“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.– Matthew 5:13–16
A Little Bit of History
I remember learning about the modernists/fundamentalist controversy in Bible college. The argument dates back to at least the 1920s and began in the Presbyterian Church in the United States. At the heart of the debate were the doctrines of the resurrection of Jesus and the atoning death of Jesus. Underneath this debate is the reliability of the historical record of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Can we rely on the Bible to accurately record these historical events? One heavy-hitting theologian at the heart of the debate was J. Gresham Machen. Machen was a professor at Princeton Seminary until he left Princeton to start a more theologically conservative institution, Westminster Theological Seminary. He wrote a book called Christianity and Liberalism. I find it interesting that the history books use the terms “modern” and “fundamental” to describe the debate, but Machen saw through the rhetoric. He knew that the more precise terms were “liberalism” and “Christianity.” Christianity and Liberalism is a book I commend because, almost 100 years later, it continues to speak to the divide between liberal “Christianity” (if we can call this movement Christian) and those who hold to historical orthodox Christianity.
Fifty years after the publication of Christianity and Liberalism, another debate broke out between the “modernists” and the “conservatives” within the Southern Baptist Convention. I would prefer to use Machen’s terms, but I will be charitable for now. What is the debate about? Same stuff, just a different day. The debate is about whether Christians will take God at his word. Has God spoken sufficiency and authoritatively to his people in the Bible? For those who say “Yes,” there is also active submission to what God has said. On the other side of the debate are pastors and theologians fudging the terms and creating as much gray as humanly possible. The liberals went their way, but a new debate emerged between “evangelicals” and fundamentalists.” More on this is below.
Let’s continue to focus on the SBC. The SBC is the largest Protestant denomination in the United States and greatly influences Protestant churches worldwide. Perhaps the SBC has an outsized influence on evangelical churches of all stripes. Many on the historic and orthodox side of the debate would reject the “fundamentalist” label while still holding to the fundamentals of the Christian faith. But as we see from history, there is nothing new under the sun. The debate in the 1970s in the SBC was primarily over the Bible. The same questions were being asked. Is the Bible without error? Is the Bible authoritative and sufficient? These terms, and others, attempt to describe the character of the Bible. If the Bible is God’s Word, how a person understands the Bible will impact the most fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith. The debate raged on, but the conservatives within the SBC won, at least for a time.
Within the cultural milieu of the 19th and 20th centuries, another strand of fundamentalism began to emerge. Independent Fundamentalist Baptists (IFB) took on a particular form of Christianity with a commitment to the KJV, a strict separation between the church and the world, and the autonomy of the local church. IFB churches continue to exist and have Bible schools and seminaries. This group is what most people have in mind when they hear the word fundamentalist.
And since the 1920s, the debate between liberal/modern or conservative/fundamentalist has dragged on. If you dive deeply into modern American church history (especially in the 20th century), you will discover politics, social justice movements, and theological division.
The sum of church history in the last 150 years is that the liberals and historical orthodox Christians broke up like a bad first date. The two were not compatible. An additional break up took place within the historic orthodox Christian camp. Broadly speaking, the evangelicals and fundamentalists were like a dysfunctional extended family. There is a lot of agreement about defining the character of the Bible, but the application could not be starker. Evangelicals had an eye on proselytizing anything with a pulse, and the fundamentalists built bunkers in the backyard. The fundamentalists will come out of the bunker when Jesus returns (or they will be raptured). All of this leads to our current circumstances.
Another Inflection Moment
A cursory look at the church in the 21st century reveals similar battles and tensions. The 19th-century French writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr was on to something when he said, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” At the heart of 21st-century controversies in the church is, once again, the Bible. To borrow a title from Francis Schaeffer, in light of historical and current debates, How Should We Then Live? Knowing how to live requires understanding the current cultural climate. At present, in the evangelical world led by the SBC, the debate is not between liberalism and historical orthodox Christianity. The debate has slid down the scale between the “modern” evangelicals who are acquiescing to the culture and the new fundamentalists. My concern is that modern evangelicals will quickly become liberal, and historical orthodox Christians will soon be labeled fundamentalists and thus become pariahs.
Reading the Tea Leaves
Before I can answer how should we then live, two observations need to be made. First, a new fundamentalist controversy is being created right before our eyes. You can’t miss it even if your eyes are closed. And who is redefining fundamentalism? It is the pagan culture with an assist from squishy evangelicals. Second, like the SBC, the culture has an outsized influence on the debates within the universal church. Allow me to extrapolate these two points.
Let’s make no mistake; biblical principles of orthodox Christianity are being challenged right now. The most recent example is from the Southern Baptist Convention. At the convention meeting in June of 2022, we saw a theological drift disguised in church politics. It was noted:
“According to the Credentials Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, the title and function of pastor can be separated. In fact, the Credentials Committee claimed that it could find “little information evidencing the Convention’s beliefs regarding the use of the ‘title of pastor’ for staff positions with different responsibility and authority than that of the lead pastor.”
The Credentials Committee is beginning to blur the lines about the office of pastor. The move by the Credentials Committee is to make way for women to be pastors and appease Rick Warren and Saddleback Community Church, which has ordained at least three women. I predict that it will not be long until the fractures in the SBC become permanent. Why is this happening? Biblical orthodoxy and the clear teaching of Scripture are not culturally cool. Saddleback is the largest church in the SBC, and levers were pulled. Coincidently, the 2022 SBC convention was held in Anaheim, CA, just down the road from Saddleback.
The second point is related to the first point. The culture has an outsized influence on the church. Look at the broader evangelical church, and you will find that it does not look much different than the culture.
- Worship services look like a rock concert.
- Preachers are smooth communicators and not expositors of God’s Word.
- Church boards aim to financially grow the church like a Fortune 500 company.
The church is losing the sense of what it means to be persecuted for standing up for what is biblical and true. The church is losing its saltiness, and the basket is covering the light (Matthew 5:13-16). If local churches want to retain their saltiness and take the basket off, so the light will shine, then churches need to be prepared to be called the new fundamentalists.
Within this milieu, two specific principles will allow local churches to be salt and light, even with the new moniker.
Principle #1: The Authority and Sufficiency of Scripture
I have never used the word fundamental to describe my faith in Jesus Christ. As an ESV-using and gospel-preaching Christian, I am firmly outside the IFB camp. But one historical issue continues to divide. What do you believe about the character of the Bible?. Is the Bible without error? Are the words contained in Holy Scripture authoritative in my life? Is the Bible sufficient to tell me about God, man, and matters of faith? These questions, and others, will continue to shape the church in the 21st century. If you affirm all of the above, you are now a fundamentalist. Sorry IFB churches, you better make space. I am not looking to crash on the couch. I would rather not invade your space, but here I am, pilfering your pringles and taking your blanket.
I have to admit that I am projecting a bit. I am looking at the culture, reading my Bible, pastoring a church, and attempting to discern what is to come. I am not a fan of the word fundamentalist. It is a term more loaded than a hand grenade. I am equally distraught with the evangelical label. Please explain to me how the ELCA and PCA faithfully define and use this term. Nonetheless, the culture is rapidly shifting in a direction that disdains biblical principles, and if you believe in biblical principles, a label is placed upon you. I believe the Bible is without error. I believe that God’s Word is authoritative over my life. And I believe the Bible is sufficient to address the most pressing questions in life – especially the controversial questions. I believe the culture now considers me a fundamentalist. But it is better to retain saltiness than for my salt to be thrown aside and trampled upon (Matthew 5:13).
Principle #2: Objective Moral Truth
The Bible is ethical. The Bible tells us about what is right and what is wrong. The Bible provides objective truth about ethics and morality. The 10 Commandments set out a list of ethics for the people of God. In the New Testament, Jesus rightly interprets a few of the 10 Commandments in The Sermon on the Mount. He tells the people of God about what it looks like to thrive. The Bible is full of passages where God lays out what it means to live within his created world rightly. But what do we see in Protestant churches? Mainline Protestant churches have abandoned the ethical codes of the Bible many years ago. Find me a PCUSA pastor that preaches Romans 1:18-32, and I will find you a pig that flies. The mainline denominations are not coming back to God’s objective standards of morality. They are gone, and it appears more denominations and local churches are playing a game of follow the unorthodox and unbiblical leader.
So here is the deal. If you choose not to capitulate to the culture and uphold that God only created two sexes, and these two sexes do not have malleable gender constructs, you will be called a fundamentalist. If you say that the way to combat racism is to deal with personal sin (and not a system), you will be called a bigot and a fundamentalist. It’s a BOGO! If you say God’s Word is inerrant, authoritative, and sufficient, you will be called ignorant and a fundamentalist.
The bottom line is that the ethics of the Bible is different from the culture, and the culture is battling against the Word of God. So if you are a Christian who will hold the line, you better prepare for an onslaught of criticism. Be prepared to be called a fundamentalist.
How Should We Then Live?
Christians need to resist the postmodern gobbledygook. The attempt to relativize everything leads to shallow thoughts and bankrupts morality. Instead, Christians need to receive, accept, and apply the objective truth of God’s Word.
Christians must strive to live truthfully before living authentically (whatever authentically means).
Any notion of authenticity that does not align with the truth of God’s Word is inauthentic. Receiving, accepting, and applying the truth of God is not popular in the culture. You will be labeled “the F word,” but at least you can live with a clear conscience before God.
The Ethics of Love
Christians also need to reassess what it means to love others well. Loving others well does not mean disengaging from a debate. Jesus was quite the debater. Loving well does not mean sidelining the truth. Jesus was a staunch defender of the truth. Loving others well does not mean looking past sin. Jesus constantly called out sin. Loving others well means first loving God. A Christian needs to get the heart right before God. Your love for others will be shallow if you circumvent a love for your Creator. Second, loving others well requires taking on a humble posture. Christians should not debate and defend truth like an angry liberal or conservative pundit on MSNBC or FOXNEWS. Instead, Christians are to humble themselves under the mighty hand of God, even when it is inconvenient.
Machen spoke about his generation and spoke into his cultural moment. But Machen’s words continue to have a lasting effect. There is a battle for hearts and minds between modernists and orthodox Christians. The modernists will continue down the path that mainline denominations have already trodden. The modernists will become liberal. And churches that hold to historic and orthodox Christian doctrines will be the new fundamentalists.
The Chasm Grows
The divide between historic orthodox Christians and liberal “Christianity” will become deeper and wider. But I am ok with the divide. I am not ok with the divide because I like division. I am ok with the divide because the truth of Christ will shine more brightly. The salty residue left behind by Christian will increase as God’s plan to see the gospel spread on earth marches on.