Freedom And Fundamentalism

January 14th, 2010

My life has been lived in and around fundamentalism.  It has shaped my identity as a Christian, a youth pastor and a pastor.  I would like to lay out for you what I believe has been helpful and hurtful in Fundamentalism, generally as it relates to the movement, and particularly as it relates to me. 

There are thousands who have had similar experiences to mine, just as there are thousands who could read this evaluation and write me off as “knowing nothing of what real fundamentalism is.”  And, may I say, both would be correct.  There is broadness in fundamentalism that is confusing because everyone from heathen terrorists to Biblical peacemakers have been described as ‘fundamentalists’.  Where do I fall in that spectrum?

I was raised in a Baptist church that withdrew from the American Baptist Convention in the 1970s to join other “independent, fundamental Baptist” churches.  Churches like the one I grew up in formed their own fellowship of churches called the Fundamental Baptist Fellowship.  I received my higher education at one of the premier FBF institutions, Bob Jones University. 

I went willingly, and graduated from the University, as well as their graduate school and seminary.  I was ordained by the church I grew up in; and entered the world of ministry knowing that I was a fundamentalist.  I left my Pennsylvanian upbringing and my South Carolinian home for the great mission field of California.

Fresh out of seminary, I was confident in my training and committed in my faith.  I knew the Bible held clear answers to all of life’s problems.  I knew the right phrases, the right way of doing things, the right responses and even had the right attitude.  In short, I was cocky.

The fundamentalism that raised and trained me did not prepare me for most of what I would face.  I am grateful for the education I have received.  I am indebted to the professors and pastors who invested in me and allowed me to serve alongside them in ministry.  To my knowledge, I have no enemies at my alma mater or at the previous churches in which I have served.  My criticisms are not aimed at any institution or individual; but at the movement as a whole.  My main criticism is this: in an attempt to ‘get it right’, fundamentalism has wronged a great many people. 

Do you like cookies?  You have your favorite, I’m sure.  Some prefer Oreos, others are Archway aficionados; my favorites are home-made oatmeal raisin cookies.  Regardless of what your favorite may be, ask this important question:  What makes it your favorite?  I would dare say that very few of you responded immediately:  “It’s my favorite because of its shape.”  Almost every one of you replied about the flavor, taste or texture of the cookie, right?  If the right ingredients are used in the right proportions, you can have Oreos shaped like footballs and they will still be good.  The right ingredients in the right proportions produce good cookies regardless of its shape or size.  The cookie maker that focuses primarily on the shape of the cookie to the neglect of the ingredients will soon be looking for someone to buy his equipment on eBay.

As I look from within fundamentalism as a movement, too much time has been spent on the “look” of the cookie than on the ingredients.  The fundamentalism that raised me taught me to stay within the lines, on the right side of the tracks and within the box – in other words, I was taught that cookies (ministry) only came in one shape.  Practically speaking, a “good fundamentalist church” would have its pastor dress a certain way, preach from one of a very few certain translations, conduct community outreach by utilizing a certain program developed either by ‘one of our people’ or someone ‘we can trust’, hold to a certain order of service and recommend our young people to attend only certain institutes of higher learning.  As long as my cookies fit that prescribed shape, it was good – and people would line up for them like I was the ministerial version of Mrs. Fields.

None of those criteria are inherently wrong; but none of these make a church ‘good’.  I would have much rather appreciated a brand of fundamentalism that raised me to know how to think more than to toe the party line.  I longed for answers to the “why” of my beliefs and cringed every time the answer came back “This is WHAT to believe.”  I deeply desired someone—anyone– to come alongside this apprentice baker (to fall back on the cookie analogy) and tell me “Here are the ingredients to use, these are the proportions that work best, now be creative and see what kind of cookies you can make.”

The challenge for young fundamentalists today is the same as is faced by every follower of Christ:  making the cause and claims of Jesus Christ relevant to an ignorant apathetic world.  Fundamentalists have done a good job preserving the fundamentals of the faith – inspiration, incarnation, the Virgin birth, the solas of the Reformation, etc. – but a poor job presenting them in a relevant fashion to an ever-changing culture.

My fundamentalist upbringing instilled in my heart and mind the information needed for successful ministry – but following Jesus Christ is about more than just accumulating knowledge.  I was fortunate to receive practical training from a small church in California right after I left seminary.  This small mountain ministry helped me transition from the ivory towers of academia to the trenches of daily warfare that every member of your church faces.  These folks in a simple, direct and loving way allowed me to find the answers when I discovered I didn’t know them; they forgave me when I tried to force them into the shape of the boxes I had been instructed everyone should fit into; they displayed authentic Christianity through a fundamentalist lens.

My title at the church was “minister”, but I was being ministered to more than I was giving.  From that rural setting, I joined the staff of a suburban church that was not in the circle of Fundamentalism that raised me.  I cannot begin to describe the liberation I felt as I began to realize that “we can do this and still be Christians?”  I wish I could report that the transition from one circle to another was easy and accepted, but it was not; there are several who thought that by going ‘to another camp’ I had abandoned my faith and shipwrecked my salvation.  I appreciate their concern, but I was discovering freedom!


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.