Has Fundamentalism Become Secularized? Part 2

See Part 1.

The Privatization of Faith

by Mark Farnham

In the first part of this essay series, I stated that fundamental Christianity has been affected by secularization in three primary ways: faith has become more privatized, beliefs have become mixed and matched and less systematic, and pragmatism has become the guiding influence in philosophy of ministry. The point of privatization is examined in greater private_lives.gifdetail in this essay.

Secularization, you’ll remember, is the study of how the forces of modernization have changed religion over time. It is often difficult to detect change in ourselves without some sense of what we were previously. For example, I don’t realize how much my children’s faces have matured until I see pictures of them from last year because I see them every day and can’t detect the subtle changes. The farther I go back in our family albums, the more obvious become the changes they have experienced. I will argue that the changes listed above don’t become obvious until we can see clearly what Fundamentalism used to be like.

To some degree, the faith of many fundamentalists has become more privatized and flows less from a sense of community than it used to. When I say “privatized,” I do not mean that fundamentalists don’t believe as they are told. No other Christian expression is more authoritative in its proclamation of beliefs than Fundamentalism. What the preacher says is so, and don’t think of questioning God’s anointed. In this sense, Fundamentalism is the least privatized religion on earth. You believe what you are told.

The Disconnect Between Scripture and Preaching

Rather, I use “privatized” in three senses. First and primarily, the connection between Scripture and much of the preaching in Fundamentalism is obscure or nonexistent. Therefore, believers are left to fend for themselves hermeneutically. There is no consistent use or interpretation of Scripture. This weakening of the tie between Scripture and what is preached has led to a more fideistic support for belief. Fideism is an epistemology that refuses to participate in the human conversation, isolates its views from serious questioning by those who don’t share its commitments, challenges others, and retreats to its own commitments when it is challenged (Terrence W. Tilley, “Incommensurability, Intratextuality, and Fideism,” Modern Theology 5:2 (Jan 1989), p. 88). In other words, people believe what they believe simply because they believe it.

As commitment to serious theology declines, people no longer have the ability to mount a serious biblical defense for their beliefs (1 Pet. 3:15) but retreat to a pietistic response like one I read this week to a blog posting on 10 reasons we believe the Bible. One respondent said, “You know the Bible is the Truth because the Holy Spirit sealed it in your heart and that is all that matters … Beyond that, it shouldn’t matter what the world thinks!” I don’t know whether the woman who wrote this response is a fundamentalist, but this is not an uncommon response in Fundamentalism. The answer sounds spiritual and right until we remember that the Mormons base their belief system on a similar “burning in the bosom.”

Additionally, some fundamentalists believe that a Christian needs to read only the Bible and nothing else, thereby discounting 2,000 years of church history. While the Bible is the source of our theology, we are not the only ones to have sought to interpret it and to apply it to our lives and to the issues of our day. Theology is like a well of water. Scripture is what gives life (the water), but it must be interpreted correctly to be useful. False doctrine is not nourishing but poisonous. We use reason (human faculties of analysis, synthesis, and logic, not reason in the sense of that which is in opposition to truth), historical theology (the thinking of faithful interpreters throughout history), and the present theological context (theology that addresses the issues of the day and therefore must be ever revising and clarifying) as the tools by which we obtain the proper interpretation of Scripture. In this sense, Scripture is the water of truth; and reason, historical theology, and the present theological context are the winch, rope, and bucket by which we access the truth of Scripture. Don’t press the analogy too far—it’s merely an illustration.

By rejecting theology, some fundamentalists have conveyed the idea that all that came before them is unimportant. All that matters is what I believe here and now. This is surely not a biblical value and is, I believe, an effect of secularization.


Second, privatized is also an accurate description because fundamentalists has become so fragmented that they struggle to consider cooperative efforts (such as associations or missions) with anyone or any institution not exactly like them. This practice is very much unlike Fundamentalism 100 years ago. We cannot work with anyone who differs in any way, whether it is a question of philosophy of ministry or of practice like music or dress standards. Obviously, significant differences in philosophy of ministry and practice make it practically difficult to work together, but the differences that cause divisions among us day-to-day are often insignificant. Also, I am well aware that we cannot reclaim the early days of Fundamentalism. The world and national scene have changed, and so have many of the churches that were able to work together in the early 20th century. But the principle of ultra-separation in the form of criticism of those who disagree even on a minor point of doctrine or practice still hurts the body of Christ.

This ultra-separation affects few fundamentalists more than missionaries who have American strictures placed upon them on foreign fields by mission boards who have little or no sense of the cultural differences between America and the rest of the world. I talk frequently with missionaries who struggle with the policies of their board, policies written by American pastors dealing with purely American issues of ecclesiology, separation, and philosophy of ministry. The policies reflect battles the policy-writers have fought in the American context; they have little or no application to the foreign field in which the missionary serves and have the ability to frustrate progress of ministry in that culture.

I regularly remind my students in the American Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism class I teach that the history of our movement is unique to our continent (even my Canadian students point out that their history is significantly different from American Fundamentalism’s!). My point is that we have lost a sense of being part of a greater history and of a greater body of Christ. We have neither arrived at absolute knowledge, nor is our expression of the Christian faith the height of perfection. The Corinthian church had failed to remember this fact, and Paul continually reminded them of their place within the larger scope (1 Cor. 7:17; 11:16; 14:34, 36).

Disconnect Between Sunday Living and Monday Living

Third, Fundamentalism has become privatized because even though many fundamentalists are told specifically how to live, they often live differently in their private lives. Their personal music and viewing habits are often in stark contrast to what they are commanded in church. This contradiction is perhaps why so many sermons in the more fringe writings of Fundamentalism (think Sword of the Lord and Church Bus News) are lists of sins—these sins characterize the lives of fundamentalists who “ought to know better” since they supposedly take the “strongest” stand on them.

A few years ago, my family and I went to dinner at the home of friends who attended a very strict church, a church that told its members exactly what kind of music they could and could not listen to. We arrived to hear country music blaring on the stereo and to find the wife in pants and the daughter in shorts. This family claimed to be completely supportive of their church’s strict personal holiness standards, but in practice they did not observe many of those standards themselves. I have found this difference to be a common experience among strict fundamentalists. They believe in the very restrictive standards but have a hard time consistently practicing them. Sunday is a time for repentance and a spiritual “whuppin’” for the sins committed the week before. They take their beating and feel justified for their sins on Monday because they paid their penance the day before. When, as a pastor, I preached a particularly hard sermon on standards, I received the most compliments from members who had come out of strict churches. They liked being spiritually roughed up. It didn’t seem to change their lifestyles much, but their guilt was temporarily assuaged.

How has all this changed from the way Fundamentalism used to be? First, the connection between Scripture and preaching was stronger at one time. I am hearkening back to the early days of Fundamentalism, the days when the movement was theologically more grounded than it is today. That is one area in which I have seen tremendous improvement in recent years. More and more fundamentalists, young and old, are recognizing the power of quality expository preaching. They are rejecting the topical prooftexting and the “one verse and a dozen stories” style of preaching that has dominated much of fundamentalist preaching. The hunger for expository preaching has begun to place those skilled practitioners of the art in positions of greater influence than that of the “showmen” who dominated Fundamentalism for so long. More fundamentalists are listening to Bauder, Minnick, and Jordan than to the fundamentalist hucksters and shouters; and that is a good thing.

Second, fundamentalists of a century ago were much more aware of their past than many fundamentalists are today. Historical and global awareness is critical if we are to avoid repeating past mistakes and harmful cultural blindness. Again, there are signs of growth here also. When I began seminary in 1989, there was little inclusion of historical theology in the courses I took. Today, there is great integration of church history and historical theology into the curriculum.

Third, when Fundamentalism was focused on fighting for its survival against theological modernism, there was a great concern for a believer’s conduct to match his profession. Personal holiness standards were generally reasonable, and conscientious Christians sought to live consistently with those principles.

During the sweeping cultural changes taking place in the 1920’s, some fundamentalists reacted by becoming more and more specific in their application of biblical principles until a fundamentalist code of conduct began to emerge. This code grew over the decades (and continues to grow in some circles) until the code became set in stone. The more unreasonable (and extra-biblical) the code became, the more people began violating the code privately while upholding it publicly. This practice created a spirit of toleration of hypocrisy among some, whereby the “high standards” (I like to use the term “strict”) had to be maintained (“lower” standards sounds bad); but in reality they weren’t practiced by many in the pew (or pulpit, in some cases). The reasoning was that unless we required more than the Bible required, people wouldn’t keep all that the Bible required, so we should establish standards higher than the Bible’s; and people who are naturally less careful will at least attain the biblical standard. Jesus called this practice hypocrisy in Mark 7 and condemned extra-biblical standards. Paul agreed in Colossians 2 when he reminded us of the impotence of severity to restrain the flesh:

If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh (Col. 2:20-23 ESV, emphasis mine).

In short, the standards we preach and teach should be squarely biblical. No more. No less.

In the next part of this series, I will explore the last two effects of secularization upon Fundamentalism: mix-and-match theology and pragmatism. In the last part, I will present a suggested course of correction to free Fundamentalism from the influences of secularization.

Note: These views do not necessarily reflect those of Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary or any affiliated ministries.

farnham.jpgMark Farnham is Assistant Professor of Theology and New Testament at Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary (Lansdale, PA). He and his wife, Adrienne, grew up in Connecticut and were married after graduating from Maranatha Baptist Bible College (Watertown, WI). They have two teen daughters and a 10-year-old son. Mark served as director of youth ministries at Positive Action for Christ (Rocky Mount, NC) right out of seminary and pastored for seven years in New London, Connecticut. He holds an M.Div. from Calvary and a Th.M. in New Testament from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (South Hamilton, MA). He is presently a doctoral student at Westminster Theological Seminary (Glenside, PA) in the field of Apologetics.
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