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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


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20 thoughts on “The Fundamentalist Survival Mechanism”

  1. Brian says:

    Incredible wisdom on your part here. Since Warfield and Hodge formulated what later became published by Milton and Lyman Stewart as “The Fundamentals”, there have been disconnects between those who fight for orthodoxy versus those who fight for the fundamentals. They are not necessarily the same. The insistance that one satisfactorily answer the querie, “Do you accept Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?” in a sense promotes a disconnected individualism. The greater Body of Christ isn’t necessarily a consideration here, only your “personal” relationship. With this “personal” and “individual” belief in hand, the Protestant then goes about finding the next thing to protest – often time protesting each other. By process of self examination, they would be prudent to answer the question, “What am I protesting?”

  2. trevinwax says:

    Surely orthodoxy and the “fundamentals” are deeply intertwined, even if they are not the exact same thing.

    For example, Protestants are correct to protest the unbiblical notion of the papacy and the incorrect understanding of the RCC regarding the sacraments and the mechanics of the gospel itself (“justification by faith alone”).

    The danger in Protestantism lies not in the major protest against the erroneous doctrines of the RCC. The danger in the more fundamentalist circles of Protestantism is in the “majoring on the minors” to the extent that we exclude from fellowship those who are with us on the fundamental doctrines of the faith. Adding more and more “fundamentals” to the Christian faith simply dilutes what is good in fundamentalism.

  3. Brian says:

    Indeed it gets complex. Might Paul be accused of adding more fundamentals when he addressed women’s headress in church, eating meat sacrificed to idols, circumcision versus uncircumcision? If one thinks Christianity is “me, my bible, and the five fundamentals”, and that everything else is “white noise” that serves to dilute the “pure Christianity of the Upper Room”, they simply haven’t spent enough time reading Paul’s epistles. Paul describes the corporate nature of the Church and the call for unity of believers that we see espoused in Eph 4:3-5 and John 17:20-23. This jibes perfectly with the corporate nature of Israel’s worship and travails in the OT. I take your blog entry here as a call to unity, and so applaud it.

  4. Travis says:

    Wow, this is the most intelligent quote I have seen in a long time. It should be the posterboard quote of the movement to reunite Protestants into the Catholic Church.

    “A movement that receives its identity from protesting is likely to prolong its survival by finding smaller and more insignificant things to protest.”

  5. John says:

    Great post Trevin, it’s nice to see a fellow brother from Shelbyville bloging, I am over at Shelbyville Mills with Brother Jono. I will add your blog to my blogroll.

  6. trevinwax says:

    Hi John,

    Thanks for the feedback. I’m glad you enjoy the blog. I’ve added you to the “Blogs that Link Here” as well.

    Blessings to you and your family.

  7. Zach says:

    Trevin,

    Good thoughts here. Thanks for that. I think I am going to name my next child Trevin. Not really, we are done having kids, but if we had another boy!… :)

    Hey, you want to link to each other?

    zach

  8. trevinwax says:

    Sure, Zach. I’ll add your link to my page.

  9. RevJeff says:

    well said brother. My only (somewhat sarcastic)observation would be that PROTESTING does indeed SEEM tp be working for Fred Phelps… IT IS A JOKE!

  10. Floppyjoe says:

    I do not think what constitutes God’s Word is a minor thing. It is the ultimate thing. The new bible versions equate Lucifer with Jesus Christ in many cases. For example:

    NIV Isaiah 14:12-15(In the KJV this passage refers to Lucifer in verse 12)

    12 How you have fallen from heaven,
    O morning star, son of the dawn!
    You have been cast down to the earth,
    you who once laid low the nations!

    13 You said in your heart,
    “I will ascend to heaven;
    I will raise my throne
    above the stars of God;
    I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly,
    on the utmost heights of the sacred mountain.

    14 I will ascend above the tops of the clouds;
    I will make myself like the Most High.”

    15 But you are brought down to the grave,
    to the depths of the pit.

    NIV Revelation 22:16(Here Jesus clearly says he is the morning star)

    16 I, Jesus, have sent my angel to give you this testimony for the churches. I am the Root and the Offspring of David, and the bright Morning Star.

    NIV 2 Peter 1:19

    19And we have the word of the prophets made more certain, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.

    There you have it folks Jesus and Satan both called the morning star in the NIV. Which morning star is rising in your heart? I think this bible is fit for the pit.

    1. Josh Dear says:

      “Floppyjoe” – This isn’t a TRANSLATION problem, as if newer translations are changing what God’s Word means – it’s an INTERPRETATION problem, meaning that we struggle to understand why God’s Word clearly uses similar wording to describe both Jesus and Lucifer in these particular passages.

      In Isaiah, the reference isn’t specifically to the devil – it’s a description of the fall of the king of Babylon, who in his arrogant pride rebelled against God and fell from the highest position to the lowest. But, of course, we read this and also see the undeniable imagery that powerfully alludes to the fall of Lucifer from heaven. The title “morning star”, “son of the morning”, or “day star” (which are essentially interchangeable terms) alludes to the fact that, PRIOR to his fall, Lucifer was a beautiful, radiant angel of God, whose own radiance was an IMITATION of the radiance of Christ – but AFTER the fall, as we know, he was “fallen” and “cut down to the ground”. All English translations agree on this extreme turn of events.

      The Revelation reference, of course, refers to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who doesn’t “imitate” anybody, but who IS HIMSELF the “bright morning star”, who will NEVER be fallen or cut down, but who is eternally perfect and fully submitted to the will of the Father. So, in essence, Lucifer was an imperfect IMITATION of our radiant Lord, but he sinned against God and was cast down from heaven. Christ, on the other hand, is the one true “bright morning star”, and he does not change or fail.

      Some people believe that if something varies from the KJV that the variance is automatically wrong and the KJV is automatically correct. However, it’s important to remember that KJV is a TRANSLATION just like all of the other English-language Bibles, and it should be held to the same type of scrutiny as other translations – comparison with the original Greek and Hebrew texts. KJV has NEVER been approved as the one perfect translation that we have in English!

      In fact, it was barely accepted when it was first produced (The Geneva Bible was far more popular among the pilgrims at that time.), and has gone through some revision itself before being received in its current form. Therefore, to compare all other translations against the KJV is silly – for ALL TRANSLATIONS, including the KJV, should be compared against the Greek and Hebrew texts, and should be evaluated in terms of our constantly changing language. In doing this, a multitude of scholars and pastors have come to determine that the ESV is the superior translation for our day – and I agree.

  11. since the kjv has gone through some revisions, why not give the popular new translations the same opportunity rather than throwing out the whole thing over one word or one passage. has any of the kjv only tried to come up with a comtemporary translation that even all of their own would claim as valid? the anglo world had a comtemporay version in 1611 and its revisions, can i not have the same in my generation? the same goes for worship styles. does any one really think that any of the current worship styles from high church-to emergent really represents what the 1st church did in acts 2? since every generation has laid claim to what they thought was significant expression for them, i would like the same options.

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Trevin Wax


​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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