So, what actually is a Christian “fundamentalist”? Perhaps you’ve seen this word on a church website. Or, perhaps you’ve heard it as a slur, for example, “What do you mean I can’t die my hair fluroesent green? You’re such a fundamentalist MOM!”
The word fundamentalist harken’s back to the late 1800’s when liberals where injecting their theological misgivings into seminaries and denominations. Their tone was suspicious, and they questioned whether Jesus Christ was, in fact, the Son of God, whether the Bible was His word, and if obedience to Christ was that important. In resistance to this liberal influx, a group of theologians and pastors bounded together to defend the historical, orthodox definitions of faith. This group became known as ‘fundamentals’ because — despite being from various Christian denominations — joined together to defend the essential foundations of the Christian faith. They explained, correctly, that questioning Christ’s divinity or resurrection, is to question the essence of our faith. The apostle Paul worded like this: “If Christ has not risen again, our faith is in vain, and we are the most miserable lot of fools.” In this sense, every Christian must be a fundamentalist. The basic, core truths that Christ taught must be safe-guarded by each Christ follower. Otherwise … what’s the point?
However, as the fundamentalist movement evolved, some branches began making their own lists of “Christian fundamentals”, such as insisting that Christians must only read the King James Bible version, women must not wear pants, boys should not listen to pop, girls shouldn’t go to space, and no one should watch movies that are higher than an extra-G rating. The problem, of course, isn’t that they had these convictions; the problem is that they considered these beliefs to be fundamental to the Christian faith. They became skeptical of fellowship with any Christian who didn’t defend these same issues — or didn’t defend them loud enough. Whereas Christ’s divinity and resurrection are essential fundamentals of our faith, homeschooling and Baptist succession are not, and it’s problematic to treat one as if it were the other. Over the past decades, then, the word “fundamentalist” in Christian circles began to refer to anyone who treats a non-essential as a core, essential dogma of the faith.
However, this raises a question, and we’ll end with this: is it correct to say some things are essential and other’s aren’t, when everything is related, in some fashion, to the same truth of Scripture? Isn’t that like telling my son that nutrition is important, but eating food is non-important?
In the 1850’s, J. R. Graves, baptist founder of the Landmark movement, said: “To divide the positive requirements of Christ into essential and non-essentials, is to decide how far Christ is to be obeyed, and in what points we may safely disobey him.”
Is that what we mean by essential and non-essential? Like, this deserves to be obeyed, and this over here not so much?
Scripture does tell us that, in the order of priorities, certain points do come first. For example, when Proverbs tells us, “Guard your heart above all else and with all diligence, for from it flows the springs of life”, we shouldn’t understand that nothing else is worth guarding. Certainly, our eyes, our minds, our desires and our words must be watched. The aim of this proverb, however, is to give top priority to our hearts, or else, pretty much all else, is pointless. What’s the good of guarding your mouth if your heart is unkept?
In the same manner, the essential elements of our faith, such as Christ’s divinity and resurrection are the rock on which we build our lives. Without this rock, all works of obedience – such as baptism, missions or worship — simply crumble away. Christ is essential to Christianity, you see. Yet, this doesn’t work the other way around. If I’m in Christ, my obedience to Him IS important, but I can’t say the truth of Christ hinges on, say, what I wear, what music I listen to, or which church I attend. My Christian walk and spiritual growth does not make Christ more or less real, because He is already eternally true.
Instead, my worship and fellowship with other Christians must be centered on the truth of Christ and His Gospel. This — and this alone — will spark joyful obedience and peaceful submission.