Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

18 Sep 2023

Fundamentalism May Feel Safe, Because It Is

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Phil Newton recently published an article on the 9Marks website entitled, “Fundamentalism May Feel Safe, But It’s Shortsighted.” Newton argues that, after his conversion, the “variety of fundamentalism” in which he found himself “began to squeeze the life and joy out of [his] new faith in Christ.” Even though “they read and taught us the Scriptures, prayed with us, and encouraged us to live for Christ as faithful witnesses. They corrected sin habits (much needed) and exhorted us to read the Word (also much needed).” So, what made these fundamentalists killjoys? Newton says that “they point to the gospel for entry into the faith, but then they rigidly insist upon certain beliefs and practices for sanctification and association.” From the rest of the article, it seems that association was the real damper on Newton’s spiritual joy and growth. He recalls attending a Methodist church service and not reciting the words “holy catholic church” from the Apostles’ Creed because at the time he wrongly believed that it referred to the Roman Catholic Church. However, Newton’s joy and growth was restored after he was “liberated” from the harsh boundaries of fundamentalism. He “discovered warm-hearted, passionate followers of Jesus who didn’t hold [his] narrow fundamentalism,” and he “discovered the richness of church history and started to think theologically.” He was rescued from his narrow world and into a more catholic one.

My guess is that many people will resonate with this story. I do not know Phil Newton personally or have specific knowledge of what church and group he was a part of. He is simply sharing his experience. However, it is possible that this is not everyone’s experience. In response to Newton’s article, I would like to share my own experience with fundamentalism and offer some critiques of the above sentiments. I hope this is received by all as a humble response.

I was saved in a small church in rural North Carolina. After attending Bible college, I moved to the church where I am currently a member. I attended and graduated from, by God’s grace, seminary here. This is also where I met my now wife, and where we have begun raising our small family. I am currently pursuing more theological training at the same seminary and have a desire to pastor. Both the church and the seminary, which is a ministry of the church, carry the label Historic Fundamentalist. The seminary has a small section in its creed on biblical separation. It says that “believers and churches must separate from those who deny essential doctrines of the faith” and that “believers and churches must separate from those who compromise the faith by granting Christian recognition and fellowship to those who have denied essential doctrines of the faith.” So, essentially, we believe that both believers and churches should not extend Christian fellowship to those who have denied the gospel and those who have compromised the gospel. This is how I have heard it summed up around here.

You may be thinking to yourself wow, what a stuffy place. Any place that puts such an emphasis on separation must be led by and made up of a bunch of killjoys. I cannot speak for every institution, but in my experience, there is much joy here. We gather every Sunday together to sing praise to our God and encourage one another. The singing here is loud and boisterous. (Notice, I said the “singing” is loud. The band is not because we don’t have one.) Every Sunday, I am encouraged by the joyfulness of the congregation when we lift our voices together. Long prayers and Scripture reading mark our services. And, of course, the centerpiece of the service is an expositional and theologically rich sermon lasting for close to an hour. Through my time here, I have grown to treasure Christ more because of the doctrinal depth of my pastor’s preaching ministry. The joy in this place manifests in practical ways too. My wife and I are in the process of purchasing a home for our growing family. As you might imagine, seminary students do not have the means to purchase the nicest houses in town. We found a house in our price range, but it also needs an incredible amount of work. Men from our church have spent hours of their own time at our new home helping to fix it up. They have worked full days and late into the night. Not one of them expects to get anything in return, and I didn’t have to plead with any of them. Most of them volunteered of their own accord when they found out about the house. I am overwhelmed when I think about the kindness of God to allow me, a sinner, to be a member of a church where joy so obviously overflows.

You might also speculate that we have no understanding of catholicity. When I was growing up, my understanding of missions was the sixty or so families our church gave about $100 to each month. I do not recall ever hearing a missionary report in our church from a currently supported missionary. However, that is not the case here. I first became acquainted with the church and seminary through a church planting internship. The church has planted several churches in the areas surrounding our city. The internship sends a group of guys to work with these churches each summer. Many of the guys who have gone through that program have said that it shaped their thinking about church planting more than anything else. This is one of the ways we can partner with like-minded churches. We support several families and target specific areas for missions. We partner with other churches to send these workers to the field. Partnering with other churches to spread the gospel and share in Christian fellowship is New Testament catholicity. We are also not averse to affirming one “holy catholic church.” One of the pastors at our church just finished a series in his adult Sunday school class on the Apostles Creed. Not every week, but several times, we affirmed the creed together and, yes, even the “holy catholic church” part.

Fundamentalism doesn’t make you a killjoy or an isolated Christian. It seems the objection then is we only partner with like-minded churches. However, fellowshipping and disfellowshipping standards are not unique to Fundamentalists. The Pillar Network, where Newton serves, works among churches that are part of a convention that recently disfellowshipped a church for not conforming to their doctrinal statement. So, clearly these churches do not find unity only in the gospel. Every local church association is a voluntary arrangement. No one can force a church to join an association or convention. To do so would deny the autonomy of the local church. So, why join associations with churches where we would not agree about the nature of the church or the mission of the church? That would make missions and church planting extremely difficult. We can still recognize each other as believers and members of the same body in Christ, but that does not mean our churches must band together to do church planting. Churches should partner with other churches that line up on philosophy. Otherwise, the relationship and work is doomed to fail from the start. Fundamentalism does not “blind us to healthy catholicity.” Fundamentalism protects the gospel and the mission of the church for the long term.  

1 Response

  1. Thanks for this, Phil. It sure would have been nice if Bro. Newton had given a definition of fundamentalism. It would be interesting to analyze his article from the standpoint of logical fallacies. For example, there is glaring generalization based on his own limited experience. Related to that (intentional or not), there is a kind of bait-and-switch: he moves from talking about his past “strain” of fundamentalism to blackballing the concept and/or movement of fundamentalism as a whole. This is rather ironic in that fundamentalists are the ones often accused of not dealing with their theological opponents in an even-handed way.