How Fundamentalism Sets Up Young Men for Disillusionment

Ryan Hayden • February 7, 2012

fundamentalism disillusionment rant

disillusion: disappointment resulting from the discovery that something is not as good as one believed it to be:

I love fundamentalism and consider myself a fundamentalist. The principles of fundamentalism are where the attraction is for me.  Which is why I'll always be a fundamentalist.  Anybody with eyes right now, however, can see than many people my age are leaving fundamentalism and getting bitter.

What has struck me as odd is the character of these defectors. The ones I have known were not in my opinion natural rebels. Some of the most thoughtful, submissive, and serious students at my fundamentalist alma mater have since "abandoned ship."

I want to suggest that the reason we are losing so many of our "best and brightest" is because in many areas of fundamentalism, we are setting people up for disillusionment.

The truth is that there is no perfect institution. There is no perfect church, there is no perfect publishing house, there is no perfect pastor, there is no perfect college. Sooner or later, flaws will surface and need to be dealt with.

This is where the rub lies in the case of fundamentalism. Fundamentalist institutions, in my opinion, have a very poor track record when it comes to dealing with their flaws. More often then not, when flaws come to the surface, they are denied, then justified, then defended, and finally codified into the fabric of the institution.

Try, for example, to convince a graduate of Hyles Anderson that there is a flaw in their college, any flaw, and more often then not you'll get railed on. The same could be said of devoted readers of the Sword of the Lord or followers of many other fundamentalist institutions. In the eyes of many, fundamentalist institutions have achieved something most organizations covet, they are above criticism.

To be above criticism is to be perfect. When people think that something is perfect, and find out otherwise, they often get disillusioned.

I think this disillusionment is so prevalent among young fundamentalists for several reasons:

Reason 1: Leader worship is encouraged.

Last week, the news kept playing a clip of the Atlanta Heretic, "Bishop" Eddie Long, being coronated in front of his church, wrapped in a ridiculous crimson cloth and what looked like a biblical scroll. The preacher narrating this ceremony kept saying "We elevate you from a commoner to the kingship."

While this ceremony was outside of fundamentalism. Many fundamentalist pastors might as well stage their own ridiculous ceremony, because in the eyes of many, they have been elevated from "a commoner to the kingship." I see no reason why pastors should not receive honor, after all the Bible does say "Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in the word and doctrine." At some point however, honor turns into insulation from all criticism, and when you teach ideas for a living, insulation isn't healthy.

Because fundamentalist leaders are put on so high a pedestal and thought so highly of, criticism of them, any criticism of them, becomes taboo. Some fundamentalist pastors are so revered that people rush to their defense, often thoughtlessly, whenever they are criticized.

In my experience, people revere these leaders because they are worthy of it. When a man is instrumental in leading you to Christ, or opens up the scripture for you in a way no one has before, that person becomes special to you. When God has His hand on a church and you learn wonderful things there, it becomes a milestone for you. When things are special to you it is only natural for you to want to protect them.

You can become so protective of someone that they cease to be human. They become essentially infallible. Again, things above criticism have to be perfect.

Reason 2: Fundamentalism becomes everything-ism.

Precisely because leaders are above criticism, over time, those who follow them cease to be fundamentalists - fellowshipping only around the fundamentals and become everythingists - insisting that you prescribe to every idea of their chosen leader.

Everythingism would work if leaders were perfect. It's ok to be an everythingist about Jesus' ideas. The ideas of men - not so much.

The fundamentals used to be a set of biblical truths. You separated from people who denied the fundamentals. The fundamentals have become whatever your leader decides they are. Unfortunately, people today will deny fellowship with you over such insignificant issues as men's hair styles, women's fashions, the slightest variation in music styles, whether the pastor decides to use a screen in church, or even the type of microphone he uses.

Because the leaders are over-revered, the leaders opinions become the orthodoxy of their followers and this orthodoxy is unchallenged in that particular camp. Again, this sets up young people for disillusionment, because as soon as they are exposed to any other orthodoxy, the one they were around previously comes in question, and when something which was previously above criticism has to be weighed next to alternatives, disillusionment is inevitable.

Reason 3: Non-fundamentalist religious leaders are unfairly criticized.

Another cause for disillusionment among young fundamentalist is the unfair treatment of non-fundamentalist leaders, or even fundamentalist leaders from a "different camp." This, in my opinion, is really just a natural result of leader worship and everythingism and it is usually where disillusionment comes to the surface.

If a leader is above criticism, and his ideas and opinions become the orthodoxy of his followers, any leader whose opinions or ideas challenge his own becomes a threat. The truth is there are many people who are not fundamentalists or outside of the fundamentalist camp who are sincere Bible preachers, are very talented and are fighting for the fundamentals of the faith. These men may be radio preachers (like John MacArthur or Ravi Zacharias), authors (like David Platt) or evangelists (like Paul Washer). These men don't agree with fundamentalists on everything (that's why they don't call themselves fundamentalists) but that doesn't make them heretics of the first order or even a threat to be blackballed.

Its common for fundamentalists to just label people "a liberal" or "a neo-evangelical" or "off" and just move on. The impression this leaves in the mind of young fundamentalists is that these men are tools in the hands of satan. When, as is bound to happen eventually, a young man discovers that these men have something valuable to say, and are far closer to fundamentalism than they ever imagined, disillusionment happens.


So how do we fix this? Is there a way to keep young fundamentalists young fundamentalists? Is there a way to cut down on defections and keep disillusionment at bay? I think a few simple changes would do away with a lot of it.

First, fundamentalist leaders need to insist that they are human and discourage the kind of insulation from any criticism that comes from over-reverence. I'm not saying they should encourage people to be critical - that would be catastrophic. What I am saying is that they need to encourage people to weigh their ideas next to scripture. They need to aim for their church to be as the Bereans where, who didn't just accept Paul's teaching at face value, but searched the scriptures first.

Second, fundamentalist leaders need to find a way to allow for some disagreement. If they continue to force people to swallow the whole pill, disillusionment is going to be one of the side effects. I'm glad I went to a fundamentalist bible college that encouraged people to be thinkers and didn't kick people out just for questioning the ideas of the founder, but I've heard many stories of places where this isn't the case. As long as fundamentalist circles have an idea-gestapo people are going to be fleeing to the free world, whether it is to their hurt or not.

Third, fundamentalists leaders need to approach people outside of our circles fairly. We do not need to impugn their motives, label them, or condemn their ministry. Instead, we could take any differences we have with them and use them as a springboard to discuss ideas. How refreshing would it be to hear someone say "John MacArthur is a good Bible teacher with a lot to teach, but I disagree with him about Bible versions, church polity, and I think he's a little high handed with his calvinism. Also, he preached in some places that seem inconsistent with his message of standing up for biblical truth. If you want to discuss it more, I'd love to talk about it in private." This would go a lot further with young people than "he's a heritic" or "he's a liberal", which, unfortunately is what we often get.

I think that if leaders commit to these things, many of our "best and brightest" would stop jumping fences, and would instead use their considerable talents and collective intellect to build the kind fundamentalist churches and institutions that we dearly need.

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