Why Do They Leave Fundamentalism? Part 1

Is the Grass Greener?

“It’s nice of you to come, but we are not coming to your church. Your music is awful.” That’s what she told him. She was on morphine, lying in a hospital bed after abdominal surgery. He said some kind words that would not be remembered and left his card on her bedside stand. In a couple of hours, this green_grass.gifcard would be confirmation of a conversation she hoped had not actually taken place.

She was my wife, and this event occurred a few weeks into our encounter with a “church growth” type of church. I’ll call it Charity Community Church (CCC). We had visited CCC a couple of times and had asked for prayer in Sunday school for Jenny’s upcoming surgery. We had also been amazed by the music they used for worship. They had a band—with drums—and a real black man who jumped up and down as he led music, clapping and praying. She hoped the conversation hadn’t taken place because she really didn’t believe their music was awful. It simply wasn’t the music we were accustomed to using for worship.

Eight years before this, we had both graduated from Bob Jones University (Greenville, SC). Having moved several times, we had attended and loved some fundamental Baptist churches. Having just moved again, we were having trouble finding a church we could really embrace. This was not the first church we had visited that used contemporary music. But this was the first one in which the worship seemed like genuine love for God instead of a show performed by an entertainer. Some might think that jumping up and down is show-like; but it isn’tnecessarily. It was clear that there was a progression: understanding Christ, love for Christ, and then worship.

I want to pause and say that in these papers I will be relating my own experience in a large evangelical church. It was a church of around a thousand and growing. Please read this article carefully because I am not praising these types of churchesthough it will seem that way. Instead, I am trying to relate why and how these churches are attractive to young fundamentalists. One thing that is vital to understand is that the young fundamentalist who visits such churches may be reticent to judge the motives of others. For instance, consider the worship leader who jumps up and down. Is he trying to get people excited? Or is he already excitedand jumps because of it? To know this, you must discern his heart.

I had never accepted the notion that any music was wrong in itself. But for Jenny, it was their demonstration of the love of Christ that caused her to re-evaluate. They were believers—they proved it by their love. She could not consistently judge them for their worship without good reasons. As we discussed the “reasons” we had been given for not allowing contemporary music, we found that they really didn’t make sense. So the music was not an issue of conscience for us; it simply wasn’t what we enjoyed using for worship.

There was so much going on in our lives at the time, and we were so impressed by other things at CCC that we decided, for the moment, to visit CCC. So we stayed for a while. Over the next several months, we saw this church demonstrate love in ways we had never seen before. They reached out in very significant ways, not just to Jenny and me but also to people in need in the entire city. They ran a food bank and gave dinners for homeless people. They supported missions with money, time, and prayer. They got together for real fellowship, and this fellowship wasn’t just eating pie. They faced one another, asking and answering questions about faith, about personal ministry, and about what they were learning about Christ.

Jenny was raised in an Independent Fundamental KJVO Baptist Church and had studied piano at BJU. Yet, before long, Jenny was at the piano, learning a new style of music. We found, in fact, that this music fit much better with a genuine heart that joyfully exclaims the love of God.

Our experience was similar to many other young fundamentalists who have attended non-fundamental churches. Joe Zichterman gave some of these reasons in his recent speech. The body of believers at CCC frankly awed us. They were passionate about loving each other and the world. Prejudice was cast aside, and we found joy in liberty in music as well as in other “disputable matters.”

But we are not in such a church now. The longer we stayed, the more uncomfortable we became. Theological errors were taught in Sunday school. I was reticent at first to confront—after all, you must respect a teacher. But once I did, I found amazing humility. I asked probing questions and gave explanations for biblical truths, as I understood them. The attitude of those in the class—including those teaching—was that if I had something to contribute, then by all means I should contribute it. Soon I was asked to teach the class.

As time went by, we began to question more things. On one hand, the church had taught us a great deal about how a church can actually be the hands and feet of Christ. They just needed good teaching, and I felt that I could make a contribution in that area. But later we started to wonder if there were some other theological problems even in the pastoral staff. We moved from the area before we had a chance to really investigate these.

Though we have moved away, we have a lot of love for that church. God used them to teach Jenny and me some very important lessons. So which church is right? Which should be trusted? It has been suggested that we should “trust both.” Others object that these are “diametrically and irreconcilably opposed”—so one is right, and the other is wrong. Since I’m now a member of a GARBC church and in the fundamentalist camp, you can probably guess that I’ll say that churches like CCC are less trustworthy. But there is more to the story than that. We need to understand the impression that such a church will have on a visiting young fundamentalist—and why. There are reasons some leave Fundamentalism. Most importantly, there are lessons we can learn from these movements so we grow to be more Christlike.

Omission and Commission

Sins may be categorized somewhat. Sins of commission are actions we do even when we have been told not to do them. Sins of omission are those in which we are told to do something, and we do not do it. I think that this is an important concept with regard to examining the difference between the churches as I experienced them.

When considering general biblical principles, failure to make an application we should have made is sin. When we do something that by principle we should not have done, that is a sin of commission. When we neglect something we should have done, that is a sin of omission.

Applying Bible Principles

Christians certainly do and—I’ve argued elsewhere—should differ about how and when to apply these principles. That is not to say that the application of these principles is optional. Scripture is authoritative. This means that we must obey the principles it contains. We will give an answer for how we interpret the Word to discover its principles and for how we use those principles to obey Christ.

People make different applications, and those have a big impact on fellowship. One believer may not make an application at all to that which another views as an essential part of his obedient service to Christ. This can occur with general prohibitions, in which case one believer appears to another to be sinning by commission. And it can occur with general commands, with resulting perceptions of sins of omission. In either case, believers who make the application will perceive the others as blasé about diligently obeying the Word.

Now I’m going to make a generalization that reflects my experience in the churches I’ve attended. Churches like CCC tend to diligently apply commands that cause them to avoid sins of omission. In other words, they are striving hard to obey Christ with what they do—evangelism that is strategic and sometimes edgy, significant aid to the poor, and the most genuine and expressive worship they can make.

Fundamentalist churches tend to diligently apply commands so they carefully avoid sins of commission. In other words, they are striving hard to obey Christ by being careful not to do anything that is (or even might be) evil. They make very sure that their evangelism is just the gospel (take it or leave it; “what you win them with you win them to”). Aid to the poor might be edged out by references to taxes and welfare. Worship might be genuine—but righteous at all costs. Dress is carefully evaluated and regulated for modesty.

Can We Over-Apply a Bible Principle?

What is the perspective of these applications (or “over-applications”) as each group examines the other? To the CCC-type church, the fundamentalists’ applications appear to be unnecessary. They seem to be “over-applications.” The fundamentalists’ applications to music, associations, and other things may not be viewed as bad. But they are viewed as “rules” that get in the way of what they are trying to do with charity, evangelism, and worship.

On the other hand, the CCC-type church makes applications that appear unnecessary to the fundamentalist. Yes, of course, we’re commanded to give to the poor. But no single opportunity of giving must be viewed as necessary. As long as you give, at some point—theoretically—it’s fine.

Can We Under-Apply a Bible Principle?

When the fundamentalist looks at his CCC friend, he sees someone whose music and associations seem worldly. His CCC friend even admits that he chooses some of these things because they are the culture of the world—a world he’s trying to reach. But to the fundamentalist, the CCC friend has just admitted to his worldliness. All his CCC friend needs to do, the fundamentalist believes, is to consider the biblical commands that tell us not to be like the world; in that light, the fundamentalists’ convictions are a no-brainer.

When the CCC believer looks at the church of his fundamentalist friend, he sees stoic or soporific worship, paltry or nonexistent charity, and evangelism without reasonable attempts at cultural contextualization. He wonders how the fundamentalist can fail to apply principles in these areas. But these are sins of omission if they are sins at all, and the fundamentalist knows he has a very loving church. And they have worship. And they do have outreach. Yet, as I said, we have been members of several good fundamental churches, and CCC believers frankly awed us in these areas. Now, to borrow a line from spray-on hair replacement products, “Individual results may vary.”

Why the Difference?

I do believe that the difference is partially due to variations of spiritual gifts. The problem is that it’s tough to look at gifts like discernment, prophecy, ministry, and mercy showing and explain exactly what each term means. But I do think that different people value different applications based on their spiritual gifting. The one who shows mercy may want so desperately to show the love of Christ that he hesitates to confront sin. The prophet may be so serious about confronting sin that he doesn’t stop to consider that he’s hurting someone.

In other words, the members of these churches need each other. All sins are serious, whether omissions or commissions. The fundamentalist churches could learn a lot about love, evangelism, and worship from churches like CCC. And CCC churches could learn a lot about applying principles like modesty, worldliness, separation, and theological diligence from some fundamentalist churches.

I wonder what would happen if two of these churches were forced to merge into one with no option for anyone to leave. Would the fundamentalists be able to explain and teach such things as separation, modesty, and reverence for God? Would the growth-minded members be able to pass along their love of ministry?

There are problems in Fundamentalism and in church-growth churches. One might wonder which is worse. Who has more to learn, and how difficult would it be to learn?

Filling in the Blanks

So why am I in a GARBC church instead of in a CCC church? In the end, the theological questions, which I have not dealt with in this paper, were more significant than the issues I have raised here. So why did I stay in CCC for a year, and why did I consider similar churches after we moved? Something significant happens when young fundamentalists examine these churches. We see right away that they do some parts of ministry better, and then we fill in the blanks.

What do I mean by “filling in the blanks”? Let’s say that a friend tells you that he bought a new car—a great car! You’ve got to come over for a ride.

“Sure, I’ll come for a ride,” you say. You plan a time and show up.

His car doesn’t have a steering wheel.

“Yeah, it’s kinda scary not knowing where you’re gonna go,” your friend says, “but I love my car!”

“You never said you car didn’t have a steering wheel!”

“Well, no, but you didn’t ask.”

My point is that we tend to assume certain things about church. The more we know about church, the easier it is to assume things. This fact is true for doctrinal matters especially, since CCC churches tend to be more practical in their preaching. They may not deal with theological issues from the pulpit very often. We tend to think, “Everyone who loves Christ believes X, Y, and Z. These people obviously love Christ, so they must believe those things—even though I haven’t heard them yet.” We may not even stop to consider that they might not.

As an example, a couple of years ago, I had an argument with one young man here in town who was in a lay-ministry training program of a local Church-Growth Movement (CGM) church. We were at the house of a mutual friend, discussing theology and how we must allow some latitude. He then asserted that being Trinitarian in one’s beliefs isn’t important. Huh?! Again, you might be amazed by what some people don’t believe—and you need to ask to find out.

I know some missionaries who are solid Christian servants. They told me a while back that they were downloading a great new preacher that I should check out: Joel Osteen. I said, “Huh. What do you think of his presentation of the gospel?” They responded that they were sure he held to the true gospel, but then as they thought about it, they couldn’t remember his actually giving the gospel. The point is that they had listened to the guy for some time and had gleaned a lot of encouragement from him. But when it came to the things he didn’t say, they had simply filled in the blanks with what they assumed all good preachers believe.

Solutions: So Is the Grass Greener?

What should young fundamentalists do when they check out CCC churches?

Don’t fill in the blanks theologically. Ask others what they believe with pointed questions. You might be amazed at what they believe. They will ask you questions that will push you to study for answers. Some of these may be questions you never thought you’d have to answer to a church member.

Do not forget that applying the Word to our lives so we don’t commit sins against Christ is very important. It’s easy for us to be shocked and awed when we see people (sometimes in exponentially greater ways) applying the Word to avoid omitting service. Since that’s new and impressive and seems to have been previously neglected, it’s easy to attach greater value to it. We feel guilt when we realize what we have left undone in our service for Christ. But that guilt can quickly make us judgmental of the entire movement from which we came.

In these two papers, I am not offering excuses for why young fundamentalists leave Fundamentalism for Neo-Evangelicalism or Church-Growth Churches or the Emergent conversation. I am offering explanations, which I’m sure are inadequate to explain many if not most times when people leave Fundamentalism.

What about those disputable matters? Joe gave a lot of advice about how to retrain the conscience. How appropriate is his advice? He referred several times to Romans 14. How well did he apply that passage? You know I can’t be silent about those questions. That will be the subject of Why Do They Leave Fundamentalism? Part 2—Retrain Your Conscience?

miller_small1.jpgDan Miller is an ophthalmologist living in Cedar Falls, Iowa. He received a B.S. in Premed from Bob Jones University in 1991 and an M.D. from The University of South Carolina School of Medicine in 1995. He serves as youth leader and board member at Cedar Heights Baptist Church, also in Cedar Falls. He has been happily married to Jenny since 1992. His opinions are not necessarily those of his church or Sharperiron.
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