phantom movements

Is there still a fundamentalist movement? An evangelical movement? Some are claiming that whatever movements could have been called such in the past, they exist as movements no longer. If that is so, what difference does the dissolution of these movements make in decisions about Christian fellowship?

The Merriam Webster dictionary gives us this definition of movement:

a series of organized activities working toward an objective also : an organized effort to promote or attain an end, the civil rights movement

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh ed. (Springfield, Mass.: Merriam-Webster, Inc., 2003).

Based on this definition, one could dispute whether there has ever been much of a fundamentalist movement, especially if the word ‘organized’ is emphasized. Apart from some denominational fundamentalists in the early days (GARBC, CBA, OPC), my perception of fundamentalism is that it is largely a very loosely organized group of independent individuals and churches. By ‘very loosely organized’, I’d have to say ‘so loose as to not be organized at all’.

However, in the sample phrase the dictionary gives (‘the civil rights movement’), tight organization is not much more evident than we have seen in fundamentalism or evangelicalism, so I suspect the emphasis of the definition should fall on ‘activities working toward an objective’ or ‘effort to promote or attain an end’ rather than on the word organized.

In this sense, I think we can safely say there has been a fundamentalist movement and an evangelical movement.

Some may quibble and say the fundamentalist movement is merely a subset of the evangelical movement. There is a sense in which this could be true, but in fact the general use of the two terms in contrast is meant to suggest divergent ends, two distinct movements pursuing differing goals. In other words, when you construct a sentence saying, “I’ve previously argued … that there are no coherent and distinct movements that fit the Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism labels”, you mean to contrast the two terms as something different from each other. If one were merely a subset of the other, there would be no conflict, only tighter definitions for the subset. The contrasting element would have to be called something other than the header term – you would have Evangelical Fundamentalists and Evangelical Non-Fundamentalists (or something else for the latter).

Instead, in common usage, we refer to Evangelicals and Fundamentalists in contrast. By that, we mean that these are two groups with an essential difference between them. If you were to use the terms “Evangelical” or “Evangelicalism” by itself, without reference to Fundamentalism, you might mean something different entirely, but when the two terms are used together, it is their distinctives that are in contrast.

The Defining Ends

Our definition says that a movement involves efforts or activities working towards an objective or end. What is the end of Evangelicalism (as distinguished from Fundamentalism)? What is the end of Fundamentalism (as distinguished from Evangelicalism)?

Quite clearly we have to discard objectives that are common to both movements. In such activities, both are subsets of another movement – could we call it simply Christian? Thus, evangelism and discipleship, common objectives of Christianity, are not defining ends for Fundamentalism or Evangelicalism. They are common ends of a common cause both are involved in.

For an article such as this, it is impossible to survey the many attempts to define the objectives and distinctives of Evangelicalism, so these paragraphs from Wikipedia will have to suffice:

The contemporary North American usage of the term is influenced by the evangelical/fundamentalist controversy of the early 20th century. Evangelicalism may sometimes be perceived as the middle ground between the theological liberalism of the mainline denominations and the cultural separatism of fundamentalism.[9] Evangelicalism has therefore been described as “the third of the leading strands in American Protestantism, straddl[ing] the divide between fundamentalists and liberals.”[10] ((Wikipedia, “Evangelicalism” Accessed 9/23/10.))

Later in the same article, we read this:

Evangelicals held the view that the modernist and liberal parties in the Protestant churches had surrendered their heritage as evangelicals by accommodating the views and values of “the world.” At the same time, they criticized their fellow fundamentalists for their separatism and their rejection of the social gospel as it had been developed by Protestant activists of the previous century. They charged the modernists with having lost their identity as evangelicals and the fundamentalists with having lost the Christ-like heart of evangelicalism. They argued that the gospel needed to be reasserted to distinguish it from the innovations of the liberals as well as the fundamentalists.1

Now I acknowledge, with the Wikipedia article. that “most conservative evangelicals believe the label has broadened too much beyond its more limiting traditional distinctives.”2

However, I would contend that conservative evangelicals by and large have not abandoned the essential distinctives that make evangelicalism a ‘middle ground’ between Fundamentalism and Liberalism today. Their objectives are related to that middle ground position and how to maintain orthodoxy in the middle ground, between the hard separatism of the Fundamentalist and the heterodoxy of the Liberal.

These comments from R. Albert Mohler may suffice as evidence of my contention:

The error of theological liberalism is evident in a basic disrespect for biblical authority and the church’s treasury of truth. The mark of true liberalism is the refusal to admit that first-order theological issues even exist. Liberals treat first-order doctrines as if they were merely third-order in importance, and doctrinal ambiguity is the inevitable result.

Fundamentalism, on the other hand, tends toward the opposite error. The misjudgment of true fundamentalism is the belief that all disagreements concern first-order doctrines. Thus, third-order issues are raised to a first-order importance, and Christians are wrongly and harmfully divided.

Living in an age of widespread doctrinal denial and intense theological confusion, thinking Christians must rise to the challenge of Christian maturity, even in the midst of a theological emergency. We must sort the issues with a trained mind and a humble heart, in order to protect what the Apostle Paul called the “treasure” that has been entrusted to us. 3

I can’t find the specific references right now, but I have read conservative evangelicals acknowledging new evangelical mistakes while at the same time crediting the new evangelical efforts as necessary correctives of fundamentalist excesses.

The evangelical objective is cooperation with as many as possible while maintaining in some fashion the integrity of the gospel. Mark Dever illustrated this spirit when he said to Mark Driscoll’s Acts 29 organization:

Our differences are enough to separate some of my friends—your brothers and sisters in Christ—from you. And perhaps to separate them from me, now that I’m publicly speaking to you. And I don’t want to minimize either the sincerity or the seriousness of some of their concerns (things like: humor, worldliness, pragmatism, authority).

But I perceive some things in common which outweigh our differences—which the Lord Jesus shall soon enough compose between us, either by our maturing, or by His bringing us home. I long to work with those, and count it a privilege to work with those whom My Savior has purchased with His blood, and with whom I share the gospel of Jesus Christ. I perceive that we have in common the knowledge that God is glorified in sinners being reconciled to Him through Christ.4

On the other hand, there is a group of churches, individuals, and Christian institutions that pursue separatism as an objective. We are as motivated (or perhaps more motivated) for evangelism and discipleship as the best evangelicals. But there is more … we are concerned that we proclaim the gospel without the entanglements of errant theology, errant practices, or worldly contamination. We may not entirely succeed in these objectives, nevertheless these objectives remain the common objectives of an identifiable group of Christians called Fundamentalists. Some of us may have significant differences with one another over soteriology or bibliology, but we all share these common objectives.

So … is there an Evangelical movement today? Is their a Fundamentalist movement? Yes. The two movements still exist, with many permutations within each of them, but we can still identify objectives that both movements pursue, objectives that distinguish them from each other.

When people from each of the two movements join together in some ecclesiastical endeavors, we can legitimately ask the question, “What objective are they pursuing?”

  • Is someone moving from one movement to the other?
  • Is a new objective being pursued?
  • If no new objective is being pursued and no transfer of movements is involved, what end can result beyond confusion?


UPDATE: Dave Doran has responded here. He makes some valid points but I still disagree with his major premise. I’ll write a post later outlining where I think his criticisms are on target and where I differ, but this update will have to suffice for now. (Please note that Dave has been having some technical difficulties with his blog today.  You may have to fiddle with the link to get to his article.)


  1. Wikipedia, “Evangelicalism” Accessed 9/23/10. []
  2. Ibid. []
  3. R. Albert Mohler, “Theological Triage”, 9marks e-journal, Mar-Apr 2008, Accessed 9/23/10. []
  4. The link for this post is no longer active, but you can read a fuller quote from my post, “Outrage is Easy … or is it?” []


  1. Off the top of my head I would say that “fundamentalism” is to the GARBC what the Tea Party is to the Republican party (and I would not force this analogy!).

    Some of the “denominations” actually have fundamentalism in their names: The IFCA and the FFBC for example.

    I consider myself a fundamentalist but I think the term has been hi-jacked by many and that the term today means very little.

  2. Brian Ernsberger says:

    Appreciate the article. Unlike some who wish to say there is no “movement” or as Jim states, that some have hi-jacked the term and therefore it means very little, I would agree with your assessment that there is indeed a “movement” and there have always been those who use the term but are not in content. It has become imperative that we do not just use a “label” to distinguish but we must know the “content” as well.
    By way of illustration, I remember some years ago we bought some canned vegetables. The label on one can identified the contents as one thing (I don’t remember exactly what vegetable); when we opened the can we found that it contained a completely different vegetable. For those who are desirous of dropping labels, this would be like removing all the labels of your canned goods and then trying to find a can of peas. Labels will always be helpful but we must, even with the label be sure that the contents match the label.

  3. Christian Markle says:

    After a dangerously quick scan of your article, I will make some equally dangerously statements: The key to biblical fidelity is adherence to all of its doctrines (not all of men’s derived doctrines). Evangelicals tend to ignore the doctrine of separation and sometimes decry it as wrong and we fundamentalists ignore the doctrine of unity and sometimes decry it as wrong. They both exist in scripture and woe be the individual to try to defend such in the opposite’s camp.

    I suggest that the Fundamentalists renew their commitment to the Bible and study all that the Bible says about unity (not just wave the doctrine away to run back to their pet peeve of separation) {John 17; Philippians; Ephesians 4:3 ect}. I suggest that the Evangelicals (CE’s included) renew their commitment to the Bible and study all that the Bible says about separation (not just wave the doctrine away to run back to their pet peeve of unity) {2 Corinthians 6:14-18; Romans 16:17-18; 1 Timothy 6:1-5; 2 Timothy 3:1-5; 1 Thessalonians 3:6-15, ect}.

    I further suggest that striving to retain a biblical tension in these doctrines creates both a messy and God-glorifying ministry. We claim to love the latter but shrink from the latter.

    For His glory,
    Christian Markle

    • Hmm… we have more verses!

      Just kidding.

      It might be worthwhile to do some posts on the unity passages. I think they are largely misunderstood. We are certainly under an obligation to keep our distance from error which the evangelicals unfailingly fail to do. Some would say that fundamentalists aren’t much better, but they would be wrong! (My opinion, anyway.)

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  4. Christian Markle says:

    Brother Johnson,

    Note a whole chapter as well as a book was put into the unity section. I have indeed found the doctrine of unity to be a pervasive doctrine in the scriptures. This does not negate the doctrine of separation—it actually puts it in a godly setting.

    For His glory,
    Christian Markle

  5. If someone said, “I want to join fundamentalism”, what is there to join?

    I’m a member of several non-ministry related organizations: one a political party the other a defender of the 2nd amendment. I pay dues (or at least annual contributions) to each. (I’m also a member of the AARP but I digress)

    So how does one join fundamentalism … or fall out of fundamentalism?

    In the church realm I get church membership. One views a doctrinal statement, expresses a statement of faith, attends, is under the authority of leadership, etc.

    That there is no way to “join fundamentalism” tells me that it is an idea not a movement.

    • @ Christian


      You know I was just kidding with the “more verses” crack, right?

      @ Jim

      Let me answer your question with a question. Look back to the definition of ‘movement’ from Merriam Webster. They use as an example the term “civil rights movement”. How do you join the civil rights movement? How do you get out of the civil rights movement?

      You don’t join the civil rights movement, but if you are working for civil rights goals with a civil rights philosophy and methods, you are in. If you stop, you are out.

      Same thing with the fundamentalist movement. Movements aren’t institutions. They are usually made up of disparate individuals working concurrently on a common cause.

      Would you agree that there is a rising Calvinist movement of some sort today? How does one get in or out?

      Don Johnson
      Jeremiah 33.3

  6. More: (and by way of background I am a Baptist)

    Take the term IFB (Independent Fundamental Baptist)

    In the IT world (Information Technology) we sometimes use the term “deprecated” in an IT sense.

    An example is here

    From the above take the FONT tag in HTML. It once meant something and was used regularly. Now it is obsolete and is not used.

    Back to IFB. If I am a true Baptist why do I need the terms “Independent” or “Fundamental”. A true Baptist believes in the fundamentals of the faith and because he (I) view the Bible as the supreme authority I will practice Biblical separation.

    Add to that fact, fundamentalism as it has morphed has come to mean some things that is never meant before. One man’s fundamentalism is completely opposed to the doctrines of grace. Another man’s fundamentalism has standards (some would call it legalism but I won’t) about personal holiness that I have never held and never will (I am not advocating licentiousness!). Another one’s fundamentalism is version specific to the extent that every one who uses a different version really does not submit to the authority of the Word of God!

    In conclusion: 1.) a true Baptist does not need the term fundamentalist; 2.) the term has morphed to the point that it is near meaningless

    • Hi Jim

      I was replying as you posted this last so I changed the time on your post to make them appear in order. I also corrected that spelling error and deleted your corrective post.

      Notice that you are using, though, the term “the true” in place of “independent fundamentalist”. This is tacit acknowledgment that the term Baptist can need clarification. I would suggest that “independent fundamentalist” would be more descriptive than “the true”, because even false Baptists would claim to be true Baptists.

      Don Johnson
      Jeremiah 33.3

  7. Christian Markle says:

    Brother Johnson,

    One wise crack deserved another :-)

    I trust that our readers will understand that we both are dead serious about the content of our posts, but able to jibe each other without personal offense. We do this at the danger of emulating the description of Proverbs 26:18-29. Some of us live dangerously :-)

    The following is are very quick summaries of my thoughts on the practical but non-biblical aspects of this thread. Feel free to disregard them as man’s wisdom — for they are. There may be biblical parallels, but I have not fleshed them out in my thinking yet.:

    On Labels:
    – They are valuable.
    – They are only as valuable as they are accurate.
    – They become deceptive/misleading when they are not accurate.
    – Human error and depravity make the prospect of perfect accuracy foolhardy.
    – This danger only diminishes their value; it does not eliminate it.
    – Those in the most precarious position of spiritual carnality (1 Corinthians 3) and practical misunderstanding are those who are so wrapped up in a label that it becomes their core identity. Only one thing/person deserves that role (1 Corinthians 3:23).

    On movements:
    – organizations are segments of movements.
    – You officially join an organization; participation in a movement is more fluid.
    – movements are ideas in motion (people-plural, leadership, initiatives, programs, tools, etc).
    – a movement looses force when the ideas are overcome by the motion.
    – Sadly this HAS happened in fundamentalism.
    – I do not believe fundamentalism is hopeless, but it is not ideal Christianity!

    For His glory,
    Christian Markle

    • Hi Christian and all. First, an update, attached to the end of my article above:

      UPDATE: Dave Doran has responded here. He makes some valid points but I still disagree with his major premise. I’ll write a post later outlining where I think his criticisms are on target and where I differ, but this update will have to suffice for now. (Please note that Dave has been having some technical difficulties with his blog today. You may have to fiddle with the link to get to his article.)

      Now, to Christian:

      I actually don’t think it matters whether there is a movement or not. I agree that movements can lose momentum. I don’t think that is so of fundamentalism, but even if it is so, it still doesn’t remove the substance of objections. More later.

      Don Johnson
      Jeremiah 33.3

  8. Keith says:

    “in common usage, we refer to Evangelicals and Fundamentalists in contrast.”

    This is true of the “common usage” of fundamentalists and theology/church history wonk evangelicals. However it is not “common usage” of the english speaking peoples. To most people, evangelical and fundamentalist are synonyms. Much to the chagrin of many of us evangelicals.

    “I have read conservative evangelicals acknowledging new evangelical mistakes while at the same time crediting the new evangelical efforts as necessary correctives of fundamentalist excesses.”

    I’ll acknowledge these things.

    Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean that it’s impossible for these historic movements to lose their coherency and “movementness”. Much of what you point out about the fundamentalist movement is true, but isn’t it also true that there is now very little agreement about who gets to use the title? And, isn’t it true that, in spite of that lack of agreement, the title gets used simplistically (or even contradictorily or meaninglessly) to make decisions on that very important matter of separation?

    • Hi Keith

      I agree about the ‘common usage’ in general, but when I said ‘in common usage’ in my article, I meant when the two terms are used together. I realize that the term ‘evangelical’ by itself is ambiguous given the current level of ignorance in the hoi polloi, but when the terms are used together they are not meant to be synonymous.

      I would also agree that some do make decisions about separation contradictorily, meaninglessly, and simplistically based merely on labels. I would agree with Dave Doran that such is bad practice.

      Nevertheless, I disagree with the notion that there is no longer a fundamentalist movement. In the end, this is probably an academic question, and it isn’t the basis of separation or whatever other level of non-cooperation one might espouse. But still, I think there is a movement and it seems somewhat foolish to deny the fact. In fact, some of Dave’s language in past posts indicate that he still thinks in terms of a movement. I am not sure what he gains by saying there is no movement, but he seems to think it is important to the questions we face about our associations.

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  9. Christian,

    For your and everyone else’s information, last year at our Word of Truth Conference I did a session on unity. The paper that went with it was 35-40 pages. I’m doing something again on unity this year that is dealing with John 17. That one is 17 pages.

    Most of the people who claim to be about unity the most, in my opinion, actually are not, because they give up real unity for a a faux, unscriptural unity.

  10. Keith says:


    I agree that some of this is academic. So, in that sense, is there really a fundamentalist movement or are their fundamentalist movements that vie for copyright of the title?

    Is the BJU movement the same as the Hyles-Anderson movement in any meaningful way? Are those two groups really any more similar than BJU and John Macarthur? Are they even as similar? What about BJU and Pensacola types? What about southern gospel music singing types and Central seminary types? What about KJVO and ESV enthusiasts who still wish to call themselves fundamentalists?

    Who gets to claim the title? Does it matter what they separate from? Or, as long as you separate then you’re in? What is the point?

  11. Christian Markle says:

    Brother Brandenburg,

    It is good to know that some are addressing the doctrine of unity. I went a-look-in for your paper, found the site from last years conference, but no paper on unity. Can you point me to it?

    For His glory,
    Christian Markle