Posts Tagged Separatism

Re-formation or Reformation?

I start to feel old when I reference articles or messages that I wrote or preached a long time ago, but I think my part in the current discussions about fundamentalism, evangelicalism, and separation needs to be viewed against a larger backdrop of what I’ve said for a long time. Also, it seems necessary for me to point some of this out because some folks seem intent on making the case that I’ve turned away from what I used to believe. Since articles and resolutions from the 90s are being improperly used against me, I think it is fair to point out more of what I was saying in the 90s.

Specifically, in the fall of 1995 I was part of a group of men who did four one-day seminars for the Mid-America Baptist Fellowship in Chicago, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, and Detroit. I did two presentations as my part of the proceedings. One was a very short deal, as part of a panel, on why I can’t accept the King James Only position—wow, what fun that little ditty generated! The meeting in the Chicago area was the most toxic for some reason, but the worst to come out of it was that some people questioned my fundamentalist credentials. It wouldn’t be too long before the geniuses at PCC were accusing me of being part of the leaven in fundamentalism (ostensibly over the same issue, but really because I got my undergrad degree at BJU). So, let me state clearly that I have been calling fundamentalists to deal with this issue for a long time.

More importantly, the other presentation that I did was entitled, “Re-forming or Reforming Fundamentalism: A Call to Re-think the Re-thinking Process.” It was a long presentation that covered a lot of turf, but for now I’d like to talk only about the basic idea which drove it. That idea hinges on the play I was making with the words re-forming and reforming. The former, I believe, involves a change of the basic form of something, whereas the latter speaks of keeping the same basic form or substance, but refining or improving it. The one makes it into something new and different, while the other helps it be a truer expression of its original form.

My contention in the presentation was that many so-called reform efforts are really re-formation efforts, i.e., the architects are trying to design a new house, not fix a problem with the existing one. Historically, I think that Marsden’s Reforming Fundamentalism shows that the new evangelicals weren’t really trying to reform fundamentalism, they were re-forming it into something very different than it was (i.e., a non-separatist orthodoxy). To some extent, I think that is what Falwell (aided by Dobson and Hindson) tried to do with The Fundamentalist Phenomenon and through The Fundamentalist Journal that they wrote and edited, respectively. And this is clearly what Hyles tried to do in the late 80s and early 90s in order to rally his troops and deflect attention away from Sumner’s exposure of his moral issues. I pointed these things out then, and I believe them now.

In many ways, the precipitating cause for that presentation was the debate that was happening because of Doug McLachlan’s book, Reclaiming Authentic Fundamentalism. I think Doug was writing a book aimed to reform (not re-form) fundamentalism, but some were reacting like it was the opposite. In some ways, those days were very similar to today in that some were concerned that negative things being said about fundamentalism might lead to a revolt against it. I have to admit that I shared those concerns. But I also thought Doug was making some very important, much-needed points about the deterioration of our house. My effort in that presentation was to urge caution all around while taking the steps that we ought to engage in reform, not re-formation. I closed that message by arguing that we must be committed to biblical orthodoxy joined to militant separatism. I know some find this hard to believe, but I believe those same things today.

If I were to do a contemporary version of this same message, it would include more examples of re-forming and reforming, and it would probably focus on the biblical concept of separatism instead of the historical movement of fundamentalism. As I’ve said before, I was more hopeful back then about the fundamentalist movement. Remember, that was October of 1995—within six months PCC would start the video wars and the landscape (or at least my perception of it) began to change significantly. Looking back, I think that was the beginning of the doubts in my mind about whether the movement still was controlled by theological conviction or if it had become a constellation of entities with a common heritage, yet not held together by common convictions.

I told a group of educators this past week that I genuinely understand and share some sympathy with good men who are concerned about some of the things happening in our ecclesiastical and educational neighborhood. It’s not completely clear what is going on and where it all might lead. I have concerns too. To say it like I did in 1995, I am very much in favor of efforts to reform orthodox separatism, but I also am very opposed to any re-formation which turns out to be something non-separatistic. Re-formation arguments usually sound a lot like revolution against the former things, and anti-reform efforts tend to double down on what has always been done. A genuine reformation will focus on what is biblically required of believers and churches, appreciating the good and refining what is not. Discerning the difference between reformation and re-formation is the challenge of our day. May God give us wisdom to know what’s right and the courage to do it regardless of who is happy or not!

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Some thoughts on Us & Them

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.

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