Both the new evangelicals and the fundamentalists believed in and appealed to the purity of the visible church in their diverse formulations of separatism. After extensive research, Larry R. Oats concluded that neither side gave theological precision to their doctrine of ecclesiology, and this failure only furthered the division between the two groups. The Relationship of Ecclesiology to the Doctrine of Ecclesiastical Separation evidenced in the New Evangelical and Fundamentalist Movements of the Middle Twentieth Century (Ph.D. dissertation, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, 1999), p. iv.I haven't had the opportunity to read all of Oats' disseration*, so I can't say to what degree beyond McCune's summary it actually details the deficiency of the ecclesiology of both fundamentalists and broader evangelicals. And although I've taken a class with McCune and several from Oats, I really don't know whether their views of fundamentalist ecclesiology would be quite as dim as mine.
Of course, my surprise upon reading this footnote had nothing to do with the fact that someone was raising doubts about evangelical ecclesiology. Evangelicals themselves do that sort of thing all the time. What was really astounding to me was that fundamentalists are raising questions about fundamentalist ecclesiology. Self-criticism isn't the kind of thing we typically do often or well.
I actually do do it often, even if I don't do it particularly well. But then I'm the kind of guy whose perspective on fundamentalist ecclesiology has been shaped by a popular university that wouldn't permit its faculty and staff to attend a local church on Sunday morning unless they were on paid staff.
I'm the guy who learned more than he wanted to know about fundamentalist ecclesiology when, while working for a fundamentalist Bible college, heard about a professor who candidated for a pastoral role in a local church that used the NIV, but was forbidden by the college president to use anything other than the KJV when he preached in that church. When the president later explained the school's position on translations in chapel, I asked the president of this institution, which proclaimed wholehearted commitment to the primacy of the local church, why local church pastors weren't permitted to make the decisions about what translations of Scripture students and faculty would use in their local church ministries. His response? "No pastor has ever asked me for permission to let students or faculty use any other translation."
I'm the guy who heard quite recently a professor in a fundamentalist college share the story of a man who abandoned pastoral ministry for a teaching position in a college because he wasn't "reproducing himself at all" as a pastor, and I wondered, "Does this professor think this was a good choice or a bad one? Or is he merely indifferent?"
Of course, this is nothing more than anecdotal evidence. Maybe my perception of a fundamentalist culture that is dominated by prominent, influential personalities who lead parachurch ministries or engage in itinerant evangelism is simply skewed. Maybe it's completely inconsistent with reality. Maybe all the people who share this assessment are simply misguided.
In any case, my hope is that fundamentalist pastors and congregations will hear the concerns of Drs. McCune and Oats, two widely-respected teachers, pastors, and thinkers who are far more knowledgeable and credible than I. My hope is that people in positions that provide the means and carry the responsibility to effect change will consider whether and how our ecclesiology truly is deficient and take steps to reverse the trend, whether that is on a macro or micro level. My hope is that the church can regain its rightfully prominent standing as a display of God's glory and as the bride of Christ. My hope is that the revitalization of churches will restore other potentially useful organizations and functions to their rightful role of service, not leadership.
Finally, my hope is that we'll avoid placing the blame for this departure from biblical ecclesiology primarily on the parachurch leaders who've accepted the leadership role that ought to have resided in local churches and their pastors. After all, the men I've referred to above are, themselves, products of the fundamentalist culture that created the problem. It seems a bit unfair to make them the scoundrels. Rather, we should assign responsibility to the ecclesiastical culture in fundamentalism that has led so many congregations and pastors to abdicate their rightful, biblical role.
And we ought to change that culture.
*As best I can tell, I've never asked for anything from the readers here (except, of course, unswerving loyalty in the fine print at the bottom). But I would dearly love to have a copy of Oats dissertation, and I just can't quite justify at the present time the $41 to order it from the fine folks here. So if any of you have a couple $20s and a single burning a hole in your pocket, don't be afraid to surprise me with a copy. You can have it shipped to my attention at this address. Oh, and for your searching convenience the order number for this dissertation is 9925184.