The “Fundamentalist” label

JP: Worthwhile read by Pastor Dave Doran.

The Value of the Fundamentalist Label


A little over two years ago I was asked to write a response to the following question: “Is the ‘Fundamentalist’ label too archaic and contaminated to be considered useful?”

This is a difficult question for at least two reasons. The first reason is that there is so much disagreement about what the label actually means—if there is no agreement among self-professing fundamentalists about what the label means, then how can we agree on whether it is archaic and contaminated? Personally, I don’t believe defining the term is that hard, but, to borrow biblical language, “everyone defines it as is right in his own eyes.” As long as that continues, opinions on archaism and contamination will be strongly divided.

If it is being used during an “in-house” discussion among the self-professing, then I don’t believe it is either archaic or contaminated. The already committed generally possess enough historical awareness to prevent archaism and enough sympathy to overcome any sense of contamination.


If, however, the context for the term “fundamentalist” is outside the boundaries of those who have some historical awareness and theological sympathy with the term, then I believe it does suffer from archaism and contamination. The meaning of words is controlled by usage, and the contemporary usage for “fundamentalism” does not recognize its uniquely Christian and theological significance.

If I write an op-ed for our local newspaper that boldly proclaims that I am a fundamentalist, the average reader will not understand that means I am one who is opposed to theological modernism within supposedly Christian churches and that I embrace historic orthodoxy on those points which are being abandoned by the modernists. They will associate that term with the narrow-minded radicalism that it is so often used to label. Since they don’t know the history of the term, they will define it according to contemporary usage.

Contemporary usage within our general culture is different than our in-house usage, and it communicates something very different from what we intend by the term. That’s why, for instance, our church does not put the term into materials which are intended to notify the general public about what kind of church we are. But I do use the term, and help explain it, in our church’s membership course. Context makes a big difference. There is no change in who we are, just some awareness of how the words we are using are understood by those who hear them.

So, returning to the original question, is the “fundamentalist” label too archaic and contaminated to be considered useful? For me, it depends on the audience to whom you are speaking. I would hate to see us lose a word of historical and theological significance for American believers. Fundamentalism is an important part of our heritage, and teaching its meaning and history can be an excellent means of preparing our churches to guard the Faith.

Speaking to the world around us, though, demands that we use words that communicate clearly and don’t obscure or detract from our message. I am pretty sure that putting “Fundamentalist” on our church sign or brochure would not communicate clearly to lost people. Given the contemporary usage of the term, it should only be used as an in-house label.

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