We (Do Not) Confess – A Further Response to Bro. Johnson

This post concludes my response to Don Johnson on the fundamentalist movement (see here and here for some background on this kerfluffle). I could say a whole lot more here, but after a month or so of puzzling ‘till my puzzler was sore, I finally thought of something I hadn’t before.

I’m only responding to one point he made, which is really the essence of his disagreement. I asked him what the “marks” of a so-called convergent were. He replied, in part,

Anti-separatism (or at least non-separatism) . . . The most important characteristic is anti-separatism, and a disdain for separatists.

I agree with this distinction, insofar as it goes. Separation is a Biblical concept, and those who oppose it are in error. However, it is clear Johnson means something rather more than “anti-separatism.” I believe he, Unruh and others are actually taking aim at fundamentalists who have different ideas of separation.

John Vaughn, in his editorial from the Sept/Oct 2016 issue of Frontline, wrote,

In seeking to stay in touch with the ever-changing culture, churches can think themselves separate from it while moving away from their moorings. They can soon occupy the space that belonged to the world not long ago, no longer secure on the foundations on which they were built (3).

Dan Unruh, in his unfortunate article from the Sept/Oct 2016 issue of Frontline, entitled “Why I Left My Fundamental Baptist Church,” asked,

How is it possible for a church to get to the place that it is being controlled by those who seem to have little appreciation, and in some cases even disdain, for the strong separatist Fundamental position upon which it was founded? (12)

Again, I agree with this statement, insofar as it stands. The problem with both Johnson and Unruh’s comments is they do not define their terms. Every true fundamentalist agrees that separation is a vital Biblical doctrine. So, we ask them, what exactly are you talking about?

I can only suppose they’re referring to people who have a “disdain” for biblical separation. They don’t agree with the doctrine, and they don’t seek to apply it. More than this, they hate the doctrine. However, Unruh and Johnson have made clear these brigands are still trying to claim the label of “fundamentalist.” They have a “hidden agenda.” They seek to “converge” with evangelicals through stealth, secrecy and cunning.

Johnson explained a bit more about these “convergents” in another blog piece:

. . . they must jettison the idea of separation from worldliness at many levels (music, alcohol and other social issues, are examples) and the idea of separation from broader levels of cooperation with error. In this latter category, they will have to be open to cooperation with charismatics and their sympathizers who promote ongoing revelation and they will have to be open to ecclesiastical entanglements that are represented in the Southern Baptist Convention, Together for the Gospel, and The Gospel Coalition among others.

I share these concerns. If this is what Johnson is worried about, then so am I. However, I believe he fails to distinguish between (1) people who disdainfully jettison the doctrine of separation like an escaped convict casting aside his shackles, and (2) those fundamentalists who have different interpretations on certain biblical issues. But, on an even more fundamental level (pun intended), Bro. Johnson and I are worried for very different reasons:

  • I’m only worried if these activities are in contradiction to their local church’s doctrinal statement.
  • Johnson and Unruh seem to be worried because these seditious activities violate an assumed Baptist fundamentalist confession of faith.

Here is the problem – Johnson, Unruh and others in the FBFI seem to think “fundamentalism” should function as an explicitly confessional association. This is not the case. It has never been the case. It will never be the case.

Fundamentalism is a philosophy of ministry characterized by a militant apologetic defense and passionate, unashamed proclamation of the Christian faith from the Scriptures in the face of pagan unbelief, liberal theology and doctrinal compromise. As such, it has always been a “big tent” concept. It has never been an explicitly confessional movement.

I understand the passion for maintaining doctrinal purity. I share it. This is the very concern which fueled the fundamentalist movement. However, Johnson, Unruh and others have committed two errors with their latest criticisms:

  1. They seem to view Baptist fundamentalism as a pseudo-denomination, with all the confessional standards and expected theological conformity that come with such a label, and
  2. Having elevated Baptist fundamentalism to a confessional movement, they launch polemical broadsides against those who have broken these “confessional” standards . . . which do not actually exist.

Convergents are not “anti-separatist.” They’re just different than you. Johnson’s idea of “church,” in practice, would probably look almost precisely like mine. But, his criticisms about fundamentalism will continue to miss the mark as long as he (and others) continue to view fundamentalism as a tight, confessional movement. It never has been, and it never will be. That is not its function or purpose. That is what the local church is for.

Response to Bro. Johnson (pt. 1)

Don Johnson was gracious enough to respond to the most pressing questions from my article entitled “Questions for Dan Unruh, John Vaughn and the FBFI from a Confused Brother.” This is my overdue response to continue this important discussion.

What is a Fundamentalist?

It is clear this issue of “Convergents” is an important one for some in the FBFI. Johnson wrote, “In my view, someone who is convergent is not a fundamentalist. He once may have claimed to be a fundamentalist, but he has changed his views and really exhibits disdain for fundamentalism now, regardless if he continues to claim the label.”

This cannot be more clear, and I appreciate it. If you are a “Convergent,” then Johnson does not consider you to be a fundamentalist. It doesn’t matter if a man still claims the label and travels in fundamentalist circles; if he exhibits the marks of a “Convergent” then he is not a fundamentalist. He is claiming membership in a movement he doesn’t actually belong to.

This naturally leads us to ask, “What on earth is a fundamentalist, in this context?” This is really the crux of issue. Before we start mentioning movements and assessing claims to titles, we need to understand what we’re talking about. Let me offer my own definition:

Fundamentalism is a philosophy of ministry characterized by a militant apologetic defense and passionate, unashamed proclamation of the Christian faith from the Scriptures in the face of pagan unbelief, liberal theology and compromise.

This is a mouthful, so here is the bottom line:

  1. If you believe the Bible and actively seek to defend it against unbelievers, liberal skeptics and theological compromise, and
  2. if you believe the Bible and seek to passionately and unapologetically proclaim all of it to the world, and
  3. if all this motivates and shapes your entire approach to Christian ministry and everyday Christian life,
  4. then you are a “fundamentalist.”

People within the fundamentalist realm will immediately recognize this as a “big-tent” definition of the movement. I suspect this is a dividing line for some people. Please note I did not make mention of the so-called “fundamentals” of the faith. This list of fundamentals came out of the 1878 Niagara Bible Conference, and was later shortened to the infamous “five fundamentals” of the faith:

  1. The virgin birth of Christ
  2. The inerrancy of the Bible
  3. Substitutionary atonement of Christ
  4. The bodily resurrection of Christ
  5. The authenticity of miracles

I don’t find this list particularly useful, because it creates an artificial hierarchy for Bible doctrines. For example, the Trinity is not even mentioned! Those who cling to “The List” as the defining document of the fundamentalist movement have actually got it backwards.

The fundamentalist “movement” grew out of the conflict with theological liberalism and apostasy in the mid to late 19th century. Bible believers were willing to stand and fight back against this liberalism and apostasy in Bible Colleges, Seminaries and local churches across America. During the course of this conflict, certain doctrines came to the forefront as particular “flash points.” The “list” arose out of this context, but it really reflects a basic fidelity to all of the Bible and a willingness to militantly defend the Scriptures and passionately and unapologetically proclaim what the Bible teaches.

This movement has always been interdenominational. Dr. Larry Oats provides this brief definition of the movement:[1]

Fundamentalism as a definable movement is the organization of primarily American Bible believers who between the late nineteenth century and the mid-twentieth century strongly opposed and resisted the progress of modernism within the major denominations of America and thus tried to keep those denominations orthodox.

From the middle of the twentieth century on, fundamentalism may be defined as those Bible believers who desire to maintain a purity of doctrine and personal life and stand in positional and doctrinal opposition to various forms of compromise.

Likewise, Dr. Fred Moritz has written:

 At its best fundamentalism is a ‘back to the Bible’ movement to proclaim and contend for the truth. Fundamentalism is therefore a theological and militant movement. It was interdenominational by definition. Fundamentalists also allowed each other latitude in the use of Bible versions and in their understanding of Calvinism and Arminianism.[2]

So, when we consider what Bro. Johnson has written, we need to understand where the other is coming from. Is a “fundamentalist” necessarily a Baptist, premillennial dispensationalist? I asked Bro. Johnson this question:

 Q: Do you believe in “big-tent” fundamentalism; that is, is this movement bigger than Baptists? If so, how do, how would these “big-tent” fundamentalists avoid being “Convergent” from your point of view.

This was his response:

Fundamentalism is a philosophy that transcends denominations. There are fundamentalists among the Presbyterians and among other groups, though the majority of fundamentalists today are probably Baptists. Convergence isn’t denominational, like the New Evangelicalism, it is a mood or philosophy that affects how the ministry is conducted, what issues and ideas are promoted, what actions are taken individually and through church ministries (assuming the convergent is in a leadership role in the church).

The most important way to avoid being convergent is to be committed to personal and ecclesiastical separation. That commitment will manifest itself in various ways, but the other marks I mention above will dissipate if that biblical commitment is made and applied consistently.

Bro. Johnson agrees fundamentalism is interdenominational. However, he zeroes in on a mood or philosophy which he believes is opposed to everything fundamentalism stands for. He believes this mood or philosophy is primarily characterized by ignoring the Bible’s commands for personal and ecclesiastical separation.

We appear to agree on what a “fundamentalist” is. It is an interdenominational movement which stands for Biblical truth against pagan unbelief and theological compromise. However, Bro. Johnson has also written that a “convergent” is not a fundamentalist. Therefore, we should expect his “marks of a convergent” to reflect some basic defection or capitulation to apostasy and/or theological compromise – the very thing the fundamentalist movement has always fought against.

If a Christian is not committed to personal separation from unholy influences, activities or associations, then he is in sin. If a local church does likewise, its leadership is in sin. It is certain that some men have left fundamentalism and “fled” to the broader evangelical sphere, jettisoning the doctrines of personal holiness and personal separation along the way. This is tragic, and it is wrong.

However, there are also other men who still identify themselves as fundamentalists, but who have made some common cause with the most conservative elements of right-wing evangelicalism. Larry Oats, a true authority on Baptist fundamentalism, has observed:

I suggest that a fifth stage [of the fundamentalist movement] is now present: the separation of conservative evangelicalism from the left wing of evangelicalism, along with the reunion of some elements of fundamentalism with the right-wing of evangelicalism.[3]

He is correct. Is this necessarily a “bad thing”? I suspect Bro. Johnson and many others agree that it is. It is unclear how, given his acknowledgement of a “big-tent” fundamentalism, the most conservative right-wing evangelicals should not simply be considered fundamentalists in philosophy and practice.

We will turn to that issue, and discuss Bro. Johnson’s “marks of a convergent,” in the next article.


[1] Larry Oats, “Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism,” unpublished class notes (Watertown, WI: Maranatha Baptist Seminary, n.d.).

[2] Fred Moritz, “Maranatha is Fundamentalist,” in Maranatha Baptist Theological Journal (MBTS 01:01), Spring 2011. 65.

[3] Larry Oats, The Church of the Fundamentalists (Watertown, WI: Maranatha Baptist Press, 2016), 68-69, fn. # 8.