by Bob Phillips
Recently a number of verbal shots have been fired across the bow of Wesleyan evangelicals in the United Methodist Church. Much of the hissing and spitting arises from the drama and posturing that many of all stripes are undertaking in advance of the special 2019 General Conference. Others seem to be rebelling against their upbringing or striking back at what they see as unfair or unchristian treatment they or others received at the hands of evangelicals. Add to the mix, and the mess, the staggering ignorance and confusion in mainstream media of left and right the simplistic confusion of evangelical with fundamentalist, and the journey to the dark side of dumb is complete.
As the theologian Samuel L. Jackson said in Pulp Fiction, “Permit me to retort.” The shelves and virtual libraries of theological centers of learning groan with scholarly but readable works on the history and nature of American Protestant fundamentalism, Protestant evangelicalism, and the many nuances and differences between them. Rather than stall this simple piece by diving into the details, I commend works by Ernest Sandeen, George Marsden, Joel Carpenter, Kate Bowler, Don Dayton, Al Truesdale and Molly Worthen among many, many others.
I offer a simple snapshot summary of some significant differences and two similarities between modern American Protestant fundamentalism and a Wesleyan evangelical perspective on Christian faith and life. Knowledge of the differences can help in discerning between a blogger’s effort to paint a portrait of religious distinctives and an effort to sling mud at the canvas of someone else’s faith. That approach, by the way, applies as warning to folks from the left speaking about the right or the right speaking about the left.
The two similarities are these. Both fundamentalists and Wesleyan evangelicals can be passionate about the importance of the content of faith. Words, “those precious cups of meaning” as Augustine described them, about Jesus and his atoning death and resurrection and the promise of his second coming speak of truth that matters. There is honest insight in the saying that one takes the Bible seriously but not literally. However, that saying also can be pretzeled into fairy tale understandings of God’s mighty acts in history through which salvation has come and the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.
The second similarity is this. Both share some core convictions regarding aspects of biblical truth. Jesus was born of a virgin, really. His death on the cross, in the words of Peter Marshall, “wrote ‘Paid’ across all the ledgers of Heaven” in atonement for the sin of the world. The Bible is uniquely and divinely inspired and speaks with finality to issues of God and life. Jesus was resurrected on that first Sunday, really and not symbolically. Resurrection is not resuscitation of a corpse, and efforts to give it that spin strike both fundamentalist and evangelical as dishonest. The irony, of course, is that the source documents and historic teachings of all Christian churches, Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant, reflect these fundamental beliefs. That is a subject for another time!
The differences between Wesleyan evangelicals and fundamentalists best can be illustrated with this fact. Every member of President Trump’s spiritual cheerleading team fairly can be described as fundamentalists. Not one United Methodist evangelical is on the list of Trump clergy supporters. The two religious advisors with highest visibility are Robert Jeffress of First Baptist in Dallas, home turf of the late Wally Amos Criswell, and Jerry Falwell, Jr., of Liberty Baptist church and university. Both men and their churches are poster children for fundamentalism. Both would reject identification as evangelical in any Wesleyan understanding.
Wesleyan Evangelicalism vs. Fundamentalism
Here are six differences between popular fundamentalism and Wesleyan evangelicals:
- Fundamentalism embraces the inerrancy of scripture as the only true understanding of the full authority and inspiration of scripture. Wesleyan evangelicals never have made that connection as a given. They do not yield on the divine – authoritative nature of scripture, but Wesleyan evangelical tradition does not see inerrancy as the litmus test for true faith.
- Most fundamentalists refuse to cooperate in any meaningful way with Christians not of their fold; Wesleyan evangelicals gladly cooperate. Wesleyan evangelicals will cooperate in common cause to better the community and advance justice with other Christians, and with those who are not Christians (is there any ‘incorrect’ way to feed the hungry or shelter the homeless or provide jobs?).
- Fundamentalism tends toward functional indifference to the love of neighbor social holiness inherent in wholistic Wesleyan evangelical faith. The attitude is reflected in the comment of Hal Lindsey, author of the mega-best seller, The Late Great Planet Earth. Asked why his books never deal with social injustice, hunger or racism, he replied, “God sent me to catch fish, not clean the fishbowl.” While individual fundamentalist congregations and pastors can have strong social holiness convictions and practice, the historical track record of fundamentalist opposition to integration, voting rights for women, and numerous other aspects of justice set them apart from evangelical convictions of what Wesley called “Scriptural Christianity.”
- Fundamentalism distrusts public education, major secular universities and scientific disciplines that threaten preconceived notions of astronomy, biology, geology and related fields. Wesleyan evangelicals embrace all of the above, reserving the right to critique moral and ethical assumptions in such institutions incompatible with Christian faith or confusing science with “scientism.”
- Fundamentalism has developed an uncritical embrace of conservative politics, just as religious progressives often act like the left wing of the Democratic party at prayer. Wesleyan evangelicals as a group are not so easily labeled. Without doubt many personally lean toward more traditional or conservative views on numerous issues. The Lordship of Christ points to a social engagement by evangelical Christians in which both major political parties have policies one can affirm and other policies one must biblically critique. The sloppy use of the term, ‘evangelical’ by media outlets has contributed to the confusion and absence of nuance in discussing the religious vote.
- Fundamentalism rejects ordained women as spiritual leaders. Wesleyan evangelicals welcome and model affirmation. Each of the strongly evangelical African American Methodist bodies have women bishops. Joanne Lyon recently completed service as the General Superintendent of the Wesleyan Church. Evangelical Wesleyan women serve Christ at all levels of the United Methodist church, as bishops, pastors, evangelists, teachers and reformers (notice the number of women in leadership of the Wesleyan Covenant Association).