December 17, 2017

All Fundamentalists are Cultural

Chuck Phelps

In seeking to define the new direction of a ministry some will claim to be historic fundamentalists while refuting “cultural fundamentalism.” When Christian leaders get honest, all of us are at times frustrated by the never-ending battle to define who we are and why we do what we do within Christian ministry. Yet, I believe that it is ill-advised and dangerous to simply withdraw from the discussion by saying, “I’m not a cultural fundamentalist.”

Those adept in the science of debate know that opponents are quickly marginalized when they are labeled. Label someone a “radical” and their voice is silenced. Label someone a “liberal” and in certain circles they need not be heard. Presently, there are those seeking the high ground by calling themselves “historic fundamentalists” while marginalizing others by giving them the inglorious title, “cultural fundamentalists.” I refuse to give credence to this new label because all fundamentalists are cultural.

Label someone a “liberal-fundamentalist” or a “hyper-fundamentalist” and you will effectively marginalize their opinion. Label someone a “staunch-fundamentalist” or a “loose fundamentalist” and they will no longer need to be heard. In a generation tasked with “admonishing one another” as “we see the day approaching,” (Heb. 10:25), it is imperative that we listen with personal sensitivity and biblical discernment to all of those with whom we dwell in the broad household of the Christian faith regardless of the “side” that they represent.

In 1955 neo-orthodox theologian, William Hordern said, “no system of thought can be judged by what fanatics do in its name.”[1] None can dispute that there are fanatics on the left of fundamentalism and fanatics on the right. To those who seek to walk with wisdom on the paths of our spiritual inheritance, the ability to stay the course while avoiding the cliffs of extremity is perilous. “Perilous times” have come (II Tim. 3:1) and “evil men and seducers are waxing worse and worse” (II Tim. 3:13). It should not surprise us that the way is hard and some fall off the cliffs of libertinism while others fall off the cliffs of legalism

Every Christian is responsible to make decisions within culture. For Paul and his companions the meat-market was a place of consternation (I Cor. 8). For John Bunyan, the question of playing “Cat” in the public green on the Lord’s Day was overwhelming.[2] Twenty-first century believers must navigate through landmines unknown by prior generations while recognizing that their temptations are not unique (I Cor. 10:13). Just as it would have been a mistake for a Jew to ignore Paul by calling him a “cultural apostle” because of his affinity to the Gentiles, or to ignore the warnings of Bunyan’s Pastor when he preached on the evils of sport by calling him a “cultural Puritan”, it is a mistake for those who seek to please the Lord today to ignore the arguments of those with whom they disagree by relegating them to obsolescence by giving them a new label.

Defining one’s biblical position within a culture is difficult work. Such work requires time in God’s Word, time in the closet of prayer, and time spent with those who are living lives of spiritual victory. Nevertheless, defining one’s position is necessary. It is necessary because those born anew in Christ (I Pet. 1:3) are no longer to “fashion” (suschematizo – to form or mold after something – our idea of schematic) themselves according to their “former lusts” (I Pet. 1:14). The new “schematic” is after “holiness” (I Pet. 1:15). For the genuine believer the overwhelming motivation for a life of holiness is relational. Believers live to please their Heavenly Father (I Pet. 1:17). Christians are to be about the hard business of building life schematics that please the Spirit. It is expected that such schematics will no longer yield edifices that look like the edifices of the culture that believers once called home.

It is without argument that those who are called saints (Rom. 1:7; I Cor. 1:2; II Cor. 1:1; Eph. 1:1; Phil. 1:1; Col. 1:2) are called to holiness (I Thess. 4:7). Sanctification, or a holy lifestyle, is most certainly the will of God for every one of His children (I Thess. 4:7). Every Christian is called to a “holy calling” (II Tim. 1:9). For the Christian holiness in lifestyle is the beginning of Christian service. Romans 12:1 says, “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.” Those who seem to be more prone to enjoy liberties and those who seem to be most willing to lay by their liberties must agree that saints are called to holiness that is lived out in culture.[3]

Evangelist Steve Pettit once said, “You cannot defend against worldliness unless you can define worldliness.” I agree. Every Christian must do the hard work of defining worldliness within their culture.

While it may be appealing to put a label on a believer with whom you do not agree so as to no longer interface with their position, it is dangerous. Because all Christianity is cultural, all fundamentalists are cultural fundamentalist. As long as we are “in the world” (John 17:11) we are not to be “of the world” (John 17:16). We are to be “sanctified … through truth” (John 17:17) seeking to be one (John 17:21) so that the world may know that the Father sent the Son (John 17:21).

Dr. Charles Phelps is the pastor of Colonial Hills Baptist Church, Indianapolis, Indiana.

  1. William E. Hordern, A Layman’s Guide to Protestant Theology, rev. ed. (New York, 1968 [1955]), p. 69. []
  2. Ernest W. Bacon, John Bunyan: Pilgrim and Dreamer. (Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI, 1983), p. 59. Note: Bunyon also wrestled with the matter of dance and gave it up for Christ, p. 60. []
  3. Fred Moritz, Be Ye Holy: The Call to Christian Separation. (Bob Jones University Press, Greenville, SC, 1994), pp. 21-45. []

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