Saturday, May 5, 2007

Why I stayed in Fundamentalism.

I was once an active member in, what most would call, an abusive church. It was an "Independent, Fundamental, Bible-believing, Baptist Church". By the way, I still attend a church that describes itself thusly, but it's quite a bit different. This abusive church I attended met every single negative stereotype of which one could think. I heard things from the pulpit such as, "If a woman wears pants, she cannot be in fellowship with God", and, "If you use any Bible but the King James, you are not using a are being deceived by the devil with a liar's version that is straight from the pits of hell!", and of course, the ever-popular phrase used to guilt people into coming to every single "Church approved activity", "Your job didn't die on the cross for you; your family didn't die on the cross for you; Jesus died on the cross for you!". (That last one was a common phrase heard each time that someone missed a Wednesday evening service, or visitation, or a church picnic, etc). And of course, there was the standby message that was preached every time that somebody questioned the "man of God / God's anointed man" (the pastor)....the famous message about Korah withstanding Moses in the wilderness and God's immediate judgment on Korah and his followers. In this instance, the preacher is cast in the role of Moses and any who would dare question anything he says or does is Korah.

The pastor had set himself up as the "god" of the church, and the members of that church were somehow comfortable with it. The pastor had complete control of the finances. As a matter of fact, what finally sealed the pastor's fate was the revelation of impropriety with the money. Now there is another pastor there with the same carte blanche control over all aspects of the ministry - including the finances. Now, as ashamed as I am about this, I must reveal that I not only attended such a church, I was an Associate Pastor there.

As controlling and high-pressure an environment as this was, there was nobody who was made to stay there. Sure, if people left they might be talked about in a very mean way, but there was no brainwashing....people were there because they wanted to be there (myself included).

When I finally came to my senses, guess what I did? I left. I'll be honest, the experience brought me a great deal of grief. I saw the pastor bring in a "hit-man" (another preacher that unloaded on everybody with both barrels) the night that he announced his resignation. Nobody knew he was going to resign, but before he did he held an unofficial "vote of confidence". The folks who supported him were to stand up while the others remained seated. It was about a 50/50 split. The pastor told those who were standing to "mark those" who were sitting and then he read his letter of resignation. To this day, I'm not certain why that church didn't split.

When I left that church, I nearly left Fundamentalism for good. I'd previously been in an Evangelical church (SBC) as a Youth Pastor, and wasn't really interested in going that route again. I nearly went as far left as I could. I'll be honest, a place that didn't care how I dressed, what music I liked, what Bible version I used, whether or not I went to church regularly, how I felt about Calvinism, what kinds of words came out of my mouth, etc., was extremely appealing to me. The SBC church that I'd attended, while repudiating Warren's Purpose Driven model, was almost irreverent in their approach to worship. I certainly didn't want to go further left than that.

After much prayer, we chose to stay in Fundamentalism. I came to the realization that Fundamentalism wasn't the problem.....some self-proclaimed fundamentalists were. I found myself rediscovering historic Fundamentalism and moving further and further from the strand that has its roots in the Jack Hyles' end of the spectrum. I know many people who are still in that church - I love them. I pray that their eyes are opened and they leave. Ultimately, I pray for that particular brand of Fundamentalism to die a quick death. However, it thrives because people allow it to thrive.

I'm sharing this brief snippet of my personal experience to make a point. People get hurt...they have bad experiences. Many people are flat-out mistreated in these oppressive, deplorable places. Those people have some choices. They can:

  1. Stay because they like it. Some actually do like it, by the way. More power to them
  2. Stay and attempt to reform it. Lots of luck. Most of these places are generations deep into inbreeding and nepotism. How can you reform something that claims it can trace it's lineage back to the "First Baptist Church of Jerusalem - Jesus Christ, pastor". (I'm not making this up).
  3. Abandon it for worse error - albeit, less oppressive. This has been discussed ad nauseum at different places. If you're not already following the discussion, you can read some of it here, here (about 5 different threads worth of discussion), and here.
  4. Flee from it and join up with a Biblically-based church that embraces sound doctrinal and theological teaching.
I chose number 4 and have absolutely no regrets. We aren't hung up on non-issues like the Bible version debate, or whether or not women should wear pants, or "how long is too long" in regards to a man's hair. Instead there is a focus on doctrinal exegesis and educating members to avoid theological error. By the way, I've never been in a place that has such a striving for a common goal. There is a truer sense of family there than what I could have imagined possible in a church.

In short, I'm just trying to say that I'm thankful I stayed in Fundamentalism. As ugly an experience as my time in that extreme church turned out to be, I learned quite a bit through it all. Honestly, if I hadn't had that experience I'm not sure that I would have been as driven as I was to solidify biblical stances on the Bible version issue, soteriology, ecclesiology, and hermeneutics. I find myself somewhat thankful for the time I was involved with hysteric fundamentalism, but even more thankful that I'm out of that mess now!


Jim Peet said...

Thanks Ellis.

Glad you stayed. Sorry you had such a bad experience.

For me ... 35 years as a fundamentalist ... nothing close to your negative experiences.

For me ... I am a fundamentalist because of doctrine. I have never been in a highly controlled church situation.

God bless. Good article!!

Ellis Murphree said...

I'm thrilled that you've not had a bad experience during your considerable time in the movement. Unfortunatly, I suspect that your experience is not the norm.

I do want to clarify one thing from my article. I certainly hope that my decision to stay (as I painted it here) didn't come across as one that was "superficial". It goes without saying that my reasons for being a part of the ministry at the specific Fundamental Baptist Church which I now attend lie in doctrinal and theological agreement - not mere "commitment to a movement" or some other such motivation.

Old Dead Presidents said...

Hey, I think that I went to that church too. Now I attend a very conservative methodist church....Its not filled with the same spirit, and I mean that in both a negative and positive way.