Fundamentalism May Feel Safe, But It’s Shortsighted

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As a new believer converted during the Jesus Movement, I soon found myself ushered into a narrow fundamentalism.

It wasn’t my pastor or home church that led the charge. Neither knew what to do with the growing number of new believers. But a small group of fundamentalist-minded Christians circled around me and others.

In part, I’m thankful that 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).

But without realizing it, the fence of fundamentalism restrained the joyful, welcoming spirit that had been evident when we first experienced the power of the gospel (Gal. 5:1; Rom. 15:7). This brand of fundamentalism—an ecclesiastically separatist movement arising in the mid-20th century—fed a pride which was at the root of an emerging anti-catholic spirit.

Even with the right stance on inerrancy and the call to holiness, Christian Fundamentalism can draw narrow boundaries around fellowship that are not found in Scripture. They point to the gospel for entry into the faith, but then they rigidly insist upon certain beliefs and practices for sanctification and association.

Fundamentalism comes in a variety of strains. My group of friends were initiated into the one enamored with dispensationalism, especially its version of premillennial eschatology. Instead of focusing on the means of grace to grow as disciples, dispensational eschatology became the proving grounds for biblical orthodoxy and genuine Christianity. Unless a person knew the right terms and followed the right charts, they were suspect, if not considered outside the faith. Never mind the fact that these views didn’t show up until the late-nineteenth century. Instead of studying historical theology, we read Scofield’s notes.

This variety of fundamentalism began to squeeze the life and joy out of my new faith in Christ. Jaundiced toward any church or pastor in the community who failed to tow the dispensational line, I focused less on the power of the gospel to save sinners and more on the narrow bent of dispensationalism and its accompanying legalism. That one could be a Christian without embracing these fundamentalist categories seemed preposterous to me.


What moved me away from fundamentalism? It wasn’t a rejection of biblical inerrancy. If anything, my growing conviction of Scripture’s authority pushed me away.

Initially, the lack of joy in Christ sank me. So I turned to the Word. As I did, I found difficulty matching my fundamentalist ideology together with a sound interpretation of God’s Word. The narrow views of Scofield and his heirs seemed to validate the natural, carnal man; they rely on hermeneutical twists to justify their dispensational eschatology. As I realized this, my confidence in dispensationalism eroded. I also discovered warm-hearted, passionate followers of Jesus who didn’t hold my narrow fundamentalism.

All this worked together to liberate me. As I read the Word, discovered the richness of church history, and started to think theologically, I realized that I had been acting as the judge and jury of other people, rather than as a humble, forgiven sinner. Simply put, my cocoon of fundamentalism did not stand up to scrutiny.


Among the more disturbing aspects of fundamentalism is its failure to understand the church’s catholicity—that is, its “temporal universality” of belonging to the same body and adhering to the same gospel as the apostles.[1]

I remember attending the local Methodist church one Sunday as they recognized my Boy Scout Explorer Post. I felt uneasy being in a church that gave no attention to my brand of Christianity. When it came time to recite the Apostles’ Creed, something I’d never done before, I smugly skipped, “I believe . . . in the holy catholic church.” How could one acknowledge the Catholic Church in a Protestant worship service!

Of course, if I spent more time studying church history, then I would have gladly confessed the church as catholic. But my dispensational charts didn’t teach me anything outside my “safe” fundamentalist harbor.

This is a small story, but it exposes a lethal aspect of fundamentalism: a growing narrowness that shuts out fellow believers. It admitted no one else to the kingdom.

By the grace of God, however, liberation came by the Spirit’s work through the Word.


Why is fundamentalism not a safe harbor when it comes to the Bible’s teaching on the church?

First, fundamentalism adopts an individualistic faith while neglecting the corporate emphases found in Exodus 9:1–5, Ephesians 4–5, 1 Peter 2:1–10, and 1 Corinthians 12.

The priesthood of all believers doesn’t refer only to me, or only to the believers in my church, or only to the believers who share my view on second- and third-level doctrines. As Michael Reeves observes, such a posture is “unevangelical individualism.” It fails to value the unity of the gospel found in the church’s creeds and theologians. Creeds and theologians don’t replace Scripture, he adds, “but it would be decidedly foolish to ignore them and fail to heed their wisdom. . . . Without a keen awareness of where the church has always stood, the mood of our age—and how we might succumb to it—will be far harder to see.”[2] Fundamentalism blinds us to healthy catholicity and theological error due to pride in a sterile, tightly-packaged belief system.

Second, fundamentalism elevates “secondary matters to an unwarranted primacy,” to borrow a phrase from Albert Mohler.

It is “illustrated most centrally in the elevation of dispensational eschatology to a place of first-order significance.”[3] This consequence affects catholicity too. The rich diversity of the body of Christ gets rejected by a late-19th century eschatological view. The idea of the Lord hiding these views for 1800 years from the people he redeemed should shake anyone who embraces them as possessing “first-order significance.”

Third, fundamentalism makes secondary and tertiary issues essential to relationship with God and authenticity as the church.

Fundamentalism’s eschatology and separatism subverts God’s gift of grace and perseverance through Christ. This subversion fails to acknowledge that the church “stands by God’s election,” as Calvin wrote, and is “joined to the steadfastness of Christ, who will no more allow his believers to be estranged from him than that his members be rent and torn asunder.”[4] Fundamentalism moors the church to faulty berths, allowing churches and individuals to drift into needless divisions that hinder the rich fellowship and gospel partnership that could be theirs.

In my early fundamentalist days, some teachers equated one’s standing with God to one’s eschatological position. Not even Scofield would have countenanced this idea. Yet that’s the problem with certain strains of fundamentalism. Its adherents tend to go further than their instructors. The self-righteousness it generates clouds the mind to humility and grace, in turn distancing Christians from the sweetness of fellowship with Christ and his multi-ethnic, multi-generational, and multi-cultural church. Paul counters this logic in Galatians 3:26–29:

For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.

Notice that Paul doesn’t say anything is said about narrow separatism or eschatology as the mirror of the soul. “In Christ alone” marks the boundaries of true catholicity. Calvin corrects the fundamentalist spirit of separatism when he writes,

For here we are not bidden to distinguish between reprobate and elect—that is for God alone, not for us, to do—but to establish with certainty in our hearts that all those who, by the kindness of God the Father, through the working of the Holy Spirit, have entered into fellowship with Christ, are set apart as God’s property and personal possession; and that when we are of their number we share that great grace” (italics added).[5]

Those who are in Christ, even when secondary and tertiary issues differ, are God’s gift to one another in the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.”

* * * * *

[1] Mark Dever, “A Catholic Church,” in Richard Phillips, Philip Ryken, and Mark Dever, The Church: One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic, 67–92.

[2] Michael Reeves, Gospel People, 115.

[3] Albert Mohler, “Reformist Evangelicalism: A Center Without a Circumference,” in Michael S. Horton, A Confessing Theology for Postmodern Times, 132.f

[4] John Calvin, Calvin’s Institutes, 4.1.3.

[5] John Calvin, Calvin’s Institutes, 4.1.3.

Phil Newton

Phil A. Newton serves as director of pastoral care and mentoring for the Pillar Network after pastoring for 44 years, the last 35 at South Woods Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee, which he planted in 1987.

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