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Are Southern Baptists Fundamentalists?

There are many different ways people use the word "Fundamentalism." Some people think it is a dirty word, a label you put on a person somewhat to the right of you who sort of gives you the creeps. Some people think Fundamentalism is synonymous with Evangelicalism, and they don't like either. Some claim that Fundamentalism is more or less the same thing as legalism. Many scholars claim that Fundamentalism has nothing to do with Christianity per se, but represents a rather rigid approach to doctrine and practice that can be transferred to almost any religious tradition. Many conservative Christians, in a more positive use of the term, equate Fundamentalism with an orthodox view of Christianity. 

While there is some truth in many of these understandings, all of them miss the mark. While Fundamentalists are very conservative, it is too subjective (and too common) to throw around the word like an epithet for those to your right. While Evangelicalism shares common roots with Fundamentalism, the former is actually an off-shoot of the latter. While all Fundamentalists are evangelicals, the Fundamentalist movement is different than (and often opposed to) the post-World War II movement called Evangelicalism. For this reason is it also a bit too simplistic to view Fundamentalism and orthodoxy as coterminous. Though many who identify with Fundamentalism may have some legalistic tendencies, two things need to be kept in mind. First, legalism is not intrinsic to the movement as much as it is a characteristic of some individuals and churches within the movement. Second, "legalism" is a highly subjective designation, so it is best to be charitable when using it; one man's legalism is another man's libertinism. 

The idea that Fundamentalism is really a number of "fundamentalisms," or a conservative inter-religious impulse that appears in many traditions, is fraught with problems. First, it denies the fundamentally (no pun intended) evangelical Christian character of the Fundamentalist tradition. Second, conservative movements are as different as they are similar. For example, almost all Fundamentalist Christians eschew violence as a tenet of their faith, whereas Islamic extremists view violence as part and parcel of their religion. Finally, it is important to note the impetus behind this more "pluralistic" understanding of Fundamentalism. In the 1980's it became popular for (mostly) leftist historians and sociologists to posit a theory of multiple fundamentalisms to explain conservative political movements, whether the Ayatollah in Iran or Jerry Falwell in America. While conservative renewal movements are present in many world religions, Fundamentalism is a uniquely Protestant Christian movement. 

So what constitutes normative Fundamentalism? A Fundamentalist is a theologically and often socially conservative evangelical Protestant. A Fundamentalist views himself as being in continuity with the conservative factions that fought in the great denominational battles during the first quarter of the 20th century. A Fundamentalist believes that interdenominational alliances with other Fundamentalists are more important than intra-denominational alliances. Since the late 1920's, a Fundamentalist believes that obedience to Scripture means separation from all ungodliness, whether in the form of secular immorality or doctrinal heresy. And since the 1960's, many Fundamentalists interpret that separation to include separating from both apostate churches and other individual conservatives who are a part of those churches. We might call this more stringent form of the practice "secondary separation." Most Fundamentalists, though not all, are also militant in their approach to defending the faith. They are militant not in the sense that they are violent; for Fundamentalists, militancy is needed because orthodoxy is under attack by a hostile world and needs defending via evangelism and apologetics.

It has long been popular for critics of the Southern Baptist Convention to refer to the denomination (or at least her leaders) as Fundamentalists. This happens on two different fronts, both of which misunderstand both Southern Baptists and Fundamentalists.

The first front is the ongoing battle between SBC conservatives and (mostly) ex-SBC moderates and liberals. Since the 1980's progressive Baptists have referred to SBC leadership as Fundamentalists. Most Southern Baptist leaders rightly reject this label in favor of the term "conservative." There are two reasons for this. First, Southern Baptists have never been a part of the Fundamentalist movement. Though theologically fundamental–if by "fundamental" one means orthodox–Southern Baptists have always eschewed the ecclesiastical separatism that is such a defining characteristic of the Fundamentalist movement. Also, unlike the Fundamentalists, conservative Southern Baptists were on the winning side against denominational progressives in the 1920's. Interestingly, most self-proclaimed Fundamentalists scoff at the idea that Southern Baptists, a mainline denomination, are part of their movement. Many Fundamentalists continue to refer to the SBC as a "mixed assembly," even in the post-Conservative Resurgence era. Though conservative, Southern Baptists have never been Fundamentalists. Once a Southern Baptist becames a Fundamentalist, he separates from the SBC fold; this is the reason there is such a large Independent Baptist movement in the south and Midwest.

Conservatives also reject the Fundamentalist moniker because of the way the term is often used by the secular press (and during the Controversy, a hostile denominational press). Thirty years ago or so America became acquainted with Islamic extremism in the Middle East. Most journalists (and many scholars) refer to these extremists as "Muslim Fundamentalists." In the minds of many Americans, a Fundamentalist is a proponent of some kind of religious violence. While the Fundamentalist movement rarely backs away from their name, other conservatives (like SBC leadership) rightly recognize that to allow themselves to be called Fundamentalists would be granting a rhetorical advantage to their secular and liberal critics. After all, you never know when one of those SBC Fundamentalists might take a plane hostage or bomb a deli in Tel Aviv.

The second front is the increasing criticism of SBC "culture" from both disaffected agitators from within the convention and longtime antagonists from outside the denomination. Some critics oppose the biblical stance the SBC has taken against women in pastoral authority; I have been told many times that only a Fundamentalist would tell a women God has not called her to preach. Some complain about the SBC speaking out so often in support of a conservative social agenda. They believe the SBC has sold out to the "Fundamentalist" agenda of the Religious Right. Interestingly, these critics tend to either support a more leftist social agenda or they agree with the positions taken by the SBC but disapprove of the SBC formally speaking to these issues. Significantly, these latter "soft" critics fail to articulate a reasonable alternative to denominational resolutions and the publication of pertinent literature and curricula by LifeWay and the ERLC.

Some argue that Southern Baptists are Fundamentalists because of some of the social stances the denomination takes. The vast majority of Southern Baptists are opposed to beverage alcohol. Most Southern Baptists oppose gambling. I am unaware of any Southern Baptist who endorses pornography. Though there is obviously some diversity of opinion in the matter of entertainment choices, almost all Southern Baptists will agree that there are some movies, television programs and music groups that simply should not be a part of a Christian's entertainment "diet." These stances are considered Fundamentalist (which really means legalistic) positions by critics. Appeals are made to "Christian freedom." Various proof-texts are bandied about in an attempt to disprove SBC positions. But rarely do the critics take into account such matters as contextual issues (our culture is different from the first century), systemic sin (some industries are evil and ought to be opposed) or the real nature of Christian freedom (freedom is not for freedom's sake, but for the sake of commending the gospel to the culture).

Southern Baptists are not Fundamentalists. We are evangelical Baptists who, as closely as possible, pattern the way we "do church" after the New Testament. We are Bible-believers who earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints. We are social conservatives who desire to see the gospel transform individual lives and our fallen culture. We are missionary believers who believe the gospel is far too great a prize to keep to ourselves. And we are cooperative Christians who believe God will accomplish great things through us if we labor together to complete the Great Commission.

In the end, it does not really matter if critics label the SBC Fundamentalist. Sticks and stones may break our bones, but hopefully God will continue to use Southern Baptists no matter what words may be used to hurt us.

Should Baptism Divide Us?

Should differing views on baptism divide Christians? Should the command to baptize believers be overlooked in order to obey the command for unity? Throughout the history of the church, most have said that the command to baptize is worth dividing over. Most Baptists have contended that the issues of proper mode (immersion) and proper candidate (a believer) are significant enough to divide them from their Christian brethren. A few here and there, like John Bunyan, have said that it was not. Unfortunately, there are a few great men of the faith today that advocate a position similar to that of Bunyan. Fortunately, there are also a number of great men of the faith who are defending the historic Baptist position. One of these is Dr. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. On his new blog, Conventional Thinking, he gives thoughtful attention to this very issue (he promises more will follow). With typical precision he writes:

Thus, for Baptists to receive into the membership of a Baptist church (or to invite to the Lord's Supper) any believer who lacks such baptism, is to receive non-baptized persons as if they were baptized…Any compromise of Baptist conviction concerning the requirement of believer's baptism by immersion amounts to a redefinition of Baptist identity. More importantly, it raises the most basic questions of ecclesiology. We must give those questions intent attention in these days. Otherwise, will there be any Baptists in the next generation?

I think we would do best to heed his call to give "intent attention" to this issue. You can start here: