In this short article, I’ll briefly present an analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of Baptist fundamentalism in 2018. This assessment is entirely my own, and it reflects my own particular experiences and education. Of course, my observations are limited by my own context — just as yours are.
The Spectrum of Fundamentalism
Any movement has different flavors, and Baptist fundamentalism is no different. Over the years, several prominent Baptist fundamentalists have offered their own taxonomies of the movement. Here is my own simplified chart which broadly outlines the lay of the land as I see it today:
My remarks are meant to be broad, and certainly don’t represent every person who is a part of a particular spectrum. For example, the GARBC that exists in the Mid-West is not the same association you’ll find in the Pacific Northwest. They may share the same name and be part of the same spectrum of the fundamentalist movement, but make no mistake – they are different animals. There is also a good deal of cross-pollination, and it’d be a mistake to assume a strict delineation between the camps. But, those caveats aside, I believe the chart broadly captures the different aspects of fundamentalism. In short, fundamentalists cannot be pigeon-holed – there is a spectrum.
My own analysis is this:
- The Movement Fundamentalists are dying. The major para-church organizations are in serious decline. Some older leadership is reluctant to hand the reigns to the younger generation. A significant minority of the membership is reactive and defensive. Its educational institutions generally straddle the fence on the common flash-points in an attempt to appeal across intra-party lines. However, I believe the movement’s base is drying up and, in the future, I suspect these institutions will have to find a way to tip-toe more towards the Calvinistic or Fundigelical camp without alienating constituents. I don’t envy them. Their educational institutions are first-rate; especially MBU!
- The KJVO group seems to be holding steady. Its “Village-like” atmosphere and isolationist sub-culture help ensure it isn’t hemorrhaging members like the Movement Fundamentalists are. It’s generally characterized by a militant KJVO-stance (in various flavors), a passionate anti-Calvinism, a Keswick-ish sanctification, different flavors of Landmarkism, shallow doctrine, and some trend toward conspiracy theories.
- The Fundigelicals and the Calvinistic groups are gaining members, and a good deal of this is transfer growth from the other two camps. These transfer constituents are often either fleeing from some perceived (or actual) legalism into the arms of the Fundigelicals, or running from doctrinal vacuousness into the loving embrace of the Calvinistic Fundamentalists.
High Marks of Baptist Fundamentalism
Baptist fundamentalism has some outstanding qualities that set it apart from all other Christian movements in North America. These marks, in isolation, can be found among many other groups. But, it is well-nigh impossible to find them combined in one theological movement the way Baptist fundamentalism has. These marks are as follows:
- Systematic Doctrine. Fundamentalism generally does an excellent job teaching systematic doctrine. Evangelical institutions are notorious for de-emphasizing doctrine (intentionally or otherwise) in favor of a “Gospel center.” The best fundamentalist institutions strive for a balanced education, where the student explores doctrine and is encouraged to ask questions and be challenged out of his comfort zone. Fundamentalist institutions provide a world-class education, and those who have graduate training from quality institutions (e.g. Faith, BBS, MBS, Central, Detroit, etc.) are generally much better prepared than their evangelical counterparts. KJVO fundamentalism is (often) one exception to this otherwise worthy record.
- Separation. Fundamentalism puts proper focus on ecclesiastical and personal separation. This is a doctrine all but ignored by evangelicals. God’s people should want to avoid ungodly activities, and should encourage others to do the same. In addition, we ought to do the same in a corporate context, in our churches. Fundamentalists push holy living, and Christians across this land are the better for it.
- Ecclesiology. Polity is an oft-neglected doctrine today. In a world of confusion, skinny jeans, strobe lights, fog machines and sappy FaceBook Live videos, Baptist polity comes to the rescue. Fundamentalist institutions put right and proper emphasis on polity, and how we ought to “do church.” Fundamentalists want to do God’s work, God’s way.
- Commitment to the Bible. Fundamentalists are people of the Book. No matter where you go in this movement (with the exception of Cultic Fundamentalists), you will likely hear the Bible opened and proclaimed with accuracy and passion.
- Strong men. Fundamentalists aren’t wilting flowers. They generally produce strong men, who know what they believe and why they believe it. Fundamentalists are anxious to defend the faith, and aren’t shy about standing for the truth of the Gospel. This is increasingly uncommon in an age where popular culture encourages laziness and idleness, shames young men who want to act like men, and promotes a weak and effeminate model of manhood, character and leadership.
Low Marks of Baptist Fundamentalism
The movement has some significant handicaps, none of which are new.
- Echo Chamber. Historically, fundamentalists have trended towards a more imperialstyle of leadership, which always tends to shut out constructive criticism and encourage sycophants. To an unusual degree, some fundamentalist institutions and para-church organizations are hampered by an echo chamber atmosphere, and leadership may have lost touch with the real world that Christians operate in every day. Thus, their strategic decisions may make little sense to outsiders (or, perhaps, to anybody else); especially to fundamentalists outside their particular camp.
- Critical Spirit. Fundamentalists have always struggled with how to balance love with a passion for the truth. Some fundamentalists, particularly those in the Movement and KJVO camps, continue to struggle to an unusual degree with this problem. In this respect, the echo chamber context can coalesce with a critical spirit and produce disaster. In some cases, the leadership will not understand why “outsiders” (both within and without fundamentalism) are outraged by some of their more inappropriate criticisms.
- Indoctrination, not Education. This observation may seem arbitrary; didn’t I just praise fundamentalism for the superior education it produces!? My response is this; it depends on your church and where you went to school. Some churches don’t encourage systematic doctrine or deep Bible study. Members may understand they “shouldn’t ask questions.” Hobby horses may be regularly trumpeted. Questionable theological positions may be uncritically accepted as “Gospel truth,” even if they’re simplistic or wrong. To the extent an educational institution employs these tactics (which are often found in KJVO fundamentalism), it is not worthy of the name.
- Imbalanced. Fundamentalism can be a very imbalanced movement. Some flavors of the movement spend an inordinate amount of time discussing music, dress, alcohol, Bible versions, Calvinism, evangelicals, and dispensational eschatology.
- A lost sense of mission. There is a very real danger that fundamentalism has lost its original sense of mission. The movement began (in a formal sense) as a protest action against theological liberalism and revisionism in the late 19th century. There is plenty of this around in 2018, so fundamentalists have a “targetrich environment,” so to speak. However, today many fundamentalists focus their energies and efforts combatting the errors of “neo-evangelicals (an anachronistic term) from 70 years ago. In many quarters, the enemy is not theological liberalism and revisionism; it’s conservative evangelicals. To the extent fundamentalist churches, institutions and para-church organizations make this mistake, they have lost their sense of mission and are adrift without purpose or destination.
The strengths of Baptist fundamentalism far outweigh its weaknesses. Every movement has weaknesses, and many of those I’ve listed aren’t unique to Baptist fundamentalism. In fact, the very characteristic of “strong men” that has done so much good for the movement is also a contributing factor for some of the weaknesses:
- Strong leaders are often very certain about what they believe, and have very settled ideas about where an organization or movement needs to go. Thus, an echo chamber can result, where weaker men often just tell the leaders what they want to hear, or are reluctant to push back on bad decisions.
- Strong men are often impatient with the perceived shortcomings and follies of others, and may have trouble holding back some of these criticisms. Thus, you have the charge of a “critical spirit.”
- Strong leaders have definite ideas about doctrine, often forged through personal trials and intensive theological study. This desire to help younger men avoid error can produce an educational climate, in churches and universities, more akin to indoctrination than education.
For the future, I see the continued collapse of Movement Fundamentalism into either the Fundigelical or Calvinistic camps. Its institutions will slowly ease their way towards one camp or the other as the years go by, and the end draws nigh. The Fundigelicals may eventually be completely absorbed into conservative evangelicalism and not be recognizable as “fundamentalists” any longer. In some quarters, this transformation is complete in the Pacific Northwest. The Calvinistic folks will continue to produce perhaps the best trained and best equipped fundamentalists, who will have a profound influence on the movement in the decades to come. The KJVO group will never go away, and will largely maintain its status quo.
Baptist fundamentalism, in its healthiest forms, offers a Biblical and substantive vision of the Christian life. Its best churches emphasize systematic doctrine, expository preaching, evangelism and progressive growth in Christ. Its best educational institutions, such as MBU, BJU, Detroit, Central, Faith and BBS, train men and women to think deeply, and provide a solid and sure foundation for the Christian life. Its ministers with graduate training are the best trained and equipped Pastors in America.
The movement deserves to continue, but its future may be imbibed in a philosophy of ministry, instead of a formal “movement.” I pray the Lord raises up younger men who have the vision, force of personality, and leadership abilities to take the whole movement (well, almost all the movement) forward to accomplish great things for His Name.