Now About Those Differences

Now, About Those Differences, Part Eight

NickOfTimeRead Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, and Part 7.

Styles and Methods

Fundamentalists and evangelicals (including conservative evangelicals) both want to distinguish themselves from one another. Fundamentalists usually want to be known as fundamentalists, or at least to find some label that says more than “evangelical.” For their part, evangelicals of all sorts are eager to avoid being mistaken for fundamentalists.

When asked about their differences, both groups often respond with stock answers. According to many evangelicals, fundamentalism has been polluted with legalism or externalism, while fundamentalists often say that evangelicalism has been tainted with worldliness. Each group has typically taken its perception of the other to be virtually axiomatic.

What I have been trying to do is to discover what each party means by its accusation. What do fundamentalists see in evangelicals that smacks of worldliness? What do evangelicals see in fundamentalists that seems legalistic?

I have suggested several answers to those questions. First, fundamentalists and other evangelicals have often differed over their observance of what I have called “revivalistic taboos.” Second, fundamentalists have been more hesitant to adopt the accouterments of the counterculture (now mainstream culture) that began in the 1960s. Third, evangelicals have been more suspicious of second-premise arguments when the second premise has relied upon a matter of judgment rather than a statement of fact.

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Now, About Those Differences, Part Seven

NickOfTimeRead Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, and Part 6.

Second Premise Arguments

Making generalizations about either fundamentalists or other evangelicals is a bit presumptuous. Both groups are quite diverse, and exceptions can be found to most generalizations. Non-fundamentalistic evangelicalism covers an especially broad array of influences and movements.

The diversity of each group has rarely been realized by the other, however, and so each group does tend to posit generalizations about the other. One of those generalizations has to do with the matter of worldliness and legalism. Fundamentalists tend to think of other evangelicals as worldly. Those evangelicals tend to think of fundamentalists as legalistic.

We are not yet to the point of weighing the merits of these perceptions. For the moment, what we are trying to do is to understand what each group means when it speaks about the other. What do fundamentalists see that leads them to think evangelicals are worldly? What do evangelicals see that leads them to perceive fundamentalists as legalistic?

Articulating these perceptions more fully will be useful in two ways. First, it will furnish us with criteria for assessing the merits of the judgments that evangelicals and fundamentalists make about each other. Second, it will provide us with a device for distinguishing some evangelicals from other evangelicals as well as some fundamentalists from other fundamentalists.

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Now, About Those Differences, Part Six

NickOfTimeRead Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5.

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.

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Now, About Those Differences, Part Five

NickOfTimeRead Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

Legalism and Worldliness

Over the decades, fundamentalists and other evangelicals have played a kind of game. It is a contest of mutual recrimination. To fundamentalists, evangelicals have often said, “You are legalists.” Fundamentalists have generally replied, “You are worldly.” Both parties seem to find pleasure in this game, though neither has ever really won it.

Of course, most evangelicals are not conservative evangelicals. In common with other evangelicals, however, conservative evangelicals still tend to view fundamentalists as unnecessarily legalistic. For their part, many fundamentalists are not even willing to recognize a difference between conservative evangelicalism and other branches of non-fundamentalistic evangelicalism (usually classed under the broad label, “neo-evangelical”). These fundamentalists believe that any evangelical who is not a fundamentalist is a new evangelical and simply must be worldly.

An uninformed observer might wonder what all the fuss is about. One group observes some strictures that the other does not. Why worry about it?

The answer is that Christianity is more than a set of doctrines. Christianity is also a life lived for the love and to the glory of God. Just as some doctrinal affirmations or denials are not compatible with the gospel, so also some ways of living are not compatible with the gospel.

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Now, About Those Differences, Part Four

NickOfTimeRead Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.


Conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists actually hold a great deal in common, including the most important things. Nevertheless, they do differ in certain ways. Some of those differences are more important and some less so. Some of them are more characteristic of each group, while others are matters of degree.

One of the differences has to do with dispensationalism and covenant theology. In general, fundamentalists are rather loyal to dispensationalism. Also in general, conservative evangelicals incline toward covenant theology.

This difference does not apply in every instance. Exceptions exist in both camps. Some fundamentalists are (and always have been) covenant theologians, while some conservative evangelicals are dispensationalists.

Actually, at one time many or most conservative evangelicals were also dispensationalists. For example, in his recent history of Dallas Seminary, John D. Hannah argues that Dallas Theological Seminary tried to stake out a middle ground between fundamentalism and neo-evangelicalism. He cites Lewis Sperry Chafer and John Walvoord to show that these leaders disapproved of inclusive evangelism as it was practiced by the new evangelicals, but they also disapproved of the rigid separatism (as they saw it) of many fundamentalists.1 Yet Dallas Seminary was certainly among the leading voices of dispensationalism.

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Now, About Those Differences, Part Three

NickOfTimeRead Part 1 and Part 2.

Inside the Boundary

Fellowship is by definition that which is held in common. Unity is a function of that which unites. The quality of unity is always defined by the thing that unites, and the quality of fellowship is always defined by the nature of the thing that is held in common.

To speak of Christian fellowship and unity is to say that Christians hold something in common and that they are united by something. Christian unity and fellowship are not primarily experiential, but positional. All legitimate experiences and expressions of Christian unity and fellowship grow out of the real unity that exists among them.

The most basic form of Christian fellowship and unity is defined by the gospel. However else they may differ, Christians hold the gospel in common. Christian fellowship and unity are like a circle, and the boundary of the circle is the gospel.

Those who deny the gospel—whether explicitly by flat rejection or implicitly by denying some fundamental doctrine—are outside of the circle. No Christian unity or fellowship exists with someone who denies the gospel. Where no actual unity exists, any pretense of unity is the merest hypocrisy. Therefore, to profess unity or fellowship with someone who denies a fundamental of the gospel is always sinful.

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Now, About Those Differences, Part Two


Outside the Boundary

A few months ago I wrote an essay entitled “Let’s Get Clear on This.” That essay argued the following: (1) conservative evangelicals are not neo-evangelicals; (2) conservative evangelicals are making a substantial contribution to the defense and exposition of the Christian faith; (3) substantial differences continue to distinguish conservative evangelicals from fundamentalists; but (4) fundamentalists must not treat conservative evangelicals as enemies or even opponents. These points are, I think, as clear in reality as they were presented to be in the essay.

What “Let’s Get Clear on This” did not do was to explore the differences between conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists. Such an exploration would have been beside the point in that essay. Nevertheless, those differences remain important. What I have proposed to do is to examine the ways in which fundamentalism differs from conservative evangelicalism.

Partly, this is an empirical evaluation based upon an examination of the two movements as they actually exist at this point in time. But only partly. In my examination of the differences, I am deliberately opting for an a priori definition that excludes some self-identified fundamentalists.

My reason for this decision is simple: words refer to ideas, and ideas are anterior to things. This discussion will recognize as fundamentalists only those who approximate the idea of fundamentalism. Of course, none of us perfectly implements the idea. Whenever ideas are incarnated in human institutions, movements, and persons, they display the effects of human finiteness and fallenness. No ideal fundamentalist (or conservative, or Baptist, or even Christian, for that matter) has ever existed, and none ever will. We judge ourselves by the idea. In the present discussion, I shall consider only those versions of fundamentalism that are closer to the idea.

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Now, About Those Differences, Part One


Why This Discussion?

Some weeks ago I wrote a piece expressing appreciation and even admiration for the contributions that conservative evangelicals are making to the Christian faith. Many people have replied, both publicly and privately, both agreeably and disagreeably. Leaving aside the most hysterical evaluations, responses have generally fallen into four categories.

First, some have questioned whether particular individuals or institutions should have been listed as conservative evangelical. According to this response, some of the evangelicals whom I listed are not so conservative after all. To this criticism I reply that my direct knowledge of some individuals and organizations is less complete than my knowledge of others. It is entirely possible that a few of these people may be less conservative than I had understood them to be.

Since my main concern was with conservative evangelicalism as a movement, however, the inclusion or exclusion of a few names does not fundamentally alter my conclusions. In other words, the first criticism is not directed against the argument itself. The remaining criticisms, however, go to the heart of the matter. Let me put them on the table, and then I can evaluate them together.

Second, some have praised my essay for what they took to be its blanket endorsement of conservative evangelicalism. These respondents seem to believe that no appreciable difference exists between conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists. In my article they read agreement. They welcomed my observations as a legitimization for abolishing whatever barriers inhibit fundamentalists from fully cooperating with conservative evangelicals.

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