Understanding a good definition of the word fundamentalism as I am using it here will be crucial. I cannot take an iota of credit for this definition since I enlisted the help of a pastor and theologian, who I consider to be a good fundamentalist himself, to craft it. Fundamentalism is:
the belief that the gospel rests on a number of essential commitments, such that a denial of those commitments undermines the gospel itself, with the further conviction that Christian fellowship cannot be extended to those who undermine the gospel, and that extending such fellowship is an outrageous diminishing of the gospel’s value
In short, fundamentalists believe that Christians should refuse to extend Christian fellowship to apostates, and that Christians who do so are effectively forcing an unnecessary separation between themselves and faithful Christians. A faithful Christian cannot possibly have full, unfettered fellowship with a brother who is sinning by offering Christian fellowship to apostates. Some level of separation (or interruption) of fellowship is inherent with an unrepentant, wayward brother. While fundamentalists are called “separatists,” there is a sense in which the erring brother is the one forcing the issue of separation, although it is rarely viewed that way since it is always left up to the fundamentalist to both point out and live in light of the reality of the separation that exists there. Erring brothers do not police themselves.
This is the positive side of fundamentalism. The ideal. Fidelity to the doctrinal reality of biblical separation. But fundamentalists are notorious for some negative things. As the same pastor put it, the excesses of fundamentalism often include “Putting too much in the ‘essential commitments'” basket. In other words, they make mountains out of mole hills doctrinally. The most famous example of this is probably the embarrassing fundamentalist practice of making the Bible version you use a test of fellowship. Another negative trait would be “doctrinal reductionism.” This is the opposite error, in which historical creeds and confessions with strong doctrinal content are eschewed in favor of weaker modern statements that prove far less helpful in drawing any real lines of demarcation. This helps to explain why some self-proclaimed fundamentalist churches have surprisingly contemporary worship services. If the songs utilized meet some bare doctrinal minimum, there is no other basis on which to evaluate them. Finally, many fundamentalists have been poor exegetes who are marked by doctrinal ignorance, are suspicious of theological education, and are adept at abusing the Scriptures through allegory and proof-texting. But because of their skillful employment of the most egregious bombastry you can imagine, their influence over the kinds of people who delight in oral flatulence has been no small matter.
In principle, the idea of fundamentalism is a good one. The problem is that most who call themselves fundamentalists either have long forgotten the idea, or cannot bring themselves to execute it without adulterating it. But a good fundamentalist, one who understands the idea, commits to it, and does not abuse it for his own ends, is, in my view, at an advantage over those Christians who ignore it. If the idea is biblical (and I think it is), it can’t be any other way. Obedience is always better than disobedience. And for the rest of this article, when I use the term fundamentalist, I am referring to the good kind, unless otherwise noted.
Now that you have some very basic ideas of fundamentalism in place, let’s proceed.
I recently attended a gathering of conservative Christians in Rockford, IL, and was reminded why I cannot take the label “fundamentalist” for myself. Before I tell you why, let me back the train up and explain some of my backstory.
I have been exposed to several different strains of so-called “fundamentalism” in my brief existence on planet Earth. But somehow, it never dawned on me that there were different strains, so naturally I lumped everyone who used that label into the same category. Guys who know everything don’t care much for the effort required in nuance.
Like many young people of my generation (young thirty-somethings), I didn’t like many of the things I saw in the movement, and since I assumed that those things tainted all of this supposed single gelatinous mass called fundamentalism, I decided as a wise young teenager that I wanted no part of that label for my remaining days on said Planet.
These feelings towards fundamentalism, and fundamentalists, persisted for more than ten years, but mostly in the background since the Lord moved my wife and I to an area that really didn’t have any fundamentalist influence or issues.
But two years ago I ran into a fundamentalist whom I hadn’t seen since I was 18. If you’re following my story, you’ll remember I didn’t care much for fundamentalists at 18, and this guy was no different. I had met him once and despised him. But being 30 when I ran into him again, I had learned at least enough to grudgingly consider the possibility that maybe the 18-year-old me wasn’t actually all-wise (and was certainly in sin), and perhaps I should try again with this guy. My wife and I went to coffee with him and ended up spending three hours together. I apologized for my foolishness as a teen and we moved on to talk about other serious matters.
I don’t remember many specifics of the conversation, but I was soon to become an associate pastor and I knew I needed mentors. After our meeting, I also knew that I wanted that group to include men like this. He didn’t live near me, but he was able to connect me with a pastor close to my area who was willing to take me on in what I am sure has turned out to be a more sizable project than he envisioned. Through this pastor I was connected with more men who share fundamentalist values, and eventually to a seminary which I now attend part-time.
To be clear, I have also been greatly impacted by men who would not consider themselves fundamentalists, and I love and admire these men. But this particular article focuses on fundamentalism because of my lifelong reticence to be identified with it, and therefore what I consider to be a seismic shift taking place in my attitude in this area. At the very least, it is surprising.
Over these past two years, the Lord has repeatedly convicted and rebuked me for my lifelong quickness to instantly judge a book by its cover and permanently write that person off. I have been helped spiritually and pastorally by men who I would have scorned just a few years ago. I have seen men who call themselves fundamentalists prove to be God-fearing men who seek not just to know him theologically and intellectually (which is important), but to love Him with their whole being, and to help others to do the same. When I see former college mates that I used to mock and tear down (behind their backs, of course), guys who I would have been embarrassed to be seen with at meal time in the dining hall, living out conservative, fundamental, loving values in their lives and ministries, I am rebuked again.
I do not measure up to these men.
But for all its good, fundamentalism is shrinking. Many guys my age have been hurt by the wrong kinds of fundamentalism and have looked elsewhere for a people and a place. This is unfortunate since fundamentalism’s big idea is biblically sound. The errors of the worst kinds of fundamentalists have driven away a large swath of the thirty-somethings. Some of these will realize later in life that their new peoples and places have ugly scars of their own. No place is perfect. For now, they will not call themselves fundamentalists.
And neither will I.
But our reasons will be different. For while they reject the label based on the wrong kinds of fundamentalism, I reject it based on the right. You see, I cannot take the label fundamentalist for myself – not because I do not want it – but because I have not earned it.