The Fundamentalist’s Error

Scot McKnight posted about zealotry the other day, describing it as going beyond the Bible to protect things that aren’t necessarily in the Bible.  And zealots feel that their zeal for God makes them immune to criticism.

The self-deception of zealotry, which is all-too evident these days, is closely related to a very common error of fundamentalists.

David Bebbington claims that four features constitute an evangelical: Biblicism, cruci-centrism, conversionism, and activism.  I’ve heard George 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 I perceive some fundamental of the Christian faith to be threatened, I have the prerogative to be violent.

The implicit logic at work here is 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 my thoughts are God’s thoughts; my cause is God’s cause.  This divine alliance makes me exempt from obedience in order that I might 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.

That’s all fine and good.

But when I feel that the stakes have been raised, I toss all of that 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 behavior 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.

Quite honestly, this isn’t only a problem for fundamentalists.  It’s a perennial human problem, a temptation for anyone and everyone who is provoked, insulted, or who grows frustrated with others.

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).

23 thoughts on “The Fundamentalist’s Error

  1. Gary T Meadors

    Historians often note that one of the characteristics of a fundamentalist mentality is “militarism.” Your observation about anger is right on…but this term takes it to the next level. They are on the offensive rather than the defensive. I lived through the era of fundamentalism in America and, thankfully, emerged out of it. Fundamentalist usually see themselves as commissioned by God to regulate and protect “truth.” In fact, I used to hear one prominent fundamentalist say, “We hold the truth in love, but if you have to make a choice, you must choose truth.” He would go on to justify this by arguing that love is only a virtue and therefore subservient!

    This person was eventually fired by his long-time institution (he was a full faculty person with good credentials). After the event, the Dean stated that this individual had, over nearly 40 years, lobbied for the firing of nearly every faculty member that had ever been in the institution!! His rationale was always that they deviated from [his view of] “truth.”

    There is a cultic nature to historic American fundamentalism.

    1. timgombis

      I heard a similar rallying cry, Gary. “Truth trumps friendship.” So, if you come to a different view on an issue (i.e., if you deny God’s truth), then our friendship must come to an end because of my commitment to biblical fidelity and God’s holiness.

      Such perversions, which is why so much of this is wrapped up in self-deception.

  2. Andrew

    What’s a zealot?

    [1 Peter 2:2] alludes to spiritual maturity. It’s long been a criticism of mine that Church’s and Seminaries focus nearly entirely on evangelization always at the expense of sanctification. So if the milk of ‘tasting that the Lord is good’ is recognizing the personal need for Christ’s atonement and one works through those implications in a living practical sense, it’s it arrogance to apply that label to anyone else who might be at a different stage of spiritual maturity?

    Paul’s zealotry held negative connotations only when he was ‘unsaved’. It turns out however, once save his zealotry focus’d in the proper direction rendered immense benefits to communities of believers. Again, use of that label suggests we know something about the state of a person’s relationship to Christ, which may not be true.

    1. timgombis

      The term “zeal” is indeed used in different ways in the NT (e.g., “zealous to maintain the unity of the Spirit,” Eph. 4), but McKnight is referring to a specific sort of behavior. See his post for how he describes it.

      1. Andrew

        This I recognize – the point, however, was that the building ‘fences’ analogy only goes so far – pithy though it may be.

        It may not also be true that zealotry extends beyond what the bible says. For example zealotry can just as well exist within the confines of orthodoxy by imposing ‘fences’ around hermeneutics ( as seems to be the case within Seminaries where doctrinal adherence is employed as a tool to establish some type of ecclesiastical orthodoxy ).

        Straying beyond the bible is just as bad as not seeing the fullness of it.

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  5. Patrick

    I entirely agree with this and lament it. Having said that, several non fundy theological blogs often demonstrate hatred towards those who disagree.

    This is not just a problem for fundy believers, it’s a problem for the church universal.

    I’ve been astonished at the hostility demonstrated on some blogs one would have assumed would be much more open minded. Some who have great reputes are as quick to be hypercritical and hateful as the least thoughtful fundy on earth.

    One of the most respectable in the nation used a hate filled polemic against “biblicists”. It was so hate filled, half the commenters on that blog were very concerned about it’s tone.

    Not demonstrating virtue love is a church universal problem.

  6. Paul Peternel

    Maybe I live in a box, but isn’t there a difference between the pop definition of a fundamentalist/ism and the definition those who took the name to themselves would offer? This blog appears to address the former, while being complicit in the rebranding the latter. My understanding of a fundamentalist is someone who again felt it necessary to simplify Christianity back to what is revealed in Scripture rather than what grows out of the church (e.g. tradition) and culture (pop-theology). Most revival movements do this initially and then succumb to their tradition that forms out of the movement and caving to the pressures of thos who want to introduce their brand of cultural relavance into the church. Or am I just way off here? I guess my point is why give up our words (religion, fundamentalism) to the pop culture’s caricaturizations. Why not try to reallign ourselves with what we intended when we first defined ourselves?

    1. timgombis

      Certainly early fundamentalists (in the early part of the 20th cent.) saw themselves as going back to the basics, stressing certain “fundamentals” in the face of liberalism. But, as you say, certain corruptions appeared in subsequent generations. It seems to me that when you assume you’re doing God’s business on his behalf by being among the few who are faithful over-against the many who are defecting, you run the serious risk of self-righteousness and self-deception.

      Also, I’d say the term seems beyond redemption and I’m not too keen on identifying myself with it, either!

      1. Paul Peternel

        I wish instead of accentuating the negative aspects that have arisen we would do better to celebrate the good these terms engendered at the outset. Jesus allowed the tares to grow up among the wheat because the wheat, crowded as it was by the tares, would produce fruit nonetheless. Jesus didn’t curse the field or the wheat be ause tares grew up among it. No, he curse the enemy and would not sacrifice the wheat to spite the tares. SELAH.

      2. Mike

        I agree. “Fundamentalism” is fundamentally flawed, not because it was an attempt to get back to the fundamentals, but because it was a fear reaction to the modern world.

  7. Rebecca W

    I was referred to this post from an article at CT’s Her.meneutics blog. Excellent, thank you!

    I do have a resulting question though. .
    What do you call an evangelical who is angry fundamentalism?

    Eeeeek … I think that might be me. 😦

    1. timgombis

      It’s easy, Rebecca, to get angry at cultures that have hurt us–that’s for sure! One of the insidious things about sin is that it provokes in us sinful responses. The only way out of the cycle of sin, driven by anger, is to love and forgive, drawing on God’s grace.

  8. Jim S.

    You stated: “The fundamentalist error is the assumption that when I perceive some fundamental of the Christian faith to be threatened, I have the prerogative to be violent.”

    I was raised in a “fundamentalist” church, and I never experienced any of that. I experienced warm, caring, faithful men and women who loved Christ and sought to serve him in their daily lives.

    I wonder if perhaps, society has made a “straw man” of all that it hates about Christianity, called it a “fundamentalist”, and then sought to demonize that all Christians who are politically to the “right” of them.

    I wonder, Tim, if – perhaps – you haven’t done the same thing.

    But, I’m not going to get violent over it. Not even with my words.

  9. Gary T. Meadors

    I have enjoyed reading the variety of posts under this topic. The problem with having an opinion about “fundamentalism” is that even this term is not monolithic. Furthermore, one does not understand the journey of this term without the equivalent of a thorough college/graduate course in American Christianity. There is a lot of uniqueness to the traditions of fundamentalism in America. England/Europe have a different journey more or less (see J.I. Packer’s _Fundamentalism_). The American journey of the term and certain persons morphed into a cultural form. This is no place to review these issues but a few bullet points might be helpful:

    1. About 1909, in the conflict with liberal denominationalism, an ecumenical group of biblical scholars produced a multi-volume work called _The Fundamentals_ (republished by Kregel). The group included anglicans, episcopalians, methodists, baptists, etc., and they all got along with each other!! (The early presidents of Moody were episcopal.) Their emphasis was on “theological fundamentals.”

    2. This unity began to erode quickly due to battles over eschatology (see The Niagra Conferences) and the development of a radical, mostly southern group of individuals who believed they were the last line to protect the truth (see George Dollar, _Fundamentalism_. This book is amazing…even has a fist on top of a Bible as its cover!! Just put “books on fundamentalism” into google and click Amazon and note the titles for a feel for the cultural side). The southern side became focus in radical baptist circles. Bob Jones University took the lead with many. Pensacola College was a BJU wannabe.

    At the end of the day…fundamentalism became increasingly cultural and narrow with mostly theologically untrained leaders (in fact, they were proud of starting their own schools to protect themselves). THIS is the fundamentalism that we 60 somethings lived through and emerged out of more or less.

    There are lots of odd things in American Chr. For example, the “new evangelicals” (Lindsell ect.) were virtually killed by the fundamentalists, but when the so-called new-evangelicals later argued for inerrancy and became the protectors of the Bible, they “seemed” to be too conservative for some!!

    So those of you who have positive memories of your fundamentalist church, were blessed to be in a church that didn’t fall into the cultural, cultic aspects of fundamentalism. Others were not so fortunate.

    One could have a great hobby reading on American Christianity.

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