Fundamentalism and Culture: a Heart for Healthy Debate

I have friends who believe in baptizing infants. We remain friends even though we both believe that (a) getting baptism right is important and that (b) the other guy is just plain wrong. Though we disagree about a matter that is weighty to both of us, we get along just fine.

Of course, there are some things my friends’ churches and my own would not be able to do together. There are also things our churches could do together, if there was much to gain by doing them together. Nonetheless, we get along just fine.

Apparently it’s possible to hold firmly to a set of convictions, live them faithfully, and teach them emphatically, yet simultaneously stay on respectful, friendly terms with Christians who reject those same convictions.

So why can’t the fundamentalism-and-culture disagreements work that way?

Well, they can. It does happen.

Just as I have friends who baptize infants, I also have friends who use music in worship that I could never use in good conscience. They do other culture-oriented things I don’t think are right either. Each of us knows where the other stands and, to some degree, why. We don’t back down, but we get along fine. If we wanted to, I think we could even have a healthy debate about these matters. So why is the interaction on culture questions usually so unlike that?

One reason is that a healthy debate begins with a certain state of mind and heart. Clues about that state of heart are evident in the peaceful relationships between paedo- and credo-baptists, and evident also among believers who differ on culture, yet get along.

1. Respect

Respect has several varieties. One is the kind we show by choice independently of what we think or feel; it is something owed that we pay (Rom. 13:7). If Mr. Obama came by for a visit, I’d try to make sure he got the most comfortable seat in the house and the best meal we could put on. I’d call him “Mr. President.”

Another kind of respect must be earned. It’s a combination of intellect and heart: positive opinion plus high regard. We don’t consciously choose this kind of respect because the object of the respect evokes it in us by his or her spirit and conduct.

A third kind of respect is perhaps a blend of the first two. It is internal, yet intentional. It’s a decision to consider what sort of opinion I ought to have of persons when they have not earned my unintentional respect but have also not earned a lack of respect from me. I may have to examine my heart and challenge my impulses, but if I do, I am forced to admit that I have no reason to believe this person is a fool, a deceiver, or a malicious crank.

In other words, there is a kind of respect we owe fellow human beings—and far more so, fellow believers—by default. It’s a respect we presume.

Between my culturally non-conservative friends and me there exists a level of respect that contributes a great deal to our getting along. I know that their beliefs in this area do not constitute proof that their love for God is inferior, that their commitment to obedience is lacking, or that—on the whole—their degree of ignorance is greater than mine. (They are ignorant, but we are all ignorant of many things!)

For the most part, they apparently believe the same about me.

2. Understanding

Though there are still ugly fights over baptism now and then, the tension isn’t nearly so ubiquitous as what we typicially see over culture questions. Cases of conspicuous gettin’ along are far more common among folk who disagree on baptism, too. Why?

For one thing, the baptism debate is so, so old. A product of that oldness is that the conflicting views have actually become clear—and clarity discourages ugly meta-debate. Anyone who wants to understand the baptism debate can pretty easily find literature in which the conflicting views are fairly represented in terms the adherents accept (mostly), and in which both the points of agreement and the points of disagreement are widely recognized.

In short, at some point, the baptism debate grew up. It got beyond adolescence. Some who disagree on that subject can’t get along. But the debate itself has grown up. It gets adolescent only when those involved ignore what has already been settled. 

My culturally non-conservative friends and I get along, in part, because we understand to some degree what the other believes and why. Though some points of disagreement and reasons why remain unclear, we understand that our differences do not in themselves entitle either of us to think ourselves better than the other. Oh, we both think we’re better than the other in the areas in question. We just understand that better in one way is just better in one way, nothing more. If my fellow believer is more patient than I am, more joyful than I am, more humble than I am, it doesn’t make him right about culture. But it does mean he’s still more patient, more joyful and more humble.

And if I fail to appreciate that, I’m sinning, plain and simple. 

3. Space

I have a relative who is an ordained Episcopal priest. We get along fine. It helps that his denomination is what most of us would call separatist (though they do not see it that way at all)—it is a communion that holds to the inerrancy and authority of Scripture and emphasizes the gospel.

This relative and I are not together often, but when we are, the conversation is—at least for me—fascinating. Among other things, he posseses an awareness of huge chunks of Christian history from a perspective I don’t find anywhere else. But I digress. We get along mostly because we already know most of the places where we emphatically differ and simply don’t “go there.” It’s amazing how well you can get along with someone if niether of you ever attempts to talk the other out of anything.

Because that’s our usual mode of operation, I’m confident that neither of us would intentionally go to points of disagreement unless we had one of two goals in mind (if not both): (1) increasing understanding, or (2) a sincere effort to persuade.

How does this experience relate to the fundamentalism and culture debate? Mostly in this way: many who are vocal on the subject claim they are not interested in the subject. It’s a curious thing. If they see the whole matter as unimportant and/or long-settled, why do they keep talking about it, sometimes quite loudly?

I can only think of a couple of explanations: (1) they are more interested or less settled in their view than they realize, or (2) they engage in the conflict for some purpose other than increasing understanding or a sincere effort to persuade. In the second case, what would their other aims be? I’ll not speculate, though it’s tempting—instead, an assertion:

Unless our aim is to increase understanding or make a sincere attempt to persuade we ought to seriously consider simply leaving the matter alone. “Peace through space” sounds like an ad for the International Space Station, but it might also make for a good motto for many in the culture clash.

4. Discipline

If for no other reason (but, yes, there are other reasons), the ambiguities of language virtually guarantee that even people who respect one another will—if they discuss or debate things they strongly disagree about—verbally offend. So believers who strongly disagree and manage to remain friends are those who, along with other factors, practice certain disciplines. I’ll not develop them in detail here, but these disciplines relate specifically to how we respond when people do us wrong with their words.

Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing. For “Whoever desires to love life and see good days, let him keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking deceit; let him turn away from evil and do good; let him seek peace and pursue it. (ESV, 1 Pet. 3:8-11)

Of course, there’s a time and place to rebuke. But it’s our nature (as human beings, not as fundamentalists) to employ the tool of rebuke too often, too soon, or simply for the wrong reasons. Sometimes we’re really just being vindictive or venting a bitter spirit.

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Rom. 12:19-21)

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There are 5 Comments

Bob Metze's picture

Love your thoughts and appreciate the underlying attitude of grace.  So when a missionary (don't worry, I'm not looking for support), has a contrary view of such cultural issues, should that eliminate one from being supported or cause one to lose support if he were to arrive at different conclusions?  Some missionaries are alarmed when they leave holding to applications as a "thus saith the Lord" only to discover great changes when they return.  Others wrestle with cultural issues while away and determine that many of the "fighting issues" are in fact cultural and that they should adjust some of their practices still applying God's principles.  That leads them to "do ministry" different than they would in the US as they recognize cultural differences and shifts.  Perhaps many missionaries live with the tension of many supporting pastors who are on opposing sides of the debate and make a missionary's position a potential support issue.  Maybe missionaries should just keep to themselves as much as possible and continue the stereotype that "they serve overseas because they could not pastor in the States".  I know that most missionaries are wise enough not to post here, but I hope that my perspectives might raise awareness of my fellow servants who minister in other cultures.

JNoël's picture

I think it would be interesting to have access to the conversations that were made in reply to any of the various Pauline letters. I'm fairly confident the church at Corinth had a response at some level to Paul's letter to them that eventually was recognized as NT Canon. Just considering the cultural aspect of the chapters on liberty and what conversation may have occured both within the church and between the church and Paul could have been interesting.



Ashamed of Jesus! of that Friend On whom for heaven my hopes depend! It must not be! be this my shame, That I no more revere His name. -Joseph Grigg (1720-1768)

Aaron Blumer's picture


Bob...  Yeah, getting along is much easier when you're talking about a relationship where not very much is at stake related to the points of disagreement. That's another factor in how it works for many of us. Part of our getting along is that we're not doing culture-sensitive things together (very much--just about everything is culture sensitive) Optimal distance. Space.

But when it's relationships between supporting churches and missionaries, or between pastors and their congregations, or between two church leaders within the same congregation you have a much bigger challenge, because there is no way to "do worship" that is neutral on these questions. Even if we try to ignore the topic of cultural factors entirely, we are still making decisions that derive from what we believe about culture. (Just by trying to leave the question out, we'd be tacitly claiming culture has no important meaning and cultural associations are not an important factor...  passivity does not equal neutrality).

Likewise, if we step out of the worship-at-church aspect, culture relates to every lifestyle choice we make, so some of the same complications apply. Neutrality is a fantasy.

So if we compare the missionary & supporting church relationship vis a vis culture to missionaries and churches vis a vis baptism, what can the similarities and dissimilarities teach us?

Well, because the baptism debate is so old, folks formed their partnerships for the most part long ago. There are probably mission boards that facilitate for both paedo- and credo- baptists, but it's unusual. So right up front, both missionaries and churches make choices about partnerships with positions on that question as a given.

Will the culture issue ever reach that point? I don't know. It's much messier because it's much harder to isolate the real points of agreement and disagreement from how we feel about it all and how we feel about the people involved.

But to a degree ministries already select partnerships based on their attitudes toward the cultural questions.

To some, it's just evil to do that because they believe the questions are just not that important. To me, the least sustainable view in all of the perspectives is the "it doesn't matter" view. But even getting clear on what that view really is and what arguments support it--getting some clarity--would be helpful. People could choose to form ministry partnerships with others who share their view that the issue is important... or with those who share their view that it is not important. (Either way, not partnering is a different thing from not being friends and respecting one another)

And those who don't need to have those kinds of relationships one way or the other, can just get along.

Clarity has to come first... and attitudes that lead to clarity have to come before that.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Dave Gilbert's picture

I'm not sure that any "debate" is healthy, but discussion with the intent to learn and be corrected is defintely healthy. I understand the usage of the term "debate", though. Wink


I also have friends with whom I disagree with things; But clear teachings as they are laid out in God's word don't seem to constitute many of them... On the occasions that I've run across people who adamantly disagree with the Bible on any point, I practice biblical separation to the best of my ability and remain friendly, but I do not make friends with them. For example, I do not have any Arminian friends...acquaintances, yes, but not friends.

There are many doctrines that visible Christianity and its "denominations" seem to have trouble with, and I understand the rules of behavior that are outlined in various passages that the Lord commands me to follow. I treat those who disagree with what I see graciously, tell the truth in love, and if they aren't receptive to God's word then I leave it at that and go my way ( there's also this passage to consider: Titus 3: 9-11 ).


Baptism is one of those doctrines, as characterized by Acts 8:36-38 ( those of you with newer English translations may not have verse 37 ( which is an underlying problem in itself ), " And Philip said, If thou believest with all thine heart, thou mayest. And he answered and said, I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. ") where we find in verse 38, " And he commanded the chariot to stand still: and they went down both into the water, both Philip and the eunuch; and he baptized him. " Other passages clearly show immersion, and I can't seem to find any examples of people who are not able to, willing to, or are not of sufficient age to understand the Gospel and confess their belief in Jesus Christ as the Son of God and atonement for their sins getting, I guess I don't understand the difficulty ( nor the cause ) of the "ugly fights" over baptism. Perhaps I'm just naive? It's plain, regardless of who's looking at it. Baptizing an infant who hasn't even come to repentance yet is strange, to say the least.


1) Respect. This I define by my understanding of God's word, not only as much as lies within me to be at peace with all men, but to speak the truth in love to any brothers and sisters ( and those of the world at large, by extension ) I may have occasion to meet or fellowship with. The flesh makes it difficult at times, but it is something I try very hard to adhere to. Truth be told, I have no "culturally non-conservative friends", as biblical separation prevents me from cultivating any. Most of my liberal friends growing up I no longer have any contact with, and those I do manage to see now and again I keep our contact other words, they are no longer the friends I once had.  Yes, I respect them, but not the same as I do my brothers and sisters in Christ.


2) Understanding. I have plenty of compassion and understanding for people who don't share my viewpoints; They are just that, my viewpoints. However, one thing I've seen clearly, especially with regard to doctrines taught in Scripture, is that there are only two ways to look at the Bible: Either a person reads what they want to see into it, or they let it speak for itself. I rarely see the latter even in those who attend church regularly and profess Christ. Outside the Bible, culture, conservatism, fundamentaism, liberalism and all the rest really don't matter to me. My worldview is tempered and transformed by the word of God, and those that are not His will not have that viewpoint...I fully expect this, and the thought that "I'm better than him or her" in any area doesn't even enter into the equation. Were it not for God's grace, I wouldn't even know the truth about Him. Yes I understand their viewpoints, and yes I agree they have the right to them. My viewpoints are not what I base friendships on, but rather whether someone is willing to be instructed or corrected out of God's word.


3) Space. I agree with the overall point in this section. If I have an acquaintance or relative who disagrees with me on the things of God, I leave things alone after attempting to show them out of His word...why? Romans 12:18.


4) Discipline.  I agree. It takes discipline not to "go off" or take offense when discussions get "heated". We're all still in these fleshly bodies, and the taint of it tempts us to react in ways that are not godly.

" Finally, be ye all of one mind, having compassion one of another, love as brethren, be pitiful, be courteous: 9 Not rendering evil for evil, or railing for railing: but contrariwise blessing; knowing that ye are thereunto called, that ye should inherit a blessing. 10 For he that will love life, and see good days, let him refrain his tongue from evil, and his lips that they speak no guile: 11 Let him eschew evil, and do good; let him seek peace, and ensue it. " 1 Peter 3:8-11


Aaron said, "Of course, there’s a time and place to rebuke. But it’s our nature (as human beings, not as fundamentalists) to employ the tool of rebuke too often, too soon, or simply for the wrong reasons. Sometimes we’re really just being vindictive or venting a bitter spirit. " I's in our old nature, the flesh and that Old Man we have dragging us down, to overdo, misunderstand, get the wrong idea, etc.


" Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord. 20 Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head. 21 Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good. " Romans 12:19-21.  This is, in essence, the how and why we are to treat our enemies well.


At the end of the day, many consider me to be culturally conservative, fundamental and a host of other defining me I'm just a simple Bible-believing Christian.

Aaron Blumer's picture


What often happens in these debates (a debate is not a quarrel; popular misuse has corrupted the term a bit, but I'm not going to join them), is that they degrade into quarrels because neither side understands the other well enough to interact with respect and humility.

In the case of baptism, if you study the word of strong representatives (not necessarily passionate representatives but articulate, gracious and really well informed rep's) of paedo baptism, you find that they are very serious about being biblical and support their claims with Scripture references and exegesis.

I don't personally find their handling of Scripture persuasive. But I would not characterize that debate as a simple matter of "just do what the Bible teaches." I do believe the Bible teaches immersion, but I also understand that they are already trying to "do what the Bible teaches." So it's more helpful to interact with the attitude that we are fellow students of the Word who desire to be obedient and let's see if we can help each other at all with our respective understanding of the Scriptures.

That sort of interaction, on a host of issues, is so much more interesting and satisfying. I feel bad for folks who don't know what it's like or even what I'm talking about. A thoughtful debate is like a good meal for the mind. A thoughtful, conversational debate even more so.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

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