I prayerfully submit the first of what portends to be a four-part essay on the inevitable change within Fundamentalism as a movement. May the Lord preserve us from a “morbid interest in controversial questions and disputes about words” (1 Timothy 6:4) and enable us to contribute to the beautifying of His glorious Body.
[Read Part I.]
The closing of differences amongst Christians is like opening the book in the Revelation — there is none able or worthy to do it, in heaven or in earth, but the Lamb: when he will put forth the greatness of his power for it, it shall be accomplished and not before. ~ John Owen
FUNDAMENTALIST GROUPTHINK AND
THE INEVITABLE PARADIGM SHIFT
by Bob Bixby, pastor of
Morning Star Baptist Church
The groupthink of contemporary Fundamentalism is rooted in denominational preservationism and turf protectionism. Even the most casual reading of the Fundamentalist beginnings in the late 1800s and early 1900s cannot ignore the obvious desperation of many godly men to hang on to their crumbling denominations in spite of the unmistakable encroachment of liberalism. They fought courageously and failed. But they failed with dignity. These valiant warriors found a brotherhood outside of their denominations in the rise of the renowned Bible conferences of the early twentieth century. These popular conferences were patently interdenominational without the riggings of presbyteries, synods, state boards, and religious politics. The fellowship was truth-driven. Those were glorious days, revival-like in their power, and comforting to all true lovers of the Word.
Mainline denominations had sold out to liberalism, and the once tight-knit communities of same-mindedness were fragmented by the hammer of truth. Men found themselves enjoying a common cause with other men from other denominations, and that commonality was stripped of all denominational trappings for the sake of a truth-based community. That community eventually became known as “Fundamentalists.” They had to be “Fundamentalists.” How else could so many from so varied backgrounds thrive in a revival-like fellowship of militancy for truth, if truth wasn’t defined by, well, truth? “Fundamentalists” was actually a well-chosen name. Fundamentalism was not about any single denomination, any single religion, or any single association. It was a about a single cause. That cause was truth.
Fundamentalism clearly came out of denominationalism. Human nature is human nature, however, and what is not so clear is whether denominationalism has been properly exorcised out of Fundamentalism. I do not think it has.
In a short matter of time, the definition of Fundamentalism began to morph into private interpretations of what is essential obedience for fellowship. It was not long before one was not considered Fundamentalist if he was not premillennialist, or dispensationalist, or King James-only, or anti-CCM, and the list goes on and on. The sinful nature of man that inherently fears other men, with its corresponding hunger for the security of community (a denominational perk) aroused denominational protectionism within the movement — even though there was no denomination to protect — and sparked an uninterrupted series of infightings which continues to this day. Protectionism and/or preservationism are difficult without a denominated territory. Denomination necessitates definition with concrete, objective limitations, boundary lines. This has been impossible to do by the formulation of a creed because Christians will never be able to agree on what are the essential marks of obedience that, if not present, call for Biblical separation. The historic volumes called The Fundamentals prove this point. The denominating of the Fundamentalist movement will not, nor should not, happen in creed. But it is happening in deed; and that, by groupthink. Groupthink is the tendency of members of any group to conform to the prevailing feelings and opinions of the group.
Now, the movement which had at one time Biblical truth as its singular distinction began to conform to the pressure of men who not only championed truth (thank God!), but could unfortunately never do so without also championing their overheated opinions on secondary principles. John Owen, commenting on the polemical engagements of Jerome, made the astute observation that all debates of the day were not just about the truth, but about private causes. “If they were engaged, they did not what the truth only, but what the defense of their cause also required.” The outcome was an enforced agreement with the whole package, not just the part that was unquestionably true. Not only was one who was convinced of the truth of truth expected to accept it, but he could not accept it unless he was likewise convinced of the truth of the private cause. Therefore, if a man wholeheartedly accepted the truth of truth, but doubted the private cause, he was treated as an unbeliever in the truth, or at best a compromiser! Most men, then and today, just buy the whole package for the sake of community. They yield to groupthink. Groupthink will amalgamate even a truth-based, non-denominational movement into a community that equates the sharing of feelings and opinions as essential as truth. If one should go so far as to condemn the private cause, he is considered schismatic, a heretic, or a disgruntled. Our movement is marked by competing communities of groupthink (i.e. not all are King James-only, etc.), but there is a groupthink that is common to all those who embrace the term Fundamentalist as self-descriptive.
Within the modern movement of Fundamentalism is a growing number of men who have been bred in the Fundamentalist sub-culture, who have embraced in their hearts the core values of Fundamentalism, who cherish the friendship of the constituency of the movement, but who have found that their own spiritual and biblical principles are colliding with an unbiblical form of separation. This unbiblical practice of a biblical doctrine has become so entrenched in the movement’s psyche that to call it into question is to invite ostracism. John Owen complained, “We are condemned for separation by those who refuse to admit us into union!” Fundamentalism is coming full circle. Once a harbor for men fleeing the constraints and compromise of apostate denominations, it is now a prison so denominationalized that the men who speak to its sins or resist its constraints are finding themselves in the same spiritual and psychological stress that their Fundamentalist forefathers experienced. They are battling the status quo, standing up to the political powers, and refusing to regurgitate groupthink. They are marginalized now, but they will soon be the leaders and the core of the next big movement in the Body of Christ for the sake of truth.
This prediction is not based on a twisted prophet-complex or on an overestimation of the character and spiritual maturity of the men who are unhappy in the Fundamentalist movement. Nor should this prediction be construed as an underestimation of the personal godliness of the current leaders within the movement. It is based upon the history of the reformation and recovery of biblical practice within the Church, a little common sense, and an assessment of human nature.
In order to enjoy the denominational sanction of the Fundamentalist movement and avoid the risk of losing one’s friends, a leader must toe the line on more than just fundamental truth. Music serves as an excellent illustration because it is the most controversial. If a man is going to guard his constituency, protect his place on the speaking roster in one of the institutions, and maintain his fellowship with the men that he agrees with more than any other group, he would not dare adopt a different stance toward anyone who uses music that is unacceptable to the collective mind of his community. Much less, would he dare call into question the unacceptability of the music. And much, much less, are the chances that he would dare to use the music in his own church. He loves Fundamentalism, he loves their founders, he loves their schools, he loves their doctrine, he loves their leaders, but he is a man without a country because he cannot in good conscience parrot groupthink on every issue.
Unfortunately, too many people see the discussion facing our generation as one about music. This is because men on both sides of the discussion invest most of their time and energy arguing the finer points of musicology, worship, and the question of worldliness.
As an outspoken critic of contemporary fundamentalism who is equally upfront in his position that music is not an issue that necessarily calls for separation, I personally have a strong bent for the old hymns and a forceful stance for conservative music in the worship service of our congregation. I mention this, not to provoke a discussion about music, but to point out that music is by no means the crucial issue. By merely raising the subject to the level of illustration and exposing my views, I have already disqualified myself in the minds of some of my readers. I am already, in the mind of some readers, a marked man. This automatic polarization and dismissal proves the point that I intend to make in this essay; I would ask those readers especially to indulge me in good Christian charity. Read on.
The discussion is about groupthink, and we are experiencing a very human event not unlike a revolution. The word revolution conjures up all kinds of possible misconceptions, but in the context of this essay I would like to use it much in the same way it is used by Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn’s work on the history of science which appeared in 1962 was soon considered to be one of “The Hundred Most Influential Books Since the Second War” by The Times Literary Supplement because it struck a chord with people from all sorts of fields, not just the science community. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions when read by a layperson is not so much a book about science or philosophy as it is brilliant insight into (a) mankind as a knowledge-seeking community and (b) the struggle that precedes advance. That struggle results in revolutions which Kuhn describes as “tradition-shattering complements to the tradition-bound activity” of a particular community. A complement is that which completes or brings to perfection and maturity. Translated into our current context, the very thing that will serve as a complement to our noble heritage as Fundamentalists will probably (I might suggest necessarily?) conflict with our tradition-bound activity. The discussion/debate over separation and its applications is not the nemesis of our truth-loving community, but its hope!
The parallelism between Kuhn’s world of science historiography and tight-knit communities of men in white coats, and our small world of Fundamentalism and tight-knit communities of men in suits, is striking. Kuhn made the audacious suggestion (offensive to some) that scientists are not white-coated independent thinkers who are responding to available data and acting accordingly. They are almost unanimously in bondage to the thought-culture, the groupthink, of their community, a “constellation of group commitments,” a paradigm. Scientific advance, Kuhn postulated, never occurs until there is a revolution which is “a special sort of change involving a certain sort of reconstruction of group commitments.” The term for this, which he made famous, is paradigm shift.
Fundamentalism is in a similar bondage to its own constellation of group commitments and is rushing headlong toward its inevitable and necessary paradigm shift. Some of its group commitments are no longer valid, even while others are of life-and-death validity. Fundamentalism today is a complex constellation of group commitments with evocative themes and sub-themes that so affect the movement that nearly all of its solutions and judgments are predictably monolithic. To provoke a conversation on the rightness or wrongness of various applications of separation which is the core commitment of the movement becomes a veritable Pandora’s box to anyone who assumes to publicly open it for the sake of mutual edification. But, like the mythical Pandora’s box, opened again, it may release hope.
The reason for the seeming polarization on the subject of Fundamentalism and separation is, I think, because Fundamentalism as a whole has inherited and imbibed a groupthink that functions with an outmoded paradigm. A paradigm is an overall concept or pattern accepted by an intellectual community because of its usefulness in explaining complex processes or ideas. Intellectual here, of course, doesn’t mean reasonable, sound, accurate, or even intellectual. It simply speaks of thinking. Any community that shares a pattern of thought on any given subject has accepted rules, facts, and formulae that are automatically, even unthinkingly, assumed as the basis for all problem resolution and explanation. As I mentioned before, Kuhn called this unique thought-culture, groupthink, the “constellation of group commitments.”
This is particularly obvious among the subgroups within Fundamentalism. What Kuhn says about scientific communities one could also say about them:
Having isolated a particular community of specialists… one may usefully ask: What do its members share that accounts for the relative fullness of their professional communication and the relative unanimity of their professional judgment?
I have a number of friends from a notable Fundamentalist seminary, but I have always commented that once you have met one of them, you’ve met them all. I jokingly tell my wife that I can talk to one of my friends from that group about any controversy and know exactly how the others from the same group are going to dogmatize. While this “relative unanimity” is certainly evident in varying degrees in the subgroups of Fundamentalism, it is also evident among the movement as a whole. Kuhn’s question is appropriate here. What does the community share? His answer is also on target: a paradigm or set of paradigms.
Scientific progress has shown that paradigms eventually crumble under the weight of anomalies, a departure from the regular arrangement. If a paradigm for problem solution and/or explanation results in a correct answer 999 times out of 1000, one has an excellent paradigm. There is only 1 anomaly. So rare is the anomaly that the exception almost proves the rule. However, when there are 50 or 100 or more anomalies then the paradigm must change. Again, let’s learn from science:
On other occasions a piece of equipment designed and constructed for the purpose of research fails to perform in the anticipated manner, revealing an anomaly that cannot, despite repeated effort, be aligned with professional expectation. In these and other ways besides, normal science repeatedly goes astray. And when it does — when, that is, the profession can no longer evade anomalies that subvert the existing tradition of scientific practice — then begin the extraordinary investigations that lead the profession at last to a new set of commitments, a new basis for the practice of science.
If a paradigm, then, is an overall concept accepted by any given community because of its assumed effectiveness to resolve problems as already shown, then a set of agreements, beliefs, and world-views that are shared by any given community that govern that community’s problem solving is paradigmatic. Our community is Fundamentalism and our challenge is separation. Our way of explaining and applying it is our paradigm.
The one challenge that affects every believer is the problem of separation. It is without a doubt the primary concern of all Fundamentalists. Yet there seems to be a crisis. I would suggest that the doctrine of Biblical separation is not so much in crisis as is the constellation of group commitments that hem our groupthink into unrealistic, impractical, inconsistent, and sometimes blatantly unbiblical applications of separation. The anomalies are increasingly difficult to evade. There will be a paradigm shift.
What is certain is that young minds that have not been pickled in the traditional paradigm will eventually discard it. In the ensuing controversy that always preludes revolutions there will be some young men that sin against God and ignore the complexity of separation, but others will be able to navigate through the labyrinth of group commitments, embrace the challenge of separation because it is biblically mandated, and structure a new paradigm. I would suggest that the paradigm of separation adopted by Fundamentalists in the 1950s was useful. However, the anomalies are so numerous today that one must admit to a change of paradigms or risk becoming marginalized into ineffectiveness and irrelevancy.
I do not entertain any notion whatsoever that my thoughts will be accepted by the Fundamentalist community, but out of love for my fellow servants I am suggesting for your consideration what the old paradigm is, why it will be discarded, and what might be a new paradigm for separatist believers. Criticisms are expected. That we all become more committed to the Headship of Jesus Christ is my prayer. In my effort to do this, I will first attempt to define the old paradigm. Secondly, I will reiterate the complexity of separation. Thirdly, I will suggest another paradigm, my own, which serves my conscience well and, I believe, is faithful to the mind of Christ.
1. Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, p. 6.
2. Ibid., p. 180.
3. Ibid., p. 182.
4. Ibid., p. 6.
5. I am aware that I sometimes use “groupthink” and “paradigm” interchangeably, and at other times differentiate between the two. This is because of their co-dependency. Even Kuhn, a much more brilliant thinker, faced the same challenge in his work.
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