Beware of Some Fundamentalist Churches 2

Title: Beware of Some Fundamentalist Churches 2
Text: Acts 15:28-29, 1 Samuel 14:24, Mark 7:13
Time: July 6th, 2014

 
Last time I talked about my experience as a young pastor in South Chicago, Illinois living and ministering near the large First Baptist Church of Hammond, Indiana. For the two years I pastored the church in South Chicago I informally interacted with the Hammond church – I rubbed shoulders with its members, I attended a couple Pastor’s School conferences there, I attended a few Sunday night church services, I read a few of Pastor Jack Hyles’ books, and generally tried to learn as much as I could about anything that could help me in my church ministry. After I moved on from the small Chicago church after a couple of years I lost track of the First Baptist Church of Hammond as I focused on other things in my ministry. But during the two or three year period I was pastoring in Chicago I became somewhat familiar with this large fundamentalist mega-church, and even though I ultimately didn’t adopt its ministry style, I did appreciate a few things I saw there. I think the thing I liked most about First Baptist was its unashamed conviction for the fundamentals of the Christian faith. When Jack Hyles preached you knew he believed what he taught and it caused you to firm up your own convictions toward the faith. So the biggest thing I walked away from in connection with First Baptist Church was its strong conviction that stirred strong conviction in me towards Christian truth. The world constantly tears down Christianity, but it’s nice to go some place, or hear someone, with strong Christian convictions that isn’t afraid to say so! I appreciated that. Yes, this can lead to being overly dogmatic, but a lack of it can also lead to being wishy-washy also. Another thing I took away from my contact with First Baptist Church was the seriousness of church ministry. Hyles and the church leaders and volunteer workers were very dedicated and serious about evangelism and discipleship. This wasn’t fun and games; this was hard work, and they were willing to put in long hours and wear themselves out for the Lord’s work. That inspired me to do the same in my ministry. Yes, this can lead to excessive physical, mental and spiritual burnout, and that’s always a temptation. In fact, Jack Schaap, who followed Hyles as Pastor of First Baptist Church, who ran into legal trouble for having sexual contact with a minor, in his court case sited burnout as a contributing factor for his poor judgment in involving himself in sexual immorality. So for every positive characteristic I saw at First Baptist Church I could think of a negative opposite characteristic that could cause trouble. But I don’t want to give the impression that there aren’t positives to my experience with independent fundamentalist churches, there are. There are just negatives that people need to be warned about, to beware. Here are three more warnings.

First, some fundamentalist churches have an exceedingly long list of legalistic rules. Acts 15:28-29, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things.” The early church gathered in Jerusalem to meet and discussions some particular issues and to establish policy among Christians and churches. From their gathering a few sentences of instructions results, not a long list of rules and regulations for people to follow. There was great wisdom in the brevity of their rules. Unfortunately churches since then haven’t followed their wise course. Instead, churches, especially fundamentalist churches, usually have a long, long list of does and don’ts that they expect their members to follow. The First Baptist Church of Hammond, Indiana – the best example of a independent fundamentalist church I’ve ever encountered – is typical of fundamentalist churches in general, and that is, it had a lot of rules for members. I pastored a small Southern Baptist Church, a Spanish Baptist church. Yes, I preached and taught in Spanish, or as best as I could, never having learned the language in the class room, and having to pick it up on my own. We talked about the Hammond church and people told me that they had a rule that women had to where dresses at all times, everywhere, which was strange because I had never run into any church that had such a rule. Also, the men had to wear their hair short, cut above the ear. There was a rumor that they had alter calls for salvation, baptism, and hair cuts. In some of the pastor’s books he advocated against going to movies, or as he called them “picture shows.” The church taught against “mixed bathing” or men and women swimming together at a beach or in a pool. And on and on the list could go. Now, after twenty some years in the ministry, and upon reflection, I’ve learned a thing or two about rules in the church – the fewer the better. If there’s one thing some independent fundamentalist churches like First Baptist Church of Hammond teach us it’s this – the more rules you pile on people, the greater the rebellion will be when people break them. We can see that even in the leadership of First Baptist. It’s now known that Pastor Jack Hyles carried on a long-standing affair with his church secretary. The pastor that followed Hyles, Jack Schaap was arrested for having sex with a minor, removed from the church and is now in jail. I believe they are the product of a legalistic system that almost forces people to rebel and break the petty and trivial rules – and when they do, they go all out and violate real moral and ethical standards. That makes me say, beware of legalistic churches because all their rules actually encourage rebellion among members. It’s a sick and sorry system that encourages immorality by its rigidity. Let’s be careful to not make rules that God hasn’t made.

Second, some fundamentalist churches are overly controlling of members. 1 Samuel 14:24, “Now the men of Israel were in distress that day, because Saul had bound the people under an oath, saying, ‘Cursed by any man who eats food before evening comes, before I have avenged myself on my enemies!’ So none of the troops tasted food.” In this passage we see King Saul being overly controlling of the troops by making the rule that nobody eats until he has taken revenge on the enemy. Well, as it turns out Jonathan his son hadn’t heard the rule and started to eat some honey, but others told him about his father’s rule. He ignored it. Eventually, when Saul heard about his son breaking the rule, he was prepared to kill Jonathan over the incident. This is an example of excessive rule making and overly controlling. Unfortunately, this is all too common in some independent fundamental Baptist churches. Like I said before, I pastured a small Southern Baptist church in Chicago, but we heard reports that at First Baptist Church members would often have to get permission from church leadership to marry. Sometimes church leaders would arrange marriages. Because there is a strong teaching on authority in these churches, there is a lot of control that takes place in the membership. Now, not all authority is bad. In fact, good, solid, healthy authority is good, as long as it’s balanced by love and accountability. But when a church is independent – usually unaccountable to outside influence – and has an authoritative leader – who isn’t usually accountable to anybody in the church or outside the church, then there is danger of manipulation and control of church members. Manipulation and control happens in lots of areas of life, not just churches. It happens at work if there’s an overly controlling boss. It happens in families if there’s domineering father or mother. It happens in organizations of all types, and groups of all sorts. It happens in governments and government agencies. Control and manipulation is sadly a part of fallen humanity. But it’s particularly discouraging to see it in the Christian church, which is supposed to be representative of the kingdom of God. Because of many factors independent fundamentalist churches are especially susceptible to control and manipulation. We wouldn’t want to go as far as to use the word “cult” but when a church becomes excessively controlling it borders on cult-like. It’s possible for there to be strict churches without being a cult, since strictness is somewhat in the eye of the beholder. Cults are usually defined as being very controlling of members, usually centered on some gigantic leadership personality whose teachings are at odds with biblical Christianity. First Baptist taught Christianity, although its leader were highly controlling. This is just another thing to be aware of in some fundamentalist churches.

Third, some fundamentalist churches are narrowly traditional. Mark 7:13, “Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.” These are the words of Jesus Christ to the Pharisees who were so into perpetuating their own human traditions that they were willing set aside God’s revealed will in places to follow tradition. Clearly a confusion of priorities. Now not all tradition is bad or harmful. Some tradition is good, even necessary. For example, 2 Thessalonians 2:15 says, “So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the teachings (literally, traditions) we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.” So then there is Tradition with a capital “T” and tradition with a small “t” – and we have to take into consideration both. The Bible is an example of Tradition, big “T” and we should not consider going against it, because it’s the Word of God. But in other things not found in the Bible, little “t” traditions, we should feel free to use or not use as we please. There is freedom in little “t” traditions. But among independent fundamentalist churches, often, there isn’t freedom to disagree even in little “t” traditions. For example, at First Baptist Church of Hammond, it’s as if the 1950s styles are on the level of biblical revelation. And not just the 1950s anywhere or everywhere, but America 1950. The Amish do this also, that is, absolutizing a certain time period. For the Amish, the style goes back further than the 1950s. They choose a time before the automobile, before telephone, before electric power, and so forth. Fundamentalists don’t usually go back that far, but they do go back and lock in a certain time period, like I said, it’s usually around the 1950s, more or less. Now the point is, this is really narrow-minded thinking. I can understand the desire to reject some of the more modern, sinful practices and inventions of evil that we see today. But attempts to “lock in” a specific time period are really silly. We must not forget that there was sin back then also. In fact, no time period is free from sin; every time has its own problems of sin and rebellion against God. There is no golden age. Yes, there are times when sin wasn’t as out in public or as obvious as today. But there are also ages where sin was more covered up, but nonetheless it’s still sin. Fundamentalist churches tend to have things like “Old-Fashioned Day” or “The Old-Time Gospel Hour” and so forth. Why? We live in the now, not the past. Why try to look back and pretend that things were better back then? Even if they were, it’s impossible to return to yesteryear. We need to live for God today, and talking, dressing, acting old-fashioned isn’t helpful in living out the will of God today. This is one of the sillier aspects of fundamentalism today. Beware of a church that lives in the past.

I’ve touched on three more aspects of some independent fundamentalist churches to be aware of and avoid. Like I said before, there are some positive and good aspects of fundamentalism that I admire, although I choose not to buy into the whole movement itself. For example, fundamentalists actually try to deal with the problem of culture’s decline in morals and values. You can fault how they deal with the decay of culture, but at least they see it as a problem and try to address it. Some churches seem to ignore the whole problem of the demise of the Christian culture. They seem to live in denial that any change has taken place. But over the last fifty years we’ve seen a great shift from a predominant Christian culture to a largely secular culture. How will the church react to this monumental shift? Fundamentalism has reacted by fighting modern trends and locking in a past time period by enforcing rules against change. At least they are trying to deal with the sinful direction society is heading. But unfortunately, it’s more of an emotional reaction than a well thought out strategy. In my life and ministry I’ve gone in the direction of biblical evangelicalism because I believe it’s important to live biblically within the culture and not separate myself from the culture in a fortress-like mentality we often see fundamentalism take. Isolationism does eliminate some temptations from the wider culture, but it also presents other temptations that cause sin. Isolationism breeds unaccountability and authoritarian leaders, and so forth, just what we see in some fundamentalist churches. It also breeds rebellion in youth with its many rules – rules that were meant to protect members from sin, but when used in excess actually contributes to sinful rebellion. The church must learn to be counter-cultural, but at the same time engaged with the culture. Christians must be able to discuss with non-Christians rather than simply stating Christian beliefs. That takes engaging the sinful non-Christian culture and not isolating oneself off from it. Yes, that also permits temptations and other problems to arise that don’t come up when isolated, but that’s part of the Christian calling – to be in the world but not of it. The fact is, we don’t need authoritarian leaders; we need the Bible as authority, and careful instruction in it. We don’t need church control, but we need Holy Spirit control. We don’t need old-fashioned ways; we need God to lead us today, where we are, in the place we stand today. In many ways, I sympathize with independent fundamentalist church members. I share their concerns. I just think there’s a better way than there system. Next time I’ll talk about three more things to be aware of in some fundamentalist churches.

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