MacArthur on Fundamentalism

When The Master’s University (TMU) hired BJU’s Vice President Sam Horn as its President and when a friendly picture of West Coast Baptist College President Paul Chappell surfaced with John MacArthur on Twitter, some of us believed that a convergence was taking place between the left flank of Fundamentalism and the right flank of Evangelicalism.

However, after only one year in office, Horn resigned as President of TMU. A year after Horn’s departure, Austin Duncan, Director of the MacArthur Center for Expository Preaching, produced a podcast (March 8, 2022) where he interviewed MacArthur on the topic “MacArthur and the Fundamentalists” (https://open.spotify.com/episode/34Dbvzbvnjctqfke7PKcSk).

There are lighthearted moments in this podcast such as MacArthur’s recollection of the Southern Baptist Convention’s W. A. Criswell calling him a “Baptist”. MacArthur also remembers when R. C. Sproul suggested “Imputationalists” as a possible label for Bible-believing Christians. MacArthur replied to Sproul, “That’s not going to work, R. C. They’re going to think we’re cutting off people’s limbs!”

Springing off of MacArthur’s conversation with Sproul, Duncan asks, “If MacArthur isn’t entirely comfortable with the term ‘evangelical’, would he embrace the term ‘fundamentalist’?” Duncan observes that MacArthur has a “tenuous relationship with Fundamentalism;” he “appreciates aspects of it, but doesn’t identify with it.”

According to the podcast, modern Fundamentalism began with the Scopes Trial in 1925. Duncan criticizes Fundamentalism for “trying to legislate a Biblical worldview… . We must remember that we cannot change minds or laws unless God through the Gospel changes hearts.”

The podcast also identifies Fundamentalism with the fight for Prohibition. Duncan observes, “The social activism of the Fundamentalists backfired. As their cultural influence was waning, Fundamentalists also lost control of the mainline denominations throughout the 1920s and 30s.”

In the 1940s, the National Association of Evangelicals was founded to replace “militant and combative” Fundamentalism with a “friendlier form of Fundamentalism.” The Master’s Seminary Professor Nathan Busenitz describes the great schism within Bible-believing, American Christianity,

The old guard of Fundamentalists were all about purity, but they took that purity to an extreme, so that it became legalism. Whereas the Neo-Evangelicals, today we just call them Evangelicals, were all about popularity and influence. In their quest for that influence, they actually compromised on the integrity of their message.

As this split was taking place, Evangelist Billy Graham emerged. Duncan describes Graham as “a young man raised in the [Fundamentalist] movement [who] became a national sensation… . Everyone liked Billy Graham except for the Fundamentalists.”

MacArthur notes,

Fundamentalism found its collective voice when it began to make war against Billy Graham… . It was bound up with jealousy as well as legitimate concerns. He was inviting the liberals back in and embracing them and sending “converts” through the invitational system back into liberal churches… . Billy Graham became the reason why the [Fundamentalist] movement solidified around separation.

According to Duncan, MacArthur’s father “stood at the very nexus of that intersection” between the Evangelicals and Fundamentalists.

Although MacArthur recalled earlier in the podcast, “I don’t think my dad ever called himself a ‘Fundamentalist’,” his dad was a member of the Independent Fundamental Churches of America

because of the very fact that they were independent. They had a certain commitment to doctrine without the same legalism. He didn’t associate with any of those people that are names connected to Fundamentalism: Carl McIntyre, Tom Malone, [and] Bob Jones, although he knew Bob Jones, and they had a mutual kind of connection.

The discussion then turns squarely toward Bob Jones. Duncan calls Bob Jones “the central figure in Fundamentalism. His school, Bob Jones University, became one of the movement’s flagship institutions.”

Duncan describes the Fundamentalists:

Jones and other Fundamentalists became legalistic in their thinking. Issues reserved for Christian liberty such as clothing, alcohol, and music became defining features, and that obsession with externals cultivated a culture of separatism, anti-intellectualism, and legalism.

Despite assertions that the MacArthur family was not close to Bob Jones, MacArthur attended BJU for a short time. He relates what it was like while there as a student:

Legalism was new to me, and so alien to me that I didn’t find myself compelled to conform to strange, external things, and so I would get demerits. I didn’t understand it. I had no experience with it. I had a father and a mother and a family that loved the Lord, that walked with the Lord. [With] the people in my world … there was a real Christianity… . I didn’t understand this externalism. I didn’t understand why everybody needed to be policed… . They made Billy Graham a big issue every single day there at Bob Jones … and many other people who they decided were compromisers.

MacArthur continues,

Bob Jones had two people in his life: The people that agreed with him and the people he tried to undermine. Those are the only two kinds of people. You either agreed with him or you were a target… . Eventually Bob Jones turned on my father and made all kinds of false accusations against my dad. It started because my dad showed a Billy Graham film or somebody in the church showed a Billy Graham film in our church. That was the kiss of death. So Bob Jones went after my father as a compromiser and all of that. So, Fundamentalism basically turned on him. That’s when he yanked me out of the environment of Bob Jones. He said, “You can’t stay there. They’ll poison you and they’ll separate you from me.”

“And John got out of there just in time,” Duncan explains. “A few years later Bob Jones and the Fundamentalist Movement would commit their most egregious act of extra-Biblical sin.” This “most egregious act of extra-Biblical sin” was a Bob Jones radio sermon entitled “Is Segregation Scriptural?” In this sermon, Jones defended segregation. Duncan calls Jones’ message “awful — full of terrible hermeneutics, revisionist history, and blatant racism.”

Focusing on BJU’s racism, MacArthur remembers,

There were things said about black people that I wouldn’t even repeat because it would do no good to repeat them, but they were untrue to put it mildly. They were demeaning. They were slanderous. This was such a serious issue at that time, but they felt they could take that kind of stand and survive in the South. This is real racism, and real racism illegitimately defended by using the Bible.

Duncan continues highlighting BJU’s racism:

For an inexplicable 30 years interracial dating was prohibited. Among a thousand other prohibitions, this was the most wicked. It wasn’t lifted until the year 2000, when Bob Jones, III dropped it… . In 2008, the school issued a fascinating and long-overdue apology.

Contrasting himself with BJU, MacArthur recalls ministering in black churches throughout the South. He claims to have been arrested in Mendenhall, MS for “stirring up the blacks.”

“Clearly,” Duncan observes, “John didn’t fit the culture at BJU, and neither he nor his father would go along with the contentiousness, legalism, and racism of many within the Fundamentalist Movement.”

Duncan then asks MacArthur to “exegete the word ‘Fundamental.’”

MacArthur cynically responds,

Fundamental is no fun, too much damn, and not enough mental. (1) It was no fun because it was so burdensome. It was like the Pharisees tying burdens on people’s backs. It was all about how you externally conducted yourself and how you dressed and how you talked and who you connected with and who you associated with and where you went and what you did. There was another absence of joy in the overly sober-mindedness that came along with Fundamentalism, because it was so critical of everybody who didn’t toe the line. (2) Too much damn. There was little effort to encourage people. There was very little effort to build people up in the Faith. There was missing a lot of grace and mercy and tenderness and compassion and kindness and humility in preaching that recognized that you had to deal with people’s hearts, and you had to move them along with kindness and grace and patience. It was far too black and white, and you were not considered a Fundamentalist unless you hammered on people about things. (3) Not enough mental. I wouldn’t want to sit in judgment necessarily on the intellectual capability of Fundamentalists, but there was no effort made to get into the depth of Scripture theologically.

MacArthur then lobs a strong accusation:

[Fundamentalism is] a false paradigm of sanctification. For example, Bob Jones was condemning everybody who was not a Fundamentalist, and there were things in Bob Jones, Jr.’s life that were vile and serious transgressions, epic transgressions, inconsistencies, but that’s what Fundamentalism does.

When Fundamentalist author David Beale recently wrote in his book Christian Fundamentalism in America that BJU’s President Steve Pettit had “steered the University out of separatist Fundamentalism into the inclusive, Broad Evangelicalism,” there were calls for him to give examples – which he did. Should we not likewise ask MacArthur’s to list the “vile and serious transgressions” that he alleges against Jones, Jr.? Empty accusations are far too easy to make, and MacArthur should know better than to make them.

The whole interview is an enigma to me. Why did MacArthur discuss these things? What does he gain by picking at an old scab? Is BJU’s 2008 apology for past wrongs not enough? Most importantly, does this conversation honor Christ?

Duncan concludes the podcast by declaring that MacArthur “doesn’t fit neatly into any of these movements that have come and gone. Certainly John learns from them, but he is a man shaped by the Scriptures. May that be true of all of us.”

MacArthur sees himself as existing in that sweet spot between compromised Evangelicalism and cantankerous Fundamentalism. In other words, he alone is right. Sounds like a Fundamentalist to me!

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There are 14 Comments

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I've had plenty of criticism for JMac and GCC over the last couple of years, but I don't think his take on the fundamentalism after Graham is troubling. It's an opinion and not one that lacks supporting evidence! Worst I can say is that it exaggerates some things a little and some other things a lot, but gets a lot right, too.

About this...

MacArthur sees himself as existing in that sweet spot between compromised Evangelicalism and cantankerous Fundamentalism. In other words, he alone is right. Sounds like a Fundamentalist to me!

It's not fair. Trying to take a third option, and seeing yourself as doing so, doesn't mean you see yourself as alone on that path. I don't believe he thinks he's alone at all in that stance. The whole "conservative evangelical" concept is an effort to find that third way (more accurately, just "alternative space") between a couple of excesses.

True, many see CE as the same thing as "new evangelicalism." That's a reasonable view. Maybe it is, maybe it isn't. There are definitely more than two possible postures toward all the issues that distinguish the various flavors of evangelicals. There are more three.

Faithfulness in changing times requires being rigid about the right things and flexible about the right things... and nobody gets it right all the time.

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.

Joeb's picture

I don't know if Bob Jones ever did the things that J Mac has allegedly done but so far J Mac isn't even in  BOB JONES league as far as being anywhere near as a Godly man. Probably Jones was racist but so was Jerry Falwell Sr at one time. I'd rather be accused of being racist then accused of knowingly protecting someone who harms children and my actions in doing so allegedly allowed a child to be grievously harmed sexually.  So in the above comparison in my book the Fundamentalists win hands down.   

AndyE's picture

Quote:
Legalism was new to me, and so alien to me that I didn’t find myself compelled to conform to strange, external things, and so I would get demerits. I didn’t understand it. I had no experience with it. I had a father and a mother and a family that loved the Lord, that walked with the Lord. [With] the people in my world … there was a real Christianity… . I didn’t understand this externalism. I didn’t understand why everybody needed to be policed… . They made Billy Graham a big issue every single day there at Bob Jones … and many other people who they decided were compromisers.

I have to say, as someone who grew up in Sun Valley and who went to the same Christian School that MacArthur’s kids did for a while, it is so bizarre to read this as my experience was 100% different than his.  To me, my Christian school hardly seemed Christian at all, and it was when I got to BJU that I felt at home with other students who truly loved God and sang and didn’t live just like the world.

And BJU was right about Billy Graham...

Edit to add: one other thing...my Mom was in the same class at BJU as MacArthur.  I think she said he was chaplain of their sophomore class. My mom came to BJU from a Methodist church in Virginia.  She never said anything about chaffing under legalism.  MacArthur put himself under the authority of the school, so I don't know why he thought he could disobey school rules and not get demerits.  Wasn't his dad on the board? How did he not know what the school was like?

Bert Perry's picture

It strikes me that we all have our blind spots.  At BJU, it was racism and, yes, a bit of "rulesism"--I say "rulesism" rather than "legalism" because nobody confesses to trusting in dead works for salvation.  But in my view, there are an awful lot of rules there still that derive far more from their subculture than from Scripture.  At Master's, there seems to be a nice big blind spot with regards to the handling of sexual assault allegations, governance, and a touch more.  

So my take is that we all have our blind spots, and I'd rephrase JMac's comment as "that's part of the common culture between fundamentalists and evangelicals."

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

dcbii's picture

EditorModerator

AndyE wrote:

My mom came to BJU from a Methodist church in Virginia.  She never said anything about chaffing under legalism.  MacArthur put himself under the authority of the school, so I don't know why he thought he could disobey school rules and not get demerits.

Just as was expressed in the recent article on legalism posted on SI from Mark Minnick, it's attitude that makes the difference.  I came to BJU from a Methodist church in Maryland.  I knew what the rules were going to be like before I came, just as anyone who had done their research would know.  But I believed I could put up with the rules (and I did) for my betterment.  Were some of the rules absolutely stupid?  Yup.  The one about interracial dating wasn't just stupid, it was wrong.

Did it seem the university sometimes treated us as children?  Yes.  I won't say my attitude was always good, because it wasn't.  At times I did chafe a bit until I got my attitude and heart right again.  But looking back, I still wouldn't trade that time, as I learned a lot, including putting up with things that while not necessary, helped me to learn (among other things) that not everything in the Christian world would agree with me, and that I had better get used to it.

In other ways, it was like Andy said.  It was refreshing to find a lot of people who were serious about Christianity, rather unlike a number of the students in my Christian high school, who were there only because their parents sent them.  Of course, going to a non-denominational school founded by a Methodist (like my background), but finding that >90% of the student body were Baptist also caused some friction and learning for me.

The school wasn't perfect.  No place is.  And not one church or other Christian organization is ever going to agree 100% with anyone's personal beliefs/principles.  But chalking up BJU's rules and standards (even during the fighting fundamentalism heyday) to just legalism or even externalism, rather than motivated by a desire to turn out godly graduates, is both incorrect and uncharitable.

Dave Barnhart

Ron Bean's picture

The description of fundamentalism's change from its historic position to what it is today is correct. Personally, my first introduction to fundamentalism was in the 70's and was defined by what fundamentalism was "against", which was Billy Graham, new evangelicalism, and worldly culture. This new fundamentalism in this case is now against JM. When people are known more for what they are against than what they are for, they resemble the Church at Ephesus which could not tolerate evil but had left their first love. 

 

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

Jay's picture

MacArthur sees himself as existing in that sweet spot between compromised Evangelicalism and cantankerous Fundamentalism. In other words, he alone is right. Sounds like a Fundamentalist to me!

Every time I hear something like this, I remember Elijah at the brook complaining to God that he was the only one left, only for God to reply that there were 7,000 more out there who had not bowed the knee to Baal.  To be honest, it smacks of arrogance to make such a claim.

MacArthur has some Fundamentalist traits, but I don't think he is.  I think he's a hyper-fundamentalist that adds legalism to the faith like many others.  That's my $0.02.  What do you call someone who is fundamentalist in doctrine but legalist or further to the extreme on the conservative side of things?

"Our task today is to tell people — who no longer know what sin is...no longer see themselves as sinners, and no longer have room for these categories — that Christ died for sins of which they do not think they’re guilty." - David Wells

Dave White's picture

Jay wrote:

MacArthur sees himself as existing in that sweet spot between compromised Evangelicalism and cantankerous Fundamentalism. In other words, he alone is right. Sounds like a Fundamentalist to me!

Every time I hear something like this, I remember Elijah at the brook complaining to God that he was the only one left, only for God to reply that there were 7,000 more out there who had not bowed the knee to Baal.  To be honest, it smacks of arrogance to make such a claim.

Jay - this is the article's author's statement - not MacArthur's

 

Bert Perry's picture

Jay, not quite tracking with you on what things would place MacArthur in a hyper-fundamentalist camp.  Can you elaborate?  Or perhaps send a PM if you think it would cause a firestorm you don't care to engage.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Jay's picture

1.  Yes, I know they were the authors' words and didn't mean to impugn him.  I would have put Mac in the fundamental camp a long time ago, because he holds to the fundamental doctrines including primary and secondary separation, but I also include some conservative evangelicals in the SI-ish fundamentalist "tribe" that some on this site would not.  Mark Dever, I think, would be another that I would include with "us" (whoever "we" are anymore hahaha).

2.  Without touching off TOO much of a firestorm, Bert, the entire way that Mac handled the COVID/Mask debate and then used it as a litmus test of faithfulness is why I said that.  There's a lot of issues and problems coming from Sun Valley but that was the specific thing I had in mind at the time I originally wrote.

"Our task today is to tell people — who no longer know what sin is...no longer see themselves as sinners, and no longer have room for these categories — that Christ died for sins of which they do not think they’re guilty." - David Wells

Joeb's picture

J .MAC has a lot of questions to answer for.  I can't believe the Victims have not formed up a group.  The worst in the Bob Jones U scandal was just plain bad Counseling   It  doesn't even come close per the the J Mac allegations.  JMac's actions or inaction directly led to the grosteque harm of a child. The former Pastor under J Mac got 60 years in CA Jail.  So this dude is bad news but since he runs his own cult nothing will happen to him unless he is directly accused of doing things.  Paige Patterson the second.  

Dave White's picture

Joeb wrote:
he runs his own cult nothing will happen to him unless he is directly accused of doing things.   

Cult? Really!

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