When The Master’s University (TMU) hired BJU’s Vice President Sam Horn as its President and when a friendly picture of West Coast Baptist College President Paul Chappell surfaced with John MacArthur on Twitter, some of us believed that a convergence was taking place between the left flank of Fundamentalism and the right flank of Evangelicalism.
However, after only one year in office, Horn resigned as President of TMU. A year after Horn’s departure, Austin Duncan, Director of the MacArthur Center for Expository Preaching, produced a podcast (March 8, 2022) where he interviewed MacArthur on the topic “MacArthur and the Fundamentalists” (https://open.spotify.com/episode/34Dbvzbvnjctqfke7PKcSk).
There are lighthearted moments in this podcast such as MacArthur’s recollection of the Southern Baptist Convention’s W. A. Criswell calling him a “Baptist”. MacArthur also remembers when R. C. Sproul suggested “Imputationalists” as a possible label for Bible-believing Christians. MacArthur replied to Sproul, “That’s not going to work, R. C. They’re going to think we’re cutting off people’s limbs!”
Springing off of MacArthur’s conversation with Sproul, Duncan asks, “If MacArthur isn’t entirely comfortable with the term ‘evangelical’, would he embrace the term ‘fundamentalist’?” Duncan observes that MacArthur has a “tenuous relationship with Fundamentalism;” he “appreciates aspects of it, but doesn’t identify with it.”
According to the podcast, modern Fundamentalism began with the Scopes Trial in 1925. Duncan criticizes Fundamentalism for “trying to legislate a Biblical worldview… . We must remember that we cannot change minds or laws unless God through the Gospel changes hearts.”
The podcast also identifies Fundamentalism with the fight for Prohibition. Duncan observes, “The social activism of the Fundamentalists backfired. As their cultural influence was waning, Fundamentalists also lost control of the mainline denominations throughout the 1920s and 30s.”
In the 1940s, the National Association of Evangelicals was founded to replace “militant and combative” Fundamentalism with a “friendlier form of Fundamentalism.” The Master’s Seminary Professor Nathan Busenitz describes the great schism within Bible-believing, American Christianity,
The old guard of Fundamentalists were all about purity, but they took that purity to an extreme, so that it became legalism. Whereas the Neo-Evangelicals, today we just call them Evangelicals, were all about popularity and influence. In their quest for that influence, they actually compromised on the integrity of their message.
As this split was taking place, Evangelist Billy Graham emerged. Duncan describes Graham as “a young man raised in the [Fundamentalist] movement [who] became a national sensation… . Everyone liked Billy Graham except for the Fundamentalists.”
Fundamentalism found its collective voice when it began to make war against Billy Graham… . It was bound up with jealousy as well as legitimate concerns. He was inviting the liberals back in and embracing them and sending “converts” through the invitational system back into liberal churches… . Billy Graham became the reason why the [Fundamentalist] movement solidified around separation.
According to Duncan, MacArthur’s father “stood at the very nexus of that intersection” between the Evangelicals and Fundamentalists.
Although MacArthur recalled earlier in the podcast, “I don’t think my dad ever called himself a ‘Fundamentalist’,” his dad was a member of the Independent Fundamental Churches of America
because of the very fact that they were independent. They had a certain commitment to doctrine without the same legalism. He didn’t associate with any of those people that are names connected to Fundamentalism: Carl McIntyre, Tom Malone, [and] Bob Jones, although he knew Bob Jones, and they had a mutual kind of connection.
The discussion then turns squarely toward Bob Jones. Duncan calls Bob Jones “the central figure in Fundamentalism. His school, Bob Jones University, became one of the movement’s flagship institutions.”
Duncan describes the Fundamentalists:
Jones and other Fundamentalists became legalistic in their thinking. Issues reserved for Christian liberty such as clothing, alcohol, and music became defining features, and that obsession with externals cultivated a culture of separatism, anti-intellectualism, and legalism.
Despite assertions that the MacArthur family was not close to Bob Jones, MacArthur attended BJU for a short time. He relates what it was like while there as a student:
Legalism was new to me, and so alien to me that I didn’t find myself compelled to conform to strange, external things, and so I would get demerits. I didn’t understand it. I had no experience with it. I had a father and a mother and a family that loved the Lord, that walked with the Lord. [With] the people in my world … there was a real Christianity… . I didn’t understand this externalism. I didn’t understand why everybody needed to be policed… . They made Billy Graham a big issue every single day there at Bob Jones … and many other people who they decided were compromisers.
Bob Jones had two people in his life: The people that agreed with him and the people he tried to undermine. Those are the only two kinds of people. You either agreed with him or you were a target… . Eventually Bob Jones turned on my father and made all kinds of false accusations against my dad. It started because my dad showed a Billy Graham film or somebody in the church showed a Billy Graham film in our church. That was the kiss of death. So Bob Jones went after my father as a compromiser and all of that. So, Fundamentalism basically turned on him. That’s when he yanked me out of the environment of Bob Jones. He said, “You can’t stay there. They’ll poison you and they’ll separate you from me.”
“And John got out of there just in time,” Duncan explains. “A few years later Bob Jones and the Fundamentalist Movement would commit their most egregious act of extra-Biblical sin.” This “most egregious act of extra-Biblical sin” was a Bob Jones radio sermon entitled “Is Segregation Scriptural?” In this sermon, Jones defended segregation. Duncan calls Jones’ message “awful — full of terrible hermeneutics, revisionist history, and blatant racism.”
Focusing on BJU’s racism, MacArthur remembers,
There were things said about black people that I wouldn’t even repeat because it would do no good to repeat them, but they were untrue to put it mildly. They were demeaning. They were slanderous. This was such a serious issue at that time, but they felt they could take that kind of stand and survive in the South. This is real racism, and real racism illegitimately defended by using the Bible.
Duncan continues highlighting BJU’s racism:
For an inexplicable 30 years interracial dating was prohibited. Among a thousand other prohibitions, this was the most wicked. It wasn’t lifted until the year 2000, when Bob Jones, III dropped it… . In 2008, the school issued a fascinating and long-overdue apology.
Contrasting himself with BJU, MacArthur recalls ministering in black churches throughout the South. He claims to have been arrested in Mendenhall, MS for “stirring up the blacks.”
“Clearly,” Duncan observes, “John didn’t fit the culture at BJU, and neither he nor his father would go along with the contentiousness, legalism, and racism of many within the Fundamentalist Movement.”
Duncan then asks MacArthur to “exegete the word ‘Fundamental.’”
MacArthur cynically responds,
Fundamental is no fun, too much damn, and not enough mental. (1) It was no fun because it was so burdensome. It was like the Pharisees tying burdens on people’s backs. It was all about how you externally conducted yourself and how you dressed and how you talked and who you connected with and who you associated with and where you went and what you did. There was another absence of joy in the overly sober-mindedness that came along with Fundamentalism, because it was so critical of everybody who didn’t toe the line. (2) Too much damn. There was little effort to encourage people. There was very little effort to build people up in the Faith. There was missing a lot of grace and mercy and tenderness and compassion and kindness and humility in preaching that recognized that you had to deal with people’s hearts, and you had to move them along with kindness and grace and patience. It was far too black and white, and you were not considered a Fundamentalist unless you hammered on people about things. (3) Not enough mental. I wouldn’t want to sit in judgment necessarily on the intellectual capability of Fundamentalists, but there was no effort made to get into the depth of Scripture theologically.
MacArthur then lobs a strong accusation:
[Fundamentalism is] a false paradigm of sanctification. For example, Bob Jones was condemning everybody who was not a Fundamentalist, and there were things in Bob Jones, Jr.’s life that were vile and serious transgressions, epic transgressions, inconsistencies, but that’s what Fundamentalism does.
When Fundamentalist author David Beale recently wrote in his book Christian Fundamentalism in America that BJU’s President Steve Pettit had “steered the University out of separatist Fundamentalism into the inclusive, Broad Evangelicalism,” there were calls for him to give examples – which he did. Should we not likewise ask MacArthur’s to list the “vile and serious transgressions” that he alleges against Jones, Jr.? Empty accusations are far too easy to make, and MacArthur should know better than to make them.
The whole interview is an enigma to me. Why did MacArthur discuss these things? What does he gain by picking at an old scab? Is BJU’s 2008 apology for past wrongs not enough? Most importantly, does this conversation honor Christ?
Duncan concludes the podcast by declaring that MacArthur “doesn’t fit neatly into any of these movements that have come and gone. Certainly John learns from them, but he is a man shaped by the Scriptures. May that be true of all of us.”
MacArthur sees himself as existing in that sweet spot between compromised Evangelicalism and cantankerous Fundamentalism. In other words, he alone is right. Sounds like a Fundamentalist to me!