Recovering Fundamentalist? What is that?

11 min. to read.

Writing a Twitter bio is an interesting experience. In 160 characters you attempt to summarize yourself. This is the first place that people on Twitter will look to make sense of who you are, and why you’re saying such crazy things.

Some bios are littered with hashtagged bumper stickers of the #affiliations and #viewpoints! of the tweeter. Some are artful attempts to say something meaningful. Some are flavorless trendy-buzzword-smoothies. Twitter strategists (Yes, that is a thing) will tell you that a well-crafted bio can get you more followers.

For me, trying to shoe-horn something meaningful about myself into 160 characters is painfully hard. I want to just throw up my hands and declare to the anonymous internet crowds, ”Go ahead. Read my 200 blog posts. Watch some of the 150 hours of video of me speaking. Then, you’ll just be starting to know who I am and how I am growing and developing.”

But of course, that’s a crazy request. Not even my wife—who loves me most—has read or watched everything (or, honestly, even a fraction) of what I have online.

Despite that, I buckled down and wrote one. It’s my attempt to say something helpful about where I’m coming from. There’s one part of it that repeatedly gets the most questions.

Here’s my full bio: Life at the intersection of grace & growth. Writer, speaker, hobbyist theologian, recovering fundamentalist. Tea drinker & motorcycle rider.

Some folks comment on the “grace & growth” intersection. For many, tired of legalism yet hoping for life change, that sounds hopeful. I get comments on tea and motorcycles. It’s the last phrase that’s earned me questioning eyebrow raises and even a bit of sputtering argument. “What,” they ask me, “is a recovering fundamentalist?”

A few get it right away; some even have taken the phrase on themselves. Most people wonder what I mean. I’ve even gotten a handful of arduous Tweet-interrogations about it. It’s a hard concept to explain in 140 characters, so I thought I’d unpack it a bit more here. At least then, when people ask me in the future, I’ll have a good explanation for them. And who knows… maybe it will be helpful to you too.

A Confession

First, I must make a confession. I am not using the term fundamentalist in a precisely accurate way, historically speaking. (But then neither do most people.) The word fundamentalist has become so common in popular writing and media, but most people don’t know that the word has a technical definition.

Quick history lesson: At about the turn of the 20th century the Christian Church was going through some growing pains. New revelations in science and widening acceptance of the theory of evolution were putting stress on traditional belief in the Bible. Some European theologians suggested that Christianity could—in fact, needed—to move forward into the future by letting go of the miraculous aspects of the Bible. They called into question things like Jesus’ virgin birth, his miracles, and bodily resurrection. They envisioned a Christianity based on the ethics of the New Testament, but cut away from the more awkward, pre-scientific roots.

Of course, this was profoundly disturbing to theologians, pastors, and Christians who were committed to a traditional reading of the Bible. In the early 1900s, a group of American theologians put forward a response. In a series of papers called “The Fundamentals,” they suggested five beliefs that they saw as essential to being a Christian.

  • The inerrancy of the Bible.
  • The virgin birth of Jesus
  • The historicity of all of Jesus’ miracles.
  • The belief that Jesus’ death on the cross atoned for human sin
  • The belief that Jesus was literally, historically resurrected from death in a physical body.

As you can see, this was specifically a response to the new interpretations that were being taught. So, technically, a fundamentalist is a protestant Christian who holds to these 5 core beliefs as essential to their faith. That encompasses a majority of Christians around the world!

We are closed for discussion!

This word, however, has come to mean something far different: an extremist version of any belief system, where the believers are unable or unwilling to evaluate their own views, and sometimes, are unwilling to be civil or even in relationship with people who disagree with them.

This mindset creates a profound line between US and THEM. In the worst case, these extreme views become justification to do harm to THEM in some way — silencing them, marginalizing them, excluding them and even in some horrific situations, killing them. Central to this mindset is a profound belief in the rightness of one’s worldview and an unwillingness to consider any revision to one’s interpretation. The core ethos of fundamentalism is this: “WE are RIGHT; They are WRONG. The matter is CLOSED.” Sometimes this is lived out in a more or less compassionate way; often its expression is condescending at best, and at times just plain mean.

The term fundamentalist has come to be applied not only to Christians but to any extremist religious group, even non-religious ideologies. I’ve heard references to fundamentalist environmentalists, constitutionalists, even vegans!

Quote - My Weakness

But wait? Isn’t Recovery About Addiction?

Sure is. Hold on to that thought.

I grew up in a faith community that took the Bible very seriously. We believed in inerrancy. We were taught that correct doctrine mattered enormously for our lives and eternity. We were raised not only to seek the conversion of non-Christians but also (and sometimes more importantly) to shed light on the incorrect and unbiblical beliefs of other Christians. Of all Christians, we alone had the full truth.

This obligated us with the moral responsibility to speak up any time someone expressed a belief (or made a life choice) that was incorrect, unbiblical or immoral. To stay silent was to affirm the error.

Practically speaking this created a deep divide. We were implicitly discouraged from learning from people outside the community; they were tainted by bad theology. (Some folks I knew growing up wouldn’t read books that didn’t come from one of the denomination’s own publishing houses.) We were discouraged from joining in ministry or acts of service with Christians who held wrong beliefs because to do so would be to affirm their error. Our separation from them was considered a witness to the truth. We were strongly encouraged to make choices about school and career path that would minimize the need for us to engage in secular culture or the religious views of outsiders.

But the bigger problem with all of this was not these outward, exclusivist behaviors. Here, I can only speak for myself with any authority. Although I suspect this is true for others, I can only tell you for sure about myself.

Living in this environment nurtured in me a deep need to secure my place and value in community by being right.

The more I understood the Bible, the better I could articulate theology, the more affirmation I received. The more I demonstrated an approved moral and religious life, the more people assumed I was in good standing with God.

The powerful hit of being right.

Over years, this kind of affirmation became inextricably linked with my emotional well-being. Being wrong brought grave emotionally consequences for me. Failing discounted my value and place in the community. Being rejected, or condemned is always painful, but when it carries the added weight that the rejection might also be from God? That’s crushing.

This need to be right become an emotional habit, deeply ingrained beyond consciousness. While I prefer to think that my theological choices came as a result of my careful study and searching the scriptures (and I did both of those things), it’s only honest to say that my desperate need to be included influenced the kinds of theological positions that seemed right or Biblical to me.

(Ugh… even typing those words rings alarm bells in my heart as I anticipate hordes of faceless online Christians telling me that my problem was that I wasn’t really following the Bible! More rejection! I’m the outsider! Yet, having pastored for 20 years, I’ve seen this same dynamic over and over, even in the lives of well-known and respected Christian leaders! It’s painful to realize, but the theology that seems right to us is influenced by our own story at least as much, and often more, than by the text of scripture.)

In daily life this manifested in a sort of inflexibility, not just about religious practice and theological orthodoxy, but even more in my opinions about everything else. The consequence, of course, was a lot of relational damage.

The need to be right, the need to be strong, the need to be seen as effective and competent — these things made me visibly effective in my early ministry. But over time, as the damage mounted, they also led me directly over the cliff in a breakdown where I could have easily lost my marriage, my family, my ministry and so much more.

This is where I come to the recovering part.

I learned (and I believe that God was a part of teaching me this, in painful ways over several years) that I am not perfect, not always competent, not always right. I learned that my need to be so wasn’t rooted in good theology, it emerged from brokenness, as I tried desperately to establish my own sense of value in the world around me. Doctrinal rigidness, moral legalism, and a commitment to my own rightness had become a path to self-justification. Even—and this will sound weird—while I considered myself an ardent proponent of Grace!

My fundamental need to be right had pushed me into a corner where I was alone and hurting, and unable to even hear from God.

Inadvertently, and in contradiction to the theology I said I believed, I had made the Bible a god.  I had made right interpretation a god. I had made correct moral behavior a god. I had made my own internal sense of emotional security, based on all these things, a god. The gods I built were shabby papier-mâché facsimiles unable to lead me or shape me well, unable to forgive or save.

In my recovery, I learned that I’m fallen. I have limits. I don’t always know and that’s OK. My interpretations are not perfect reflections of God’s heart, because God is bigger than my mind can conceive. The prescriptions I had for other people were not a reflection of God’s heart for them, because I could not see what God was up to in their stories.

I am by no means all fixed up. Being right is a powerful addiction, and when I feel insecurity surfacing (like right now, as I share this) it’s still my first intuitive response. “Power up, take control, be right, be strong.” But I know now that is destructive. It hurts the people around me. It hurts my spiritual growth. It limits my ability to authentically hear from God.

So, I’m in recovery. My theological forebearers would probably call it sanctification. I am not always right. My theology, however carefully studied and expressed, is not a perfect picture of God. God can and often does work outside the boxes I understand. I don’t need to save the world (It already has a savior.) I can be wrong. I can be weak. I can be off track.

Even so, I can still be confident that I am loved by the One who made me, that Jesus is at work in my life, that the Spirit is working all things together for my good. Oh, and I can be confident, even when I’m not confident of these things, for in my weakness, Father, Son, and Spirit show themselves strong.

Normally at the end of my posts, I turn things around so that you can relate. Make some helpful suggestions about how this might apply in your life. But I’m not going to do that today. Maybe my story resonates with yours. Maybe not. If it does, I hope that God uses it to challenge or encourage you, whichever you need.

Either way, now you know why I call myself a “recovering fundamentalist.”

30 thoughts on “Recovering Fundamentalist? What is that?

  1. Wow. I am completely blown away. You’ve managed to articulate the thoughts and feelings that are swirling around in my head.

    “The moral responsibility to speak up”
    The need for affirmation
    “Right” interpretation becoming more important than God himself (because if your interpretation is wrong, how could you possibly know God?!)

    Thank you for sharing.
    Thank you for affirming that fundamentalism is addictive and toxic.
    Thank you for affirming that just because my views are changing, I don’t hate God.

    Your advice is good too.
    I’m reading The Ragamuffin Gospel and it has been a faith-saver for me.

    1. So glad that my words connected with you. So glad that God is growing and expanding you! (Personal note — I’ve known many very conservative Christians, who would think of themselves as fundamentalist or close to, that were kind, Godly, compassionate people. I’m not saying God can’t work in that space, or that those people don’t love God — just saying that *for me* it became a toxic mess, and I know there are many people like me.)

      1. Thank you for drawing that out and the clarification.
        I don’t necessarily have a problem with people, but with the system itself.

  2. I read with tears in my eyes and pray that a lot more will come to know how much harm than good this pattern of Christianity has done.
    I almost ditched the Way because I grew among a people that were mostly intolerant of my ‘shortcomings’ and had already condemned me to hell by their theology.
    Thank God for Mercy, Grace and good people that didn’t give up on me even when I was ready to; I’m standing today and will remain standing.
    God bless you for sharing.

  3. Fundamentalism relies on very basic human desires: need for safety and security, desire to understand and know, and mistrust of The Other. All of us have these desires to some degree, and in moderation, they’re not particularly bad. Fundamentalism takes these to the extreme by elevating specific beliefs as The Answer, claiming it alone answers all questions, and attacking those who question or mistrust. It creates an identity, a sense of purpose and belonging, around the correct beliefs. Put another way, fundamentalism is the view that correct beliefs save. (The problem is not confined to Christianity, or even to religion.) Recovery is the painful process of rejecting salvation by belief.

    1. I think so. This past weekend in my sermon I articulated it as an issue of facing the object of our trust. What do we really trust? Jesus invited us to trust Him. We have built a system around Jesus, Jesus’ teaching, and the old Testament temple system. Having a system is convenient–it’s objective, it’s visible, you can learn how to work it. But then you come to trust the system — or, perhaps more accurately, you come to trust your ability to work the system. And none of that is trusting Jesus. When you say “salvation by belief” I take this from it: trusting that my correct belief is the mechanism by which I am saved. A way to articulate what I think the New Testament teaches is salvation by trust — a trust in Jesus, deep enough to alter our thinking and actions.

  4. I came across this post at a time when i needed it the most. Thank you.

    It’s interesting how when we finally discover that we’re wrong our faith tends to falter. I suppose, like you said, my faith was in the rightness of my specific brand of doctrine and not in the perfection of my God.

    It’s encouraging to know that others are recovering…it gives hope to us that still feel the sting of that system’s abuses. I look forward to reading more from you.

    1. Wow, Liz. Humbled to be of timely help. I think God is in the business of asking us to change the object of our trust. Turns out–at least for me–that I spent a long time trusting a lot of things other than God. My self, my ability, my correctness, my theology, my ability to work the spiritual system… Learning what to trust (and what not to trust) is hard but good.

  5. An addiction to being right? And how! You are indeed my brother (in the church), there can be no doubt that we came from the same family! Thanks to you, David and I discovered Brennan Manning close to 20 years ago. Yes, we sought out his books because you quoted him in your sermons so many times, and the quotes were shouting at us. Later our friend Herb Montgomery turned us on to Gregory Boyd. His book REPENTING OF RELIGION was breathtaking (and I mean that in the most literal possible sense). And with that my addictions to being right were rattled to the foundation. While I’m still struggling to shake the habit of needing to be right, the foundational addiction is gone, utterly blown away. Thank you for being a part of that.

      1. Prepare to have to stop and catch your breath multiple times because love is that intense. I think you’ll love Boyd, he’s quite the intellectual.

  6. Still absorbing your thoughts on some things, and thinking about your core values series – I learned growing up that people needed to prove their love to you by showing it through words or actions, before you would respond to them or trust them. And likewise, you had to prove you loved the other person as well. This was a distortion of the reality that people do show love through their actions, turning into a manipulative thing rather than something freely given. But it hasn’t been until just very recently that I have realized how much of my Christian living was around the idea that I had to prove I loved God through my actions, and if I failed, then I didn’t really love Him. So rather than sinning and receiving forgiveness and living in grace, I lived in a world where sin meant that I didn’t love God (if you love me, obey my commandments), and that God would sort me with the goats at the end. I don’t know how clear this is, but it is really blowing my mind right now.

    1. Lori, this comment is so full of depth and truth and insight. Man! With that view you can never rest in a relationship, never really trust. It’s always based on performance. And of course, with performance, there’s always the question of “what happens when I fail?” Which means that in eery relationship (God included) there is always fear. To see this, to be able to begin thinking of a different way? That’s life changing. Thanks for sharing this!

  7. Another fundamentalist/evangelical belief that can be really harmful if not carefully thought through – “Relationships are the only things that will last,” or “People are the only thing that really matter to God and that will survive past this earth.” That can totally negate maybe 90% of what people spend their time on earth doing! It can also put a lot of pressure on you (me) to make your relationships perfect, or to make sure you are connecting to a lot of people well, or whatever. Because if that’s all that matters, and you don’t do it well, then you’re really in trouble.

    1. Hey Lori — A couple thoughts on that.

      I’ve heard that phrase in evangelical circles, but never in fundamentalist ones. Fundamentalist religious groups don’t care about relationships other than as a source of external motivation and peer pressure. Rules, righteousness, and religious accomplishment are what is most important. Relationships can be easily sacrificed, so long as you are doing “the right thing.” My experience in a fundamentalist community was profoundly anti-relational.

      The phrase “Relationship are the only thing that last,” isn’t strictly Biblical. It contains some important truth, but I think you’re critique is a good one. The good? Relationships are the most important thing in life. God is ultimately relational, and our spiritual experience is rooted in relationship with God and others. Relationships matter profoundly. The bad? If you have a performance drive (a common fundamentalist trait), you may feel like the quality of your relationships is an indicator of the quality of your spiritual life. Once again, you’re measuring yourself on a legalist scale. Also, you could use this as an excuse to ignore other important things — caring for the poor, caring for the environment, making spiritually-led financial decisions, etc.

      Your last sentence is the big problem. We can turn anything (even really good and important things like relationships) into a religious scale to validate ourselves against. When we do that we are always functioning in legalism.

      1. Huh. That’s interesting, because that makes me realize I tend to think of fundamentalist and evangelical as the same – I know not all evangelical churches are fundamentalist by any means. We’ve been in a number of really good ones. But I’ve also somehow absorbed through church/family/whatever, that relationships are at their heart conditional. I’ve been unlearning this for the last 20 years or so, but it still rears itself whenever I’m in an uncertain situation (like, moving to a new town or starting a new thing of some sort). So then the default position is needing to prove you care about the person, or they need to prove they care about you, instead of just relating and letting things be as they are. The roots of legalism are deep….

        1. “The roots of legalism are deep…” You aren’t kidding! That’s the big struggle for all of us. Legalism wires deeply into our need to be accepted and belong. We can take nearly anything and make it a standard for acceptance and belonging.

          For what it’s worth, here’s the distinctions that I think of on some of these terms:

          Legalism – This is the theological practice and emotional habit of earning our acceptance and belonging with God (and with each other by extension) through our careful keeping of the law, or our community standards in our understanding. Legalism as a basis for our acceptance with God is the opposite of salvation by grace through faith. But we extend it into other parts of life, essentially relating to God (and by extension others) in a contractual way. “If I do this, God is required to do this.” Galatians is all about getting out of Legalism.

          Fundamentalism – Fundamentalism and legalism go hand-in-hand. I gave the technical definition in the post above, but that definition *is not* how the word is being used widely today. This is the current use: Fundamentalism is a religious worldview marked by a clear US/THEM divide where WE are always right, and considering the viewpoints of others is often considered disloyal or even heretical. It’s often marked by a view that “We alone are God’s special people.” This brings a kind of self-righteousness and triumphalism in our relationships with others.

          One practical marker of fundamentalism that makes it easy to spot is this: Do they practice either 1st Party or 3rd Party Separation? 1st Party Separation is this: “I believe that you are doing something immoral. In order to honor God and influence you, I need to separate from you until you correct your errant behavior or belief.” 3rd Party Separation is an even more clear marker. It goes like this: “You are hanging out with someone else who is doing or believing something I disagree with. In order to honor God and influence you, I need to separate from you until such time as you disassociate with the 3rd party that I disagree with.”

          Evangelical – This is a wide umbrella term. Essentially an evangelical is any Christian who believes in salvation by grace through faith, and in the Biblical mandate to evangelize, sharing this good news with the world. Many evangelicals are not fundamentalist. Many are not legalists. Some are.

          Hope that’s helpful.

          1. Thanks, Marc… I was talking to my husband last night about this fundamentalism/evangelism difference, and I think your way of seeing it as an “us vs. them” mindset is really good. The 1st party and 3rd party separation is really eye-opening. I can think of particular instances where I grew up with that from my parents, and the importance of separating yourself from people who were “sinners.” My husband grew up Mennonite, so he was exposed to this even more than I was. Your writing is really enlightening for me – thank you!

    1. Ha! Thanks for reading, commenting, and hanging around! I feel like that guy in the picture so often… “Come on, guys… didn’t you see all this great stuff I can do?”

  8. Recovering fundamentalist – just so perfect. As I’ve learned the lie of “my truth is the best truth, because it makes sense and it’s mine”, God has been so gracious to provide new truth, new awareness of the other. How God has and does work in the lives of so many that I might have considered “lost” – and “lost” wasn’t a place I believed God was (oh dear, shaking my head). I heard Richard Rohr talk about dualistic thinking and (for me) my tendency to be an either/or thinker – when it’s so very often both/and. God is delivering me from black and white thinking, often one situation at a time. God is good that way… Thanks for such a great blog – the link was passed on to me by a friend from TNU – so wonderful to find like-minded thinkers (like minded feelers…). Peace be with you,

    1. Hey Carol, thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts. Roger was crucial for me at a painful juncture in my life. God seems to keep stripping away my carefully constructed certainties and perfections. Glad to have you here!

  9. Wow, thank you Marc. I think we are on the same page. It’s scary that there are so many people that your message resonates with.

    I think it’s indicative of our church culture and the dominance of academics that seems to dictate what our “church leaders” preach. The more I consider this, the more I am not in favor our seminary system.

    Thanks for your message!

    1. Hey Larry, thanks for taking the time to read and share your thoughts.

      I will say this, though. I don’t think seminary or organized pastoral training is the problem. I have experienced the above issues of fundamentalism far more frequently with self-trained or only church-trained pastors, than I have with pastors who have gone to seminary, or had college education. Although, I’ll honestly say I’ve experienced it in both communities.

      The heart of the issue is the desperate need to be seen as right, or to defend our particular picture of God as right, and the subsequent attitude of self-righteousness and exclusiveness that comes. These things I don’t find in Jesus.

  10. Hi Marc,

    It was such a joy to read your story and witness. It has many similarities to the experience of Dallas Willard. As a young minister, he realized he knew so little of God and life that he was doing people more harm than good. He left the professional ministry and launched into a long period of searching, even becoming a professional philosopher along the way.

    Thankfully, I had a chance to get to know him a bit as a young man, asking hard philosophical questions. Just being near him, you knew were in the presence of someone strong, gentle, humble, and open. No question could or would shock and overwhelm him. I did not always find his answers to be the ones I’ve come to. But I know he knew that was OK. He spoke about the fact that when someone comes to talk for 45 minutes to you, they are probably going to say a few things that are plain wrong – he was including himself in that.

    God bless you! I found your story to be encouraging.


    P.S. If you haven’t read Dallas Willard’s writings, his Knowing Christ Today is a great place to start.

    1. Hey Sam,

      Glad my journey and writing is helpful to you! Dallas Willard has been an essential part of my story. The Divine Conspiracy is one of the few books I’ve read repeatedly. I even had the privilege of an afternoon in his home with a couple other pastors where we spent several hours getting to ask him questions. It’s a memory I will always cherish.

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