Why I Left the Fundamentalism of My Youth

This is not a rant. I’m not angry about anything. This is my story. The fact is… I have waited more than 10 years to write it. I do so now because of the repeated inquiries of others. I write at the risk of being misunderstood. I write with the hope that I may help others in their journey. I write with the hope that a movement I was once a proud part of can re-evaluate itself for the sake of the gospel.

I was brought up in a traditional, conservative, evangelical environment. I am thankful for much of what I learned in those surroundings. My biggest takeaway is that the teaching I was exposed to bore in me a desire to study the Scriptures.

island 2

John Donne mused that, “no man is an island”. It is my opinion that movements fall short when they see themselves in this way. That we are… the first… the best… the only. The longer I stayed within the walls of the Fundamentalism of my youth the more it felt like I was on island… theologically, sociologically and ideologically.

I knew from age 14 that I was called by God to serve others as a pastor. From that same young age (and even before) I knew that there were grave difficulties within my expression of faith. Early in the process I felt that it was my duty to help bring changes to some of those difficulties. For years I tried to work within the system.

Here is a rough timeline of my movements…

1984… felt called to occupational ministry

1988… graduated high school

1988… Bob Jones University

1990… travelled with Minutemen Evangelistic Team

1991… Northland Baptist Bible College

1993… served Chinese Gospel Church – IL

1995… Northland Baptist Bible College

1997… served Bethlehem Baptist Church – VA

1998… served Immanuel Bible Church – AZ

1998… decided to leave the Fundamentalist movement

1999… served Locust Grove Baptist Church – KY

2000… served The Chapel Evangelical Free Church – MI

2008… moved to GA to plant Process Church

Ultimately one day in 1998 I decided it was time. To say “one day” is really not fair. Remember I had been trying since age 14… for 14 additional years I tried. A friend of mine with whom I had many historically shared experiences felt similarly about them. He created a website that would allow for an exchange of ideas… a forum for discussion… or so I thought. I’m a reader. I enjoy putting my own thoughts into words (written & oral). So I welcomed the opportunity to have a safe place to discuss things with guys who were in the expression of biblical Christianity that I felt called to affect.

mirror sunglassesThe day I remember knowing I was done actually occurred during one of my quiet times with God. I was arguing with God. Pleading with Him. Asking Him to let me stay. But what I remember knowing is that it was time for me to leave… for two primary reasons… in this order. One, my attempts to affect change were turning me into an angry and cynical person. I couldn’t for the life of me understand why people felt so threatened by an idea that was outside their own understanding. Two, I knew in that ultimate moment that the Fundamentalism of my youth was just not ready to look in the mirror and be self-diagnostic about its condition.

Since that decision I have been able to maintain genuine friendships with people with whom I disagree on a variety of personal applications.

I have thought long and hard about the particulars of why I left. And especially as it relates to the second primary reason I left, there are three specific issues that caused me to make the second assumption that I did about Fundamentalism… its lack of self-diagnosis. I am not saying that every man in Fundamentalism is this way, but neither am I willing to agree that this ailment affects only a few on the fringe. In general I think these things are characteristic of the movement as a whole. They take shape in these three major areas:

Unintentional Ignorance

I mean this in the most literal way possible. I truly believe that motivationally there was zero intended maliciousness by the majority of my mentors and leaders. That said, there were unfortunate amounts of ignorance about many topics. I think much of it was spawned by generational ignorance and the difficulties associated with questioning people you love… especially when you think they might be wrong on a given subject. For instance I think the default position for many within in the movement is to turn their ear toward the loudest voice and subsequently adopt their position (often with little to no consideration of its rightness or wrongness). To illustrate that reality… I grew up thinking (and I use that term lightly)… I should say accepting the opinion of others that people in mainline churches and charismatic churches and almost any church that did not practice the way that we did were at best some sort of second class Christians… and likely were not truly converted followers of Jesus at all.

This also happened with the way Scripture was read and interpreted. I look back at some of my early sermons and I am horrified to read what I preached. An abundance of proof texting prevailed. Please understand that I am not judging anyone’s intentions in this. But I cannot tell you how many sermons I heard that waxed eloquent on a single verse that had little to nothing to do with the context of the overall passage surrounding it.

Confusing Ambivalence

Ambivalence is a state of having simultaneous, conflicting feelings toward a person or thing. This may be my most poorly titled objection. My choice is an attempt to again assume the best about people. But the reality of this issue is the ambivalent choices of endorsing & condemning the same people left me often confused and at times angry. Maybe a better title would have been “Selective Agreement”.

When the desire was to communicate authority on a given topic those in the know would freely quote the latest Evangelical voice… often even studying people or books written by individuals who would (in other contexts) be referred to disparagingly… or worse. I understood then (and now) their need to do this occasionally to demonstrate that they had not left behind what they call the “Doctrine of Separation”. Since leaving the movement I have enjoyed the friendship and fellowship of many who had previously been selectively demonized.

Another example of this reality was the handling of “Christian” athletes. When it served our purposes (i.e. we needed someone to come speak during a special emphasis Sunday) we would bring in the resident Christian who also happened to be a Chicago Bears player and conveniently dismiss any discrepancies in their lifestyle. This confused me as a child. It still does.

Presumptive Arrogance

Quite honestly I know this last one will sting the most. My intention is not to be hurtful. Those who know me will know this. Even as I type these words there is an ache deep in my stomach. But I cannot refuse to write about this. It has been the most harmful of my three greatest reasons for leaving. There is a dearth of desire to gain perspective from “the outside”. The thought from within seems to be that outside perspective is harmful to the purity of the movement. Therefore books read, conferences attended and circles of association must stay proportionately small.

To the same degree that I disconnected motive from my first reason I must connect it here. This arrogance takes place on a number of levels. The first place self-importance is evident is the leadership. Whether or not you prefer a top/down style, this is the only way within Fundamentalism. There is a major misunderstanding of the role in general and specifically the mode of leadership. Within this system leaders are meant to be followed not questioned. And any questioning is almost exclusively seen as insubordination. This is not a reality unique to Fundamentalism but one that is certainly characteristic of it.

A Final Word

Though I have personally moved on from the Fundamentalism of my youth, the odd thing is that I am probably technically-speaking more a Fundamentalist today than I ever have been. In fact I would say that strictly-speaking Fundamentalists would do well to return to a “Fundamentals-only” position. I don’t see this term surviving its negatively connotative modern definitions, but if it does it will most certainly come by way of a simplified Fundamentalism.

11 thoughts on “Why I Left the Fundamentalism of My Youth

  1. Hey Rob!

    Thank you for the article. One paragraph really jumped off the page when you said:

    “I grew up thinking (and I use that term lightly)… I should say accepting the opinion of others that people in mainline churches and charismatic churches and almost any church that did not practice the way that we did were at best some sort of second class Christians… and likely were not truly converted followers of Jesus at all.”

    I lived like that for years. I struggled believing that southern baptists even knew Christ many times. I believed there were saved people among them but majority were probably lost. I was arrogant believing that the fundamentalists were the only true church seeking to be truly faithful. I was a die hard legalist where even if the music of a church was questionable then I had to question their allegiance to Christ. Wow! What in the world was wrong with my head???

    Thanks Rob!


  2. Rob —
    Funny, I just don’t understand the term “Fundamentalism.” Not knowing any better, I looked it up on wikipedia and found various partial-definitions as broad as the entire protestant movement or as narrow as certain factions of the Presbyterian church. What exactly do you consider “Fundamentalism,” and who all falls under your umbrella of “Fundamentalist”?

    1. Hi Lila,

      It’s great to hear from you. As you well know, the danger with the use of many terms is that they often mean different things to different people. It is for that reason that I chose to refer to the Fundamentalism of my youth (as a clarifier). The brand of Fundamentalism that I grew up with is best associated with Bob Jones University in Greenville, SC. It was less about a denominational moniker and had more to do with believing the historic fundamentals of what it meant to be a Christian… usually followed by other non-historical tests likes the so-called doctrine of separation and the personal application of standards, etc. Hope this is a helpful clarification.

  3. In addition to “attacking” other churches who may worship differently, also colleges that did not conform to the BJU standard as I fully experienced when I transferred to the “liberal” school in the cornfield.

    Very well stated.

  4. Having grown up with you, I know all too well of what you write! Very well put. Another thing that bugs me is the focus on external conformity to rules (dress code, hair cut, no movie theaters or “rock” music, etc.) rather than asking God to transform one’s heart to obedience to Him.

  5. I agree with some of the others, Rob. You did a great job in writing this article.

    Those of us who were raised in the Fundamentalist movement have no question about how you define “Fundamentalism”. – we all lived it. I’m grateful that I have also been around former Fundamentalist leaders who were swayed for a short time but never forgot their roots and have, at the risk of losing many friends, been willing to change – to go against the crowd for the sake of the true Gospel. I, too, have read many articles about the “cult” of fundamentalism and the curse of its isolationist view. I applaud your efforts and your willingness to stand up for what you believe, go against the flow to reach your own generation for Jesus Christ.

    I support you with my love and prayers – you and your brothers and sister (and of course your mom and dad) have always had a special place in my heart!

  6. Okay, so “fundamentalism” is all about living by strict rules in order to prove your salvation? Is that it?

    So “Fundamentalists” are like modern-day Pharisees? They want to live their Christianity out in public, so everyone can see just how holy and righteous they are, and they tend to look around and judge other Christians based on their conformity to strict rules?

  7. Lila,

    You are confusing Lordship salvation with fundamentalism in your first paragraph. I will say that there are some arrogant fundamentalists that will question your salvation if you do not adhere to their rules.

    Your second paragraph tends to characterize in my opinion what many of them are. Many seem so bent on abstaining from all appearance of evil that they will require that females to wear skirts in a church bowling league. I have been with some that would even turn their TV down during a commercial because the background music had an electrical guitar and a drum beat. I seen one pastor extremely angry when he learned that someone in their church took their kids to see a Disney movie.

    When I left the fundamentalist church I was deeply shocked that nobody seemed to care. I didn’t inform anyone about my growing dislike of what I was seeing in the fundy movement. Not one of my so-called friends called and said, “Dave, missed you the past few Sundays. Is everything OK?” No, I did receive about 2 or 3 phone calls from a stranger in the church that was calling people to inform people what was happening on Sunday. Only when they found out that I was no longer attending that they wanted to pry me for info and then debate it. One man drilled my wife over the phone with 20 questions, “So is it the strict music, clothing, conservatism, etc that has caused you to stop attending?” He said that he was only curious and wasn’t looking for an argument. Once he learned the reason then he wanted to argue.

    I’m glad that I left is all I can say.

  8. Rob, like you I grew up in “Christian fundamentalist” circles. I was led to believe that the only “real” Christians were the ones in our small association. When I graduated from my Christian high school, I went to a slightly less strict school and God began to show me my pride and self-righteousness. Then I went to a state college and really began to see the lost world and to have a compassion for them. After that I went to one of the most legalistic christian colleges in the USA and God began to grow my heart in the dangers of Phariseeism. It wasn’t until I began working at my church that I really started seeing how deadly phariseeism can be. The KJV only theme came out and the “only” side was so loud and unChrist-like and the other side was so compassionate and forgiving that it was becoming really clear to me why Jesus was so very hard on the Pharisee crowd. (I had never really understood that before). Like you, I am thankful for the things that God taught me through the “fundamentalist” people that I grew up with and realize that God is growing many of them as well. I greive for those who were completely turned off from God because of this mentality (in them and me). I often wish that God would just make us act perfect on the inside and outside when He saves us – but throughout the Bible He uses flawed people and He has done so in my life as well. I still struggle against phariseeism in my life and hate it when I see it’s ugliness in my heart. Galatians was such an eye opener for me and particularly ch. 5 where it talks about the works of the flesh being obvious and includes in the list: hatred, fighting, jealousy, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambition, division and factions. These are opposite of the fruit of God’s Spirit and it is pretty evident that these are the very things that legalism brings out in people. I hold firmly to God’s word and am growing “in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.” I’m so thankful that God doesn’t give up on us. Thank you for this article – it really is spot on and a sweet testimony of your journey. thanks for sharing.

    1. Joy, wow! Thanks for sharing part of your story, too. What moved me most was the part you mentioned about beginning to understand why Jesus was so hard on the Pharisees. May we continue to reflect the spirit of Jesus even (especially) in the way we disagree and in so doing reflect the truth of Jesus that said, “Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.”

  9. Oh, and by the way the Christian collage I mentioned wasn’t either of the ones you went to – just so there isn’t any confusion 🙂 My husband went to one of the ones you mentioned and the fb page is where I found your article. Though I am not allowed to comment (not being alumni) I often enjoy reading the posts and comments there – so many are having similar journies and struggles and it is an encouragement to us to see God moving in their lives as well.

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