Sunday, September 02, 2007

No Place for Church: Or Whatever Happened to Fundamentalist Ecclesiology?

As I was reading a few weeks ago from Rolland McCune's Promise Unfulfilled: The Failed Strategy of Modern Evangelicalism, I about fell out of my chair when I encountered the following footnote:
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.


Anonymous said...


This was a terrific post. However, I think PEOPLE are to blame, and not simply a nondescript "culture."

While I may be off base here, I think the institutions that train the pastors who actually pastor the churches have created a greater loyalty to the training institution than to Christ's churches.

Unfortunately the leadership in many of these training stations, while they give regular lip service to Christ's churches, are not ready to correct the misguided loyalty they've created in their graduates.

And, of course, being the cynic that I am, I'm not ready to say filthy lucre, prestige, and bragging rights have anything to do with it.

Kent Brandenburg said...

This is not a shameless plug actually. It's just that I am writing on this subject at my blog right now. I didn't know Dr. Oats had done his dissertation on that, but I would be interested in reading it too, to see his exegesis.

Ben said...


I agree that people are to blame, but I would hate to imply that merely the leaders of these educational institutions are responsible. That's why I use the term "culture." The root of the problem is much deeper.

That's not to say I disagree with your succeeding paragraphs, of course. It's just way too convenient to impose all the blame on the institutional elites. The masses are the enablers.


If I'm sent two copies I'll forward one to you (in exchange for an autographed copy of your book of course). ;-)

And on that note, it may not be the seventh sign of the Apocalypse that tjp, Kent Brandenburg, and I agree on something, but it has to be one of the last four anyway.

g-harmony said...


Ben said...

Looks like I can call off the request for the dissertation. Thanks to the work of a friend, I should have a PDF in my possession shortly.

Frank Sansone said...


Any chance of the PDF becoming available to the general public - or at least people like me?


Chris Anderson said...

Wow. Add a fourth (preferably a non-cessationist) and you guys can start a "Together for the Church" conference. Fortunately, your disagreements are limited to such things as soteriology.

Brandon said...

This is one of those issues where by default, I give the benefit of the doubt to those making the decisions, but when you see the decisions and the reasoning, you just scratch your head.(I'm of course only writing to one aspect of the article.)

For some things, I could possibly offer the defense that "xyz" institution would give, but in this case, I come up firing blanks.

Ben said...


Not sure. It's a big file. E-mail me your address and I'll see if I can come up with something.


Eventually you realize that . . . Never mind. I was going to say something but just edited myself.