The Effects of Fundamentalism on the United Methodist Church

Posted: March 14, 2019 by Matt Horan in ReEmergent Church

By Matt Horan

Christian Fundamentalism started as a reaction against the Theory of Evolution at the 1910 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church.  It influenced many Methodist Churches throughout the 20th century.  Fundamentalism is based on a series of “test questions” that measure whether someone is truly a Christian.  These include:

  1. Do you believe that the Bible is free from errors, and is literally true except in places where it says otherwise (such as a parable)?
  2. Do you believe that the conception of Jesus was a miracle performed by Holy Spirit, and that Mary became pregnant with him without the involvement of a human father?
  3. Do you believe that Jesus’s death on the cross served as payment for the penalty owed to God for your sin?
  4. Do you believe that Jesus rose from the dead?
  5. Do you believe that Jesus really performed miracles?

A good case can be made for any of these beliefs.  I’m a personal subscriber to somewhere between 3 and 4 of them depending on the day.  However, Fundamentalism has not been a good influence on Methodism.  Here’s a few reasons why:

First, it prioritizes getting people from earth into heaven, rather than getting heaven into earth, as was prioritized by Jesus.

Second, it teaches that this top-priority eternal destination hinges on our having a moment of mental agreement to, and public pronouncement of, the 5 doctrines above, placing all the authority over who gets into heaven when we die in our hands rather than God’s.  We are saved by grace–through faith, and “not of ourselves, it is the gift of God” after all.

Third, it creates a culture in our churches by which we have switched on a constant “belief radar,” and we use this radar to measure the validity of each other’s faithfulness.  Today, Fundamentalists in United Methodist Churches scrutinize sermons and other communications of Christian authors, pastors, or other leaders with questions like these in mind to measure how “liberal” or “conservative” they are.  Neither of these words are helpful as a way to identify ourselves.  Our identity should be in Christ alone.

Fourth, its standards measure what’s in your brain, rather than what is in your heart.  It’s goal is correct thoughts, when Jesus’ goal was loving actions.

Fifth, it teaches people to see churches, denominations, seminaries, etc., as “watering down” or “adding things” to the Bible; when Fundamentalists “just read the Bible and do what it says.”  This prevents Fundamentalists from accessing the work of archaeology, linguistics, writing conventions, anthropology, and other disciplines that put the stories of the Bible into the context in which they were written.  These fields of study help us understand the “trajectory” of Scripture, and thus allows us to have better informed conversation by which we can discern how to apply the lessons of these stories from ancient cultures in our present day.   

Sixth, it promotes an unhealthy fixation on predicting the timing and nature of the end of the world.  Fundamentalists often assign themselves an identity based on their prediction of how and when the end of the world will come, when our identity should be found in Christ, who calls us to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength; and our neighbor as ourselves–regardless of whether the world is going to end tomorrow or in a zillion years.

Seventh, it has created an oppositional posture within the church toward the world around us.  Fundamentalists use warfare language against those who do not share their views, lumping them into a conspiracy to attack and destroy the Christian faith, rather than seeing them as potential partners that could be inspired by the words of Christ and mission of the church to join us in charity and service to those in need.

Eighth, Fundamentalism has inspired the rise of the lobbying efforts of political groups to pass laws that make people behave like Christians without first becoming Christians.  These groups have packaged together and endorsed a collection of political views that they think should be standard for people who follow the Bible. By claiming that these are God’s stances on these political issues, by giving funding and endorsements to political candidates in exchange for espousing their platform, and by employing the oppositional warfare language mentioned above, our political discourse has been changed from a “team of rivals” debating and exploring solutions to America’s problems, to battles of “good vs. evil.”  Further, a disturbing similarity has begun to appear between our nation’s deteriorating political discourse and the dehumanizing way that brothers and sisters in Christ speak to each other when they disagree.

Ninth, as an approach founded in the Presbyterian Church, it promotes views consistent with “predestination” and the sovereignty of God over all things, as opposed to the Wesleyan view of “free will.”  The influence of Fundamentalism on Methodist Churches has allowed “everything happens for a reason” or “God is in control” language to overshadow the critical contributions of Wesleyan Christianity that teach of God’s grace.  The Wesleyan approach is that God does not cause the misfortunes of the world for some greater purpose–he invites us to walk through them strengthened and equipped by the “means of grace” (prayer, fasting, sacraments, Scripture meditation, small group participation, attendance at corporate worship, generosity, service, and evangelism) to move forward in the direction of healing, hope, and peace that will sanctify us along the way.  God does not force or coerce us–he invites us, giving us the free will to accept or reject his invitation.

Tenth, Fundamentalism has changed the form and function of the Wesleyan Class Meeting.  These meetings were intended to be gatherings in which Methodists would share their struggles and successes, joys and pains, temptations and victories.  They worked together in order to live lives that “Do no harm, do good, and stay in love with God,” and these class meetings were truly life giving and transformational.  These have been replaced, however, by gatherings called “Bible Study,” which are focused on receiving information about the Bible that reinforces what we already think and who we already are.

There is some good that has come out of Fundamentalism.  Fundamentalists tend to avoid destructive habits, tend to know the Bible really well, tend to be generous givers to their churches, and tend to be more open to opportunities to invite people to faith in Christ–all things that anyone who is a part of the church of Jesus Christ should embrace.  A lot of good, however, would come out of United Methodists remembering who they are, and remembering the important theological contributions we make to the global Christian movement.

There are people out there for whom Fundamentalism works.  There are many, many others, however, who crave something different, but don’t even know it’s out there because they assume that all churches are Fundamentalist.  Yet there is something else.

Wesleyans are called to be at peace with our imperfect incompleteness because we know that God is still speaking, still shaping, still forming, still inviting us forward; and giving us important work to do along the way.  One of the most important things we do along the way is welcome all the other imperfect incomplete people out there to join us in our work, in our hope, in our process, and in our peace. –MH



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