These words were published seventeen years ago (and republished on P&D in 2012). Their insight into the signs of the times are worth reading again.
FrontLine • March/April 2000
It was said that Rip Van Winkle slept through the American Revolution. Today we face a cultural crisis that began in the last few decades of the 20th century and will probably continue unabated into the new millennium. The Church is not exempt from this. In spite of surface appearances — Christian bookstores and television stations, megachurches (often filled with people from other churches who are attracted by the glitz and glamour of size), and religious statements made by aspiring officeholders in the political realm — Christianity has been largely marginalized by a secular culture.
In the Chinese language, the idea of crisis is communicated by combining the two characters for “danger” and “opportunity.” The first-century world into which Christianity was born was also in crisis. In fact, of all the generations since the first, the present century is perhaps the greatest parallel. If a group that committed themselves to follow Christ after the advent of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost could make such an impact on their culture, this could be Fundamentalism’s greatest challenge and opportunity.
The cry of the Psalmist is relevant today: “If the foundations be destroyed, what can the righteous do” (Ps. 11:3)? Our reaction to the current crisis must be neither isolation and alienation nor syncretism and unfaithfulness, but a faithful proclamation of the gospel message that interacts with, and impacts, the world about us.
To accomplish this, we must recognize root problems rather than surface symptoms. In a day of complex issues, we need leaders like the children of Issachar who “had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do” (1 Chron. 12:32). Not only is the outer fabric of society being frayed by issues such as the acceptance of abortion and homosexuality, but an entire worldview of meanings and values has changed in the last few decades.
In the 1700s a movement known as the Enlightenment arose in Europe which placed human reason above divine revelation. The full impact of this was not felt in the United States until the 1850s when it challenged what has been called the “Christian” century. Much of the religious world attempted to integrate Christianity with this new movement but wound up “giving away the country store.” By the turn of the 20th century, that integration had produced a modernism which Fundamentalists saw as no more Christian than any of the world religions. One of the responses to this was the publication of The Fundamentals (1910), a series of apologetic essays to counter modernism.
Apologetics is still needed, but the battle lines have changed. Today we deal with a postmodernism that denies the possibility of objective truth and treats all values as relative. Modernism affirmed the reality of truth but did not believe that it was found in traditional Christianity. Postmodernism denies the reality of absolute or objective truth altogether — a philosophy that has influenced every phase of society, including art, architecture, music, law, economics, and religion.
While still in the process of development, certain characteristics of a postmodern society have emerged: (1) a search for spirituality that will put meaning in life, although this is rarely sought in the Christian faith or the Bible; (2) a tendency to view the person as an integrated whole rather than as a conjunction of soul and body ; (3) a longing for genuine community since truth is not only defined by the individual but by the community of which he is a part; and (4) a belief that since truth is not objective, no religion can claim to have exclusivity of truth; therefore, postmodernism is syncretistic. This is the generation in which we are called to live and minister. To make an impact upon this postmodern generation, Fundamentalists must consider several propositions.
Communicating with Our Culture While Avoiding Compromise and Contamination of Our Message and Mission.
Every generation must “translate” the gospel message in its cultural context without transforming the message. Trying to move into culture and make the message palatable, the New Evangelical has often blunted and distorted the gospel. The Fundamentalist moves into his culture with certain nonnegotiables: God has revealed Himself propositionally in the Scriptures and definitively in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
As we approach society, however, it is imperative that we come with the essentials of the Christian faith but without the baggage of culturally conditioned views and personal preferences not clearly delineated in Scripture. The national on the mission field was correct when he said to the Western missionary: “You bring us the potted plant. Just bring us the gospel seed and let us plant it in our culture.” The Pharisees took God’s laws and, in an attempt to be faithful in implementing them, produced a complex moral code that multiplied God’s commandments many times over (artificially designating, for instance, the length of a Sabbath day’s journey and prohibiting the eating of an egg laid on the Sabbath since work was involved in producing it). This over-interpretation insulated them from the very people they needed to reach. While recognizing the depravity of the human mind (Rom. 8:7) and the necessity of the illuminating power of the Holy Spirit (John 16:7–11), it is still necessary that the gospel be presented minus the trappings of our subcultures.
Having reduced the gospel to its essential message, we must then move out of our subcultures. Individuals create a subculture in order to gain significance. Christians do not need subcultures since we get our significance in who we are and what we have in Christ. Nevertheless, believers sometimes construct subcultures that isolate and alienate us from others. We have our “Christian” bowling leagues and golf tournaments. Even Christian schools often become a subculture and isolate our students from invading other cultures. The purpose of Christian education is to prepare us to invade other subcultures to make an impact for Christ. A father who homeschools his children recently said with great delight, “My children do not have a friend who is not a Christian.” Granted, we have to fortify ourselves, but the Christian is to reach out to the unbeliever. The simple fact is that most believers have few healthy relationships with unbelievers except the occasional contact in a place of business. Christ invaded the pagan subcultures of his day. In fact, this was the religious crowd’s chief criticism of Him — that He actually ate with publicans and sinners. How awful!
This approach treats evangelism as both an event and a process. The key to evangelism in the early church was the invasion of other subcultures. The early church used these interlocking spheres of kinship, community, and association as the “internet” for communicating the gospel. The challenge today is to get to know people intimately and communicate to them the essentials of the gospel message.
Balancing Academic Theology with Commitment and Obedience.
While there is need for intellectual preparation for the ministry, the deepest need is a profound spiritual preparation. When William Wilberforce opened Cuddesden College in 1854, he wrote: “Threefold aspect of resident here: l. Devotion; 2. Parochial Work; and 3. Theological Readings.” In other words, there must be a training of the heart, hands and head; there must be devotional, practical and intellectual training.
Paul reminds us of the dangers of the mere intellectual apprehension of the truth when he warns the Corinthians that “knowledge puffeth up” (1 Cor. 8:1). What kind of knowledge does this? The knowledge that does not relate itself to God. Our study of Hebrew should not stop with a philological interest in a word; it is a word in God’s Word that relates to us something about God. All of our studies should be pursued with minds in humble submission to what the Spirit of God says through the Scriptures and its application in our lives. In our training institutions, orthodoxy should breed orthopraxy. Every student should leave the fundamental college or seminary knowing God better, loving Him more, and obeying Him more devotedly.
Developing Unity Without Negating a True Biblical Separation
Being a true Fundamentalist necessitates an active Christian separation. After fighting modernism within the denominations and losing battles, the early Fundamentalists withdrew and formed their own churches, publishing houses, and schools. A Fundamentalist does not simply affirm five fundamentals of the faith, but actively builds fences around these so the enemy cannot dilute and eventually destroy the gospel message. This is the threat of ecumenical evangelism that seeks to bridge and blend all the shades on the theological spectrum in order to evangelize a community. Separation bears the same relationship to the body of truth as sanitation and sterilization to the surgeon. The purpose is to keep the patient from becoming contaminated. True Fundamentalism requires Biblical separation.
But the New Testament sounds another note — the harmony of unity. God creates this unity (1 Cor. 12:13), but we are called upon to “endeavor to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3). While Fundamentalists must guard against the influences of spiritual adultery (apostasy), twin emphases must be maintained in fine balance: (1) the purity of the visible church, and (2) a love and oneness among true believers in Christ. The challenge is to practice simultaneously orthodoxy of doctrine (which results in the purity of the visible church) and an orthodoxy of community. Only the love of God shed in our hearts by the Holy Spirit (Rom. 5:5) can keep the two in balance.
The history of Fundamentalism demonstrates that too often, after we have separated from the real enemies of the faith, we turn inward and begin to fight bitterly those within our camp who differ from us in matters that are not at the core of New Testament Christianity. Romanism has a teaching magisterium that authoritatively sets forth correct doctrines for all Roman Catholics. Fundamentalists have no magisterium when it comes to debatable matters of faith which do not bear on the essential core of the Christian message.
Promoting Genuine Christian Community
Each person comes to Christ individually, but once he does God makes him part of a community. There is no place in Christianity for “Lone Ranger” Christians who live their lives in isolation from the remainder of the community. A spirit of individualism is characteristic of our western world, fueled by our early frontier movement as well as the spirit of democracy. By contrast, Christ gathered together the 12 and then for more than three years lived in community with them where He modeled His teachings. So when the early church moved out from the day of Pentecost, they knew what to do. They gathered in the Temple area to hear the apostles speak but then met house-to-house to apply the teachings of Christ and minister to one another.
The church today is not structured for genuine community. In our services we pass others like ships in the night, never stopping long enough to find the needs of people and to minister to them. What we term ministry is often engagement with housekeeping matters, such as serving on committees, rather than ministering personally to one another in a spirit of love.
In order for there to be community and ministry, we must release what we term the “laity” for personal involvement in meaningful ministry. This was the secret of the rapid expansion of the early New Testament churches. The concept was largely lost by the substitution of a clergy-laity hierarchy — a dichotomy between clergy and laity in which the latter became objects of ministry rather than ministers, consumers rather than producers. While the concept of the priesthood of all believers was recovered at the time of the Protestant reformation, it is rarely fully implemented in our churches. The Reformation gave the Bible back to the people; today we need to give the ministry back to the people in a meaningful and significant way.
Encouraging an Authentic Spirituality
Tired of trying to find satisfaction in material values, the postmoderns have turned to the spiritual aspect of life. The challenge in impacting our culture is to avoid both legalism and license, to produce a living orthodoxy. The danger is that we minimize the propositions of Scripture in an attempt to attain this spirituality. This is seen in the writings of Stanley Grenz (professor of theology and ethics at Carey Hall, Regent College, Vancouver, British Columbia) who, while not abandoning Scripture, tends to displace it communal Christian experience as the foundation of Christian authority. Authentic Christian spirituality is always based on the propositional truths of the Word of God.
Charles Dickens opened his Tale of Two Cities with profound simplicity: “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” Postmodernism has created unique challenges for Fundamentalism in the new millennium, but also great evangelistic opportunities. David’s cry in Psalm 11, “If the foundations be destroyed, what can the righteous do?” is answered in verse four where we find God’s sovereignty, in verse two where we find God in control, and in verse one where we are told that God is with us. May God make this Fundamentalism’s finest hour!
At the time of original publication, the late Dr. James E. Singleton was Pastor-at-Large of Tri-City Baptist Church in Tempe, Arizona, and served as the FBF Southeast Regional Moderator.
(Originally published in FrontLine • March/April 2000. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)