Finishing Strong

John Brock

“ . . . Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his!” (Numbers 23:10b).

Those of us who have had veteran pastors who handle the Word of God with skill, honesty, and faithfulness are truly blessed.

Unfortunately, when I look back over my life, almost all of which was spent in fundamental Baptist churches, I have seen many pastors who were at one time steadfast, fundamental, separatist Baptists but who no longer take the stand which marked their early ministry. Sadly, the Biblical beliefs they once taught and for which they so valiantly fought they no longer hold. They taught me so well that I still believe in the Biblical principles and applications that constitute the Fundamentalist ethos, which I learned while sitting at their feet. Why did they change?

All truly born-again believers want to die in the will of God. We all know the names of those in the Bible who started with promise but fizzled in the end. Great and godly men such as Noah, David, Solomon, and priests such as Eli and Samuel either fell toward the end of their lives or failed to transmit the driving purpose of their lives to the next generation. The noble sentiments expressed in the opening verse at the beginning of this article were uttered by one of the strangest individuals in the Bible— Balaam. Balaam knew the Word of God and spoke the Word of God and understood the need for God’s blessing, yet he was a miserable spiritual failure. Rather than dying the death of the righteous, he opposed Israel, promoted compromise, and was killed in a battle with Israel.

There have been too many men who sincerely wished for what Balaam wished but who ended their ministry in compromise or failure. I can understand falling to the flesh. We all struggle with the residue of our depraved nature. What puzzles me most is the number of godly pastors who “rationally” abandon an advocacy for Fundamentalism as they age. I have known several such pastors very well. Each followed a stereotypical cycle which seemed to emerge in these pastors’ lives as they matured.

Stage One—A Time of Standing and Battling.

At one time, these pastors stood against sin, wickedness, and compromise. They preached convicting messages that not only stirred the heart but made the beads of perspiration appear on our foreheads as they emphasized the sinfulness of man and the holiness of God.

Stage Two—A Time of Maturity and Consolidation.

Many of the fundamental pastors gained respect and reputations as thinkers, as mentors, and as scarred veterans of the battle against worldliness and ecumenical compromise with segments of the evangelical community which polluted the gospel by using worldly methods, music, and models. Younger men looked up to these warriors and used their ministry as a pattern for their own.

Stage Three—A Time of Fatigue and Reflection.

As these pastors and leaders reflect on past battles and contemporary leaders, they see isolated instances of Fundamentalist errors, perhaps an externalistic emphasis by a few well-known leaders of Fundamentalism. Perhaps they even feel guilt and shame at their remembrance of the past realizing that in the midst of their correct stand their activity was unkind or cutting or was interpreted that way. They now begin to see these isolated examples of externalism as systematic and typical of Fundamentalists.

Stage Four—A Time of “New Light.”

Some of these aging pastors now believe that as a Fundamentalist they need to try to “correct” the movement, i.e., provide constructive criticism from within. They have an attitude that says, “I know the Fundamentalist position is right but excesses must be stopped, criticized, or corrected.” As they speak out, they encounter resistance and are stigmatized as being soft. It is at this point that an acceleration begins. The less militant segment of Fundamentalists within all good churches sees the pastor as a brave new champion and praises his openness while expressing their dissatisfaction with the evils of the “hardliners.” The mature and secure minister at this stage of his ministry not only appreciates the adulation of the younger, less militant group but realizes he has nothing to lose, so he inadvertently begins to characterize Fundamentalism as a monolithic movement with few enlightened thinkers and Biblicists. Tragically, the average church member in his congregation receives mostly negative statements about Fundamentalists or Fundamentalism. Little is now said in defense of holiness and standards relative to personal and/or ecclesiastical separation. All this time the pastor still maintains a good personal position, but his criticism of Fundamentalism makes many other Fundamentalist brethren, who believe we are in a deadly battle with sin, worldliness, and compromise of holy living, uncomfortable with the “direction” of the pastor.

Stage Five—A Time of New Tolerance and Intolerance.

Now the once stalwart defender of Fundamentalism begins to open up to the New Evangelical arguments. He sees Fundamentalists as producing few thought-provoking writers (which is unfortunately true) and becomes enamored with church growth advocates and incorporates ideas and methods developed by Charismatics, New Evangelicals, and critics of separatists. Doctrinal differences become minimized “as long as my people are stimulated and challenged.” Gone are the messages on the dangers of ecumenism and personal separation, and, increasingly, when he exegetes a passage on the Pharisees he equates them with Fundamentalists. Legalism and Fundamentalism are systematically linked. Contemporary Christian music begins to enter (if it was not already there). The importance of the Christian school is diminished, and development of personal standards in young people is replaced with “making contacts.” Confrontation and preaching on worldliness are minimized. The pastor and youth director rarely, if ever, preach or challenge the congregation to abstain from movies, dancing, pre-marital physical contact between sexes, immodest dress, use of alcoholic beverages, etc. Respect for God and the assembly of the church manifests itself in casual–to–slovenly dress (tennis shoes, sandals, jeans, open-collared shirts complete with hairy chests and gold necklaces) during Sunday evening and mid-week services. Accommodation replaces confrontation. Evangelism and outreach are seen as reasons to minimize the importance of personal separation.

Stage Six—A Time of Decline and Compromise.

While this cycle is evolving, fundamental Baptists in the congregation become increasingly uneasy. When they express concern about drift in position, dress, and deportment, they are rebuffed. Soon these previously faithful people begin to trickle away. Rather than being concerned about this trend, the pastor becomes hardened, saying, “You can’t please everybody! The church is better off without these critical people.” As the exodus increases, so do comments by the pastor, his staff, and his followers about “breaking out of our shell,” “reaching the community,” and “new freedom to minister to the unsaved.” At some point there is a shrinking of the congregation, especially on Sunday evenings and Wednesday evenings. As Fundamentalists leave the church, so does the salty element which has held compromise in check, and the drift accelerates. Soon, church associations change, and the cycle is complete. In the next generation, after the present pastor is gone, the remaining weak congregation will often call a mainstream New Evangelical pastor.

Possible Causes of Drift (other than immorality)

It may be that the chief reason that some pastors drift into compromise in the latter stages of their ministry is that their original correct position as a fundamental separatist was taken by default rather than by Biblical conviction. Perhaps they came from a fundamental church or went to a fundamental college, and their initial stand reflected continuity rather than a belief system which flowed out of a study of Scripture. Some may have been Fundamentalists because of a basically conservative nature. Conservatism is not synonymous with holiness. For example, racial segregation, pure classical economics, social Darwinism, and libertarianism are all conservative ideas without Scriptural support.

Some may even have gravitated to Fundamentalism because it was part of a popular conservative ethos. Rush Limbaugh and Dr. Laura may espouse conservative ideas, but they are poor substitutes for Biblical Christianity. Choosing to be a fundamental Baptist because it resonates with one’s Biblical love of things conservative will not result in an enduring Biblicist position.

Lastly, some may have chosen Fundamentalism because of pragmatism. They may have been called to a Fundamental Baptist church and in the beginning adopted or adapted to its tradition of separatism. In addition, fundamental churches seemed to be growing. The straight lifestyle seemed to fill a void produced by the radical ‘60s-‘70s. People flocked to churches which took a stand against “free love,” anarchy, and socialism. But when the crowds dwindled and the mainstream was no longer enamored with conservatism, some of these preachers sought solace in teachings of the church growth movement—“Where big things were happening.”

Fostering a Life-long Ministry as a Fundamental Baptist

To avoid drift and compromise, we must constantly be reminded that:

1. Fundamentalist separation must flow out of a careful exegesis of Scripture, not from copying respected leaders or from personal taste. Firm positions that are outcomes of Biblical study will result in accurate, bold confrontation and pedagogy rather than preaching someone else’s convictions.

2. Spiritual carelessness and compromise can result in a loss of ministry. Without a “poverty of spirit” (Matthew 5), we in our mature pride begin to deemphasize holiness and confrontation with sin and worldliness. Let us heed the tragic example of the prophet in 1 Kings 13 who, after bravely confronting Jeroboam, believed the lies of the “Brother Prophet.” Sadly, after standing for righteousness and while tired and hungry, he disobeyed the admonition of God to remain separate from apostate Israel and took a meal with a “brother” prophet in Israel. Of his end it was said, “It is the man of God, who was disobedient unto the word of the LORD: therefore the LORD hath delivered him unto the lion, which hath torn him, and slain him, according to the word of the LORD, which he spake unto him” (1 Kings 13:26). Battling can lead to both exhilaration and fatigue. One can become weary and let down one’s guard and fail to recognize that compromise can lead to ruin or to congregations captured by New Evangelicalism.

3. Pastors and their congregations are protected from the vacillation or corrections and flip-flops on issues if they avoid extremes by developing a careful, accurate attitude toward movements and people.

4. Most fundamental Baptist preachers and people are not unkind, unthinking, unloving, or legalists. It is the devil’s lie that causes us to abandon Biblical teaching because a few who hold that position are intemperate or unkind and are therefore disobedient to the whole counsel of God.

5. Many New Evangelicals are bright people who love the Lord. Yet we can never justify disobedience to Scripture based upon sincerity, personality, or a respect for the spirituality of others. King David was used by God to deliver Israel from God’s enemies. He was inspired of God to write Holy Scripture, yet Nathan the prophet had no choice but to obey God and confront David with his sin. This confrontational and obedient action brought the kind of results we should be seeking in our preaching, an awareness of sin and a penitent heart. If it is Biblical, it is right; and if it is unbiblical, it is wrong no matter who does it or why.

6. Pastors should invest a much greater time in study and analysis of issues and movements of our day and teach the Biblical response to congregations while being a pattern to every believer of what it means to “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good” (1 Thess. 5:21).

I am amazed by the shallow reasoning and thinking of many Fundamentalists related to questionable worldly activities. Each pastor should be able to write a Sunday school lesson or develop principle–based messages on Biblical positions related to:

  1. Music
  2. Dancing
  3. Movies and videos
  4. Smoking, obesity
  5. Promise Keepers
  6. ECT, NCC, New Evangelicalism, ecumenical evangelicalism, etc.
  7. Gambling
  8. Abortion
  9. Premarital sexual activity and sensuality in behavior and dress

If members of Bible-believing churches should wonder why these things are wrong, the reasons given must be Biblical. Evidence on the character of the activities must be accurate, and principles related to Christian living must be articulated clearly, forcefully, and unequivocally. We must not only identify issues of the day which violate Scripture or its clearly taught principles, but we must also transmit our research and reasoning to congregations so that abstinence from weakening practices or unbiblical actions can be reinforced by parents, Christian school teachers, and the youth workers. The pastor in effect becomes the lead teacher to “faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also” (1 Tim. 2:2).

Endurance of a ministry and congregational fidelity to the Word of God should be a goal of each fundamental Baptist pastor. The surest way to achieve such an end is to develop practices and positions from a careful, personal study of the Scripture, keeping a careful, wary eye out for strategies (wiles) that the devil would suggest in order to increase our ministry at the cost of diluting the blessing of God.

Dr. John Brock is Vice President of Academic Affairs at Maranatha Baptist Bible College in Watertown, Wisconsin.

(Originally published in FrontLine• July/August 2001. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)