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A window into my experience within Christian fundamentalism…
“Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” – John 8:32
“Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God.” – 1 Peter 2:16
“You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love.” – Galatians 5:13
“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” – John 13:35
I have always been one to question authority. One to question why suits and ties were a requirement for Sunday night worship services. Why was there a need for women to wear such long skirts? We were allowed to grow a mustache, not me, of course, because I was a child. But the men in the church were allowed to grow a mustache, but the moment they displayed a scruff that hugged their once shiny cheeks they were considered unsuitable for service. An embarrassment, really to the local body of believers.
Women who wore too much makeup were likened to sex workers and if their skirts weren’t long enough they would be asked to step down from their ministerial position for the day and return once they acquire some form of self-respect.
I remember my father telling me that he was relegated to church disciplinary action because he played his trumpet bluesy passion and a jazz induced melody, thus making church music sound like worldly music. Jazz. Jazz or anything close to it was considered worldly.
At one time, drum sets were cylindrical instruments of devil worship where every tap or bang would incur the presence of Satan in the church. So no jazz or drums allowed.
Movie theaters were out of the question as well. If one were caught attending a movie screening, no matter how innocuous or informative the film was, that person would be added to the discipline log, removed from ministerial duties, benched; which was evident to all and quite the shameful practice, and castigated, albeit passive-aggressively, by the minister the following Sunday as an example of poor Christian living standards and witness.
These minor infractions, minor now, were tantamount then, and if one were to accumulate enough of them at the time or challenge the authenticity of their weight and purpose, the individual and challenger would face ex-communication from the body of believers.
For the uninitiated, I must advise, that once someone is excommunicated from the local church community they are then considered absolutely depraved, a lost cause, and socially deceased. Anyone caught interacting with them outside of the church, whilst their excommunicated status was active, would be chastised and possibly added to the disciplinary list as well.
There was no winning. The shunned and shamed individual who may have at one point in time challenged the authority, the “god-in-church” persona, the minister and his caste, would have to return to the church and face further public humiliation as one who had “come to their senses” and acknowledge their wasteful thinking and combative nature as counter-god and counter-church.
I can list the ways people were treated when they left our churches or denominations to join other ones. If they exited our particular denomination, a large Pentecostal denomination in the Brazilian south-east, they were considered lost. By lost, I mean that person had forfeited their salvation by leaving our particular denomination. If they joined a Baptist denomination they were guilty of abandoning the holy spirit. If they joined a Methodist movement, they were considered depraved. If they joined the Catholic church they had apostatized and abandoned their faith. If they joined another Pentecostal denomination they were ostracized as spiritists whose subservience landed at the feet of the devil. With us they served God but with another denomination, they served the devil.
With us, they spoke in tongues but with that other church, they spoke for evil spirits. With us they sang and worshiped but with that other church, they offered sacrifices to demons. With us, they tithed unto the kingdom of God, a mandatory requirement of church membership, by the way, but if tithes or offerings were given elsewhere, the person was a thief, a crook, an embezzler, and their accounting practices and endeavors would eventually be audited by the local clergy treasury.
And you would expect an hour-long sermon on the virtues of tithing for the glory of God; and the fattening of the minister and his wallet.
If one announced their intellectual prowess with us they were considered gifted, but if their vision was expounded in a reformed church then that person was considered illiterate and anti-intellectual. Cerebral was a pejorative term used to deride and reduce thinkers who had left us for other churches. Thinkers who had abandoned the heart of God for the mind of man. Thinkers were bad.
Any challenge made to these norms, or rather, these edicts pronounced and deified by the local body of believers, was considered an affront to God, and not the local leadership. These ministers and presbyters had, by unwritten rules and unchecked power, become gods.
This religious upbring had such an effect on me that I can recall visiting a local baptist church, later in life, after I had been baptized, etcetera, anyhow, I visited a Baptist church and once the Lord’s supper was going around I denied the wafer and the cup. I took pride in this denial. My friends, the ones who had invited me to attend this baptist church with them took notice of my dejection of the cup and bread. They noticed this because they knew, well enough, that I was a person of faith and very much interested in the things of the Bible. After this service one of them approached me, curious as to what my motivation was for rejecting the Lord’s supper among brothers and sisters of the same tradition, so to speak. My response came in almost supercilious bellicosity, “Our church doesn’t consider your church’s supper holy or right, so I’m willfully abstaining from it. I won’t partake in your spiritless worship practices.”
That was me. A young fundamentalist in the making. Matter of fact, possibly a fundamentalist in maturation. Fundamentalism had been instilled in me from birth, and in my parents before me from their birth and their grandparents, and so on. But what has changed?
Ha. Well, a lot. Like, a whole lot, thank God for these changes. But today I want to give you a perspective on what fundamentalism is, why it spread, where it spread fastest, and how dangerous it is to the body of Christ and the church.
I will outright condemn fundamentalism and say that I have grown more in faith, grace, and knowledge of my Lord Jesus Christ apart from fundamentalism than I could ever have in it.
Before progressing onto the breakdown of fundamentalism, I want to inform the readers on who coined the term or perhaps pushed it into the spotlight for further consideration. Understanding the fundamentals of something is actually a practical and possibly life-saving effort. Understanding the fundamentals of civil engineering, medicine, and physics is effective in helping us understand our world. But the moment something becomes an end in and of itself, it distorts the world around it. Adding an -ism to a word helps us understand the concept, but it changes the meaning of that word.
I’m a human being who promotes humanitarian efforts but I would not find comfort in humanism. I believe observational science is crucial to our understanding of biology and other sciences to better understand our world but I’m not a strident follower of Scientism. So, with fundamentals, general or specific, we can all agree that they’re essential to our understanding of concepts, basics, foundations, and well, fundamentals.
In 1920, Baptist minister Curtis Lee Laws’ “definition of fundamentalism was deliberately broad, not divisively narrow. It required neither inerrancy nor dispensationalism-the growing shibboleths of anti-modernists. Fundamentalism, for Laws, was essentially an attempt to reaffirm theological orthodoxy and promote biblical Christianity.”
In Themelios, an online journal for students of theology and bible studies, Kevin T. Bauder reviews the book, Fundamentalism, written by Fisher Humphrys and Philip Wise. In this book review, Kevin breaks down the catalysts for a fundamentalist origin in the United States of America. He states (emphasis and notes added by me):
- Fundamentalism is a tradition that reacts against modernity
- They believe their faith and community are (constantly) under attack
- They demonize their opponents
- Follow authoritarian males
- Idealize (idolize also) the past (they’re staunch traditionalists)
- They draw careful boundaries to separate insiders from outsiders
- They seek to control their society
He further states the reasons for the amplification of fundamentalist sentiments within the evangelical world as a reaction to modernity and change. Their militancy was spawned by a set of cultural, societal, and religious shift, such as:
- Lost of cultural hegemony, control, and influence
- Secularization phenomenon
- The Enlightenment
- Biblical criticism
- Liberal Theology
And many prominent fundamentalist leaders ascended to power and influence over time. Kevin T. Bauder breaks this movement hyper-influential and vocal leaders into three phases:
In phase one, according to Kevin T. Bauder, we find:
Cultural discontent in the 1920s allowed for J. Gresham Machen, Bob Jones, and John R. Rice to lead the battle cry against modernity.
In phase two:
Rebranding via Evangelistic Outreach in the 1940s introduced the world to the renowned evangelist, Billy Graham. (Graham would later split from fundamentalists and consider himself an evangelical, instead. The term neo-evangelical or neo-orthodox was used pejoratively against Graham by Bob Jones and his contemporaries because Graham preferred a more ecumenical approach to evangelism and activism, whereas fundamentalists thrived from schisms.)
In phase three, which began in the 1970s, we are introduced to Fundamentalism Empowered and Politicized under the likes of strident evangelicals, as fundamentalists adapted and diluted their public animosity to retain and maintain political power, in hopes of recapturing cultural hegemony. This third wave of fundamentalism has found ground and weight in American conservatism, where it has become the new Right, or say, the silent moral majority.
Justin Taylor, executive vice president of book publishing and publisher for Crossway, and blogger for The Gospel Coalition identified four stages of fundamentalism from the late 1890s to now. He separates fundamentalism into four phases.
- Irenic Phase (1893 – 1919)
- Militant Phase (1920 – 1936)
- Divisive Phase (1941 – 1960)
- Separatist Phase (1960 to present times)
Irenic Phase (1893 – 1919)
One can imagine a Christian collective of higher thought and critique coming together in publications to better understand the modernization of theology in the backdrop of German, Dutch, and French enlightenment periods. The church was aware of how modernity was seeping into theology, interpretation of biblical texts, and the understanding or perhaps misunderstanding of the supernatural, and here a body of believers saw it fit to challenge these ideas. There was a mutual understanding among believers of varied denominations that a modernist approach to biblical texts, without a hermeneutical context and a healthy philosophy regarding God and people, would lead the church to a broken understanding of revelation and humanity.
Hostility toward anything from Germany because of the war led believers to quiver and recoil from anything Germanic in nature, be it German theology, German philosophy, and even German citizens. Nativist arguments coiled with post-war sentiments led to an all high disenfranchisement from all things German, especially German liberal theology.
So what began as a peaceful group effort to counter changing winds of doctrine and interpretation scripture would lead to a more sinister and possibly hostile environment for thought in later times.
Militant Phase (1920 – 1936)
Where we found a collective and peaceful higher thought approach to the challenge of modernity in the irenic phase of fundamentalism, here, however, we find a militancy from clergy, a struggle of sorts, to combat the changing tides of theological and cultural acceptance. Open evangelical sentiments died at the birth of militant fundamentalism, Taylor states.
Fundamentalists went on the advance against modernity by forming organizations and associations through which they could voice their disfavor, per se, of cultural modernity. Finger-pointing, name-calling, and dissociative sentiments began to flourish in circles where at one point one could find healthy and wholesome fraternization and openness of thought.
Whoever did not outright oppose modernity, German, Dutch, and French liberal theology, were not only deemed unfit for leadership but were also threatened with denominational abandonment. The “us vs them” mindset gained traction under militant fundamentalism that is still very much seen and experienced today.
Antagonism was the conventional method fundamentalists used to distinguish themselves from their more peaceable forerunners and to this day the world takes notice of this behavioral shift and the embarrassing ramifications thereof.
Divisive Phase (1941 – 1960)
So we see fundamentalism progress from an ecumenical endeavor to a militant name-calling bellicose front, and into an ugly schismatic feudalistic entity. The American Council of Christian Churches (A.C.C.C.) is formed to counter and condemn the modernity of the National Association of Evangelicals (N.A.E.) and vice versa. Each condemned the other of being more neo-evangelical (pejorative used to diminish the zeal of less combative and antagonistic compromising fundamentalists who ‘capitulated to cultural modernity’).
Later, an international arm of the A.C.C.C. would concretize the fundamentals of fundamentalism so as not to be grouped with what they deemed liberal and sacrilegious denominations that had sold their souls to the pagan gods of the modern age. The agreed-upon tenets of this new and larger organization, the International Council of Christian Churches (I.C.C.C.) were:
- A belief in the fundamentals of the faith (inerrancy of scripture, virgin birth, miracles, the deity of Christ, substitutionary atonement, and the second advent of Christ)
- A separatist impulse
- A commitment to soul-winning (or conversionism)
- A militant attitude toward liberalism
Neo-evangelicalism, later simplified as evangelicalism, would be adopted by the likes of Billy Graham and Charles Templeton as they prized the term to differentiate their branch of Christianity from fundamentalism.
The tenets of neo-evangelicalism were accepted and publicly shared like this:
- Biblical authority
- The holiness of God
- A revealing God
- A creating, supernatural God
- Man, created in God’s image
- The sinfulness of man
- The love of God
- The death of Christ (crucifixion)
- The new birth (born again)
- Social action (civil rights and economic equity)
- Return of Christ
Fundamentalism under the Divisive Phase shared all of these tenets with neo-evangelicalism, except, and unsurprisingly, the socially active arm of this lineage. Fundamentalists would later criticize Billy Graham and his contemporaries for joining forces with the likes of the minister and activist Martin Luther King Jr. because the evangelical effort lost its way by focusing on social efforts instead of gospel efforts. To them, the racial integration of the church and the zeal for justice through gospel preaching and local ecumenical work was a liberal and modernist ploy to disintegrate the church. Graham gladly dissociated himself from his fundamentalist roots to become the accepted American archetype of evangelicalism.
Separatist Phase (the 1960s to present day)
This last front of fundamentalism is where much of my church family rose to prominence within the community and is still very much at work in our time. It is here that we find the rise of the sexual revolution, second-wave feminism, and civil rights activism at the helm of popular culture. As we have seen the fundamentalist church, at first, peacefully critique these sudden cultural shifts, then take a militant stance towards modernity within, later create schisms within, and now, in its final form, it creates an ugly schism between the church, private life, and public life, outside the church. Fundamentalist leaders were not content in creating subgroups and sub-denominations within Christianity, they wanted to separate Christianity from the culture altogether.
It is under the power and influence of the Separatist Phase of fundamentalism that we find a drastic shift in how congregants are controlled, isolated, indoctrinated, and set off to radicalize the world with militant, jihad-like, preaching. Ever heard a “hell-fire and brimstone” sermon? You’ve got a fundamentalist to thank for them.
In this final phase, we see legalistic tendencies take deeper roots within the church so as to separate the church, in aesthetics, from the world. As Taylor states, anyone who wore sideburns, long hair, beards, flare-bottom pants, boots, wire-rimmed glasses, or silk skirts were considered liberals and modernists bent on destroying the fundamentals of the church. Therefore, an extreme effort was undertaken by the male-led authoritarian ministers’ caste to shame, denounce, vilify, and destroy people into submission to modes and methods to separate the church from the world.
Behavior codes, regulations, personal grooming, fashion, music sense, instrument choice, genre, and unwritten rules became doctrines.
What a nightmare.
Ecclesiastical institutions and agencies were built by, funded by, and run by charismatic evangelical tyrants who wanted to maintain the fabric of their dominance and hegemony over uneducated and at times frightened adherents by sending them to schools and colleges that mirrored their newer doctrines. Everything that would mirror curriculum, mannerisms, attitudes, and the teachings of fundamentalist churches.
Fundamentalists would send their children to institutions they deemed godly, orthodox, and anti-liberal like these:
- Bob Jones University
- Clearwater Christian College
- Maranatha Baptist Bible College
- Pillsbury Baptist Bible College
- Shelton College
And would condemn any of their congregants who dared attend the modernist, liberal, and ungodly evangelical and accredited institutions listed below:
- Asbury College
- Biola University
- Moody Bible Institute
- Wheaton College
- Columbia Bible College
The goal of Separatist Fundamentalists was to maintain control of their adherents’ sex lives, worship lives, family rules, dress codes, upbringing, denominational choices, or lack thereof, intellectual make-up, spousal and conjugal choices, and intellectual opportunities and intellectual affinity.
Fundamentalists wanted to control a person from birth through childhood, adolescence, youth, marriage, collegiate phase, ministry in adulthood, and death. Their effort was to separate the believer from the guiles and chains of modernism and theological liberalism at all costs.
Separation. Isolation. Indoctrination. Radicalization.
Fundamentalism, the devil’s highway into the church.
A cult, really.
Justin Taylor informs us that fundamentalism is neither static nor monolithic. It has changed from the 1890s to this day and chances are it may change again. It progressed from irenic and honorable efforts to militancy, to schisms, and so far, it rests or perhaps is resting for a greater effort under the separatist banner to become something more sinister and domineering.
(Handmaid’s Tale, anyone?)
Today, fundamentalists take pride in their avid extremes, but what they fail to see is that their fanaticism is cultic and their understanding of Christ, the gospel, and Christianity is skewed. The lens through which they view reality is blurred, dirty, and only understood, rather, misconstrued by American exceptionalism.
Even though I grew up in a Brazilian watered-down version of fundamentalism, at least there, we were allowed to read, though it took time for this allowance, works of great thinkers we disagreed with.
This liberty along with my parents’ nagging that we should invest our minds into the arts, literature, diversity, and more, assisted us in breaking free from the fundamentalist mold.
One of the more pivotally enlightening works of history that I have managed to get my hands on and consume is Mark A. Noll’s book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (for more, read my review of Mark’s book here). Mark, a historian by trade, is a Christian leader who delved into the timeline of intellectual deterioration within the church. He found that in evangelical turned fundamentalist turned evangelical fanatical circles, the pursuit of reactionary militancy toward modernity instead of a wholesome understanding of theology with its sister studies, philosophy, and observational science, led the Christian church back into the dark ages of intellectual immaturity and superstition.
I was glad to find and pinpoint where exactly my ecclesiological upbringing went wrong and why. This brought me peace, not fear because I always knew there was more to Jesus than dress codes, condemnation of tattoos, shunning of theaters, alcohol, science fiction novels, soccer, games, sports, women in pants, men with facial hair, and underdressed church attendees.
I’m sure Jesus wore a long dress, as was the custom for men to wear in his time. He may have had long hair and possibly a beard. The bible tells us soldiers would beat him and rip his beard with their bare hands. Telling. Jesus reached out to sinners. He forgave them. He condemned legalists and authoritarian men who willed people into submission and positions that they could not live in themselves. Jesus was a thinker, a reader, and a genius. His disciples and apostles would later pen letters that would be paragons of revelatory literature for centuries. Styles and forms that many attempted to replicate but failed miserably.
Jesus was, is, and will continue to be God, whereas we are just men and women.
I look back to the ways I treated people who disagreed with me and my ecclesiological makeup; how I condemned them, brought them shame, and found pride in how I was able to dismantle their liberalism.
Little did I know I was in fact a slave to a disease called fundamentalism.
I believe Jesus has healed me of it. Remnants of it remain within me still, at times trying and failing to regain control of my ardent faith and pursuit of Christ. But thanks be to God who calls me to kill my flesh, daily, and to pick up my cross and carry it, daily.
I find more comfort in listening to people I disagree with. Not to say that I listen to anyone who has something to say just because they’re angry or want to pick a fight. These people want nothing more than to create discord and schisms.
I’m not looking for that. Not within the church anymore. And less so outside the church.
I’ve progressed, or at least I hope I am progressing from this elementary schoolyard bully tactics mentality of mob rule and us vs them methods. I understand the body of Christ is diverse, rich in its diversity, allowing for groups of all sorts to accomplish the great commission on earth in its varied ways. The gospel, I have come to understand and accept and share, is centered on Christ’s efficacious and salvific work on the cross, but if it stops with individual conversion, not allowing me to focus on the wellbeing of my neighbor because he or she is not, say, Christian, then my understanding of the gospel is marred.
I admit, however, that my theology is still very much conservative, more so, orthodox than anything.
I very much believe in the Five Solas of Protestantism. My faith is held together…
- By Scripture alone
- By Faith alone
- By Grace alone
- In Christ alone
- And all Glory is to God alone
And according to historian David Bebbington, I am very much an evangelical, because according to his observation, I too believe in biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism, and activism. My faith focuses on the revealed word of God, the focal point of the bible which is the cross of Christ, on the great commission given to us by Christ, and finally, on wholesome activism that feeds both the soul and the body. Activism that liberates and severs the chains of bondage. That challenges corrupt systems that were set up to disadvantage one race, one people, one entire continent for the benefit of another. I stand, by the grace of Christ, to deliver this beautiful message of salvation, forgiveness, redemption, and hope beyond the grave, but whilst here, I also preach to condemn the actions of a fallen government and stand to represent the voiceless and the vulnerable.
But that is the definition by which I am considered an evangelical. For if we compare the moniker with what evangelicalism represents in the United States today, which is nothing more than a more accepted version of fundamentalism turned into a political force for the conservative Right, then no, I despise that form of evangelicalism the same way I disdain the fundamentalism I was raised in.
Historian David Bebbington continues, explaining to us what evangelicalism becomes when it is removed from its healthy theological sphere and reduced to a mere arm of fundamentalist political force: Christian nationalism, Christian tribalism, political moralism, and anti-statism.
A horrifying state religion.
If there is any consolation, be made aware that Christ’s heart is gentle and lowly and He is a forgiving God who erases our mistakes, our pride, our stupidity, and arrogance. He removes from us a heart of stone, of fundamentalist stone, and replaces it with a heart of flesh in which His Spirit can find a dwelling.
What a beautiful Jesus. Thank you, Jesus.
I’ve made it out, by the grace of God, and I believe you can too if you’re still there. I believe you can, too.
Questions to consider
- According to this blog post, do you believe you were raised in a fundamentalist church? If so, are you still there? If yes, why?
- Has your belief separated and isolated you? Are you able to question local church authority when you notice their many moral failings?
- What modes or unwritten rules were you subjected to in your church? Say, long skirts, suits, no alcohol, no theater or sports?
- Does your faith leave you riddled by guilt, shame, and fear of the after-life? Could it be that you have yet to meet Jesus for the forgiveness of your sins?