Slip, Slid’in Away

A sincere, caring Fundamentalist friend of mine came over to our home one night to ask me some questions about whether I was a true fundamentalist or not. His love for me was genuine and I felt his care. My friend kept asking me if I was a fundamentalist. And in turn I kept asking him to define the term for me. He did not, but responded with the same question as to whether I was a Fundamentalist or not. I asked him to define the term and around we went in a winsome, non-threatening kind of way. I’m still not sure why he never answered my question. I am a “fundamentalist”. The core “fundamental” doctrines of the Christian faith are near and dear to most all Fundamentalists and these fundamentals are most certainly near and dear to me.

In short, I believe in the fundamentals of the faith. This is what was documented at the beginning of the 20th Century by a group of men who were trying to bring clarity to a Christian religion that was becoming more and more fragmented by the inroads of liberalism. I believe in much of what those guys laid down. However, what I don’t believe in is the later externalizing of those beliefs to where the externals have, in some sense, displaced the fundamentals or at some level have become co-equal with these core doctrines. I would not equate dress codes with “salvation by grace alone”. I wouldn’t equate movie theater attendance with inerrancy of Scripture. Drinking alcohol is not co-equal and a reason to separate from someone like the perversion of the Gospel.  Modesty, social drinking, different bible translations and video viewing are secondary issues at best and all Christians should be aware of these preferences and responding to them in a biblical fashion. However, none of these issues meet the criteria of “fundamentals.”

I think it is good and in some ways necessary for Christians to relate more to their culture w/o compromising their “fundamental” beliefs. However, there can be a strong temptation to externalize our faith to the point that faith can morph into a set of propositions or standards to live by while drifting from the heart of the gospel. At my depraved, animating center is the heart of a legalist. I’m a very proud person who can be easily tempted to boast in what I do rather than what Christ did.

I think it is okay to choose certain Christian contemporary songs with cross-centered lyrics over a more antiquated genre of a bygone era. I enjoy the old stuff as it is cross-centered. And I love some of the contemporary music as well, when it is cross-centered. For me it is not as much style-driven as much as content driven.

From my dear friends perspective I went off into the big, bad world of liberalism. I was on the slippery slope and heading downhill pretty fast. What he could not see is that it was freeing. Christ was liberating me. My new life was a manageable lifestyle; not easier, but manageable, livable. It has been a life that makes more biblical sense to me than the life I lived. I don’t have to qualify, footnote, explain, seek to make sure the tassels of my robe are the right length and I don’t have to be concerned about the hedge around the hedge around the hedge of the law.

In this journey I began to learn more about idolatry of the heart, with a secondary emphasis on the externals. It sounds almost Christ-like. You know, like what Jesus said in Matthew 23 where they cleaned the outside, but the inside was full of corruption. Or like what John said in chapter two of his first epistle where he defined worldliness as being in the lusts and desires and not in some form of Gnosticism, the physical. Yes, this was a different way of thinking and living for me. Additionally, I found out that God was more concerned with my proud, self-righteous, legalistic heart more than the liquid I put in my body, the clothes I put on my body and the music I listened to.

It is ironic for me because in some ways it has been much harder to be free than to be the Pharisee I was. To serve my wife, my children and my world takes more energy and time (Read: to love God and neighbor). To repent more often, to confess my sin, to live in integrity, to be transparent with my sin, to recognize that I’m the biggest sinner I know has been a bigger challenge than isolating myself from my world. It was easier to erect a hedge about myself, cut myself off from my world and not engage my world or my heart.

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Leaving Legalism

To leave any movement can be difficult going for sure. How do you do that? Where do you go? What is the first step? I’ve never left a movement before and knew nothing about the process. Needless to say, no one I knew had ever left the movement, since we were in the same boat, so they didn’t know what to do either. And if anyone left the movement it was an unwritten assumption that you didn’t speak with them anymore, so if someone was to leave you couldn’t ask them how it went because they were “marked” for their defection.

This is sort of humorous now because I was considered damaged goods while I was in the movement. Though my role was limited and I was miserable I still acted as though the opinion of the perceived “shakers and movers” of the movement mattered. What I had to do was repent of my sin that believed people’s opinion actually had controlling meaning to me (Read: Fear of Man). I was a proud, big-time people pleaser and I wanted people’s approval. I was not getting their approval and to tell them that I was leaving the movement would have been the worst thing I could have done as far as people-pleasing was concerned. There was already distance from me to them and if I left there would be double-distance. I would be totally “outside the camp.”

What did I choose? I chose to say nothing. Instead I went on a long, private journey. And to be honest I don’t think I could have articulated these things to my friends anyway. It would have been futile and frustrating. I didn’t understand what was going on in my heart and I definitely couldn’t articulate the complexity of it all to my friends. From their perspective it would be like trying to convince an American why you didn’t believe in America anymore AND you were going to become a Muslim. To leave the movement is illogical to them. I kept quiet. I didn’t understand it all and I knew they did not as well.

So off I went. I was heading out into uncharted waters of evangelicalism, with no idea where I was going, with no compass whatsoever, in the middle of the night so to speak and no one knew and no one seemed to care. (Read: self-pity) I was leaving; no one asked how I was doing, where I was going, what I was up to, how much I hurt and/or could they extend a hand to help. I was on my own and it was a lonely despairing time, a Pharisee adrift.

What I really didn’t put together is that I had been alone since 1988. It was actually 1992 when I left fundamentalism or at least embarked on an exodus. I suppose officially I didn’t leave fundamentalism until 1997 and some would say until 2003. Depending on your perspective I would have to agree with the latter because you can physically leave the movement in your mind, as I did in 1992, but it takes years to get the effect of it out of your system. And truthfully you never do. I’m a born legalist. It’s in my heart.

Once you get the fundamentalist movement out of your life you are still left with legalism, the essence of the bad part of fundamentalism in your heart. At the core of our being is a desire to merit righteousness so the truth of the matter is we’re all legalists in our hearts, though we don’t like to think that way. In short, I’m a self-righteous person.

Fundamentalism just has a way of exacerbating what is already abiding in the soul. Leaving Fundamentalism gets the unnecessary out of your life, but the residual effect of the fall is always lying dormant in the heart, which has nothing to do with Fundamentalism. I cut the shackles loose from my soul and now I only have to deal with my core corruption rather than the additional bondage of a man-made legalistic culture.

The good news is that now I’m in a context where fellow, self-acknowledged sinners are willing to come alongside another sinner to help him repent, grow and glorify God.

My Former Separatist’s Days

The “branch” of fundamentalism that I was part of was one of the more restrictive branches of the movement. I believed in the King James Bible, which was touted as published in 1611. I didn’t read the 1611 version because of the Old English. I had a translation of a translation, but that did not mitigate my zeal in boasting in the Authorized Version. For me this was a dividing line with other groups. There were several dividing lines. Here is a short list or relationship stoppers:

1. If you did not have the 1611 King James Version
2. If you were not Baptist
3. If you were not Independent Baptist to be more specific
4. If ladies wore pants as opposed to dresses or culottes
5. If you went to a movie theater
6. If you drank alcohol
7. If you hung out with people that did any of the taboos on this list
8. If you didn’t go to a church meeting twice on Sunday and once on Wed

There were other things on the list. I held them strictly and typically when I met anyone that I didn’t know I would begin a subtle process of question asking to figure out who they were, what they participated in and how they held to these standards. There were ways to figure it out. And if they did not hold to my views then they would be “X’ed” off my list so to speak and I didn’t interact with them. Bob Jones University was one of the groups that was off my list. They held what I thought was a “liberal” view of the bible because they didn’t have an absolute stance on the King James Bible. They were also in the arts, which was an unnecessary evil, from my immature perspective, and a precursor to the entertainment industry. Their thinking seemed to be that if the art was from 200 or more years ago, it had been “sanctified” so to speak and was okay. In their mind there was no hard line or even a dotted line to the entertainment industry of today. In my mind, it was a precursor.

I have gone from loving the movement to hating the movement to my current reflections that allow me to praise God that the gospel is being preached in the movement. I was very arrogant while I was in this movement and showed it through my separatist positions. I was more arrogant after I left the movement by being critical of the illogicalness of it all. 

God has been kind to show me both sin patterns in my heart and today I am glad that Christ is being preach in this movement and I will always fondly remember many old friends who truly do love God and serve him faithfully.