on where fundamentalism is forged (or any other ism)

A few years ago, a fellow said something like this to me: “A church is only as fundamental as its pastor.” As it turned out, that pastor wasn’t all that fundamental and disgraced himself and the Lord. But he was right in his observation.

Fundamentalism, evangelicalism, neo-orthodoxy, liberalism, or any shade of meaning in between is forged in the church by the leaders of the church. At the local church level, a church tends to follow the lead of its pastor. Whatever that pastor is, that church will be.

There are some occasional skirmishes that may seem to belie this principle. Churches will be embroiled in a controversy, parties form, acrimony ensues, sometimes even leading to a church split. You might be tempted to analyse these controversies to see if the people opposed to the pastor are really more theologically conservative than the pastor, but on almost every occasion you will find the controversies are much less sharply defined than that. If the split is over issues affecting fundamentalist philosophy, likely it is one or two men (often deacons) who lead the charge and become in effect de facto pastors of the dissenting group, at least for the time being.

In the ongoing (and interminable) discussions in the blogosphere regarding separation and fundamentalism, much has been made of ‘what if’ scenarios attempting to define a template for separation. “What if church X believes this and church Y does this, what should church Z do?” The fact is, the churches won’t do anything. A pastor who believes something will decide whether he is comfortable promoting a young people’s activity or a special speaker in another church based on his own philosophy of ministry. Generally speaking, his flock will follow his lead. (Quite often, they won’t know what is going on at the other church because they are full of the life of their own church — if it isn’t promoted by their pastor, they won’t bother, largely because they won’t know.)

When it comes to the wider world of conferences and meetings, the local pastor has less control over what his folks know simply because of modern technology. But the pastor (and the other leaders of ‘his’ group) will still tend to promote those organizations and activities that they think are in keeping with their own philosophy and are most suited to the spiritual needs of his flock. Thus, wider friendships and alliances are formed with leaders who tend to coalesce around similar ideas.

To illustrate, in my own ministry, I tend to move in the FBF circles. I am comfortable with the direction the most prominent men in the FBF are taking, I get a bulk subscription to Frontline for our church, I promote the regional FBF meeting, I promote a family camp sponsored by a like-minded pastor, I bring in speakers who would tend to travel in FBF circles and I preach a message that would likely be acceptable in most churches pastored by FBF men. What kind of flavor does that put on our church? (I’ll give you three guesses…)

Suppose I got hit by a bus, and someone with a different philosophy shows up to take over. They stop the Frontline, start promoting other magazines, other meetings, other speakers. What happens to the church? It starts moving into another orbit. This does take time, and if handled poorly, can cause the tensions that lead to a church split. With effective leadership, the direction of a church can be changed so that it becomes something entirely other than previous leadership envisioned. It is leadership that sets the agenda. The church is only as fundamental as its pastor.

Young preachers do need to sort out where they are on the theological spectrum. Their associations will determine the direction they take and the philosophy of the churches they will pastor. They should ask questions, but they shouldn’t assume that there is a cut and dried template that will answer all questions about association and separation. They will determine their own philosophy. Hopefully the young fellows coming up will choose well, making astute observations of history, avoiding past mistakes and forging forward faithfully for Christ.

Regards,
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Comments

  1. Greg Linscott says:

    Don,

    In some areas, that may be true.

    In Maine, there are so few to associate with that there tends to be overlap in the “orbits.” There are only 5-6 of us in the FBF in the whole state. The nearest FBF pastor to me is about an hour away. To the best of my knowledge, I am the only alumnus of my Bible college pastoring in this state. Furthermore, in my church’s recent past, we have had loose connections with everyone from John MacArthur to Jack Hyles. My circle of pastoral fellowship has involved people from the GARBC, IFCA background, Word of Life grads, Hyles-Anderson, and BJU… it’s a wide and varied mix. I even have semi-regular interaction with the local Orthodox Presbyterian pastor!

    I understand what you are saying- but it just isn’t a universal principle. Associations can be helpful- but your people need to be taught more than “look for the union label.”

  2. Don says:

    Hi Greg, I don’t want you to misunderstand my illustration. My point is that the fundamentalism or not of a church depends on the orientation of the pastor. My illustration is to demonstrate the direction that I tend to lead our people. We also have fellowship with other groups, very similar to what you mentioned, including some that are sort of Bible Presbyterians. But as far as the main events I promote and lead our church in, they tend to be in an FBF oriented direction.

    Another man could come in and promote a quite different flavour of fundamentalism and the church would generally go along with it, most likely.

    Or still another man could come in and turn the church liberal or neo-orthodox. That would take more time and require a more skilled leader to make that kind of change, but it is entirely possible … some might resist, but if the guy was smooth enough, it could be done before anyone was the wiser.

    I hope that clarifies what I was trying to say. The actual opportunities for outside fellowship are quite limited here, very similar to yours. But my point wasn’t what TYPE of fundamentalism we have, but how the pastor affects the fundamentalism of the local church.

    Regards,
    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  3. Greg Linscott says:

    Gotcha.

    However, I would hope he would have to bring in some new people to do it, if you have done your job right… :)

  4. Kent Brandenburg says:

    Don,

    I generally agree with you. I would contend that people saved, and thus guided by the Holy Spirit and trained to be discerning based upon the Word of God, would not tolerate something that would move from FBF to neo-orthodox.

    I’m not in any kind of organized fellowship. When I wrote my letter about ten years ago to all the FBF guys in our area, to let them know the four or five Scriptural reasons why I would not be returning, no one cared. I know this, if someone wrote that kind of letter to me, I would call and ask about it. It is a “fellowship” after all.

    I truly fellowship with other local churches of like faith and practice. They would be characterized by Baptist, independent, separatist (personal and ecclesiastical), perfect preservation of Scripture, local church ecclesiology. The ones I am absolutely closest to also have very conservative music and preach expositionally. There are many more of what I am describing than most would think.

    By the way, because I believe in preservation in the TR and MT, strong music and dress standards, the SI types would prefer to lump us in with a kind of Hyles group. That’s the kind of “deep discernment” they have. I’m an anti-promotion, repentant faith, person.

  5. Don says:

    Kent, your point that trained disciples would smell a rat with a neo-orthodox preacher is taken. That is essentially what Gred said in his last post also.

    I do agree, a neo-orthodox fellow in my pulpit would have to hide his colours a long time before a wholesale change could be made. Of course, such dramatic changes are very rarely how it happens. The change is much more subtle. A less militant fellow shows up, things become ‘smoother’, different outside preachers and writings get promoted, etc.

    Some churches lurch back and forth from militancy to moderation and back again depending on pastoral leadership. Very rarely to they move back to militancy after they have moved to a compromising position, however. And all these moves are almost always pastor led.

    As to your experience in your area, I can’t really comment on that. I do know a good number of the guys in CA who would be in the FBF there. I have appreciated their ministries, as I appreciate yours.

    I do think that there is much too much rancour against the preservationist viewpoint. I don’t hold to it, but I think I understand the mindset and philsophy behind it. I believe there is a reasonable and rational argument to be made for that point of view, but I disagree with the foundational assumptions. Maybe I will blog on that sometime. I recognize that my point of view also rests on unprovable assumptions. As a result, I cannot make the Bible versions issue a test of fellowship. I wish others wouldn’t as well. We should each be fully persuaded of our positions, but we should also recognize that we don’t have explicit revelation for the means by which God preserved his Word.

    Well, I have probably already said too much in that last paragraph! I certainly don’t want to get into a debate about it in the discussion threads! There is already too much debate about it elsewhere, in my opinion.

    Thanks to both Greg and Kent for their comments.

    Regards,
    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

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