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Between Two Extremes: Liberalism & Fundamentalism

September 24, 2007
S. Michael Craven
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The latter half of the 20th century has seen the emergence of two extremes in the American Church and its relationship to the culture – liberal revisionism on the one side and conservative fundamentalism on the other. Both, I contend, have hindered the work and ministry of the Church. One renders the Christian faith meaningless while the other makes it irrelevant.

Liberal revisionism has capitulated to contemporary culture and with it many truths of the historic faith. Liberal revisionism ultimately renders the Christian message meaningless by reducing Christ to anything you want him to be – there is simply no authority in this view beyond your own preference and cultural whims. My concern herein however is not for liberal revisionism but conservative fundamentalism, which has become the predominant view. Additionally, unlike liberal revisionism, conservative fundamentalism remains Christian but a distorted version of it that is often difficult to distinguish. A recent conversation with Os Guinness offers this further insight:

Fundamentalism has become an overlay on the Christian faith and developed into an essentially modern reaction to the modern world, a reaction that tends to romanticize the past … and radicalize the present, with styles of reaction that are personally and publicly militant to the point where they are sub-Christian or worse.

I think Os puts this well when he describes fundamentalism as “an overlay” which, as a result, has captured the thinking of many unwitting Christians. This is frequently expressed in terms of conservative politics, Christian nationalism and what one Evangelical writer revealed when he referred to the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount as “Americanisms.” Being Christian and being American are often thought to be synonymous.

Practically, these expressions are manifest in the almost exclusive reliance upon coercion and politics as the means and method of bringing culture under the influence of biblical principles. The idea is that if “we” can only capture political control we can bring about cultural change in a way that recovers biblical values. Cal Thomas refers to this as expecting the “Kingdom of God to arrive on Air Force One.”
This is, in large part, inspired by a romantic, but inaccurate, view of the past in which we believe that America was once a distinctly “Christian nation” and from the time of our founding has suffered the linear descent from once Christian to now secular. There is no doubt that secularism has achieved its pinnacle in our time, however this does not mean that Christianity was the singular prevailing reality that occupied its place prior to this point. More accurately, the Church in America, much like the Israelites of the Old Testament, has been cyclical with periods of spiritual apathy punctuated by periods of great Awakenings and faithfulness. A serious survey of history will quickly confirm this. Consider that on the eve of the American Revolution, church attendance in this country was less than 10 percent, significantly lower than it is today. Nonetheless, driven by a romanticized view of the past, there is the desire to recover this past but this is often nothing more than a conservative social/political movement with a shallow Christian identity.

To be sure, Christians should be involved politically. This is part and parcel of being a good citizen within a democratic republic. However, Christianity is not nor ever should be defined politically—it is and always must be defined theologically and confessionally. This is where these two extremes share an equal role in undermining the Church’s mission. While liberal revisionism errs in defining Christianity culturally, conservative fundamentalism errs in defining Christianity politically, which is often limited to nothing more than conservative political positions. To be sure, these may tend more toward biblical values than the liberal position but neither political expression is absolutely right or absolutely wrong.  They, in and of themselves, are not the source of truth—they are merely political positions that must be tested against the truth of Scripture. Ironically, politics has never changed culture as politics is a reflection of culture not vice versa.

The ultimate effect of conservative fundamentalism upon the Church is one of cultural irrelevance. Fundamentalism tends to see the world as something to oppose rather than to engage and influence. As a result there naturally follows a disregard for anything deemed “worldly” and this includes among other things, intellectualism. Fundamentalists will say “The only book I need is the Bible” and thus remain uniformed about the world and incapable of meaningful influence. This same attitude is expressed toward the study of theology and Church history, which results in a sophomoric theology -- wholly inadequate to shape a coherent biblical response to the complexities of life and culture.

Fundamentalism inevitably reduces the Christian faith to a simplistic set of behaviors and the emphasis tends toward legalism and personal piety -- it remains a private belief and not a public truth to be pressed into every aspect of life and culture.  Additionally, with the emphasis on external behaviors, (i.e. sin management) there is little effort applied in the converting the human heart and mind with all of its wretched attitudes. This theological myopia has been central to the deplorable lack of a consciously Christian life and worldview among so many professing Christians as documented by George Barna and others.

Additionally, this “opposing” posture is inherently adversarial, inciting an “us versus them” mentality rather than an “us for them” attitude. This mentality can even be seen in much of the Church’s approach to evangelism, which often treats the gospel message as an argument to win. In such a state, the Church is polarized against the culture and the “Good News” is reduced to a “sales pitch” often relying on high pressure and committed to closing the deal. In many instances the gospel is subtly defined in terms of “happiness,” which is not even the true gospel. Gone is the demonstration of the gospel where the Christian is encouraged to “love his neighbor” and then through the course of a, possibly long and at times difficult, relationship, disciple him or her into the truth. This is the Great Commission and it remains unchanged to this day.

Fundamentalism is not only antagonistic to the world but often toward other Christians as well. Fundamentalists tend to view anyone outside their particular tradition or beyond their theological distinctions with suspicion at best or as outright unbelievers at worst. The result is increasing division within the Body of Christ over what often amounts to non-essentials.

Liberalism won’t press the kingdom in the culture because it has surrendered to the culture; it is of the world, and Fundamentalism won’t because it is not in the world but rather opposed to it. What is needed is a return to the historic Christian position of being in but not of the world. This position requires that we do the hard work of renewing our minds to form a coherent and comprehensive view of life and reality through the lens of a distinctively Christian worldview—being confident in the Truth. It also means that we endeavor to understand and engage the culture in a humble and intelligent way so that we might reach the lost and suffering with the reality of Jesus Christ.

© 2007 by S. Michael Craven

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Response from : John McCracken  

September 23, 2007 7:01 AM

Once again, Michael, you hit the nail on the head! Can I quote this in my sermon this morning? This fits right in with the conflict between the Pharisees (fundamentalists) and Sadducees (liberals). The Gospel of Jesus is neither, but something altogether different. Thank you for yet again another excellent article.
John McCracken

Response from : Forrest Jackson  

September 24, 2007 11:10 AM

I like it. I live in Dallas, TX - the heart of Fundamentalism and I find myself marooned from secularism and adrift from the Christian community a bit. Your conclusionary paragraph was well worded and poignant. It would seem that we must ask ourselves nowadays, "who stole my Christianity?" Fundamentalism is like a runaway train. Conversely though, secularism never offers such a level of self-criticism. Just some thoughts.

Response from : Bob Soule  

September 24, 2007 2:46 PM


I find that people's faith and reliance on God's Word is wonderful, it can also reflect intellectual laziness. Especially in this world where busyness is the order of our lives. There just is not enough time is what many say. I have found it takes a lot of research and time to prepare yourself to answer the secular humanists. I am brought back to Paul's statement: "To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win Jews. To those under the Law(though I myself am not under th law), so as to win those under the law." (1 Corinthians 9:20) The big question is are you trying to win them for the Lord?

As Brian Brown (former director of the Family Institute of Connecticut) told us at a rally in defense of marriage in Connecticut, that the Bible is irrelevant to 98% of the citizens in my state and you must provide valid arguments outside of the Bible which there are many; why homosexual marriage is bad for the family. Unfortunately, there has been willful ignorance on the opposing side to ignore the science.

Peter tells us: "But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect." (1Peter 3:15)

So I keep taking the time to research and it has only increased and strengthened my faith. Man's reason over God's reason? I will take God every time.

Response from : Wanda M  

September 24, 2007 11:20 PM

I really liked this article. I am a born-again Christian. Jesus is my Lord and Savior and no other. I am 52 years old with a husband and two grown sons, therefore I have been around the block a time or two, and I have lived long enough to see what has happened to the America I grew up in. Times have changed. It doesn't take a genius to realize this. All one has to do is watch ten minutes of the evening news to observe the state of this great nation. I don't have to tell you that the "signs of the times" are all around us.
The local church has become more of a social gathering place than a place of worship and prayer. I have become very dissolutioned with what is happening within the "Body of Christ." There are way too many "wolves in sheep's clothing" grazing weekly among God's flock.
Nevertheless, as a Christian, I desire to be obedient to God's Word and be a light to the world. To live the life of Christ, before others, the best I know how so as to not bring reproach against Him or His church.
In conclusion, for me to live in this world, as a born-again believer, and feel a part of it and befriend it and think that I will not be contaminated by it, this is an illusion. Too many believers think they are o.k. to have one foot in the world and the other in the church. God said, "I'd rather you be hot or cold, because if you are lukewarm I will spew you out of my mouth." Jesus said, "He came not into this world to bring peace, but that through Him it might be saved." Serving Christ isn't all about feeling happy and good about oneself all the time and getting rich. Time is short and there is much to do. The harvest is great, but the laborers are few, indeed.
So, Bro. Mike It's not that I am against the world, quite the contrary, I am for it in so many ways. But "praise the Lord" I am just passing through...this world is not my home.
God bless you and thank you for listening.

Response from : Charles McDowell  

September 25, 2007 7:37 AM

I have generally admired your articles. However, this one is pure, unadulterated, ivory-towerism. You do not give specific examples of these two scapegoats that you fear. So I will just give it an intellectual "ho hum."

Response from : Rebecca Elliott  

September 25, 2007 9:58 PM

How old are you? You sould like someone who sees the sun for the first time and thinks that he's the only person whose ever seen it. If we do not fight for "right" in the political arena, we won't have anything. If we don't fight against abortion, embryonic stem cell research, and cloning then we will have cheapened life. If we elect liberal politicians and they appoint liberal judges then we shouldn't be upset when they make it illegal to pray in schools. Wake up before we lose the freedoms that are so precious to us. Our government is of the people, by the people and for the people. If we refuse to get involved then we get what we deserve.

Response from : Alan Garner  

September 25, 2007 11:01 PM

Response to article on Fundamentalism

Great article! Originally, Fundamentalism was a theological and confessional response to the Modernism/Liberalism that had spread through the mainline denominations in the early 20th century. The book set entitled "The Fundamentals" was published and distributed with donated funds and was a cooperative effort among mainline denominational pastors and theologians. But after WWII, I submit that fundamental churches and organizations were swept up by the cultural wave of American triumphalism and consumerism (success and security) that followed our victories over Germany and Japan. We had vanquished evil and emerged as the World power-both politically and economically. We had left our agrarian ways and had mastered the science of mass production. Pastors started wearing business attire to look "professional". Church became all about numerical growth and success (production-more buildings, baptisms, and money in the budget) instead of personal discipleship (following Jesus) and community service (demonstrating Jesus). Even church members had to dress the part-of middle class success. We abandoned the inner-cities, denied our racism, and fled to suburbia to wait for Jesus to return. The Great Commission was overshadowed by "fighting" Communism, long-hair, rock music, feminism, abortion, the Democratic Party, the Gay Agenda, and now Militant Islam - because to be "American" is to be right-wing, Republican, pro-Israel (hate Arabs), anti-gay and to heartily declare "God bless America" and "Jesus wants me rich!" This is not true Fundamentalism or Evangelicalism (standing on God's Word and declaring the Good News), but a perversion of the Gospel of Jesus Christ that our Lord has already condemned (see Revelation chapter 3) and will spit out of His mouth. God desires us to mature and grow into the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ - not the American caricature of Jesus that is shamelessly peddled in Christian bookstores and promoted on Christian TV. Only the real Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will draw all men to Himself. He was the Suffering Servant (Is 51) who rebuked the disciples for their arrogant obsession with success and power and called them to take up their Cross daily and die to reach their generation with the message of God's love and grace. Neither the cultural accomodation of Liberalism nor the cultural antagonism of Fundamentalism accurately portray Jesus to our World. He was the Light that shined in the Darkness. He was "full of Grace and Truth", while living among our graceless humanity. He was a friend to sinners, who Himself was holy, yet harmless to them. Though he was God, he became our servant and humbly died in our place to forever demonstrate God's extreme Love for humanity. It was that sacrificial love that convinced a young woman from Thailand to abandon her Buddhism and embrace Jesus as her Lord. Before she died of cancer, she told me that it was the fact that God only had one Son-and had sent Him to die for everyone on Earth-that drew her to follow Jesus. And she did follow him in life, suffering, and death as she praised Him for His Grace. That's the Gospel that we must proclaim and the Savior that we must worship. May God help us to abandon cheap substitutes and proclaim the glorious Gospel of Jesus our Lord!

Your brother in Christ,
Alan Garner

Response from : Laura Pimentel  

September 26, 2007 1:34 AM

Be careful with your comment against people who say the only book they need is the Bible. If it really came down to all you NEED, it WOULD be the Bible. Any other of Satan's lies, and there is nothing new under the sun (Ecc. 1:9), can be measured up against the truth of scripture and found to be a lie by the power of the Holy Spirit--more powerful than any intellectualism.
Another caution: the Great Commission is to GO into all the world, PREACH the gospel, BAPTIZE, and TEACH people to obey everything Christ commanded (Matt. 28:19), including the "new" command to love one another as Christ loved us (John 13:34). Loving our neighbor goes back to the OT and seems to be defined by the Good Samaritan story as anybody nearby enough to help. There are still those who will oppose the gospel no matter how intellectual or loving or spiritually convincing we are trying to be because of dark forces, hardened hearts, etc., but we continue to do what God wants us to do such as loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us (Matt. 5:44).

Response from : Mark Clemons  

September 26, 2007 6:52 AM

Great insight into the realities of the modern evangelical church in America. Too bad so few can't realize that they have fallen into the trap of conservative fundamentalism at the expense of the true gospel, as evidenced by some of the responses above. And, thank you Alan Garner for your added illumination. Clearly there are some Christians who still think!

Response from : Kevin George  

September 26, 2007 9:03 AM

Hi Michael,
I enjoyed and agree with your article very much. I have come out of a radical fundamentalist past and still have several in my family caught in its trap of spiritual arrogance. Your article is well written. I will pass it on. Thank you for your ministry. I read most of what you send and I certainly agree. Kevin George

Response from : julius  

November 29, 2007 9:07 PM

Lumping all fundamental Christians together and identify them with a political party makes you miss the numerous new testament churches who are indeed "in the world but not of it." they affirm that Christ's kingdom is not of this world but seek to do good while on their way to heaven. You miss the truth that the gospel is good news and salvation from sin, not nessarily from social ills. You talk of relevance? what could be more relevant in the heavenly terms but the salvation of souls from sin's bondage and penalty. you have been so taken up with this world's terms that you dismiss as irrelevant those whose audience is God and the heavenly angels, not the world's passing ipinions and judges. The believer's center is heavenly Jerusalem, not hollywood or the UN.


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