The Fundamentalist Error

That may seem like an odd title.  My friends and colleagues in religious studies will think immediately of an entire host of fundamentalist errors.  I’m thinking, however, of George Marsden’s description of a fundamentalist with reference to David Bebbington’s four-fold definition of an evangelical.

Bebbington claims that four features constitute an evangelical: Biblicism, cruci-centrism, conversionism, and activism.  I’ve heard Marsden say a few times that in addition to these, a fundamentalist is an evangelical who is angry. 

This is the error I have in mind.

The fundamentalist error is the assumption that when the Christian faith is seriously threatened, one has the prerogative to be violent.

It is the assumption that at critical moments the best way to defend the Christian faith is to betray it.  The most effective way to advance the cause of Christ is to disobey his commands.  It is the conviction that James is wrong when he says that “the anger of man does not bring about the righteousness of God” (James 1:20).

The underlying assumption is that one’s own thoughts are indeed God’s thoughts, one’s own cause is God’s cause.  This divine alliance gives one leave from mundane obedience in order to bring about God’s purposes.

In the normal ebb and flow of life it is good to be kind and compassionate, to speak words of life and grace, to resolve conflicts and deal with anger, to forgive one another and learn habits of cruciform love, and to reconcile with one another.

But when I feel that the stakes have been raised, all of that goes out the window and I have special permission from God to demonize a brother in Christ, to accuse a sister of evil motives, to slander someone’s reputation, to pronounce them outside the faith, to mock a person made in the image of God.

Confessing Christians have committed this error very publicly and it is a profound grief.

It is sinful behavior.  It is unfaithfulness to God, a lack of faith in Christian realities.

Anyone who acts like this confesses with their life a lack of confidence that the way of Jesus can account for any and every situation.  It is the conviction that when Christian truth is under attack, the way of promise is to step outside of obedience to Jesus and do violence to others.

Christian people cannot act this way.  We are learners in the way of Jesus and one of the things we need to learn is how to converse with one another in ways that radiate grace and life.

If we get fired up, we need to learn self-control so that we don’t do damage to one another.  When we fail, we need to learn how to confess our sins to one another, grant and receive forgiveness, and forge new Jesus-shaped relational patterns.

James says that the tongue is “a restless evil, full of deadly poison.  With it we both bless the Lord and Father and curse human beings made in God’s likeness.  Blessing and cursing come from the same mouth. My brothers and sisters, it just shouldn’t be this way! (James 3:8-10, CEB).

9 thoughts on “The Fundamentalist Error

  1. Random Arrow

    Tim – “… In the normal ebb and flow of life it is good to be kind and compassionate, to speak words of life and grace, to resolve conflicts and deal with anger, to forgive one another and learn habits of cruciform love, and to reconcile with one another …”

    I work vocationally and pro-bono cooperatively with dozens of clergy regularly – hundreds of clergy over time – who tow this line charitably and competently in extremely hard and difficult cases – “to resolve conflicts.”

    I know what you mean that charity goes out the window. For me. Daily.

    Wanna arm wrassle over who forgets it first?

    Take heart. Empirical studies show that extremely few parishioners take highfalutin theology seriously. Extremely few confessing and active church members really know how to apply high theology in daily life. The go-along spirit of most church members and the everyday lives of church members who love each other as friends really involves second thoughts about who wants to take on clergy in theological fisticuffs anyway. Why bother?

    Please know that even Martin Marty (of the “Fundamentalist Project”) has repeatedly said that there are many open-minded and open-hearted fundamentalists who for other reasons are attracted to the simplistic algorithms of fundamentalism. I vouch for this too from my experience in working with poor and fundamentalist clients. There’s as much of the – error – of which you speak to go around – liberally.

    The narrow band of the Christian population who suffer these theological fights are limited mostly to paid talking-heads. Not exclusively. Mostly.

    Take heart that so many others are not listening.



    1. athanasius96

      Jim, I agree. There is definitely a difference between the paid “professionals” and those on the “front lines”. As Marden himself has found, it is very hard to define evangelicals and fundamentalists. These social movements are organic and even the furthest fringes carry important signs of God’s grace.

    2. timgombis

      Good reminder, Jim, that there are indeed many Christians of all sorts who are just good folks day in and day out. Thankfully, this is the case! I know lovely fundamentalist people who serve their community and love others with beautiful servant postures and gestures.

      It is just a grief that some “public” Christian leaders speak with violence toward those with whom they disagree, or who denigrate certain types of people they don’t like. Real people get hurt and precious friends who have been wounded and are on the way to healing suffer setbacks and deep pain. That’s the erroneous way I’m referring to.

  2. Pingback: The Fundamentalist Error « Dappled Thoughts

  3. Random Arrow

    Anasthasius, Tim

    Good exchanges.

    Part of Tim’s central thesis holds: – “The fundamentalist error is the assumption that when the Christian faith is seriously threatened, one has the prerogative to be violent.” I agree.

    Tim, was not sandbagging you by withholding this comment. I do tons of domestic interventions. On referral from clergy (fundy, evangy, mid-liberal, Pentecostal – many Pentecostals among the poor – you probably know the drill). Clergy call up, “how do we solve this?” Or, “Billy Bob’s in jail because he ….. what can we do?” Subject matter – lots of domestic violence. Child abuse. Now add bankruptcies – families in economic hell. Huge stressor and temptation to do violence. Won’t get into meth – set meth violence aside. All this prompts violence – with religious overlays.

    Thing is, Tim is correct in re. violence. Tim dig this (dig me hard) – when the combination of family, economic bankruptcy, slow economy – no work, poverty in hell, plus faith – faith inside all these overlays, then what?

    Think: book of Job. That’s how people feel. So “faith is seriously challenged” does not mean all that cognitive high level theology-speak (yes, there’s a place for that). These people are not “seriously challenged” because they disagree with Bell’s latest book. They are in hell. Where is God? Their God? Tempted in distrust to make violence their partner. And doing so. Many restraining orders against domestic violence. Not a few jail terms. Hell is hell. And “seriously challenged.” Religious motifs in this world of economic, violent, and faith-hell are – emotional. Kick the dog (kick God back). Beat the wife (beat the image of God out her). Give God the finger and walk away. Precipitous dynamics of violence.

    This part of your central thesis about fundamentalism and – violence – holds. And good job. It’s a clinical/praxis problem. Not just academic. You know this.

    Little more fuel for your fire. For your thesis in re. violence – see section, “Motivations For Violence,” in anthology, “The Fundamentalist Mindset” (2010).

    Tim, good job. More with you than my previous post showed.

    Now, excuse me. I’ve got to go beat up on Richard Beck (who I dearly love) ….



  4. Frank

    Amen to what you wrote about fundamentalism. I have just recently left the fundamentalist movement which can have a cult-like hold on people. Please keep speaking up against the errors and dangers of fundamentalism.


  5. Frank

    Just to add to my previous post the problem as I see it with fundamentalism is that strict fundamentalist preachers are so busy adhering to a strict set of doctrinal believes and condemning those who may disagree or practice their faith differently that they don’t teach about agape love. I didn’t even know what agape love was or meant until I left the fundamentalists movement. It’s like they miss the miss the forest for the trees.


    1. timgombis

      I’ve seen that up-close, Frank, and it ain’t good! Many fundamentalist leaders can’t afford to love unconditionally. They maintain power and authority by control, which means that if you give others freedom, there’s no guarantee what they might do… But that’s what love does.

  6. Frank

    Oops, sorry for misspelling. Meant to say doctrinal beliefs not doctrinal believes. I’m sure you get my point though. God bless.


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