The Church of the Fundamentalists – A Review

Review by Don Johnson

Larry R. Oats. The Church of the Fundamentalists: An Examination of Ecclesiastical Separation in the Twentieth Century. Watertown, WI: Maranatha Baptist Press, 2016. 176 pgs.

Larry Oats prefaces his new book, The Church of the Fundamentalists, by noting “While much has been written on the histories of the fundamentalist and evangelical movement, the theological basis of that division has frequently been overlooked. The purpose of this book is to examine how the ecclesiologies of mid-twentieth century fundamentalists and evangelicals affected their views of ecclesiastical separation and how those views led individuals to establish, abandon, or modify their views of ecclesiastical separation.” In other words, the controversies swirling around the fundamentalist issue center on the question, “What is the church supposed to be?”

The book contains just four chapters with an introduction and conclusion in its 176 pages. The first chapter surveys “Varieties of Ecclesiologies,” really a survey of the “primary historical views of the nature of the church.” (25) This background is necessary in order to understand the theology driving the fundamentalist versus evangelical answers to the central question, “What is the church supposed to be?” The ecclesiological struggle in historical theology is not a new one, it goes back all the way to the second century. “As early as the second century, two contradictory trends had developed which would affect the doctrine of the church in later periods. One trend was toward external unity; the other was toward internal purity.” (25) The push towards unity developed in the battles against early heretics, the collective witness of the true church being seen as the bulwark against heretical innovations. On the other hand, as the centralizing trend elevated the authority of episcopacy, protesting voices rose to insist on independence and purity for local churches. The struggle between these points of view continued through history, with visible church unity having the upper hand (for the most part) until the Reformation. The struggle renewed as the Reformers began wrestling with all kinds of theological questions, not least of which was the question of the nature of the Church. The question was answered differently by the Reformers and the Radicals, which ultimately led to the fight for religious freedom especially promoted by the Baptists in Britain and America.

The Anabaptists on the continent and the Separatists in England argued for the separation of church and state. The Baptists achieved this in the New World in Rhode Island, but eventually the entire nation adopted this principle. The Baptist church, which led the way for religious liberty, was a voluntary gathered assembly of baptized believers exercising internal discipline. While fundamentalism was interdenominational, this view of the church dominated the movement. (64)

Chapter 2 surveys “A Brief History of Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism.” The opening paragraph sums up the history rather well:

Historic evangelicalism/fundamentalism is the movement of American individuals and churches that between the late nineteenth century and the mid-twentieth century strongly opposed and resisted the progress of modernism within the major denominations of America and thus tried to keep those denominations orthodox. It was this opposition to modernism that initially defined the movement. In the middle of the twentieth century fundamentalism and evangelicalism divided, primarily over the means and methodology of resisting the modernist movement and of responding to the culture around them. (65)

Dr. Oats sees the roots of fundamentalism/evangelicalism being the Puritans and the eventual separatism that rose from their ranks, Pietism and its resistance to cultural decline brought on by the Enlightenment, Confessionalism with its emphasis on codified doctrine, and Revivalism and its emphasis on individual conversion. The Christians who shared these roots found themselves confronted by new tides of liberalism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This confrontation led to conflict in the 1920s, but not to victory, as the fundamentalists had to withdraw from their denominations and form new approaches to promoting Christianity – for some, this meant new denominations, for others, it meant networking amongst independent churches. The aftermath of conflict and consolidation brought new challenges, resulting in the breakup of the fundamentalist coalition as some players wanted to gain more influence with the world, rejecting the strict separatism of the more hardline fundamentalists.

“Fundamentalist Views of the Church” is Chapter 3, which surveys the fundamentalist answer to the question, “What is the church supposed to be?” Dr. Oats begins:

The ecclesiology of fundamentalism was characterized by the American emphasis on individualism and volunteerism and by a dispensational hermeneutic. … Most fundamentalists accepted the doctrine of a universal and/or invisible church, although their emphasis was on the local, visible church. They emphasized the purity of the local church (and, in an extension of that, the purity of the denomination or association to which the church belonged). It was their common belief that the purity of the church or denomination took precedence over the unity of that individual church, denomination, or even Christianity as a whole. This adherence to purity was a core distinctive of fundamentalism. (111)

The ecclesiology of the fundamentalists is discussed in this chapter under these heads: “The meaning of ‘Church’,” “When the Church Began,” “The Universal and Local Church,” “The Church and the Scriptures,” “The Membership of the Church,” and “Unity and Purity in the Church.” The chapter concludes:

A more important difference [with New Evangelicals] was a common emphasis on the primacy of the local church that included the belief that the universal or invisible church was distinct from the local or visible churches. Apostasy was the expected result of the visible church, and apostasy requires separation. Fundamentalism, in general, was not eager to separate. It was a costly tactic in the world’s eyes. They gave up buildings, pensions, friends, and position. The belief in the necessity of a pure church, however, left them no options. The previous generation had failed in its attempts to remove modernism from the great denominations. That left the next generation with no choice but separation or compromise. (134)

Chapter 4 is “Evangelical Views of the Church.” It develops the understanding of the evangelical view of the church under the same headers as the previous chapter, contrasting evangelical conclusions with fundamentalist conclusions. The chapter significantly observes:

The debate between fundamentalism and evangelicalism was not waged over whether or not to accept or reject separation. Evangelicals were, at least to some extent, separatists. The NAE separated from the National Council of Churches. Fuller Seminary was separate from the mainline denominations, although its purpose was to send graduates back into those denominations. The real issue was to what extent and on what basis a person, church, or denomination should practice separation.

One reason for Ockenga’s disagreement with fundamentalism was its “shibboleth of having a pure church, both as a congregation and a denomination.” He was critical of their exegesis of 2 Corinthians 6:14-18 and the parable of the tares, which he viewed as the basis of their ecclesiology. “The sad practice called ‘come-outism’ developed.” The evangelical “differentiates his position from theirs in ecclesiology.” Fundamentalist ecclesiology required separation, and the new evangelicals saw this as faulty strategy. (137)

In these chapters, Dr. Oats deals with the views of all the major players on both sides of the history of fundamentalism and evangelicalism. It is a most informative survey.

Before highlighting the conclusion, let me note something that is included in the Introduction. An invaluable part of the introduction is an annotative bibliography of previous works on the history of fundamentalism, both from evangelical and fundamentalist perspectives, that deal with the history and theological framework of the two broad movements, as well as key biographies and histories of institutions. Dr. Oats shows a thorough grasp of the literature and positions his study of ecclesiology as unique among the works cited. I think he is right on this point, I have read most of the books in the bibliography and am familiar with the arguments of the rest. I have not seen anyone address the subject with a clear theological focus as Dr. Oats has.

In his conclusion, Dr. Oats makes several insightful points. I’d like to highlight the following points at the very end of his remarks:

Theology has often developed out of crisis, when a given situation forces Bible believers to examine more carefully their positions. Such was the case here. No one can deny that part of the rationale for separation on one hand and union on the other was personality and politics. Pragmatic arguments were frequently raised on each side of the debate. There was, however, a theological basis for the division, a basis that cannot be overlooked and that must be studied further for a clearer understanding of the division between the movements.

The intervening years have seen changes take place in both evangelicalism and fundamentalism. Both have become broader movements, with greater internal divisions. Both continue to struggle with the issues of separation and the rationale for or against it. The evangelicals have been unable to reclaim the mainline denominations. … Fundamentalist ecclesiology has remained fairly consistent. While the large fundamentalist organizations have decreased in numbers, local associations have been strengthened. The emphasis on the local church and its purity remains essentially unchanged. …

The edges of both movements have been coalescing, since neither side has been able to carefully craft a position on fellowship or separation that has captured the minds and hearts of its adherents. Much has been and still could be said about the current state of the both movements. Theological critique is always appropriate. (176)

The Church of the Fundamentalists: An Examination of Ecclesiastical Separation in the Twentieth Century is a unique contribution to the study of fundamentalism and evangelicalism. Its theological emphasis is much needed. Every student of the subject will want to have this book in his library. I highly recommend it.

Don Johnson is the pastor of Grace Baptist Church of Victoria, Victoria, BC, Canada.