wrestling with fundamentalism

A comment over on Pensees prompts this post. My exchange over there with the commenter is taking the conversation in a bit of a different direction than Bob’s original post, so I thought I would give an extended response here.

I reacted in particular to this paragraph:

A generation of believers is wrestling with fundamentalism. Many have completely forsaken the truth of the gospel itself because of hypocrisy and poor theology within the movement. Others still have a relationship with Christ, but have completely compromised theology. Still others, myself, and I believe Bob and Joel, are desperately trying to not throw the baby out with the bathwater. The original principles of fundamentalism are sound, but the application and traditions have weakened the message over time.

The highlighted sentence particularly stirred me up.

This was my response:

Coach C, that is just baloney. Or do you actually believe people can lose their salvation?

Bitter lost people blame the “hypocrisy” of Christians for all sorts of decisions they make. Whether the alleged Christians are hypocritical or not, their wrong decisions come from one place only, their unbelieving heart.

That, of course, is not an excuse for any Christian to be hypocritical or have poor theology. But your statement is a little over the top, don’t you think?

The fact is that fundamentalism is plagued with a problem. The problem is the people who are fundamentalists – ALL of them. They won’t stop sinning. So they unfortunately bring shame to the Lord they say they want to glorify.

And then along come some other sinners who “are desperately trying to not throw the baby out with the bathwater” who apparently expect perfection out of other sinners. It is quite an amazingly naive point of view!

While I do think we need to try to improve fundamentalism and fundamentalists, I think the critics from within probably need to be a little more committed to the essential cause if they really want to stay in. Otherwise how can those whom they criticise really take their “constructive criticism” credibly?

Coach C responded well, you can read his complete post on Pensees (you’ll have to scroll down a ways, it’s a long thread). I’d like to highlight a few things in his response and then add my comments:

I certainly belief that once saved, always saved, however, my comment had in mind the young people who grow up in fundamentalism. Many of them have learned to outwardly “walk the walk”, some even participate in soul-winning and all the ministries of the church – yet they end up rejecting Christ later in life. I would surmize that these individuals were never believers in the first place. I believe that weak theology has contributed to their never being confronted with the truth of their standing before God.

Paul and Christ both mention the idea of a “stumbling block”. That was the idea that I was getting at. I think that many young people within fundamentalism have been discouraged in their faith because of “theological hypocrisy”.

To summarize, fundamentalism has taught our children from the youngest ages that “drinking, smoking, chewing, dancing, listening to rock music, stealing, and going to movies ” are among the worst sins possible. These children grow up without doing anything on “the list” and sometime around jr high, they start to trust in their works as a means to salvation. They completely miss the idea of having a relationship with Christ or daily sacrifice or growing in the fruit of the Spirit. Furthermore, because they don’t do anything on the list, they are never confronted and discipled in a biblical way. They learn that gluttony is not a sin, that meekness is great for everyone but the head pastor, that love is not really that important and that holiness just includes the things on the list.

I have one more comment from Coach C that I’d like to interact with, but let’s deal with these paragraphs first. First, I’ll try to summarize what I think Coach C is saying:

  1. Many young people raised in fundamentalist churches depart from the faith in part because they were never confronted with strong theology.
  2. Theological hypocrisy in fundamentalist churches is a stumbling block that discourages the faith of some.
  3. Young people begin to trust in works for salvation because of fundamentalist emphasis on the "do’s and don’ts" and are never personally confronted because of their conformity to the list.

I hope that is an accurate enough summary, please correct me, Coach C, if I have misstated your position.

These charges are common among those who complain about fundamentalism and fundamentalist churches. I agree that there are some churches and pastors who have made serious enough errors that there is some value in the criticisms. I would suggest, however, that these criticisms are more true of broader evangelicalism (although the list of do’s and don’ts there is much less restrictive).

With respect to young people who abandon the faith, I lay the blame first of all on parents who fail to evangelize their children. (The blame will reach to pastors who fail to properly disciple parents, but the blame must first of all rest here.)

There is a culture in independent Baptist churches that I call "delayed infant baptism". This culture is observed in the intense desire of parents to see their children "saved" (a worthy motive, but a flawed environment and methodology ensues). Little children, those most desiring to please mom and dad, are regularly taught about salvation, about ‘going to heaven when you die’, about their need to pray in order to be saved, etc. When the little child prays for salvation, then parents rejoice that the child is saved, announcements are made to all and sundry, and the pastor is urged to accept the child as a candidate for baptism. Yet all this time, the little child has no understanding of personal guilt of sin, no real understanding of his need for a Saviour, and no true faith and repentance. He is glad that he is "saved", though.

I believe that pastors are complicit in this failure at this point. They all too often are all too ready to baptize the child and add him to the church roll because now he is "saved".  (Or they succumb to parental pressure…)

Children like this have various paths in the future:

  1. Some have a crisis experience later in their life where they understand their need of a Saviour from sin, so they "make sure" of their salvation.
  2. Others, having trusted the work of a prayer continue on in a legalistic mindset and assume they are Christians because "I prayed the prayer." Works salvation – but usually without the accompanying ‘works of salvation’, i.e., the fruit of the Spirit. Our churches are full of people like this.
  3. Still others throw off the restrictions of their religion, love the appeal of the world, and deny their former professions. Some in this category excuse their rebellion by the legalism and hypocrisy seen in their homes and/or churches. Of course, Christians being only redeemed sinners, there are plenty of examples to go around.

The problem is not the strictures of fundamentalism. The problem is easy-believism and "delayed infant baptism" and unbelief.

In blaming the ‘dos and don’ts’ of fundamentalism, Coach C mentions "drinking, smoking, chewing, dancing, listening to rock music, stealing, and going to movies" as examples that children in fundamentalist churches are taught are among the "worst sins possible". Now, with respect to music, I will concede that there are varying standards. I will grant that to some extent we do need to allow soul liberty and local church autonomy to come into play here. But…

But, Coach C, are you going to argue that a Spirit-filled Christian is going to really engage on the things on this list? Let’s even leave music off the list since it is so vigorously debated. In fact, leave stealing off the list, since Scripture is pretty explicit about that. Would you want someone teaching Sunday School in your church who was drinking, smoking, chewing, dancing, and going to movies? Surely you think the church should have something to say about these practices, don’t you? I doubt that you are saying none of these things matter.  But the church should have something to say about these things and should seek to lead its people away from these practices, shouldn’t they? And let’s concede that each church may have a sliding scale on things like movies and so on.

The point is that the standards of the church are not the problem. The problem is rooted in unbelief and the willingness to grant approval to dubious professions of salvation. Many people criticise the Hyles crowd for what David Cloud calls "easy prayer-ism", and rightly so. But many many many much more theologically and practically acceptable homes and churches are guilty of the same thing because of delayed infant baptism.

One last comment that I’d like to deal with:

It is true that people are responsible for their own spiritual choices, but sound truth can’t hurt. This is why men of my age are bolting away from fundamentalism – because the first time that they were exposed to the theological meat of the Word – it was by reading Piper, MacArthur, or another man who the pastor always called a “new evangelical” or “liberal”. Then they start to think, “well maybe the liberals have it right after all” . . . For me, some of the best theologies that I have read were written by Presbyterians. I am a fully convinced Baptist, but when I struggle to find deep of theology in my own faith tradition, why wouldn’t I look elsewhere?

There are really two parts to this complaint. One relates to pastoral practices and the marketplace. The other relates to a failure to understand the nature of the fundamentalist/evangelical divide.

In the first place, it is true that many men in pulpits all over the continent are weak in theological training and/or are not gifted teachers of theology themselves. There has been too much of an emphasis on pragmatic pabulum in preaching. People will comment approvingly about someone who is "so practical" in his preaching, meaning he is sort of like a "counsellor-in-chief" who spends his time in the pulpit emphasizing how to have a happy home, a good marriage, a successful life, etc., but isn’t really preaching the whole counsel of the Word. This is a problem.

But let’s be honest and admit that it isn’t exclusively a fundamentalist problem. There are average pastors in evangelical churches who are no theological stars. They cater to the wants of the people for "practical" preaching as well. They fill the pulpits of churches large and small. Their eager young people likewise look to the ‘stars’ of the preaching world for their ‘deep theology’ as well.

The difference is that the sheer numbers of evangelical churches enable more star power (and more book sales) so that the works of the Pipers and MacArthurs etc. can be published. No one in fundamentalist pulpits have the resources or the reach that these men have. (But is it "reach" that we are after?)

In the second place, the divide between evangelicals and fundamentalists is not theological, it is philosophical. We largely agree with evangelical theology. Since evangelicals have the publication houses, and since they produce reasonably good books (for the most part), we are happy to use these resources in our ministries and in our schools.

Where we disagree is on philosophy, especially the philosophy of militancy.1 When we call an evangelical a "new evangelical" or even a "liberal", we are speaking primarily about a philosophy of non-belligerence over fundamental issues. That does not mean that conservative evangelicals never do battle for doctrine, but they are willing to be soft on men who are making serious errors. Piper will maintain his membership in a denomination that includes Open Theists. MacArthur will write in Billy Graham’s magazine or speak at Billy Graham’s training center. And so on… (I just cite these two examples because Coach C mentioned them above.)

The fundamentalist philosophy finds these practices unacceptable, but doesn’t find these men unacceptable theologically (other than the usual differences one might have over polity, or some points of soteriology, etc.).

What is really going on in the discontent of the young, it seems to me, is that many younger men have become enamoured of Calvinist theology. A significant portion of older men in fundamentalist churches are not Calvinists. Hence they don’t have "deep theology", and are dismissed by the young who have drunk from the font of all wisdom and knowledge.

Is it possible to be a thoroughly biblical and theological preacher if you are not a Calvinist?

I think so. I think there must be room in fundamentalism for men who happen to be Calvinistic in their theology or who happen to be non-Calvinist, and even those who are Arminian in theology. The issue is, and has always been, militancy for the fundamentals, not militancy for Calvinism.


In the end, there is no room for hypocrisy in the ministry. We do need a certain militancy with ourselves as individuals, first of all.2 We need vigorous churches.3 And we need clear militant leadership and continuing ecclesiastical militancy on a larger stage, the platforms of fundamentalist fellowships and denominations.

And we could do with a little less sneering dismissal of the old by the young and the young by the old, eh?


P.S. This post is a bit of a ramble… we are having a blog conversation and trying to turn it into a post. And I am using a few terms that might seem a little strident. I am especially thinking of the term "sneering" in my last sentence above. I don’t categorizes Coach C or his comments like that, but we both know that it is all too easy for both young and old to look down on one another. I hope that in my zeal for my position, I am not guilty!


  1. See Bauder’s lectures at International Baptist Bible College last fall, and my posts on the subject for more thorough discussion of this. []
  2. See my sermon on The Violent Christian. []
  3. See this article on my church web site. []


  1. Don,

    There is a segment of the young fundamentalist population that is itching to tear down historical fundamentalism and defend new evangelicalism. While they embrace the fundamentals, they also despise the perceived “legalistic” leanings of their forebears. i.e: Criticism of liberal preachers makes them “uncomfortable”, but criticism of the “hellfire and brimstone types” makes them feel “sophisticated”.

    You were wise to point out that many of these same people have an axe to grind on Calvinism. This is a connection I have recognized, but not fully understood. They have two favorite sports: nailing the old fuddy-duddy fundamentalists and splitting hairs on Calvinism, Ultra-Calvinism, Uber-Calvinism or whatever they may be calling it this week.

    Honestly, the whole thing is tiresome.


    • Hi Chris

      Yes, that is correct. Thinking on these themes led me to start reading some articles in the Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary Journal. It is probably the best writing on fundamentalism and fundamentalist topics in the last ten years, I’d say. Not to say I agree with everything there, but I think they have done some very good work there.

      The first article in the first edition of the Journal by Roland McCune got me thinking in particular about the essential defining mark of fundamentalism. That mark is militancy directed against false doctrine and compromise with false doctrine. The militancy amongst a good deal of this crowd is directed towards fundamentalists (who are legalistic and mean), but not toward men who make serious doctrinal or associational compromises.


      We just carry on.

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  2. Don,

    I’m amazed at some of the NBBC students comments over at Pensees. I guess we can’t take them as representative, but it looks like trouble to me.

    • Yes, I expect that if I was in administration, they’d be singing “Leaving on a Jet Plane” over a few of these attitudes.

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3


  1. […] happened with fundamentalism? Read a great blog post here. It deals with what seems to go on within fundamentalist churches that ends up with many who leave. […]