How I Tried on Fundamentalist Christianity and Found It Didn’t Fit

How I Tried on Fundamentalist Christianity and Found It Didn’t Fit October 18, 2020

How I Tried on Fundamentalist Christianity and Found It Didn’t Fit

If you’re reading this, you need to look back at my immediately preceding post about how I tried on liberal Christianity and found that it didn’t fit—assuming you didn’t already read that one.

When I say that I “tried on” fundamentalist Christianity I don’t mean quite the same thing as “tried on” liberal Christianity. I was born into a kind of fundamentalist Christianity—although it was a peculiar kind that wouldn’t fit many stereotypes of Christian fundamentalism in America. Still, and nevertheless, as I look back on it now, I have to say that it was “fundamentalistic”—beyond merely believing in and teaching the essentials of Christian orthodoxy. In fact, I’m not sure that all of my spiritual-theological mentors (in childhood and youth) even knew or understood true Christian orthodoxy. Our little Pentecostal denomination was pretty informal in terms of theology; “biblical truth” was whatever its most respected leaders said. We had a statement of faith, but it was very minimal.

Still, and nevertheless, the denomination generally held strongly to and taught certain doctrines associated with fundamentalist Christianity and in a way associated with fundamentalist Christianity in America (which I have studied much as a religion scholar and theologian). We were taught that the Bible is the inerrant, literal Word of God written, the supreme authority for all things related to Christian belief and life. We were more than encouraged to read it all, memorize large portions of it, be able to quote “chapter and verse,” and apply it to every issue that confronted us in church and in culture.

We were taught that the Bible should be interpreted as literally as possible and as figuratively as necessary with the “figurative” limited to very few obviously poetic and parabolic portions. Anyone who would have dared to question whether the Jonah story is to be taken literally would have been sharply rebuked and eventually ostracized. I know this from hard experience. That’s just one example of our denomination’s (and other fundamentalist denominations’) literalism.

We were taught that the earth as we know it (humans included) was created in six days of twenty-four hours each approximately six to ten thousand years ago. The “accepted” explanation of modern scientific evidence of the great age of the earth was the so-called “Gap Theory.” Look it up. We were taught that the “blessed hope” of true followers of Jesus Christ living (not yet dead) was the “rapture” that would precede the “seven year tribulation period” during which…. Well, you probably know about that eschatology. We believed it way before Hal Lindsay and Tim LaHaye popularized it. Our church was full of literature by Clarence Larkin, the main popularizer of dispensational eschatology.

We were taught that all “worldliness” was sin—including attending movies, dancing, smoking, drinking alcohol, having “lustful thoughts,” wearing shorts (including cutoffs!), “mixed bathing” (males and females swimming together), playing with “face cards” (but Rook was okay), etc., etc., etc. There were so many sins it was impossible to find a list of all of them! And we were discouraged from having close non-Christian friends and forbidden to date non-Christian persons. We were to find our mates for life at church gatherings and Youth for Christ “rallies,” etc.

You get the picture.

But there were some differences between “our fundamentalism” (and we didn’t call our Christianity “fundamentalist”) and others—especially “hard shell Baptist” and Bible church fundamentalists. We were Pentecostals although we preferred the label “Full Gospel.” I describe the ethos of our Christianity “Urban Amish.” We lived in the city but stayed as separate as possible from non-Christians except to “witness” to them. There were no Christian schools (except colleges), so much of what I was told in church was clearly intended to “inoculate” me against many things I would hear at school.

Our pastor handed out notes to students (including yours truly) to take to school to exempt us from dancing in gym classes—for religious reasons.

Our denomination (like other Pentecostal ones) stayed somewhat apart from other fundamentalists who were strongly opposed to speaking in tongues and miraculous healing. So we did not associate with members of the General Association of Regular Baptists—and similar churches. But we could and did associate with Nazarenes and other “Holiness” Christians who did not go out of their way to claim that speaking in tongues was “of the devil.”

To make a long story somewhat shorter, I was okay with all of this until I entered our denomination’s college where I encountered very harsh and even cruel reactions to my questions about our denomination’s teachings—especially about the “rapture” (Where is it clearly taught in the Bible?) and similar fundamentalist teachings. (Yes, I know not all fundamentalists believe in the rapture—especially those in the Reformed traditions—but all fundamentalists I knew then did believe in it passionately.)

*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*

I did have the privilege of attending an outstanding high school where I was taught critical thinking. I was also a voracious reader of novels and historical fiction and books about history and even philosophy—in high school! And I entered college certain that my teachers there would be able to reconcile some things I had come to know as facts with some things we were taught that seemed to contradict the facts. I entered college with great optimism but that was quickly killed by professors and fellow students who told me not to ask questions but just to believe whatever I was being taught. The problem was…I knew that some of what I was being taught was just wrong. Some of my professors were ignorant. I knew more about philosophy than my philosophy professor who clearly knew almost nothing about philosophy!

I was verbally scolded for asking how Moses could have written the Pentateuch when he dies at the end of it. The answer was “obviously” that someone else, probably Joshua, wrote the end of Deuteronomy. I was shamed for asking why in one gospel it says that two of Jesus’s disciples, brothers, asked to sit at his right and left hands in the kingdom of heaven whereas in another gospel it says their mother asked Jesus that for her sons. “Obviously,” I was told, “both happened.” But then, I’ll never forget the day, one of our leading pastors spoke in chapel and explained the discrepancy by saying that one gospel writer didn’t want to blame the two disciples for asking such an audacious question, so he blamed their mother. Redaction criticism! But, of course, he didn’t know that and he could get away with affirming a error in Scripture because he was the pastor of the denomination’s “mother church.”

College was a nightmare for me. Not only because it was fundamentalist and many of the teachers were ignorant about their subjects (I could write a book about that) but because of the spiritual abuse heaped on me and other students who dared to ask questions the teachers, administrators and pastors (speaking in chapel) couldn’t answer with any degree of credibility.

Why did I stay? I tried to leave, to transfer to another college, but God forced me back. I know, that sounds very strange, but I now know he did it. My future wife (now of 46 years) was there. God works in mysterious ways.

During those horrendous years of enduring stupid, boring, idiotic classes and chapels (one forty-five minute sermon on “astrocatastrophics” during which the guest pastor-preacher read an entire article from Argosy magazine!) I decided that if I was going to get a decent college education, even a fundamentalist one, I would have to teach myself. So I began buying cheap, used books at the local “Book and Bible Store” and reading them in my spare time. I began reluctantly to put aside books by Witness Lee and John Walvoord and Merrill Tenney and I discovered—Francis Schaeffer! His early writings were my liberation from fundamentalism. Isn’t that incredibly odd? Most people only know Schaeffer (if they know him at all) from his later writings, but his early books such as He Is There and He Is Not Silent breathed a different “air” from the quasi-fundamentalist, anti-intellectual atmosphere of our denomination and college.

From Schaeffer I went on to C. S. Lewis and John Stott and F. F. Bruce and other “mainline evangelical” authors. I discovered and began to read Eternity magazine and Christianity Today and other “mainline evangelical” publications. Many people would consider all of those people and publications fundamentalist, but that just shows they don’t know “real fundamentalism!”

I did the almost unthinkable for our denomination and enrolled in a “mainline evangelical” seminary and there discovered a whole different religious-spiritual-theological ethos that was not anti-intellectual. None of my seminary professors ever shamed me for asking hard questions. They had reasonable answers and were willing to admit it when they didn’t know the answers. They always encouraged me to keep questioning: “Question what you believe even while continuing to believe what you are questioning.” The “what” in the second half of that motto clearly referred to essentials of Christian faith while the “what” in the first half referred to non-essentials such as the rapture.

There, in seminary, I discovered George Eldon Ladd, Donald G. Bloesch, Bernard Ramm, and other “mainline evangelical” scholars. I ate them up. I was taught that even non-evangelical Christians could still be Christians. I took elective courses in liberation theology and process theology (from a Lutheran seminary’s extension at the local Lutheran college). Gradually I shed the fundamentalism of my youth, especially its anti-intellectualism and separatism, and adopted a more open, ecumenical, culture-engaging approach to Christianity. The leaders of my denomination then told me to leave. So I became (moderate) Baptist and “mainline evangelical.” I chose Bernard Ramm and Donald Bloesch as my mentors and read everything they wrote. Eventually, much later, I got to know both of them personally. They were my liberators from fundamentalism.

Over the years, however, I kept up a lively interest in fundamentalism, inviting fundamentalist theologians to speak to my classes and even insisting, when I was co-chair of the Evangelical Theology Group of the American Academy of Religion, that we invite the most influential fundamentalist theologian of that decade (he taught theology at the newly established Liberty University) to speak at one of our sessions.

I experienced fundamentalist Christianity as obscurantist, anti-intellectual, unduly critical of science and culture, spiritually abusive, and divisive (constantly dividing over minor doctrinal and ethical issues). I know well that was not true of the earliest American fundamentalists who wrote the articles in The Fundamentals (1910-1911). But the fundamentalism I grew up in was influenced by men like John R. Rice, Bob Jones, and Carl McIntire—even though they would have rejected us (my denomination) as “of the devil” (I suppose) because we were Pentecostals

The fundamentalism I experience, “tried on,” and found unbearable, “didn’t fit,” was what Fuller Seminary president (1950s) called “orthodoxy gone cultic” But it was not original fundamentalism….

I own almost the whole series of The Fundamentals in first editions. I have read many of the articles. Many of them are erudite treatises on biblical and theological themes. That’s not the fundamentalist Christianity I’m talking about here. The fundamentalist Christianity I’m talking about here emerged after The Fundamentals in the 1920s and flourished in a sort of underground, separate-from-culture way throughout the 1930s and 1940s and into the 1950s and 1960s. It still exists, although it has changed in some ways—not nearly as legalistic as when I was growing up in it. Still, its hallmarks are a tendency to reject as subchristian, if authentically Christian at all, Christians who do not believe in “young earth creationism,” the “rapture,” “biblical inerrancy,” premillennialism, etc.—secondary (at best) doctrines of some extremely conservative Christians. And, usually, it is marked by a refusal to change its mind even when confronted by indisputable facts.

I attended a fundamentalist Baptist church for a year. It was the only English-speaking church in the European city where we lived. They wouldn’t allow me to be a member because I wasn’t baptized in a Baptist church. That I was baptized in a Pentecostal church made me even more suspect! The pastor ended one sermon this way: “The Christian’s attitude toward secular culture should always be ‘Don’t confuse me with facts; my mind is already made up!’” Evangelical theologian Bernard Ramm, in his classic book The Christian View of Science and Scripture declared “obscurantism” a major hallmark of fundamentalist Christianity.

So are fundamentalist Christians really Christians, authentically Christian? I would say most of them are because they accept Jesus Christ as God and Savior, have a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ, and embrace all the key doctrines of historical, classical Christian orthodoxy. But many of them are deluded Christians and many of them are mean Christians—especially toward other conservative Christians with whom they disagree about matters like women in ministry, speaking in tongues, the “end times,” biblical inerrancy, etc.

Now, in case you are curious about fundamentalist Christian theologians, these may not call themselves fundamentalists, but I would consider their theologies to be in that category: Eric Sauer, John MacArthur, Elmer Towns, Jerry Falwell, R. B. Thieme, Richard V. Clearwaters, Tim LaHaye. What worries me is that these men’s fundamentalist theology has filtered down and out and into many independent and very “hip” youth-oriented “contemporary” and “new paradigm” churches that do not fit the stereotypical profile in terms of worship or building or dress or even lifestyles, but have the fundamentalist “flavor” when it comes to interpretation of the Bible and teaching about doctrines and spiritually abusing inquiring young minds that dare to question (especially Calvinism!).

*Note to commenters: This blog is not a discussion board; please respond with a question or comment only to me. If you do not share my evangelical Christian perspective (very broadly defined), feel free to ask a question for clarification, but know that this is not a space for debating incommensurate perspectives/worldviews. In any case, know that there is no guarantee that your question or comment will be posted by the moderator or answered by the writer. If you hope for your question or comment to appear here and be answered or responded to, make sure it is civil, respectful, and “on topic.” Do not comment if you have not read the entire post and do not misrepresent what it says. Keep any comment (including questions) to minimal length; do not post essays, sermons or testimonies here. Do not post links to internet sites here. This is a space for expressions of the blogger’s (or guest writers’) opinions and constructive dialogue among evangelical Christians (very broadly defined).

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