Will the real Fundamentalist please rise?

Quite frankly, many Fundamentalists no longer embrace this descriptive term because of two decades of media reports associating “fundamentalism” with religious terrorism. However, within the context of Christianity, the term has value in understanding our heritage. Its present-day use, alas, lacks the crisp definition once accorded to the word.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, my father lectured on Fundamentalism at several colleges. During those years I served as his assistant and traveled with him during one such lecture series. I condensed his teaching into a defining statement that he endorsed as accurate:

Fundamentalism is an uncompromising belief in the inerrancy of the Word of God, which implies obedience to the Word, resulting in a strong defense of the essentials of the Faith and an aggressive offense of evangelism. 

A Christian “fundamentalist” takes the Word of God to be the Word of God, and therefore, takes it literally and seriously. 

Fundamentalism as a movement rose in the early twentieth century to combat theological liberalism led by unbelieving ecclesiastics. Fundamental truths like the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture, the deity of Christ, the bodily resurrection, and so forth were embraced, viewed as vital to the Gospel, and tenaciously defended. The 64 orthodox authors who contributed to The Fundamentals (a collection of 90 articles published in twelve volumes between 1910 and 1915) understood the difference between clear major doctrine and debatable lesser matters. While each had their druthers about lesser matters and would sometimes kindly banter over them, these were not judged fundamental and thus were not fashioned into issues of separation. The Fundamentals on the other hand served as a declaration of separation from unbelieving theological liberalism, which was biblical ecclesiastical separation rightly applied.

Decades passed with many individuals and institutions earnestly contending for the faith while others faltered and fell to attacks of the enemy. Later, certain sections of Fundamentalism were reshaped during the 1970s and 1980s. With all the change occurring in culture, there was an understandable desire to “hold the fort.” Good men were involved, and necessary applications were made, but time has shown that some of their innovations did not prove as healthy as they first seemed. Two recast versions of Fundamentalism emerged with aspects of a secondary degree of separation as their defining trait.

Fundamentalism Emphasizing Secondary Separation

In some sections of Fundamentalism, what became known as “secondary separation” became vogue and was considered to be on the level of separation, or what in this light we might call “primary separation.” While primary separation is marked by a withdrawal from ecclesiastical unbelievers, which is clearly biblical (Galatians 1:8-9), secondary separation saw a need to separate from any who did not apply primary separation. Thus, believers separated from other believers who had not fully separated from ecclesiastical unbelievers. As this new emphasis took hold, it was often carried out three and four steps removed from primary separation as secondary separationists felt the need to separate from a brother who did not separate from a brother who did not separate from a brother who did not separate from apostasy. (It is also significant to note that studies have revealed that taking secondary separation out six steps would necessarily require separation from oneself!) It should be noted that these additional steps went beyond the separation actions taken by the forefathers of Fundamentalism.

Passages like 2 Thessalonians 3:6-14 which address not keeping company with a disorderly brother were used as a basis for secondary separation. But in context, this passage addresses a local church disallowing fellowship along the lines of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 18. The issue here mentioned explicitly is slothfulness. Other church discipline/separation matters mentioned explicitly elsewhere include immorality, covetousness, idolatry, reviling (verbal abuse), drunkenness, and extortion (1 Cor. 5:11). In all these cases, separation from a brother has more to do with actions than associations.

While early Fundamentalists cooperated with like-minded individuals of different denominations, the emergence of secondary separation saw some Baptists separate from non-Baptists. The title, Fundamentalist, was introduced to distinguish a focus on critical doctrines and not lesser matters or denominational particulars. But in the reshaping era, many Baptist Fundamentalists separated from other Fundamentalists on denominational grounds. The language of early days of the struggle against theological liberalism spoke of Baptist Fundamentalists, where the plumb line was Fundamentalism and implied liberty to fellowship with Fundamentalists of different denominations. More recently, we have witnessed introduction of reworked titles like IFB, Independent Fundamental Baptists, where the plumb line has moved to a Baptist affiliation. While it is true there are less Fundamentalists of differing denominational tags, they certainly still exist.

If there was no bridle put on the message, early Fundamentalists would preach for others of a different “stripe.” Today’s proponents of secondary separation will not engage with any that are not of their same stripe. This amounts to sectarianism, which Paul labeled as carnality in 1 Corinthians 3. Though the Holy Spirit may sometimes lead to a practical non-association so as not to muddy the waters in a given situation, when such applications are demanded universally for all, then the Holy Spirit’s leadership gets eclipsed for others.

Fundamentalism Emphasizing Secondary-Issue Separation

In other sections of Fundamentalism, “secondary-issue separation” has become vogue with debatable matters being placed on a par with fundamentals. This paradigm shift has taken such a hold that many sincere followers today don’t know the difference. Thinking they stand for truth like the early Fundamentalists, they fail to realize their position confuses lesser matters of importance with greater matters. Lesser matters are not unimportant but are less important. Being persuaded of certain applications regarding secondary issues is legitimate and even needful. But when one makes these personal applications universal for all, it is not legitimate because it eclipses the role of the Holy Spirit for others in matters that are neither black nor white (Romans 14:5).

As time progressed, some sections of Fundamentalism embraced both versions of reshaped Fundamentalism; others embraced one but not necessarily the other. Some have forsaken their original reshaped version and taken a new stand with the other reshaped position. Morphed versions did not encompass the whole of Fundamentalism but did affect significant sections. It is a fact of history that the reshaped versions of Fundamentalism have experienced very little of the reviving seasons of refreshing from the presence of the Lord. It seems that replacing the Holy Spirit’s role with the dictates of men has been quenching the Spirit.

Early Fundamentalists understood and accepted the truth of the Spirit-filled life. But in a period beginning in the late 1970s, an overreaction to the excesses of others who claimed to operate in the name of the Holy Spirit left many afraid to emphasize the role of the Holy Spirit. This neglect deprived many of life and love—the fruit of the Spirit. Importantly, I believe this overreaction is intrinsically connected to the period’s reshaping of Fundamentalism where we lost sight of what is of greater importance. The Holy Spirit must be the real leader. When He is yielded to as Lord, there is life and spiritual health. 

My spiritual journey has brought me to embrace not just the Spirit-filled life of grace, but also to seek to embrace graciousness toward others on lesser matters. To my understanding, this embraces the Fundamentalism of the early and mid-twentieth century, but not the reshaped aspects of Fundamentalism of the late 1970s and following (something I zealously embraced back in the 80s). While some historic Fundamentalists believed a certain way about secondary concerns, others could not and did not. However, they all got along for the most part. Those early Fundamentalists were able to recognize lesser issues. They may have debated such topics, but understanding these things were not the greater fundamental matters, they did not separate over them. We would do well to follow the same practice. We must obey what we are persuaded of, even seek to persuade others, but in the end let others be persuaded ultimately by the Holy Spirit on the debatable matters.

Unity of the lesser details of doctrine and practice won’t occur this side of heaven. (I don’t even agree with myself sometimes!) But unity of the Spirit can and should. Unity for the sake of unity also will not work. The goal must not be unity itself; the goal must be Jesus. In Him alone, there can be legitimate unity. Jesus prayed for this. “That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me” (John 17:21). Jesus defines what He means by the phrase “That they all may be one” with “as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us.”  The unity is our union with Jesus: us in Him and He in us. This dynamic, when manifested, is so “that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.” Proper unity of the Spirit among the saints manifests the reality of Jesus to the world.

Yet some in the ranks of today’s reshaped Fundamentalism charge others with “changing their philosophy” when those parties no longer embrace demands of the reshaped cause. I guess I would agree. I don’t view it as a change for the worse, however. Peter had to change his thinking regarding what God has called clean not being called unclean (Acts 10:15), and I have come to a similar conclusion here. I understand such a change in philosophy as spiritual growth, just as it was for Peter. Ironically, the real negative is the change of philosophy from original Fundamentalism to the reshaped versions.

Early Fundamentalists fought theological liberals, unregenerated ecclesiastics. Today, as some press on and minister from the position of historic Fundamentalism, they are compelled to watch their backs to avoid “friendly fire” aimed by promoters of reshaped Fundamentalism. Unlike their predecessors, reshaped Fundamentalists fight those they perceive to be to the left of their version of right—though their targets are regenerated preachers of the Gospel of Christ.

I gladly embrace Fundamentalism as a concept that was demonstrated by early Fundamentalists. But the reshaped Fundamentalism that describes some so-called organized Fundamentalism today, I am not excited about. This is not a matter of who is right, but what is right. In saying this, I still love the men involved, but I cannot embrace concepts that in my understanding have unwittingly hindered revival. Thankfully, some have seen through the imbalance and have become more balanced. I have been on a journey myself.

Many young men who have asked valid questions and challenged the overreach of reshaped Fundamentalism have been mistreated and labeled as grave compromisers. The politics designed to “spank” these young men is shocking to a real sense of godliness. Some have understandably become disillusioned and, sadly, have overreacted. Others have found Jesus as both source and goal of life and living. There has been a needed reaction from them toward the “old guard,” but in perspective, theirs is a reaction to the morphed guard. The true old guard of early Fundamentalism was healthy.

I started by asking, “Will the real Fundamentalist please rise?” Now I would like to invert the question because loving the Lord and seeking to obey His Spirit, even if imperfectly applied, is not compromise. Bowing to man-made traditions and the fear of man, however, is. So…

Will the real compromiser please rise?

John Van Gelderen

John Van Gelderen

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