I’m not a fundamentalist—at least not in the cultural sense of the word. Traditionally, I hold to the fundamentals of orthodox Baptist faith. But the term “fundamentalist” has come to mean significantly more than standing for a theological position. Fundamentalism in the Independent Baptist movement has become a cultural movement with which I don’t personally align.
As a child, I was brought up in fundamentalist culture. During my time in the IFB (Independent Fundamental Baptists), I saw and felt abuses, mistreatments, and a generally toxic culture constructed by many churches we attended. Let’s be honest here—perhaps I’m somewhat biased. My family life was abusive, and at times I judge through darkly tinted glasses feeble men too harshly for their faults. My goal in the following paragraphs is to set aside my biases as much as possible and be objective about my memories. I will only write about experiences I distinctly remember.
Towards the end of 2006, we moved to Tennessee. My father had accepted a position as the assistant pastor of an up-and-coming IFB church plant. We were excited! I fondly remember one of our first public outreaches—feeding the homeless and less fortunate on the streets of downtown Nashville. It seemed God was working. We were a mobile church, and every week we would set up and tear down the sanctuary. One month, we were in a hotel. The following month, it could be a community center…or an old church building…or a storefront.
Unfortunately, even as a child, I was exposed to specific instances of abuse and injustice. I remember listening from the next room as my father counseled the pastor after he physically abused his wife. I remember overhearing my parents conversing about the extreme mistreatment and funneling of finances by the pastor that would sometimes leave our church account balances dry. The countless missionaries we vowed to support who we never sent a penny. And I remember my father and other men covering up the sins of leadership out of fear and embarrassment.
Eventually, my family became the subject of that toxic culture, and my parents felt compelled to leave, like several families before and after us. An IFB church in Florida requested my family’s help—we joined the church and began serving. My father became the pastor of their Spanish ministry. We had no idea what Ruckmanism was at the time. The church held to a double inspiration view of the KJV. We left because my father couldn’t support the Spanish version the pastor demanded he use. During that time, several other families left due to the despotism of the pastor. I particularly remember the pastor’s brother-in-law leaving the church. His sister, the pastor’s wife, told church members that her brother was demon-possessed because he wouldn’t follow the man of God.
I went to college, and my family decided to become missionaries to Bolivia. During their time on deputation, my father was arrested. I’ve already written about this in another post and won’t do so here. It was surprising how many people turned against my family in our time of greatest pain. Countless times, my mom and I have been blamed for what happened to my sister, “How couldn’t you have known? You were always around him.” An extremely cherished pastor saying to my mom, “Well, he did say there were problems in your marriage.” Another man who scorned her, “There’s two sides to every story.” The pastor who cried over the phone, promising to help us financially—we haven’t heard from him since. A pastor whose church we had attended for a few months years earlier saying, “I knew there was something wrong with their family.”
Why didn’t you say something? Why didn’t you speak into our lives? Why didn’t you do the job of a pastor and protect your sheep?
When not on the road, my family stayed at a missionary home in Indiana. Within days of hearing about our plight, the missionary home leadership had sold our extra car, pocketed the money, and told us we needed to pick up our belongings or they would dispose of them. We were in Jesup, Georgia. That was impossible for us at the time.
Beyond the toxicity I have experienced, I have seen firsthand the hurt of others who have experienced extreme pain at the hands of IFB pastors and leaders. I have been to several churches that don’t allow women to wear pants in the congregation. Friends of mine have been crudely spoken of from behind the pulpit for having different music, dress, and translation standards. And I know many faithful Christians in IFB circles who have lived their entire adult lives in guilt that they might not be doing enough to please the Lord—even though Christ has already perfectly satisfied the Father’s demand for righteousness.
Legitimate Concerns with the IFB
I feel very empathetic towards those who have been hurt and abused by some in the IFB movement. There is no excuse for the pain caused by many in the IFB. There are legitimate problems generally attached to Fundamentalist culture. Three of my main concerns include:
- Standards as Biblical Commands
Many IFB churches I’ve attended expect their members to live up to the standards of the church leadership—dress, music, separation standards, etc. Pastors preach these from the pulpit as Biblical commands. Discipleship becomes performance-driven. Those who choose to disregard the criteria laid out for them aren’t cast out of the body, but they are often not considered “Christian enough.” The goal in many churches is the establishing of these standards (rather than actual Christian growth) in their congregation’s lives.
- Poor Discipleship
There is a gulf between pastor and congregation in many IFB churches. Many pastors seek to disciple from behind the pulpit alone, and when people make decisions but don’t truly change, they become discouraged. The problem is the gulf. The pastor cannot do everything by himself. The Christian life is one of ministry whether you are a pastor or not, and members must be trained in one-on-one discipleship. The pulpit is essential for Christian growth, but it cannot replace one-on-one discipleship.
- Cultures of Manipulation
Pastors and leaders of any ministry need accountability—this need is even more real for pastors and leaders in the IFB. IFB churches are autonomous and without external oversight. They cling to their independence tightly. Many medium to larger churches have only one pastor even though they have the ability to hire multiple paid or lay pastors. Larger churches with more than one pastor don’t usually hire a multiplicity of elders for accountability’s sake. Most decisions still fall on the lead pastor’s shoulders without fervent counsel from his “under” pastors. With a humble leader, this might not be a problem. But most men, myself included, are not naturally humble and need accountability. This lack of accountability mixed with pride and power allows a culture of manipulation to take root in churches. A routine of accountability must be established in all churches. These routines must be easy for members and outsiders to comprehend. I do understand that many smaller churches desire but are unable to hire extra pastors due to finances or unavailability. In these cases, accountability may be harder to create, but must still be established.
The great thing about the above concerns is that they are all fixable without changing standards, fervent preaching, or even Biblical translations. Indeed, I am encouraged by some IFB churches who don’t preach their standards as Biblical commands and who have open arms welcoming those who disagree with them.
I also believe a lot of fundamentalists realize the importance of true Biblical discipleship. On a podcast I frequent, two college friends serving as youth pastors in IFB churches recently spoke about the importance of true discipleship (skip to about 31:30). Though we might disagree over practical matters, I was so refreshed by their passion for genuine discipleship—they are deeply concerned that individual Christians aren’t taking responsibility for their fellow believers’ growth.
But have we become the Pharisees?
At times, I have allowed the pain I have felt to make me a hypocrite. In coming out of Fundamentalism, some of us in our pain have embraced the same hypocrisy we left. Focusing on the worst of the IFB, we often judge the whole movement by its worst actors. We love painting with a broad brush.
I recently learned about the book What is Faith? by J. Gresham Machen from another podcast I frequently listen to. In the book, Machen writes:
We must call out structures of sin, guilt, manipulation, and abuse but not out of spite and self-righteousness. For the sake of her health, we must uncover the bruises and scars on the Bride of Christ. But instead of seeking her wellbeing, many times we rub dirt in her wounds with our hypocrisy and anger. I think we might have bruises and scars of our own that need tending to.
“You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” –Matthew 7:5*
When our mindsets are continuously critical, we are incapable of recognizing the good in our fellow believers. For every act of manipulation, I can point to an act of love from my IFB brothers and sisters. For every power-hungry pastor, I know a humble Fundamentalist leader.
We forget to be thankful. An IFB missionary brought me the Gospel. Through the teaching of IFB churches, I gained an appreciation and love for the Bible and its doctrines. When we were destitute, IFB people brought us groceries, did our laundry, and one older lady in a Fundamentalist church gave us free housing when we were otherwise homeless. I remember a special man buying me a suit though he didn’t have much money himself.
When my dad was arrested, someone was there to take me from Pennsylvania to Georgia. Someone else drove all the way from North Carolina to Indiana to Georgia to pick up my family’s belongings. The church where my family was staying accepted us with open arms. Their pastor and his wife fought and cried alongside us. They held our hands every step of the way those first few months.
When I returned to school, I learned that my college’s Chancellor had spoken to the faculty specifically about my situation. He made it very clear that gossip about my family on the campus or by the faculty would not be tolerated. Many teachers surrounded me in love. My closest friends listened and spoke into my pain. My pastor mentored, prayed, advised, wept, and encouraged me.
If you’re going to leave the IFB, do it the right way…
Many people leave Fundamentalism for genuinely legitimate reasons. However, in leaving, I’ve observed many swing to the other side of the pendulum, sometimes making the same mistakes as the movement they left. If you are going to leave, leave well. If you have already decided to distance yourself from the IFB or are still thinking about doing so, it is crucial you have the right attitude. How should you leave the IFB?
- Don’t change your positions without study and prayer
I am a firm believer in Christian liberty. I don’t believe it is a sin for women to wear jeans. I sing theologically correct Contemporary Christian Music, and I don’t think all secular music is evil. I primarily use the ESV. As far as doctrinal changes, I lean towards Lordship Salvation, and I’m currently struggling with what I believe about Eschatology. Growing is essential, but changing your positions without study and prayer is a sign of ignorance, not freedom. Don’t change just because you are tired of the way you grew up. And just because you can do a thing doesn’t mean you should. Examine…were they right on this topic? How about that one? What does the Bible say? You will change, but you might also be surprised how much you stay the same.
- Don’t burn bridges unnecessarily
To this day, some of my closest friends and mentors identify as IFB. They know where I am and still love me. It would be extremely foolish of me to burn the bridges they are willing to keep and use. Yet, some of us in this “brave new world” would scoff at taking advice from sincere fundamentalist men and women. I do understand that some relationships are best burned. In relationships of apathy, abuse, or self-righteousness, locking down the bridge might be the best option. However, I think you may be surprised with the amount of IFB people who will respond gracefully to your humility and love. I definitely was.
- Guard against bitterness and self-righteousness
Bitterness and self-righteousness are significant issues. With the parody Twitter accounts and Facebook groups floating around, we can get engrossed with the crazy sermon clips and humiliating one-liners. We begin to judge one man’s entire ministry by the things he might have said in one sermon. Taking it one step further, we begin to judge other IFB leaders, pastors, and church members by a collection of these sayings. I’m not saying there aren’t certain pastors who should be called out individually for the disturbing things they say regularly. But Christian, Christ showed you grace. Perhaps you ought to extend the same virtue. Drop the bitterness. Drop the self-righteousness.
- Love those who disagree with you
Say it again. Love those who disagree with you! Christ tells us that we “must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Mt. 5:48).” Many forget the passage that immediately precedes this popular verse, “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? (Mt. 5:46-47)” The Christian is identified by his love for the brethren. This love between Christians should cause the world to marvel and praise God! Unfortunately, we repay evil with evil, and the world realizes we are no different than the heathen. You say you are Gospel-centered, but did the Gospel actually change you? I love the quote from Frodo in Tolkien’s The Return of the King, “It is useless to meet revenge with revenge: it will heal nothing.”
- Remember the good, not just the bad
We love to focus on the bad. It’s the reason we change. But perhaps we ought to remember the good we were taught and thank God for it. Many of us would have never known salvation without the work God has done through IFB. Some of us wouldn’t have defeated addictions, met our spouses, or become passionate about ministry without the influence of Fundamentalism. For all the pain certain fundamentalists have caused my family and me, I’m thankful for the countless others who still love and care for me, discipling me and bringing me closer to my God.
“Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” –Eph 4:15–16.
*All Biblical references are in ESV unless otherwise stated.