The Dangers of Fundamentalism in Leadership
When fundamentalism becomes the lens by which church leaders lead, two primary dangers await them and their people.
But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.
I have a confession: I am a fundamentalist at heart. I am a lover of truth, and I am a rule follower. Yet, when I read Christ’s rebuke of the church of Ephesus, my own heart and actions are exposed, as I see Jesus calling his people to be lovers of the one who is truth and of his people. The same rebuke given to the Ephesian church could many times be given to me.
Fundamentalism has a varied history. In the early 20th century, the fundamentalist movement was responsible for directly and rightly combating the modernest heresies springing forth from within many of that day’s primary theological institutions. Yet, like the Ephesian church, while it began as a right and just movement against doctrines and practices that were contrary to Scripture, the fundamentalist movement has more recently become known more for its attacks on those within and outside the church than its love for the Lord and for his people.
Do not read this post as a condemnation of defending the faith against heresy. Christ is clear in his affirmation of the Ephesian church toward their perseverance and diligence to oppose those who taught a false gospel and proclaimed a different way of living in faith than the one given them by the apostles. Yet, at the same time, Christ’s admonition to the church is that they have made addressing heresy and licentious behavior their primary purpose, above what Jesus had taught as the two greatest commandments (Matthew 22:37–40).
When fundamentalism becomes the lens by which church leaders lead, two primary dangers await they and their people: a loss of love and a distraction from the mission of God.
A Loss of Love
Robert H. Mounce, in his commentary on the book of Revelation contends that, “Good works and pure doctrine are not adequate substitutes for that rich relationship of mutual love shared by those who have experienced for the first time the redemptive love of God.”
What a poor substitute it is for leadership to expound adherence to the true and powerful doctrines of Scripture over and (perhaps unintentionally) against the love of the God those doctrines portray! When fundamentalism becomes the primary lens of those in church leadership, they first lead their people to seek right doctrine and good behavior even more so than Christ. This is what the church in Ephesus was guilty of. Their concern was more towards right doctrine than love for Christ. What started as defense because of a love for Christ, turned into a loveless defense of Christ.
This loss of love is seen even more acutely in that a fundamentalist lens leads people to be suspicious and lack grace toward others in the church. Fundamentalism, when primary, creates a culture of critical inspection that fails to remember that is only by God’s grace and through his Spirit that people’s minds and hearts are transformed into complete and glad submission to the Father’s will. Jesus says in John 13:35 that the mark of discipleship is the love within his body toward one another. What happens when fundamentalism seeps into church leadership is that the effort to uphold right behavior and doctrine actually creates a culture that is opposed to Christ’s standard for how the church is to live.
The first danger of fundamentalism in leadership is the loss of love and joy in the Lord and grace towards those within the church. Quoting Barclay, Mounce sums up this first danger, “heresy-hunting had killed love and orthodoxy had been achieved at the price of fellowship.” According to Christ in Revelation 2, that was too great of a price to pay.
A Distraction from the Mission of God
In my prior position before joining the Mars Hill staff, my primary responsibilities centered around engaging the culture with the gospel and equipping the church to do the same. Because of the scope of our ministry, I had the opportunity to work with many types of churches and leaders, and in so doing observed the second danger of a fundamentalist lens within church leadership: a distraction from the mission of God.
According to 2 Corinthians 5:14–21, God’s mission is to glorify himself through the reconciliation of all things—humanity and creation—to a right relationship with him through Christ Jesus. Christ is the hope of the world, and the church is to be the instrument by which that hope is made manifest (Ephesians 3:10). The church’s role in the mission of God assumes a relationship with those who are either not yet or not fully reconciled to God. A fundamentalist lens distorts the mission of God from reconciling all things to himself to avoiding those people,and those aspects of culture, that are not living and believing rightly.
Defense against heresy, especially wolves within the church, is an important aspect of faithful biblical leadership. However, when such defense becomes the primary purpose of leadership, the church’s focus turns to important but peripheral issues and in turn distracts them from engaging the world and people around them with the gospel. Right doctrine should not lead people to disengage with the world, but rather, with a courageous meekness, seek to transform it!
The second danger of fundamentalism in leadership is that it distracts the church from being ministers of reconciliation within the world to being protectors of doctrine and moral behavior against the world.
Avoiding the Dangers
How do we avoid such dangers?
- Address heresy and ungodly behavior within your church with perseverance and boldness, but also with humility and dependence on the Lord. Remember that your mind and life has been transformed only by God’s grace through his Spirit. The same will be true of your people. Right doctrine does not save, but only the grace of God through faith in Christ. Because God is powerful, you can be steadfast and bold. Because God is powerful you recognize how the church is protected and lives are changed, and it is not by you!
- Do not let the world scare you. The church of Ephesus stood firm in the midst of a great opposition. The church today faces many of these same oppositions. Do not shy away from engaging with those who do not believe like you or act like you. Do not shy away from calling them to Christ and to full life under his authority. Yet, do so with love (2 Corinthians 5:14)!