From Think on These Things, Mar/Apr 2016. Essentially the same article also appears in Voice magazine. Read Part 1.
The Second Great Divide
The colossal differences between liberals and conservatives were crystallized around the turn of the century with the subsequent division of the two camps occurring in the 1920s and 1930s. At this point the conflict was often referred to as the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy but, as the years rolled by, another division was looming, this one among the Fundamentalists.
By the 1940s the question of cultural and social engagement had arisen within the Fundamentalists’ camps. The original Fundamentalists, perhaps oversensitive to the social gospel that was at the heart of liberalism, often pushed away from any form of social action. In time, some felt that they had gone too far and needed to become more involved with the culture and improve society, as well as preach the gospel.
This ultimately led to a split within the conservative camp. The Fundamentalists would take on more separatist views, that is, they would separate from any who taught false doctrines and, rather than try to infiltrate society, they would live as lights of the gospel calling people to Christ. On the other hand, the opposing position would be termed new (or neo) evangelical.
Neo-evangelicals believed that the church had the mandate not only to win and disciple the lost but to engage the culture and make the world a better place to live by changing social structures that cause grief and suffering. Many see 1957 as the year of the official rupture between Fundamentalists and neo-evangelicals, for it was that year that the two groups divided over Billy Graham accepting an invitation to conduct a crusade in New York City sponsored by a consortium of conservative and liberal churches.
The Fundamentalists opposed Graham while neo-evangelicals made him the face of their movement.1 Since that time neo-evangelicals have become better organized, more influential, and more widely funded as they have united over many causes, both spiritual and cultural.
Evangelicals, however, have not been without their problems. The movement has continued to spread and broaden theologically to the point that defining the word “evangelical” has become an exercise in futility. Conservatives, Pentecostals, Prosperity Gospel proponents, and even many Roman Catholics are all claiming the title evangelical, although the doctrinal beliefs between these factions differ widely. Fundamentalists, on the other hand, perhaps because of their very nature as separatists, have been increasingly marginalized and content to go about the business of fulfilling the Great Commission.
As we have now made the turn into the 21st century we can look back with some insights and some questions. Liberalism, which seemed to have won the day as the 20th century dawned, has lost most of its steam. Evangelicals make most of the waves today, but in order to do so, they have had to increasingly widen their views, practices and doctrines to include those they would have deemed heretical in the mid-1900s. They seem to be united mostly over social action rather than the Great Commission.
Without question, it is the Fundamentalists who have been able to safeguard the gospel and the Scriptures, even as they have lost influence in society. As one student of the church has correctly observed,
At root, however, it is a question of how to engage the culture without losing one’s soul. Fundamentalism feared losing its soul and did not engage the culture; evangelicalism feared being different from the culture and is in danger of losing its soul.2
In the 1920s and 1930s differences between conservative and liberal churches came to a head in America. Out of that controversy came new denominations, fellowships, schools, missions, etc., which separated from those who no longer believed in biblical Christianity. These organizations were founded by believers who desired to hold fast and “contend earnestly for the faith” (Jude 3).
One of the big problems at that time (as it is today) was developing a consensus concerning the essentials of the faith. That is, what doctrinal truths were absolutely necessary? What did all Christians who claimed to be orthodox believe and, conversely, what could be left to individual convictions? In other words, what was non-negotiable in the faith? A series of volumes, published originally in 1909 entitled The Fundamentals for Today (mentioned earlier in this article), were an attempt to answer those questions. Written by some of the finest conservative scholars and church leaders of the day, The Fundamentals addressed the doctrines of Christology and soteriology, but almost one third of the essays concerned the reliability of Scripture. What emerged from this has become known as the Fundamentalist movement. A Fundamentalist was simply one who adhered to the fundamentals of the faith, primarily as described in The Fundamentals. One of those fundamentals was the belief in an infallible and inerrant Bible.
As time moved on, those who would become known as evangelicals split from Fundamentalism. Evangelicals still held to the fundamentals of the faith, but believed there was more room to compromise and work with those who denied some of the essentials. Of course, today there are many sub-groupings under these titles, but that is not our subject. Our point is that, by definition, all Fundamentalists and evangelicals supposedly adhere to the belief that the Bible is the only authoritative revelation from God to man, without error in the original, and is correct in all that it affirms. So how do the two differ?
The primary caricature of Fundamentalism is that it is in essence legalism. Legalism is one of the hot-button words that everyone seems to use and few know what it is—they just “know” they are not personally legalistic (almost no one would say he identifies himself as legalist). In declaring Fundamentalists as legalistic the most common comparison offered is with that of the Pharisees, with the idea that Fundamentalists are modern day Pharisees hung up on external rules, comparisons and judgmentalism. Jesus certainly condemned the Pharisees’ hypocrisy and judgmentalism but the heart of Pharisaic legalism had more to do with their handling of Scripture than rule-keeping. In Mark 7:1-13 (and the parallel passage in Matthew 15:1-9) Jesus’ concern ran much deeper than the practices of the Pharisees—all the way to their handling, or should I say, mishandling of the Word of God.
The encounter (as recorded in Mark 7) between Jesus and the Pharisees took place somewhere in Galilee, probably after the feeding of the 5000. The Pharisees, as a religious sect, followed the teachings of the scribes, who were the official interpreters of the Mosaic Law and the guardians of its sanctity. Their interpretations formed the basis for the practices of the Pharisees.
In verses 3-4, Mark, who is writing primarily to Gentiles, adds a footnote of sorts because he realizes that many of his readers will not understand why the Pharisees were angry at Jesus. We are at the same disadvantage. In dispute was the tradition of the elders (v.5). This was a body of minute regulations passed down orally by leading rabbis. Later these traditions were recorded in the Mishna; later still a commentary on the Mishna called the Gemara was added. Together they would make up the Talmud, a Jewish religious book that, in reality, became more important to the Jews than the Scriptures.
The oral tradition probably started with the best of intentions. The rabbis, during the intertestamental period, sought to protect the sacred law of Moses by “putting a fence” around it in the form of detailed rules which would regulate every aspect of daily conduct. They developed extremely detailed rituals concerning ceremonial washings of hands and the body. The Law itself required such purification only for the priests under certain circumstances (Lev 16:4, 24, 26; 22:6), and for others on specific occasions such as purification from disease (Lev 14:8-9; 15:5-27). The Pharisees apparently decided that if it was good enough for the priest it was good enough for everybody. And so an elaborate system of washing (the Mishna devotes no less than 30 chapters to the cleansing of vessels) was established. By the time of Jesus, any Jew who wanted to be considered pious followed the Pharisee’s oral tradition.
Today Christians do not officially have an authoritative oral tradition or a written Mishna, but it is not uncommon to develop their own traditions and standards that are elevated to biblical proportions. We will fight, split churches, and demonize fellow believers over styles of music, theater attendance, versions of the Bible, whether women can wear slacks, holiday observances and myriad of other issues. Like the Pharisees we have convinced ourselves that our convictions have the support of Scripture and therefore to not follow them is equal to disobedience to God. When we do so we have moved into the realm of legalism. At this point it is important to determine how Jesus described legalism in Mark seven. According to Jesus legalism is:
- Hypocrisy (v. 6a): The ancient word for hypocrite was used for actors on the stage who wore masks. In other words they were play actors. Hypocrites are people who are radially inconsistent with what they claim to be.
- Lip-service not heart service (v. 6b). While they make great boasts about how much they love the Lord, and how they worship and honor Him, the truth is they do none of these things with their hearts.
- Elevating man’s ideas to the level of doctrine (v. 7). When we confuse our opinions, convictions, and traditions with the doctrines of God we magnify ourselves and degrade God. Before long we can no longer distinguish between what is from God and what is our own creation.
- Neglecting the commandments of God (v. 8). Legalism is not obedience to God; it is just the opposite. When the opinions and rituals of men begin to dominate the spiritual lives of people, they inevitably lead to neglect of the commandments of God.
- Invalidating the Word of God (v. 13). Going one step further, legalists have abandoned and devalued the Word of God by replacing it with their own opinions, preferences and convictions, which undermine God’s Word.
Legalism it not having strong convictions, loving traditions or being sticklers for rules. Legalism happens anytime people take away from or trump the Word of God with their own opinions, ideas, convictions or traditions. This would mean that both theological liberals and conservatives could be legalist. The liberal invalidates the Word by saying it is unimportant, old fashioned, out of date, not politically correct or not really God’s Word. Therefore they subtract from the Word and replace it with their own ideas. The conservative, who claims to have a deep love for the Bible, can add his own views and convictions to the Divine Revelation and elevate them to the level and authority of Scripture. Both are legalists, and both are guilty of the sins that Jesus identifies as being the sins of the Pharisees. Today some theological conservatives have fallen into the legalistic trap. These could be defined as “cultural Fundamentalists.”
We are happy to be described as biblical Fundamentalists, but we are anxious to distinguish ourselves from cultural Fundamentalism. We see a number of important differences between the two.
Authority: Biblical Fundamentalism draws its understandings from the clear record of Scripture and believes God’s Word is the final authority on everything it touches (2 Tim 3:16-4:5). Cultural Fundamentalism, much like the Pharisaic legalism described above, tends to add personal, or corporate preferences and convictions to the inspired revelation and, in reality, these additions hold more weight than Scripture in matters of practice.
Sanctification: While cultural Fundamentalism emphasizes rules and regulations either as a means of spiritual growth or a measure of it, biblical Fundamentalism seeks to emphasize walking in the Spirit as outlined in texts such as Galatians 5:16-25.
Leadership: Some Fundamentalists exercise an authoritarian or dictatorial style of leadership which is often characterized by harshness. Biblical Fundamentalists see the importance of leadership but seek to live out the servant leadership style Jesus modelled and espoused in the Upper Room (Luke 22:24-27).
Attitude toward others: Whereas Fundamentalists are often accused of being judgmental and condemnatory toward those who do not measure up to their standard, biblical Fundamentalists seek to call one another to godly living with grace. They recognize their responsibility to restore those who struggle or have fallen into sin, but they also recognize that only the grace of God keeps them from similar failures (Gal 6:1-2). Therefore they desire to show the same grace as the Lord shows them, without minimizing the importance of obedience. Romans 14:1-4 makes clear that even the strongest of believers will differ over certain preferences and convictions which are not clearly defined in Scripture. We are not to look down upon those who do not agree with us nor judge them, for they are servants of Christ.
Separation: All Fundamentalists recognize the importance of the scriptural doctrine of separation (2 Cor 6:14-18)—it is one of the marks that distinguish them from many who call themselves evangelicals. But biblical Fundamentalists do not believe in isolation. They want to be engaged with this world, rescuing people from this “present evil age” (Gal 1:4), being lights in the world who reflect the love, grace and truth of Christ (Matt 5:14-16). The common criticism of Fundamentalists, that they don’t care about this present world, is not true of the biblical Fundamentalist.
Fear: Sadly, some within Fundamentalism have used intimidation to keep the troops in line. As a result the fear of man can be prominent. The biblical Fundamentalist seeks to guard their steps so as to not be a stumbling block to weaker believers (1 Cor 8:1-13), but their main concern is the fear of the Lord and pleasing Him (1 Cor 5:9).
Gary Gilley has served as Senior Pastor of Southern View Chapel in Springfield, Illinois since 1975. He has authored several books and is the book review editor for the Journal of Dispensational Theology. He received his BA from Moody Bible Institute. He and his wife Marsha have two adult sons and six grandchildren.