What is “Fundamentalism,” and What’s Wrong With It?
The flaws of Christian fundamentalist pastors and churches have never been a very well-kept secret, especially among those outside the ranks, but along with modern communications technology has come a steady flow of scandal making its way into the public eye. The ongoing issue of how moral scandals are handled within these churches and organizations is not merely a problem of individual sinners within the ranks, or even of fundamentalist leaders and their leadership styles. It cuts to the heart of what fundamentalism is, and has always been.
Definition: What is “Fundamentalism”?
To those on the outside, all churches that claim to be evangelical and Bible-believing are often labeled “fundamentalist,” but many of us who love and believe in the Scriptures feel that our differences with that movement are so significant, they call for a response. For some time, we have included on our FAQs page an answer to the question, “Do you consider yourselves ‘fundamentalists’?” Here, the question will be answered in more detail.
Fundamentalism began in the late 19th century as a reaction to advancing theological liberalism. At that time, the churches were increasingly under attack by modernists who denied the infallibility of the Scriptures and were gaining control of once-sound churches and seminaries. In response, “fundamentalism” arose as a militant movement whose goal was to “earnestly contend for the faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). The name "fundamentalism" refers to their attempt to define what they considered the “fundamental” doctrines of the faith, which needed to be defended at all costs. Certainly their work in defending truth was commendable. The problem is that, rather than being merely a biblical response to a real problem, fundamentalism was a child of its age, and in particular, an outgrowth of the age of mass evangelism that arose in the late 19th century in America.
During that age, popular evangelists developed the “evangelistic campaign” almost to scientific perfection. Unlike most revival preachers prior to the mid-19th century, such as Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield, who merely preached the gospel and left the results to God, the later generation of "revivalists" combined preaching with musical performance and an “invitation system” to lead their hearers to an immediate “decision” for Christ. Their techniques were so effective in bringing large numbers of people into the churches that their use continued unabated until the return of Reformed beliefs in recent years, which brought with it a more biblical understanding of what conversion to Christ really means. Many churches, including most fundamentalist churches, still employ those methods unquestioningly. Unfortunately, great damage has been done to the churches by over a hundred years of these practices, and all of us, not merely fundamentalists, must grapple with the consequences.
Development and Unique Character of Fundamentalism.
The influence of mass evangelism, with all of its weaknesses in doctrine, all of its crowd-pleasing techniques, and all of its mind-manipulation to produce “results” and parade them before the world, became the guiding spirit of fundamentalism. Sadly, many of the churches by that time had thrown out the great evangelical creeds (such as the Westminster Confession of Faith , London Baptist (1689) Confession of Faith, and others) which had unified the saints and helped preserve biblical truth in the churches for centuries. What remained after so much divine truth was swept away was statements of faith so brief and inadequate that individual churches and preachers, disregarding the guidance of church history, could more easily (and often unknowingly) misuse the Bible to become a law unto themselves. They became, in a sense, blind leaders of the blind.
The early movers of fundamentalism were very effective in growing its numbers, especially as the old denominational churches and seminaries were falling to theological liberalism, and conservatives from within those denominations, not wishing to give up the fight, often joined with the fundamentalists in their efforts. But it was always an uneasy alliance. Whereas fundamentalists saw the need to expand their new “movement,” the conservative evangelicals saw themselves as merely holding to what was already established: "It seems strange to suggest that we are adherents to some strange new sect,” wrote J. Gresham Machen, “whereas in point of fact we are conscious simply maintaining the historic Christian faith & of moving in the great central current of Christian life." Machen saw the following as weaknesses in fundamentalism: (1) the absence of a historical perspective; (2) the lack of appreciation for scholarship; (3) the substitution of brief, skeletal creeds for historic confessions; (4) the lack of concern for precise formulation of Christian doctrine.
In the eyes of the broader Christian public, the militant nature of fundamentalism, from its inception, was often more apparent than its biblicism -- thus the term “fighing fundamentalist.” In such an environment, it was natural that big personalities and popular, eloquent preachers would rise to the top, often regardless of the orthodoxy of their doctrine or the soundness of their character. Scandals and feuds were frequent (and, for the same reason, have continued to be), with at least one notorious case (that involving Dallas Baptist preacher J. Frank Norris) even ending in murder. Numbers were everything: the larger the church, the more natural it was that its preacher would rise in the ranks. Dissent among the ranks was discouraged because it projected an image of disunity to the world; public image was essential, for it was believed that size, power, and influence testified to the world that “the Lord is in this place.” Leaders believed they were the sole defenders of the true Christian faith, and they let everyone know it. They often boasted about their churches and how God was using them. And in all of this, they seemed unaware that all of this outward braggadocio among Christian ministers was almost unheard in an earlier time when it was better understood that God was everything and that man was very, very small. Certainly these are generalizations, but there is ample evidence to prove that the negative impressions of people who saw the movement as arrogant, belligerent, and insensitive to individuals within their flocks were not without warrant.
Doctrines and Distinctives of Fundamentalism.
Fundamentalists often express their admiration for the notable leaders of the Reformation and Puritan eras, (e.g., Martin Luther, John Calvin, William Tyndale, John Bunyan), and for the ministers who followed in their footsteps (e.g., Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, John Newton, Matthew Henry, Charles Spurgeon). Their theologies, however, were very different. One of the greatest weaknesses of fundamentalism in contrast to the men just mentioned is a lack of clear doctrine. This problem goes back to the very foundation of the movement. As previously noted, fundamentalism arose in the era of mass evangelism, and age when results trumped truth, and it never shed those beginnings.
Their heroes were popular evangelists like D.L. Moody, R.A. Torrey, Gypsy Smith, Billy Sunday, Bob Jones, Sr., all of whom seemed to hold the belief, troubling to many good ministers of their day, that Christians lacked the power, by virtue of the Holy Spirit residing within them, to live the Christian life without continual correction administered by their preachers and evangelists. J.K. Popham, a preacher of the old school who ministered in Scotland at the time of D.L. Moody's campaigns, once wrote that Moody would make “a pedestal of the weakness of his converts,” and,
standing above them in conscious superiority, lugubriously tell them that he could foresee many of them would be tempted to fall away when he departed! Pity he could not see it needful and right for him to remain with these helpless “converts” of his, to charm the evil spirit who would tempt away many of them to fall away when he was no longer near to protect them! (J.K. Popham, “Moody’s and Sankey’s errors versus the Scriptures of Truth”).
A.W. Pink, also reacting to this unbibical thinking, characterized the sorry state of evangelism and fundamentalism in the 1920’s-30’s:
The vast majority of the ‘pastors’ summon to their aid some professional ‘evangelist’, who, for two to four weeks, puts on a high pressure campaign and secures sufficient new ‘converts’ to take the place of those who have ‘lapsed’ since he was last with them. What a farce it all is!
One divine truth which the fundamentalists had lost, with all of their trimming and paring down of Scripture to its “fundamentals,” was a right understanding of what the old writers called the “perseverance of the saints,” which taught that all true Christians will not only be saved in the end but will diligently persevere in the faith throughout this life, though not perfectly. In rejecting what was in essence the continual witness and guidance of the Holy Spirit in the believer’s life, these preachers had to give their “converts” something to take its place. This came in the form of external rules and regulations, often coerced and even imposed by the church and its pastors. Those who complied were considered to be those who were, by an act of their own will, “surrendering to the Holy Spirit,” and accordingly, they could enter the fundamentalist inner circle, and rise to positions of leadership; those who did not or who questioned them were considered “backslidden” or “carnal Christians.”
This belief system, which is not biblical, taints everything it touches, and affects their ministry in every area. In their preaching, anger and insults leveled at parishioners for their disobedience to God are appropriate because it is assumed much of the congregation consists of true Christians who are simply stubborn or "unsurrendered," and need to be jolted out of that condition. The same is true in personal counseling, where counselees, rather than simply being pointed to the Scriptures and left for God to do the work, are given lists of do’s and don’ts, and chided or even insulted if they do not obey them. In all of this, the underlying assumption is that the pastor or counselor, because he or she has entered the “inner circle” through obedience, is anointed of God and thus has the authority to demand adherence to their rules.
This formula is wrong on two counts: first, the rules and regulations are often not biblical standards but man-made ones, much like those the Pharisees were condemned for imposing on the people. "Woe to you also, lawyers! For you load men with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not touch the burdens with one of your fingers” (Luke 11:46). Secondly, they are merely external, and possible to be complied with outwardly even by those who lack love and other evidences of a Christian heart. The result is often a rank hypocrisy that is visible to all except for those blinded by their own pride. This is one reason that the victims of fundamentalism and its vices, for better or for worse, once they leave the fold, often hold onto their anger for many years. And considering the attitudes and practices of many of these churches, the frequent charge that fundamentalism is a “cult” is often true.
Decline of Fundamentalism.
As a movement, fundamentalism reached enormous popularity by the early 1920’s, then waned for several decades, but surged again in the 1970’s and 1980’s. The last twenty years have shown a steady decline in numbers of people attending fundamentalist congregations. But its remains, including those who once supported it enthusiastically but later became disillusioned, are all around us.
Considering so much that was wrong with the movement from the beginning, many of us are not disappointed by its demise. The question that remains is, what will rise up in its place? In most places, humanly speaking, the signs are not encouraging. Popular preachers, big churches and programs by the truckload threaten to consume everything in their path. Mass evangelism, more similar to early fundamentalism than its practioners would like to admit, and often practiced by those who have not invested the time and effort to understand the biblical gospel, will in time have the same devastating results as they have shown in the past. On the other hand, confessional, Reformed Christianity, which we consider to be historic Christianity, is growing, but haltingly, attended by its own set of problems. What then is the answer for the church today? We suggest three things, all of which are essential for God’s people whether the visible churches are thriving or languishing:
1. Know the truth. Understand that athough man perverts the knowledge of God, God is completely sovereign: But our God is in heaven; He does whatever He pleases (Psalm 115:3). Understand the gospel as the true church has always understood it, and as the Reformation rediscovered it, rather than as the revivalists and fundamentalism redefined it. Know that, rather than being an act of our faith or belief, which results in an act of God’s grace (this is called decisionism), salvation is actually a work of God’s grace alone, which results in true belief and faith. Understand that the churches as we see them, with all of their flaws and in all of their weakness, are only temporary institutions; they are not inerrant, and many are already disowned by God; whereas the true church is invisible, representing all of God’s true saints, and that regardless of what we see, God is at work preserving a remnant for Himself. Even so then, at this present time there is a remnant according to the election of grace (Romans 11:5).
2. Practice true religion. Help the saints in need (Rom. 2:12, Gal. 6:2, Eph. 4:2); exhort each other to faith and good works (Heb. 3:13, Eph. 4:32, 1 Thess. 5:11, Hebrews 10:24-25); love one another (Jn.13:35, Rom. 12:10, 1 Cor. 16:14, Eph. 4:2, 16). Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world (Jas 1:27).
3. Leave the results to God. Get your eyes on Him, on His Word, His work, His love, His grace, and off of our works, our comfort, or our personal troubles. Serve Him faithfully, but don’t be preoccupied with numbers, whether numbers of converts in an outreach campaign, for it is God alone who can save, or numbers of people sitting in the pew, for Christ will build His church. God can, and will, promote His cause and do His work, with or without our help.
May God encourage, comfort and bless His people in these things.