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The Emerging Middle

The "Emerging Middle"

-- Pastor Bob Bixby (contributed article)
 

The "Young Fundamentalism" discussion has been going on for several years.   Along the way there have been several articles that changed everyone's perspectives as to what was really happening.   This article is offered as a descriptive device, for those who are just joining the discussion and don't quite understand what has been happening.   Originally published Aug. 4, 2007, it still describes tendencies in force today.   Some readers will be pleased with the trends Brother Bixby observes.  Some will not.

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I hate to say, “I told you so,” but it seems that my analysis of the current evangelical/fundamentalist culture has been somewhat on the mark, and the recent conversation at Reformation21 appears to reinforce my persuasion. (See this and related posts at this blog. Also check out the conversation at Anderson’s blog). I have been saying for the last five years that there is a new circle forming and I am quite certain that the next five years will see an accentuation of that new circle as the mainstream of evangelical/fundamentalist thought. It is the emerging middle. It is the rapprochement of biblically-grounded, historical centers of two hitherto unconnected orbits of Christian fellowship: the “fundamentalist” orb and the “evangelical” orb.

Over the past fifty years, the theological historical centers (and “historical” is the operative word) of these distinct orbits within American evangelicalism began to lose dominance within their respective spheres. Evangelicalism became anemic and undefined, suffering the backlash of the spectacular failure (or the success of it if you agree with Christianity Today’s 50th anniversary edition) of the New Evangelical experiment. Fundamentalism, on the other hand, became hostage to institutional pride, ignorance, the KJV-only movement (I’m being redundant), revivalism, and radical sectarianism. Consequently, those who have developed the “old evangelical” persuasion which is the birthright of both fundamentalism and evangelicalism, the center of each orbit, have found themselves the minority within the orbit of their spiritual upbringing. Biblical Evangelicals are hesitant to be called “evangelical” because they have to explain it. They are loath to be identified with everything “evangelical.” Biblical fundamentalists are hesitant to be called “fundamentalists” unless they too get a chance to explain it. They are loath to be identified with everything “fundamentalist.”

If you could imagine in your mind’s eye two separate circles, each one representing the American division of the larger Body of Christ, one being “evangelical” and the other “fundamentalist,” then overlap the two circles just partially, you would have a mental picture of what I am trying to explain. Where the overlap is, I think, is where the emerging middle finds itself. The emerging middle is, in my opinion, the most authentic representation of historic fundamentalism which, by the way, is historic evangelicalism. Without asking permission, I would put in that overlap men like Bauder and Dever, MacArthur and Doran, and so forth. Though the leaders of the Boomer generation still strongly play by the old rules and accentuate the demarcations of the 1950s, they still have far more in common than differences. The taxonomy for Fundamentalists was simply Fundamentalism and New Evangelicalism, implying that anyone not Fundamentalist in name was compromised. The taxonomy for the Evangelicals was simply Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism, implying that anyone insistent on being called a Fundamentalist was a nincompoop. I predict (and hope), however, that the new generation of leaders will shed the taxonomy of the fifties and forge a fellowship that is, well, historically evangelical, refreshingly fundamental.

What has already begun to manifest itself in embryonic form will hopefully birth as a healthy, God-given movement if it is not aborted by impatient men or ambitious young leaders who don’t care what happens where as long as they are in the front. Nevertheless, those of us who are younger pastors and leaders in the “overlap” have much to be encouraged by. The irreversible has started and I think there are a few reasons for this:

1. First, the revival of “Calvinish” doctrine. The word “calvinish” was coined by J.I. Packer in a lecture he gave to explain the inclinations, variations, and stripes of soteriological systems that adhere to sovereign grace, but are not really purely Calvinistic. While some people object to Phillips’ ascription of BJU as Arminian, they seem to forget that it wasn’t too long ago that students with Calvinistic leanings were considered disruptive and dismissed from the institution. I would wager that most fundamentalists fall neatly into Phillips broad generalization. Nonetheless, there has been a refreshing revival of “Calvinish” doctrine and the bookstore at BJU is a perfect illustration of this fact. I know nothing of the inside scoop, but I do know that the quality of books and the theology represented on the bookshelves have vastly improved over the past 20 years since I first began to notice books.

The trend is good. But let us not be naïve. The Finney-esque evangelists of the movement are still heroized.


2. The second reason for this encouraging trend is because of the utter failure of definition and taxonomy. When I first read Bob Jones Jr.’s definition of fundamentalism some time ago, I knew that we fundamentalists (as a movement) were on mission impossible. According to Bob Jones Jr. a fundamentalist is

“a person who is soundly converted and born again through faith in the blood of Jesus Christ, who believes the Bible is God’s Word, who is willing to defend the Scripture with his life’s blood, who preaches and proclaims the Word, and who seeks to obey it.” 
  
Now who, pray tell, in their right mind is going to tell a John MacArthur or a Mark Dever or a John Piper that they are not fundamentalists on the basis of that definition? And yet even while most Fundamentalists nodded approvingly of Bob Jones’ definition (probably because he was a Jones), they also concurrently and anachronistically maintained that conservative evangelicals were not fundamentalists because they were not in the separatist movement.

Frankly, Jones’ definition is horribly flawed because it defines more than just Fundamentalists and it is fodder for the arrogant (even though he may have been sincere and humble himself) because many Fundamentalists cannot be defined by his definition . The result is sectarianism to the -nth degree, not because of its words, but because of the application that is rarely truthfully challenged. That definition, I am persuaded, has been for decades now the assumed definition of most Fundamentalists even before Jones ever penned it. In other words, over time it became to be assumed that a Fundamentalist, merely because he was Fundamentalist, was the only part of the Body of Christ that was “soundly converted and born again through faith in the blood of Jesus Christ, who believes the Bible is God’s Word, who is willing to defend Scripture with his life’s blood, who preaches and proclaims the Word and who seeks to obey it.” Whether that definition was actually true of him or not, he claimed it because he claimed the title. Thus, he could be radically KJV-only, belligerently stupid, and legalistically sectarian, but still bless God that he was not as other men. Godly men and women of other origins, however, certainly must not be seeking to obey Scripture because, after all, they were not “Fundamentalists.”

Presently, there are practical open-theists, bibliolatry practitioners, and Finney-esque evangelists within the Fundamentalist orbit and the historical evangelical/fundamental pastor who grew up in the Fundamentalist circle is asked to dutifully give a black-eye to the guys not in Fundamentalism even though he has far more in common with them than he does heretical fundamentalism. Interestingly, the same thing is going on in the other circle. Men there have come to embrace the “antithesis,” and are seeking to purge corrupted circles and forge new relationships while being asked to give good and reasonable men within the ranks of Fundamentalism a black eye, even though they have far more in common with those men than they do many within their own sphere. In time the relationships and networking within the overlap will be so strong that the obligatory rhetoric of demarcation will finally be discarded into the files of American Church history.

The definitions have failed, thank God, because there is only one Body, one Faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of all.

3. The third reason why I think this positive trend is taking place is because of the liberation of Joe-pastor from the debilitating effect of presentism.

While some of the old-guard in Fundamentalism have eyed with suspicion many young fundamentalists for attempting to describe themselves as “historic fundamentalists,” there is nonetheless a powerful liberation taking place. (I might say, parenthetically, that I do not necessarily blame the old guard for their suspicion. I myself am suspicious of most young fundamentalists primarily because they are the product of poor theology.)

The liberation of which I speak is not a social liberation or a new discovery of one’s freedom to watch movies. I am not thinking of trite things. The liberation of which I speak is the freedom that God gives to men who begin to understand how God has always had key servants of God in every part of His Body and for them to be anywhere else would be disobedience.

Let me try to explain what I am saying by quoting a historian from, of all places, Bob Jones University.

Historic Fundamentalism has changed. The historian of the movement must not, therefore, be found guilty of presentism, that is, projecting the values, goals, and methods of the present on the past. . . . Historically, Fundamentalists have striven progressively for what they regard as biblical purity. . .The present study reveals that pre-1930 Fundamentalism was nonconformist, while post-1930 Fundamentalism has been separatist~ David Beale 

In other words, there was such a thing as nonconformist Fundamentalists who fought for the purity of their denominations and spheres of influence. In my mind, therefore, SBC preachers like Mark Dever are historic fundamentalists. They are clearly non-conformists and they are clearly fighting for the right causes.

Beale goes on to say,

While one must stress its transdenominational unity, the strength of Fundamentalism lies in its diversity. Indeed, Fundamentalism is a labyrinth, a complex movement larger than any single denomination or organization. While it respects denominational distinctives, it transcends them in the face of a common enemy. Fundamentalism has never been and never could be limited to the affirmations of any particular denomination. The Fundamentals of Fellowship transcend denominational distinctives, and they do so without weakening or compromising such distinctives. While Fundamentalists have differed among themselves on certain interpretations of Scripture, they unite in fellowship for the common purpose of the defense of the faith and the spread of the gospel, accepting the Bible alone, without question, as the divinely and verbally inspired, inerrant, and authoritative Word of God. (emphasis his) 
 
With that explanation of Fundamentalism (an explanation that I fully accept), I would have no problem fellowshipping with Mark Dever and sharing my pulpit with him even though he is still in the SBC. I personally could not join the SBC, but I can certainly accept the possibility that God has men who are supposed to be there. Again, Dever, I think, is an illustration of a “nonconformist fundamentalist” whose “common purpose [is the] defense of the faith and the spread of the gospel,” and who is known for “accepting the Bible alone, without question, as the divinely and verbally inspired, inerrant, and authoritative Word of God.” My own personal “fundamentals of fellowship” transcend denominational distinctives. Frankly, I would a thousand times urge my people to go to his church before asking them to go to the average fundamentalist church in the BJU/NBBC/PCC/MBBC orbit.

Therefore, having become more and more liberated from “presentism,” the average pastor is starting to realize with more clarity that Gospel purity is not the exclusive claim of their religious party, and the “religious party” can no longer be defined by extra-biblical loyalties. And that leads to my next point.

4. The fourth reason why I think the emerging middle will ultimately win the day is because the power of institutionalism is waning. The conferences in Fundamentalism are not appealing to many young leaders because they generally reek of institutional loyalties. Thus, for example, at a recent conference on feeding the flock, Stephen Jones was one of the keynote speakers even though he has no experience pastoring and the institution over which he presides is notorious for being weak on the local church. Go to an FBF meeting and find mostly gray hairs in old suits. The aura of power and influence that these institutions had has a long-lasting after-glow because of the subculture of loyalists that clutter around their leaders obfuscating their view of reality, but it is mostly a waning power.

While the institutions desperately try to cater to an increasingly diverse constituency, strong leaders will start defining fellowship by their own consciences and biblical convictions, no longer intimidated by the prospect of loss of favor by the alma mater. The institutions will not, indeed cannot, sever these independent leaders and pastors from fellowship because ultimately the colleges need the pastors and churches, not vice versa.

5. Fifthly, the emerging middle will prevail because of God’s blessing on sound doctrine and His jealous safe-guarding of glory. While many Fundamentalists want to beat their chests and vaunt themselves as the undefiled defenders of the Faith, God will not share His glory with mere mortals. It is faithfulness to His Word, not faithfulness to a movement, that brings glory to the Name of God. Thus, movements are destined to fade. New Evangelicalism failed. Fundamentalism will fail as well. But the germ of Fundamentalism is a pure seed and it will bear good fruit. That germ is the same one that is deeply embedded in the hearts and pasts of the many outstanding non-conformists brethren in the denominations and Bible-professing circles of today’s evangelicalism.


My own impression is that conferences like the Together for the Gospel conference are exceedingly bright and hopeful signs of the rapprochement of like-minded men in hitherto mostly completely separated orbits. We love the truth. And the truth will free us from man-made circles of incarceration, no matter in what orbits they may be.

Original article can be found here.

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