shall we descend into sectarianism?

A frequent commenter on SI poses an interesting question: shall we separate over Calvinism. He cites these precedents:

  • Protestant Reformers did not allow latitude on this issue
  • When Melanchthon drifted away from Luther’s views, other Reformed people considered them as “other” than them
  • The Dortians condemned the Remonstrants
  • The Particular Baptists and the General Baptists operated separately
  • The Calvinistic Methodists and the Wesleyan Methodists operated separately

Another commenter replies, noting that such division is essentially sectarianism. Fundamentalism, with whatever faults it may be charged with, has essentially been non-sectarian in its philosophy and approach. It is a philosophy that created ecclesiastical coalitions around a common cause, generally laying aside more narrow sectarian concerns.

Thus, we have seen such gatherings as the World Congress of Fundamentalists, efforts to pool fundamentalist thought from the preaching and teaching of men of quite broad sectarian backgrounds. Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, men of other groups, all have been welcome at the table in this common cause.

Some gatherings of fundamentalists, to be sure, have been somewhat sectarian in their efforts. The Fundamental Baptist Fellowship would be one such gathering. It is both Fundamentalist and Baptist. Its goal is to promote the broader fundamentalist philosophy within a Baptist ecclesiastical framework. But being fundamentalist, it has not historically been particular about the distinctions among Baptists. To take part, it is sufficient to be a Baptist and a fundamentalist.

Sectarian over-emphasis threatens fundamentalism

Political coalitions are built on compromise. We see this all the time in secular politics. The conservative side of the spectrum politically is usually a coalition of fiscal and social conservatives with a few libertarians mixed in. When one group or another within that group decides its more narrow concerns are more important than the larger concerns of the coalition, the coalition breaks down and electoral defeats become more likely.

The right wing of Canadian politics saw such a breakdown in the years following the Conservative Prime Ministership of Brian Mulroney. Years of Liberal government followed, partly because the right was divided. We recently experienced an election in my province, British Columbia. The more right wing party1 won the election. A contributing factor is that the left, in this case, was divided between the socialists and the Greens.

Whenever more narrow interests within a coalition become primary interests, the coalition breaks down.

We have seen various examples of this kind of splintering in Fundamentalism over the years. Some decry this splintering, especially when the narrow concern being advanced is not one of their own. One can recall examples of such splintering in the not too distant past:

  • “I back Jack” – i.e., Jack Hyles became a polarizing figure who divided fundamentalism over personal loyalty to a very flawed man.
  • King James Only – the growth of a more narrow set of doctrines concerning inspiration and then preservation of the Bible creates a division in fundamentalism.

The main body of those outside of these sectarian divisions have largely been willing to let such depart from the broader coalition if those issues were to become primary. The departure of the “Hylots”, as one fellow calls them, was especially welcome. The departure of the KJO crowd, especially the more extreme versions of it (Ruckmanites) has also been welcomed.

Some who remain in the broader coalition of fundamentalism are, in fact, King James Only in their own approach to Scriptures, but have not chosen to divide from the broader coalition over those issues. That is to their credit, in my view. Nevertheless, there are some who would like to purge them from the coalition. They aren’t needed, they are a blight, etc. (And much less polite statements are also made.) For my part, I see no need to break from brethren who hold a KJO position. If they aren’t divisive about it and are committed to a fundamentalist philosophy, I am happy to work with them where I can.

Well, now we are seeing rising interest in Calvinism among fundamentalists (not all of them young). Fundamentalism is threatened by this sectarian interest. Some on either side of the issue would be happy to purge fundamentalism (or their brand of it) over this issue.

  • Some think that is what Danny Sweatt was trying to do. I maintain that he has been badly misunderstood and unfairly misrepresented.
  • Some would like to ‘seize the day’ and use this controversy to advance Calvinistic sectarianism within fundamentalism.2

I ask the question, ‘shall we descend into sectarianism?’ to begin this post. I believe it is a critical question. I am quite happy to coexist in fundamentalist coalitions with men who differ with me strongly over Calvinism, over versions, over church polity [to some extent], and over a number of other issues. I think the cause of fundamentalism is worth relegating some of my sectarian interests to a matter of less importance in order to promote the cause of fundamentalism.

  • We need to promote fundamentalism in order to be able to have colleges and universities that will support fundamentalist education for our young people.
  • We need to promote fundamentalism in order to encourage local churches to endure the pressure of conformity to the erring ecclesiastical community in their own cities and towns.
  • We need to promote fundamentalism in order to support the cause of orthodox missions and missionaries around the world.
  • We need to promote fundamentalism in order to maintain a vigorous response to the errors and false teaching perpetrated in the broader so-called ‘Christian’ world.

Some think that these causes can be successful advanced by a more narrow sectarian focus.

I doubt that is possible.

When the sectarian interest becomes all important, it becomes the cause. Instead of overlooking sectarian ideas, fundamental distinctions become those that are overlooked because the sectarian cause is the main thing.

  • It explains how conservative evangelicals who unite around Calvinism are able to overlook pernicious doctrines such as ongoing revelation from God by way of so-called prophecy.
  • It explains how some conservative evangelicals will unite with a man whose behaviour and language is clearly anti-Christian.
  • It explains how other conservative evangelicals will rebuke the behaviour of such a man, but will continue to work together with others who will not rebuke such behaviour.
  • It also explains, by the way, how some men who emphasize the KJV as a primary issue are willing to cooperate with  immoral men who speak of the KJV as being inspired and a corrector of the Greek. Sectarianism trumps all other causes.

The sectarian cause becomes the focus of unity, not the fundamentals of separation from false teachers, separation from the world, and separation from the flesh.

We need to talk about these things, but we need to do so in this context.

Are we going to descend into sectarianism? I say, for my part, NO!



  1. called the Liberals, but not the same thing as the federal Liberals … it’s really complicated up here! []
  2. It is ironic how like the narrow-mindedness of some KJOs some of these neo-Calvinists are! []


  1. Hi Don!

    I thought you might appreciate much of this assessment of the ‘new calvinism’ by Dr Masters:

    • Jonathan,

      Excellent! That article deserves wider circulation.

      I think I must have let my Sword and Trowel subscription slip by the wayside… I haven’t seen that one yet. I’ll have to check and make sure I am back on the list.

      And that makes my point as well: While I am decidedly not a Calvinist, and will argue for my point of view in appropriate contexts, I love God-fearing Calvinists like pastor Masters and others who preach a life-changing gospel. Thank God there are still some who stay by the stuff.

      May these others wake up to the direction they are leading our young people before too many lives are destroyed by worldliness.

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  2. Bro Don, here is a question based on some comments in other posts on your site:

    Why do some refer to “the five fundamentals”? Since when has it been limited to 5? It wasn’t in the days of Torrey, and there are certainly more than 5 fundamentals of the faith (ie. doctrines that need to be believed – or at least not rejected* – in order for someone to be saved).

    *(By this I mean, someone may not understand or have a full grasp of doctrines like the Trinity or what the Bible says about creation at the point of coming to Christ, but when they learn the truth from the Word of God, they embrace it.)

    For example, here are some fundamentals – more than five:

    1) The Trinity
    2) The Deity of Christ
    3) The virgin birth of Christ (both of these are essential – if Jesus was not God and virgin born, He could not be our Saviour, as He would have been just another sinful man)
    4) Jesus’ complete atonement on the cross (including the necessity of shedding His blood – if Jesus did not pay the full penalty, we could not be saved. We must believe this or we are attempting to add our works to His, which is another gospel).
    5) Future judgment of man – including the eternality of Heaven and Hell (if a lost man does not believe he will one day face judgment for his sins, why would he turn to the Saviour?)
    6) The inspiration of Scripture – that it is the Word of God (not just the writings or man – if it was of man, how could we trust its message of salvation or its authority?)
    7) Creation and the fall (When man tries to add evolution to the mix, he messes up the Gospel – no death until Adam’s sin – sin and death necessitates a Saviour to save from the penalty, power and presence of sin.)

    I am a fundamentalist in two senses:
    A) I believe that the fundamentals of the faith are essential for salvation
    B) I contend for the faith, and for all the Word of God (ie. I fight for the truth, and separate from error/apostasy, etc. – which is certainly a trademark of fundamentalism – though I do not follow a movement or a certain group of fundamentalists).

    • Hi Jerry, a quick reply

      The term “the five fundamentals” comes from the history of the fundamentalist/modernist controversy. In the fight in the Presbyterian church (going by memory) five essential doctrines were defined as something to fight the increase of liberalism. You can read more about it here. Of course there are more than five fundamentals, but the term is an historical one.

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  3. Of course both the World Congress of Fundamentalists (first held 1976) and the National Sword of the Lord Conference on Revival and Soul Winning (first held 1974) sprang from the split between Dr. Jones, Jr. and Dr. Rice over whether to include Jack Wrytzen on their Los Angeles program in 1973…so that “sectarian” thing has been around for a long time.

    The outraged howl of denial that goes up every time someone suggests that it’s all about Calvinism underneath the current conflagration is pretty convincing to me–that indeed it’s all about Calvinism. In the beginning, fundamentalism was about the things that really mattered. Today (on both sides of this divide as with many others) not so much. Whether one’s particular Shibboleth is a Bible version, preaching style, worship style, Cal v. Ar, or whatever, that seems to be elevated above all else.

    And as Paul said, we have become carnal and walk as men.

    • Watchman, thanks for the comments. Yes, I had forgotten the details of the WCF vs. Sword congference.

      I would have to say, however, that these conferences were still broadly non-sectarian.

      And, as a Baptist conference, the FBF meetings are sectarian to that extent.

      Sectarianism isn’t necessarily all bad, but if your sectarianism becomes very narrowly focused, it will produce the dangers I noted in the article.

      As for your comment that “this isn’t about Calvinism”, I agree with you that it is in large measure about Calvinism, but only in a certain way. From my perspective (and I am pretty sure from Danny Sweatt’s perspective as well), it isn’t about Calvinism per se but about triumphalist neo-Calvinism becoming the narrow focus of the young pointy-heads. (Of course, I’ll get slammed for that term as well! I can’t help myself!)

      We do have to get back to the real point of contention, that is separation from false teaching, worldliness, and fleshliness. These other issues are not issues of separation, it seems to me. I do include in my three “separations” a distinct differentiation from those who won’t make these priorities. Call it secondary, tertiary, etc. etc., whatever you like, but it is certainly part of the biblical understanding of separation. That’s fundamentalism. I need a cool Latin word for describing it, though. Like the five ‘solas’, we need the three ‘digressios’ maybe…

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  4. Don,

    Please don’t be offended by this, but I think it must be answered as a root basis for a discussion about this. Here’s the question: Why does it matter if there is fundamentalism?

    I’m going to have fellowship with men and churches of like faith and practice, based upon scripture. I wonder how it helps me to overlook or ignore beliefs and practices that differ from our church. For instance, right now fundamentalism seems to be ignoring false worship in the way of Piper and MacArthur and others who have that. Revivalist fundamentalism would be included in this. How could it honor God not to separate from them?

    • Hi Kent

      Thanks for the comment.

      First, I think it is important that there be a fundamentalism so that disciples can cooperate together in ministry collectively that they would not be able to accomplish individually. I know that you and I disagree on this point, and I know that the point of disagreement is over ecclesiology. I doubt that we are going to change one another’s mind on that point.

      Second, with respect to the Togetherness boys, I do think it is high time that Fundamentalists spoke with a clear and unified voice against their false worship. Unfortunately, the current fundamentalism has been unwilling to do so. Perhaps this crisis might produce a fundamentalism that is willing to speak.

      Third, with respect to Revivalism, I think the term is somewhat elastic so it is very difficult to take a stand either for or against. If by it you mean Hylot easy-believism, etc, then it should be rejected out of hand. If, on the other hand, you mean evangelistic unction in preaching, a call for conversion, etc, then I think it should be embraced. Mostly, I think it is a term used as a pejorative by people who have a very biased and distorted view of the last 150 years of church history.

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  5. Don,

    I don’t mind a better term than “revivalism,” but it is a historic term, however. I have given it at least a definition that fits my understanding of it in my revivalism series at Jackhammer, but I’m talking about a southern gospel type of music that is found in revivalism that is fitting with the new measures of contemporary Christian music.

    • Hi Kent,

      Well, I have reservations about the southern gospel style, although I don’t mind some aspects of it. Obviously, it can get pretty bad, and opinions will differ to some extent. We just had a group in from Crown College last night. We really enjoyed them. Some of their music certainly is somewhat ‘southern gospel’ influenced, but it wasn’t distasteful, IMO. I would not want our musicians to make that a steady part of our repertoire, but an occasional use of it is OK. I still love “Victory in Jesus”, BTW, but it is best sung in a car full of guys coming back from weekend extension ministries. You just can’t get the right acoustics for that in a church building. A broken down jalopy is best… one of my roommates had a mid-70s Olds 442 convertible, it was great for that. My first car, 72 Dodge Charger was pretty good too.

      But I am digressing!

      My equivocation on the term comes from the fact that “revivalism” seems to mean different things to different people.

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  6. Finally, I believe I am getting all this. Now I need to get ready for tonight’s service.

  7. Our focus in ministry is? All consuming soul winning? Getting members motivated emotionally to live like fundamentalist desire? Seeing how many we can get in church? And is it “false worship” if you worship with non fundamentalist?

    I sense Don you are balanced in your approach to ministry.

    Speaking clearly about false teaching is a must in our churches. Is it high time that Fundamentalists speak with a clear and unified voice against false worship? And I agree. And rather than changing churches, changing names of our churches, we need to clearly have an understanding of biblical, theological of worship and church ministry.

    We need to get our methodology corrected, we need to get our worship in order, we need to get our preaching corrected, we need to get our approach to ministry corrected, we need to get our understanding about evangelism and salvation corrected, and we need to understand who God is. Oh I am talking about fundamental churches, which I pastor one.

    • Hi Charles,

      Balance is the goal. I hope we are. The bottom line is making disciples. I am not satisfied with “winning souls”, as heretical as some might think that sounds. I want people to repent and believe and then go on. My favorite verse describing my goal is 3 Jn 4: I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth.

      Thanks for the comment.

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3