Why Stay in Fundamentalism?

tracks.jpgA few hours ago, I carefully listened to an MP3 in which Joe Zichterman, former Bible professor at Northland Baptist Bible College (Dunbar, WI), discusses his reasons for joining the Church-Growth Movement (CGM) in general and Willow Creek Community Church (South Barrington, IL) in particular. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has found his presentation both moving and disturbing.

My heart goes out to Joe and to his family because it’s evident to me that he or someone in his family (or both) has suffered something very painful at the hands of fundamentalists. (In the talk, Joe doesn’t target Fundamentalism by name but clearly includes it under the “high-control groups” label.) Whether what was painful was also wrong I’m not in a position to know, but it’s certainly possible.

I’ll respond to a few points in Joe’s presentation, but the larger goal here is to encourage anyone pondering a similar move to rethink his options.

At Least Two Fundamentalisms Exist in America

Many have attempted to analyze and classify the various flavors of Fundamentalism. The movement has always been diverse, and some of these analyses have merit. But for the purposes of responding to Joe’s critique, we need only two: sick Fundamentalism and healthy Fundamentalism.

I grew up in the center of the healthy kind but with the sick kind always within sight and occasionally intruding. In childhood, for example, I studied for a few years in a strongly Hyles-influenced elementary school. The leaders there apparently felt that every verse in the Bible was really about long hair, rock and roll, and blue jeans. The preaching and class time had a constant accusing tone, and most of the leadership there radiated disapproval. We were all just rebellious delinquents headed for ruin. But even there, I remember exceptions. I had some gracious, wise teachers; and the school secretary was like a beacon of warm and gentle light in a hostile place.

This exposure to sick Fundamentalism didn’t move me to hate the whole, probably because the churches my family attended always kept us connected to the healthy kind of Fundamentalism. As far back as I can remember, our pastors were gracious, kind, and not in the least authoritarian. They weren’t perfect either, but they faithfully labored at thoughtful expository preaching, didn’t micro-manage, didn’t exercise unilateral “church discipline,” and didn’t major on rules of dress and entertainment in their pulpit work. All the same, they were firm on the great doctrines, openly opposed ecumenism, and taught principles of separation. They were fundamentalists.

So Joe’s assessment of fundamental ministries as “high-control groups” plagued with insufficiently accountable authoritarian leaders struck me as both familiar and yet foreign. I know that the kind of Fundamentalism he describes exists and hurts many, but I also know that it’s not the kind of Fundamentalism I’ve experienced for most of my life.

Even at Bob Jones University (BJU, Greenville, SC), I did not find the environment oppressive. Indeed, I met as many freethinkers there as I’ve met anywhere. Sure, I saw plenty of the sick kind of Fundamentalism scattered among my peers in the “preacher boys” class. And I heard bits and pieces of it in the rhetoric aimed at inspiring us future pastors to stay true to Fundamentalism. But, at the same time, I heard the work of faculty who were clearly not blind to Fundamentalism’s weaknesses, were not dimwits and were not about to be pressured into holding or not holding particular views on things. Admittedly, one of these faculty members disappeared from the faculty within a year or two of my time there. But several did not.

My point is this: I found even one of the allegedly sickest fundamentalist institutions to be blessed with all sorts of genuineness, graciousness, integrity, and intelligence nearly everywhere I turned. Subsequent years have taught me that many had a very different experience at BJU, even some who attended the university the same time I did. I have no explanation for that. I only know what I saw and heard.

The sick kind of Fundamentalism was never far away. I heard some appalling handling of Scripture and some pretty vicious condemnation of other Christian leaders, often with a disregard for facts that seemed almost intentional. And, of course, various unfortunate elements of the revivalist tradition were swirling around continually. But many of us knew what healthy Fundamentalism was and we were not confused by the ugliness of the sick kind. We never believed that the sick kind was all there was.

My years after BJU followed a similar pattern. Teaching at a Christian school in Georgia intensified my distaste for certain symptoms of sick Fundamentalism. But again, many of my colleagues were some of the best and brightest in the business—“Bo-Jo’s” through and through but not in the least hampered by poor critical thinking skills, knee-jerkism, or superficial judgmentalism. I admire them to this day. So the sick and the healthy continued side by side.

After that, seminary widened the gulf between the sick and healthy forms of Fundamentalism. Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN) was not afflicted with any of the symptoms of sick Fundamentalism. During those years, sick Fundamentalism rudely bumped me just often enough to remind me that it had not yet died.

Joe’s version of Fundamentalism exists, but it is not the only Fundamentalism. I have to believe that he has gotten around enough to know this. The pain of whatever happened has, it seems, produced some selective memory.

At Least Two Evangelicalisms Exist in America

There is much in Joe’s analysis that is correct, and on several points the CGM circles he has currently settled in offer an alternative that is healthier in those particular ways. When it comes to honesty, accountability, integrity, kindness, and genuineness, there is a healthy Evangelicalism. The problem is that everything Joe decries in the “high control groups” can be found in evangelical ministries as well. There is a sick Evangelicalism, even sick CGM Evangelicalism. I’m personally aware of one CGM ministry that is plagued by just about all the same diseases as the worst fundamentalist ministries.

Of course, the pet peeves sick Evangelicalism preaches are different from the ones sick Fundamentalism preaches, and the look and feel of the surroundings are much different. Different traditions trump the authority of Scripture. But sick CGM ministries evidence the same sloppy handling of Scripture and the same kinds of authoritarian leaders or authoritarian boards (somehow it escapes Joe’s notice that collective leadership is as capable of abuse of power as singular leadership). Rarely but sometimes, they even oppress women. And bad theology? Fundamentalism has its share but hardly holds the corner on that market.

If you find yourself in a spiritually abusive situation, the answer is to leave the sick and find the healthy. There’s no need to hop a major ideological fence in order to do that and no guarantee that when you land on the other side it won’t be sick there too in nearly all the same ways.

Given the historically unmoored and culturally entangled nature of most of Evangelicalism, hopping the fence is usually just trading one set of diseases for another. In fairness to Joe, it is sometimes hard to tell which sort of sickness is worse: the authoritarian, unthinking, hyperseparatism that afflicts much of Fundamentalism or the egalitarian, unthinking, indiscriminately cooperating fever that plagues most of Evangelicalism. But to justify leaving Fundamentalism for the CGM, one must make the case that the set of ills CGM offers is better than what’s available not only in sick Fundamentalism but also in healthy Fundamentalism. That case I have yet to hear.

Only one of Joe’s stated reasons for joining CGM is difficult to find in Fundamentalism. Some of his most emotionally charged remarks concern freedom for women to use their gifts in leadership roles. Like many other evangelicals who wave this flag, Joe seems to have overlooked the fact that the vast majority of women do not want to lead (most men don’t even want to lead!), and even fewer have any desire to lead groups that include men.

So it seems to me that an awful lot of hand-wringing and inventive interpretation is being undertaken on that point these days for what’s actually a rare scenario: the woman who wants to lead men. I suspect that Joe’s interest in change in that area is driven by an emotional reaction to some kind of mistreatment. For the group he has settled in, however, it’s probably driven by unwitting absorption of unbiblical cultural attitudes (i.e., feminism and political correctness). That’s one disease found more often outside Fundamentalism and every bit as serious as the dysfunctions within it.

Final Word to Those Weary of Sick Fundamentalism

If you’re among those who have been spiritually, emotionally or financially battered by bad men (or groups) within fundamentalist ministries, don’t make the mistake of thinking you need to escape to something “as different as possible in every way.” What you need is something as different as possible in particular ways. You need healthy Fundamentalism. Depending on where you live, it may be hard to find, but it is alive and well. In some places, it’s spreading. From where I sit, it looks like many of fundamentalism’s institutions are working harder at fighting the sick kind and spreading the healthy kind than ever before.

But if you must “leave Fundamentalism,” at least find one of the many “fundamentalist but not in name” ministries that seem to be popping up all over. There are worse places to go than the CGM and Willow Creek. Way worse. But there are so many better places to get all the good they have to offer.

blumerandson1.jpgAaron Blumer, a native of lower Michigan, is a graduate of Bob Jones University (Greenville, SC) and Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). He, his wife, and their two children live in a small town in western Wisconsin where he has pastored Grace Baptist Church (Boyceville, WI) since 2000. Prior to serving as a pastor, Aaron taught school in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and served in customer service and technical support for Unisys Corporation (Eagan, MN). He enjoys science fiction, music, and dabbling in software engineering.
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