The Plague of Fanaticism

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 Bio

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.

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Andrew R.'s picture

I really like this!

Aaron Blumer's picture


Definitely some truth to this.

Something is missing from the the puzzle, though. Since I'm aware (probably we all are) of fanatical types who eventually level off rather than swinging to an opposite extreme or who stick with their original "extreme" to the end of their days, there has to be at least one additional factor that explains the "one extreme to another" phenomenon.

Plus, I don't think there's anything inherently wrong or unhealthy about parachurch ministries have a specialty, and being really enthusiastic about that one thing. It's their niche. But clearly many of these niche ministries and niche leaders are not good church leaders.... because church energies really do need to be both properly centered and well distributed across the various concerns that make for a healthy church.

But authors and parachurch leaders... they benefit from specialization.

So what is it that makes a subset of these driven, focused leaders so prone to extremes and instability? I really don't know.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Bert Perry's picture

It strikes me that as Franky Schaeffer walked away from the faith, one of the things he noted was that he'd been fairly openly rebellious and promiscuous in his youth.  He'd always been an actor, so to speak, and that fact was known to many at L'Abri.  In the same way, Joshua Harris, while not living in grievous sin, never had his work subjected to a serious bit of editing--it seems to be endemic in Christian publishing circles--that would have helped him (and millions) realize that a lot of what he was proposing was not only recycled Gothardism, but legalism.  "Do this and you won't end up here", more or less.

Can't speak to Barna, but some of the disasters we see simply seem to be the result of giving men a platform before they've demonstrated they're eligible for eldership.   Or maybe that leads to fanaticism--you give someone a platform without the humility-inducing test, and then end up there?

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Ed Vasicek's picture

As Aaron says, there is more to this.  What I wrote, I believe, is part of it or a consequence or perhaps a correlation. Still, this pattern is quite common.  Bert Perry also has a point. Franky's claim to fame was not based upon his own merits or personality, but on the fame of his father.  

Still, I do think that churches and Christians admire the wrong people and nurture this problem.  It as though we have no sense in this area, and we don't want sense. We so want to believe in the leader who is on a higher plane.

"The Midrash Detective"

Bert Perry's picture

Ed Vasicek wrote:

As Aaron says, there is more to this.  What I wrote, I believe, is part of it or a consequence or perhaps a correlation. Still, this pattern is quite common.  Bert Perry also has a point. Franky's claim to fame was not based upon his own merits or personality, but on the fame of his father.  

Still, I do think that churches and Christians admire the wrong people and nurture this problem.  It as though we have no sense in this area, and we don't want sense. We so want to believe in the leader who is on a higher plane.

Agreed 100% with the bolded.  Can quibble over whether I'd call it "fanaticism", or even "fanticism" as I typed before (tease me, it's OK), but agreed that we've got some difficulty choosing and retaining our leaders, as if we were having trouble with the premises in 1 Timothy and Titus about the matter. 

I can also note that, as much as I am a fan of a well formed systematic theology, I don't see any one theological tradition showing us a way out.  You've got MacDonald, Driscoll, and Harris on the new Reformed Demi-Charismatic side, you've got the priest in Greece blaming anal sex for homosexuality, any number of "generic semi-Arminian evangelical baptistic" pastors falling away,   I'm guessing that if I took a look at conservative Lutheran or traditional Reformed circles, I'd see a lot of the same thing too, but I'd love to be wrong.

Probably in some cases, the simple explanation was they always were that way, but you didn't pay attention enough to figure it out before.  Along the same lines, we might posit that fanaticism is often the result of a man trying to prove to the world that he is something that he isn't.   Introduce the stress of "acting" to an eager world, and the balance and grace that show in a real leader simply disappears.

That noted, I have to wonder if in Barna's case, the issue is simply that (a) he came to Christ in big, seeker-sensitive churches and oriented his research that way, but (b) the data he uncovered told him he was wrong, and he was honest enough to admit it.  And then you have the question, as he moves (w. Francis Chan) towards house churches, of how you implement the Pauline prescriptions for leadership in an even smaller setting.  

One other note; I had the misfortune of reading James MacDonald's book Authentic , and remember thinking does Moody employ any editors to check this guy's facts and logic?  We defer way too much to big names....

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Pastor Rob V's picture

I cringe whenever some celebrity comes to Christ because I know the Church will descend upon them to give them a platform. My advice for them if asked would be, "get into a small church that is out of the way and learn about your Christian faith before even thinking of going public." To too many people celebrity is synonymous with wisdom. It's why actors go before congress to talk about,"climate change" and do not have degrees in the subject.

This celebrity culture has infiltrated the Church. We think that because a pastor is famous he is an expert. Thus he can't be questioned on his doctrine because he is famous and successful as far as having a wide platform. Of course those who know their bibles can question. But I am talking about questioning on a national scale.  When was the last time a famous pastor got up before his church and said, "I really messed up on teaching you thus and so. I have asked the Lord to forgive me and for you to do so too"? They either don't think they ever say anything wrong or are not allowed to break with the celebrity expert image and freely admit it. From what I read James McDonald's church had some elders who saw what he was doing wrong. Whereas others did not want to rock the boat because with James comes money and power. If they got rid of James in their mind they would lose out on their celebrity image. May God forgive any of us if we give ourselves to such thinking. Jesus said He would build His Church (Mathew 16:18). It's His Church and if there is anyone we should be fanatical about and see as a celebrity it's Him. If called to, we would even lay down our lives for our Savior who loved us so.

Don't be a great pastor, just be a pastor and let history judge for itself.

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