On Movements, Labels, and Assumptions

I’ll not rehash my arguments here, but I’ve previously argued (repeatedly and rigorously) that there are no coherent and distinct movements that fit the Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism labels. I gladly concede that there are Fundamentalists, but there is no Fundamentalist movement. There are Evangelicals, but there is no Evangelical movement. As far back as the 70s people starting adding modifiers because of the breakdown of Fundamentalist unity, and the Evangelicals have experienced the same thing.

I think there are clear, distinctive markers by which one may identify both Fundamentalists and Evangelicals, but hardly anybody agrees about exactly what those are and some of that disagreement produces the modifiers and qualifiers. I spent a significant amount of time earlier trying to unpack the idea that we should, therefore, stop using those labels as the means by which we make separation decisions. One man’s Fundamentalist is another man’s Conservative Evangelical. And one man’s Conservative Evangelical is another man’s Fundamentalist. Also, one man’s Fundamentalist is another man’s Heretic (actually this one often is applied mutually).

My point has been to argue that the real issue is biblically defined separation since the biblical call to separation existed long before Fundamentalism. If I lived in 1915, my responsibility would be to understand and apply the biblical principles to the challenges of that day. Nobody made their fellowship decisions on the basis of whether someone self-identified by the label Fundamentalist or not. Since the Bible is the normative standard for our practices we must base our decisions on what it states, not traditions (as in traditionally held applications).

Let me sharpen my point a little. When I read or hear someone call for separation from another person or ministry on the basis that they are not Fundamentalist or that they are Evangelical, my first question is something like, “On what basis is that assessment being made?” Perhaps I’m a little gun shy since I’ve had people say that I am not a Fundamentalist because I preach from the NASB (or for any number of items from a list that ranges from what our girls wear to my soteriology). But it’s worse than being gun shy, it’s rooted in the horrible decisions of self-professing separatists to ignore serious theological error merely because someone wears the right label or has historically run in the right crowd. That someone like Jack Schaap calls himself a Fundamentalist means absolutely nothing to me in terms of whether I can have ministerial fellowship with him or not. That someone who grew up outside of the Fundamentalist orbit and never identified himself by that label doesn’t do so means almost nothing to me in terms of whether I can have ministerial fellowship with him or not.

If a man believes (and practices that belief) that there is no Christian fellowship outside of agreement on the fundamentals of the faith, and that man believes (and practices that belief) that it is wrong to grant Christian recognition and fellowship to those who deny essential Christian doctrines, then I really don’t care what he calls himself. If he chooses to call himself a Fundamentalist, so be it. If he chooses not to call himself that, so what. The issue is separation vs. non-separation, not wearing the right label.

This is where the assumption part comes into the discussion. It seems to me that one ramification of the over-dependence on the labels is that it makes assumptions about what really needs to be proven. Of course, that is actually part of how labels develop and function—we put tags on things in order to cut down on the time it takes to sort everything out. I pastor a Baptist church and that label—Baptist—is shorthand for some specific beliefs and practices. I love that label and think it still serves its purpose very well, but I don’t think the Fundamentalist label does that anymore. Think about it, if you kept visiting Baptist churches that didn’t believe in the immersion of believers, wouldn’t begin to think that the label Baptist was becoming less effective? You would no longer be able to assume what you used to assume.

My contention is that there are Fundamentalists about whom it would be dangerous to assume that by wearing that label they hold to historic Fundamentalist beliefs and practices. Likewise, there are Evangelicals about whom it would be dangerous to assume that they hold to historic Evangelical beliefs and practices. Not all who claim to be Fundamental are. Not all who claim to be Evangelical are. Here’s the tricky one—some who don’t claim to be Fundamentalists actually are. The bottom line is that to base one’s fellowship decisions on the labels would be a serious mistake.

A few years ago one of our seminary grads was preparing to plant a church in another state and wanted support from our church. We had a pretty straightforward conversation over lunch one day about the church he intended to plant as to whether or not it was going to be a Baptist church. The cause of the discussion was the fact that the word Baptist was not going to be used in its name. That didn’t really matter to me. I wanted to know what the doctrine and practices of the church would be. The funny part of the conversation, at least to me, was when he kept saying it wouldn’t be a Baptist church (because it wasn’t named that) but couldn’t tell me one thing that a Baptist church believed and practiced that this new church wouldn’t believe and practice. Because I was convinced that it was in fact a Baptist church, I lead our church to help significantly in the church plant. Now, I readily acknowledge that some of my Baptist brethren would not do so. That’s fine. Each assembly needs to do what it thinks best on these matters. For me, though, the label wasn’t the issue. The content was.

The same thing holds true regarding ecclesiastical separation. What does a man believe? Does he implement those beliefs clearly and with some consistency? I may be out on an island by myself, but I’ve put the label thing behind me–unless I can get everybody to embrace a new one that I get define! :)

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