The most recent issue of Frontline Magazine is apparently getting a bit of buzz. I don’t subscribe, but through friends I’m getting caught up. It appears that the Fall 2016 issue, “Convergence,” caused a stir with how it treated the younger generation who grew up in fundamental Baptist churches. As a sort of response, Mark Ward was given the opportunity to edit the Spring issue, composed entirely of articles written by representatives of that younger generation who have chosen to “stay in” what Mark calls the “the BJU-Northland-Maranatha-Detroit-Central-IBC-Wilds-Faith-FBFI portion” of fundamentlism.
Most of the articles are available only to subscribers (you can read previews of the articles here), but Mark’s article is available for free online, titled, “Why I’m Still Here.” Mark lists four primary reasons he’s willing to call himself a “fundamentalist”:
- honoring my father(s) and mother(s).
- personal holiness.
- traditional worship.
I wholeheartedly agree with Mark’s reasoning. His experience growing up and being educated in fundamentalist institutions is very similar to mine. I always found claims that fundamentalists were harsh legalists odd–the church I grew up in, my family, and the fundamentalist university I attended were all wonderful experiences for which I am deeply thankful. The fundamental Baptist churches in which I’ve served valued doctrine, expositional preaching, personal holiness, and traditional worship. My closest friends are pastors in self-identifying fundamentalist churches and professors in institutions historically identified as fundamentalist.
And, like Mark, I happily affirm: I am a fundamentalist.
However, as important as the four values Mark lists are, I do not believe they describe the core of fundamentalism. The core of fundamentalism results in the four values Mark lists, but the list itself is not the core.
The central idea of fundamentalism lies its recognition of both the boundary and center of Christian unity and cooperation. Fundamentalism asserts that the boundary of Christian fellowship is the gospel; no Christian cooperation can exist with those who do not affirm the gospel. Contrary to the popular movements in evangelicalism today, the gospel is not the center of Christian unity; the gospel is the boundary of Christian unity.
But fundamentalism also affirms that within that gospel boundary, unity among Christians is dependent upon the degree of agreement in matters that are secondary to the gospel but that are important nonetheless. The Christian faith is more than just the gospel—it is the whole council of God. These other matters like how we approach culture, worship philosophy, hermeneutics, eschatology, and so much more are secondary to the gospel–they’re not the boundary–but they are important and affect the degree to which we can fellowship and cooperate with other Christians. And many of these so-called “secondary issues” are, indeed, “gospel issues” because they impact our understanding, response, propagation, and defense of the gospel.
This was the genius of the idea of fundamentalism. Beyond refusing to recognize as Christian those who do not believe the gospel, fundamentalism asserts that cooperation among Christians will be dependent upon the level to which Christians agree in important matters of doctrine and practice, and this will vary based on the kind of cooperation. For example, I might be able to stand side-by-side with a conservative Presbyterian in order to preach the gospel, but I would not be able to plant a church with him given our disagreement regarding church polity and baptism, among other things. I may be able to teach in an educational institution where there exists considerable diversity in a number of areas that I believe to be extremely important, but I would not be able to join a church with the same spread of divergent views. Fundamentalists have perhaps notoriously made too big a deal of some issues and too little of others, but this is the fault of fallible people, not the underlying conviction that all biblical truth matters and affects unity to one degree or another.
This is why I happily identify with the idea of fundamentalism. I believe that while the gospel is of first importance, the whole counsel of God is also important. I believe that the four values Mark lists (among others) are important enough to affect cooperation at various levels. I believe they should be defended, articulated, and propagated. I co-authored a book with a central goal of articulating this very understanding of the gospel, the whole counsel of God, and cooperation among Christians, and my other three books, my articles, and my teaching are all dedicated to defending the very values Mark cites as central to fundamentalism.
Yet this leads to a bit of tension and irony reflected in Mark’s article. He identifies four values that he finds centrally important and claims that “the only place I know of where I can reliably get and promote all four things I value is within the institutions of self-described fundamentalism.”
The problem with this sentiment, however, is that what we have seen in institutional Fundamentalism over the last ten years is that in the face of diminishing numbers, churches, colleges, and seminaries are intentionally abandoning these very values, believing that this will make them more marketable. Yet even purely from a marketing perspective, they are eliminating the only thing that distinguishes them from conservative evangelical churches and institutions of higher learning. They are getting rid of exactly the qualities that even conservative evangelicals like John Piper and Rick Phillips recognize as the unique contributions of fundamentalism. The problem is that the conservative evangelical institutions have a considerable head start in terms of constituency, money, and name recognition; why, if the traditionally fundamentalist institutions give up the core ideas of fundamentalism, would anyone choose them over larger and more prestigious evangelical ones? The answer is, they wouldn’t; there is a reason fundamentalist churches and schools who have distanced themselves from cultural conservatism, traditional worship, and standards of personal holiness, for example, have closed more quickly than others.1 There are undoubtedly many other factors contributing to the shrinking of fundamentalist institutions, but I would humbly suggest that getting rid of the one thing that has distinguished fundamentalist institutions from their conservative evangelical counterparts is not the answer.
This, then, leads to the question, what would it mean to “stay in” fundamentalism? How do I know if I’m “still here”? If I am part of a historically fundamentalist institution that abandons the values of fundamentalism, am I still “in”? If I am part of an institution that has not historically identified as fundamentalist but I embrace, affirm, and propagate the ideas and values of fundamentalism, and I still “in”?
For my part, since I believe fundamentalism is a set of ideas, not necessarily a group of connected institutions, and I enthusiastically affirm and articulate those ideas, I’m still here.
The question is, will institutions that have historically affirmed the ideas of fundamentalism stay, too? I certainly hope so.
- Note: This is certainly not true in every case; but I would submit that it is what is happening in a lot of cases. [↩]