by John Ellis
My pastor likes to good-naturedly tease me that I’m the resident fundamentalist at our conservative evangelical church. While joking, my pastor is not incorrect. However, I would add that he, too, is a fundamentalist. In fact, I would count the majority of my brothers and sisters in Christ at our church as fundamentalists. Many of them may not like the term, but it’s true nonetheless. Our reformed, Southern Baptist, IX Marks affiliated, conservative evangelical church is filled with fundamentalists for the glory of God. We may not believe that going to the movie theatre is sinful, nor do we believe that rock music is necessarily out of bounds for Christians, but that doesn’t make the label of fundamentalists less valid for us. And our church may allow a man with long hair (me) to teach Sunday School and even occasionally preach, but, make no mistake, we are fundamentalists.
While I’ve claimed to be a fundamentalist for several years now, the validity of the claim was made even more apparent to me after I read Dr. Mark Ward’s recent article that was posted on the Fundamental Baptist Fellowship International’s website Proclaim and Defend. If you click on Dr. Ward’s article, his opening sentence should standout to you after having read my opening paragraph.
According to Dr. Ward, “few people willingly call themselves a ‘fundamentalist.’” Of course, in my opening paragraph, I’ve done just that. What’s more, I acknowledge that while willingly calling myself a fundamentalist for the last few years, more and more of my peers are rejecting the label fundamentalists. While recognizing the overall truth of Dr. Ward’s opening claim, I am not ashamed to be counted as an exception.
If you know anything about the FBFI or Christian fundamentalism in general, my cheerful ownership of the tag may be even more puzzling. A quick perusal of my articles (both on this blog and at PJ Media) will reveal that I do not fit the external definition that many people hold to when picturing a fundamentalist. But, and circling back to my opening, by God’s grace, I am a fundamentalist.
Interacting with Dr. Ward’s article (in fact, I’ll use it as a template), I’m going to defend my claim that I am a fundamentalist. I will conclude with an explanation for why I believe that more of my conservative evangelical brothers and sisters in Christ should embrace the label and why traditional fundamentalists should welcome us with open arms as brothers and sisters in Christ and co-laborers for the gospel of Jesus Christ. King Jesus told us that “all people will know that [we] are [his] disciples, if [we] have love for one another (John 13:35).”
One note – if you haven’t already done so, I encourage you to read Dr. Ward’s article, which, in the total, is edifying, encouraging, and even convicting (I’ve linked to it above, but am linking to it again here). Tipping my hand somewhat, so to speak, my aim with this article isn’t to critique much less criticize Dr. Ward. Obviously, even though not my objective, I will express a few minor points of disagreement, but, for the most part, I agree with Dr. Ward’s article. My aim is to convince fundamentalists as well of my fellow conservative evangelicals of my agreement as well as the need to desire and pursue unity for the sake of the gospel.
Honoring My Father(s) and Mother(s)
Like Dr. Ward, my parents sent me to Bob Jones University for college. I like to joke that even before I was born, my non-Calvinist, independent, fundamentalist Baptist pastor father preordained that I would attend BJU. Growing up, I attended the fundamentalist Christian school that my mom taught at. Furthermore, like Dr. Ward, I, too, counseled at a fundamentalist youth camp. In fact, assuming that I’m correct in believing that he counseled at a camp located in NC, the camp I counseled at in Murfreesboro, TN has even more “hard-core” fundamentalist street cred than the one Dr. Ward counseled at.
Continuing the theme, my experience at Bob Jones was mostly positive, albeit in a different sense than what is meant by Dr. Ward, I’m guessing. By that I mean that even though I was struggling with my own doubts, loneliness brought about by my doubts, and the desire to escape Christianity, much less fundamentalism, I knew that most people around me loved me, including faculty, staff, and my fellow students. Echoing Dr. Ward, “If other young people were subjected to harsh and legalistic treatment in my fundamentalist schools, I didn’t personally witness it.” In fact, from my perspective, which was the opposite from that of Dr. Ward’s, I think, the supposed “rebels” amongst my classmates appeared fake and dishonest to me. They would claim to love God out of one side of their mouth and revile their God-given authority out of the other side of their mouth. A God-given authority that I could tell not only meant them no ill-will, but legitimately wanted to see them succeed and grow in the faith.
Looking back on my childhood and college years, I thank God for the faithful parents, teachers, and other authority figures who loved Jesus and demonstrated that love to me through word and deed. By God’s grace, I will go to my grave honoring my father and my mother.
I appreciate Dr. Ward’s statement that, “Others who have ‘left’ institutional fundamentalism are not all ingrates and rebels.” However, his personal testimony at the end of his section on honoring his parents gives me pause. He concludes by confessing, “I find it hard to reject and put aside people who loved me so self-sacrificially and gave me such rich gifts. Such ingratitude would make me ‘well-nigh hopeless,’ as someone used to say. I want to go as far as I can on the right road, honoring my fathers and mothers.” While I don’t necessarily believe that his intention is to say this, nevertheless, I can’t help but wonder how many have read that section’s final paragraph and concluded that Dr. Ward believes that remaining in “institutional fundamentalism” is the best way, if not only way, to obey God’s command to honor our parents.
I want to put forward that most of my fellow evangelicals that I know also desire to honor their father(s) and mother(s) for the glory of God. By God’s grace, and somewhat skipping ahead to the next section, we do so by rooting our lives and families in the objective truths about God that He reveals in His Word. For me, honoring my parents means prayerfully studying the Bible and making decisions based on where I believe the data found in Scripture leads. My guide is not how I feel nor what works best for me; by God’s grace, the Bible is the sole and infallible authority for faith, practice, and all of life.
Because I’m fallible and because my parents are fallible, that means that there are going to be points of disagreement. However, our points of agreement are far more important than our disagreements. As I seek to honor my father, by God’s grace I attempt to have conversations with him centered on our agreements – things like credobaptism, salvation from sins found only through faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the importance of obeying the Great Commission. I see very little value in arguing with my dad about our points of disagreement. And disagreements do exist. For example, I believe in the Doctrines of Grace because I believe that’s what the Bible teaches. I didn’t come to that belief capriciously or without much prayer, study, and counsel. My pastor father, however, disagrees. I do not believe that it would be honoring my dad for me to ignore what I believe the Bible teaches in order to attend a church that holds to theological positions that are the same as my dad’s theological positions.
Sadly, I’m well aware of the many ex-fundamentalists my age and younger who seemingly and, at times in fact do, blatantly adopt positions out of a rebellious spirit and the desire to prove to all watching that they are not like other men, that they’re not like fundamentalists, those who preach “too much” about holiness, or even those who believe that Christians are set apart from the world and should demonstrate that reality by word and deed. My heart aches for past friends who have jettisoned the clear teachings of the Bible in order to break free of fundamentalism. However, I have been blessed and encouraged to discover brothers and sisters in Christ who were not raised in “institutional fundamentalism” and who desire to honor God through their faithful obedience, including obeying the command to honor their father(s) and mother(s). And those conservative evangelicals may puzzle over some of the rules found in “institutional fundamentalism,” but they praise God for their fundamentalist brothers and sisters in Christ and long for the day when we will all gather as the family of God in the new heaven and new earth to worship our Heavenly Father together.
Dr. Ward truthfully writes, “If there was one dominant feature of the culture among those fathers and mothers, it was biblicism, the functional authority of the Bible for both doctrine and life.” To that, I add my hearty “Amen!” I am incredibly grateful that God blessed me with parents for whom Dr. Ward’s statement characterizes. I’m also thankful that the Holy Spirit has placed me and my family in a conservative evangelical church for whom Dr. Ward’s statement also characterizes.
For those keeping score at home, me and my conservative evangelical church wholeheartedly agree and, by God’s grace, strive to adhere to Dr. Ward’s first two reasons for why he remains a fundamentalist. In fact, Dr. Ward graciously acknowledges that much of conservative evangelicalism that he’s interacted with holds to a high view of Scripture, which necessarily includes inerrancy. I must confess, though, that I’m somewhat confused by his statement, “But as for living out, reinforcing, and insisting upon the impulse to go back to the Bible—we’ve got that. We don’t doubt the truth of God’s words. That’s fundamentalism to me.”
From my perspective, which includes being on staff at my church and listening to brothers in Christ who are friends with Mark Dever, Al Mohler, Jonathan Leeman, et al., one of the hallmarks of conservative evangelicalism is that they/we, too, are “living out, reinforcing, and insisting upon the impulse to go back to the Bible.” In other words, according to Dr. Ward, “That’s fundamentalism to me.”
A Culture of Personal Holiness
Citing 1 Peter 1:15 and 2 Peter 1:5, Dr. Ward reveals that his third reason for staying in fundamentalism is because fundamentalism pursues holiness for the glory of God. I praise God for that desire, and commend my parents and fundamentalist teachers for desiring and pursuing holiness. Like Dr. Ward, I lament that many view the pursuit of holiness as contra-grace and who bitterly complain about their upbringing because they weren’t allowed to go to the movie theatre. Although I disagree with my parents about the “no movie theatre” rule, for example, I am thankful for parents who believed that obeying Jesus was more important than conforming to the world. By God’s grace, although my rules may differ from those of my parents, I am teaching my children that pursuing holiness is not optional for Christians. That, of course, means rules and standards.
My pastor is preaching through the Gospel of Luke, and this past Sunday he preached the first twenty verses of chapter eight. During his sermon, he bore out the important principle that followers of Jesus not only hear our Savior’s voice, but we also obey our Savior’s voice. Referencing Luke 6:46, he reminded us that obedience was/is a major theme of Jesus’ teaching. Christians are called to obey their Savior through their pursuit of holiness, and we do so as an act of joyful thanksgiving for our salvation provided through faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Fostering a culture that encourages the pursuit of holiness and that admonishes brothers and sisters in Christ who do not take that calling to heart is another thing that conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists have in common. Dr. Ward even references Kevin DeYoung, who is a leading voice among conservative evangelicals in calling for a culture of personal holiness.
I realize that some of our rules and standards may differ, but that reality holds true even among “institutional fundamentalism.” For the record, if any “institutional fundamentalists” doubt that conservative evangelicals take personal holiness seriously, I would encourage them to study the writings and teaching on church discipline. Jonathan Leeman, a pastor at Capitol Hill Baptist Church, the church that sent the core group of my church to Arlington, has written a couple of excellent books and articles on the topic.
Admittedly, this is the hardest section for me to interact with. “Traditional” is a moving target, and many of the teachings and practices that interact with that term on all sides of the debate(s) require far more nuance than I’m prepared to provide in this article; Dr. Ward says as much in his article, too. On a personal note, I will say this – most people are shocked to discover my beliefs about what constitutes appropriate music in the worship service. The Elders at my church and I are pretty much in agreement on that point. However, I realize that not every conservative evangelical church has the same beliefs about standards of practice for the corporate worship service as I do. I will say this, though, conservative evangelicalism is characterized by the desire to honor God, teach right theology, and encourage corporate worship through the entirety of the worship service, including the music.
Here’s the rub, and my only real point of disagreement with Dr. Ward who reveals that, “I cannot use such music in worship with a clear conscience. And this firm difference of opinion sets some practical limits on the kind of ministry relationships I can have with brothers in Christ who, gladly, agree with me on bigger truths.” – much, if not all, of the disagreement between fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals really boils down to music styles.
The thing is, I don’t want Dr. Ward to change his beliefs about what styles of music are appropriate or not. In fact, I’m grateful that he desires to honor God through music even if that means that he faces the unfortunate slings and arrows from those who disagree with him. I will vociferously defend my brother in Christ against those who seek to impugn him as a legalist because of his desire for holiness in this matter. I believe with every ounce of my being that many professing Christians take this matter too lightly. You see, I have my own standards. For example, I believe that any nudity in movies automatically renders it out of bounds for Christians who are called to pursue holiness. I promise Dr. Ward that if I find out a member of my church watches Game of Thrones, I will be disappointed. What’s more, I will seek to humbly admonish that brother in Christ over what I believe is a sinful decision.
However, and what I believe should be fairly obvious, music styles are not as cut and dried as something like Game of Thrones. In fact, I would extend that to the ways in which music is structured in worship services. For example, I believe that church choirs violate the regulative principle of worship, to which I adhere. However, many faithful brothers and sisters in Christ disagree, including my dad (I almost put this under “Honor Your Father and Mother”).
In fact, if I were to be invited to preach at a church where the gospel is faithfully preached and they have a church choir, all things being equal, I would humbly and joyfully go and preach God’s Word to those brothers and sisters. My disagreement with them over the appropriateness of a church choir does not take precedent over the union we enjoy in Christ. Don’t misunderstand, all things being equal, once again, I would probably not covenant in membership with that church. Praise God that in His sovereignty, I live in a time and place where I will rarely, if ever, be confronted with the decision about whether or not to join a church that has a choir.
Regardless of our (conservative evangelicals) differences with Dr. Ward (fundamentalists) over music styles and certain standards, for the most part, we’re in agreement in our desire to push back on the consumer mentality that has pervaded the broader evangelical church in America. We’re all desiring to worship God in a manner that honors the teaching of the Bible, glorifies God, edifies the saints, and points sinners to Jesus. So, while I never really know what someone means when they use the word “traditional,” my prayer is that our objectives are the same, at the least.
Our Points of Agreement Are More Important than Our Points of Disagreement
To conclude, this is what I ask from my brothers and sisters in Christ who are self-defined as belonging to “institutional fundamentalism” – by all means, brothers and sisters, disagree with me about music styles. In fact, pray that I will come around to your position, I will not be offended. But please reconsider your relationship with me. Recognize that we are on the same team, so to speak. We serve the same King and ultimately have the same goals to see God’s name magnified, sinners saved from their sin by placing their faith in Jesus, and the edification and sanctification of the saints. Also, recognize, and this applies to all of us, conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists alike, the world does not differentiate between us.
I believe that the Bible is the inspired and inerrant Word of God that has authority over all of faith, life, and practice. I believe that God created all things by the power of His Word and that Adam and Eve were literal people who, in their rebellion against God, chose to be deceived by the literal serpent-Satan. I believe that God has revealed and defines the parameters of sexuality, and that homosexuality, transgenderism, and sex outside of marriage (one man and one woman) is outside those boundaries and is rebellion against our Holy God. I also believe that there is only one way for sinners, which is all of us, to restore relationship with our Creator and have everlasting life. Unless we repent of our sins and place our faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we are under God’s just and righteous wrath. One day, if we fail to repent of our sins and place our faith in Jesus, God will banish us to our deserved eternal punishment in a literal hell.
Almost all the conservative evangelicals that I know or whom I know about affirm the statements in the previous paragraph. Likewise, almost all the self-described fundamentalists that I know or whom I know about affirm the statements in the previous paragraph. In the eyes of the rebellious world, because of our unified belief in the previous paragraph’s statements, we are the same; we are all fundamentalists.
If King Jesus tarries, or outside of a Holy Spirit given revival, conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists are going to be included together, or, rather, excluded together by the world. Our beliefs put us at odds with the objectives and desires of our society, and we are going to increasingly discover that neither of our voices are desired in the public square, because, ultimately, by God’s grace, our voices are the same. Whether or not we sing the Getty’s music isn’t a distinction that’s going to matter one whit to unbelievers; those who sing “In Christ Alone” during the worship service will be labeled bigots, hatemongers, and culturally undesirable along with our fundamentalists brothers and sisters in Christ. And that’s the main reason why I own the label of fundamentalist. The world believes that I’m one, and owning it is visible way to proclaim my allegiance to Jesus as well as declaring my solidarity with my brothers and sisters in Christ.
By all means, we should continue to have discussions and debates about things like music, but I pray that we do so with a growing sense of unity. We have been called to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ to an antagonistic world. We have been called to pursue holiness in a world that increasingly demands that we bow before their altars of identity politics and sexual freedom. I pray that when we’re the only ones still standing while everyone else has bowed before our society’s false gods and they’re preparing to bundle us up to be thrown into the fiery furnace, we’re not too busy sniping at each other to realize that we’re brothers in sisters in Christ and, as such, will suffer persecution together.
Soli Deo Gloria
 On the other hand, like me, they might embrace the term. I’ve never asked them.
 I write that good-naturedly, of course. Even though I wasn’t a Christian at the time, I enjoyed my time at the Bill Rice Ranch, and look back with nothing but fondness on it and appreciation for their commitment to loving Jesus and sharing the gospel.
 For the sake of space, I’m assuming some familiarity with my story and am ironing out some nuance that may be needed for some readers. For those who are unfamiliar with me and curious about my past, I point you to this article, this article, and this article.
 In a nutshell, the regulative principle of worship teaches that the Bible has commanded certain elements be included in the corporate worship service. I’ve heard those things described as “preaching the Word, praying the Word, singing the Word, see the Word (the ordinances of communion and baptism), and the public giving to support the ministry of the Word.” Anything else included in corporate worship should be for the sole purpose to aid the corporate engagement with those things to the glory of God and the edification of the saints. For example, another example beyond my church choir example, I believe rather strongly that organs are distracting and inappropriate to the corporate worship of God. Want to talk about standards? I have standards 😊
 If, for example, things change and churches become scarce in the US, and the only viable option (preaches the entire counsel of God’s word, adheres to God’s parameters for sexuality, etc.) is a church with a choir, then I will praise God for joining me in fellowship with those choir-loving brothers and sisters in Christ.