Read the series so far.
After three weeks of my discussing popular gospel-only organizations, a friend wrote to me to remind me that we have been here before. Gospel-only organizations were not invented by evangelicals in the early 21st century, but by fundamentalists in the early 20th century. My correspondent pointed out that, if I express reservations about the odd mixture of diversity and specificity within these organizations today, I should probably register the same reservations about some of the early fundamentalist associations.
The point is well taken. A fundamental is fundamental because of its connection to the gospel. For an organization to claim the name fundamentalist is to claim that it is committed to the clarification and defense of the gospel. Unless the organization adds some other qualifier (e.g., a denominational tag), it may rightly be viewed as a gospel-only organization. Such organizations are almost exactly analogous to The Gospel Coalition or Together for the Gospel.
For example, in 1919 W. B. Riley organized the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association. An early example of non-denominational fundamentalism, the WCFA prided itself upon the defense and propagation of the fundamentals. Yet from the beginning, the WCFA doctrinal statement spelled out a strong commitment to premillennialism.
The WCFA never made an issue out of denominational distinctives because those distinctives are not essential to the gospel, but it did make an issue out of premillennialism. This resembles the puzzling combination of diversity and specificity within present day gospel-only organizations. Only the issues are different.
The Fundamentalist Fellowship of the Northern Baptist Convention also displayed a combination of diversity and specificity. Here, eschatology was allowed to vary. Writing after the first pre-convention conference in 1920, Curtis Lee Laws of the Watchman Examiner noted that, “Standing solidly together in the battle for the re-enthronement of the fundamentals of our holy faith were premillennialists, post-millennialists, pro-millennialists and no-millennialists” (1 July 1920, 834). Nevertheless, while millennialism was not an issue, Baptist polity certainly was.
Why do organizations often experience difficulty in maintaining a stand for the gospel (or the fundamentals) alone? A little thought reveals why this problem occurs. Imagine a group of gospel believers who wish to sponsor a conference specifically to proclaim, explain, and defend the gospel. If such an organization could be created, what should the organizers require of speakers on its platform?
The easy answer would seem to be, “belief in the gospel.” That answer, however, is too facile. While all speakers certainly ought to believe the gospel, almost nobody thinks that belief in the gospel should be the only consideration. All Christians believe the gospel, but relatively few Christians would be invited to occupy such a platform. At minimum, some level of maturity and doctrinal comprehension would be required of the speakers. Almost certainly, some degree of ability or even mastery in communicating biblical truth would also be essential. The framers of this conference would want skilled, mature leaders on the platform. Even such obvious criteria would be adding qualifications to the gospel itself.
Organized fellowship is usually difficult to ground only in the gospel. This phenomenon reflects something about the nature of Christianity itself. God never intended Christians to be gospel-only people. The gospel is not an end, but a means. The end is the glory of God, and the gospel contributes to this end by initiating people into and empowering them for a life that actually brings God glory. In order for God to receive all the glory that He should, Christians must go on to pursue the life of faith. They must grow in knowledge, virtue, and obedience. In other words, they must move toward appropriating the whole system of faith and practice. When they do so, they will unavoidably have to make choices in those areas over which Christians disagree.
For an organization to maintain a gospel-only emphasis, it must define its purpose very narrowly. An example of an organization with such a focused purpose is the American Council of Christian Churches. Founded in 1941, the ACCC would soon become the most important multi-denominational organization within fundamentalism, but from the very beginning its leaders recognized the difficulty of establishing gospel-only fellowship. Consequently, they limited the purpose of the organization, using it narrowly to educate on issues related to the fundamentals, to challenge doctrinal apostasy and apostate organizations, to protect fundamentalist churches from political restrictions in view of the influence of the National and World Councils of Churches.
From the beginning, however, its members decided that the ACCC would avoid certain forms of fellowship. For example, it would not sponsor evangelistic campaigns. The multiple denominations within the ACCC fellowship recognized that evangelism includes the step of baptism, and because they could not agree about the subjects or mode of baptism they believed that it would be better pursued by the separate constituent churches.
A narrowly-focused organization like the ACCC has a place. In this case, it acts as a kind of snowplow to clear common obstacles away in front of its constituent denominations. It is not non-denominational but multi-denominational. It takes no particular position on the millennium, on the subjects of baptism, on election, on Lordship salvation, or on other non-gospel doctrines.
Gospel-only organizations can be helpful for certain purposes at certain levels of fellowship. Their usefulness, however, is limited. Ultimately, Christians require robust fellowships that will bring them into obedience to the whole counsel of God. Those fellowships are called churches.
This Night, O Lord, We Bless Thee
James Drummond Burns (1823–1864)
This night, O Lord, we bless Thee
For Thy protecting care,
And ere we rest, address Thee
In lowly, fervent prayer:
From evil and temptation
Defend us through the night,
And round our habitation
Be Thou a wall of light.
On Thee our whole reliance
From day to day we cast,
To Thee with firm affiance,
Would cleave from first to last;
To Thee, through Jesus’ merit,
For needful grace we come,
And trust that Thy good Spirit
Will guide us safely home.
What may be on the morrow
Our foresight cannot see;
But be it joy or sorrow,
We know it comes from Thee.
And nothing can take from us,
Where’er our steps may move,
The staff of Thy sure promise,
The shield of Thy true love.