Society’s New Bad Word

Written by Drew on January 22nd, 2009

The world uses many names to demean Christians and pressure them to capitulate to its influence, but one word stands out above all others as the most dreaded weapon in society’s linguistic arsenal: fundamentalist.

“Fundamentalist” as a formal religious designation was coined in 1920 by Curtis Lee Laws of those read “to do battle royal for the Fundamentals.”  The dictionary defines “fundamentalism” as “religious beliefs based on a literal interpretation of the Bible regarded as fundamental to Christian faith and morals.”  But since the 1920s the word has evolved into a pejorative with political implications, invoking images of bomb-wielding terrorists and intolerant, unloving preachers with a Pharisaical approach to religion.  Fundamentalism today is regarded as anti-intellectual, resistant to culture, intolerant of opposing views, anti-science, and violent.

Opponents of conservative faiths have worked hard to develop these negative connotations.  In an essay entitled, “Why Fundamentalism Is Wrong,” Scott Bidstrup defines fundamentalism as

any religion, that when confronted with a conflict between love, compassion and caring, and conformity to doctrine, will almost invariably choose the latter regardless of the effect it has on its followers or on the society of which it is a part.

Note also the statement by renowned atheist Richard Dawkins, whose book The God Delusion has sold over 1.5 million copies: “[fundamentalism] subverts science and saps the intellect.”

The danger that results from fundamentalism’s bad press is that it tempts Christians to move away from the basic doctrines revealed by God to shape Christianity into a religion that pleases him.  If we ignore these elements, Christianity vanishes from existence.

Divorced from its political nuances, a fundamental is a primary principle, rule, law, or article, which serves as the basis for our faith.  It is an essential part of the whole.  No organization can continue to exist without its fundamentals.  The church has many good works which are not essential to its existence, things like church camps, orphan homes, Bible schools, Christian colleges, visitation programs, etc.  While these may be beneficial, they are not essential.  We could do away with one or all of them and still have the church for which our Lord died.

Paul spoke of the fundamentals in Ephesians 4:4-6 by listing seven “ones”:

There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

The apostle left no room for improvement or innovation in these seven matters.  Being “one,” they are essential to Christian faith.

In Hebrews 6:1 the writer encourages us to “leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation….”  Far from being a call to abandon the fundamentals, this is a warning against being satisfied with only the essentials and not growing in the faith.  Inherent in the statement is a need for a “foundation” on which faith can be built.

Christianity has a number of essential parts that determine the authenticity of our religion.  We must profess a belief in the existence of God (Heb. 11:6) and confess that Jesus is the Son of God and that he died for our sins (Mt. 16:16; 20:28; 1 Cor. 15:1-4).  We must embrace the Bible’s claims for inspiration, a concept that introduces a number of other fundamental beliefs (2 Tim. 3:16-17).  Christians need to understand the distinctive nature of the church of Christ (Eph. 4:4-6) and unashamedly preach the gospel to all nations (Mt. 28:19-20).  Without these basics, and others, we cannot call ourselves Christian, for these things are elemental to the Christian faith.

Perhaps “fundamentalism” is one of those words that has run its course.  Having been stripped of its original meaning it is no longer useful in conveying these important principles.  Nevertheless, Christian people cannot forget their moorings.  Without the basics, we are nothing.


Leave a Comment