Fads, Factions, and Fundamentalists

Fundamentalists

Christian fads have produced many factions over the years: Seeker Sensitive, Word of Faith, Purpose-Driven, Emerging Church and the list goes on. Special emphasis groups have surfaced highlighting everything from mega-churches to storefronts, church growth to social justice, and small groups to soup kitchens. Some enjoy running the aisles shouting ‘hallelujah’ while others appreciate reciting monastic chants while burning incense. Christians undeniably have a plethora of taste when it comes to worship.

What I’m going to describe in this blog post doesn’t have a label or fit neatly into any category. It has nothing to do with worship style, ministry emphasis, or denominational preference (though I do speak from the context of the Church of the Nazarene). While worship styles may vary, they all have something to offer if they exhibit the heart of Jesus. It doesn’t matter what type of worship one prefers, what matters most is loving God and loving people.

Let me talk about another religious faction for a moment: “Fundamentalism.” If you’ve ever been part of a church that focuses more on rules than relationships, you’ve likely experienced a dose of fundamentalism. Fundamentalism is a reaction the modern era of the 19th Century. When society started taking science seriously religious folks got frightened, thus fundamentalism was born and has haunted the church ever since.

Fundamentalism focuses on following rules. It produces legalism and self-preservation. It believes that adherence to strict codes of conduct equate to a right relationship with God. Fundamentalism doesn’t leave room for process. Certainly, the Bible offers guidance for holy living. However, no one arrives overnight. I don’t care how ‘entirely sanctified’ you are, we are all a work in progress. God isn’t finished with any of us yet. Following Jesus is a journey, not a destination. Rules are not the starting point… Grace is.

Fundamentalism has created a lot of problems in the church. Legalism is at the top of the list. Legalists make non-essential issues a top priority. They are light on grace, heavy on rules, and have become a stumbling block for many. Nothing causes pastors more grief than legalistic church members. I would rather talk to ten telemarketers while siting in rush hour traffic than try to reason with a seasoned legalist. They are set in their ways and you ain’t gonna change ‘em.

Today, a new trend is emerging. It’s an overcorrection to fundamentalism, yet in many ways reflects it. Whereas fundamentalism leans so far right it becomes rigid, this new faction leans so far left that everything becomes relative. One focuses on standards, the other on feelings. One is concrete, the other is ever changing.

Some equate what I’m describing with ‘Progressive Christianity.’ Just as I would never lump all conservatives together with fundamentalism, I admire too many progressives to include them in this faction. I know many people who are ‘progressive’ in the sense that they reject the tenets of legalism and desire to see progress in advancing the cause of Christ. Therefore, without a proper label, I’m going to refer to this faction as the “new fundamentalists” (new fundies).

I’d also like to point out that this has nothing to do with age. The generational gap with the new fundies is expansive. Boomers to Millennials are joining the ranks of this noisy faction. Let me take a moment to brag on Millennials. I know numerous kingdom-minded, Jesus-loving 20/30 somethings. If I had time I would create a list of names and talk about the qualities of the young women and men effectively serving the church today. They get it. The church is in good hands with these up-and-coming leaders.

The issue with this new faction of fundamentalism is the same as it was with traditional fundamentalists: a spirit of criticism, antagonism, and entitlement. The new fundies want credibility without earning it. They demand their voice be heard even though their track record is marred with unfaithfulness. The spirit of this group is relentlessly hostile toward the traditional tenets of Christianity. Like the old-time legalists tied evangelicalism to right-wing politics, this new faction has married the leftist political agenda with their faith and in turn they are deconstructing traditional Christian values. Like many of us, they are reacting to legalism, and rightfully so. However, reacting and overreacting are two different things.

When you examine the ministries of these loud voices you discover an overlying theme: unfaithfulness and unfruitfulness. They loathe accountability and crave influence, which is why they thrive on social media. Social media is a dream come true for those who desire influence without achievement. It allows them to say things behind the veil of a computer screen that they’d never say in a face-to-face conversation.

For the past few years I’ve attempted to build bridges. I’ll admit that my interactions with some of these folks have been shocking and I’ve not always responded the best. I’ve never been more frustrated than I am dealing with this faction. In fact, I’d rather walk barefoot on shards of broken glass than interact with some of these folks. Sound familiar? Yes, dealing with them mirrors dealing with seasoned legalists. They say they want ‘conversation,’ but I’ve come to believe that’s a farce. Actually, they want to talk while you listen.

I’ve had some of these folks send me resumes asking to partner in ministry. Yet when I attempt to ask questions and check references it becomes obvious that they hate to be interrogated, especially by anyone in leadership. My attempts to understand their motives have gone unanswered. I’ve made personal calls, sent messages, and pleaded with them in an attempt to find a way forward, but to no avail.

They love to ridicule, mock, and poke fun at anyone who has the courage to stand on the classical traditions of the Christian faith. The new fundies scoff at authority and tear down those who don’t align with their agenda. They want to educate others on how to think properly about matters such as abortion, sexual ethics, gender issues, other religions, human constructs, heaven and hell, universalism, and the list goes on. They lurk in the shadows waiting to pounce on every conversation.

If traditional fundamentalism is a far-right, self-preserving, legalistic, rule-based approach to faith, then the new spirit of fundamentalism is a far-left, cheap grace, anything goes, ‘everybody’s okay’ approach to Christianity. Both are fallacies. The way of Jesus stands in the tension of the center, which is actually the most difficult place to stand. The cross is always in the middle. The centrist way is the way of Christ. It always has been and always will be.


(Source: Ongoing conversations with various leaders in the Church of the Nazarene)

5 Comments

  1. Actually Jesus was far less centrist that anything you describe…his attacks were against the religious elite, who, likely, would have written things against fellow Christ-followers as this blog post…

  2. The difference between a centered set and a bounded set is not whether or not Christ is in the middle–the difference is in the focus. A centered set has the crucified Christ in the middle and all make their way towards him. A bounded set, one defined by legalism, builds a wall to decide who is in and who is out. This wall must be guarded and this defense requires the defenders to turn their back on Christ. Christ is not a centrist–he is the center. People who remain the middle of two extremes are rarely crucified–those on the edges–especially the edges without power–are.

  3. You hit the nail on the head. I think this is perfectly reflected also in our politics these days. Deep polarization. It is no doubt the goal of the enemy to bring us to this point, the further he can divide, the weaker we are.

    For a long, long, long time I’ve stood somewhere in the middle–liberal “progressive” friends on the left, fundamentalist relatives and friends on the right. I’ve seen the chasm growing by the year and I feel more and more alone on the narrow precipice in the middle. I’m dumbfounded at how quickly they have adopted their extreme positions–again, something reflected in society in general.

    We need men and women, lay and church leaders like yourself, who will continue to stand even when the flaming arrows continue to lodge themselves in our hearts and homes.

    Peace be with you.

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