seek new direction in recent years in my church associations. Ultimately, I hope by doing this, it will help my fundamentalist friends and family to better understand what God has been teaching me and to reevaluate some of the issues we differ on.
Before I get into the core part of this post, let me be clear on a few things. First, I am not leaving fundamentalism. It’s impossible to leave a movement that you never joined, and fundamentalism is one such movement that you can’t actually join or leave (unless of course, you become part of an organization like the Fundamentalist Baptist Fellowship). For me to say that I am leaving fundamentalism would be like saying that I’m leaving McDonalds – I can choose to not eat at any McDonalds restaurants, but I can’t actually leave the McDonalds franchise.
It may seem like I’m splitting hairs, but this semantic distinction is important. The reason is that if I vow to never eat at McDonalds again, I can assure you that I would violate that vow the moment I ended up in a place hungry and with no better restaurant to eat at than McDonalds. The same is true for fundamentalism. If I ever find myself in a place where the best church is a FC (fundamentalist church), will I avoid it just out of some misplaced sense of anti-fundamentalist principle? No, that’s not the goal here. The goal is simply to align myself with a group of believers that, despite their imperfections, will best help me glorify God and enjoy Him forever.
I also don’t want to sound ungrateful for my fundamentalist upbringing. John Piper once blogged on 20 things that he admires about about fundamentalists. He hit the nail on the head. There are a lot of things about FCs that I am thankful for. But that doesn’t mean that we should ignore or fail to address the shortcomings that we have witnessed within them. Too many people have done that out of fear of being shunned by the fundamentalist community and the result (in my opinion) has been a host of unchecked error within FCs.
So with that background, here in no particular order are the core differences that I have with fundamentalism. Please note that I am not assuming that any FC struggles with all of them, nor am I assuming that every FC struggles with any of them. But in general, these issues seem to be prominent in FCs, particularly in those that align themselves with a larger fundamentalist institution/organization (such as a college/seminary).
1. Unbiblical focus on subjective doctrine
The Bible has a host of “principles,” which can be defined as truth that has numerous applications. For instance, “Love your neighbor as yourself” is a principle that has thousands of applications.
The problem with biblical principles is that someone with an agenda can distort them to mean what he wants, oftentimes in convincing fashion. Going back to the example above, a person may claim that loving your neighbor means that you should be accepting of (i.e., not confront) someone who is living in a sin, such as unbiblical sexual activity.
The way to combat this problem is to approach the entire counsel of God’s Word with an open mind. There are many verses in Scripture that discuss God’s view of sexual activity and many that deal with the believer’s responsibility to confront sin in another believer’s life. The key is to not read more into Scripture (or less) than what the text allows when applying a principle dealing with sex or confrontation.
Many of the key fundamentalist leaders struggle with this, and that struggle appears to have had a trickle down effect into many of the FCs. The danger is when someone tries to come up with every possible application of a principle, apart from God’s Word. For instance, I read one well-known fundamentalist leader say that hitting the snooze button on your alarm clock was giving into the flesh. In other words, the snooze button is really a sin button. Now whereas it’s a good thing to try to apply Scripture in a way that is relevant to our every day lives, to call hitting the snooze button a sin is far too subjective an application to mandate to another person. Scripture has many other clear ways of applying the die-to-your-flesh principle, and those should be our primary focus.
Unfortunately, I have seen over and over again in FCs that the clear applications are ignored in favor of subjective ones. A classic example is musical styles. Most fundamentalists are adamant on which musical styles are right and which ones are wrong, even though Scripture never gives anything close to a clear instructive on this subject. I say, sadly, that in my years in FCs, I never heard a single message discussing what the Bible clearly teaches on music – only dozens of messages pushing forward a subjective application of various principles that the preacher believed had a bearing on the topic of musical styles. (See the “unbiblical worship section of this post for more on this subject.)
2. Exaltation of the doctrine of man over the commands of God
This is very similar to the problem above. In essence, because fundamentalists are so committed to applying God’s Word, they assume that their applications actually have the same force and authority as God’s Word. It’s an easy trap to fall into, and I touched on it briefly in another post.
I’ve heard FCs teach that it’s a sin for women to wear pants, for men to have a certain length for their hair, for people to go to movies, for mixed groups to swim in the same pool at the same time, for Christians to have tattoos, for certain shoes to be worn at church, for certain instruments to be played during worship, for certain non-sinful activities to be performed on Sunday, for certain versions of the Bible to be used, and the list goes on and on (and on and on and on).
So what is happening with each of the above examples? For every one of them, a biblical principle is being applied in a certain way that Scripture does not explicitly endorse. This in itself is not a problem because we have to do this all time (after all, Scripture is not exhaustive in its application of principles, as we saw above). The problem lies when we tell another person that if they violate our subjective application of God’s Word, they are sinning. That mentality is the heart of pharisaism – considering your application a commandment that is on par with God’s Word (cf. Matt 15:1ff).
This is exactly why many people have identified fundamentalists as modern-day Pharisees. Unfortunately, my experience has been that most FCs are more zealous in refuting the accusation that they are pharisaical than they are of purging pharisaism from their numbers.
3. Unbiblical interpretation of “the world”
Most of the 171 times that “world” appears in the NT (ESV) it simply refers to the earth and what it contains (e.g., Luke 9:25) or to the people who live in the world (e.g., John 3:16). However, there are a handful of instances in which Scripture refers to the world as something very negative and sinful that the Christian must avoid at all costs. The textbook example of this is Romans 12:2, the interpretation of which is arguably what most clearly distinguishes FCs from other Christians churches/sects.
In short, every fundamentalist lecture, sermon, writing, etc. that I’ve ever been exposed to either teaches or simply assumes that the “world” of Romans 12:2 is our culture. (Some would even say our sub-culture.) So to rephrase Paul, “Do not be conformed to the culture that you live in.”
Hopefully you’re saying to yourself, “Here we go again. Another very broad principle that can be applied in thousands of subjective ways.” Yes, and that is the exact problem here because there is no Scriptural precedence for separating from one’s culture. (Fundamentalists might point to parts of the Mosaic Law as precedence for this application, but those examples are unclear at best, not to mention that there are some serious theological problems with comparing the Christian life to theocratic Israel.) So without any clear biblical examples, the fundamentalist must come up on his own with the ways that he believes a Christian should avoid conformity to his culture. This is often the starting point from which various forms of dress, entertainment, recreation, etc. are attacked as sinful. The concept is simple – if our culture endorses it, then it’s wrong because our culture is inherently sinful.
There’s a slight problem here, however. Everything we do is in some way a byproduct of our culture (or subculture, if you will). If culture is the problem, then we must renounce everything, from our language to food preferences to our hair styles. Now some fundamentalists would say, “That’s exactly what we’re doing – we’re separating ourselves from our culture’s dress, entertainment, hair styles, etc.” But this perspective fails to take into account that even the most conservative of hair, clothing, and entertainment styles are still a part of our culture. They may not be mainstream, but they are not truly counter-cultural.
There is, however, a greater problem with defining the “world” as culture – namely, that is not how God defines it. What does God say that the world is? The key passage is 1 John 2:15-17, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.”
There it is. That’s what God means when he says, “Do not be conformed to this world.” He means (rough paraphrase), “Do not be consumed with lust, pride, and temporal things like the unsaved around you.” Funny thing is that when you insert this understanding of “world” into Romans 12:2 it actually makes sense in the broader context of the book, whereas “culture” does not fit well at all with the previous 11 chapters of Romans. And really, when you think about it, lust, pride, and temporal things are the essence of the unregenerate life. It’s no wonder that the Holy Spirit chose these things to summarize what the anti-Christian”world” consists of.
God never commands a jihad against culture. On the flipside, He puts us in the culture that He chooses in order for us to show that, although we look like, dress like, and sound like everyone else around us, inwardly we are drastically different. We don’t go after every desire of our flesh; we pursue God as our heart’s desire. We aren’t consumed with every temporal thing that our eyes look on; we are storing up invisible, eternal treasures in heaven, and that is where our gaze is cast. We don’t take pride in the things we have; we humbly recognize that God has given us everything, but most importantly, He has given us salvation, and we earned none of it.
Ironically enough, when Christians display those characteristics, they are, in a sense, living counter-culturally. More importantly, however, they are living the transformed life that God requires in Romans 12.
4. Unbiblical stance on “separation”
“Separation” is one of the most common words that you will hear in a FC. In fact, if the fundamentalist interpretation of Romans 12:2 is the verse that most distinguishes them from other churches, then “separation” is the most distinguishing doctrine . The word is used in a variety of ways and in reference to a variety of things, but in this case, I am honing in on one specific use of the term – separation from disobedient brothers. (I would like to say at this point that “separation” is not a biblical term. The only passage that arguably uses it in the way fundamentalists do is 2 Corinthians 6:17, but this usage is highly questionable. I would prefer to use a different term, but “separation” is the one most commonly used in FCs; so I will stick with it for the purposes of this discussion.)
There are two main passages that speak of “separation”: 1 Corinthians 5:11 and 2 Thessalonians 3:6, 14-15.
1 Cor 5:11 “But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one.”
2 Thess 3:6, 14-15 “Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us…. If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.”
Here is the way I heard separation explained in one of the hallmark fundamentalist churches in Greenville, SC: 2 Thessalonians 3 was dealing with Christians who were being lazy and not working. Paul told the Corinthians to separate from them in order to help them to see their sin, with the end goal that they would resume work and not just be idle all day. Therefore, the fundamentalist logic concludes, if Paul commanded separation from disobedient Christians over such a small thing as not working, then we are expected to separate from disobedient Christians over any sin that we perceive our brother is engaging in unrepentantly. First Corinthians 5 lists some of these out for us so that we can see some practical sin issues we should separate over.
This logic sounds enticing, even compelling, until you begin to see how it is applied. You listen to the kind of music that I feel is sinful? Separation. You watch the kind of shows that I think are sinful? Separation. You are involved in a group that I believe is sinful? Separation.
Notice the pattern: 1) I interpret a certain action as sin, 2) I discover that you perform that action, 3) therefore I must separate from you. The reason why this happens is because the above verses are interpreted far too broadly. The whole point of what Paul is saying in 2 Thessalonians 3 is not, “You need to separate from your brother over every sin issue, even the smallest one, such as not working (or listening to rock music or going to the movies or reading the NIV).”
His point in both the Corinthians passage and the Thessalonians passage is that there were Christians in open defiance to Scriptural and apostolic authority (cf., 2 Thess 3:14: If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter). They were living lives that said to everyone around them, “We don’t care what God commands through His Word or through His apostles. We’d rather enjoy life our own way.” That was a big problem, and it threatened to crush the backbone of the Early Church. So Paul called for drastic measures. Distance yourself. Stay away. Show your disapproval. Don’t even eat with them. They need to know that this is urgently wrong. They need to realize that God is the authority and not them.
How would we apply this today? Only by separating from Christians that are in open, unrepentant defiance of God’s Word. This isn’t about music or dress styles, interpretive issues over which there are scores of documented disagreements among Christians. This is about the clear, obvious sin problems that even an unsaved person would look at and say, “Wow, that guy isn’t living like a Christian.” Really, the list in 1 Corinthians 5 paints a clear picture of what kinds of issues these are – sins such as immorality, idolatry, and drunkenness. On the other hand, the 2 Thessalonians passage shouldn’t be taken as normative for us today since it involves a specific, time-sensitive problem within the Thessalonian church that Paul had to address using his apostolic authority.
5. Unbiblical view of holiness/sanctification
There is no denying that holiness is an incredibly important concept in Scripture. As a believer grows in Christ, the end goal is holiness. That is what God desires for His people. In fact, the term “saint” could be translated literally as “holy one.”
We first need to define “holiness,” but since this would take some time, let me just focus on one aspect of holiness: ethical/moral purity. God is totally pure and free from sin, and the Bible (particularly the OT) labels this quality of His as “holiness.” As such, when Christians grow in Christ, one way they demonstrate God’s holiness by putting sin to death in their lives. There is a very clear moral/ethical connection to holiness.
So what do fundamentalists believe about holiness? They believe that it is achieved not merely through the putting off of sin but by the putting on of a conservative lifestyle. Since, they say, being holy means being radically removed from sin, we must live as conservatively as possible, since this is the only way to ensure that we do not fall into sin. This is why fundamentalists can be so easily portrayed as a man with a combover hair style wearing a suit and tie and a woman with her hair up wearing a dress – those hair and dress styles are conservative and as far from potentially sinful styles as possible. In other words, they are traditional and safe. We’re not going to wear jeans to church. Maybe that would be ok, but I would rather just play it safe and wear my suit and tie. I don’t want to risk sinning (i.e., being unholy).
There’s only one problem with this application of the principle of holiness – Scripture never endorses a conservative lifestyle. On the flipside, Christ frequently attacked the Pharisees for living a life of conservatism that was divorced from a heart of love for God. It’s not that conservatism is inherently wrong or sinful, but when you get caught up in living conservatively as part of your pursuit of holiness, you run the risk of getting caught up in externalism. After all, most (if not all) of the things that differentiate a conservative from a non-conservative are externals, but holiness isn’t about externals. It’s supposed to be about the heart. It’s about God working in His saints from the inside out. In fact, at the heart of it, being holy isn’t even about a Christian becoming something that he is not (which is an easy fallacy to believe); it’s about a Christian becoming what God has already made him. This is how God can call believers “holy ones,” because they are already holy from the standpoint of His finished work, even if they are not entirely holy from the standpoint of their moral purity.
Sadly, I’ve heard countless fundamentalist messages that focus on what we need to do to be holy instead of focusing on what God has already accomplished for us in the gospel. It’s a process engineered by man that starts on the outside and is somehow supposed to work itself back towards the inside, making the person less sinful by making him more conservative. It is a backwards model of the Christian life that falls into the trap of works sanctification that Paul addressed in Galatians 3, ultimately failing to apply the gospel correctly to the Christian life, which leads into the next point.
6. Lack of understanding of the gospel
I’ve tried to explain to many fundamentalists in recent years the importance of the gospel to the Christian, and each time they’ve looked at me like I’m crazy. The gospel? What do you mean it’s important to the Christian? Are you saying we are supposed to witness more? The very presence of these questions demonstrates the need in this area.
Fundamentalists tend to form a hard break between salvation and sanctification. The gospel (and faith in it) is what we need for salvation, and faith plus works is what we need for sanctification. But there’s a problem – Scripture teaches that the gospel is essential for the Christian after he is saved. If you look closely (or even not so closely) at the key NT passages on sanctification, they always start with the gospel. There is an undeniable pattern.
Take the book of Romans, for instance. The first 11 chapters: gospel. The next 5 chapters: here is what to do based on what we’ve learned from the gospel (i.e., sanctification). If you look at Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, etc. you will find a similar pattern. The beginning point is always the gospel. Christ died for our sins. God saved us. We are redeemed. Ok, now let’s discuss how to respond to this truth.
As mentioned above, non-gospel based sanctification is what Paul was so upset about in His book to the Galatians. In fact, he referred to this teaching of works based sanctification as a “different gospel.” What? You believe that you were saved by faith but now you have to live the Christian life by your own works? Who preached a different gospel to you?
The gospel is very simple: I am a sinful rebel deserving of the ultimate punishment, but God in His great mercy sent His Son to live the perfect life that I could never achieve, experience the punishment that I could never bear, and rise again to conquer the death that I could never overcome. As a result of Christ’s finished work, I am at peace with God, capable of unhindered fellowship with Him, and given the promise of eternal life to dwell with Him forever.
Sit on that truth. Rest in the gospel. Revel in your redemption. For sanctification results, not as we do more good things but as we realize we can do nothing apart from our great Savior who loves us in spite of the immensity of our sin. Ultimately, every command in Scripture comes down to one word: love. And love comes from understanding one truth: the gospel. That in a nutshell is the Christian life.
The trap that many FCs have fallen into is that they try to make the Christian life complicated and rules-based, but that is not love. Love means that I can cast aside all the complicated labyrinth of rules that I’ve tried to come up with and can live freely for Christ. Not that I define how I love Christ – the seeming “rules” in Scripture are Christ’s way of helping me to understand what love for Him should look like. So really, they aren’t rules after all. It’s more like a woman who tells her husband that she prefers Italian food to Chinese. It’s not so that her husband can compile a rule book that he must constantly strive to obey. It’s that she recognizes that since he loves her, he will want to do for her what she most desires. So rather than making him figure it out the hard way, she tells him upfront to help him.
That’s what God does. He knows what the natural response is to the gospel: love. But because He is God and we are human, the love that we think is appropriate may not be what He truly desires. Too often we are the husband ordering Chinese take out for the wife who prefers lasagna. So God helps us respond to the gospel correctly by giving us guidelines that will ultimately allow us to love Him appropriately.
This is what we mean when we talk about the importance of the gospel for believers. It’s not just an evangelistic tool, as FCs tend to restrict it to. It should be the impetus for everything that we do as a Christian.
7. Unbiblical worship
“Biblical worship” is one of the most commonly used catch phrases within fundamentalism. To most FCs, modern worship has strayed too far from its traditional roots. FCs seek to restore it back to its traditional (i.e., conservative) state so that their worship most glorifies God. This is done by focusing worship on older hymns or songs that mimic the older hymns in musical style. Generally praise and worship and contemporary Christian are avoided at all costs.
The irony is that despite all of the effort made to ensure that worship is biblical, much of the thinking behind this worship is not biblical at all. Rather, it is based on the opinions of the worshiper as to which musical style is appropriate and which is not. Many fundamentalists in the past have attempted to come up with an objective way of identifying inappropriate music (most notably the effort to identify the so-called “2-4 beat” as sinful), but these efforts have been almost entirely rejected in large part due to their unscholarly nature. The end result is that the effort to identify right or wrong musical styles within FCs has become strictly subjective.
The reason why it is so difficult to determine which musical styles are right or wrong is because Scripture never discusses it or even suggests that there may be right or wrong styles. So the difficulty the fundamentalist finds is that, although he believes that there are musical styles that are inherently sinful, he has no clear biblical data to guide him. Thus he must call upon various biblical principles that he believes have the most bearing on worship, which oftentimes comes back to the Romans 12 command to not be conformed to the world. As mentioned earlier, “world” is then defined by the fundamentalist as “culture,” resulting in the conclusion that any musical styles that are popular within our culture are wrong. Some may nuance their argument further by saying that only music that has a negative/sinful association (which is determined subjectively) within our culture is inappropriate. In my experience, those who hold to the “sinful association” view, generally rule out all musical styles except classical and some easy listening.
I am not going to readdress the misinterpretation of “world,” but I would like to address the “association” principle. This principle comes primarily from 1 Cor 8-11, in which Paul seeks to answer this question: although there is clearly nothing sinful about eating meat, what about meat that has been used in the temple worship of an idol? Does the sinful association with the idol make it wrong to eat the meat?
Paul’s conclusion is that it’s not inherently sinful to eat the meat, but there is one circumstance in which it is sinful – if by eating meat you cause your brother to stumble (KJV: to offend). I added the KJV translation for a reason, namely that FCs tend to use this word in their interpretation of the passage in the place of the more accurate “stumble.” In other words, if you do something that offends another Christian because he associates your action with something sinful, you are sinning and must stop performing that action forever since it’s offensive. But that is not what Paul means when he speaks of “stumbling.” In context, a Christian that “stumbles” is one that essentially loses his faith. In the strict context, it would be a Christian that came out of idol worship, saw Christians eating meat offered to an idol, thought in his conscience that it was wrong but went along with it, and eventually had his faith “destroyed” (1 Cor 8:11).
So, with that in mind, does the association principle apply to music/worship? The answer is that it would apply only if a Christian could destroy another Christian’s faith as a direct result of listening to (or singing/playing) a certain musical style. I’m not going to say that this is impossible, but I do feel that, if this kind of thing is possible, the instances of it are few and far in between. I personally have never heard of a person’s faith being destroyed as a direct result of seeing Christians interact with a certain musical style.
The bottom line is that the effort to define “biblical worship” by FCs rests on subjectivity and poor biblical hermeneutics. But what is even more problematic is that there are many verses in Scripture that do clearly outline biblical worship that are seemingly ignored by FCs, presumably because they don’t deal with the subject of musical styles. Here is an example (not nearly exhaustive) of some of the principles of biblical worship outlined in Scripture that most FCs tend to ignore:
- Worship is inherently emotional (throughout the Psalms, which describe a wide range of emotions from crying to shouting to laughing to anger to joy. Cf., 2 Sam 6:12-16)
- All instruments are to be utilized in worship (Psa 150:3-5)
- Dance is a form of worship (Psa 150:4)
- Raising of hands is appropriate for worship (Psa 134:2; cf., 1 Tim 2:8)
- The heart of worship is more important than the mode of worship (Psa 51:16-17; Hos 6:6)
Typically, fundamentalists go through great pains to argue that these principles are not applicable today because of cultural differences that we have with Israel. For instance, dancing is obviously different in 21st Century America than it was in OT Israel; therefore we shouldn’t dance in our worship. Please note two major problems with arguments like these:
- We really don’t know very much about what dance was like in the OT; so this assumption is built on a faulty premise.
- Even if 21st Century American dancing were drastically different than OT dancing styles, that doesn’t make it wrong. Obviously there are biblical principles that should inform liturgical dancing (modesty comes to mind), but those principles shouldn’t lead us to assume that dancing is always bad when the Bible tells us that there are instances in which it is good. We just need to do a little more work in figuring out how we can dance within our culture in a way that worships God.
Ultimately, what bothers me most about the worship taking place in many FCs is that it’s dry, unemotional, restrictive on instruments and musical styles, restrictive on movement for the worshiper, and emphasizing musical technique instead of the heart. There is a word that describes this kind of worship: unbiblical. It goes against everything God tried to teach us in the Psalms. It’s also hypocritical because instead of trying to find ways to obey what Scripture says clearly about worship, many FCs choose instead to focus on the subjective interpretations of passages that only indirectly address the subject of worship.
8. Culture of pride
I add this final section to this post with great caution because A) I fully recognize that everyone struggles with pride to a certain extent, B) some of the most humble people I know are fundamentalists, and C) this is an issue of character/heart, not of doctrine, and ultimately only God knows the heart. That said, this is a major reason why I no longer attend a FC, and having gone to non-FCs, I realize how much more of an issue it is. So I feel as if this post would be incomplete if I neglected to include this section.
You may wonder what I mean by “culture of pride.” In essence, I am trying to say that FCs tend to incubate pride by consistently neglecting some major applications of humility. It’s not that FCs don’t teach that pride is wrong; it’s that when they attempt to practice humility, they frequently fail to see some of the major areas in which they are prideful. As a result of this consistent breakdown in application, the fundamentalist culture becomes inherently prideful.
Although this section is naturally subjective, in order to keep it as objective as possible, I’ve broken it down into areas in which I’ve consistently seen pride in FCs:
- Militaristic dogmatism (with regard to doctrine)
- Inability to be confronted
Let’s start with dogmatism. FCs believe that they have the most correct doctrine of any Christian group, and I actually don’t have a major problem with that assumption. We all make our theological affiliations based on which groups, churches, institutions, etc. we deem have the most correct doctrine. In this area, fundamentalists are no different than the rest of us.
Where they are different, however, is how they treat those who differ with them on doctrine. They are very quick to attack or shun anyone who has the slightest disagreement with them. In other words, they are militaristic in their dogmatism. While attending a fundamentalist university/seminary for 4+ years, I was constantly reminded by my professors of the doctrinal shortcomings of the likes of John MacArthur, John Piper, CJ Mahaney, Mark Dever, and pretty much any other evangelical leader you can think of. They were rarely, if ever portrayed positively.
Why is this? Very simply because MacArthur, Piper, et al. have theological disagreements with fundamentalists. Or, to simplify it even more, it is because they aren’t fundamentalists (at least not in the way that fundamentalists define the word). In other words, it’s not because they teach things contrary to the gospel, but because they differ on fringe matters, such as music styles, religious affiliates, stance on Calvinism, Bible version preference, etc., which are not clear in Scripture, and these are the issues which bring about rebuke, separation, etc. from FCs.
And that is ultimately the crux of the issue. Fundamentalists are very quick to condemn those who disagree with them on issues that are matters of interpretation or subjective application – things that are not clear in Scripture. This militaristic dogmatism is prideful because it results from a fundamentalist’s failure to accept that he could be wrong. If he humbly recognized that his interpretation most likely is not right 100% of the time, then he would be far less likely to attack those who disagree with him on minor issues.
Hand-in-hand with dogmatism is the issue of judgementalism. Quite frankly, it’s hard not to judge others when you dogmatically believe that you are always right. But there’s a deeper issue here – the overemphasis on externals/conservatism logically leads to judgmentalism. For instance, what would be the first thought to go through a fundamentalist’s mind if they saw a man drive up to their church with an Obama bumper sticker, long hair, and listening to Christian rock? I’m not going to answer that question, but I will say that, because he doesn’t fit the regular conservative mold, it would be hard for them not to think something like, “Wow. What’s he doing here?” or “He needs some serious help.” You see what has happened? Without any knowledge of a person’s relationship with God, judgements have been made about what kind of a Christian he is.
There is a fundamentalist preacher that I know who recently told me that this form of judgmentalism is “discernment.” From what I gathered, he feels like it is a Christian’s responsibility to “discern” a person’s inward character based on their externals. He was wrong. Making moral judgments about a person based on insufficient external data is sin, not discernment.
Let me elaborate on this. When someone does something that we think is wrong, they may not actually be sinning. The only way we can be certain they are sinning is if the Bible says clearly that they are. So a person who is living in adultery is sinning (since that is a clear sin), whereas a person who votes for Obama, has long hair, or listens to Christian rock may or may not be sinning. The Bible has principles but no clear teaching on those issues. In other words, the spiritual data on the person that does those things is insufficient for me to make an assumption about his standing before God. If I choose to make an assumption anyway, I’ve sinned and been judgmental in my heart.
So what about someone that we see clearly sinning? Here is the difficulty: all of us sin. If we judged a person every time he sinned, we would constantly be judging each other. The only way that I can conclude that someone is lacking spiritually is if that person clearly sins and is unrepentant. That is the only barometric test that God has given us – unrepentant rebellion against His Word. Even then, if there is someone in unrepentant sin, it’s not even right to have the thought, “He’s really sinful.” Read Ephesians 2:11-12 to see how sinful God thought that you were before salvation. We are all “really sinful.” To come up with categories like these in our heads is prideful – it doesn’t glorify God at all. And unfortunately, FCs struggle to teach their model of conservative sanctification while simultaneously avoiding judgmentalism.
Lastly, there is the issue of the inability to be confronted. This one is more personal than the others, because over the years, I have personally had to confront various Christians (some fundamentalists and some not) over their sin. What I’ve seen is that there is a consistent pattern that fundamentalists, of all the Christians I’ve dealt with, tend to be the least repentant and the most argumentative when confronted. They don’t want to admit their sin or even to reevaluate whether there may be sin in their lives that they don’t see. I’m not sure if it’s because they genuinely believe that they haven’t sinned or because they are afraid that by admitting their sin they will be judged by others, but either way, they do not take well to confrontation because of pride.
This pride issue has become even more apparent to me now that I am in a non-FC, where confrontation is common and Christians are expected to respond humbly to correction, which at the very least means that they will take the confrontation to heart, even if they have disagreements. That has not been my experience in FCs, and I’ve heard others who unfortunately feel the same way.
Sadly, this pride problem will likely cause many who read this post to dismiss it. It’s confrontational. It points out flaws and sins that aren’t fun to address. And it’s much easier to say, “That’s not true,” or “That doesn’t apply to me” than to reevaluate whether there are parts of your life (or church) that aren’t pleasing to God. I would urge you at the very least to halt your prideful inclinations and give a little bit of prayer and reevaluation to some of these issues. Even if you feel that you disagree on 100% of what I said, consider that no Christian was ever made less like Christ because he reevaluated and searched for sin in his life.
And if you are a fundamentalist brother or sister in Christ, please remember that I have not spent hours working on this post in order to ridicule you, but to help you to see some things that you may not have seen otherwise. I do not ask that you agree with everything I have said but that you keep an open mind and allow the Holy Spirit to work in areas that you may not have allowed Him to previously.