Fundys, Evangelicals and the Eye of a Needle

I minister in a church sub-culture that has no understanding of the fundamentalism/evangelical debates. I received theological training from an excellent fundamentalist seminary. But, the church I serve has no self-conscious fundamentalist identity, even though it’s a member of the GARBC. It’s an “evangelical” church, though many members might not know exactly what that means.

Recently, a church member asked me what an “evangelical” is, what a “fundamentalist” is, and how they’re different. This article is basically how I answered. It’s a short answer. But, I think it captures the basic distinction between the two groups.1

Fundamentalism in America began as a protest movement within conservative Christian circles in the late 19th century. Christian leaders in churches, bible colleges, seminaries and denominations began to be aware of a revisionist, unorthodox approach to the Bible and theology. There was a willingness to reevaluate the integrity of the Bible, how it was transmitted and preserved, whether Adam and Eve were real people, whether Moses really wrote the Pentateuch, whether Isaiah really wrote all of Isaiah, whether Jesus was really conceived by a miracle of the Holy Spirit, whether miracles really happened, and more. This openness to “new ideas” began in seminaries and gradually filtered down to the pulpits in local churches of many denominational stripes.

Fundamentalism was a movement that fought against that. It marshalled brilliant men; pastors, theologians and laymen, to make the case for orthodoxy. Working in very loose, often disjointed concert, men from many denominations fought this revisionist approach in the denominations, bible colleges, seminaries and churches. They fought them for several decades.

They lost. They lost big.

Throughout the mid-1920s and 1930s, some fundamentalists stayed within their now compromised denominations for various reasons. The forerunners of what became the Conservative Baptist movement stayed within the Northern Baptist convention for about two more decades. Others led their churches out of the denominations to form protest movements. The Baptist Bible Union (now the GARBC) and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church are examples.

Until the 1940s, fundamentalists generally thought of themselves as “evangelicals.” The words were synonyms. They meant something like “conservative, bible-believing Christian.” It meant you believe generic Protestant orthodoxy and were probably somewhat loud about it.

So, why are the terms different, today?2

They’re different because the conservative Christian movement split in the mid-1940s through the late 1950s. It didn’t split over doctrine per se. It split over mood, over approach, over mindset. It split because two camps arose within this big tent, and each had very different approaches to Christian life and ministry. This is where conservative Christianity largely split into two camps; fundamentalist and evangelical. Roger Olson explains:3

The difference between early fundamentalism and later fundamentalism is not so much one of doctrine as of mood. The single most important distinction between them has to do with late fundamentalism’s adoption of a militant stance toward exposing the ‘heresies’ of other Christians and of a policy of separation not only from liberal Christians but also from fellow evangelicals who do not separate from liberal Christian denominations and organizations.

This “mood” is indeed different, and so is the mission. First-stage fundamentalism (Olson’s term) was a protest movement to preserve generic Protestant orthodoxy. This remains part of its core ethos even today. The overwhelming amount of literature and media designed to protect and equip the church against heresy is produced by evangelicals.

However, second-stage fundamentalism is less about combatting theological revisionism and more about separation from perceived heresies and “disobedient brethren.” Fundamentalist literature preaches avoiding perceived compromise and emphasizes personal holiness. It spends little time combatting heresy, and the movement’s influence and reach is so small that even if it did commit the resources to do so, its message likely wouldn’t reach much beyond its own constituency. Tellingly, its best scholars are often educated at evangelical institutions.

The doctrine is largely the same. The mood is different. David Beale called pre-1930 fundamentalism “non-conformist,” and post-1930 fundamentalism “separatist.”4 The ethos changed. Some agreed, and others didn’t. Thus, the split. In many cases, the heirs of first-stage fundamentalism refer to themselves as “evangelicals” today. Likewise, many second-stage fundamentalists own the “fundamentalist” label proudly. Some examples may help:

  • The Orthodox Presbyterian Church is a first-stage fundamentalist denomination and is a decidedly “evangelical.” It engages the culture and pushes aggressive orthodoxy. It does not focus on separation.
  • The Conservative Baptist movement left the Northern Baptist convention in the early 1940s. It later split into various factions amidst sustained and unfortunate infighting; it was a fundamentalist/evangelical split in microcosm. The heirs of this split include, respectively, the FBFI and CBAmerica. Many readers here are well aware the FBFI is a solidly fundamentalist organization. CBAmerica is evangelical.
  • The GARBC, formerly the Baptist Bible Union left the Northern Baptist Convention in 1923. Whatever it used to be, it is a solidly evangelical association of churches today. It recently changed its purpose statement to drop legacy language from the fundamentalist/evangelical split.

The difference in mood is even clearer if you example mission or vision statements:

  • CBAmerica (evangelical): Its vision is “Gospel-centered transformational churches in every community.”
  • FBFI (fundamentalist): “FBFI’s Vision is to perpetuate the heritage of Baptist Fundamentalism complete, intact, pure, and undiluted to succeeding generations of fundamentalists.”
  • GARBC (evangelical): It’s mission is to “champion biblical truth, impact the world for Christ, perpetuate a Baptist heritage” and to “advance the association churches.”

So, what is the difference between “fundamentalism” and “evangelicalism,” today? We can draw these general observations:

  • Fundamentalism, at its best, is generally concerned with personal holiness and local church purity in practice and doctrine. The content of this holiness and church purity will vary according to the particular flavor of the movement to which the group or church belongs. Its doctrinal emphases are often framed through a prism of separation from compromise and combined with a remnant mindset. Its rhetorical foe is often not theological revisionism, but evangelicalism – those who are believed to have “compromised.” The movement’s essence, according to Beale, is “unqualified acceptance of and obedience to the Scriptures.”5
  • Evangelicalism, at its best, is concerned with evangelizing the world and preserving generic Protestant orthodoxy. Its scholars produce mass amounts of literature and media to equip the church to navigate a complex and changing world. Its name is synonymous with “conservative Christian.” Roger Olson explained, “[t]he genius of evangelicalism is its combination of orthodox Protestantism, conservative revivalism, and transdenominational ecumenism.”6

Or, to generalize further:

  • Fundamentalism is about purity and holiness. It wants you to obey the Bible, and it wants you to stay away from folks who allegedly don’t.
  • Evangelicalism is about the Gospel and protecting the faith from those who want to re-define it.

Many conservative Christian groups in America today are heirs of the fundamentalist-evangelical tradition. Most of these took a side during or after the big split. Where you find yourself is not so much a matter of doctrine, but of mood, approach and emphasis. Both movements try to do good things, necessary things, biblical things. Evangelicalism today takes many forms. Fundamentalism is dying as a movement, but its ethos may well live on.

J.C. Ryle gave his summary of the “evangelical religion” a long time ago, in a different context. He had five headings:7

  1. The first leading feature in Evangelical Religion is the absolute supremacy it assigns to Holy Scripture, as the only rule of faith and practice, the only test of truth, the only judge of controversy.
  2. The second leading feature in Evangelical Religion is the depth and prominence it assigns to the doctrine of human sinfulness and corruption.
  3. The third leading feature of Evangelical Religion is the paramount importance it attaches to the work and office of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the nature of the salvation which He has wrought out for man.
  4. The fourth leading feature in Evangelical Religion is the high place which it assigns to the inward work of the Holy Spirit in the heart of man.
  5. The fifth and last leading feature in Evangelical Religion is the importance which it attaches to the outward and visible work of the Holy Ghost in the life of man.

This encapsulates the Christian faith and message so well. It doesn’t distort a good thing out of proportion by framing the Gospel and the Christian life through a prism of separation from error, real or imagined. It’s a balanced expression of divine truth. I admire that old Anglican, and that admiration forces me to align myself with “evangelicalism” today.


1 This is not a comprehensive history of either movement, and it doesn’t pretend to be. It doesn’t malign Billy Graham. It doesn’t mention Billy Graham. It’s a very brief, 500 mph drive-by discussion to orient a reader to the general “lay of the land” who knows nothing about this chapter in American religious history. Those who have ears to hear, let them hear. To those that don’t, well … what else do you expect from a “convergent!?”

2 Roger Olson lists seven different ways the term “evangelical” is used in contemporary culture (Pocket History of Evangelical Theology [Downers Grove: IVP, 2007] 7-14). The etymology is fascinating and instructive.

3 Ibid, Pocket History, 84-85.

4 David Beale, In Pursuit of Purity: American Fundamentalism Since 1950 (Greenville: Unusual Publications, 1986), 5.

5 Ibid, 1.

6 Olson, Pocket History, 15.

7 J.C. Ryle, Knots Untied: Being Plain Statements on Disputed Points in Religion from the Standpoint of an Evangelical Churchman, 10th ed. (London: William Hunt, 1885), 3-7.

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There are 12 Comments

Mark_Smith's picture

History review is good.

Totally disagree that evangelicals are the bastion of the gospel, whose goal is to evangelize, while fundamentalists just want to keep you in line, and seemingly don't care about the gospel.

Tyler, have you attended an "evangelical" church as a church member?

This kind of reminds me of the Rocky painting meme that Trump sent out. Tyler, I think you are glorifying evangelicals and demeaning fundamentalists.

There are good evangelicals. There are plenty of useless ones.

There are good fundamentalists. There are plenty of useless ones.

TylerR's picture


All conservative Christians are about the Gospel; especially fundamentalists. My goal was to briefly explain the core difference between evangelicals and fundamentalists. That difference is separation, which is a difference of mood or ethos, rather than doctrine.

Evangelicalism, at its best (which is a caveat I used in the article), is about the Gospel and generic Protestant orthodoxy. It is not about separation. I think that's a fair analysis.

It is very difficult to please everyone with an article like this. I hope people can read it with grace, and not interpret it as a wild-eyed attack against fundamentalism. It is not.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government.

Ron Bean's picture

 Best I've read. I'll be using this as I regularly encounter young people to whom the terms are new. I expect some fundamentalists will go on the defensive by accusing you of saying that aren't defenders of the faith or interested in evangelism or whatever (which you didn't). It is, in deed, a matter of emphasis. 

 Lately I've encountered a number of young men whose only knowledge of fundamentalism is with later fundamentalism and have no knowledge of the debt we owe to historic fundamentalism. To these young men today's fundamentalism, while maintaining allegiance to the faith, is known primarily for its militancy against other brethren. You've done a good work!

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

Ed Vasicek's picture

Tyler, I appreciate your approach very much, but I don't think the categories "fundamentalist" and "evangelical" cut it any more.

There are forms of evangelicalism that are are doctrinally oriented, whose leaders are ever seeking to conform better to the Scriptures, and there is a much larger, more quickly growing end that borders or accepts the prosperity gospel and downplays doctrine and uses Bible verses to decorate pop-psychology sermons.

When i read your article, for example, I don't know where I would fall.  

I think your article might be better titled, "the difference between evangelical and fundamentalist Baptists.."

John Piper is very different from Joel Olsteen.

"The Midrash Detective"

TylerR's picture


Maybe you're right about the title change. There is a spectrum of evangelicalism and fundamentalism. There is also a lot of cross-over.

But, I see lots of Reformed fundamentalism, for example. Pulpit and Pen is one example. They seem to fall squarely into the "second-stage" fundamentalist ethos. The problem is that I'm not sure you can say that Reformed Baptists are heirs of the fundamentalist/evangelical split. I tried to focus on the ethos or mood, instead of the movements per se. 

Some would say the Founders (in the SBC) are an example of this second-stage fundamentalism, too (see their recently released cinedoc "By What Standard"). I tend to disagree after watching the film, but some would make the charge nonetheless.

That's why I didn't make the title tie it into Baptist fundamentalism. Maybe I should have included an example from Pulpit and Pen to broaden the scope a bit.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government.

Bert Perry's picture

For me, a key comment is that "fundamentalism is dying as a movement", and it strikes me that this really lays out the stakes for all participants.  We might complain "well, Tyler's comments don't completely represent us", but the flip side is that those who care about their particular faction or tribe of the church--be that FBFI, GARBC, SBC, whatever--need to remember that you can only heal the illness that you've diagnosed.  You must understand yourself.

And for all factions, a quick comparison of church mission statements with Scripture and historic confessions like Westminster is in order; "is what we think is important what is really important to God?"  Is what we are doing really what is important?

Back to those "this doesn't characterize me perfectly", absolutely.  We can see it on this board, where some whose church affiliations are securely in the evangelical camp take positions on various points of theology and practice which are generally associated with fundamentalism, and vice versa.  A good example is David Brumbelow, who is in the SBC, but devotes a lot of time and effort to the "two wines" theory and promoting total abstinance via that theory.  And then you've got me, in a GARBC church, but generally rejecting things like "two wines" and the like.  

So the lines aren't black & white here, but it is a good starting point, IMO, for helping us understand and, if necessary, fix our own churches.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Ed Vasicek's picture

Tyler wrote:

Maybe I should have included an example from Pulpit and Pen to broaden the scope a bit.

Tyler, that was not what I was trying to communicate.  My thought is that there is a much greater difference between a John Piper and a Joel Olsteen than between a Kevin Bauder and a John Piper. Apart from apostate Baptists, the spread within the Baptists (Southern, Independent, GARB, Baptist General Conference) is not as great, as the much broader spread within evangelicalism in general.  For example, most Baptists are not charismatic and most Baptists do not tolerate the prosperity gospel. 

Jim, I agree Straub's chart is quite good. Even that will not include everyone, as detailed as it is.

Which is perhaps the point.  Tyler did a good job of explaining the difference between fundamentalism and evangelicalism with a very broad brush, which was his intent.  

Tyler, I suspect  many of us would be in the same camp as MacArthur.  Based on your taxonomy, would he be an evangelical or a fundamentalist, in your view?  To me, he is on the fault line between the two.

"The Midrash Detective"

Ron Bean's picture

I like Straub's taxonomy and I suspect that few of us could draw a straight vertical line through any of these. I also suspect that one of the main causes of concern among the younger generation is that they (and me) have never fully understood why fundamentalists would separate from other fundamentalists and, when i asked anyway, was told that the people we were separating from weren't TRUE fundamentalists. For example ask someone if they think JM is a fundamentalist. 

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

TylerR's picture


Ed asked

Tyler, I suspect  many of us would be in the same camp as MacArthur.  Based on your taxonomy, would he be an evangelical or a fundamentalist, in your view?  To me, he is on the fault line between the two.

My way to answer that is to examine the ethos, mood or approach employed. Given how I sketched the differences in mood (above), I'd say JMac is a evangelical who is a direct heir of first-stage fundamentalism. Remember, in my article I essentially said "first-stage fundamentalism = evangelicalism" today.

I know there is a spectrum, which is why I used the caveat "at its best" when summarizing both approaches. You correctly said there is a much greater difference between a John Piper and Joel Osteen  comparison (evangelical) than between a Piper and Bauder matchup (both). But, there is also a much bigger difference between a Hyles-Anderson and Detroit Seminary than there is between Central and Bethlehem ... There is a lot of cross-over. I see very little separating the more "centrist" (perhaps not the best term) fundy schools from the most hard-right confessional evangelical schools (e.g. Detroit and SBTS) other than ethos or mood. It's not doctrine.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government.

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