Mark L. Ward Jr.
So let me explain: I’m a (Christian, Protestant, Baptist) “fundamentalist” because I value four things—four things which make me believe, in turn, that the particular brand of fundamentalism I inherited is worth saving. In no particular order, I value …
- honoring my father(s) and mother(s).
- personal holiness.
- traditional worship.
There are many more things I value as a biblical Christian, but these four have kept me aligned with the churches and institutions that make up (my sliver of) American fundamentalism.
Let me talk about each of the four in turn.
Honoring My Father(s) and Mother(s)
My parents sent me through fundamentalist institutions— first a fundamentalist church and Christian school, then a fundamentalist university on Wade Hampton Boulevard in Greenville, South Carolina. (The reader may guess which one.) I counseled at fundamentalist camps, sang in men’s quartets in fundamentalist churches, and traveled on fundamentalist mission teams.
My experience in these institutions was not 100% positive— more like 92%, because depravity touches us all—but the positives were very positive: I had teachers and pastors and mentors and friends and employers who loved me, stretched me, taught me, counseled me, and even rebuked and (once when I was young—long story) fired me as needed. If other young people were subjected to harsh and legalistic treatment in my fundamentalist schools, I didn’t personally witness it. Even and especially during the times when I got “in trouble,” I was treated with Christian grace, and it was made clear to me that my authorities’ goal was my internal growth and not my external conformity or the addition of another name to some ever-lengthening blacklist.
I determined many years ago to follow the leadership God actually gave me as much as I possibly could in good conscience (Eph. 4:11–13; 1 Pet. 5:1–5; Heb. 13:7). And the general biblical principle calling me to honor not just my parents (Exod. 20:12) but also wiser, older folks (Lev. 19:32) inclines me to stay in the pasture God placed me in as long as they’ll have me.
Others who have “left” institutional fundamentalism are not all ingrates or rebels. Some I know personally were indeed mistreated, and I don’t blame them for leaving. I did see this happen in churches in our circles. But it didn’t happen to me. I find it very easy to honor the leaders I was given.
It was in a fundamentalist church that I first heard the Bible preached as “logic on fire.” I was smitten. Still am.
It was in a fundamentalist university that I was taught personal disciplines which have helped make my marriage happy and my ministry and career satisfying.
I find it hard to reject and put aside people who loved me so self-sacrificially and gave me such rich gifts. Such ingratitude would make me “well-nigh hopeless,” as someone used to say. I want to go as far as I can on the right road, honoring my fathers and mothers (1 Cor. 4:15).
If there was one dominant feature of the culture among those fathers and mothers, it was biblicism, the functional authority of the Bible for both doctrine and life.
Every evangelical or fundamentalist group of any kind formally confesses allegiance to the Bible. I know this because I compulsively check the bibliology statement of every church or parachurch organization I come across online. And this shared allegiance is good. God has His seven million who have not bowed the knee to Barth (or Enns or Osteen). I’m not a fundamentalist because I think we’re the only ones who really believe the fundamentals. As for defending and promoting those fundamentals, I’d say we’re actually quite far behind some other Christian groups—the groups whose books and articles I read every day in the absence of much serious written output from my own tribe. This absence is one of the negatives I’ve experienced in fundamentalism. Empirically speaking, we are not the dynamic source of Christian books, articles, podcasts, magazines, journals, and websites that our brothers and sisters in Christ at, say, Crossway Books are. I’m sorry, but FrontLine is a misnomer for us right now: we’re not fighting any wars except the civil kind. We have a weak Internet voice that almost never reaches escape velocity from our own echo chamber.
But as for living out, reinforcing, and insisting upon the impulse to go back to the Bible—we’ve got that. We don’t doubt the truth of God’s words. That’s fundamentalism to me. There’s strength in and hope for any group with our biblicist culture. We can build on such a sure foundation.
A Culture of Personal Holiness
A third reason I’m still here is that I value a culture in which we genuinely expect one another to live holy lives. We try by God’s grace not to let each other wiggle out from under the bracing but glorious command of the Bible to be holy like God is (1 Pet. 1:15) and to “make every effort” to add virtue to our faith (2 Pet. 1:5).
This cultural expectation among fundamentalists is, however, one of the leading complaints my generation makes against its fathers and mothers. “Cultural Fundamentalism” is a common term of opprobrium, and even leaders among the gospel-centered movement—from whom I’ve gleaned much—have noted that Christians my age tend to view holiness as optional. (See Kevin DeYoung’s excellent book, The Hole in Our Holiness).
But a culture of holiness is something I want. I want my fellow church members to be disappointed in me if I “like” HBO’s Game of Thrones on Facebook. I want them to assume that no Christian should watch a show that even secular observers have rejected for its overt immorality. And positively speaking—since holiness isn’t just what you don’t but what you do—I want people in my church to subtly and overtly push me to read my Bible, to pray, to evangelize. Holiness is also, of course what you are (“be holy,” Peter says, not “do holy”), but that doesn’t mean external pressure is unnecessary. I need all the help I can get to be holy, and my Christian community’s cultural pressure is part of that help. They’re supposed to provoke me to love and good works (Heb. 10:24).
Such a culture can and does sometimes harden into ill-supported tradition; it can become a shared hypocrisy which gives maximum leeway to one’s team and measures out the gnats of other Christians’ behavior. But the mentors and friends in fundamentalism that God gave me were not such Pharisees; they taught me to be strict with myself and generous toward others (1 Cor. 13:7). Put a bunch of such people together and you get a culture I like and need.
I have sometimes been frustrated with parts of fundamentalism, particularly preachers who repeatedly mishandle God’s words and yet just as repeatedly get invited to preach at conferences; but God never permitted me to blow up and blow out of my supposedly soul-crushing, legalistic fundamentalist environs, because to do so would have been a lie about my fathers and mothers.
How do you maintain a culture of holiness across generations without it devolving into uncritical groupthink or exploding into generational conflict? How do you get people to maintain “standards” decade after decade without their becoming what C. S. Lewis called “petty traditional abstinences”? How do you reject the fallen elements of Hollywood while still enjoying the good gifts of God in the cinematic arts? What do you do when the cultural situation genuinely makes an old common standard obsolete? I’m still developing my answers to those questions; I look to older generations for perspective. But I’m trying my best both to receive and pass on the culture of personal holiness I learned in fundamentalism, because it assists me in obeying God’s words.
I am not willing to say that all Christians who listen to contemporary styles of Christian music are living in active, conscious rebellion against God. I do not believe that every Christian whose church has a praise band, a drum set, and tattooed worship leaders is one which I must abandon to Satan a la 1 Corinthians 5.
But for various reasons I can only sketch here, I cannot use such music in worship with a clear conscience. And this firm difference of opinion sets some practical limits on the kind of ministry relationships I can have with brothers in Christ who, gladly, agree with me on bigger truths. This difference influences me when I recommend Christian colleges (or not) and attend Christian conferences (or not). It’s one of the four major things keeping me aligned with and supportive of my favored fundamentalist institutions.
Here’s my sketch:
Teaching and Admonishing by Song
A. Colossians 3:16 says we are supposed to “teach” and “admonish” one another by means of song. If I can’t hear you sing in church or, worse, if you’re not singing— you’re not doing what God commands. If a praise band is so loud, or if it sings songs with such impossible melodies that people just don’t end up singing— this is biblically wrong. I stand firmly on this point.
Don’t Love the World
B. When respected evangelical thinkers such as David Wells, R. Kent Hughes, Os Guinness, John Piper, and Mark Dever (I could go on) complain about the worldliness and cultural conformity of the church, that means someone somewhere has to draw a line, at least for his own church. And Paul and John said something about this topic too (Rom. 12:1–2; 1 John 2:15–17). It’s simply impossible in my mind that something as culturally important as pop music is immune to the influence of the values that created it.
Music and Meaning
C. Indeed, all musical languages carry meaning apart from their lyrics. The Bible doesn’t give me an appendix listing the meaning of rap, country, and various strains and eras of pop. But I think I kind of know just by living in my culture that rap generally means bravado, that country typically means rural white nostalgia, that pop means, well, I’ll let a secular journalist take it from here. Hanna Rosin writes of Christian efforts to use pop styles,
When you create a sanitized version of bands like Nirvana or artists like Jay-Z …, you shoehorn a message that’s essentially about obeying authority into a genre that’s rebellious and nihilistic, and the result can be ugly, fake, or just limp. (Slate)
Parsing artistic forms is difficult; it’s a learned skill that I’m still working to gain and that few people in my experience possess. Frankly, my generation of fundamentalists has found much of the musical reasoning of our elders unpersuasive (rock music wilts plants?). But many of us have landed in the same practical place they have. We’re among the minority of American Christians who think the Hillsongification of the church is not just regrettable but immoral. Pop music—what evangelical thinker Andy Crouch called “a technologically massaged tool for the delivery of pleasing or cathartic emotions”—doesn’t belong in church. Its entry is killing off what was a mostly healthy Western tradition of hymnody (though the tradition is far from dead!). People who disagree have plenty of churches and schools to attend. As for me and my house of worship I say, “Give ’em Watts.”
The Greenness of Our Grass
Note that I did not make “separation from disobedient brothers” one of my four values. That’s not because I disdain, reject, or minimize this historic distinctive of American Protestant fundamentalism, but because including it would be a bit like a sports team placing among their values “not losing.” Teams value winning; “not losing” is a corollary. Likewise, if I value church communities and parachurch institutions that honor biblical authority, maintain a culture of holiness, and use traditional worship, I’m going to find that certain fellow Christians simply aren’t interested in joining me for various causes and events and that I can’t always join them.
While writing this article I visited a flagship (mainstream) evangelical graduate school. I met true brothers and sisters in Christ there, but I heard a woman preach in chapel and a visiting theological liberal give a lecture on historical theology. I came home righteously steamed. Even though the woman’s homiletics were quite good and the liberal’s lecture affirmed the doctrine of the Trinity, it offends me to see clear statements of Scripture flouted (1 Tim. 2:12 and Gal. 1:8, respectively). Shouldn’t it? I spilled all my frustration out to my wife, and she said, “You’re a fundamentalist, honey.”
I have frustrations with fundamentalism, too. King James Onlyism keeps many of God’s words out of people’s hands, particularly the “least of these.” Manipulative revivalism confuses and weakens people’s efforts toward holiness. Easy-believism puts too many of its notches on two belts: the evangelist’s and the Devil’s. Anti-intellectualism stunts God’s gifts in believers and leaves them vulnerable to conspiracy theories—such as KJV Onlyism. I gravitate toward the one (?) sliver of fundamentalism that best avoids—though it hasn’t completely escaped—these problems. There are self-described fundamentalists from whom I’m just as separated as I am from female pastors.
But I believe in the importance of institutions for carrying forward the things I value. (See Crouch’s Playing God.) I look down the list of those values and, no surprise, I find myself nearest to the people who most influenced me. I find myself attending the Bible Faculty Summit with people from Central, Detroit, Maranatha, and other more-or-less fundamentalist schools. I find myself at Cornerstone Baptist Church of Anacortes, Washington, pastored by a BJU grad, where I enjoy biblically rigorous preaching and traditional worship. I want to be neither a loner nor an initiate into an inner ring or a good-old-boy network; I just want to promote the things I value alongside other people who share those values.
I look at us and I look at that mainstream evangelical school I visited, and I much prefer our problems to theirs. The grass is not greener in their section(s) of the field. I think there probably are sections of conservative evangelicalism where the ratio of brown to green grass is similar to what I experience in my portion of fundamentalism. But God did not place me in those pastures. I write Bible study material and articles for all Christians, but I think that attempting to converge with them formally, institutionally, would invite new problems into my pasture without doing much to help my people—or theirs. That may change someday; visible unity with all true Christians must not become a forgotten ideal. But for now, the only place I know of where I can reliably get and promote all four things I value is within the institutions of self-described fundamentalism.
Originally published in FrontLine, March/April 2017. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.