Phantoms or Straw Men?

Don Johnson has written a post that provides a helpful contrast to what I have been writing here lately. I think this because he: (1) challenges my basic argument that there are no distinct and coherent movements at this stage of the game; (2) sets forth an argument that there are movements with differing objectives; and (3) raises questions about either the commitments or wisdom of those who gather together from what he considers to be the two movements. I think that’s a fair summary, but read it for yourself to check.

It seems to me that everything hangs on that second point, so let’s examine that. Ironically, both Don and I quote Webster dictionary as the basis for making our assessment. He does it in his post and I do it to make the opposite case in a post in October 2009. So, at least we can say that we agree that for a movement to exist there must be some unifying objective. Where we part, obviously, is that I don’t believe this to be the case anymore. He does. So what are the unifying objectives for evangelicalism and fundamentalism according to Don:

The evangelical objective is cooperation with as many as possible while maintaining in some fashion the integrity of the gospel.

On the other hand, there is a group of churches, individuals, and Christian institutions that pursue separatism as an objective.

I have two main objections to Don’s view of things. First, the reasons why Don and I can both use Webster to argue opposite points is that Don drops part of Webster’s definition. Now, to be sure, he acknowledges this—“Based on this definition, one could dispute whether there has ever been much of a fundamentalist movement, especially if the word ‘organized’ is emphasized”—yet dismisses this as a non-problem. But it is a serious, thesis refuting problem! A thousand people at the shopping mall to buy clothes for school all have the same objective, but nobody would consider them a back-to-school clothes buying movement, would they? Without organization and coordination of effort, there is no movement. When you drop the word organized from the Webster definition you actually change the meaning.

Secondly, I think he has missed the mark on the statement of objectives too. Let me start with Don’s statement of evangelicalism’s objective. I think it unfortunate that Don inserts the words “in some fashion” as a means of calling into question their commitment to gospel integrity. Those words prejudice the sentence terribly and if they were dropped, one might legitimately wonder whether any early fundamentalists would actually have objected to it. Read the early history of the fundamentalist movement and you’ll quickly see that they were working hard to forge “cooperation with as many as possible” in order to counter the modernist threat.

That sentence not only prejudices the discussion, it also seems completely ineffective in summarizing the evangelical movement. It grants way too much for many professing evangelicals—maintaining gospel integrity doesn’t even seem to be on the radar for them. And it sells short some of the men that Don clearly thinks are evangelicals by ignoring their very strong defenses of the gospel.

More importantly, I believe he misses the mark on the objective of fundamentalism by making separatism the objective rather than the means to the objective. Fundamentalism formed for the defense of the faith, not for the purpose or objective of separation. Separation was seen as a necessary response to the denial of fundamental truths by the modernists (in the first round of fights) and to the embrace of ecumenicism by the new evangelicals (in the second round of fights). Never was the objective to separate. Laws said it was to do battle royal for the fundamentals of the faith. Pickering said it was to struggle for a pure church. Moritz called it contending for the faith. Beale said it was the pursuit of purity. Nobody that I know of said it was for separation’s sake. The difference between viewing separation as a characteristic versus an objective is huge.

Why is this important? If the point of fundamentalist separation was the purity of the church or the purity of the gospel (take your pick in my mind), then the place where one departs from the fundamentalist movement’s objective is when one abandons the purity of the church or the defense of the gospel, right? We must separate from those who deny the truths which are fundamental to the church’s faith, and we must separate from those who grant Christian recognition and fellowship to those who deny those truths (in belief or practice).

Now, the main reason I think it is worth interacting with Don’s post is really more procedural in nature, i.e., how one goes about making separation/fellowship decisions. I will grant that Don represents one way of doing things and I am arguing for a different way of doing them. Don’s argument hinges on the existence of two movements, so he has to craft the case that they still exist. Once he has (or thinks he has) established that, then the case can be made that “people from each of the two movements” are joining together and that this might represent someone moving from one movement to another, or that some new objective is being pursued (which I take, given his definition, to be an implication of a new movement starting), or that confusion is being created. Everything hangs on his definition of movement and his supposition regarding objectives for the “two movements.” I would contend that he has built a straw man by redefining movement and prejudicing the discussion of objectives.

While I reject Don’s argument, I want to be clear that I do so for the sake of biblically defined and practiced separatism, not to reject it. What I have been trying to argue is that it is the movement mindset that obscures the issue, not clarifies it. Thinking in movement terms is what causes confusion, especially for those who trying to understand why we separate from some and not from others. 

Further, separation which is aimed at preserving a movement is fundamentally misguided and precisely why fundamentalism fragmented into its current state in the first place. Separation was never (or should never have been) about forming a movement. It was about the health of Christ’s church and the purity of the gospel. 

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