Saturday, July 24, 2010

Should the church challenge Christian fundamentalism?

This is a sensitive subject because the mainstream churches want to be tolerant and accepting of difference, but at the same time the activities of Christian fundamentalists impact negatively on mainstream Christianity.

In many ways interaction with fundamentalist Christians is like interfaith dialogue because what they believe is very far from the historical beliefs of the Christian church. For example, fundamentalism tends to be unjust and confrontational which is quite different to most Christian’s understanding of the teachings and example of Jesus.

What is Christian fundamentalism?
Fundamentalist evangelical Christianity is a 19th century religious movement with its roots in the USA. It originates in a list of “fundamentals” of the faith which can be found here.

In its modern form its general identifying features include:

  • Belief in the inerrancy and infallibility of scripture.
  • The Bible is taken to be literal regardless of the genre of writing of the passage being read.
  • Some fundamentalists hold that the Authorised Version of the bible is the only true preserved word of God.
  • Belief in dispensationalism including the special place of Israel in God’s plans and the imminent return of Christ via the rapture.
  • Growing adherence to Jewish festivals, Hebrew biblical names and dietary laws.
  • Some fundamentalists are charismatic but some are cessationist.
  • Great emphasis put on sexual morality (abstention before marriage and the condemnation of homosexuality).
  • Lack of interest in “good works” except where they are likely to lead to new converts.
  • Belief in young earth creationism.
  • Rejection of ecumenism and sometimes even isolation fro other fundamentalist groups.
  • Rejection of theological education and a detachment form church history and tradition.

How big is the challenge of fundamentalism?
There is a perception that the number of fundamentalist Christians in the UK is increasing, but I am not sure this is the case. Its a complex picture which contains a number of elements (listed here in no particular order):

  • As church attendance has fallen evangelicals and fundamentalists have become a larger part of what remains while still being of a similar numerical size to previously.
  • The increase in Christian television channels has given fundamentalist ideas a wider platform and greater currency. There are currently 16 Christian channels on the Sky satellite TV platform and 14 of these hold strongly fundamentalist positions.
  • Whilst there is anecdotal evidence of a decrease in the number of congregations within mainstream denominations who permit fundamentalist ideas the number of independent churches, especially in the west African immigrant communities, has increased.
  • The collapse of the Christian Bretheren in the UK and their members assimilation into Baptist and Independant Evangelical churches has caused their theology to become more mainstream.
  • Fundamentalist ideas are closely associated with the political right in the USA and they have mastered the use of the Internet to make their ideas appear more mainstream than they might otherwise be.
  • Strong connection between popular conspiracy theories and similar theories put forward by well known fundamentalist writers and speakers (e.g. the secular anti Europe feelings and the wish to maintain the pound, and the fundamentalists being opposed to Europe because they see it as  a recreation of the Holy Roman Empire).
  • The Internet and Christian Television has allowed individual church members to be influenced by apparently persuasive arguments outside the community of their own church and the influence of a theologically trained minister.
  • Declining church attendance has caused some churches to look at successful American churches and duplicate their methods and theology while funding from US based Christian organisations to UK based evangelical groups has encouraged them to become more open to the ideas of their benefactors.

What is the nature of the challenge?
Fundamentalist Christianity in the UK is quite small, but its influence greater than its size.

One example of this is the promotion by fundamentalists of young earth creationism. Prior to 1990 in the UK this was not something given much prominence in conservative evangelical circles. It did exist in some of the smaller groups like the brethren but during the early 90’s it started to spread. “Creation Science” was said to be able to prove that God existed by proving the truth of the bible. The argument went like this: “if the bible is true about creation then it must be true about everything else therefore God exists”. It doesn’t take much examination to realise that that statement is illogical. Even if the creation story in Genesis was found to be compatible with observable facts this would not have any definitive bearing on the veracity of the rest of scripture. Not withstanding the illogicality of this argument the fundamentalists pushed ahead in the 1990’s and created the very hammer with which the new atheists would later attack the church. All the atheists had to do was reverse the argument: “If the creation story is proved to be false then the bible is not true and there is no God”.

Another example is the blanket condemnation of homosexuality even though a literal reading of the bible’s references to homosexual acts show them to be only condemnatory in certain circumstances (e.g. if they are between people who do not have a homosexual nature or between teachers and pupils - something common in Greek culture of the time). The fundamentalist interpretation relies on a non literal interpretation of the texts in the original languages which is a strange reversal of the fundamentalists normal belief about biblical interpretation. In Christian fundamentalist ethics it often appears that the bible is used simply as a reinforcement of a previous moral zeitgeist rather than as a way of illuminating how people should treat each other.

Why do mainstream churches seem to be avoiding the issue?
It is very difficult for the mainstream church to enter this debate because it does not want to be seen as critical of other people’s faith, especially when that faith is superficially so similar to their own. There is also the risk that criticism by moderate church leaders would be seen as persecution by the fundamentalists. Fundamentalists view criticism as persecution and persecution is clear  evidence to them that they are doing the right things. The more a fundamentalist is criticised the more they believe they are correct. Mainstream churches are also seeing some growth at their Conservative Evangelical fringes. Whilst these members are not fundamentalists there is reticence to be seen as critical of evangelical ideas which on their own are not necessarily harmful. Another reason for the lack of criticism is that an increasing number of fundamentalist churches are from the African immigrant community. There is a reticence to be seen as critical of them in case this is viewed as racial discrimination, imperialism or simply cultural insensitivity.

How can mainstream churches address this?
I have no simple answers, but I can see paths by which they could start addressing the issue.

One option is for churches to treat Christian Fundamentalism as a different faith from mainstream Christianity and deal with it on an interfaith basis. This would allow it to be questioned and challenged while still retaining respect for the fundamentalist position. Previously its been quite easy for debate to turn into shouts of “fundie” which is something that does not happen in interfaith dialogue. Treating it as an interfaith issue would enshrine a respectful attitude.

There also needs to be open debate within mainstream churches on the wider fundamentalist issue rather than the narrow hobby horses of science vs religion and ethical issues like homosexuality. The divide really originates from different understandings of the atonement and the purpose of the bible (rather than its textual mechanics). Discussions about these sort of issues might discourage the pull of some people away from an orthodox position towards fundamentalism.

Christians need to get more involved in presenting their faith through online media. Not necessarily in debate or interaction, but in simple expressions of how their faith affects their lives. This has tended to be the monopoly of fundamentalist blogs and discussion boards. Look up any theological or biblical issue on a search engine and it will be mainly fundamentalist sites in the results. This balance needs to be redressed.

Theological education is also an important factor and mainstream churches should encourage the education of the laity so they can explain their holistic understanding of the bible and gospel message. One method of doing this might be to run events and classes which are open to the wider public. This will be of benefit to the churches in their mission to the world as well as a defence against fundamentalism.


  1. Dear Gordon,
    I have to take issue with a great deal of the content of your blog here, before it misleads a lot of people unnecessarily. There isn't a great deal that I can find in your comment, that I can agree with unfortunately, though I would hope to agree with some part somewhere?
    First you start with labeling a part of the church with a negative association, even using the word 'negative' to describe it. Your next statement misleads the reader to give the impression that what you describe as 'fundies', departs from the early church, which it doesn't, however you use the ambiguous term, historical, which includes everything from the upper room, the Spanish Inquisition, to the 19th century Anglicanism, each of which departs from the faith as delivered by Jesus and Paul.
    You then followed this by a strange accusation that what you call fundamentalists, are 'unjust' and 'confrontational' - a characterisation that holds no more validity than saying that liberal anglicans all engage in sexual immorality and debauchery...there may be some that do each of these things in each camp, but lets not tar everyone with your same brush! In reality, it is of course you that has accused, been confrontational and unjust by your comment, though it is unclear if you are a fundamentalist or a liberal!

  2. You then say that fundamentalists behaviour is "different to most peoples understanding of the teachings and example of Jesus"! When you say 'most people', we should immediately realise that most people are not Christian in the first place, secondly, those that are, but claim to be 'orthodox' or 'liberal', may in some cases, be so far removed by the religious packing of centuries of historical additions and intellectual theology, that your statement may be much more valid if applied to them.

    You then attempt to 'define' what you refer to as 'fundamentalism', yet assume that the reader accepts an undefined notion of what constitutes your 'mainstream' version of Christianity! Here, I believe you are making some fundamental mistakes yourself.

    Firstly, mainstream Christianity includes what you refer to as fundamentalists, because mainstream Christian faith, refers to the commonly held or main doctrines of Christian faith, such as the virgin birth, the crucifixion, the resurrection, the giving of the Holy Spirit at pentecost and the early church as defined by Paul in the epistles. This is actually what mainstream means. Versions of Christianity or churches which do not include these elements of doctrine and faith, which are by definitions, Fundamentals of the Christian faith, cannot be included in any description of what is 'Mainstream Christianity'. Interestingly, this would exclude those who do not believe in the virgin birth, the crucifixion and the resurrection, among those who refer to themselves as 'mainstream' but liberal or even orthodox. You should have really started off your blog by defining what is 'Mainstream' and then work outwards from there to discover what is not 'mainstream'!

  3. Your list of 'modern form of fundamentalism' is also very misleading in the extreme.
    - the infallibility of scripture is a Roman Catholic position, first and foremost. It is also held by a large section of mainstream Christians.
    - The Bible is taken to be literal regardless of the genre of writing of the passage being read = No, this is not a correct statement about fundamentalists, who attend Bible Colleges where they are given instruction on exegesis and hermeneutics. What you regard as fundamentalists, practice the reading of the Bible 'rightly dividing the Word of Truth', understanding the origin, cultural context, the historical and prophetic.
    - Some fundamentalists hold that the Authorised Version of the bible is the only true preserved word of God.- some orthodox pray to Mary and the saints, but this should not be associated with them all! Your example does not merit an essential fundamental position...many would prefer to use the oldest Greek texts instead!-Is

  4. Irael in God’s plans and the imminent return of Christ via the rapture.- if you don't believe these 2 items, then you are simply in a state of unbelief and denial of the Word of God, where there is no mistaking the intention of scripture on either of these points, unless you have simply not studied the Bible properly.

    # charismatic - if you have not accepted the charis of the NT teaching, then you are simply in denial of scripture. It has nothing to do with 'fundamentalism'!

    # Great emphasis put on sexual morality (abstention before marriage and the condemnation of homosexuality). - Again, read the NT as all Christians have to, to receive the teaching on sexual morality! If this is fundamentalism, then the opposite of this is simply unbelief and disobedience, not orthodoxy.

    # Lack of interest in “good works” except where they are likely to lead to new converts.- again this is untrue. What you call fundamentalists are doing 'good works' all over the world, simply because that is what Jesus taught.

    # Belief in young earth creationism.-there are of course various forms of belief ranging from literal creationist interpretations, to evolutionist interpretations, with shades in between. Fundamentalists also occupy this spectrum, as do orthodox and liberals.

    # Rejection of ecumenism and sometimes even isolation fro other fundamentalist groups.- Ecumenism cannot lead to greater engagement with spiritual truth, unless it fully engages with the scriptures as delivered in the New Testament. Without this, ecumenism will lead to scriptural and moral departure from the faith delivered to the Church by Jesus and Paul.

    # Rejection of theological education and a detachment form church history and tradition.- again, fundamentalists, attend Bible college with probably greater enthusiasm and application than many of their more orthodox counterparts. They learn not only different theological positions, but church history and traditions. Yet they come back to the scripture and not as Jesus said, 'the teachings of men', found in the 'intellectual' forms of theology, which depart from the faith delivered in the N.T.

    Your reference to homosexuality which you purport to be acceptable in 'certain circumstances' according to the NT, is totally misguided. You should never ever tell anyone that sin is acceptable to God, since if you do, then you will be guilty of the sins you have encouraged them to do! No where in the NT, is there any precedent for saying that homosexual relations are accepted by God, or an acceptable Christian morality. The NT makes it very clear that all sexual relations outside of a man and a woman who are man and wife, constitutes, sin that a Christian must repent of. St Paul makes it very clear that some of the early church were practicing homosexuals BEFORE they repented and received Christ, but that after receiving Christ, they were no longer homosexuals, but a 'New Creature in Christ'. The NT makes it clear that Christ shed his blood for such sins and that by his blood, people were healed from homosexual practice.

  5. What you say about fundamentalists is undoubtedly true for some. I know many well educated and reasonable fundamentalists. I used to be one myself, but my point is that the trend is towards a distrust of education and towards injustice. Its also my contention that this is a visible change which I have observed over the past 20 years. Fundamentalist Christianity has got tighter and tighter over that period.

    Just to clarify: when I mentioned sexual morality I meant an overemphasis on this at the expense of other areas of morality.

    I believe that this trend in fundamentalism (which is gradually subsuming conservative evangelicalism in Britain) is damaging and divisive as well as bringing the idea of faith into disrepute.

  6. Dear Gordon,
    Thank you for my posting and your reply. If I may answer your response - If we were to investigate those who you refer to as 'fundamentalists', who distrust education, I strongly suspect you will find that such people would be in the category of those who would not avail themselves or take advantage of education, even if they were not Christians. Such people are more likely to be found in the underprivileged sector of our society, not in the affluent or middle classes, where education is considered an essential for today's citizen and in some cases, a life long process. I therefore think that this characterisation is unfair and has more to do with social class than the Christian faith.

  7. Regarding the 'injustice' that you mention, you cannot be walking with God, if you have an unjust attitude or practice injustice. Micah 6:8 tells us we are to "8 He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God". You stated that fundamentalists use all scripture 'literally', but if you were correct, a fundamentalist cannot do so, if he violates this instruction to 'act justly'. Neither can he do so when he reads the gospels, where Jesus gives his most important instructions, to 'love God' and 'love your neighbour' - a literal fundamentalist would have to follow this instruction and reject all injustice.
    Again, from my perspective, injustice is not the monopoly of fundamentalist Christians, but is a phenomenon more commonly found amongst the middle and wealthy classes of luke warm, religious people, many of whom associate with liberal, traditional anglicanism, and orthodox churches. The reason this happens is sadly because in these types of churches, where in many cases there is a social religiousity prevailing, personal social standing, ambitions and personal comforts can be more important to their adherents, than taking up the cross and surrendering all to Jesus. The result of people whose de facto motive for attending church is to improve their own lives, is unregenerate spirits and lives which are not awakened by the call of God to seek out and give generously to the poor, nor to preach the gospel as commanded by Jesus, to the unsaved. This constitutes the kind of injustice that both Jesus and the Bible teaches against.

  8. As for those 'fundamentalists' who cannot see injustice or their own errors, these too are religious people, who equally make religion serve themselves, rather than walking with God, but they do not have the monopoly on injustice among professed Christians, since fundamentalists as you claim are a minority in society. Regarding 'bringing the faith into disrepute', this is being done admirably as we speak by circles quite outside of fundamentalism, in fact the biggest promoter of disrepute in Christianity, is not fundamentalism, but the orthodox and liberal circles of the church, including Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism. Both of these circles have allowed the church to be in disrepute because of sexual immorality, particularly in respect of peadophilia, but also in adopting an acceptance of practicing homosexuals as priests and bishops. There couldn't be more damage caused by these events and nothing that fundamentals do, has matched this level of disrepute and farce.
    'Conservative Evangelicalism' will itself only survive, if it returns to the call of Jesus, to take up the cross and surrender all to Him, and preach the gospel to every fact, it will only survive all the onslaughts that it is facing from every quarter, by becoming more 'fundamental' or serious about God and commitment to Him, rather than personal comfort. Short of this, I predict that what I suspect you mean by 'conservative evangelicalism' will not survive into the next century.

    Lets face some realities here, instead of fighting among ourselves! Remember that Jesus said, 'a house that is divided against itself, will not stand!'
    The real challenges or threats that your church faces, do not come from Christian fundamentals! The real threat is the lack of commitment amongst 'evangelicals', the wealth of society, the technological revolution and medicine that mean reliance on prayer to God is subsumed by reliance on man, secularism, humanism, and last but not least, Islam.

  9. Gordon: I think you are absolutely right in what you say about evangelical fundamentalism. I had never thought of approaching that wing of Christianity from an "inter-faith" perspective. Considering that is how many Christians of that school approach liturgical and mainline churches, such as mine, the Lutheran church, that might be just the ticket. It has been hurtful and insulting on a number of occasions to approach a conversation thinking I was talking with a brother or sister, and to be treated, in return, as an unbeliever. If we reframe the conversation from the perspective you suggested, dialogue might be more fruitful.

  10. Love the article and your penetrating insights.

    Approaching literalists in terms of interfaith dialogue makes total sense to me. I keep running across people online who say they're Christians but are following an entirely different - and very unattractive - faith they seem to have cobbled together.

    What tickles me is that most of the replies you've got are grumpy ones from pretty much the viewpoint you've just described, and all of them denying it exist...

  11. "Both of these circles have allowed the church to be in disrepute because of sexual immorality, particularly in respect of peadophilia, but also in adopting an acceptance of practicing homosexuals as priests and bishops."

    Well, I'd agree with you re paedophilia, but that has to do with wanting to save face rather face the issue. As for gay priests, I see nothing wrong with them, a few isolated out of context cut-n-pasted verses from an ancient bronze-age document notwithstanding.

    Fundamentalism is one of the main reason people stay away from the church in droves. Can't say I blame them.

  12. The reason why the mainstream church doesn't want to challenge fundamentalist Christianity is because it is useful to them. After all they don't want the under class, working class, ex cons and recovering drug addicts cluttering up their nice pews but they don't want them on the streets either. Even some atheists proscribe religion to undesirables with anti social behaviour as a cure for it and by that they mean conservative christianity.

    In the same way environmental groups think of the extremist wings of the eco movement such as Earth First as 'useful' in that they do their dirty work for them, getting what the mainstream green campaigners want without having to chain themselves to diggers and risk arrest.

    What the mainstream churches should do is be aware of fundamentalism be it Calvinist or Penetecostal as they are of other religions and the new age so that they can help those who have unwittingly got caught up in fundamentalist churches. There are wierdo type fundamentalist lurking in most churches apart from liberal ones who are out to poach to their churches or to convert them to fundamentalism. It's called 'waking up the dead churches'.

    Ignore fundamentalist Christianity at your peril as it has the potential to be almost as dangerous as fundamentalist Islam.

    At least the liberal denominations such as the URC and the Quakers are aware.

  13. I agree that there is a mistrust of education in fundamentalism but it's something that the middle class leaders in a hypocritical manner impose on working class people who are local to the church and who are less well educated to stop them bettering themselves.

    Most working class people want to better themselves and learn skills from taking a basic computer course to studying for a degree. You may hear the expression 'a little knowledge is worse than none' in evangelical churches. This is said to dissuade people from embarking on a new course of study because to have a lot of knowledge and expertise on a subject you have to start with a little knowledge. Cannot see anything wrong with being widely read but fundamentalists tend to divide their followers into groups with specific skills to mimic the division of labour in industrial society which is now old hat.

    I don't know how to repair my bicycle properly but I do know how to do basic jobs so that I can get myself home and to a cycle shop for a professional repair and service.

  14. People in mainline churches who come across and snooty and unjust are like that because of their social class and where they live. It's in spite of their religion not because of it whereas fundamentalists lack social awarenesses because of their religion and despite their social background and domicile.

    Therefore there is hope for those middle class people in mainline churches. All they need to do is become more aware. They may carry out good works albeit in a patronising non inclusive way but its more than what the fundamentalists are doing and it's a start..

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