If a “fundamentalist” is a person who believes in the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith (the virgin birth, the substitutionary atonement, the physical resurrection of Jesus, the perfect inspiration of Scripture), then count me in. I’m not ashamed to wear the label.
But it can be dangerous to be a fundamentalist.
We tend to exaggerate differences and distinctions in order to provide justification for our group’s existence.
We also tend to see “holiness” and “rightness” in terms of the doctrines that set us apart from other Christians, rather than the beliefs we hold in common with other Christians that set us apart from the world.
Growing up, I attended an independent, fundamentalist Baptist school. The independent Baptists split off from the Southern Baptist Convention last century due to the creeping influence of liberalism in the Convention materials and seminaries. As conservative churches and pastors left the SBC, the independent churches continued to grow, evangelize, and enjoy the spoils of liberalism’s detrimental legacy.
Now that the Conservative Resurgence has taken place and the Southern Baptist seminaries are controlled by conservatives who believe strongly in the fundamental doctrines of Christianity, one might expect the independents to be happy. Not so.
The independent Baptists call the conservative “takeover” only a “makeover.” They refuse to admit that the SBC is now heading in the right direction. After all, if the SBC has indeed launched a massive course correction, the independents’ main reason for existing independently disappears.
Nowadays independent Baptists are harping on other distinctives in order to preserve the rationale for their group’s existence.
They preach separation from Southern Baptists because the SBC is not “King James Only,” the SBC smiles on contemporary music, and Southern Baptists don’t believe that a woman who wears pants is in sin.
Sadly, the independent Baptist movement is slipping steadily down an increasingly irrelevant path, as its leaders cocoon themselves into a safe web of exaggerated distinctions – a web which will eventually squeeze the life out of the movement.
Do you see the trajectory? Herein lies the danger of fundamentalism.
A movement that receives its identity from protesting is likely to prolong its survival by finding smaller and more insignificant things to protest.
Other evangelicals are not immune to this trajectory either. If we are not careful, we will make second-order issues into first-order issues and follow the same path as our independent brothers and sisters.
When we makes gender issues a first-order matter and go so far as to call this a “gospel issue” (whether for or against women in pastoral ministry), we are exaggerating a distinction.
When we make formal Bible translations (over against the dynamic-equivalent translations) a test of fellowship and go so far as to express our hatred and derision for other translations, we are exaggerating a distinction.
When we decide that those who do not hold to the doctrines of grace (i.e. Calvinism) don’t truly understand the gospel, we are again exaggerating distinctions, providing rationale for our own existence at the expense of Christian fellowship.
I am convinced that much of our in-house squabbling over theological matters and our smug “pat-ourselves-on-the-back” attitude that says, Thank God I’m not like the egalitarians, the Emergents, the liturgical, the Arminians, the charismatics and the Catholics is actually a subconscious attempt to exaggerate the distinctions that provide us a reason for existing. We think of this exaggeration as a survival mechanism, but actually, it will kill our effectiveness.
Add to the mix publishing houses, seminaries, pastors and teachers and conferences that spend most of their time and resources perpetuating the distinctives and it’s not hard to see how small the stuffy the room of fellowship with “like-minded” Christians can become.
Let me be clear on something. I do not believe we should do away with doctrinal distinctives. I am a Reformed-leaning, complementarian, Bible-driven minister who holds tightly to the fundamentals of the faith.
But I will not confuse second-order doctrinal distinctives with first-order doctrines. Once we journey down that road, we’ll eventually start confusing third-order doctrinal distinctives with first order doctrines, and we’ll wind up as isolated, irrelevant, and shrill as our independent friends.
We should not locate our Christian identity in what separates us from other believers, but in the gospel that unites us with other believers, the gospel that calls us out of the world to serve the world.
Let’s beware of this tendency in fundamentalism and recommit to Christian fellowship and unity across denominational lines – avoiding both the temptation to compromise our distinctives and the temptation to exaggerate them.
written by Trevin Wax © 2007 Kingdom People blog