Fundamentalism’s Silent Moderate Majority

//Fundamentalism’s Silent Moderate Majority

Fundamentalism’s Silent Moderate Majority

In the first article in this series I spoke of the legacy that the early fundamentalist movement has left to the evangelical church and suggested that conservative evangelicals enjoy better days today because of the fundamentalist struggle. I still believe that, and in later articles I will show the benefits and blessings of fundamentalism in North America and around the world.

Before I get to that, I want to address one of the most complicated aspects of fundamentalism— the negative, oppressive atmosphere in the movement—and to determine whether that negativity and oppressiveness is real or perceived. It is certainly real to some if the “neo-fundamentalist defection” is a reliable barometer.

I know many moderate men in the movement and from their actions and attitudes it would be impossible to perceive that there was anything wrong in the movement such as I have discussed in these papers. And yet the general opinion of many on the outside of the movement is not good, and if many people feel that way there must be some foundation for it. Why is that so? Why is fundamentalism viewed so negatively while many within the movement are actually moderate and mild-tempered?

Dr. Kevin Bauder is one of those moderates and perhaps the most prolific writer within fundamentalism today. He is Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Minneapolis. In his contribution to the Counterpoints Series, The Spectrum of Evangelicalism, Bauder gives a candid description of where he feels fundamentalism is today. Towards the end of his presentation Bauder identifies eight incriminatory characteristics of what he called “hyper-fundamentalism”:

  1. Loyalty to an organization, movement or leader. Anyone who criticizes the organization, or contradicts a leader is subject to censure or separation.
  2. A militant stance on some extra-biblical or anti-biblical teaching; for example, those who teach that the King James Bible is the only acceptable English version.
  3. Understanding separation in terms of guilt by association: “To associate with someone who holds any error constitutes an endorsement of that error.”
  4. “Hyper-fundamentalism is characterized by an inability to receive criticism,… by an extreme defensiveness.” To the hyper-fundamentalist any criticism constitutes an attack.
  5. An anti-intellectualism; “some hyper-fundamentalists view education to be detrimental to spiritual growth.”
  6. Non-essentials are turned into tests of fundamentalism; “one’s fundamentalist standing may be judged by such criteria as hair length, music preferences, and whether one allows women to wear trousers.”
  7. Hyper-fundamentalists often treat militant political involvement as a necessary obligation to the Christian faith. In the 1960s and 70s it was anti-communism but now many hold anti-abortion and anti-homosexual activism to be a necessary obligation to their faith.
  8. Hyper-fundamentalists sometimes hold a double standard for personal ethics. Some things are permissible in their ecclesiastical warfare that would not be permissible in ordinary life. They may employ name-calling, half-truths, and innuendo as legitimate weapons.

I don’t want to critique Dr. Bauder’s assessment of fundamentalism—at least not yet—but after presenting a more moderate position as, what we might call “received fundamentalism,” and after calling the hyper variety a “parasite on the fundamentalist movement,” he continues by saying this:

Hyper-fundamentalism now constitutes a significant percentage of self-identified fundamentalists, perhaps even a majority. They have become the noisiest and often the most visible representatives of fundamentalism. They may be the only version of fundamentalism that many people ever see.

I have a lot of respect for Dr. Bauder. His abilities are varied and impressive. He preached at my graduation from Geneva Reformed Seminary and, although I don’t always read it, I subscribe to his In the Nick of Time blog with good intentions. However, it seems to me that if these eight characteristics identify the “majority” and the “noisiest” and the “most visible representatives,” then we must be looking at main-stream and not hyper fundamentalism.

It should not surprise us that fundamentalism is viewed as the parasite on evangelicalism if hyper-fundamentalism—the parasite on fundamentalism—is the “majority” and the “noisiest” and the “most visible representative” of fundamentalism.

Take for example the American Council of Christian Churches (ACCC, a multi-denominational umbrella organization), and the Independent Baptist Fellowship of North America (IBFNA). Both of these are major representative organizations of fundamentalism. After Bauder published in the Counterpoints Series the ACCC issued a resolution that, while it didn’t name him directly, it cited his chapter and made it clear that it disapproved of his participation in the Zondervan project. Dr. Kevin Hobi, an executive member of the ACCC, publicly wrote against Bauder in The Review (March 2013, Vol. 21, No. 3), an IBFNA publication. In short, the problem for these institutions, was Bauder’s “associational compromise” with other contributors. The ACCC did revise its resolution to something more moderate after Bauder answered his accusers in his In the Nick of Time blog. My point is, however, that they were critical of a fellow ACCC member and demonstrated such a negative spirit towards his participation in the project.

It is no surprise, then, that fundamentalists are viewed as contentious when organizations with such a wide public influence condemn one of their own—someone who is less extreme than they are—because they view him as a threat to the integrity of the movement.

There is another reason, however, a more subtle reason why fundamentalism is viewed with such contempt. It is because the vocal minority, the radical, nitpicking, enth-degree separationists speak for fundamentalism and fundamentalism lets them speak for it. Consider this in three steps.

First, the rightwing extremists (the “hyper-fundamentalists”) are the most vocal and most visible representatives of the movement.

Second, the silent moderate majority holds to the truth and is happy to just do the work of God without raising concerns and without upsetting the fundamentalist applecart. Their silence may seem commendable to some. It appears to be the more gracious option, the peace-keeping, conciliatory way forward.

Third, the silent moderate majority offers the hyper-fundamentalist a certain protection in times of crisis. Fundamentalists tend to circle the wagons to support their own no matter how aberrant in theology or practice they are while at the same time they are willing to attack others on the outside for a lot less. When push comes to shove, the silent moderate majority will invariably favor the extremist fundamentalist if it is a choice between him and a more moderate, or even a more faithful conservative evangelical. The reason for this is simply to protect fundamentalism, as Bauder points out in his first point.

For many looking on this constitutes agreement with the extremists, perhaps even a wall of protection or at least a buffer. Individuals are being hurt, and the whole movement is identified by the vocal minority and the majority in the middle acquiesces by its silence.

The safest course for the fundamentalist is to protect the movement and such protection of the movement often trumps truth and honesty. The same protection is not offered to the more progressive individual because he is viewed as a threat to the movement—we saw this in the ACCC’s attack on Dr. Bauder.

The grassroots people see these inconsistencies. The young men coming up see them also and they don’t like it. It limits personal spiritual growth, it stifles the spirit of the Reformed principle reformed and always reforming, and it does not allow for acceptance of others. It creates an oppressive atmosphere. Dr. David L. Burggraff told us this way back in 1995: “Young soldiers are reluctant to enter the battle where they fear they might be mistaken for the enemy and shot by one of their own.”

The silent moderate majority has been silent for too long on the “excesses and vagaries,” to quote Dr. Beale again, and have recoiled from speaking out against those who have been acting uncharitably against the body of Christ or those who have been guilty of behavior not becoming of a Christian minister—because they are on the inside. This ongoing silence, which has in effect protected the extremist and his excesses, has caused irreparable damage. One wonders how far the “double standard for personal ethics” that Bauder speaks of has gone at times and indeed how charitable Bauder has been in his choice of words.

Back in 1988 the fundamentalists were all over Dr. John MacArthur for his views on the blood and the nature of the atonement. Some of the wording that MacArthur used was a little unfortunate and gave a handle to his opponents, but he was for the most part teaching the same truths as the Reformers and Puritans—that the references to the blood are a “metonym for the sacrificial death of Jesus”—the blood sacrifice.  This was the teaching of an overwhelming majority of conservative commentators prior to DeHann’s curious teaching in his Chemistry of the Blood published in 1943.

I remember back to the later 80s and early 90s when books, tracts, and magazine articles were being circulated denouncing MacArthur for his views. The anti-MacArthur bandwagon had started rolling and the fundamentalists had jumped on with little or no historical research or exegetical insight.  MacArthur was branded as an enemy of the gospel and in some quarters of fundamentalism an unsaved man!

About the same time as MacArthur was in the cross-hairs of the fundamentalists Dr. Jack Hyles, whose preaching was shallow entertainment at best and at worst a satire on the gospel, was still well received among fundamentalists. This was despite the fact that there were some serious questions regarding his theology and that he was ministering under a cloud of allegations for sexual immorality.

Hyles PublicationsCassette tapes of his sermons were being exchanged, his books were in circulation, and his sermons used in fundamentalist pulpits. Even into the 1990s I had friends who, on trips to America, would stop in to hear Hyles preach live. What is worse, by 1998-99, when I came to do research for my college thesis, I wrote Hyles along with a number of other evangelical and Reformed leaders for primary source material. I was acting in ignorance of his sexual immorality and in naiveté regarding his ability to expound the gospel. My point is that he was accepted at the time as a fundamentalist even with all his theological and moral aberrations.

In the 2011 Preserving the Truth Conference, Doctors David Doran, Mark Minnick, and Kevin Bauder among others, engaged in an interesting discussion on aspects of fundamentalism. During that discussion the topic of the fundamentalist tendency to protect its own came up. Doran made this comment:

We have tolerated aberrant doctrine and immoral behavior in the larger movement, in a way that, in times parallels what they [conservative evangelicals] have tolerated for greater good causes.

When Minnick challenged him on this, he responded:

Jack Hyles preached … in the pulpit in Greenville [SC] … well after he had preached the eternal humanity of Jesus Christ, well after people had suspicions about his moral behavior…. Now I don’t think we’re all culpable for that. But my point is to say … we hold them [conservative evangelicals] all culpable for the glitches on the other side.

You see the point—the inconsistency of the fundamentalists in protecting their own and ripping others into little pieces for lesser sins. Hyles, with all of his aberrant theology and his sexual misconduct, not to mention his empty gospel, was accepted because he was “one of us” while MacArthur was attacked because he was “one of them.”

Robert L. Sumner, in his online fundamentalist paper The Biblical Evangelist, wrote concerning the labyrinth of sexual debauchery that Hyles constructed around himself while he was enabled by some to keep the lid on it:

What can Fundamentalism and Fundamentalists do? For one thing, we can start standing up for what is right and opposing what is wrong, even—or especially—in our own movement. Perhaps we should forget the liberal Presbyterians and the compromising Convention Baptists for a season and concentrate on setting our own house in order.

This is why fundamentalism has a bad name: we have been so concerned about others that we have ignored our own vineyard (Song of Solomon 1:6). The silent moderate majority has kept silent; there has been a lack of broad church discipline for the sake of the movement and it has not gone unnoticed by outsiders! Let’s speak up and let’s start by “setting our own house in order.”

Let me finish with a few suggestions on how the moderate majority could deal with these issues. What do I mean about “speaking up?” Speak the truth in love and leave the fallout to our sovereign God.

  1. We should publically exhort, censure, and if needed, discipline those who act uncharitably against a brother and engage in behavior unbecoming of the gospel.
  2. We should be more concerned about truth and honesty than we are about our movements, organizations, and institutions. Is it not ironic that in this the fundamentalists have become guilty of what Mr. Spurgeon said concerning the liberals in his day who “subordinate the maintenance of truth to denominational prosperity and unity”?
  3. We should engage in instructive and intelligent writing which deals with aberrations in theology and Christian practice, whether liberal, ecumenical, or fundamentalist. Negative sound bites on social media, nitpicking, and theological rants are more harmful than helpful.
  4. We should be willing to discuss issues and differences in meekness and seek to understand brethren who hold the same principles but differ in practice. The issues facing the church today are not the same as the liberal/fundamentalist controversy of years past.
2017-02-23T18:07:58+00:00

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One Comment

  1. RichAmador September 19, 2015 at 3:24 am - Reply

    The hammer hit the nail right on the head with this article. For many years, I have sat quiet to all that I have seen, heard and experienced personally having grown up in the Fundamentalist movement. Aberrations of the gospel from the pulpits and from the lives of men that to me were bigger than life. I sat at the feet of these men as a young lad in the late 60s and through the 70s cutting my spiritual teeth, as you did later on in the 90s. I remember feeling, as you have written, that the movement was greater than anything. Overlooking faults and aberrations as our duty for the greater movement, was the mind set. That mind set still exists and continues to be the fly in the ointment within many circles. May the Lord deliver us!

    Thank you, Aaron, for articulating what has been hard for me to see and say. I appreciate your honesty and courage. I guess I’ve been part of that “Silent majority.”

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