what does it mean to be a fundamentalist?

A lot of the discussion swirling about our fundie blogosphere lately contains talk of “staying in”, “going out”, or other prepositional relationships to “Fundamentalism.”

It is unclear to me exactly how we are “in, out, under, behind” and so on with respect to a ‘movement’. We can be in an organization like the FBFI by paying our annual fee. You may or may not think it is worth it to be in the FBFI, but that is how it is done. You can be in the GARB by being a member or pastor of a GARB church. You can be in the OBF the same way.

But how are you “in” Fundamentalism?

It seems to me that this is the wrong way of looking at the question. The question really is, “Are you a Fundamentalist?”

In other words, it is a state of being question. To be a fundamentalist is to adopt a fundamentalist philosophy. I might argue later what I think that philosophy is. I think we have argued it before in many places, but for this post, I’d like to argue instead something of what it means to be a fundamentalist as a pastor of a local, independent Baptist church.

First, I think it means that you will be committed to some form of discipline in the local church where you will attempt to keep the testimony of your local church free from the taint of sin and worldliness. This will include more conservative music than most churches in your town, and guiding your people to that kind of philosophy. That will include some concern about standards of dress and an insistence on modesty in dress and behaviour that may be absent from other churches. (Granted, one size will not fit all – one fundamentalist pastor may differ in degree on some of the niceties of application here.) This will include an insistence on Biblical preaching, holding a high view of inspiration and a high view of Biblical (especially New Testament) imperatives.

Second, You will refuse cooperation with local evangelical churches in most cases. I say most, but in practice, that has meant “all” for me. I suppose there might be some causes where you could support the effort of an evangelical church in some way (Crisis Pregnancy Centre???) but no opportunities of the kind have really presented themselves to me. Of course, I haven’t been looking for them either.

Third, You will be cautious in recommending or endorsing popular radio, TV, or Internet preachers. You will find their philosophy and practice questionable on several serious points and will generally want to steer your people away from their influence.

Fourth, You will be generally exclusive in your support of Fundamentalist mission boards (although you may have inherited ‘questionable’ missionaries from previous pastors) and you will generally be exclusive in your support of Fundamentalist Bible colleges and Universities.

That’s my list, at first thinking.

Would anyone care to add something else? What have I missed?

Does anyone disagree with anything in my list?



  1. Interesting Don…..I worked for a while on an article examining the idea of “leaving” Fundamentalism but I abandoned it. How do you really leave it? What’s that mean?

    As far as your list, I don’t think I disagree. I’m not sure why number 2 is as big a deal as it is, but I think this is a consistant stance within Fundamentalism at large.

  2. Hi Ellis,

    My main contention about fundamentalism is that it is a philosophy. It can also be construed as a movement as long as a relatively identifiable group are moving in that direction. If there were no people moving in a fundamentalist direction, there would be no movement.

    As for why #2 is a big deal, it makes a difference if you are trying to maintain a distinct philosophy. There are Baptist churches in our town that have been relatively conservative in the past. They didn’t share our philosophy, however and were clearly moving in a different direction than we were. That difference has only become more clear over time.

    Today, we are receiving interest from believers who are fed up with the shallow worship, charismatism (and charismatic sympathies), growing influence of the emerging church, etc, occurring in these same churches.

    If we had not maintained a distinct testimony, how could we insist we had a different philosophy?

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  3. I understand what you’re saying here, Don. And while the examples you cite make sense, I still have some issue with a “separation” (informal though it may be) from another group of believers based solely on a philisophical difference (versus doctrinal and theological issues).

    When charismatism, man-centerdness, and an embracing of the overall pragmatism of the EC movement begin to take hold, separation becomes viable (imo). These issues begin to strike at the heart of basic doctrine.

    I’m not trying to argue with you – just seeking to understand you better. Again, I don’t necessarily disagree…

    • Hi Ellis

      I think the term ‘separation’ can be a part of the problem in understanding what we are doing. Separation is an all or nothing word.

      I think a better word to use is cooperation, fellowship, or partnership. I won’t be partners with someone going in the opposite direction to me. Or off on some tangent I don’t want to follow. That’s not to say that I write him off as an apostate, but he is going a different direction. I don’t support the direction, so I don’t cooperate. But I might be friendly with him, or have some contacts.

      Here is another example. There is a fellow in our town who is orthodox doctrinally as far as I know. We have at times had people leave his church and come to ours. One fellow I didn’t do anything about, but I should have called the other pastor. After a while, this guy became a real problem in our assembly. If I had called the other pastor, we would have been able to perhaps jointly help the fellow to get a bit straighter, no matter which church he ended up in. Another lady started visiting us from the other pastor’s church. I learned my lesson, so this time I called him. He helped me to know where the lady is coming from, he knows what is happening, and there isn’t a potential for hard feelings either way on this.

      So my point with respect to other local congregations is not that I totally cut them off, or declare them apostates. But they are going in a different direction and I won’t join with them in cooperative efforts.

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  4. Don,

    I think you are missing something in your definition. The four you have mentioned all relate to some kind of militancy or separation or exclusion of something. I believe that another part of fundamentalism is unity. That’s why I say that I’m fundamental in dictionary definition—strict adherence to a standard. You can’t be a fundamentalist, I don’t think, if you aren’t willing to overlook in other churches some of the beliefs and practices of your own church.

    I don’t mind being wrong, but other fundamentalists are constantly saying this kind of thing. They remind that early fundamentalists didn’t separate over versions, over music, over dress, over nature of the church, over methodology, over divorce/remarriage, over eschatology, etc. I see that and I say, historically that seems to be right. Well, I must not be a fundamentalist.

    • Well, Kent, I think unity is a characteristic of Christianity. I don’t think it is a characteristic of fundamentalism as fundamentalism. As Christians, there is a bond of unity between all true believers, and of course there should be a bond in the local church. But the essence of fundamentalism is militancy. That was at the heart of Curtis Lee Laws’ original definition. I don’t think anything has changed.

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

      P.S. I am at camp, so posting and responding is delayed. Just got back from golfing. Shot a 90! (over 9 holes!) I’m a real pro!

  5. I pastor an independent Baptist church. Am I fundamental? Or am I a Fundamentalist? I am learning there are several branches of which I would not want to belong to those either.

    I would prefer to be a pastor/teacher of an Baptist Church who holds the Word of God as the Word which is preached, and not the preachers words. I would rather be a Fundamentalist that prescribes to the instructions of Christ rather than the laws of men. I would prefer to pastor a church that lives out what their “paper list of beliefs are.”

    You have listed correctly the view of many fundamentalist churches, views that I held for many years. These views generally make others believe you are one of those fundamentalist.

    Other views would be, jealousy, envy, pride, lack of Biblical knowledge, three piece suits, white shirts, no shorts while mowing the lawn, not having lunch with member of the church, not taking questions about what the preacher preachs, an invitation to get saved, even when you never mention salvation, pastor control, making sure every one in the church knows that the church down the street is not on our list to fellowship with. The only person you should listen to is the pastor. Any question of the pastors message is seend as rebellion. Always call the pastor “Pastor.” And always refer to your wife as the pastor’s wife. Always refer to your wife as “Mrs Whisnant, never Charity, or my wife. Your children should always say Pastor Dad. No members of your choir can go to the movies. And you can’t go to any event of another church that is not of the same fundamentalist baptist faith that you are.

    Well that was my list for a number of years. I am sure I have missed a few. And I was a great Fundamentalist of the first degree.

    Thanks Don, this is how to keep the boys in the fundamentalist rank.

    • Hi Charles

      Well, I suppose your big paragraph beginning “other views” is how some view fundamentalism. I suppose there might have been some who shared those perspectives. However, I don’t think that is the way things are done in the vast majority of fundamentalist churches. Most of them are relatively small works, pastored by reasonable men who are trying to build disciples of Christ. They aren’t the big names people hear about. For them, I think the way fundamentalism works is exactly as I describe in my post.

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  6. “You can’t be a fundamentalist, I don’t think, if you aren’t willing to overlook in other churches some of the beliefs and practices of your own church.” Kent said this. I can’t believe it, that is one of the best statement I have heard i fifty years. Did he really mean that, or was he pulling our legs? What about it Kent?

    • Kent means it, and I think what he means by it is that fundamentalists have to be willing to make some of their doctrines less essential, or second degree, so we can overlook them and maintain fellowship between, say, fundamentalist Presbyterians and fundamentalist Baptists.

      I think Kent is looking at this wrong. It is not that we don’t think some doctrines are critical, all doctrines are critical, essential, first degree, primary – whatever word you want. But fundamentalism is about joining in common cause for the purpose of strengthening the church in certain key areas of agreement, while at other times we will go our separate ways as far as promoting Baptist distinctives for example, as against Presbyterian distinctives. I think it is within our mandate as believers to work with others where we can, even though we may differ on other important doctrines.

      On a local church level, there definitely needs to be much more unanimity and unity around more than just the core doctrines.

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  7. “I think unity is a characteristic of Christianity. I don’t think it is a characteristic of fundamentalism as fundamentalism.” Don you are so right on this point. I have seen so little unity over the last fifty years. But we should still try.

    I am glad someone else shots 90’s for 9 hole of golf.

  8. JWM says:


    I perceive in essence that being Militant as your descriptive of belief or philosphy takes precidence over your relationship to Christ, the redeemer, the peacekeeper, the unifier.

    How can one follow after Christ, who called all believers to unity, and separate oneself from other believers due to philosphical views or interpretation of the fundamentals?

    Do you also separate yourself from the lost (who are not fundamentalists), who need the truth in love and deed exampled in their lives by Christians? The lost don’t know from Adam why you have chosen to be separate from those who practice differently than you. Being holy and set apart is necessary, but these are spiritual laws that testify of ones soul. In practical terms, we must show unity to those who claim the word of God as their witness their faith.

    In pracitcallity, we must show the lost that we are united by the love of Christ, as believers. How can we testify unity and separate ourselves from all other Christian groups that don’t look like us?

    John the Baptist walked around half naked, proclaiming the love of God and our need to be cleansed of sin. David danced in celebration down the street until his clothes fell off, and he was naked and shouting God’s praises.

    Somehow, I don’t think these great men of faith would support fundamentalism as you have stated above. How does a fundamentalist reconcile these men of God? Would you call them unacceptable in God’s sight? Many of God’s children do not look like you or talk like you or enjoy the same music for worship, and yet they are no less acceptable in God’s sight. Their souls are saved just the same as yours. Please tell me that you are not judging the souls of Christians due to the difference in philosphy.

    Of course we should judge our own behavior as Christians, so the world won’t find blemish is us. Of course we should not be a stumbling block for our brothers and sisters. But, shouldn’t we also cover all relationships with unconditional love and that means accepted and loved into a better understanding of God.

    Accepted and loved means bringing truth to all of those we encounter in grace and mercy, as God is the final judge of souls. We can only judge our own behavior lest we be judged and fall prey to the worlds snare.

    The lost need to see believers show truth in love, motivated by the infinate love we know from our relationship to the Trinity.

    • Thank you for your comment. A couple of responses:

      1. Unity is only one aspect of the Christian life. Holiness is another aspect. There are numerous passages that mandate separation unto holiness including separation from other believers for various reasons. If those passages did not exist, you might have a case for your argument of only unity. Since they do exist, your argument fails. See for example 1 Cor 5, Rm 15, 2 thess 3 and others.

      2. your interpretation about John the Baptist and David is just that, an interpretation. I have never heard of your interpretation about John the Baptist – that’s not to say no one has ever taught it, you obviously learned it from somewhere. As for David, some commentators say “naked” meant stripping off the outer robes, but still clothed in undergarments. Regardless, their behaviour and their culture was entirely different than ours and is really a red herring coming from you. They were not Christians, their behaviour happened entirely outside the paradigm of the church, and is entirely irrelevant as far as what the New Testament commands the church.

      Finally, what the lost need to see is the gospel of Christ dead, buried and risen again to provide redemption for their sins. If it depended on the sorry testimony of the church over the last 2000 years, no one would be saved.

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  9. JWM has posted another comment which I am not going to approve. He continues in the same vein as his earlier comment, contributing little to the discussion. I won’t be sidetracked by his dubious arguments and don’t have the inclination to engage them under this post.

    JWM, you really don’t understand the issues we are discussing. You have had your say, you have been pointed to Scripture that speaks to your error, and you refuse to engage it. I won’t give you a platform to continue to display your skewed view of Christianity. You don’t really understand the church or Christian love. I’m not going to engage your comments any further than that.

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  10. When some one in our community says, “They are one of those Fundamental churches.” What we need is to show the community just what kind of biblical fundamentalist we are. We don’t necessary want to be like the Amish all unto our self, but we do want to be distinctive in our position and practice. And we want to illustrate that what we practice and preach will lead to the glory of Christ. Its not really in our dress, per say, but in the practice of what we preach, and what we preach.

    I really agree with your comment about the position of Kent, verse yours. I really have a hard time setting aside my doctrinal position for fellowship. Sometimes I do, but its not that easy.

    Happy camping.

    • By the way, I should say that Kent’s emphasis and writing on the local church and the importance of local church unity has been a blessing to me, even though we don’t entirely agree exactly at the application level. It is critical for the local church to be unified, and to present a godly testimony in the world.

      I have been in Kent’s church, quite a few years ago (1994???) and I think the church there in El Sobrante is an excellent church, though we wouldn’t see eye to eye on everything. Nevertheless, a good work for God is going on there, souls are being saved and discipled. That’s the ministry, and I am thankful for what is going on under Kent’s leadership.

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3