Why Did Evangelicals Break Away From Fundamentalism?
February 25, 2013
By Dr. Don Boys, Ph.D.
Non-Catholic churches in America and Canada can be divided loosely into Modernists (who don’t believe the Bible is the Word of God); Evangelicals (who claim to believe in the veracity of the Word but won’t fight or even fuss about it); and Fundamentalists (who believe in the fundamentals of the Word of God and are accused of being mad at everyone else).
The title “fundamentalist” is taken from a series of 12 books published in 1910-1915 written by 65 leading Christian scholars; however, I believe that such Christians go back to the beginning of Christianity! All believers in the early churches were Fundamentalists until the Gnostics arrived! The early Christians simply believed in “the fundamentals,” not only what is essential but what is important.
I gladly wear the badge of “Fundamentalist” because I have discovered in my life that these people are the finest, godliest, kindest, theologically sound, and most sincere people alive. Yes, we have had and will have a few scoundrels who have embarrassed Christianity but then that was true for Paul and the Corinthian church. The Bible commands us how to deal with public sinners; however, even many Fundamentalist churches usually refuse to follow that command. I’m still thrilled to be a Fundamentalist.
The Modernist-Fundamentalist battle raged back in the 40s and 50s when many mainline churches and seminaries, led by unbelieving pastors and professors, lost hundreds of churches to the Fundamentalist camp. Many of those Modernists confessed to be true Christians at their ordination and at the signing of doctrinal positions but were dishonest, only pretending to be Bible Christians. Some were so radical they climbed into bed with Communists!
The fat hit the fire in the late 40s when many dissatisfied Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, and a few others exposed the rabid unbelief and Communist influence in the churches, colleges, periodicals, seminaries, and mission boards. Error cannot survive with truth just as darkness cannot coexist with light. Over several years, courageous fundamentalist pastors left their church buildings, denominations, friends, pulpits, income, and retirement plans to begin anew in a hired hall or storefront church. It was a singular time in religious history to be compared, with a little hyperbole, to the Egyptian Exodus and the Protestant Reformation.
After the division, the issue was clear: we had unbelieving Modernists on one side and believing Fundamentalists on the other side. Then, in the late 40s and early 50s a formal schism happened when more liberal pastors pulled away from fundamentalism and became “New Evangelicals.” The Fundamentalists preached strict adherence to Bible teaching that included a “coming out” principle. They taught that believers should “come out” from unbelieving organizations as many of them had done. Fundamentalists also taught that they must contend for the faith and exhort people to do the right thing at all times. They also preached what their critics thought was a little too much about Judgment and Hell to come.
Sometimes while preaching, Fundamentalists even took off their suit coat and rolled up their sleeves! Some even sweated profusely to the disgust of the sophisticated in their audience. It seems few want to be associated with the memory of an uncouth John the Baptist; after all, he lost his head. Most New Evangelicals don’t have to worry about that. They do lose their senses, if not their composure, when they try to explain why they left their Fundamentalist roots.
Moreover, Fundamentalists preached that people who had been Born Again should live as if they had a new life. Christians were expected to tell the truth, be faithful to a spouse, obey the laws, pay their bills, live godly lives, and train their children to do the same. Some leaders went to extremes and made lists for members to follow. And yes, some things on the lists were silly with no scriptural support. Of course, that was exactly what the Jewish leaders did in Christ’s day.
There was concern on the part of Evangelicals that Fundamentalists were not cognizant, concerned, or committed to social problems; however, Fundamentalists believed that their main message was Christ and His death and resurrection. They remembered the debacle in the 1920s when the social gospel was preached and Fundamentalists wanted to steer away from that deadly error.
A snooty Evangelical falsely charged that a Fundamentalist who “was prepared to even speak to a Roman Catholic was often considered liberal and fatally compromised.” Intellectually speaking, that is poppycock and a generous portion of hogwash. In more than fifty years in Fundamentalist churches I have never been aware of that–nothing close to that. That’s dishonesty.
Evangelicals were always embarrassed about Fundamentalists’ “responsible militancy.” Evangelicals only get militant opposing Fundamentalists! I have noticed that the leading Evangelicals are far more patient and kind to unbelievers than to Fundamentalists. Very strange, especially when Evangelicals speak and write so much about love and tolerance. But the love and tolerance do not go to Fundamentalists.
It’s a fact: if a Christian is not militant, he is not a Bible-practicing person! Not mad, or malicious, or mean, but militant.
The accusation is made that Fundamentalists always insist on a literal interpretation of scripture–even the metaphors and allegories. Nonsense, all Fundamentalists (even the dumbest among us) are aware that trees don’t have hands to clap; however, we do believe that God is trying to tell us something with every Bible passage. Even non-seminarians know that the Bible contains poetry, parables, proverbs, and prophecies as well as history.
A true scholar asks, “What does God want me know about that passage?“ Evangelicals may ask the same question, but after finding the truth of the scripture, they refuse to obey it. With them, “love” is far more important than truth; however, truth without love is coldness and love without truth is corruption.
The fact is, we are to be Christians who love people, principle, and precepts.
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