A Gospel-Centered Way Beyond Fundamentalism and New Evangelicalism
At Grace Church of Philly, we long for Christian fellowship with other believers that is based upon gospel essentials. By gospel essentials, we mean those teachings of Scripture which are necessary for one to truly be called a Christian. Those gospel essentials would at least include a belief in the authority and reliability of Scripture, the Trinity, the exclusiveness and sufficiency of the redemptive work of Christ, and the depravity and inability of mankind. Also, included in those gospel essentials would be credible evidence of belief, including at least a maturing, obedient love for God and others, especially love for other believers.
Unfortunately, in the world-wide church of Jesus Christ, Christian fellowship based on gospel essentials has been difficult to achieve. This is evident in the historic divisiveness between the two movements of Fundamentalism and New Evangelicalism. Neither of these movements today has clear definition or significant influence, but I will use them as an illustration of losing sight of the gospel.
As a young Christian I was introduced to Fundamentalism and thought that anyone who believed the gospel but did not agree with me on other areas of doctrine must have been a New Evangelical. I suppose that many New Evangelicals considered anyone who criticized their openness on some doctrinal matters to be a Fundamentalist.
I can remember the days when John MacArthur and John Piper were considered to be New Evangelicals by Fundamentalists, though it is likely that New Evangelicals considered them both to be Fundamentalists.
This common way of thinking presents a false dilemma in that it offers only two options (Fundamentalism and New Evangelicalism) and requires that you make a choice between the two.
Additionally, not only is there a false dilemma, there is an arbitrary standard of what characterizes a Fundamentalist and a New Evangelical. From Fundamentalism’s vantage point, one is a New Evangelical and not a Fundamentalist, because they do not practice ‘biblical’ separation from those who do not agree with their full understanding of Scripture. From a New Evangelical’s vantage point, one is a Fundamentalist and not a New Evangelical, because they practice a “non-biblical’ separation from those who differ on various aspects of biblical teaching. Fundamentalists would say that New Evangelicals practice separation over nothing; New Evangelicals would say that Fundamentalist practice separation over everything.
Rolland D. McCune, a Fundamentalist, alleges that New Evangelicalism’s movement away from ‘true Christianity’ could have been prevented had they practiced ecclesiastical separation. Of course, for fundamentalists, true Christianity includes much more than gospel essentials and true Christianity is lost by granting Christian fellowship to those who do not meet the Fundamentalist standard of ‘true’ Christianity.
“This comes as no surprise to fundamentalists because the greatest hedge against this corruption by association (1 Cor 15:33) is the practice of ecclesiastical separation. Since the repudiation of this doctrine was probably the chief cornerstone of the new evangelicalism from its inception, the movement had a manifest destiny of deterioration in theology and ambivalence in practice from the beginning. Its antiseparatist obsession left it shorn of the God-appointed means of preserving and propagating true Christianity (DBSJ 8 (Fall 2003): 85–99).”
Along a similar vein, Dr. Harold Ockenga, a New Evangelical who wrote the foreword to Dr. Harold Lindsell’s book, The Battle for the Bible, published in 1976, affirms the anti-separatism of New Evangelicalism:
“Neo-evangelicalism was born in 1948 in connection with a convocation address which I gave in the Civic Auditorium in Pasadena. While reaffirming the theological view of fundamentalism, this address repudiated its ecclesiology and its social theory. The ringing call for a repudiation of separatism and the summons to social involvement received a hearty response from many evangelicals… It differed from fundamentalism in its repudiation of separatism and its determination to engage itself in the theological dialogue of the day. It had a new emphasis upon the application of the gospel to the sociological, political, and economic areas of life.”
New Evangelicalism admittedly refused to allow its theology (including gospel essentials) to determine its ecclesiology.
Is it not possible that both Fundamentalism and New Evangelicalism have a deficient ecclesiology that diminishes the primacy of gospel essentials? McCune argues that the “greatest hedge against this corruption by association is ecclesiastic separation” to preserve what he called ‘true Christianity’ while Ockenga argued that “while reaffirming the theological view of fundamentalism,” New Evangelicalism “repudiated its ecclesiology and its social theory.” Unfortunately, Fundamentalism’s understanding of ‘true Christianity’ and basis for ecclesiastical separation was often arbitrary, unpredictable, provincial, and beyond gospel-essentials. While, New Evangelicalism was right in rejecting this aberration of separation, their lack of commitment to gospel essentials led them down a path of diluting the true nature of Christianity.
Fundamentalism and New Evangelicalism represent contrasting ecclesiologies of exclusion and inclusion. Fundamentalism has an ecclesiology that defines genuine Christianity in expanded terms including much that has no bearing on gospel essentials (such as eschatological systems, church government, etc), thereby excluding many. From a Fundamentalist perspective, agreement on all matters of faith and practice is essential and any disagreement is equivalent to disobedience and, consequently, cause for exclusion. Fundamentalism diminishes the primacy of gospel essentials by elevating other biblical teaching to an equal or greater level.
On the other hand, New Evangelicalism diminishes the primacy of gospel essentials by often expanding Christian fellowship to include those who reject gospel essentials.
My assessment is that if gospel essentials were rightly elevated, Fundamentalists would be more inclusive and New Evangelicals would be more exclusive. If Fundamentalism focused on the primacy of gospel essentials their appreciation of the believing church would grow to include many whom they now reject because of disagreement on non-gospel essentials. If New Evangelicalism focused on the primacy of gospel essentials their appreciation of the church would bring them to exclude those who reject those gospel essentials. Gospel essentials need to determine the parameters of exclusion and inclusion.
Beyond Fundamentalism and its certainty on all matters of theology and New Evangelicalism’s openness to accept most everything, we desire to identify with those individuals and groups who have questioned both the arrogance of Fundamentalism and the tolerance of New Evangelicalism and who seek Christian fellowship based on gospel essentials.
In essentials, unity
In non-essentials, liberty
In all things, charity