Fundamentalism, Modernism, and the Dangerous Middle (part 2)

In my last post, I laid out an abbreviated history of the fundamentalist/modernist controversy and a working definition of what I mean by fundamentalism. You can read my first part here. In part 2, I will give two historical examples of why this middle ground is a dangerous compromise for those that desire to stay true to the biblical doctrines. My final post will address some considerations for what this means in the Church today.

Seeking the Middle with New Evangelicalism

Around the time of the establishment of the World Council of Churches, the inauguration of a new movement was underway. Seeking to leave the separatistic fundamentalism that seemed to be more insulated from the world, conservative evangelical men such as Charles Fuller, Carl F. H. Henry, E.J. Carnell, Harold Lindsell, Harold J. Ockenga, and Billy Graham sought to influence the liberal denominations and scholars while still maintaining conservative evangelical doctrine through what they called “new evangelicalism.” All these men held to fundamental doctrine but felt that more needed to be done to reunite the churches, win back the denominations, and engage the liberal church.

The New Evangelical movement established (among other things) Fuller Theological Seminary (1947), the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (1950), and Christianity Today magazine (1956). Graham sought a kinder, gentler evangelicalism as evidenced in his vision for Christianity Today, a magazine begun by Graham and his father-in-law Nathan Bell. Of CT, Graham said, “It was my vision that the magazine be pro-church and pro-denomination and that it become the rallying point of evangelicalism within and without the large denominations.”[1] Over time, and under the influence of Dr. Bell, Graham had moved from separating from apostate denominations to seeking their approval and cooperation in hopes of winning them back to conservative theology.

This also proved true for Graham’s crusades as well. In 1957, the year after CT was launched, Graham held his famous New York crusade in Manhattan where he fully broke with his fundamentalist roots and connections by cooperating with “a group that was predominantly non-evangelical and even included out-and-out modernists. It also meant sending converts back to their local churches, no matter how liberal those churches might be.”[2] Iain Murray notes that newspapers at the time of the crusade reported Graham saying, “We’ll send them to their own churches—Roman Catholic, Protestant, or Jewish…The rest is up to God.”[3]

The mindset of new evangelicalism was such that if evangelical Christians could shed their embarrassing fundamentalism and its unwillingness to bend, then liberalism would be willing to let them sit at the table as equals. As someone has said this “deal with the devil” was such that if conservatives would call liberals “Christians,” then liberals would call conservatives “scholars.” 

Church historian George Marsden observes, “ Such successes in culturally influential religious circles were leading Graham toward the conviction that he could make marvelous inroads into America’s major denominations if he could jettison the disastrous fundamentalist image of separatism, anti-intellectualism, and contentiousness.”[4] That Graham was in fact moving in this direction is made abundantly clear in a letter written by Graham to Harold Lindsell, then a professor as Fuller Seminary, regarding Graham’s vision for Christianity Today, to “plant the evangelical flag in the middle of the road, taking a conservative theological position but a definite liberal approach to social problems. [Christianity Today] would combine the best in liberalism and the best in fundamentalism without compromising theologically.”[5]

Fuller Seminary, BGEA, and Christianity Today stand as the most obvious examples of this failed philosophy, and today each of them stand as a testimony to the bankruptcy of the idea that one can seek a middle ground without compromising, and the eventual theological slide is clearly seen not only upon these institutions, but upon evangelicalism today.

Seeking the Middle within Presbyterianism

This challenge to historic Christianity happened across denominational lines. Another important example of this was in the Presbyterian Church U.S. denomination (not to be confused with the later PCUSA denomination that emerged from it). The flagship school of the PCUS for many years was Princeton Seminary, and as other schools, it was deeply affected by the incursion of theological liberalism in its faculty. Among the few remaining conservative professors stood J. Gresham Machen, professor of New Testament. Seeing the influx of liberalism into Christianity as a whole, Machen wrote in his book Christianity and Liberalism (1923) that “it may appear that what the liberal theologian has retained after abandoning to the enemy one Christian doctrine after another is not Christianity at all, but a religion which is so entirely different from Christianity as to belong in a distinct category.” In other words, liberalism is not Christianity at all, but another religion altogether.

This stand for orthodox Christian doctrine at Princeton came to a head with the denomination and faculty in 1924-1925, when the Auburn Affirmation was signed by 1,274 ministers in the PCUS. The Affirmation made it clear that the fundamentals of the faith (particular the first five listed from page 1 of my notes) did not need to be affirmed by PCUS candidates for ordination. This allowed for new ministers to deny these core doctrines privately while being ordained for ministry, so long as they subscribed to the Bible and Westminster Confession of Faith.

Conservative in theology but seeking a middle road for the sake of unity, Charles R. Erdman, professor of theology at Princeton, sided with the so-called moderates in the PCUS General Assembly and created a peace commission to “study” the issue. The commission was to be made up of liberals and conservatives, but only conservatives that sought peace above all else.[6] Erdman himself was Premillennial, a Bible conference speaker, and a contributor to The Fundamentals. But all of these didn’t matter when it came to his alliances. Seeking the middle ground, Erdman held the door for liberals to walk in and overtake the denomination and seminary without question. As fundamentalist Ernest Pickering wrote, “This new evangelicalism approaches the liberal bear with a bit of honey instead of a gun.”[7]

Realizing that the PCUS was apostate and lost to modernism, Machen and the remaining conservative faculty members left and began Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA in 1929. In 1936 he began the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) denomination after being suspended by the PCUS regarding his establishment of an independent mission board that only supported conservative missionaries. The establishment of a new denomination and separation from the PCUS came at great personal cost to Machen who lost many friends for his abandonment of the PCUS. Was Machen overreacting? He didn’t think so. He wrote, “It is no wonder, then, that liberalism is totally different from Christianity, for the foundation is different. Christianity is founded upon the Bible. It bases upon the Bible both its thinking and its life. Liberalism on the other hand is founded upon the shifting emotions of sinful men.”[8] Machen saw his actions as contending for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3).


[1] Billy Graham, Just as I Am, (London: Harper Collins, 1997), 291.

[2] George Marsden, Reforming Fundamentalism: Fuller Seminary and the New Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987), 162.

[3] Murray, 29, fn. 2.

[4] Marsden, 159.

[5] Ibid., 158.

[6] David O. Beale, In Pursuit of Purity: American Fundamentalism Since 1850 (Greenville, SC: Unusual Publications, 1986), 158.

[7] Murray, 31.

[8] J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.,1923), 67.

The Long Term Benefits of Planting Acorns Today

As I talk to pastors and missionaries in many contexts, there is a topic that seems to be a repeated refrain that I hear often. It has to do with the shortage of men to take the place of retiring pastors, teachers, missionaries, and ministry leadership roles. It has been clear for many years that there is a growing need for Christian leaders serving in ministry. Today, the swelling need for leaders has grown into a tsunami of massive proportions.

So, whose responsibility is to to provide these new leaders? Does the responsibility lay upon the denominational leaders, seminaries, Bible colleges, and missions agencies? Although there are many who believe this, the biblical answer is a resounding “No.” Leaders for the church may be trained and equipped for the church and mission field within these parachurch organizations, but the duty of identification, discipleship, mentoring, and at least initial training is the responsibility of the local church itself.

The fact that the local church is supposed to be identifying, discipline, mentoring, and training up the next generations of leaders and in many places have failed to do so is the reason that we are in a leadership crisis in the church today. My purpose isn’t to pass the buck, but to put the responsibility firmly where it belongs.

In Acts 13:2-3, Luke records, “While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.” The sending of these first two missionaries was done through the local church in Antioch and not through a missions agency. Agencies have their place in aiding the church, but it is the Spirit that calls apart missionaries, and it is the church that sends them.

In Ephesians 4:11-12, we see that the Spirit has given pastors and teachers, among others, to the church for the edification and training of the church. “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ…

This work of preparation by these gifted leaders was done in house, and would have led to the identification of young leaders that would be mentored within the church. An important example of this would be Paul’s identification of Timothy and the church’s agreement in Timothy’s calling: “Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you” (1 Timothy 4:14).

And when Timothy is instructed about his own duties as a pastor in the church, he was strongly reminded by Paul, “and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2:2).

There can be no denying that the New Testament clearly teaches that leaders within the church are to be produced by the local church. So, why isn’t this happening? There are probably many reasons that would be given by some pastors who fail to do this—no time, feeling of inadequacy, fear of being replaced by their disciples, fear of discouraging disciples from ministry, and not knowing where to start. But none of these are valid in disobeying the clear admonition of Scripture.

Where do we go from here? That brings me to the title of this post, “The Long Term Benefit of Planting Acorns Today.” The mighty oak tree is moderate in the speed at which it grows, growing about 12-18 inches per year (30-46 cm) to a height of about 60 feet tall (18.28 meters). Compare this to pine, which can grow to 2 feet (61 cm) in a year.

Sometimes we fail to plan for the distant future, only looking up from our labors as our time of departure draws near. And what happens when we have not discipled men whom we can entrust the gospel, who will be able to teach others also? We will find that we have endangered our local church because the resource it so desperately needs in a leader cannot be easily found. Focused labor is admirable, but discipline leaders for the future is to be a part of our labors.

Growing accords into mighty oaks takes time. The future of many local churches has been jeopardized by short-sited pastors who figured they would simply call the local seminary and order a shiny new pastor to take their place when they retire. But many of these pipelines are empty or the hands-off approach of local churches have produced a generation of young pastors who have little or no loyalty to the local church. What do we do?

The answer from Scripture is the same. We plant the acorns. We may not live to see them fully develop, but we must plant the seeds from which the future church will benefit. If we do not, we will not only be unfaithful to the Scriptures in fulfilling our duty, but we will leave the church poorer than when it was handed to us.

Rise Up O Men of God!

“This is not a moment for timid souls. Boldness comes easily when you are in the presence of those who agree with you; it is difficult when you are standing alone in the midst of people who seek your demise. Boldness behind a pulpit is one thing; boldness in a city council meeting is another. Boldness is seen most clearly when you have burned the bridge that would have enabled you to retreat to safety.”

Erwin Lutzer, We Will Not Be Silenced: Responding Courageously to Our Cultures Assault on Christianity, 120.

We are at a critical point in the history of the world and the Church. Should the Lord tarry, our children will look back on these dark and trying days and judge whether we were courageous in the face of great opposition or see evidence of compromise and capitulation. What will make the difference? Can I suggest a few things from Acts 4:8-12, where the disciples ran into their first major confrontation with aggression?

“Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers of the people and elders, if we are being examined today concerning a good deed done to a crippled man, by what means this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead—by him this man is standing before you well. This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:8-12)

1. The disciples were filled with the Spirit.

This is the only way a group of Christ-followers who were cowering behind locked doors only a few days before could be so radically different. Courage and boldness is not for those of this type of personality. Boldness and courage filled the hearts of those filled with the Spirit.

2. The disciples testified to Jesus Christ.

The evangelical church is scattered and divided about a lot of things today—spiritual gifts, baptism modes, music, methodology, women in ministry, and more. Don’t get me wrong, hese are all incredibly important things. But the primary need for standing firm against the onslaught of the enemy is the gospel message. The heart and focus must highlight the cross of Jesus Christ and the atoning work accomplished. Everything else must be seen in its subordinate place.

3. The disciples upheld the importance of the resurrection of Christ.

The resurrection points to the acceptance of the sacrifice of Christ on our behalf. It is not tangential, but central. The resurrection of Christ points to our own future resurrection and glorification. If you grasp this, then courage is sure to come because nothing—NOTHING—can stop you. Not even death.

4. The disciples never forgot that Jesus was rejected too.

If you forget that they hated Jesus, you might be tempted into the sin of seeking to please man. But if you remember that they hated our Lord and crucified the Lord of glory, then we will not be surprised when they hate us as well—no matter how winsome or loving or kind we might be.

5. The disciples knew that there is no other hope for the world than Jesus.

If a person could be saved through Islam, or Mormonism, or liberation theology, then it would be much easier to just quietly practice our faith privately without any care about others because they’ll eventually get to heaven too. But the message of Jesus was clear—He is the only way to the Father. And that should embolden us because although some people might want to silence us or shout us down, we can’t be silent if we truly love them.

Brothers and sisters, don;t lose heart. Jesus is coming soon, but we have work to do and we can’t allow the shouts of the world to drown us out.

Praying for Missions

“Missions is not the ultimate goal of the church. Worship is. Missions exists because worship doesn’t.”

—John Piper

Satan wants to cause disruptions and disunity among missionaries to make their ministry ineffective, and ruin their testimonies, which if not quickly dealt with, could cause many to reject the gospel.

There can be a tendency to think of missionaries as superheroes and put them on a pedestal, but the truth is that they are just like all other Christians with every weakness and temptation that you struggle with. Like you and me, they too need to depend on the Lord so that He can work through them. God truly does use the weak and foolish of this world to confound the wise (1 Cor. 1:27).

Missionaries need your prayers.

Some examples of things you can pray for:

  1. Dependence on God.
  2. For strong, godly marriages.
  3. For health problems- these can cause discouragement and might press missionaries to eventually leave the field.
  4. For the difficulties of language and culture learning.
  5. That the message of the gospel of grace (not works) would be clearly understood 
  6. Missionaries are often surrounded by Satanic forces through witchcraft and rituals of the local people.
  7. Frustration that comes from with lack of privacy, lack of results, unfamiliar foods, extreme climates.
  8. Open communication and good relationships with coworkers.
  9. Loneliness, including separation from family and friends. 
  10. Making new friends in a new culture and language.
  11. Missionary children- for social, educational and spiritual development.
  12. Bible translation- Satan doesn’t want God’s Word to spread into other languages and it is a real spiritual warfare to get the Word of God into a new language.

Eight Ideas for Reaching Your Mission Field (Other Cultures in Your Back Yard)

1. Take your neighbors a plate of cookies with a tract in their own language. If you give a non-disposable plate they are almost sure to return it, possibly with a gift of their own. Then continue the relationship.

2. Get the young people of your church involved. Many teenagers are taking foreign language classes in school or have learned it at home. Challenge them to memorize their testimony in this foreign language and go from there.

3. Hand out copies of the Gospel of John in the language of your neighbors and those at work or leave in your work break room, hospital waiting rooms, laundromats and other public places for people to pick up and read. 

4. Pray specifically for families and couples to be saved and discipled. The family is so important and will lead to other members being brought to Christ

5. Consider starting some informal soccer games on Saturday and involve the children or maybe even adults. Bring a cooler of cold water. Take a break, give out the water and share the gospel. In many countries, soccer (or football as it is called in other places) is a favorite.

6. If you have a ministry in your church that teaches in another language, pray fervently for that ministry to grow. We can plant and water, but it is God who will bring the growth.

7. If you speak a foreign language, volunteer to be a translator for gospel materials. You must have good grammar and spelling, but the needs are endless!

8. If you speak the language, help with outreach events, paying particular attention to those who come and speak in a foreign language.

Some encouraging quotes to help fuel your prayer for missions:

  • “Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God” — William Carey, who is called the father of modern missions
  • “If a commission by an earthly king is considered an honor, how can a commission by a Heavenly King be considered a sacrifice?” — David Livingstone
  • “Some wish to live within the sound of a chapel bell; I wish to run a rescue mission within a yard of hell.” — C.T. Studd
  • “Someone asked, ‘Will the heathen who have never heard the gospel be saved?‘ It is more a question with me whether we — who have the gospel and fail to give it to those who have not — can be saved.” — Charles Spurgeon
  • “Missions is the overflow of our delight in God because missions is the overflow of God’s delight in being God.” — John Piper
  • “People who do not know the Lord ask why in the world we waste our lives as missionaries. They forget that they too are expending their lives … and when the bubble has burst, they will have nothing of eternal significance to show for the years they have wasted.” — Nate Saint, missionary and martyr
  • “We must be global Christians with a global vision because our God is a global God.” — John Stott
  • “It is not in our choice to spread the gospel or not. It is our death if we do not.” — Peter Taylor Forsyth