Sometimes people think that Christians are more legalistic and more narrow in their theology if they are biblical fundamentalists. Actually I believe that a lot of legalism and narrow theological requirements arise from a lack of respect for the Bible– specifically, the ambiguity and openness of the Bible on a variety of topics.
First, what is a bible fundamentalist? Popular skewed conceptions would be someone like the church lady from the Saturday night live skit who has bad fashion sense and who lives a sheltered life seperated from the world and is somewhat skeptical of science, humanities (philosophy, art, literature etc are to humanistic), etc. The historic ‘fundamentalist movement’ in Christianity was a response to science and non-theistic humanism from around 100 years ago. A series of pamphlets called the ‘fundamentals’ were written in 1905 emphasizing the fundamentals of Christian thought in response to then-popular ‘higher criticism’ readings of the Bible which discounted most supernatural events (you can still buy them as a 4 volume set.*)
At root the fundamentalist movement, as a hyper-protestantism, wanted to focus as much as possible on what the Bible says. In short, if the Bible said it, then it is essential (or ‘fundamental’), but if the Bible is unclear or ambiguous on a point or issue, then we cannot require it. What should be required as fundamentals of Christianity then are things like the Divinity of Christ, his virgin birth, that he died and rose again for the sins of the world, and that anyone who believes, etc…basically the apostles creed, and a few more details.**
When I taught at Bethel in Minnesota, I used to have students come to me who were frustrated with their parents church because they felt it was too legalistic, and they tended to think that the legalism they found there was the result of the church taking the bible too seriously. I would often tell them that the problem wasn’t that the church was taking the Bible too seriously, but rather, maybe that their church wasn’t taking the Bible seriously enough. A lot of the legalism that people come up with is not particularly Biblical at all– in most cases a few verses are cherry picked, often out of context, other counter-verses are ignored, and so the legalistic rule arises from a non-biblical basis, it seems to me. The Bible, I would tell the students, is probably your best best for having freedom from legalism. Those of us who resonate with this Biblical orientation like it because it provides us a basic document around which to have our discussions and debates. Its a common touchstone or point from which we start and agree to take it seriously, and go from there. Of course there will be some differences of opinion and interpretations, and some seem much better than others, and can be defended more easily.
But it seems that an often overlooked fact is that the Bible provides a key not only to unity through common viewpoints, but to unity through allowing diversity, insofar as it allows for differences of opinions on a lot of things. Now obviously any church allows some diversity. Some churches are so liberal that they don’t expect their parrishoners to take the Bible as the Word of God in a literal sense at all. But even for those denomenations which do, there is a wide variety. Catholics, of course, see the institutional church as the mouthpiece of God, and in some ways as the origin of the authority of Scripture. So rather than just the Bible they will also consult Church tradition and papal writings. Anglicans are known for their book of common prayer which gives a lot of set guidelines for praying and practical Christian worship. Some other protestant denomenations, although they don’t really focus on church history, have a lot of ‘sticking points’– like the Wisconsin Synod Lutheran, may not allow others outside their denomenation to take communion, they may require abstinence from alcohol, and not do ecumenical work projects (cross-denomenational cooperative ventures). Reformed churches, who certainly wouldn’t usually care about alcohol use and would have less strict issue than the Wisconsin Lutheran Synod, usually have some ‘sticking points’ which they consider essential– such as a strong focus on predestination as God’s ordaining and choosing whoever is saved, and a focus on the depravity of man. Some of them would require adherence to a whole series of Reformed Church writings and documents in addition to Scripture (as the means by which to interpret Scripture). The Free Church I grew up in was somewhat legalistic about drinking and smoking and dancing, and very concerned about following the Bible, but they allowed differences of opinions on things like how churches are structured (elder or congregational rule), views about predestination (does God choose us or must we make a decision?), and a number of other such theological points. The general motto for this approach is: “Where is it written”– if you can’t show me clearly in Scripture where is says what you are saying, and if you can’t totally explain away objections to your view which are also in Scripture, then you have to allow for alternatives to your viewpoint. We will have common opinion on matters which are clear, and we will allow for diversity of opinion on matters which are not absolutely clear. In this way then, Scripture unifies Christians on both ends– by common agreement on the clear things, and by allowing difference of opinion on less clear less essential things. Unity is gained not just through us all agreeing on everything, but by us being willing to get along with those who have views different than our own, but who we still consider as Brothers or Sisters.
So, from my perspective, being a fundamentalist in this sense about the Bible won’t lead to more legalism or a narrower theology necessarily. Where Scripture speaks clearly to theology or living, our views will be narrowed (believing Christ is the son of God is essential, and believing that confession of sin is essential to salvation is essential– other viewpoints here are excluded) but in other ways adhering ONLY to scripture will create an open space for allowing more diversity of opinion on particular issues as well.
Many of my friends who were raised in fundamentalist churches still have a bad taste in their mouth. My church I grew up in evidently was not as legalistic or self righteous as many are, so my experiences may be unique, but I really appreciate the Bible centered tradition I grew up in BECAUSE it was what allowed me early on in my Christian walk to question points of view I saw in my church which I in turn found to have scant strong evidence in Scripture. More importantly though, I think my bible-oriented tendencies molded me in such a way that I tend to reject overly-narrow interpretations of Scripture– ones which restrict options in a way which Scripture does not seem to be restrictive. So one could say that a fundamentalist upbringing made me too liberal to fit into narrow denomenational theological structures. Even if I would agree with a denomenational view of something in particular, if I felt it wasn’t clear in Scripture, I would certainly not want it to be held as a fundamental belief required by the church. My agreeing with the denomenations view is irrelevant– what matters is what I am allowed to expect of others, in light of Scripture, and Scripture in many cases requires charity of me towards viewpoints which I don’t hold but which also have some valid support from Scripture. This openness is not a new mode of Christian thought at all– it has in fact been a dominant mode of thought in many protestant and in their own way Catholic churches for many years (I don’t have time to go into the wide diversity of opinion in the Catholic Church here, but the range goes from hyper conservative pentecostal Catholics to liberal humanist Catholics) But for some churches, in the face of a general loss of consensous– in the face of what some call the ‘postmodern predicament’ by which they mean general lack of sure moorings and a sense of a loss of Truth– in the face of this some churches have hunkered down and made a strict theological stance more imperative. This is only natural, but there is in this movement loss of the more open handed bible-oriented discussions. More and more, contemporary popular sages are looked too to give us a systematic– and there is nothing wrong with learning from great theologians and pastors. But it seems like there has been a general loss of people’s ability to think for themselves and to critically study scripture themselves. People don’t have time to think, and study has been reduced to reading a book so I can know what to think (and most people don’t have time for that– they have others read books to learn what to think and then have them tell them what to think…)
The long and short of this post is this: focusing on what the Bible tells you will not make you more legalistic. I believe it probably will tend to make you less so, and to losen up some of your theological essentials, while also helping to you realize what is really essential about the Gospel. So read your Bible more. -Andy Gustafson
*If you want to buy the Fundamentals book, I’d recommend you buy it used through amazon:
**Apostles creed is here:
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