This past weekend was the Preserving the Truth Conference at the First Baptist Church of Troy, MI. I had the privilege of speaking in a main session and was also asked to participate in a panel discussion. I believe the audio will be posted soon, but the site already has some of the notes up from other speakers (I didn’t supply any). In prep for the panel discussion, we were given a list of potential questions that might be asked. As a participant, I appreciated this since it allowed me to think generally about the topic before the discussion started.
A couple of the questions touched on areas about which I have been writing and speaking over the past few years, and one in particular strikes me as representative of the present challenges we face when talking about the ecclesiastical landscape. Here’s the question: “Much has been written about the differences between fundamentalism and conservative evangelicalism. What do you consider to be the most significant differences and why?” When this question came up, it was directed toward me, so I got to kick off the discussion (for better or worse). The problem for me is that I have been arguing for a while, and stated again during the panel, that I think those categories are not helpful any longer. I was able to offer a brief answer there and I’d like to restate and expand on it here.
I believe the question presupposes an Us and Them arrangement that isn’t workable for a few reasons: (1) there is no consensus on who the Us or Them actually is; (2) there is little agreement on what makes Us to be Us or Them to be Them; and (3) some of what some claim is distinctive about Us also happens to be reflected in Them (and vice versa). Let me unpack that a little more.
Contrasting fundamentalism with conservative evangelicalism will only work if it can be shown that both labels represent distinct and coherent groups. If, however, one or either of them lacks distinctiveness and coherence, then the contrast and comparison process is severely hampered (if not rendered impossible). Does anybody really doubt that a distinct and coherent fundamentalism no longer exists? How many sub-groups within self-professing fundamentalism have formed their own Us so as to be distinguished from a Them composed of other self-professing fundamentalists? And there is even less clarity about what constitutes a conservative evangelical at this point in developments on the evangelical scene.
Even if I were to grant, for sake of discussion, that fundamentalism as an identifiable movement still exists, there still isn’t agreement as to what makes it distinct and coherent. The question presupposes that there is something about us which gives us our identity and that something is clearly distinct from what gives the conservative evangelicals their identity. Let’s say, for instance, that fundamentalism represents a combination of orthodox doctrine and a commitment to separatism (a claim with which I would agree in principle). Are there not significant debates happening among those who claim this name about orthodoxy and separatism (both in theology and practice)? In truth, aren’t there debates about whether mere orthodoxy is a sufficient doctrinal basis for fundamentalism? Are there not significant debates about the meaning and practice of separatism?
Whatever remains of the movement is not driven by common theology and conviction regarding separatism, but by long-standing relationships and institutional identities. We have our circle of friends and the institutions of which we approve (and the friends of our friends and institutions in fellowship with the ones we like), and these constitute the Us that we then label as fundamentalism. But there are a bunch of groups just like this that all claim to be fundamentalism and operate with a similar Us and Them mindset. Each subset is trying to forge its own distinct and coherent version of fundamentalism, and when it does it is also identifying an Us as distinguished from Them. Even the conference last week, good as it was, still was working at a reformulation of what constitutes a fundamentalism worth saving as in distinction from those kinds of fundamentalism which shouldn’t be saved and from evangelicalism (conservative and beyond).
I believe that this paradigm is broken. Instead of evaluating the ecclesiastical landscape by the truth claims of the Scripture, it can easily fall prey to evaluating it by party affiliation. If the Scriptures require that we be orthodox in doctrine and separatist in commitment, then those are the real tests of our fellowship. We may choose to limit some aspects of our fellowship for more narrow reasons, but the reasons for doing so on the basis of perceived status within or outside of fundamentalism.
When the case for barring fellowship is made in terms of what it does to the boundaries of fundamentalism, I would contend that there is enormous danger that the Us versus Them paradigm is contaminating the discussion. That someone or some institution doesn’t wear our label isn’t the issue. The real issue is whether they hold to the Faith once delivered to the saints and whether they will earnestly contend for that Faith.