Sunday, August 26, 2007

Is it really supposed to be like this?

I’ve said on several occasions here that I love Fundamentalism – or at least the idea of it. As one who is inside the movement (though not an “insider”) I’ve often felt compelled to critique and criticize the movement as a whole. In my most recent post on Fundamentalism I mentioned some of the things that are “strengths” of the movement – I did so to assure folks that I don’t hate the entire movement…I’m just grossly dissatisfied with much of it. In this post I will spell out some of my real quibbles with the movement as a whole. I’ll be taking a different approach to this than I did in the last critical article I wrote.

I despise having to be a Fundamentalist with an asterisk. When in conversations with other believers, Fundamentalists can’t simply say, “I’m a Fundamentalist”. We have to explain what type we are, or rather, what type we are not. For instance, there is the Bob Jones type, the Jack Hyles type, and the SharperIron type just to name a few. I don’t fit comfortably into any of those “types” (although I suppose I’m closest to the latter of the three). I am a Bible believer. My Bible study has led me to embrace the Baptist “religion”. I am also a firm believer in the autonomy of the local church. I am also a separatist (I’ll explain what I mean by that later). These are the primary aspects of my faith that have led me to stay in the IFB movement. The IFB movement is a Baptistic movement of autonomous churches who practice separation in varying degrees. So far, so good….but the problem with any grouping of men is that it gets screwed up – this has certainly happened in IFB-dom. I’m going to focus on a few examples of this through this post, beginning with one of the biggest issues within the IFB movement.

Separation from theological error is commanded in the Scriptures. Separation from doctrinal liberalism is necessary and righteous. Separation from others within the Body of Christ over peripherals is, in my opinion, sinful. One of the biggest problems in IFB-dom is this: we separate over EVERYTHING! Churches who believe in “closed communion” will often separate from churches that don’t. I’ve seen churches separate from other churches over music. I’ve seen churches separate from other churches over Bible versions, dress standards, church government, “alien” baptism, and very minor doctrinal quibbles. I’ve seen churches and individuals separate from other churches and individuals because of association. There are people who will separate from somebody (or some church) for fellowshipping with a church or person who once co-sponsored or otherwise endorsed a Billy Graham crusade. If you think I’m kidding, you need to look no further than John MacArthur and the Grace Community Church. Many in Fundamentalism have drawn battle lines regarding him. Why? Two major things: Lordship Salvation and MacArthur’s fellowship with men like Al Mohler, who is the President of SBTS (the home of Graham’s school of evangelism). Separation from Mohler is a given – simply because of his “close association” with Graham.

When it comes down to it, we can (and have) found “reasons” to separate from nearly everybody. Our practice of separation is highly inconsistent and unbiblical. While one of the great hallmarks of historic Fundamentalism is this thing called separation, we have taken it to an extreme during the last 60 or 70 years. We’ve spent so much energy concocting reasons to separate from anyone who is a little different that we have managed to render ourselves completely irrelevant to the world. That brings me to my second point.

Giving the separation issue a run for its money as the title holder for the biggest problem within the movement today is our lack of relevance in our culture. The term “culturally relevant” is almost a curse word in much of our movement. We’ve managed to take Scripture passages like Romans 12:2 and apply them in such a way that we are not only separate from the world, we are completely uninvolved. While we will generally shrug this off and piously say something like, “Christ said that we shouldn’t marvel that the world hates us”, perhaps we should be marveling that the world has no idea who we are. The main reason Fundamentalist churches grow is because we really like to have babies! As a general rule, we don’t like to reach out to the folks in our community who are truly desperate. How many homeless ministries, addictions ministries, divorce ministries, and public school outreach ministries do you know of within Fundamentalism? How often do you hear of a local Fundamentalist church who responded to the community in time of crisis? I don’t mean opening their doors for shelter, or giving out some food, but absolutely leading the charge?

There was a tragedy here in Kansas earlier this year when a town was completely leveled by a tornado. The following Sunday, the entire community had a sort of “joint worship” time outside. It was to be a time of prayer and praise…a great opportunity for the local IFB church to show Christ to their community. All the churches – along with hundreds of people who weren’t typically in church or were in town helping with the cleanup – gathered…with the exception of the little IFB church. Their little congregation met in their little building down the street from the rest of their community. What a wasted opportunity, and what a pitiful display of Christian love.

Unfortunately, that example is par for the course within our movement. To us, the term cultural relevance conjures up some very negative connotations. We would rather shelter ourselves from our culture than engage it. Somehow, I don’t think the typical IFB church is the church that Christ wants it to be.

As long as I’m on the subject of “relevance”, I might as well bring up another of my biggest complaints about the movement. To put it frankly, the liturgy employed in the typical IFB Sunday morning church service is horrible. We do everything we can to keep folks from “feeling” anything during the service. In IFB-dom, we absolutely refuse to engage the emotions (unless it’s time for the invitation). We actually insert “breaks” (offering, announcement, etc.) into the service to ensure that nobody is getting too “emotionally involved” in the worship service. We have two great mantra’s regarding music in Fundamentalism: “Music is to prepare the heart for worship”, and “Once the music goes, the entire church goes”. I'll briefly examine the first of these two statements. The second isn't worth a discussion...

Music is to prepare the heart for worship”. I wonder where this concept was developed? We could look at many passages to dispel this myth, but I’ll just cite one: Psalm 95:1-7a,

“Oh come, let us sing to the LORD; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation! Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise! For the LORD is a great God, and a great King above all gods. In his hand are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also. The sea is his, for he made it, and his hands formed the dry land. Oh come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the LORD, our Maker! For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.” (ESV)

In this passage it appears that singing, praising, thanking, and worshipping are all happening together. We don’t see music as preparing the heart for worship; rather it is an expression of worship. I’ll resist my urge to cite the many passages regarding praising God with all manner of instruments and dance….

My point to all this talk about the liturgy is this - why are we so afraid to engage the mind as well as the emotions in worship and praise to our great God? While the service shouldn’t be denigrated to some emotional orgy, we should strive to provide a place where the people are encouraged to become emotionally involved in the worship service. In IFB-dom, however, we tend to discourage that. There is no applause; there is no clapping; there is no raising of the hands. While there are occasional “amens” and “hallelujahs”, even those are strangely reserved.

I’ve got more to add to this, but it will have to wait. This article is already much longer than I had planned. I’ll close by saying that I hold little hope that the bulk of the movement will experience a reformation. Even the small percentage of IFB churches out there that are more “progressive” still seem to struggle in these areas of engaging the culture and being relevant. I take encouragement from the fact that there are IFB churches out there who seem to be “turning the corner”....slowly but surely. Many of our best and brightest, however, are leaving for Evangelicalism. It's possible that someday I'll feel more comfortable with the label “Conservative Evangelical” than I do with the label “Progressive Fundamentalist”....time will tell.


Don Johnson said...

Hi Ellis

Well... too much in here for a comprehensive comment, but I thought I might offer you a few observations/questions:

First, with respect to the MacArthur situation, do you think the separation is simply one-sided? That is, it is just those mean fundies separating from MacA, that there would be no problem if they just wouldn't be so contentious? My perception is that the separation is mutual, that MacA has no wish to involve himself with fundamentalists and is quite uncharitable towards them as well. (See my post from last week on one item in particular.) There is a long history to this, grievances on both sides.

Second, on relevance to culture, what is that exactly? In your example, I don't quite get what the benefit of participating in a joint community service would be. Would anything have changed in the community if the Independent Baptists had participated? Highly unlikely. Were the IFBs involved in helping their neighbours cleanup or with other needs after the tornado? If not, they should have been, you are right. But I fail to see what a 'joint service' would accomplish.

On the third topic, I am not much for liturgy. The Christian church has historically centered its worship around preaching. When the liturgy becomes the focus, the preaching goes wobbly. I actively discourage clapping for a couple of reasons: 1. When it is applause, it is misplaced. We are here to worship God, not applaud a performer. 2. When it is clapping with the music, it is either distracting or too self-centered, or both. Of course, that could be just me... I can't keep time to save my life...

Anyway I do agree that fundamentalists (as all others) make mistakes in the way they serve God. The Lord knows I have made my share of mistakes! But the main responsibility I have is for my own ministry. I am not particularly worried about the issues that might arise in other ministries, except as they might affect me and my ministry. There are times when I might have to decide whether to participate in one fellowship or another or not. There are some meetings that I don't have time for. There may come times when I will stop having time for a fellowship I am currently involved in (hopefully not).

But I don't get too worked up about the idiotic errors of others. I have plenty of my own to worry about.

Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Ellis Murphree said...

If you’re not going to agree with me, I’d prefer that you not respond to my posts :)

I’ll attempt to address your comments one-by-one and in the order you raised them. I appreciate your perspective here, Don.

MacArthur - of course there are disagreements on both sides. My point is simply that we (the movement at large) have separated time and again over very small things. Perhaps Dever or Mohler would be better names to throw in this mix?

Cultural Relevance – specifically, the example I cited regarding the tornado earlier this year….I’m not certain what the benefit of attending a joint community service would have been, but I do know what the cost of not attending said service was. Terms like “isolationists”, “islands unto themselves”, “legalists”, etc., not only continue to be tossed towards us….the terms now have some legs to them. This isn’t about the "joint service", per se; it’s about a wasted opportunity to say, “we’re in this together.”

Liturgy - every church employs some sort of liturgy. The IFB liturgy is just weak. Our worship should be centered around Christ. We do that through singing, praise, testimony, observance of the Lord’s Table, preaching, offering, testimony, and possibly other things like responsive readings. Centering the worship service exclusively around preaching is a tad misguided, in my opinion.

Applause, etc. I’m by no means suggesting that we should applaude a performer. We already do that – the louder the “amen”, the better the performance was. I mention applause simply to bring up the point of “liberty” and “freedom” in the way we express our appreciation for what God is doing for us.

I doubt you’ll agree with me any more than you already do, but hopefully this (very brief) response helps to explain a little better what I’m saying here. Thanks for your last paragraph+. It’s difficult for me (at times) to not focus on all the little issues happening elsewhere and personalize them.

Don Johnson said...

Hi Ellis,

Well, it's not so much disagreeing, although at some points I do. But I guess it is what I have said to lots of guys in the last ten to fifteen years or so... I saw a lot of pettiness in fundamentalism when I was a student and my early days as a preacher. The pettiness bothered me then (and still does) but in the end, I came to the conclusion that I was either going to be in or out of fundamentalism. I choose to stay in. I think fundamentalism is right on the big issues (including the Mohler, MacA, etc., more in a minute). But the petty problems I have decided to overlook since I can't do anything about them (usually). I don't go to every fellowship, I don't support every joint effort in our area, etc, as I said before.

Now as to the Mohler/Dever, etc crowd. I want to reiterate first that separation is happening both ways - they are as much not with us as we are not with them. The issues here are for the most part not petty, although they may not appear as evidently as issues with, say the United Methodists or the Episcopalians would. To sum up briefly, I would say that they have made their philosophy manifestly clear and it isn't a fundamentalist philosophy. So I don't buy in, although they do say some useful things once in a while.

The thing about your tornado service... who is making these accusations? Professing Christians? I would tend to think so. The lost would probably not even notice. Have any of those who make the accusations taken the trouble to reach out to the independent Baptists, or are they just making accusations and criticisms? Is their attitude any better?

Of course, I don't know the situation, you obviously know it better than I do.

Anyway, hang in there. The alternatives are not that much more promising. May the Lord come quickly.

Don Johnson
Jer 33.3