Is Fundamentalism a Cultural Phenomenon?

Gerald L. Priest

FrontLine • May/June 2009

Priest.LoveNotWorldOne criticism leveled against Fundamentalists is their refusal to engage the culture. Sociologist Alan Wolfe writes, “When believers refuse to engage the culture, their opponents dismiss them as fanatics, frustrated people rendered insecure by the dilemmas and opportunities of modernity.”[1] Implicit in this complaint is resentment toward Fundamentalists for being unsociable: they are generally an intolerant people who do not mix well with their culture. Interestingly, this same complaint was directed against first-century believers by Roman hedonists.

It is true that historically Fundamentalists have refused to tolerate, let alone participate in behavior that exalts sensual pleasure and denigrates Christian values. The criticism is perennial, and understandably so, since sincere Christians have taken seriously the Biblical admonition to love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. They love and are loved by God, whose values are theirs and whose commands they seek to obey. And those living for the world have hated them for it.

At Odds with a Depraved Culture

From earliest times Christians have been distinguished by their exemplary lives in contrast to a depraved culture. A second-century Christian apologist testified to the pagan tutor Diognetus that “Christians are not distinguished from the rest of mankind either in locality or in speech or in customs . . . neither do they use some different language. . . . [They] follow the native customs in dress and food and the other arrangements of life.” In other words, they adapted culturally to acceptable standards of behavior.

So what set them apart and made them despised? A godly behavior requiring separation from evil practices: “They marry like all men and they beget children, but they do not cast away their offspring. They have their meals in common, but not their wives. They find themselves in the flesh, and yet they live not after the flesh.” These Christians made a distinction between living in the world and being of the world because they belonged to a city “whose builder and maker is God.” They realized that their “existence is on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven.” And they lived like it. The paradox of that earthly existence was the fact that although “they love all men, they are persecuted by all. . . . They are reviled, and they bless; . . . doing good they are punished as evil-doers.”[2] This has been the historical lot of obedient God-fearing Christians. And this is the heritage of Fundamentalists whose wish has been to emulate their valiant ancestors, who, if alive today, would join their Fundamentalist counterparts by rejecting homosexuality and same-sex marriage, abortion, fornication, and a myriad of other moral evils that have become acceptable practices in secularist and idolatrous cultures. Therefore, in these respects we may identify Fundamentalism, insofar as the movement is a pattern of primitive Christianity, as a cultural phenomenon. That is, because of its belief system, Christianity has been phenomenally at odds with a culture that has made it the object of derision and persecution. Indeed, the Bible makes it clear that such opposition should be expected (Matt. 5:11, 12; John 15:20; 2 Tim. 3:12).

Unnecessarily Anachronistic?

A second and in some cases a valid criticism against Fundamentalists is their persistence in holding to anachronistic mores that are culturally outdated. These would include prohibitions that for some seem no longer relevant, such as issues regarding facial hair for men and pants for women. It may have been appropriate to proscribe these during the cultural revolution of the 1960s and ’70s, when the rebellious hippie movement was in full swing, but they no longer have the same association.

However, the Scriptural standard has not changed: it is still modesty, i.e., a style of dress that maintains standards of decency and moderation. Music styles have also changed, leaving Fundamentalists confused as to what is appropriate. Subjectivity and personal taste seem to play a much larger role in worship than they once did. Yet standards of selectivity must still govern choices: Is the music associated with a moral evil, such as the drug or rock culture? And are the lyrics doctrinally sound? If it is true that people define their identity by what they wear and the music they listen to, would it not be appropriate for Fundamentalists to define themselves by the best standards possible in any given culture? Without becoming dowdy in style or pharisaical in attitude, Fundamentalists should look for ways to inculcate behavior in both dress and music that glorifies God, and not resign standards in order to “fit in” to the culture.

Another cultural problem involves the media. Today, the video rental store, TV, and the Internet have made it much easier to bring Hollywood, with all its graphic sex and violence, into the Christian home. With ease of access has come a corresponding tolerance of and even acquiescence to the world’s values.

But we must realize that the culture is becoming increasingly pornographic and resist the temptation to condone or excuse it. The problem can even affect hermeneutics when we begin to place so many cultural conditioners on Scriptural prohibitions to the point that holiness becomes only a metaphor for “super sainthood.” It may be worthwhile to return to the sayings of the Fundamentalist fathers to find out exactly how they viewed worldliness before the advent of modern media, which has given us a world of entertainment immeasurably more corrupt than theirs.

How Much Change Is Appropriate?

Culture is always changing, and for that reason Fundamentalists must continually ask the question of how much they can change without sacrificing Biblical standards (or change governed by Biblical standards). After all, the fundamental change that God expects is that we become more like Christ (2 Cor. 3:18). We have come a long way (happily!) from corsets and suit vests (the acceptable dress for nineteenth- century Victorian Fundamentalists). Styles have changed, but the criteria early Fundamentalists used to determine them should remain: (1) any cultural change is unacceptable if it means surrender to moral or spiritual declension; and (2) any change must be governed by timeless truths, serve divine intent, and complement divine attributes, particularly God’s holiness.

A third complaint against Fundamentalist Christians is that they appear dispassionate regarding those victimized by the ethical and moral inequities that plague most societies, such as racial injustice, political corruption, and poverty. Their refusal to participate in ecumenical dialogue for resolution of cultural problems betrays a lack of concern, so the argument goes. But the mission of the church, according to divine directive (Matt. 28:19, 20), is not to reform society but to confront its members with the claims of Christ and compassionately offer a gracious gospel that has the power not merely to reform but to regenerate.

In waging war against various forms of destructive humanism, from Modernism to Postmodernism, Fundamentalists have realized that a gospel of human rehabilitation is not the solution to social ills. Society’s main problem is sin, and the only effective answer to sin is forgiveness through the penal vicarious atonement of the God-man Jesus Christ. Unlike many Evangelicals who attempt to use the world’s methods to win the world, Fundamentalists recognize that only the unadulterated gospel of Christ can transform lives and consequently impact society for good. A major problem of American Evangelicalism is that it has allowed the culture to alter its faith instead of using a Biblical faith to alter lives for God.

Stance of the FBFI

For the Fundamental Baptist Fellowship International (FBFI) to be viable we must adhere militantly to separation from all forms of ungodliness, but we must also remain separated unto sound doctrine for the sake of the gospel. The FBFI must have local church leaders who quite simply emphasize the movement’s genius—the fundamentals of the Christian faith, without which there is no true Christianity and no true church. It must stress the point of persistent indoctrination through careful exposition of Biblical truth while exposing and repudiating its counterfeits.

One of the strangest perversions in the history of Christianity is occurring in this twenty-first-century postmodern relativistic culture: such diverse groups as feminists, Roman Catholics, emergents, open theists, universalists, homosexuals, social gospelites, civil rights liberationists, and Third-Wave Charismatics are claiming the Evangelical label. And, more seriously, they are getting by with it. The reason is that doctrine has been replaced with attractive, inoffensive pragmatics. “Gone is the language of sin and damnation. Forgotten are all the doctrinal differences that were once of burning importance.”[3] Consequently, the umbrella of Evangelicalism has become so broad and the evangel so elastic that nearly anything professing a Christian “connection” may be included. Evangelicalism is no longer defined in terms of doctrine but by some vague existential experience “with Jesus” and narcissistic user-friendly “worship celebration.” In response to this enormous travesty, Fundamentalism must mount a countercultural assault on Evangelical impostures by carefully and boldly articulating the exclusive revelation of an inerrant Bible.

It has not been, nor should it be, the culture that dictates the direction and strategies of Fundamentalism. The movement was born in the crucible of conflict and maintained by the careful exposition of doctrine from church pulpit, conference platform, and classroom podium, in opposition to a culture at enmity with God. Fundamentalists, to be successful in combating the enemies of righteousness, to be consistent with their historical heritage, and to be true to their identity and convictions, must not use the carnal weapons of a culture corrupted by evil, but weapons supplied by the Holy Spirit.

The only effectual offensive weapon available to the church that God has promised to bless is the Sword of the Spirit, the Word of God. Its doctrines must be proclaimed knowledgeably, uncompromisingly, and passionately. It is doctrine upon which the Fundamentalist movement was founded; it is doctrine by which it has and should be defined; it is doctrine that directed its progress and its neglect, which has permitted both excess (into side issues) and regress (into carnal self-reliance); and it is doctrine (or the neglect of it) that will determine its destiny.

Gerald Priest (MDiv, PhD, BJU) was a professor of historical theology for twenty-one years at Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary in Allen Park, Michigan.

(Originally published in FrontLine • May/June 2009. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)

  1. Transformation of American Religion: How We Actually Live Our Faith (New York: Free Press, 2003), p. 2. []
  2. Statements taken from the Epistle to Diognetus in The Apostolic Fathers, ed. J. B. Lightfoot (reprint of 1891 Macmillan ed., Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983), pp. 253–54. []
  3. Cited from jacket cover of Transformation of American Religion. []