This series is a “wrap it up and then move on” series, so it of necessity is picking up themes and ideas about which I’ve written and said a lot over the years, especially the past few. In some ways that is good because it is very hard to crack through pre-conceived ideas. The most stubborn of those is the equation of fundamentalism with separatism in a way that immediately concludes that questioning the former ipso facto questions the latter. That would only be true, though, if all who claim to be fundamentalists were actually separatists (a point that hardly any fundamentalists would admit) and if all who claim to be separatists also claimed the label fundamentalist (something, for instance, that someone like Kent Brandenburg doesn’t do, but who could deny that Kent’s a separatist?)
To argue that fundamentalism took the right position in the early and mid 20th century is not a point of debate with me. They did. It is 2011 though, not 1921 or 1961. My simple contentions are that: (1) there is, at this stage of history, no fundamentalism, but a number of fundamentalisms, each with their own shibboleths; (2) almost every effort to reclaim fundamentalism has been an effort to impose a different set of shibboleths on the movement; (3) many serious minded separatists find that they fail the shibboleth tests that have been imposed by many of the subset movements; (4) the idea of being asked to be committed to something that won’t fellowship with you anyway is just plain ridiculous; and (5) most of the shibboleths, while perhaps well-intentioned, are over-extended applications designed like fences to prevent a future disobedience somewhere down the line.
Let me unpack that last one a little bit. Building fences in advance of trouble is a good thing. I am not opposed to these kinds of fences at all—I think there is biblical warrant for looking ahead to where trouble is and avoiding it (cf. Pro 22:3). Building a fence to prevent us from getting into trouble is good, but the tension for us is how far away from the potential for trouble do we build the fence. Our answer to that question is tied to our view of slippery slopes, i.e., where is the point where a slide toward the cliff becomes virtually irresistible (although I know most fundamentalists don’t like words like irresistible!)? The dominant view seems to be that you can’t be too safe, so build high, strong fences as far away from trouble as possible.
I don’t agree with that mindset. You actually can build the fence so far back from trouble that you end up in trouble on the other side—think of the Pharisees not receiving sinners and eating with them or having rigid rules about hand washing that missed the point about real defilement. The goal isn’t to build your fence the farthest away. The goal is obedience to Christ and fences are a servant to that goal. Remember, fences work like this: In order not to fall or slide over that cliff, we will build the fence right here. The cliff is where disobedience is and the fence is intended to keep you from falling over it (or even starting to slide toward it). If the fence keeps getting pushed back until the cliff can barely be seen, then it will stop functioning effectively, and a fence that far back cannot be defended as the only right and proper place for a fence.
Yet, in many ways that’s exactly where we are—debating the placement of the fence and willing to break fellowship again over differences about it. I am not advocating extending Christian fellowship to those who have denied the faith. I am not advocating toleration of those who do it. Just the opposite, in fact. I am advocating that these very specific questions be the ones that govern our decision making. Those questions are the baseline for fellowship and cooperation. A lot more matters to me than these, but anything other than the right answers here prevents it. The circle of people that can answer these questions satisfactorily is not limited to self-professing fundamentalists. IOW, there are separatists who don’t claim to be fundamentalists. My fellowship is limited to those self-professing fundamentalists who are genuine separatists and also other genuine separatists even if they don’t call themselves fundamentalists.
That last sentence prompts the real question of the hour—will the self-professing fundamentalists build a fence that excludes people who won’t limit their fellowship to only those who claim the label of fundamentalism? Is that label so tied to the essence of the biblical position that to not wear it means you fall on the wrong side of the fence? If so, is that a fence that can be defended biblically and practically?