Beware of Some Fundamdentalist Churches 1

Title: Beware of Some Fundamentalist Churches 1
Text: John 7:50-52, Acts 12:21-23, Romans 12:18
Time: July 5th, 2014

 
I happened to be surfing the Internet the other day and I stumbled upon an article about a fundamentalist Christian pastor who was tried, convicted and sentenced to twelve years in prison for sexual immorality. His name was Jack Schaap and he used to be a pastor at the First Baptist Church of Hammond, Indiana. How do I know about Jack Schaap? Because as a young pastor in South Chicago, Illinois during the late 80’s I became aware of First Baptist Church of Hammond through their evangelism outreach program in South Chicago. Every Saturday the area would be saturated with First Baptist Church buses recruiting kids for Sunday school in Hammond, Indiana. Eventually I thought I’d better check out this church that was covering so much territory, even reaching up to Chicago and beyond. So I attended what is called Pastor’s School for three days at the church in Hammond. It was there I saw and heard the main pastor Jack Hyles and his assistant pastor Jack Schaap. As I watched and listened as they explained their ministry methods I was impressed with some of the things they were doing, but also bothered by some other things they were doing. I walked away with mixed feelings about First Baptist Church of Hammond. On the one hand there’s no question they were reaching a lot of people, especially children, with the gospel of Jesus Christ. And not only that, they were discipling these converts every week in Sunday. So it wasn’t they just prayed a prayer, baptized them and then left the converts alone. They followed up and really tried to train them in Christian living. On the other hand, the church came across as overly dogmatic on doctrine, excessively authoritarian in leadership, and unnecessarily divisive towards other Christians and churches in attitude. I concluded that Jack Hyles, Jack Schaap and the other leaders at the church were definitely doing many good things – things that I’d like to incorporate into my Christian ministry. But the way they were going about doing many of these good things wasn’t good – and I concluded that I definitely didn’t want to follow them in their methods. So as a young minister I didn’t go in the direction of independent fundamentalism, but rather moved in the direction of biblical evangelicalism. Looking back, I believe I made the right decision because as it turns out, both the main pastor Jack Hyles (he’s since died) and his assistant Jack Schaap were found guilty of sexual immorality (Schaap became the main pastor after Hyles death, but was removed and sent to jail for his sins). But it wasn’t just these pastors problems that led to their downfall, it was the whole church culture they built that really caused the problems. That’s why I offer a few warnings to people about independent fundamentalist churches. Not all or even most fundamentalist churches are dangerous, but some are, so that is why I’m warning people based on my observations and experience with First Baptist Church of Hammond, Indiana. Hopefully, my words can spare others the same problems some independent fundamentalist churches produce.

First, some fundamentalist churches are overly dogmatic on doctrine. John 7:50-52, “Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus earlier and who was one of their own number, asked, ‘Does our law condemn anyone without first hearing him to find out what he is doing?’ They replied, ‘Are you from Galilee, too? Look into it, and you will find that a prophet does not come out of Galilee?’” Here is an example of the Jewish scribes, lawyers and Pharisees being too dogmatic in their handling of scripture and religious tradition. They were saying that because a prophet, to their knowledge, hadn’t come from Nazareth, therefore, no prophet or holy man ever could come from Nazareth. Or they were saying that to their knowledge there was no prophecy stating that the Messiah would or could come from Nazareth. But if they had been more open and understanding they might have realized that Jesus actually was born in Bethlehem even though he grew up in Nazareth. And there was prophecy concerning Bethlehem, hints that the Messiah might come from there. But it was their overly dogmatic attitude that limited their ability to see the truth before them. Well, there is that same attitude in some – not all, but some – independent fundamentalist churches. Being overly dogmatic means that on questionable or disputable issues, one holds the same firm conviction as a solid, essential faith issue. In other words, for example, concerning the end-time events described in the Book of Revelation, there are many different understandings of what exactly will happen when Christ Jesus returns. It’s a deep and complex field of theology, and normally most Christians allow for a lot of latitude as far as beliefs and convictions concerning the end-times. But independent fundamentalist churches tend to be just as dogmatic about end-time events as they do about essentials of Christian doctrine like the Trinity, the Deity of Christ, the Virgin Birth, and so forth. So then you run into very dogmatic statements and teachings made from the pulpit on Sunday morning about a whole wide range of things that really need to be left uncertain or less firm in conviction. First Baptist Church of Hammond, Indiana was a guilty on this score as any church I’ve ever seen. For example, once when I was there I happened to have a NIV (New International Version) Bible. I stood up with everyone to sing a church hymn and when it was over sat down in my seat, but found a note next to my NIV bible. I opened and read the note, which said, “The King James Version is the best.” That’s called being overly dogmatic on questionable issues. Independent fundamental Baptist churches are notorious for being overly dogmatic over the KJV. Watch out for churches that can’t distinguish essentials of Christianity from peripheral issues. If everything, every doctrine, every teaching has to be as strong a conviction as every other thing, beware. That’s a dangerous church.

Second, some fundamentalist churches are excessively authoritarian in leadership. Acts 12:21-23, “On the appointed day Herod, wearing his royal robes, sat on his throne and delivered a public address to the people. They shouted, ‘This is the voice of a god, not of a man.’ Immediately, because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died.” Here’s an example of a man whose speech and leadership was so highly esteemed that he took for himself the glory due to God alone. Would that this could only happen among non-Christians, but unfortunately it can happen to anybody, including Christians, especially Christian leaders. In the world of independent fundamentalist churches, sadly, it can happen a lot, even often. The pastor, especially the senior or lead pastor, is put on a pedestal far above other Christians in the church. This was definitely the case with Jack Hyles and First Baptist Church of Hammond. Hyles was essentially a king, because his words were never questioned, and it was either his way or the highway. I once attended a service at the church were Hyles was leading a question and answer session – he did this before one of the three church services each week. I stood up and asked him, with his busy schedule, traveling, etc. if he still did the door-to-door evangelism that I read about his book on ministry. He angrily told me he was insulted by my question! That’s an example of authoritarian leadership. It’s a psychological methodology that promotes the idea of never questioning authority in the church. The leader is always right, never wrong, so don’t even question him. This same attitude applies to the other church leaders under Hyles. Nobody under them questions them, only somebody higher in leadership rank can question someone else. In a way, it’s a little like the military command structure only there is no way to appeal. So what happens is unless a leader is rebuked by someone higher up in leadership, he carries on without any accountability. Jack Hyles as top leader was essentially without any accountability. He carried on sexual affairs, financial indiscretions, and so forth without anyone calling him on it. Why? Because the leader is always right, you can’t question him. When Jack Schaap became pastor after Hyles’ death, he fit right into this same pattern, and essentially carried on the same way. Nobody held him accountable, nobody rebuked him internally. But it isn’t just First Baptist Church of Hammond that’s built on this authoritative leadership model, other churches do the same thing – and it’s dangerous. In the early church, the disciples were accountable to each other. Even the great Apostle Paul operated within accountability – he submitted to the judgment of the Jerusalem Council, and so forth. Beware of any church, fundamentalist or otherwise, where leaders are above criticism, beyond accountability. It’s a recipe for disaster.

Third, some fundamentalist churches are unnecessarily divisive towards other Christians and churches in attitude. Romans 12:18, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” It is a Christian virtue to be peaceable, loving and kind towards others. There are so many verses in the Bible that teach peace and harmony between people, and in relationships, that we could spend hour after hour examining them all. But we don’t really have to because it’s well known that we’re supposed to be at peace with everyone as much as possible. Well, independent fundamentalist churches and their leaders understand that’s what the Bible teaches – they may even teach it from the pulpit – but when it comes to actually applying it to life and the life of the church, they fail often. And the failing often comes because of the first two points I previously made in this message. If you are overly dogmatic and if you are overly authoritarian, it’s easy to be difficult to get along with. It’s a sad fact that many or even most independent fundamentalist churches were started or planted as a result of a church split or division. There was a study done once on why churches divide or split, and what were the causes of the divisions. Oddly enough, the actual reasons for church splits most often are personality issues within the church, not doctrine or moral issues. While most of the time churches claim the issues are doctrine or moral issues, the real reasons are most of the time trivial and petty. So what that means is that most independent fundamental churches begin with their DNA coded for division. It doesn’t take much for another church split to occur. First Baptist Church of Hammond is an example of a church that is excessively divisive towards other Christians and Christian churches. I remember when pastoring my small church in South Chicago, Illinois I ran into one of the members of First Baptist. He knocked on the door of the church one Saturday and I answered the door and invited him in. He had a complaint. He showed me a flyer from our church that he found at someone’s home a block away from the church. He told me that he was already working with that person so I shouldn’t be inviting that person to our church. Now imagine that. Here’s a twenty year old college student from a large out-of-state church in Indiana telling a thirty year old pastor of a small church in Chicago, Illinois not to invite someone to his church who lives a block away! That’s a lot of nerve. That’s an example of being unnecessarily divisive. I didn’t promise that young man anything, and went about my own ministry. But be careful of churches that are unnecessarily divisive, whether it’s divisive in doctrine, in ministry, or in any area. Yes, there are times when division is sadly necessary, but we should do what the verse says, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”

I could say more about independent fundamentalist churches – and I will say more in other messages – but we don’t have time for any more today. Now again I must stress that not all fundamentalist churches are dangerous. Many or most are balanced, Bible-believing churches that don’t exhibit any more or less problems than any other kind of church in the Christian world. But perhaps one of the problems that most independent fundamentalist churches face right off the bat is indicated in their categorical name – independent. As I read the Bible there is no truly “independent” church described anywhere in the New Testament. All of the churches were connected by not only doctrine but by their connection with the original disciples or apostles. The Apostle Paul was a pretty independent individual but even he maintained a connection with the Jerusalem church and the disciples who operated in and around there. The Book of Acts describes the Jerusalem Council meeting and James the brother of Jesus leading. When decisions were made in Jerusalem after the disciples and apostles met, they were distributed to all the churches in order to inform the Christians. The assumption behind distributing the Council’s decisions was that the churches and Christians would follow them. So then there was no truly and absolutely independent Christian churches in New Testament times. Neither should there be any truly independent churches today. Every church needs to be accountable to other churches; every church leader needs to be accountable to other church leaders. Now we can argue what a healthy church structure is – whether Episcopal or Presbyterian or Congregational, etc. but there needs to be some structure that permits and promotes accountability of churches and church leaders. Unfortunately, First Baptist Church of Hammond and some other independent fundamentalist churches don’t often have any such accountability. That’s what makes them dangerous. People who join and support churches that don’t have proper accountability are enabling an unhealthy system whether they know it or not. Maybe their church doesn’t go through a scandal or a series of scandals like First Baptist Church of Hammond went through, but that still doesn’t make it right. Unaccountable leaders aren’t healthy for the people of the church. Overly dogmatic leaders who teach overly rigid doctrine and behavior do injury to the people they serve. They also cause division in the body of Christ generally as they cause some Christians to look at other Christians as outsiders; only those within “our” group are truly Christian, etc. Some independent fundamentalist churches simply produce a bad spiritual environment within the body of Christ. In other messages I’ll explain some more dangers of some independent fundamentalist churches. Let’s pray for healthy churches and healthy Christian leaders to lead them. Let’s pray for healthy Christians as we live for God in all we do. Amen.

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