Essay / Theology

Fundamentalism

“Fundamentalism” is a bad word in most circles and, perhaps, rightly so. No one minds being called “orthodox” or even “conservative” but being called a “fundamentalist” is like having the neighborhood bully call you names while you walk home from school. It’s derogatory and, most often, demeaning. Of course, some own up to the title (think Independent Fundamental Churches of America) but most of us shy away from it. What I find interesting, however, is how frequently churches tend towards a kind of functional fundamentalism even when their espoused church structure and/or theology is antagonistic towards fundamentalism (which I’ll define as a strict adherence to a narrowly defined set of secondary or tertiary beliefs and adiaphora).

For example, Anglican churches have an episcopal form of church government. That is, each local church has a vestry which makes the day-to-day decisions but it’s the local bishop who is the spiritual head of the congregation. According to some theologians (and I tend to agree), the bishop is actually the pastor of each local church with the oversight of the parish committed to the bishop’s co-pastor, the local priest. The bishop pastors the priest, who in turn pastors the people. It’s been this way since the formation of the Anglican church. So, to act like it is other than this appears, well, abnormal and less than Anglican. For an Anglican priest or parish to suggest that he/they reject their bishop’s authority is incoherent and certainly against the letter and the spirit of Anglican theology. To reject a bishop’s teaching is to presume that the parish (and the priest) is over the bishop, that is, that the bishop is not the rightful pastor of the congregations committed to his oversight. Now, please understand, heretical bishops are to be rejected outright. Why? Because a heretical bishop is not a bishop, he’s just a man in a purple shirt. Heretical bishops (and unorthodox parish pastors for that matter) are to be rejected because of their very heresy which removes them from the office to which they’ve been appointed. However, to say that a heretical bishop is still a bishop and then to say “I reject his teaching,” is tending towards fundamentalism.

My experience with fundamentalist churches is that they are the beginning and end of themselves. It’s not that they reject the Scriptures or Jesus Christ, it’s that they reject anyone else’s interpretation of the Scriptures or anyone else’s “version” of Jesus. The fundamentalist motto is: Our way or the highway! In fact, I once heard a fundamentalist pastor say, “I don’t know all the truth. But the truth I know is the truth.” Isn’t that the same as saying, “I know everything and I’m always right”? This kind of thinking, of course, is arrogant, insidious and divisive. Please hear me, I’m not suggesting that truth is relative. I’m simply affirming that truth, which can be known, is not the preserve of any one person, local church or Christian tradition. God himself is the Truth — end of story. The rest of us, this side of Paradise at least, continue to hobble along looking for a fuller clarity of the Scriptures and God’s providence in the world. All of us, that is, except for the fundamentalist. He’s always in possession of the truth and he’s most often willing to let you know so.

Now, for those churches that are avowed fundamentalists (and, often, unapologetically so) — so be it. They know what they are and they live into that reality. However, what perplexes me is when a non-fundamentalist church begins acting like one. Such as the Anglican parish who begins to view itself as less Anglican and more fundamentalist and then begins to act accordingly. A local church that says, “We know what is best in all circumstances and we accept what we judge to be good theology and reject what we perceive to be bad theology at our own discretion,” is tending towards, if not already espousing, a fundamentalist perspective of the church of Jesus Christ. It’s the same as saying, “What we do is what the church has always done. We’re right and you’re wrong.” They too are guilty of the I-know-everything-and-I’m-always-right mentality. These churches seem to always crouch their criticisms of others in less than precise language, such as: “The church has always believed that…” or “The catholic faith teaches that…” Despite the fact that hundreds of brilliantly-minded theologians have given and continue to give their lives to the task of discerning and describing sound, orthodox theology yet still disagree with one another is swept aside with a mere wave of the hand. That John Calvin and Thomas Aquinas saw things differently about many areas of theology seems irrelevant to the fundamentalist who appears to possess the fullness of the faith at any given moment. Fundamentalists have an uncanny ability to trivialize 2,000 years of church history and theologizing. Such behavior should certainly give us reason to pause.

Finally, fundamentalism is, I believe, the equivalent of a name brand. That is, Nike will always have their “swoosh” and BMW will always have their silver airplane propeller against a blue sky. It’s what identifies these brands from a distance. Every version of fundamentalism is a name brand. The fundamentalist says, “This church, in this place believes X, Y and Z. We have a robust ministry to families, are characterized by our adherence to the true faith of the apostles, are diverse while orthodox, are steadfast amidst the winds of change and will remain this way until Christ comes again. We’re a brand and you can recognize our brand by these traits. And, by the way, we’re the best brand and you should never change brands.”

My experience with fundamentalists is quite negative. I think fundamentalists, ultimately, are divisive and harmful to the larger project of spreading God’s kingdom on the earth. Fundamentalists often lack the charity to recognize true believers who are led to worship and be active in those “other” churches. Because fundamentalists often view their own local church as the true church of Jesus Christ, they are isolationists and create a spirit of disunity. Again, truth is important. The church that Jesus Christ’s established on this earth will always be characterized by its possession of the Truth and orthodoxy, even if her pastors and theologians don’t have it all figured out. That church, however, is not synonymous with any one local church; therefore, fundamentalism stands against the very spirit of God’s “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.”

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