on the state of fundamentalism

To follow up on my own ‘challenge post’  – ‘on that interesting Touchstone article’ – I’d like to offer you some thoughts in response to the modified Touchstone questions. I hope some of the fellows I challenged will weigh in with their views. For anyone else, feel free to post your opinions.

My own perspective is one of observing fundamentalism from the fringes.

That is not to say I am on the ‘edge’ of fundamentalism or shying away from the fundamentalist philosophy in any way. But I mean this: I grew up in evangelicalism, was immersed in fundamentalism through my post-secondary education, fully embracing it for myself, and have been on the far reaches of the continent for my ministry. I don’t have ‘insider knowledge’ in the sense that I spend my time far away from the conferences, institutions, and churches that are the flagships of fundamentalism.

My closest observation of fundamentalist churches comes largely through deputation. I occasionally have attended a few regional conferences and regularly support the Northwest FBF meeting. I read what I can. I participate in online discussion [you may or may not have noticed!].

So I see myself as a bit on the outside looking in, although I am strictly fundamentalist in my philosophy. Hopefully I am consistently fundamentalist in my practice as well.

  1. How do you define “Fundamentalist” in a way that distinguishes Fundamentalists from other believing Christians? And has this definition changed over the last several years?

    A fundamentalist is someone whose primary consideration in every sort of relationship is loyalty to God’s truth. The outworking of that loyalty means that a fundamentalist is willing to sacrifice personal and ecclesiastical relationships for the sake of God’s truth as he understands it.

    The goal of a fundamentalist should be for an objective Bible-centred grasp of God’s truth. Fundamentalist errors in severing relationships occur when the subjective overtakes the objective.

    Other Christians value ecclesiastical relationships more highly than fundamentalists do. They also are more prone to see the world as neutral and tend to embrace attitudes and practices that fundamentalists eschew.

    From my perspective, the definition of a fundamentalist hasn’t essentially changed through the years. The concept is loyalty to God first of all. The concept produces pursuit of purity in practice [purity isn’t always achieved, but it is the goal].

    Some think the definition of fundamentalist has changed. Rather, I think there have been changes among some who are called fundamentalists. This leads to an appearance of change in fundamentalism. The appearance of change is due to the presence of many non-fundamentalists in ‘movement fundamentalist’ churches. Such folks may well be simply laymen who are attracted to the conservative witness and lifestyle they are taught in fundamental churches without entirely understanding or even necessarily personally embracing the fundamentalist ethos. Others are more aware of the issues, but are nevertheless willing to fellowship within fundamentalist circles. Still others see their role as ‘change agents’ and have a goal of changing the face of fundamentalism.

    In spite of some ‘mixed-multitude’ confusion as a result, the essential notion of what a fundamentalist is remains unchanged. The challenge for fundamentalist pastors and other leaders is to communicate the value of the fundamentalist position more effectively and comprehensively. The attempts by some to change fundamentalism cannot succeed, though it is possible that many formerly fundamentalist churches will cease to be such while still attempting to retain the label.

  2. Has Fundamentalism matured since the 1950s, and if so in what ways?

    I am not sure that ‘matured’ is the right word. I suppose if you mean ‘senile’ by mature, it might be appropriate. There is a somewhat general malaise that appears to be widespread across fundamentalism where the adherents are quite comfortable with American success philosophy and materialism co-existing with conservative theological rhetoric. Many fundamentalist institutions seem very much less on a mission footing, or a ‘Christian warfare’ footing, than they used to be.

    It is ironic that some are wanting to say that fundamentalism is a subset of evangelicalism when the one area where fundamentalist and the new-evangelical philosophy were supposed to overlap, i.e., actual evangelism, sometimes known as soul-winning, has gone by the boards. Ask the average member of a fundamentalist church who he is discipling or how many times he has presented the gospel to someone in the last year and be prepared for a lot of stammering.

    On the other hand, the most aggressive soul-winning churches in fundamentalism tend to have adopted other unfortunate positions such as easy-believism (Hylesism) or aggressive King James Onlyism or a combination of these errors. Yet even in these churches, I suspect that only a handful of their membership is actively involved in reaching out to the lost in their community in any way.

    So has fundamentalism matured? I don’t think so. I think fundamentalism is perhaps at its weakest point in the last hundred years or so of its history.

  3. Has Fundamentalism lost anything in the process of maturing (if it did)?

    What is lost in fundamentalism, as I see it, is the movement wide sense of mission that once existed. I suppose I am speaking with little experience, and I suppose that in the 70s  it was possible that many average church members were not all that committed to the cause then as well. But the fundamentalist college campuses in those days were filled with a sense of purpose for the cause that is lacking now.

    There is more interest in the American Dream (Christian Edition) than anything else.

  4. Are there any fundamental differences within the Fundamentalist movement today, and do you think they will deepen into permanent divisions, or even have already? How might they be healed?

    There are many divisions within fundamentalism. Some of these divisions may have hardened into impenetrable walls already. The areas that come to mind are the King James Only controversies, the ‘worship wars’ [conflict over music/worship styles], and aggressive Calvinism.

    Of the three, my perspective is that the only necessary divisions will be those that arise over the worship wars. To me these controversies are motivated by the ‘anti-fundamentalist’ movement within fundamentalism. It is here where loyalty to God is most seriously challenged and adoption of the world most fervently embraced. I can live and let live with my KJO and fruitcake Calvinist friends [ok, that wasn’t nice was it … but I love fruitcake!]. The worship wars, on the other hand, are a direct challenge to the integrity of fundamentalist philosophy. In this area I would include the willingness of some to allow for drinking, lower standards of dress, entertainment, and other lifestyle issues.

    Can these differences be healed? Some of them don’t need to be. As a Baptist, believing in autonomy of the local church and soul liberty, I can live with some differences in others as mentioned above. Those differences that need to be healed will require repentance from worldliness. I am not holding my breath, but God is able to do above and beyond what we can ask or think. There is a great God, so there is always hope.

  5. What does your movement, speaking generally, fail to see that it ought to see?

    Our failure of vision is the complacency and self-satisfaction that comes from comfortable Christianity. We have no sense of mission. Our churches are not growing, new converts are not being reached, new churches are not being planted (by and large) and our missionary effort is going to suffer as a result.

  6. What would you say to a Fundamentalist tempted to become Catholic or Orthodox?

    Andy Efting points these folks to Hebrews. I think he is right. The first area of challenge must be in the understanding of the gospel. Anyone from a fundamentalist background who would open himself to such a possibility would have a suspect understanding of the gospel to begin with. They would need to look to their owns souls and need to be challenged to seek Christ, not the religious feeling that ritualism might seem to provide.

  7. What has Fundamentalist to offer the wider world that it will find nowhere else?

    Fundamentalism offers the world the gospel untainted from error. Fundamentalism offers a life that is clean, free from the pollution of worldly entanglements. Fundamentalism is Bible Christianity. The world can find some approximations of Christianity in the churches and institutions of other movements, sometimes to a much lesser degree, but only in fundamentalism is serious Bible orthodoxy available.

  8. What else would you like to say?

    I would like to hear from others on their responses to these questions. I found them to be quite challenging to address. I have had a sense of where fundamentalism is and what it is, but answering these questions have forced me to try to articulate it a bit better for myself. I am sure the effort is not over yet. I am sure my limited perspective and understanding could be vastly improved upon.

And I pray that as I labour in the Lord’s vineyard that I will not be like the complacent fundamentalist that I criticise. I hope that I will be full of Gospel zeal, serving the Lord and bringing souls into the Kingdom.

Don Johnson
Jer 33.3


  1. I think you did a good job here, Don. What you’ve written gives a view very similar to what I would give.

    I believe that the compromises are surely due to pressure from the world, but also from the ranking of essentials and non-essentials that is vital to an evangelical understanding of unity. The struggle is between the doctrine of separation and the doctrine of unity. I believe that the problem stems from another doctrine that I won’t mention, since you have read me and you know what I think it is. Scripture presents a perfect practice of separation and unity and that must be the one we must practice, but it requires a right understanding of another Scriptural doctrine.