The past has been studied to understand its connections with the present.
– Simon Schama
Conservative Evangelicalism is the tradition in which I’ve been trained and it’s the group I most often teach. At our Bible studies in wineries I often use the term evangelical. Recently a woman wondered what it meant and how did one know if they were one? Great question. To answer one has to take a stroll down history lane. As Schama adequately stated, “understanding our past helps us make connections with our present.” To understand evangelicalism we start with the Industrial Revolution – a pivotal point in American history. (Don’t worry this history lesson is short.)
The Industrial Revolution brought about new ways of living and thinking that challenged the Christian faith. For example – wealth and materialism emerged out of the Industrial Revolution – now people had money and wanted things. This created conflict for Christians, after all, how did one apply the faith to the needy world when one is captivated by the “gospel of wealth?” Along with materialism, feminism was on the rise. After World War I we saw the rise in women’s growing independence – just check out their dress, appearance and habits -shorter skirts, bobbed hair, cosmetics, public smoking and drinking – these externals marked the “liberated” woman. More substantially, the expansion of women into the workforce produced growing economic independence. The rise in feminism threatened Christianity’s view of womanhood, manhood and the family. Materialism. Feminism. And there was Darwinsim. The rise in modern science, particularly Darwinism, created a dilemma for the Christian community – a dilemma which they struggled to resolve. Marsden stated, “For most educated American (Christians)…the commitment both to objective science and to religion was so strong, and the conflict so severe, that they were forced into one of two extreme positions.” Either they had to say Darwinism was irreconcilable with Christianity or redefine the relationship between science and religion. Materialism. Feminism. Darwinism. Then let’s add the World Wars and the Great Depression and one can see these were unprecedented times in which Christian doctrine and deeds were challenged. All of these factors influenced what David Moberg coined as the Great Reversal. The Great Reversal is the term given to Christians who had to reckon with Modernity and responded by disengaging with society. The Christians who disengaged were labeled Fundamentalists. Whereas those Christians who welcomed modernity became known as Modernists or liberals. Modernist began to shift some of their theology to meet the new challenges of the times. Whereas, Fundamentalists “militantly opposed both modernism in theology and the cultural changes that modernism endorsed.” To respond to the modernists more “liberal” view of Scripture the Fundamentals wrote a series titled The Fundamentals. The Fundamentals were a strong – almost dogmatic – defense of fundamental Christian doctrine. Below are a list of The Fundamentals.
1) The Bible is literally true. Bible is inerrant.
2) The virgin birth and deity of Christ.
3) The substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ on the cross. Saved by grace.
4) The bodily resurrection of Jesus.
5) The authenticity of Jesus’ miracles.
As stated above, one of the main characteristics of fundamentalism was the disengagement from culture. For example, Fundamentalists were skeptical of secular universities because they embraced modernity. So they removed themselves from the established educational system and developed a whole Bible school movement of their own. During the depression years over twenty-six new schools were founded – among them were Dallas Theological Seminary, Bob Jones University and Wheaton College. These new schools were established to fight against modernity (feminism, darwinism, materialism & pentacostalism – not really the right word but I like it.) Fundamentalists were convinced the survival of the traditional family and social order was at stake – so they tightened their approach to women in church ministry. It was because of this movement that women, who previously had been accepted to seminaries and bible colleges such as Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and Moody Bible Institute, lost their ability to serve as preachers and pastors. This is just one example of how the Fundamentalist’s responded to the issues of modernity during the 1920’s-30’s and beyond. It was a time to return to “traditional values” and retreat from society.
I suspect some of you are starting to recognize your church tradition in the above description. I also suspect you never realized the past, particularly the upheaval of the Industrial Revolution, has impacted how your church tradtion thinks, teaches and acts.
So what, if any, is the difference between a fundamentalist and conservative evangelical? Great question.
Of course, there’s never a simple answer, there are differing definitions, however, there are some particular characteristics in which most agree. The first is the idea of “engagement” verses “disengagement.” Back in the 1940’s a group of Christians split from the fundamentalist movement because they disagreed with cultural disengagement. So one could say evangelicalism is a tradition which engages in culture (they can’t be distinguished by dress, music etc.) while still holding to The Fundamentals. The second common factor is evangelicalism emphasizes – not only a personal conversion – but also the spreading of the Gospel – evangelism.
Historian David Bebbington defines Evangelical Christianity as having four main qualities (quoted from here):
* Biblicism, a particular regard for the Bible (e.g. all essential spiritual truth is to be found in its pages)
* Crucicentrism, a focus on the atoning work of Christ on the cross
* Conversionism, the belief that human beings need to be converted
* Activism, the belief that the gospel needs to be expressed in effort
Sociologist Brian Steensland and colleagues summarized evangelical characteristics as: ”Evangelical denominations have typically sought more separation from the broader culture, emphasized missionary activity and individual conversion, and taught strict adherence to particular religious doctrines.”
If we traced the roots of the mega church movement we would find it’s rooted in the turn of the century fundamentalist/evangelical movement. For example – Willow Creek or Saddleback – what was their strategy in building their churches? To look like culture right? (Think dress, coffee shop, stadium seating, multi-media etc.) AND to continue to hold to the fundamentals. Over the years we have seen mega churches depart (shift – evolve- progress) from their doctrinal heritage particularly in the area of traditional gender roles of the 1950’s. (For example read, Willow Creek’s view on women) On the other hand we have movements like Acts 29 who engage culture (think Saddle back plus preacher with tattoos!) while holding tightly to the pervious definitions of manhood, womanhood and family. (The Acts 29 movement) Some have argued these movements are almost as dogmatic about traditional roles as their counterparts during the turn of the century. I suspect some of you are beginning to recognize your church in these descriptions.
There’s so much more to be said (I’ve only skimmed and certainly simplified the history lesson) – however, I believe you have enough to ask yourselves some questions. For example – how does studying our past help us to understand its connections with the present? Think about the church you attend. The theology you’ve heard. The Biblical interpretations (particularly towards women, men and family.) Can you see any of the past, the Industrial Revolution & the Great Reversal still impacting your present? If so, how?