If I haven’t worn you completely out on this topic, bear with me once more as I wander through a few more thoughts on the Evangelical/Fundamentalist divide. As I related last time, many scholars cast the divide along the fault line of ‘truth’ and ‘spirit’. In this understanding Fundamentalists concentrate on truth to the exclusion of spirit and evangelicals concentrate on spirit to the exclusion of truth. Also, as I related last time, I believe that any effort to have one (truth or spirit) without the other is bound to end with having neither. But, I’m less than certain that this understanding really frames the divide between Evangelicals and Fundamentalists.
I remember one cartoon picturing a labeled Fundamentalist pointing to a labeled evangelical. The speech blurb above the fundamentalist read – “I’ll call you a Christian if you’ll call me a scholar!” I’m pretty sure that doesn’t really capture it either. Certainly, Christian Modernists hold Fundamentalists to be ignoramuses but Christian Modernists are only a sub-set of Evangelicals. I can only say that I have seen what I regard as both good and bad scholarship as well as deep and shallow faith in all camps.
If I have to pick a ‘Mason/Dixon line’ for the Evangelical/Fundamentalist divide it would concern the always necessary balancing act the church has to maintain between ‘in the world’ and ‘of the world’. The New Testament acknowledges that the church is ‘in the world’. Of course we are! But the very name ‘church’ (Ecclesia) is compounded of ‘ek’ (out) and ‘kaleo’ (called). The ‘called out community’. Called out of what? Well, called out of the world.
But – in Jesus – God entered the world. And in the Great Commission He gave us a mission to the world. And we live in the world. And Jesus was about opening the closed gates and inviting the world in. All true. But ‘of the world’ is something else. Jesus objected to the legalism of the Pharisees but he still worked with them and gained followers from among their numbers. Jesus had no tolerance for or outreach to the worldly collaboration of the Sadducees. In all His outreach – and Jesus reached deep into the world – He was calling people out of the world and into a kingdom ‘not of this world. This would not have been possible had Jesus become ‘worldly’.
Hence the New Testament continually urges us to stay clean of the stain of the world, to live in the world without becoming of the world, etc. Here is the balancing act – reaching into the world and ministering to the world without getting sucked in by it. When the stark difference between the world and the church disappears it means either that the promised New Earth has arrived or that the present world ate the church. In this moment, it would mean the latter.
Evangelicalism made Christianity ‘relevant’ to the rapidly changing modern world. Many people believe in a new wave of evangelicalism ushering the church into the information age the way the old evangelicalism ushered the church into the industrial age. But in either case, there is the implicit danger that the church will rush past relevance to the world and become like the world and thus, no good for the world. Fundamentalism sought/seeks to bar the door against this. But if evangelicalism contains the danger of the worldliness of the Sadducees, Fundamentalism contains the danger of the legalism of the Pharisees. This too will create a church that is no good to the world.
As I have said – it’s a balancing act and we tend to lurch from error to error. I still know which way my instincts tend, try to guard against the inherent dangers, and recognize those who must guard against the opposite dangers of their instincts as my brothers. And I praise God that He redeems our works cause elsewise, we’re all toast.
Pastor and Author Terry Bailey, Senior Minister of Indian Run Christian Church