Why do people who have been influential in the evangelical world passionately advocate a cause, pull back, and then sometimes take the opposite stance with equal energy?
The answer, I think, is found in the word “fanaticism.”
Not all who fall are fanatical. Not all who fall from leadership end up denying the Lord or the Word. People like Bill Hybels, James MacDonald, or Mark Driscoll have succumbed to various sins (some more serious than others). As far as I know, these men still profess faith in Jesus Christ.
Nonetheless, others could be described as fanatics and may completely reverse themselves.
Festus probably considered Paul the Apostle a fanatic when he said to him, “Paul, you are out of your mind; your great learning is driving you out of your mind” (Acts 26:24).
As followers of Jesus Christ in a world that labels sin as normal and righteousness as abnormal, those of us who pursue righteousness and shun sin can easily be called “fanatics.” Most of us have been so labeled. I will try to explain what I mean by the term “fanatic” as I use it in this article.
Zealous Christians can cross the line between zeal (which is a Biblical virtue) and fanaticism (which is a vice). The difference in not found in Webster’s dictionary, but the fruit of observation. In my mind, zeal is a function of conviction. Fanaticism is a function of personality. People are zealous because of what they believe. Fanatical people, however, will usually find something (sometimes anything) about which to be zealous.
If zealously trying to please the Lord in all things is represented by an oscillating fan, fanaticism can be represented by a powerful air compressor over-inflating and eventually popping a bike inner tube. Fanaticism focuses too much energy into a limited area.
According to Wikipedia,
Fanaticism (from the Latin … enthusiastic, ecstatic; raging, fanatical, furious) is a belief or behavior involving uncritical zeal or with an obsessive enthusiasm…The fanatic displays very strict standards and little tolerance for contrary ideas or opinions.
The idea of “especially strict standards,” I believe, helps distinguish zeal from fanaticism. Fanatics zoom in on an area or two and frequently condemn more balanced Christians. If they ever change their beliefs, they don’t do so quietly. They will probably become crusaders for the opposite viewpoint. Fanaticism is like Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) directed outward, toward others.
A good definition of a fanatic, therefore, might be one who focuses too much energy in certain areas to the exclusion of others and who seeks to push others into overly strict standards of behavior or thought. Sometimes the fanatic abides by these strict standards himself, sometimes not.
The broader evangelical world has seen one instance of fanaticism after another. Sometimes the fanatics leave behind a helpful legacy (for example, a fanatic may leave behind a solid church, a good denomination, or an amazing book). A good question to ask yourself to help discern whether one is a fanatic or not is, “Would you want that person in your family?”
Fanaticism is a vintage problem. Many nameless Christian fanatics successfully forced a legalism upon the church by strict (less than reasonable) standards. Christians were not allowed to play cards or board games with dice, watch a movie, or purchase life insurance, for example. The question remains: Where, exactly, does the Bible prohibit these things?
Fanaticism and its cousin, the fad, is a bad habit that the evangelical world cannot seem to break. We admire fanatics and we are carried away by fads. Perhaps we are bored with life, and fanatics and fads add some variety. We want to believe in the Christian leader who lives above the din and is very different from us.
A couple of decades ago, Joshua Harris (then barely an adult) wrote a book titled, I Kissed Dating Goodbye. The book was radical; it put down dating as less-that-Christian and advocated returning to the older practice of “courtship.” The book sold like hotcakes and was extremely influential, especially in the homeschooling community. It was fanatical in its reasoning and a fad in its effect. In contrast, Dr. Bob Barnes wrote a balanced book (that we recommended): Preparing Your Child for Dating. It was neither fanatical nor did it produce a fad. That’s why you never heard of it.
Over the past few years, Josh Harris has resigned from his pastorate. Over the last few weeks, he has announced that his marriage is breaking up, he no longer claims to be a Christian, and now fully endorses the LGBTQ agenda he once opposed. Oh—a while back he apologized for the narrowness and wrong direction of his book.
George Barna founded an organization with which he is no longer associated. Barna is still walking with the Lord, someone I consider a good Christian man on a personal basis. But Barna and his research group helped fuel the Seeker Sensitive Movement, nudging it forward and encouraging others to hop on the bandwagon.
Unfortunately, Barna’s research eventually led him to conclude that the Seeker-Sensitive movement was producing shallow, ungrounded converts who were not very different in their beliefs and morals from society at large. After a couple of decades of research and pushing the Seeker Sensitive model, Barna left the megachurch and now pushes the house church, completely bypassing the multitude of balanced, smaller Bible-oriented churches.
Do you see the extreme flip-flop?
Rob Bell was a successful megachurch pastor who was troubled by the doctrine of hell, and eventually rejected it, writing his book, Love Wins. But denying the doctrine of hell was just the beginning of the slippery slope. Now Bell is an outspoken advocate against evangelical Christianity, zealous for his new cause of liberating those of us trapped in evangelical narrowness as he once was.
Franky Schaeffer, the angry son of the great Francis Schaeffer, wrote his tirade against the evangelical church, Addicted to Mediocrity, while he still identified with evangelicalism.
True, no one sees hearts, and Schaeffer’s situation might be unique. Either way, it brings to mind many folks I have met, people born into evangelical homes and continuing in the evangelical faith—but with a chip of bitterness on their shoulders. It is as though they feel like they must be evangelicals, but they really do not want to be. They don’t like the church or what we believe.
Like a codependent child of an alcoholic father, they want to recreate their childhood dilemma and fix it; they are out to reform the evangelical world or at least a specific church. Why? To work out their personal struggles.
Getting back to Franky Schaeffer, he eventually left evangelicalism for the Eastern Orthodox Church. He zealously boasted about how wonderful and deep this tradition was, and some other evangelicals followed his example and joined him. Another fad. In time, Franky decided he was an atheist, but still attends the Eastern Orthodox Church because he loves its aura.
If I have one message in this article, it would be this: Don’t use the church of Jesus Christ to work out your personality issues. The church does not exist to provide a venue for people who have something to prove or a problem they think they can resolve by adjusting the faith. That’s not why we are here.
Yes, it is good to be part of a church family to receive comfort, nurture, and guidance. God’s people and God’s Word can help us with our psychological, emotional, and personality issues—and a whole lot more. But the drama (at least as far as leadership goes) needs to stay on Broadway.
The rest of us need to remember we can help propagate this unhealthy pattern by respecting the wrong people or following the latest fad. A balanced Christian life is never as exciting as fads and superhero leaders, but it is a whole lot more stable.
Ed Vasicek was raised as a Roman Catholic in Cicero, Illinois. During his senior year in high school (1974), Cicero Bible Church reached out to him, and he received Jesus Christ as his Savior by faith alone. Ed earned his BA at Moody Bible Institute. He has served as pastor of Highland Park Church since 1983. Ed and his wife, Marylu, have two adult children. Ed has written many weekly columns for the opinion page of the Kokomo Tribune, published articles in Pulpit Helps magazine, and posted many papers at his church website. Ed has also published the The Midrash Key and The Amazing Doctrines of Paul As Midrash: The Jewish Roots and Old Testament Sources for Paul’s Teachings.