Standards of Conduct
When evangelicals think about fundamentalists (which is not often), they typically consider them to be rather legalistic. When fundamentalists think about other evangelicals (which is nearly constantly), they usually consider them to be quite worldly. The purpose of the present investigation is not to endorse either indictment but to identify what each party has in mind when it levels its accusation against the other.
What do fundamentalists perceive about evangelicals that seems worldly to them? What do evangelicals see in fundamentalists that seems legalistic? The answer to these questions primarily revolves around two areas: (1) standards of conduct, and (2) methods of ministry. Each of these areas is significant enough to warrant at least one essay of its own.
By “standards of conduct,” I do not mean to suggest that one party possesses standards while the other does not. Both parties agree that the Bible says something about how people should live. Both parties recognize that biblical commands and principles, rightly applied, require or prohibit particular activities. Both parties will, at some point, use some external standards of conduct as mechanisms by which to gauge spiritual wellbeing.
Making such evaluations is not necessarily legalism. Legalists believe that their external conduct actually secures some measure of standing with God. That is a different matter than recognizing that external conduct often reflects one’s relationship with God.
Suppose we hear about a professing believer who has been sticking up gas stations and liquor stores in order to support a meth habit. Most evangelicals would be as quick as fundamentalists to recognize that something is awry in this person’s spiritual life. The external conduct yields evidence of an internal deficiency of some sort.
In fact, evangelicals may be quicker and more decisive than some fundamentalists in making moral judgments based upon external conduct. In one instance of which I have personal knowledge, an evangelical leader had been caught in adultery. He went to another evangelical leader to confess his sin and ask forgiveness. The response he received was, “You have betrayed our Lord and our cause. Don’t come to me for absolution.”
Whether or not this was the correct response, it was certainly a strong one. I suspect that most fundamentalist leaders would have been milder. Of particular importance is the fact that it was a response to external conduct.
So what is it about standards of conduct that sets fundamentalists apart from other evangelicals? That question has three answers: revivalistic taboos, rejection of contemporary counterculture, and the use of second-premise arguments. In these matters, fundamentalists do differ from other evangelicals, including conservative evangelicals, to varying degrees.
By revivalistic taboos, I mean standards against activities such as theater, dancing, card-playing, drinking alcohol, and smoking, among others. These taboos are labeled “revivalistic” because they were preached and promoted by the revivalists of the 19th and 20th centuries. Other Christians often disagreed with them. For example, J. Gresham Machen was a fan of Charlie Chaplin and went to see his movies. The Princeton theologian Charles Hodge wrote vigorously against the demand for total abstinence from alcohol. Some early American Baptist preachers actually received part of their compensation in whisky!
Throughout the 20th century, most fundamentalists tended to see these activities as intrinsically worldly, and many still do (I am not at this point expressing my own opinion about the taboos). Therefore, such fundamentalists necessarily see a person who indulges in these activities as worldly. They reason about revivalistic taboos in much the same way that they reason about larceny and adultery.
In general, evangelicals abandoned the revivalistic taboos more quickly than fundamentalists did. This created a situation in which many evangelicals were playing cards, smoking pipes, drinking beer, going to the theater, and waltzing or twisting while most fundamentalists still viewed these activities as worldly. The fundamentalist conclusion, of course, was simply that evangelicals were worldly. The evangelical reaction to that conclusion was that fundamentalists were judgmental, focused on externals, and probably legalistic.
This judgment was aggravated by the fact that some fundamentalists went well beyond the traditional taboos in their denunciation of worldly activities. These fundamentalists made up prohibitions that can most charitably be described as “idiosyncratic.” Not infrequently, fundamentalists became so closely identified with these external demands that it seemed as if they thought of “the standards” as the most important aspect of Christianity.
The situation was further complicated by the massive cultural shift that began during the 1960s. Often called the “counterculture,” this shift changed the way that people viewed politics, economics, entertainment, race relations, authority, sexuality, religion, and substance abuse. At each stage of its development (from hippies to punks to Goths to hip-hop), the purveyors of the counterculture have invented or adopted their own emblems of identification and modes of expression.
To paraphrase H. Richard Niebuhr’s typology, fundamentalists have tended to position themselves as “Christ against counterculture,” while evangelicals (at least from the early 1970s onward) have tended to practice “Christ of counterculture” (to be fair, they would probably have seen themselves as “Christ redeeming counterculture,” but the distinction was not often evident in practice). Evangelicals have been more focused on relevance and on supposedly redeeming the (counter) culture, while fundamentalists have seen various countercultural expressions as a rejection of authority, including divine authority, and an exaltation of sensuality through illicit sexuality or inebriation.
In other words, evangelicals have tended to embrace the latest manifestations of popular culture. Fundamentalists, however, have seen the counterculture as particularly worldly, and they have tended to resist the expressions of the counterculture even after those expressions have become mainstream. To evangelicals, fundamentalists have seemed unnecessarily restrictive, overly occupied with externals, and probably legalistic. To fundamentalists, evangelicals have appeared unwarrantably concessive and, therefore, worldly.
Over time, what was the counterculture has become the mainstream popular culture. The only thing that sells better than a bad-boy image is sex, and the counterculture offered plenty of both. Each succeeding wave of the counterculture is first brandished as obnoxiously cutting-edge but then gradually accepted across American civilization. What begins as extreme becomes mainstream.
Of course, once a phenomenon becomes mainstream, it is much harder to reject. In fact, it may completely lose its countercultural significance. Flared pants and wire-framed glasses were tokens of rebellion in the 1960s, and I can remember hearing sermons preached against the wickedness of “bell-bottoms.” During the 1970s they became mainstream and lost their significance, which meant that they were now safe for most fundamentalists to wear. By the 1980s they were out of style and no longer an issue, even for fundamentalists.
This left fundamentalists in the unenviable position of adopting some of the very trends that they had earlier denounced. This was confusing both to evangelicals and to younger fundamentalists. Their confusion was not helped by the fact that fundamentalists were selective in what they chose to adopt. Flared pants and granny glasses were accepted in the 1970s. Moustaches were not accepted until the 1980s, and beards were outlawed on most fundamentalist campuses until the 1990s. The rock music of the counterculture (even the Beatles and the Rolling Stones) has still not gained wide acceptance within fundamentalism. These choices must appear arbitrary to the critics of fundamentalism.
As we have seen, fundamentalists and other evangelicals first disagreed about the revivalistic taboos. This disagreement was exacerbated by their rather different reactions to the counterculture that emerged in the 1960s. The third difference, however, is the most serious. It is a difference over the use of second-premise arguments. That difference merits an essay of its own.
Reginald Heber (1783-1826)
Brightest and best of the sons of the morning,
Dawn on our darkness and lend us Thine aid;
Star of the East, the horizon adorning,
Guide where our infant Redeemer is laid.
Cold on His cradle the dewdrops are shining;
Low lies His head with the beasts of the stall;
Angels adore Him in slumber reclining,
Maker and Monarch and Savior of all!
Say, shall we yield Him, in costly devotion,
Odors of Edom and offerings divine?
Gems of the mountain and pearls of the ocean,
Myrrh from the forest, or gold from the mine?
Vainly we offer each ample oblation,
Vainly with gifts would His favor secure;
Richer by far is the heart’s adoration,
Dearer to God are the prayers of the poor.
This essay is by Dr. Kevin T. Bauder, president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). Not every professor, student, or alumnus of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.