Note: I first wrote about Christian Fundamentalism in July, in the light of all the other types of fundamentalisms we see around us today, which are every bit significant in shaping world events and the thoughts and actions of many. What follows is an update based on the material submitted at the time and thoughts I have had since then. I am conscious that the stereotypical Christian fundamentalist is despised by many, including among many who are Christians, including those of the more earnest variety. Some criticism is justified. The damage Westborough Baptist Church has caused with their “fags go to hell” banners is massive but some of what goes on under the fundamentalist umbrella can’t be so easily dismissed. Those Christians who are quick to pull out the speck in their brother’s eye, and not the log in their own, should know better and meekly take on board a number of the observations directed at them by their fundamentalist brethren, who believe they have too often and too readily compromised regarding adherence to the truth. Something often missed is unlike many of the other types of fundamentalists, the Christian brand tends to be peaceful and many regard being good citizens and neighbours as especially important.
Despite their supposed one-dimensional, narrow approach to biblical interpretation, they take more seriously than many Christians the need to obey the Bible, including evangelising. I believe in the unity of the body which complements the head which is Christ and feel compelled to work toward this end and want to persist in tacking the issues that I know only all too well exists, bringing together Christians when I can. I also feel compassion toward my fundamentalist brethren who I sense sometimes miss what God is truly saying and wants to do, and see all manner of hardships as the necessary price to pay for being a Christian, even when they aren’t – but that may apply to all Christians and thank God he is gracious. Despite my own quasi fundamentalist upbringing, I find myself these days feeling uncomfortable at times in the company of certain fundamentalists for all sorts of reasons including my own lack of spirituality, them being dogmatic on less essentials including not being prepared to agree to disagree and insensitively pushing their beliefs down your throat, sanctimonious bigotry and hiding behind pious platitudes, a tendency to look down on Christians who they don’t agree with, a rather narrow focus that majors on some points but not others also important and an anti everything mindset, including homosexuality, Catholic, non-creationist and non-Zionist and a lot more. If that sounds scathing, equally critical comments could be directed to other Christian groups, for there is a danger to all to depart from the “true way”. We should be humble enough though to recognise our faults and remedy these when we do and, if we can’t, be humble enough to admit we may be wrong and eager to learn from others.
Having got that of my chest, what follows is an edited version of what I posted, followed by some afterthoughts:
This post is somewhat theological, appealing more to thinking Christians, yet is still pertinent and relates to some of my recent more earthy, community activist leaning posts. Fundamentalism, which might be defined as “a form of a religion, especially Islam or Protestant Christianity, that upholds belief in the strict, literal interpretation of scripture”, is a phenomenon that we all will, no doubt, be aware of, given its recent resurgence, especially Islamic fundamentalism, which I have already written about, but also Hindu fundamentalism, something I have touched on earlier and will do so again as it does have a bearing on what is happening in a land I have a lot of affinity to: India, and people I know who are affected. And then there is Christian fundamentalism (this post), which happens to be an important issue in the church and in the culture war we are seeing now. How this affects other Christians and the churches and how they should respond to the issues that arise are all important questions. For most who read this, the phrase conjures up negative images, such that if I were to say I am a fundamentalist, some would look on me warily. I don’t like labels as they can mislead if not properly defined, although they can still be useful. I will leave it to readers to decide whether or not I am a fundamentalist.
Christians, even from my own “theological stable”, may differ in understanding of what fundamentalism is. One of the greatest, in my view, theologians of modern times, is Jim Packer. One of his books is titled “Fundamentalism and the Word of God”. In it he argues Fundamentalism equates to Conservative Evangelical Christianity, encapsulated in things like the ancient creeds, the Evangelical Alliance statement of faith and Westminster Confession of Faith. Some of his concerns and understandings, particularly relating to his opposition of Liberal Christianity and how his own Anglican communion should respond to some of the challenges it is presently facing is laid out in this paper. For many, including among evangelicals, fundamentalists are often looked down on for their mindless bigotry and being judgmental, unscientific etc. For many fundamentalists though, the term is a badge of honour and a matter of principle, given the attacks on the Christian faith. This often brings them into conflict, not only with the surrounding culture but also with other Christians. Sometimes this is necessary and unavoidable but sometimes it isn’t and is why I am writing now.
There is much in the public domain that charts the rise of Christian fundamentalism, what the main features are and some of the variants. I want to identify twelve key areas that might be seen as those where fundamentalists have strong views, often at odds with the views of most in society and even many Christians, and where I too have a view, which may or may not align with what most Christian fundamentalists believe. It is not a definitive list. For each header there will be variations of belief. I want to share my views and, when I have already done as in several cases, I will merely refer to these. I reflect on these matters in the light of my “Outside the Camp” narrative that sparked off this website and my belief that Christians must stand for the truth and engage with the culture.
Moreover, Christians must earn the right to speak what are often unpalatable truths into the market place of conflicting ideas and a culture that is antipathetic toward authentic Christianity. They go some way to achieving this by loving their neighbour and all that this implies. It seems to me that while getting right doctrine is important, more than most Christians today think, so is right practice, e.g. “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world” James 1:27.
Before getting down to specifics, I should refer to a brand of fundamentalism that is every bit as threatening as that which maintains a clear set of beliefs based on a narrow interpretation of the Bible that deems beliefs that don’t fit into this framework of understanding are unacceptable just because it contradicts what the Bible teaches and questions God. I refer to the new generation of liberals whose axioms include God is love who loves us all equally and therefore all views have equal validity especially those which have the broadest acceptance in society generally according to a self appointed benevolent liberal elite. Saying things like our way is the only way to God or homosexual practice is wrong for example is rather presumptuous and misguided, and woe betide those who do so. If not vilified or disowned as bigots by the custodians of this form of fundamentalism they may find themselves humoured or dismissed as out of touch.
I daresay, I will return to the matter of Christian fundamentalism later as the challenges of the day, especially around social justice issues, also challenge many on the pre-suppostions of Christian fundamentalists, and always there is an issue of what is true and where the balance lies (both subjects of other blog posts). I come from a tradition that place a lot of emphasis on Jude 3: “I have to write insisting—begging!—that you fight with everything you have in you for this faith entrusted to us as a gift to guard and cherish“. The Bible warns that there will be a falling away in the last days and an increase in deception, and therefore such matters cannot be treated lightly. I air these here because I am concerned for the sheep, that they are not led astray (to use Bible imagery).
But back to some of the main issues that tend to be associated with those who are of a more fundamentalist ilk …
As a an impressionable young Christian, I was taught by those who believed in dispensationalism, an approach to biblical interpretation which states that God uses different means of administering his will to people in different periods of history, typically seven chronologically successive periods. It attempts a literal interpretation of scripture with a pre-millennial and pre-tribulation rapture (the church being taken from the earth before Jesus returns) view. It sees Israel and the church as distinct bodies and accordingly treated differently by God. This requires a lot of theological unraveling, far beyond the scope of this simple posting, and has many implications, such as how Israel should be viewed today (see under Zionism) and a Christian approach to community activism that tends to be rather negative, both of which I have written on. I may return to this subject, but suffice to say: these days I reject much of my dispensational upbringing on theological grounds.
Most fundamentalists are creationists. I have stated my position (here).
Most fundamentalists believe homosexual activity to be sinful, and in extreme cases, like the often reported activities of Westborough Baptist Church and their “fags go to hell” banners, bitterly so. I have stated my position in my “The Gay Conundrum” book. I have also addressed developments in the “gay agenda” and its affect on the church and the culture in a few of my recent blog postings. My latest offerings on the subject can be found here and here.
Most fundamentalists argue the importance of freedom of conscience on matters of principle and would likely declare they would die rather than sacrifice that principle. I would tend to concur but with a caveat that it has to be those issues where God has indisputably declared his mind and, given when this is so, I can not deviate from this principle without incurring the displeasure of the Almighty, whose will has to trump that of any temporal power. I watch with consternation how even here in the UK Christians from various strands are penalized for following their conscience.
While the idea of Christians of different shades coming together, following a two thousand history where schism has sadly too often been a prominent feature, appeals to many Christians, many fundamentalists would be resistant, fearing compromising their principles and sending out an unhelpful message that they go along with error. While I believe the yard stick has to be truth, and therefore certain principles cannot be compromised, I also work on the common ground principle whereby I try to find common ground with those who I may disagree with, for the sake of promoting the common good. I also believe in celebrating the common life that all true believers in Christ share, and encouraging such. I mourn the divisions in the church yet recognise we have to do what God gives us, leaving the rest to Him. I also return to the real Lord’s prayer of John 17, e.g. “that they may be one, as we are“, and realise we have a long way to go and much work to do, for this to be fully the case.
Like most fundamentalists, I believe the Bible to be the Word of God, in a way no other literature is, and as such takes precedence over human reason and church tradition, which would sometimes put me at odds with Liberals and Catholics respectively. However, I am wary at the literalism and narrowness some Fundamentalists approach interpreting the Bible and this often makes me at odds with them because the Bible needs faithful interpretation in accordance with principles laid out in my “Theological Musings” book. When it comes to the ancient creeds of the church and statements of beliefs such as those of the Evangelical Alliance, I am in whole-hearted agreement, because these are strongly Bible based.
One of the oddities of many fundamentalists, following on from their views on the Bible, is regarding which version is to be favoured. In many cases, this happens to be the King James Version, despite its archaic language etc. The reason is often due to a mistrust of other translations, which one way or another may have assimilated liberal leaning corruptions. Again an argument on the relative merits of various translations is beyond the scope of this post. While there are modern translations I like and use and am happy to use a mixture and refer to the original manuscripts in the original language in order to understand meaning etc., I happen to personally favour the King James Version.
Fundamentalists have sometimes been accused (perhaps unfairly) of being anti-science, especially when science and religion appear to be in conflict and the teachings of religion (or rather fundamentalist Christianity) therefore having to trump those of science. I have argued my position in “The Scientific Method” post.
In my life time, I have seen a major shift in many sections of the church when it comes to women’s ministry, in particular whether or not they can lead congregations and preach in a mixed setting. I have reflected on this in my “Theological Musings” book and more recently in my “Women Bishops” post. While there are cases of high powered / profile woman leaders in fundamentalist circles, in the main the status quo has been maintained in having male leaders.
It would be unfair to say that fundamentalists do not get involved in social action, for I have seen many instances when the opposite is the case. However, in the main, not only do Christian fundamentalists tend not to join forces with Christians that aren’t of that ilk when it comes to addressing social need, they tend not to get involved at all with those who are not Christians, focusing rather on compassion ministries led by their churches or those of a like mind and often linked to preaching of the Word.
Afterthoughts: I have returned to this post after a few months as I have come to increasingly realize that while some of my Christian friends would rather Christian fundamentalists were not around as they too often inconveniently and embarrassingly upset the proverbial apple cart, and are therefore to be avoided. Distrust and disdain is often felt mutually. The fact is they are around and to avoid them will be to miss out on opportunities to do good and learn, but also to encourage one another in our faith.
One of the scathing criticisms of Jesus to one first century church was they were lukewarm. Sadly that could apply to many Christians today when what is need are those who are hot. Despite faults, and in my experience, many fundamentalist Christians are hot. It is true that engaging with fundamentalist groups can be a prickly experience, such as the time when I was expelled from Christian social media groups for expressing a view that did not tow the party line, and sadly it is not always possible to agree to disagree, leading to a regrettable parting of the ways, but at least we should try.
Recently, I found myself in a church that was hosting a conference on Bible prophecy and there prominently displayed at the front was an Israeli flag with the words “We stand by Israel“, and wondered what my anti-Zionist Christian friends would have made of it? I wrote to the main speaker expressing my discomfort and my view that the words “and the Palestinians who are being oppressed by Israel” be added. In fairness to him, the reply was gracious, but besides taking issue if there was such an entity as Palestine, affirmed that they were merely standing on the Word of God and would not budge. It seemed to me that but for a good relationship I already had with this brother, this would have led to an impasse and entrenched positions, something all too evident in the history of the church. For many fundamentalists, being out on a limb when it comes to standing by God’s word is the price to pay for following Jesus, and they are right of course, although I wonder if they are always right when choosing the things on which they refuse to budge.
Recently, another friend responded to me regarding my blog on Islam Fundamentalism and graciously challenged me for being too soft. He felt that the fundamentalist version of Islam was more in line with the true teaching of Islam just as the views of Christian Fundamentalists are more in line with the true teaching of Christianity. My own thoughts on these matters are stated above and further discussed on this website. I would reiterate: while I sometimes disagree with Christian Fundamentalist views and regret too often they fight the wrong battles, lack grace and humility when dealing with detractors and, while insisting they stand on the Bible, can be intolerant concerning those whose interpretation differs, even on less essential matters, many are true and earnest Christians, making them my brothers and sisters who I need to encourage. It is therefore beholden upon me to try and reach out to and look out for them, rather than ignore or dismiss and, if at all possible, we join forces in order to proclaim the Gospel and serve our Lord.
Whether or not St. Augustine did coin the phrase: “in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity”, I cannot say, but it is a good start when it come to engaging with those who see things differently – and I’m not sure he always got it right, for from New Testament times to the present day we have seen major conflicts over doctrine and the need for soundness, with the “heroes” of the faith in the forefront. But the gauntlet has been laid down as well as the need to get back to the two great commands (loving God and our neighbour), where hermeneutical implications are monumental and also practically.
In my community activism I get to rub shoulders with Christians of all shades, including fundamentalists, and those who aren’t, and I need to dialogue in order to make meaningful headway. Differences are evidenced by different denominations and factions within the church and lost opportunities. Sometimes it is beyond one to reconcile differences and one has to do what needs doing. As unprofitable servants of the Lord we must both stand for truth and righteousness and show love and grace, serving Him as best we can, doing so with all who love Him if we can. We need to follow Jesus, of whom it was said “he was full of grace and truth“.