In a recent interview discussing his landmark article and subsequent book “Young Restless And Reformed” Collin Hanson was asked about the challenges being faced by groups like T4G and TGC. He replied that one of the greatest threats presently was being posed by “reformed fundamentalists” operating from inside the boundaries of the movement.
That caught my attention.
What is a reformed fundamentalist?
As I continued to listen to him and to others discussing the same phenomenon, slowly but surely a fairly detailed picture began to emerge. A reformed fundamentalist is first and foremost:
Someone who is willing to fight, condemn and divide over secondary issues
I recently met a young pastor in South Africa who was intrigued to find out that I did some writing for TGC Canada. His first question to me was: “What is up with all the hubbub about social justice? The conversation seems to have taken a turn towards the nasty.”
As I listen to people talk and write and Tweet it does seem that the conversation has somehow lost all sense of perspective and propriety. The difference between the two positions appears to be infinitesimal, so why all the heat and vitriol?
Certainly there are outer boundaries across which we cannot pass and certainly there are positions that if held, place a person outside the camp, but far too often we sever fellowship with people who are following Jesus simply because they are not following us.
Jesus addressed this issue in the Scriptures. The disciples came to him saying:
“Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. For the one who is not against us is for us.” (Mark 9:38–40 ESV)
The disciples of Jesus are not allowed to be more discriminating than their Master.
Secondly, a reformed fundamentalist is:
Someone who has no category between good and bad
It has become commonplace to observe that North American political culture has become unhelpfully polarized and tribal. Issues are sorted into “liberal” and “conservative” categories and individuals are treated as traitors if they should dare to speak positively about a program or initiative originating with “the other team”. This has brought the legislative process to a near stand still and has led to a level of incivility in political discourse, the likes of which have not been seen in the United States since the era of the Civil War.
What is less often commented upon is the extent to which this same attitude and tendency has been imported into the remnants of the evangelical church.
We treat our terminology, emphases and distinctives as ultimate in nature. If our group came up with it then it is good; if another group came up with it then it is bad. A person is either a hero or a heretic. Heroes are to be venerated and respected; heretics are to be hunted down and destroyed.
But what about the person who is simply less helpful than another?
What about the pastor who is in process?
What about the scholar who is brilliant on point A but a little bit off base on point B?
Reformed fundamentalism has no category for such people and therefore all people who do not fit entirely within their paradigm are often considered heretics just to be on the safe side.
Thirdly, a reformed fundamentalist is:
Someone who talks more about their creed than they do about Christ
Many of the people identified with the YRR movement are the children of Baby Boomer parents who were shaped by Seeker Sensitivity and by 30 years of theological minimalism. Children tend to react against what they perceive to be the errors of their forebears but in the case of some within the movement, this reaction has become a dangerous and potentially toxic over reaction. Whereas mom and dad unhelpfully (and untruthfully) claimed that they had “no creed but the Bible”, many of their children now seem to be “all creed and very little Bible.”
Arguments are decided by appeals to “the 1689” or “the Westminster Standards” rather than by chapter and verse of Holy Scripture.
Of course there is a place for creeds and confessions but that place must never be in front of or above the place given to the Bible. The reformers held to the principle of “semper reformanda” – always reforming. They believed that every generation must evaluate the assumptions of their day against the inspired and authoritative Word of God. The creeds and confessions of previous generation should be used as guides and teachers, but must never be allowed to become our Masters. We have but one Lord in the church and his name is Jesus. It is his Word, ultimately that must rule our hearts and govern our beliefs and behavior.
A reformed fundamentalist is in danger of putting men in the place of Christ.
Fourthly, a reformed fundamentalist is:
Someone who thinks it’s dangerous to associate with people outside their tribe
The fundamentalists of the late 20th century practiced something known as “second degree separation”. That meant, in essence, that not only was it inappropriate for you to associate with “an erring” person yourself, it was also inappropriate to associate with someone who, while themselves orthodox, was actively associating with people holding unsanctioned views and doctrines.
Thus the fundamentalists of the 20th century blockaded themselves into a sort of intellectual and theological cul-de-sac from which they could never recover.
Today’s reformed fundamentalists are in danger of repeating that same devastating error.
We are becoming so tribal and so suspicious that we run the risk of cutting ourselves off from challenging ideas and differing perspectives. Not only will this cost us intellectually, but it will also cost us in terms of our outreach and mission. If we’re all suspicious of each other then why should we expect an unbeliever to trust a single thing we say about Jesus?
There will always be smaller clusters and practical associations but for the glory and honour of Christ, let there be fewer and let there be more humility, charity, gentleness, patience and collegiality between them.
And let it start with me.
I can see in my own heart the beginnings of a party spirit. I know for a fact that I have severed fellowship with people over secondary issues. I have been impatient with people in process and I have forgotten how many of my own views have changed over the years through study of the Scriptures, confession, discussion and prayer. I have used uncharitable labels to refer to brothers and sisters in Christ and I have regularly quoted Charles Spurgeon as if I were quoting the Bible.
Oh Lord help!
Resolutions Moving Forward:
I firmly believe that the reformed resurgence has been a gift and a kindness from the Lord.
But I also know that it is hard for God to bless sinful people without ruining them
Very few revivals have managed to become full blown reformations. If this one is to grow beyond its infancy we will all need to examine our hearts for any and every trace of toxic fundamentalism. We will need to find and crucify all idolatry, all divisiveness, all extremism and all censoriousness. Toward that end I offer these 4 brief resolutions:
Read through the Bible every year
Let’s become Bible people again!
Let’s permit ourselves only one reference to the 1689 (or the Westminster Standards or the Institutes) for every 20 quotations from the Bible.
Let’s READ the Bible, not merely books about the Bible.
Let’s read fast and slow. Let’s read through the whole Bible every year while also studying and meditating our way through one or two books of the Bible slowly over the course of several months at a time.
This discipline ought to save us from becoming inappropriately creedal and it ought to show us where we are on solid ground and where we ought to be humble, contrite and cautious.
Develop a voice and tone for second level disagreements
Too many people in the reformed community seem to have their online personas set perpetually to ALL CAPS. Everything is ULTIMATE! Every discussion is URGENT! Every issue is DO or DIE!
We need to learn how to speak in a friendly, calm and collegial tone. We need to reserve words like “heretic” and “wolf in sheep’s clothing” for actual heretics and actual wolves in sheep’s clothing. A brother who is simply wrong should be addressed as a brother who is simply wrong – or a brother who is merely in process. Or a brother who is saying something we might actually need to hear.
We need to develop a tone for intramural conversation and we need to hold each other accountable for using it – particularly when our conversations take place in the public square.
Treat pastors like pastors and not like rock stars and celebrities
When did being a pastor become cool? When did it become normal for people to post pictures of themselves posing with John MacArthur? Or John Piper? Or D.A. Carson? Or Al Mohler?
Am I the only one who thinks that this is odd?
Am I the only one who thinks this might be exacerbating our tendency toward division and schism?
The Bible says:
What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? (1 Corinthians 1:12–13 ESV)
Let’s get back to worshipping Jesus and let’s treat pastors as servants through whom we have believed.
Engage with books and voices from outside the tribe
When I was in seminary I was required to cite at least one book from a different theological tradition and at least one source from the first 1000 years of church history in every paper.
We need to insist on a version of that rule within the remnants of evangelicalism.
Let’s read the Puritans and the Reformers, yes, but let’s also read the best works of those outside our tradition; not to water down, but to broaden out. If we are reading the Bible correctly, then our convictions will only strengthen; but if we are wrong we will be helped by our brothers and sisters to see our shortcomings, and to change.
We mustn’t allow the reformed evangelical movement to become insular. We must ensure that it remains a place for thought, reflection, honest inquiry, challenge, correction and change – change in the direction of the text and change into the image and likeness of Jesus.
Lord, may it be so, and may it start with me.
Pastor Paul Carter
To listen to Pastor Paul’s Into The Word devotional podcast on the TGC Canada website see here. You can also find it on iTunes.