Assessing the Worldliness
How different are fundamentalists from conservative evangelicals? We have now examined two answers to that question. The first answer had to do with dispensationalism. We concluded that, although fundamentalism has a higher percentage of dispensationalists, this difference creates no greater tension between the two groups than it does within each group.
The second difference that we examined was the putative legalism of fundamentalists (according to evangelicals) and the supposed worldliness of evangelicals (according to fundamentalists). We have tried to discover what these accusations mean. Our working hypothesis includes the following factors. First, fundamentalists tend to observe certain revivalist taboos more frequently than evangelicals. Second, fundamentalists are more reluctant to adopt the accouterments of the counterculture that emerged during the 1960s. Third, fundamentalists are more likely to accept second-premise arguments when the extra-scriptural premise relies upon a judgment. Fourth, evangelicals tend to employ more recent versions of popular culture in their church life, while fundamentalists tend to hang on to older and now obsolete manifestations of popular culture.
Of course, these are generalizations to which plenty of exceptions can be found on either side. Furthermore, as generalizations, they are less likely to be typical of conservative evangelicals than of some other evangelicals. Nevertheless, these differences remain noticeable between fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals.
How much does any of this matter? Maybe there is a difference, but is the difference really sufficient to separate conservative evangelicals from fundamentalists? To answer that question, let me report three episodes.
Episode one occurs in a doctoral classroom of a major evangelical seminary. The professor has just been asked whether he is willing to restrict his liberty for the sake of those who believe that consuming alcohol is a sin. He replies, “I won’t choose to drink around people if I know that it makes them uncomfortable, but if they tell me that I can’t, I’ll drink a glass of port in front of them just to show them that I can do it. And of course, in Europe, all bets are off.”
Episode two occurs in an outdoor restaurant. Several evangelical theologians are seated at a table. They order drinks before their meal. Then they order some more. After their meal is served, they order still more drinks. They are growing raucous enough that other diners are beginning to glance over their shoulders. One of the theologians slurs out, “Say—how do we know when we’ve gone from drinking in moderation to being drunk?” Another makes reference to the teaching of an obscure catechism and explains that you aren’t drunk if you don’t vomit within twenty-four hours. The only one who doesn’t drink is chosen as the designated driver.
Episode three occurs outside a nice home. Several men are seated on the deck. Each of them is a patriarchal “pastor” of his Christian Reconstructionist house church. As the women serve, one of the men bellows, “Beer me!” The others echo the phrase, and the women dutifully produce bottles of fresh brew.
None of these episodes is fictional. They all occurred in the context of conservative evangelicalism. The professor in the first story is a major conservative evangelical spokesman. The theologians in the second story were the founders of a significant conservative evangelical alliance. The patriarchs in the third story may be people you have never heard of, but they are really out there. In plenty of places.
Now, can anyone imagine any of these scenes occurring in a group of fundamentalist leaders? No? Neither can I.
To be sure, not all conservative evangelicals drink booze. But these do. And what they do is tolerated in the name of Christian liberty—as if somehow Christians have liberty to engage in one of the most destructive practices that humans have ever invented. How much should a Christian drink? Here’s a hint: the same number of drinks that it takes to make you a better driver is exactly the number it takes to make you a better Christian, too.
Of course, I am tipping my hand here. I do not think that the so-called “revivalistic taboos” are necessarily just for revivalists—at least not all of them. Take social dancing—I have absolutely no desire to see my wife swept around the room in the arms of another man. When my daughter was in my home, I had absolutely no desire to see her bouncing and flouncing with some undisciplined adolescent whose hormones were barely under control. The waltz, the fox-trot, the tango, the samba, the rhumba, the Charleston, the jitterbug, the twist, the frog, the monkey, the funky chicken: whatever the name and whatever the style, modern social dancing is all about sex.
Nor do I think that fundamentalists were wrong to reject the symbols of a defiant counterculture. I do not think that we are wrong to raise serious objections to adopting the accouterments of anti-Christian or anti-moral social movements today. Let me put it bluntly: Christians have no business looking like Goths, Rastas, gangstas, one-percenters, or metalheads, any more than they have any business looking like transvestites or Nazis.
We should not wear the symbols of those movements for the same reason that we should not wear a fur coat in the woods during deer season. There is nothing immoral about the coat. We simply do not wish to be mistaken for something that is about to be shot.
I know, I know. Guys who wear suits can be just as worldly as guys who wear piercings. They can embezzle money, for example, or cheat on their wives. True!, but suits were not invented to advertise the defiance of property rights or marital vows.
This is not quantum mechanics. This stuff is obvious. It is so obvious that I have to wonder about somebody who can’t seem to get it. Why should a person who wants to wear the Devil’s uniforme du jour have the right to pontificate about Christian liberty? If you want to challenge me about patriotism, then take off your swastika first. If you want to lecture me about Christian liberty, then remove your piercings.
One of the first questions we need to learn to ask is, “What does that mean?” Fundamentalists do not ask this question nearly as often as they ought to, but they do ask it more than other evangelicals do—including, in many instances, conservative evangelicals. Before we adopt a trend, we need to know what it means.
Christian liberty is important. The last thing we need, however, is for Christian liberty to be defined by people who are looking for loopholes. Too often, many fundamentalists and more evangelicals are doing just that.
In sum, this is one of the differences between fundamentalists (in general) and conservative evangelicals (in general). With respect to this difference, neither fundamentalists nor evangelicals are always right. Fundamentalists, however, are right more often than other evangelicals are. And I think it matters.
A Fourfold Exercise for the Believer in His Lodging on Earth (Part 1)
Ralph Erskine (1685-1752)
The HOLY LAW: or, The Ten Commandments, Exod. xx. 3—17.
1. No God but me thou shalt adore.
2. No image frame to bow before.
3. My holy name take not in vain.
4. My sacred Sabbath don’t profane.
5. To parents render due respect.
6. All murder shun, and malice check.
7. From filth and bunnydom base abstain,
8. From theft and all unlawful gain.
9. False witness flee, and sland’ring spite.
10. Nor covet what’s thy neighbour’s right.
II. The UNHOLY HEART, the direct opposite to God’s holy and righteous Law, Rom. vii. 14. Or, The Knowledge of Sin by the Law, Rom. iii. 20.
1. My heart’s to many gods a slave.
2. Of imag’ry an hideous cave.
3. An hoard of God-dishon’ring crimes.
4. A waster base of holy times.
5. A throne of pride and self-conceit.
6. A slaughter-house of wrath and hate.
7. A cage of birds and thoughts unclean.
8. A den of thieves and frauds unseen.
9. An heap of calumnies unspent.
10. A gulph of greed and discontent.
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.