Fundamentalist diversity disproves fundamentalism

Fundamentalist diversity disproves fundamentalism February 25, 2021

I owe a big debt to the Charismatic/Pentecostal stream of white evangelicalism, even though I’ve never been a part of that community.

The fundamentalist Baptist church* I grew up in was fiercely anti-charismatic. We weren’t merely taught to be skeptical of the “gifts of the Spirit” celebrated in those churches, but to regard them as sinful and dangerous. Their speaking in tongues and exuberant forms of worship were sometimes condemned as something akin to demonic possession. Attending the Assemblies of God church across town, we were told, was spiritually dangerous, like going to a fortune-teller or playing with a ouija board.

This anti-charismatic belief wasn’t an obsessive teaching, mind you — not something that our pastor chose to speak about often. But it was something our church took very seriously.

This wasn’t forbidden at our church, exactly, but it was strongly discouraged and made folks very nervous. It was like wearing jeans on Sunday morning or reading the NIV. (Wikimedia photo by Ricardo Camacho)

For an example of how seriously, consider the case of one young missionary family we supported. The husband had grown up in our church where he had responded to God’s call to “full-time Christian ministry” — what we all believed to be the highest and noblest calling. He went off to Bible College, got married, and became a foreign missionary with an established independent white fundamentalist/evangelical mission agency and our church pledged to provide them financial support.

The missionary family would visit our church when they were back in the U.S. on “furlough,” and every time they came the husband would be invited to speak from our pulpit. Their picture was tacked to the giant map of the world in our church lobby that showed all of the missionary families our church supported throughout the world. That same picture hung on my family’s refrigerator at home, as it did in the homes of many members of our church, as a reminder to pray for them in support of their mission and ministry.

But after years of this support, our church learned that another missionary from that same agency — someone serving in a different country who had no connection to the missionary we supported — had said that he sometimes prayed “in tongues,” privately, as part of his personal devotion. The mission agency wrestled with this grave confession and ultimately decided that, so long as this missionary only did so in private, they would allow him to continue his affiliation with them. When my church learned of this, our mission board voted to end our support for every missionary connected to that agency, including the guy who’d grown up in our very own church, even though neither he nor any of those other missionaries had ever prayed in tongues or taught anyone else to do so.

That’s what I was being taught at church about Pentecostal and charismatic Christians. They and their practices were anathema, and light should have no association with such darkness.

But at my fundamentalist Christian school, it was a different matter. Our private school in Central Jersey wasn’t affiliated with a single mega-church or even a single denomination. It drew students from dozens of different small and mid-sized non-denominational congregations throughout the region, including both anti-charismatic fundie churches like the one my family attended and charismatic/Pentecostal churches. It had to in order to draw enough students to keep the operation sustainable (my graduating class had only 26 students).

And so at my private fundie school, there was a truce between these factions. Some of us went to churches that taught that people who spoke in tongues weren’t really biblical Christians and so weren’t really saved, and some of us went to churches that taught that people who didn’t speak in tongues hadn’t yet received the Holy Spirit and so they weren’t really saved, but we all agreed not to fight about that at school where we all sat together, studying and learning and praying together.

The truce meant that this disagreement between charismatic and anti-charismatic Christians wasn’t something we talked about much at school. The one place it sometimes bubbled up to the surface was in our weekly chapel services, where we clearly saw that those kids from the AofG churches had better music than we did. They sometimes even (gasp!) raised their hands while singing, or clapped along. They knew when and where and how to clap along, and I was jealous of that, a skill I had never acquired at my own church.

Again, our school’s truce between charismatics and anti-charismatics wasn’t itself intended to be a doctrinal “stance.” It was a pragmatic accident that arose from the in-other-ways diverse groups of Jersey fundies forced to work together because they all wanted a place where they could teach their kids that the world was 7,000 years old and America was a Christian nation, a place where boys had short hair and girls had long skirts.

This charismatic/anti-charismatic detente was not the only subject on which our school had to settle into a pragmatic ecumenism among various forms of fundamentalism. I had classmates from KJV-only churches, classmates who were Gothardites, classmates whose fundamentalist Christianity took the form of ultra-Calvinism and others whose churches had a missionary zeal that viewed Calvin’s ideas of predestination as anti-missions. There were Bob Jones factions and Pensacola factions and PCB factions and unaccredited Bible College factions with subtle, but fiercely held, distinctions among them. We all agreed to set aside such differences at school because that was the only way to get enough of us together to make having a school possible.

Because of that, we all learned something at our fundamentalist private school that was the opposite of what we all had been learning in our fundamentalist churches. At church, we all learned that ours was the one true Christianity, the simple, literal, Bible-based faith derived from the only possible reading of the perspicuous, self-evident meaning of our shared holy text. The truth and power of fundamentalist Christianity derived from and depended on its unanimity and total lack of ambiguity. In church, in other words, we all were taught — as all fundamentalists must be taught — that there can be only one pure, true form of fundamentalism and that any deviation from that one pure, true form meant a rejection of the entire construct.

But then we all went to school where we were confronted with the subversive fact that there existed a diversity of fundamentalisms. We were all fundamentalists, but we were fundamentalists in different ways. That wasn’t supposed to be possible. The entire authority structure of fundamentalism hinged on the claim that it was not possible.

The patch of duct tape we used to pretend that authority structure held was the idea that we were all still allowed and encouraged to believe that our particular churches were right while those other churches were wrong, but this shaky fix only worked as long as we avoided talking or thinking about it too much. It was reassuring to think that my anti-charismatic church was right about all the gifts of the Spirit stuff that my charismatic classmates believed, and that their churches were wrong, but if that claim wasn’t carried all the way through to the conclusion that therefore those classmates were lost and unsaved and in need of conversion then what this claim meant was really something else — something unacknowledged but still dimly understood.

What it meant, really, was that we were both wrong. It meant that the claim made by all of our various fundamentalist churches was wrong — that the entire edifice of unquestionable all-or-nothing authority we all shared was disproved by the evident fact that we did not share every other belief in unanimous conformity. The fact of fundamentalist diversity disproves fundamentalism. If all of the people who claim to be doing nothing more than following the self-evident, obvious, literal teaching of an infallible, perspicuous text arrive at different conclusions, then it’s no longer possible to believe that this is a meaningful or sufficient way of reading that text.

I wouldn’t have put it that way back in 9th grade at my private fundamentalist Christian school, but that is where the seed of that realization was planted.

And I have my charismatic/Pentecostal classmates to thank for that. Just by showing up and sitting next to me as we prayed together and worshipped together and studied our Bibles together I learned that these other kids, undeniably, were Christians too, even if they were Christians in a different way than I was. And if it was possible for them to be Christians in a different way, then something was fundamentally wrong with our shared fundamentalism.

* Again, our church was an independent fundamentalist Baptist church but not an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist church. It began as a Northern Baptist congregation, joining the Conservative Baptists at that split, then joining the Conservative-isn’t-conservative-enough split from that which formed the GARB (the General Association of Regular Baptists — yes, really), then finally splitting away from the creeping liberal apostasy of the GARB to go it alone.

If all of that reminds you of David St. Hubbins talking about “the New Originals” or of Monty Python jokes about the People’s Popular Front of Judea or of Emo Philips’ bridge-jumper joke, then you’re getting the right idea.

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