Thursday, May 04, 2006

Coming to Terms with Fundamentalism II

Coming to Terms with Fundamentalism
* Part I: Introduction

Biblical Inerrancy

Meet Dr. John MacArthur of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California.

Throughout this series will be numerous references to Dr. MacArthur and his brand of Christian fundamentalism which will be the focus of my critical analysis. The reasons are threefold.

First, Dr. MacArthur's brand of fundamentalism is what I am most familiar with. During my years in college, most of the people that I rubbed shoulders with in campus Christian circles had close ties to his church in Sun Valley, California and inevitably albeit indirectly, Dr. MacArthur heavily influenced my world view during my formative years. For three years after graduating from college, I attended his church before relocating to Orange County.

Second, he is widely respected and is considered a "hero of the faith" in mainstream fundamentalist circles. His radio ministry called Grace to You is among the most listened to Christian radio programs and his books regularly top the best selling lists of Christian publications. Churches with strong fundamentalist leanings from across the nation and around the world look upon his church as a model to mimic. All these factors make him fairly representative of the practices and beliefs of Christian fundamentalism.

Finally, this may sound a bit blunt, but I don't know how else to put it. Dr. MacArthur and his church expend a lot of time and energy in unleashing harsh criticisms of non-fundamentalist churches and sects which they believe have watered down the "truth." Billy Graham is just one of several names you may recognize on the long list of his targets. It is only fair and reasonable that anyone who makes a career out of dishing out be subject to scrutiny and criticism himself.

My observations will be based mostly on documents available on the Internet and his published books, and some on my own anecdotal accounts. I do not claim to be privy to anything about Dr. MacArthur's life and his church other than what is available in the public domain, and my own experiences.

Also, I will attempt to avoid run of the mill charges of hypocrisy. Run of the mill charges of hypocrisy will always degenerate into a war of rhetorical retorts, which are not only counterproductive, but unbecoming of how Christians should live out their lives. I am an ex-fundamentalist, but certainly not an ex-Christian.

What is fundamentalism?

As I alluded to in my first posting in this series, it is nearly impossible to discuss matters of faith without stepping onto a field of semantic land mines in which any given word means different things to different people and the term "fundamentalism" is no exception.

Christian fundamentalism, like much of Christendom, is fragmented with no one defining leader or institution, and thus one dimensional depictions fall far short of doing justice. To some, it conjures up the virulent images of racism in the South back in the 60's and of the Religious Right which has become a powerful political force in American national politics today.

To Dr. John MacArthur's credit, his brand of fundamentalism is neither of those two. In fact, he has argued against promoting moralism through political activism, although it must be duly noted that you are much more likely to win the lottery before meeting a liberal Democrat in his church, and that he matriculated at Bob Jones University which made headlines recently for its long standing campus rules against interracial dating. But unlike Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell, you will never see Dr. MacArthur mobilize his congregation to promote his political agenda using his capacity as a Christian pastor, and I cannot say I experienced overt racism during my three years in his church.

The single most important doctrine and identity which unite fundamentalists of all stripes including Dr. MacArthur's is "Biblical Inerrancy." or "Sola Scriptura." The fundamentalists believe that the Bible is the Word of God and the ultimate source of truth. Every single word, they believe, from Genesis which speaks of the creation of the world to Revelation which details how this present world will end is directly from God Himself, not man.

As you probably know, Christians of all stripes embrace the Bible in some fashion, but Christian fundamentalism takes the concept "pretty far", which will be the focus of this series.

One manifestation of how far they take it can be found in what they say they believe. Take a look at the statement of faith published by Independent Fundamental Churches of America, which John MacArthur's church is a member of.

Notice that the first statement before the mentioning of God or Jesus concerns The Holy Scriptures.

How about God and Jesus, you may wonder. The line of thinking is that once you read, study, and correctly interpret the Bible, sound beliefs about God and Jesus naturally and automatically follow. But if you don't have the right view of the Bible, then the rest crumbles like a house of cards.

Fundamentalists vehemently deny that the Bible is the end all and be all and God takes the backseat in their system. My upcoming entries will attempt to show how their patterns of behavior and practices betray their denial. Needless to say, that is why I have left fundamentalism after nearly two decades.

That they take the Bible very seriously and passionately manifests itself in some unexpected ways, to put it mildly. Recently, one fundamentalist pastor called certain people "vipers," and the "enemies of the cross" for promoting "false doctrine."

When I chimed in to take the pastor to task for debasing the tone of discourse with name calling, his justification came from the Bible. Since Jesus called his detractors "vipers" and the Apostle Paul called certain people the "enemies of the cross," he insisted that he was "biblically" justified in lashing out with such colorful metaphors.

Expletives aren't acceptable because they are not in the Bible. But I can tell you that there is one word that you do not want to associate yourself with even though it is nowhere to be found in the Bible.

The word is .... (drum roll please) ...

l i b e r a l

I am not a liberal.*

Vipers, the enemies of the cross, fornicators and etc. may cover different groups of people. For example, it's not easy to be a fornicator and a viper at the same time. Most fornicators want to snuggle with you, not bite you.

But if you are a liberal, you are all of the aforementioned and more. A lot more.

May God have mercy on you, because the fundamentalists won't. And if you happen to agree with me, please curb your enthusiasm in your comments. I have a reputation to maintain around here.

* notice how quickly I deny being one.

Addendum (added May 10)
Nathan has written a post called The Death of Fundamentalism in which he argues that the label is outdated and no longer applies. It's a good read, even though I disagree with most of it. My response is in comments.


At May 04, 2006 11:56 PM, Blogger Granny said...

I know I'm doomed so I might as well admit to that horrid "l" word.

I hope it doesn't rub off on you.

Great start to your series, David.

At May 05, 2006 5:43 AM, Blogger A thinker said...

Good stuff, David. I look forward to seeing how this unfolds. I am wondering how similar it is/will be to my "fundamentalist" upbringing.

So far, so good.

At May 05, 2006 7:58 AM, Blogger Nathan said...

Just a note, in line with my designated role as fact-checker and pot-stirrer. BJU modified its ban on interracial dating during the 2000 primaries (although they claimed they "dropped" the ban). As of 2000, students could date across racial lines, but only with written permission from a parent or legal guardian. I'm unaware of any further developments there.

I don't throw my hat in that particular ring, for the record. I think the rule goes beyond silly into offensive. I mention it only for the sake of clarity. You weren't inaccurate, but more facts never hurts, right?

(Hey, do you like how my first "critique" actually strengthens your case? I must be slipping.)

At May 05, 2006 10:12 AM, Blogger David Cho said...

Thanks grany and a thinker.


Thanks for the clarification. Being a political junkie myself, I am familiar with the whole episode involving Bush's visit and the school dropping the ban after it made national headlines.

Geez, changing their policy after pressure from the "world"? Very unbecoming of Christian conviction there. I think they caved and admitted black students in the early 70's, and that also came after the rest of the world had integraded and some court rulings. Again, caving into the world?

Strenghening my case? Well, I said JMac is NOT a racist and neither his brand of fundamentalism, and I stand by that. Furthermore, he dropped out after two years. Perhaps he was disgusted with what he saw.

But thanks again for your contribution.

At May 05, 2006 10:28 AM, Blogger Nathan said...

Well, your overarching beef isn't with JMac, but with fundamentalism in general. BJU's racial policies certainly don't help the "fundamentalist" cause.

And it's Nate. Or Nathan.

At May 05, 2006 10:50 AM, Blogger David Cho said...

I think JMac has been distancing himself from the fundamentalist label because of those things. But then, his church belongs to Independent Fundamental Churches of America, does it not?

Nate. Sorry about that. Some of the coolest people I have come across in my life were named Nick. In fact, I never met a Nick I didn't like, hence the slip.

At May 05, 2006 11:24 AM, Anonymous Carmen said...

I'm looking forward to more thoughts on JMac and co. Personally, I have not been too involved with such groups, but when I have, I did experience subtle racism and general intolerance to others that think differently, especially the "gasp" liberals, though they be filled with the Holy Spirit.

At May 05, 2006 12:35 PM, Blogger Jenn said...

Dave, it's half past three in the morning and I am supposed to be working so I haven't had a chance to read the whole article (I will come back and do it).

I skimmed and would just like to say I am a liberal. Except when it comes to fundamentalists.

At May 05, 2006 4:14 PM, Blogger Broken Messenger said...

Fundamentalists vehemently deny that the Bible is the end all and be all and God takes the backseat in their system. My upcoming entries will attempt to show how their patterns of behavior and practices betray their denial.

David, your criticism and built in biases are noted and well understood. I think it is important to realize that McArthur speaks for all Fundies about as much as McLaren speaks for all emergents.

But based on this one reading here, I think we agree. The Fundy's main problem is not in their theology as much as it is in their hypocrisy living out that theology. Of course, every vein of Christianity has this problem today.


At May 05, 2006 8:40 PM, Blogger David Cho said...

@Carmen, welcome to my blog! I will have to get to yours more often.

@jenn, past 3 in the morning? And you gotta work? It's Saturday, isn't it?

@messenger, welcome to my blog. No, I will try not to talk about hypocricy, and some parts of fundamentalist theology will be challenged. But you are right. I don't disagree with them much theologically.

At May 06, 2006 5:57 AM, Blogger Jenn said...

David: OK am back and have read through. You certainly went out of your way to be fair, I think.

I dunno, seems to be whenever you stop questioning, like everything that is put to you, you run the risk of becoming a fundamentalist of sorts.

Isn't fundamentalism just another form of laziness? It takes time and effort to see other points of view. To allow for Bakthinian dialogue. To come up with a middle ground. And to repeat, ad nauseam.

Btw, am a freelancer which means I can work at any time. I was late in getting back to employers and received an irate call which sent me to the computer tapping away. Until 3 in the morning.

At May 06, 2006 8:14 AM, Blogger David Cho said...

Isn't fundamentalism just another form of laziness?

You are very astute. Stealing my thunder there. The importance of "getting it right" as far as the Bible is heavily emphasized. You have to correctly read, study and interpret, or you risk heresy.

That is where "teachers" like John MacArthur come in to the picture.

So when I was there, my line of thinking was this. Yeah, MacArthur is human, and he is prone to error, but because he has studied a lot more than I have, and he studies the Bible practically full time, his percentage of correctness harbors around 98%*. Hey, that is A LOT better than I can do on my own, so why not piggyback on him, gobble up everything he says as gospel truth, and get to 98%. And then I will try to get the remaining 2%.

So my brain shut down. Got lazy as you put it. Not saying that this happens to everybody else, but their tendencies of highly revering and elevating "teachers" in fundamentalist circles certainly show.

So this is becoming another blog entry, but couldn't help it because your comment is so right on. Thanks.

*just to throwing out a number to demonstrate my concept

At May 07, 2006 2:11 PM, Blogger grace said...

I really enjoyed this post. I've read it a couple of times.

About your last comment, perhaps the error in any group is in substituting following a man for following God.

At May 07, 2006 7:27 PM, Blogger Jenny said...

I told you, right, about what my pastor once said about Grace when I was asking him about that church (I was interested in going to one of their campus Bible studies with a friend)? He said, "Grace doesn't seem to offer much grace in the world."

At May 07, 2006 8:20 PM, Blogger David Cho said...

Thanks for the kind words. As to following man, that is the point where I began to ask where the Holy Spirit is in all this. I am not sure if that series will do down that road yet.

Hey, hope you are having a good time in Ohio. That will be covered under an entry called "Love" and I will be examining MacArthur's theology regarding what he believes contitutes "love."

At May 08, 2006 11:46 AM, Blogger DPT said...

Re: Broken Messenger's comment that fundamentalists' problem is "hypocrisy living out that theology," I'd like to offer one suggestion. If that's an identifying characteristic, as in Jesus' statement that the Pharisees and teachers of the law don't practice what they preach but maintain an appearance of righteousness because "everything they do is done for men to see" (Mt. 23:3-5), then that's a problem with their theology.

Jesus set one standard of discipleship by saying we should make disciples "teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you" (Mt. 28:20). If someone tries to substitute belief in some "pure" statement of faith for discipleship based on obedience to Jesus' commands, then their doctrine is faulty. Of course, obedience has to be based on sound doctrine, but what you believe has to be complemented by what you do. Faith without works is dead.

At May 09, 2006 2:55 AM, Blogger Hardcopy Art said...

I don't know what I am David. I have liberal views on some issues, conservative in others. I am not a Democrat nor a Republican; am an Independent on that score. I opted out of organized religion but have strong spiritual beliefs; was reared Baptist, studied many different religions when seeking, even joined the Mormon church for awhile but learned it was not for me, see wisdom in many faiths and human errors in others. Forms always ask for religion - I just say Protestant for am I not a protestor?

I can't say what I am but I can say what I am not. I am not a fundamentalist and the CC, RR, CR and ZRs scare the bejabbers out of me. It makes me so sad and so angry to see good, decent followers of Christ led astray and deceived by that lot. If they only knew the true agendas, but they are spoon fed what their equally deceived pastors have been taught and they will not listen to anything I try to point out to them. They seem to think I am apostate because of my attitude towards the "man of God" Pat Robertson. I fear for them.

At May 09, 2006 5:09 AM, Blogger Gary Means said...

Excellent, David! Far more interesting than your waist size.

It was an awful shock to open your blog at 5:00 this morning, in a very precaffeinated state, and see Jack Macarthur staring at me!

At May 10, 2006 8:23 PM, Blogger Nathan said...

Hm, "outdated and no longer applies"...true enough assessment, though I think my case is defensible. I'm not arguing that fundamentalists don't exist or that I'm not "one of them," but that the term is no longer useful.

But, go read the comments and watch the professor and the student disagree. Bring your popcorn, pick your sides, and let the games begin. :D

Thanks for the plug, David.

At May 10, 2006 8:27 PM, Blogger David Cho said...

Dude, I clearly said that the label is outdated according to your post, not fundamentalists themselves.

Will have to read the comments. The professor? Is JMac leaving comments on your blog?

At May 19, 2006 11:56 AM, Blogger L-girl said...

David, although this is a very late comment, I've got a good excuse.

This is a great piece of writing. I'm always amazed that English is not your first language.

I look forward to the next essay in the series.


Your ultra-liberal atheist Jewish friend

At May 21, 2006 10:58 PM, Blogger Friar Tuck said...

The deal with inerrancy and fundamentalism to a certain extent is that people think that they are surrendering their agency as a person to Scripture and thus God...when in fact they are surrendering their intellect to a to a authority's interpretation of God.

Fundamentalism is like reading the Cliff Notes on the spiritual life when you have not experienced the power of immersing yourself in the narrative of the book by reading it.

At May 21, 2006 11:35 PM, Blogger David Cho said...

Thanks Laura. The next draft coming up soon.

Cliff - Cliff notes? LOL. It got me to laugh. They are great observations. One fundamentalist talks about the follies of "thinking outside the box", and the importance of thinking "inside Scripture."

But what it means really is towing the party line and walking in lockstep with the man-made system that is fundamentalism.

At July 08, 2006 5:20 PM, Blogger sbc pastor said...

Please feel free to check out my post on fundamentalism, entitled "Inerrancy: The Heart of the Matter" at

Thanks and God bless!!!

In Christ,

At August 14, 2007 1:27 PM, Blogger ChiefsSuperfan said...

Not to be argumentative, David, but I must ask this question: do you intend for this to be an anti-fundamentalist blog or an anti-MacArthur blog? Or something else?

Your blog initially interested me because I'm searching for a new definition for fundamentalist and am wondering if the term is useful or not any longer. But, thus far, I'm sighing, "I read three or four more entries. If they are perpetually anti-fundamentilism this and anti-fundamentalism that, then I'll continue looking elsewhere."

At December 16, 2008 3:41 PM, Blogger taintedsky said...

Have you read Fundamentalism or Beyond Fundamentalism by James Barr?

At December 16, 2008 3:55 PM, Blogger David Cho said...

Hi Taintedsky,

No I have not. Just looked it up on, and it looks like more or less an obscure book. There aren't very many reviews.

As you can tell, I never finished this series. Didn't really want to contribute to what is already a very strident atmosphere in the Christian blogging world.

Perhaps you can write a review on the book if you have read it?


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