4 Distinctions Between Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism

By the power of TikTok, Abraham Piper has quickly become a household name in the deconstruction community. As the son of the famous pastor John Piper, he’s a high profile exvangelical who often posts videos that criticize the faith and church dynamics he grew up in. 

Recently, one commenter asked him why he continues to attack Christianity. Piper posted a response video, contenting that he actually doesn’t intend to attack Christianity as a whole. “I don’t attack Christianity. I berate evangelicalism. Fundamentalism. It’s a destructive, narrow-minded worldview.”

And while Piper has a unique experience with evangelicalism (and often offers valid insights about the failings of the movement), his characterization isn’t entirely uncommon. Evangelicals have often been accused of being fundamentalistic. And to be fair, sometimes they are. 

But that isn’t to say that fundamentalism and evangelicalism are one in the same. It just doesn’t always appear that way from the outside, because many fundamentalists often refer to themselves as evangelical. Nevertheless, the things that fundamentalists are known for frustrate faithful evangelicals just as much as they do non-evangelicals. 

Here are 4 distinctives that separate evangelicals from fundamentalists.

1. Center Focus versus Border Focus

When it comes to having orthodox theology, differing views on important matters of life and faith have often coexisted within the broader Church. Yet, even within that diversity of thought, we can still agree that those inside the “circle of orthodoxy” are faithful, bible-believing Christians.

But how big is that circle?  

For the fundamentalist, one of the most important things in life is doctrinal purity. It isn’t just about having biblically orthodox theology. It’s about holding to a very specific set of doctrines, whether they be complementarianism, Calvinism, premillennial eschatology, or a narrow definition of the sufficiency of scripture that precludes any use of psychology and other social sciences. 

And when your main emphasis is purity of doctrine (at least purity as you define it), the question you’re often asking is, “Who’s in and who’s out?” What are the doctrinal offenses that will put you outside the bounds of being considered a biblically faithful Christian? This is a border focus. And the borders are typically tight. 

On the other hand, the evangelical movement, at its best, has been marked by unity of mission amid diversity of theological thought. This ethos can be summed up by Augustine’s famous quote, “In the essentials, unity. In the non-essentials, liberty. In all things, charity.”

The problem is that for a fundamentalist, everything is an essential. So if you have a different view on women in leadership, the doctrine of predestination, or CRT, then you are firmly outside the border. 

However, the evangelical way is to be much more center focused. When your focus is firmly set on the things we can agree on as outlined by historic creeds, you have a greater tolerance for the tension of disagreeing with other evangelicals on issues that are important but ultimately not essential for salvation. 

At its best, evangelicalism has been know for its unity of mission amid diversity of theological thought. Click To Tweet

2. Invitation versus Judgment

On the other hand, adherence to the specific doctrines listed above doesn’t necessarily make you a fundamentalist. You can be a complementarian, premillennial, calvinistic Christian without being fundamentalistic about it. I personally know many followers of Jesus who hold to one or all of these doctrines who are full of the fruit of the Spirit. 

When it comes to important but ultimately non-essential doctrines, what’s far more important than the particulars of your view is the manner in which you hold that view. Being convinced of your own theological system is one thing, but assuming that it’s the only expression of Christianity that could possibly honor God is another. 

The assumption that your theological system, down to every last detail, is the only faithful theological system necessarily gives way to a judgmental spirit. Rather than inviting others to sit under the authority of scripture with you, you stand over them in judgment for not holding to the correct view (or even for just not using the correct words to express it). 

The message of Jesus is one of invitation. Yes, there are core doctrines we must affirm if we claim to have a worldview that is distinctly Christian. But entry into the Kingdom of God isn’t determined by any theological litmus test other than personal faith in Jesus for salvation and the forgiveness of sins.

The message of Jesus is one of invitation. And that invitation doesn't require a theological litmus test. Click To Tweet

3. Collaboration versus Gatekeeping

When you assume that you’re the only one with the right theology and that everyone else is wayward, it makes it difficult to partner with other churches and Christian organizations who aren’t one hundred percent aligned with your (incredibly long) doctrinal statement. 

In fact, you’re prone to see them as the enemy. I recently listened to a podcast wherein a fundamentalist pastor described wrestling with the idea of leaving the Southern Baptist Convention. Ultimately, he decided to keep his church in the SBC, because of its widespread influence in the Church at large. So, in his words, if his church and others like it left the denomination, it would mean that the doctrinally unsound leaders will have won, empowering the largest denomination in America to send out large numbers of “liberal and heretical pastors and missionaries.”

To be sure, this assessment of the situation is both exceedingly self-important and incredibly myopic.

When your main focus is doctrinal purity, it pushes everything to the margins––including your sense of mission. When you’re more focused on purging those whom you deem as bad apples than you are on how you can reach across the aisle and partner with other believers in the mission of Jesus, you have lost your way. 

A spirit of unity is vital to the Church’s mission. And while we can’t be unified with those who have unorthodox theology, we do need the ability to tolerate differences of opinion on non-essential issues for the sake of reaching those who don’t know Jesus.

A spirit of unity is vital to the Church's mission Click To Tweet

4. Progress versus Regression

Ultimately, the difference between fundamentalism and evangelicalism boils down to how we see our purpose in the world. Those with a fundamenalist perspective see their purpose as keeping things from changing. After all, “Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). So we should wear suits, sing old hymns, and never question any long standing social structures, regardless of how they have cultivated oppression and abuse.

On the other hand, the evangelical perspective is far more concerned with contextualizing the eternal truth of the gospel to an ever changing world. And that’s because we’re called to become all things to all people that by all means we might save some (1 Corinthians 9:22). What’s more is that as we are saved and transformed, we are called to see to it that the values of God’s Kingdom break through into our world today. Even, and especially, when those values stand in conflict with how the Church has operated in the past. 

Jesus never called us to a defensive posture. We’re not called to preserve what was. We’re called to be a part of God creating what could be. Jesus doesn’t care if we wear suits to church instead of flip flops or sing contemporary worship songs instead of hymns. What he cares about is whether or not we’re growing in love and advancing his mission of salvation through grace.

Following Jesus means being in a continual state of becoming the person you were meant to be. It’s about looking forward to what’s ahead instead of what’s behind. And as we move forward in that process, Jesus will continue the work he has begun in us, until we see him face-to-face and his work within us is finally complete.

We're not called to preserve what was. We're called to be part of God creating what could be. Click To Tweet

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