If fundamentalism were simply about holding to the fundamentals of the Christian faith, I would happily use this term for self-categorization. Sadly, the meanings of words have morphed with the development of movements. We have fundamentalism, Pentecostalism, reformed Protestantism, and many more including the broad category of evangelicalism. It’s very difficult to determine what somebody is saying today when they call themselves an evangelical. “Evangelical” Christianity has so many facets that it is impossible to detect what an evangelical really is. For that matter, I highly recommend the little book by Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, “What is an Evangelical?” In his book, Lloyd-Jones wrote six major essential and fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith that must be held for someone to claim that they are indeed an evangelical believer. His six doctrines explained were, 1 The authority of Scripture, 2. The Trinity, 3. Creation, 4. Sin and Judgment, 5. Jesus and one way of salvation, and 6. The second coming. It would do well for evangelicals to again grab on to these fundamentals so eloquently described by the great doctor.
Fundamentalism and evangelicalism are so difficult to categorize today by simply knowing someone who uses these terms to describe themselves. We tend to see the visibility of movements as we see these words in practice in group settings. We see fundamentalist churches and start describing the visible elements. We might observe conservative style, hymn book worship. The wearing of suits and ties and long length dresses only on ladies. Some stand staunchly on the KJV as the preferred or even only bible for use. They tend to be known by the do’s and don'ts of their faith. I have even seen signs in front of a few buildings that say something like, “We are fundamentalist, KJV only, Premillennial, Pre-tribulation, Dispensational….All Welcome.” Yes, as long as you hold to these non-essential doctrines that have become essential to us.
By way of fairness, I should also point out that there are those who are fighting well for the fundamentalist name to retain its original purpose rather than how the current movement is redefining it in practice. Fundamentalism was originally birthed out of a need to fight liberal theologians who denied supernatural and authoritative claims of Scripture such as the virgin birth, the resurrection or miracles in general. Those attempting to hold to the origins of fundamentalism now categorize the distortions in the modern fundamentalist movement as, “Hyper-fundamentalism.” Dr. Kevin Bauder is one of these men and has described eight potential hyper-fundamentalist attributes (one does not necessarily need all eight to be in such a category). They are, 1. Loyalty to an organization, movement or leader. 2. Militant stance on extra-biblical (or even anti-biblical) teaching. 3. Guilt by association 4. Inability to receive criticism. 5. Anti-intellectualism. 6.Turning non-essentials into tests of orthodoxy. 7. Militant political involvement. 8. Double standard for personal ethics.*
So why does this affect us? If you, like me, used to take pride in the fundamentalist name, it is worth knowing the difference between the movement and the original purpose, and that most people today define this by way of the movement. The problem for me is how these stereotypes affect the advancement of the gospel. In 1 Corinthians 8-10 Paul was dealing with issues in the church in Corinth where by some brothers had extra-biblical rules that eating meat once sacrificed to idols was a sin. This was a legitimate concern for these people who desired to honor God in their life. We should say this is also true of our modern fundamentalist brothers and sisters. We should be careful to think the best that they desire to honor God in their life. On the other hand, those who knew meat to be simply meat and idols to be a fallacy were warned to be careful not to push their non-meat-eating brothers to sin against conscience. Paul was concerned for unity in the church but also for the advancement of the gospel. So, when it came to matters of food or drink he said, “whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage but that of many, that they may be saved. (1 Cor 10:31-33).”
The more we, like Paul, align our consciences to the truth of Scripture rather than our own rules or external source of authority, the more we will be able to know biblical flexibility for the sake of the gospel that some might be saved. I am not anti-fundamentalist. I would be only too happy to put on a suit and tie and preach the gospel in a modern fundamentalist setting. In fact, I have done so. But, neither will I enforce those standards on others for the sake of Christ. It is not one group or another that guides my flexibility or inflexibility for the sake of the gospel. It is the Scriptures. In that way, I aim to say with Paul that I desire to be all things to all people that I might win some. And…in this way I do not desire to be categorized as anything that brings unnecessary restrictions or barriers upon the advancement of the gospel of Christ.
*Kevin Bauder’s chapter from the book, Four Views of the Spectrum of Evangelicalism.