What is a fundamentalist?

The following essay is written in to response to one of my church members who asked me to explain this issue.

What is a fundamentalist?

The word fundamentalist denotes a person who believes and lives by a basic set of principles for some field of belief.   There are fundamentalists in the fields of political theory, social science, finance, and education to name a few.  The word is frequently used with reference to religion.  There are Islamic fundamentalists just as there are Christian fundamentalists.  Fundamentalists of these religions are those who adhere to the strict core teachings of their religion.

Because of the simplicity of this basic definition and the widespread use of the word across multiple religions, the word sometimes causes more confusion than help.  Some who have previously identified themselves as fundamentalists are even abandoning the word because of the confusion.  For example Islamic terrorists are sometimes identified by news reporters as “Islamic fundamentalists”.  This is actually an accurate statement because the terrorists are simply following the core literal teachings of their religion.

Another example of confusion would be radical and heretical sects claiming to be Christian.  When David Koresh and the Branch Davidians hit the news in 1993 because or the Waco standoff there were news reporters who referred to the group as religious fundamentalists.     Groups like the Branch Davidians are in no way similar to Christian fundamentalists.

The word fundamentalist became a label for some Christians in the early twentieth century.  A battle was raging over the truth of the Bible and many formerly faithful pastors, churches, and denominations began to deny core doctrines of the Bible.  Things like the inerrancy of Scripture (belief that the Bible, in the original manuscripts, was without error), the deity of Christ, the virgin birth, the miracles of the Bible, and other important doctrines were abandoned.   These core teachings of the Bible became known as “fundamentals of the faith” and those who continued to believe these core teachings became known as fundamentalists.

This controversy created a break between two primary groups.   The conservative side eventually identified themselves as fundamentalists / evangelicals and they labeled the other side as theological liberals / modernists.  The fundamentalists believed that true Christians could not work together with the liberals because the Bible is clear that Christians are to separate from unbelievers and from false teachers. The liberal side proudly rejected what they considered the “unscientific” and “unlearned” beliefs of fundamentalists, and embraced modern science, humanism, and rationalism as their core beliefs.

This break didn’t happen all at once, but over a period of several decades.  For a while many fundamentalists who belonged to compromising denominations tried to remain a part of the denomination in order to purge out the false teaching.   Eventually denominations were split in two and new denominations and associations were started.  Many churches left their denominations and became independent of any denomination.

Another important word here is “evangelical”.  Early on, fundamentalists and evangelicals were the same people.   Evangelical was a term used to define someone who believed the true Gospel.  Today the word evangelical is a much broader term and the word fundamental describes a very distinct portion or evangelicals.

Around the middle of the twentieth century a movement began among some fundamentalists to work together with the liberals.  Those who advocated this change argued that it would not violate scripture to cooperate with liberals in order to win souls to Christ or in some way advance the cause of Christ.   Harold Ockenga, an advocate of this view, coined the term “new evangelical” in an address at Fuller Theological Seminary.   Today the term is used to describe a person who personally believes the fundamentals of the Bible, but does not separate from those who reject the fundamentals.

So the difference between a fundamentalist and a new-evangelical is separation.  A fundamentalist believes that God requires believers to separate, for all religious purpose, from those who reject the clear teaching of the Bible on the fundamental doctrines.

For example, a fundamentalist cannot work together with, or support the ministry of a man when it is clear that the fundamentals of the faith are compromised.  If there was a large multi church religious meeting being held nearby and a Catholic priest was asked to pray at the beginning of the service, it would be a violation of scripture for true believers to attend.    It would be a violation to attend if any person in the leadership of the meeting rejected any of the fundamental doctrines of scripture.

The debate today is over what we call secondary separation.  The question is this, “Must fundamentalists separate from new evangelicals?”   In other words, if another church holds to all the fundamentals of the faith, but they belong to a denomination that has pastors, churches, and schools that reject the fundamentals, should we fellowship with that church?  Traditionally, fundamentalists have argued that it is wrong to fellowship with this new evangelical because he is disobedient to the Scriptures in the area or separation.

In practice this separation can be difficult to apply.   While there are some obvious and clear people and groups to separate from, there are others that are not so clear.   What about sending children to a school run by a new evangelical church?   How about a marriage conference taught by a gifted teacher who does not separate as we would like?    What about buying and reading books produced by those from whom we should biblically separate?  There is much discussion and debate within fundamentalist circles over these types of things.  The decisions can be difficult and fundamentalists will come to slightly different conclusions.  However, there comes a point when a fundamentalist is no longer a fundamentalist because of his refusal to separate.  The defining difference between a fundamentalist and a new-evangelical is separation.

This little essay has probably raised more questions than it has answered.  I have tried to summarize the situation historically and presently.  Much more could be said to describe this situation and many books have been written.  Also, I have not attempted to give a biblical explanation of separation here, that is a topic all its own and will need to be tackled separately.

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