By David Doran
Recent proposals about the nature of Fundamentalism are stirring lively debate. While I have heard of no bloodshed, I am certain that quite a few blood pressures have risen with the discussions. A key term that seems to surface regularly, at least in the discussions to which I have been privy, is “militancy.” Most see militancy as a necessary, perhaps even indispensable, facet of Fundamentalism. Difficulties arise, however, when the concept is defined or applied.
It hardly seems possible that there would be calls for clarification regarding a concept so tightly connected to Fundamentalism, but such calls are abundant. People are raising questions about its meaning (“How do we define militancy in a less hostile environment?”) and its application (“Militant about what?”). A brief examination of the histories of Fundamentalism that have been written, by those within and without the movement, reveals a fairly universal acknowledgment that militancy was the distinguishing mark of the movement. Fundamentalism’s militancy is what propelled the movement to separate from the liberals, and it was the point of disdain that prompted the departure of the New Evangelicals.
According to one standard dictionary, militancy means, “fighting or warring” or “having a combative character, aggressive, especially in the service of some cause.” That is a fair summary of the idea, although we may hit our personal comfort zones at different points in that string of definitions. In terms of Fundamentalism, militancy has always been associated with the propagation and defence of God’s truth. The movement was galvanized by its battle with modernism into a combative and aggressive orthodoxy, particularly in relation to a cluster of doctrines surrounding Jesus Christ and the Scriptures.
Fundamentalists have always been militant about articulating Biblical doctrine, refuting unbiblical teachings and refusing to cooperate with unbelief and compromise. Fundamentalist militancy has consistently been characterized by steadfastly proclaiming God’s truth, by exposing those who deny and compromise God’s truth and by separating from unbelief (either by removing it or removing themselves from its presence). The Fundamentalists’ compelling belief that separation was a thoroughly Biblical command, coupled with a deep understanding of the sinister nature of unbelief, led to a militant commitment to separate from those who disobey God’s command to break with religious apostates. That commitment was militant because (1) it was aggressive, i.e., it actively sought to break from the New Evangelical mindset, and (2) it was combative, i.e., it took seriously the Biblical responsibility to confront error with Biblical truth.
Is Fundamentalism losing its sense of militancy? That is where the debate is brewing. Allow me to offer one man’s opinion: when militancy is understood in its historic sense, the answer seems to be yes. Three leading indicators suggest that we may be shrinking away from maintaining our historic position of militant separatism.
First, there appears to be a genuine loss of clarity among many about the very nature and meaning of Fundamentalism. Perhaps that is the result of so many people claiming the name; but it seems obvious that fuzziness about the nature of Fundamentalism must have a diminishing impact on militancy. How can one be aggressive about an unclear cause? It is, of course, quite possible for one’s view of the cause to become so blurred and misfocused that he mistakes a pet doctrine or a personal preference or a peripheral and inconsequential issue as “the cause.” Some have elevated militancy as the essence of Fundamentalism. Pure militancy is not, in itself, a virtue unless one is militant for the right object—in this case, the historic fundamental truths of the Bible, not provincial interpretations or doctrines that have been artificially elevated to the position of a fundamental. The fact remains, however, that many are unclear about just what constitutes “the fundamentals” and why. To the degree that we have not accurately articulated and Biblically substantiated those fundamentals, and clearly distinguished them from non-essentials, we have contributed to this confusion. But to the degree that some have flirted with those who disavow or downplay the importance of those fundamentals, they have eroded the foundation and beclouded the issues of Fundamentalism.
Second, there seems to be a loss of strong conviction among many Fundamentalists. Again, the negative impact of leaders who have strong convictions that are grounded in non-Biblical arguments (if any at all) has taken its toll. But so have the relativism and pragmatism that have been pumped into our churches via our culture. Any dogmatism that claims to be Biblical must certainly be backed by careful exegesis, and for this we must strive. The spirit of our age, which only raises questions and seldom provides answers, seems to be weakening our ability to exercise discernment. Even some evangelicals are beginning to admit this.
That loss of conviction will have a terrible eroding effect on the practice of ecclesiastical separation. Most of us have difficulty handling the relational pressure that comes from being a separatist without a strong, compelling belief that it is not just a personal preference, but the right thing to do.
A third indicator that militancy seems to be waning is the subtle, and sometimes open, repudiation of speaking out about separatism. There seems to be a significant loss of voice about this matter among many Fundamentalists. Some imply that there are no issues to confront, therefore we can just concentrate on our local church without addressing the larger ecclesiastical context. One man publicly stated that the current generation of Fundamentalists lives in a less hostile environment—the implication being that we need to rethink militancy. To make such a statement is to admit that militancy has already been rethought! How can an environment that forges a concord between “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” be less hostile to Fundamentalism? How can an environment be more hostile to Fundamentalism than one in which a movement such as Promise Keepers can thrive? How can an environment where professing Fundamentalists deny the Biblical doctrine of inspiration by attributing it to a single English translation be considered less hostile? How can an environment in which the doctrine of salvation is threatened by professing Fundamentalists who deny that a sinner must repent to be saved possibly be considered less hostile? Or an environment in which evangelicals are rethinking the whole meaning of Hell? Or one in which well-known Christian leaders and writers, such as J. I. Packer, are attacking the whole notion of Fundamentalism as “contentious orthodoxy”?
I have never had a conversation with a militant Fundamentalist who denies that some of us have sinned in doing what we believe is right. We have taken the right stand with the wrong spirit (cf. 2 Thess. 1:5), or we have taken a stand on some issue too hastily or without solid Biblical support. But those problems do not invalidate the cause of Fundamentalism or the need to be militant about separation.
Unfortunately, those who reject our position are quick to paint caricatures of our movement. The liberals did it. The New Evangelicals followed their example. Every defector from militant Fundamentalism has made the same effort to prove his position while rejecting militant separatism (cf. the writings of John R. Rice, Jerry Falwell, Jack Van Impe, and John MacArthur).
The tag of belligerence is not a new one. Militant Fundamentalism has borne it many times before. The very nature of the combat, the very essence of being aggressive in a cause means that some will think one to be too zealous or belligerent. For those being tempted toward a Fundamentalism that softens its image and tones down its voice—a “kinder, gentler” Fundamentalism—the words of George Marsden should serve as a wake-up call:
The neo-evangelicals were thus still torn internally over variations of the same issues that were dividing them from separatist fundamentalists. Their one impulse was to insist that the exact positions won in the fundamentalist stand against modernism were too important ever to abandon. At the same time, they clearly wished to purge themselves of all the unessential traits acquired during the fundamentalists era, especially the spirit of belligerence. To put their dilemma in a question, To what extent was their movement a reform of Fundamentalism and to what extent was it a break with it? The “new evangelicals” had no easy rules by which to settle these issues (Reforming Fundamentalism [Eerdmans, 1987], p. 170).
It seems to me that those who are wanting to rid contemporary Fundamentalism of its alleged belligerence should define their terms very carefully. Belligerence, pugnacity, contentiousness—these are wrong, unbiblical demeanours. Militancy and aggressiveness in “earnestly contend[ing] for the faith once delivered to the saints” is crucial to the survival of Biblical Christianity. The last group of people to take “a path of less resistance” found it to be a downward road into a muddy morass of religious relativism, compromise of the truth and, in many cases, outright defection from sound, healthy doctrine.
Dave Doran is pastor of Inter-City Baptist Church and president of Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary. This article was reprinted from Frontline Magazine, September/October 1995, volume five, number five. Used by permission.