Voice on Fundamentalist Ecumenism

Writing for the Voice, the alumni magazine of Bob Jones University, Mark Sidwell recounts an exchange between a potential hire for the theology faculty and Bob Jones, Sr., the eponymous founder of the fundamentalist school:

When Dr. Jones Sr. wrote to Brokenshire, asking him whether as a Presbyterian he would be able to teach students of other denominations (particularly Methodists), the professor replied that “as to the Methodist brethren, I have worked with them for years and should not think of wounding their views of God’s grace and human free agency or of stirring up controversy with those who hold the fundamentals—as I hold them myself.”

Voice, Vol. 79 #3, Winter 2005

That was the 1940s. To someone familiar with the landscape of contemporary American Christianity, it might come as a surprise that there were Presbyterian or Methodist fundamentalists. Today, most “fundamentalists” are Baptists (or their kin, “Bible church” members), and their theology is likely to be closer to that of Tim LaHaye (also a Bob Jones graduate) than John Calvin or John Wesley. But back then being a “fundamentalist” meant holding to a set of core or “fundamental” orthodox, Protestant beliefs, as can been seen in Brokenshire’s letter. This quotation made me wonder what happened in the intervening years between the historic fundamentalism and now.

I’m sure there are many answers. However, it seems to me that the cultural shift began in the late 1950s, when fundamentalists such as Bob Jones split with “new evangelicals” such as Billy Graham. Graham had made ecumenical alliances based more on practical advantages than on shared theology, and fundamentalists were justifiably alarmed that he was too willing to bend theology in favor of evangelistic results. Fundamentalists’ consequent separation from new evangelicals became a defining part of the fundamentalist movement.

This theological “secondary separation”—ecclesiastical separation from someone (or an institution) not because he believes differently but because he associates with others who do—creates a potential pitfall: its proponents must act on the basis of who persons and institutions are and what they do, rather than what they believe. In other words, one answers the question, “should I separate from X?” not based on X’s beliefs but based on who X is or who X’s friends are.

Someone who takes theology seriously will occasionally have to practice secondary separation. What’s happened with the fundamentalist movement is that secondary separation has become its defining characteristic, its modus operandi. One result, it seems to me, has been that fundamentalism has sorted itself into a group based more on associations (where one is a church member, what Christian college or seminary one has attended) than on shared belief in the core doctrines of the faith.


  1. Don’t overlook an important practical consideration in early 20th-century fundamentalism: the ownership of church property. Methodist and Presbyterian churches were (and usually are) owned by their denominations. Baptist churches are usually owned by the congregation. During the early 20th century when fundamentalist Presbyterians and Methodists wanted to leave their apostate organizations, they usually had to give up their buildings as well. Small groups of these fundamentalist believers then often joined a sound Baptist church; large groups often formed new churches with a congregationalist government–they weren’t about to lose their buildings a second time–often with the name “Bible” in them. Taps for fundamentalist Presbyterians and Methodists.

    Although congregationalism is great for holding property, it’s less helpful in setting doctrinal standards. How does one independent congregation judge the biblical orthodoxy of another independent congregation? So as a sort of ersatz replacement for denominations, contemporary fundamentalists have adopted a BJU circle, a Hyles-Anderson circle, a Sword of the Lord circle,etc.

  2. What you do is always a reflection of what you believe. I’m certain you agree with this. So what is the problem with separating from people who demonstrate what they believe, namely that its not important to adhere to the biblical demands to separate from disobedient brothers, by their unwillingness to do what the Bible says?

  3. Nathan, I’m not addressing whether “secondary separation” can be practiced in a just manner. I’m just suggesting that historically its practice in fundamentalism has led to an emphasis on groups and associations over beliefs.

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