open thread discussion on Christian fundamentalism


Before I get buried in talking about Christian fundamentalism in its modern context, I’d like to hear from my readers.

Many of you, I know, grew up in fundamentalism, but over the years have been distanced from it. You’ve found a different kind of faith, or spirituality, or maybe you’re not religious at all. What did fundamentalism mean to you when you were younger, and what does it mean to you now?

On the other hand, I know many of you grew up in it and still consider yourself a part of this movement. What do you find in fundamentalism that attracts you? What do you think they’re doing right?

I know that some of you are like my parents– you didn’t grow up in fundamentalism, but found it as an adult. What made it attractive to you? If you’re still a fundamentalist now, what are the best qualities you’ve found about it? If you’ve made the move away from fundamentalism, what about it prompted that move? Now that you’re away from it, what do you see about it now that you didn’t see while you were in the movement?

I hope you’ll join in with me as I try to figure this whole thing out. If you don’t feel comfortable sharing your thoughts in a comment, please feel free to e-mail me at:

And specify whether or not I can quote you and if you want to remain completely anonymous or use a handle.

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  • in the very simplest terms, i was attracted to fundamentalism when my family got heavily into it as a child, because i thought it meant safety, knowing you were right, knowing you were secure in christ and secure from pain and there is an absolute truth for nearly every issue and you could be sure you were on the right side of it – god’s side.
    I left – am leaving, rather, it’s sticky to extricate yourself from what formed your whole worldview – because i realized i hadn’t been safe, there is more to life than sin-avoidance, and that very little was as clearly black and white as i thought, and the us/them mentality fundamentalism fostered was hurtful to people in the real world.

    • I’ve felt like this before– it’s incredibly comforting to be so certain. Not having any doubts makes everything feel so simple… for as long as you can ignore reality.

  • Tony

    I echo what Ianamhobbs commented above – fundamentalism meant being sure you were on “God’s side” of every issue, and there was absolutely no possible way for anyone to differ with you or convince you otherwise. If the neighbors were presbyterian or southern baptist, they may as well have been mormons, because NOBODY had it right but us.

    My family was drawn into the IFB church “way” when I was in grade school and some of them are still there. It’s difficult and tricky to deal with them now that I don’t embrace the legalism…in fact, I have struggled with faith in general and as of now, the only thing I’m quite certain about regarding religion is that nothing seems certain at all. My struggle with escaping fundamentalism led me for a while to believe I was running from God, but the more I began to search, the more I found myself leaning toward agnosticism. And most recently I’ve decided that is probably NOT something that I can ever find enough reason to share with deeply devout family members. I just can’t justify the pain and turmoil this would cause them, just so I could “come clean” about the fact that I’m not really buying into much about the Bible at all any more. Being a father to young children complicates things even further…

    I’m about 99% sure I went to the same college as you did. I found your blog a few days ago and have read dozens of posts, relating to much of your experiences. Thanks for sharing your writing.

    • I’m glad you’ve been reading, and I’m glad that this place feels like a safe enough space for you to stick around.

      I tend not to mention the college I went to by name, because they’re in the habit of suing people who tell the truth about them, and I just don’t want to go there. If it was in Florida, we probably did. 🙂

      • Tony

        Solid strategy, lol. Yes, it was in Florida, and a “Pirates of Penzance” reference in one of your posts pretty much told me all I needed to know. 🙂

      • Carly

        I was curious, so I checked out the websites of some religious colleges in Florida. I figured it out as soon as I read a certain college’s doctrinal statement. Man, my fairly conservative presbyterian college seems like a full blown orgy compared to that place.

  • Tabitha

    Great idea to define your terms! Thanks for allowing me throw in my “two cents”!
    Here’s how I see it:

    —Denotation / Connotation—
    Originally, Christian fundamentalism meant (as you mentioned in your “Definitions and a History Lesson, Part One”) adhering to the truths in the Bible—the truths that define Christianity. Without the virgin birth, salvation by grace, etc., Christianity is stripped of its meaning and foundation. However, danger lies in extending that unyielding stance to areas that are NOT clearly defined in Scripture. Because of those who have militantly broadcasted their self-imposed legalism (sometimes even promoting their rules to the Bible’s authority level), the term “fundamentalist” has come to mean something very different from its original definition.

    —Where am I coming from?—
    I grew up in two churches (we changed churches when I had just finished 8th grade) that would both consider themselves to be independent, fundamental, Baptist churches. While the standards of dress and music were generally conservative, I really don’t remember anything crazily strange or overbearing about them—save a few pesky incidents in the last several years. Even in these inconvenient scenes, though, it was quite apparent to me that my dad was not enthusiastic about or even supportive of the nonsense, so there wasn’t much question in my mind whether these “bumps in the road” belonged in Christianity.

    —Am I currently a fundamentalist?—
    If by that you mean, “Do you believe in the fundamentals of the faith that are clearly outlined in Scripture?” The answer is yes.
    If, however, you mean to ask, “Do you believe that all sincere and sanctified Christians are patriarchal, cullotte-wearing, ‘Bible-thumping [KJV, of course], biscuit-eating,* independent, fundamental Baptists’?” The answer is NO.
    *Yes, I did actually hear a preacher proudly define himself in this list of terms (cringe)

    While I’m not a huge fan of labels, they can be helpful in briefly explaining where a person (or group of people) stands. The church that I now attend with my husband considers itself to be in the realm of “conservative evangelicalism and classical fundamentalism.” If I’m labeling myself for explanation’s sake, I’m fairly satisfied with the “conservative evangelical and classical fundamentalist” label. Adding the Baptist label could also be helpful in defining the sacraments that I believe to be important—communion and baptism after conversion.

    —So what does it mean to me?—
    What do I appreciate about Christian fundamentalism? (Or do I appreciate it?)
    I will admit that there are some areas in which I had to take a long, hard look to realize that some of the standards I had (for myself and sometimes even for others—yikes!) were ridiculously unimportant and even extra-Biblical. For me, the college years were especially valuable for evaluating my spiritual beliefs and assumptions. Even though I went to a very conservative (some might even call it legalistic, but that’s a different topic for a different day!) college, it was in these years that my perspective was greatly broadened by roommates and friends (including my now-husband) with a variety of backgrounds and views. One year in particular, God used a teacher, a Bible class, and a roommate to challenge my legalistic-leaning views.
    This being said, I do believe that fundamentalism has been a profitable “growing grounds” for me. Though there are some dangerous tendencies (as I mentioned above), I believe it has equipped me with not only a strong faith in the Scriptures but also an understanding of conservative believers—an understanding that would have been difficult to obtain by merely looking in from the outside. (I speak here especially of those who truly desire to live in Christian grace, even those who have tended toward legalism by mistake in a sincere effort to do right.)
    My husband came from an angle that was a good bit different from mine. Though his immediate (and even much of his extended) family is solidly Christian, he did come from a more relaxed (though no less Biblical) Christianity than I did. Our different angles have helped each of us take a serious look at what is truly important and work on leaving behind what is not. Before we were even dating, he challenged me: “Keep the main thing the main thing.” That, I believe, is the biggest challenge to many fundamentalists. We must remember what is the main thing: God’s glory and gospel. While we must firmly believe in obeying God’s clear commands, we must also practice grace and humility—especially in areas that are not clearly outlined in Scripture! “Conservative Christianity with a spirit of grace” is a very rare thing—but something that I find very refreshing!

    • revsharkie

      “biscuit-eating”?? I don’t get it.

  • Anne

    I’m not sure how to join the conversation without writing an entire book, but I want to say thanks for this series. Lots to think about, and I’m really curious to read what others have to say!

  • My background is not fundamentalist, but evangelical. I often read blogs from people who come from a background of fundamentalism, and their experiences seem very extreme and foreign to me, but at the same time, I understand and am very familiar with the underlying teachings behind those extreme things- and I have heard the same kinds of things in more subtle forms, but not actually lived out. (Kind of makes me feel like those beliefs need to be examined/questioned.)

    But about purity culture: So, I read Christian magazines that emphasized purity culture when I was growing up, but my parents/church didn’t do anything like purity balls or purity pledges or whatever- nothing extreme like that. I didn’t have other people enforcing purity culture on me- I got into it myself, in college after my first boyfriend broke up with me. Because I didn’t want to have to go through that ever again, and I wanted to obey God, and purity culture promises that if you just pray enough and listen to God enough and don’t have sex and don’t kiss and don’t date and don’t have a heart, then God will give you a perfect marriage and you are guaranteed a life without heartbreak. And that this was “obeying God” and “trusting God” and to do otherwise would be “not trusting God” and “selfishness.”

    So yeah. For me, the problem was that it was presented as “this is GOD’S WAY” or “the CHRISTIAN way” to do something (and I believed that!), and I really want to obey God and be a Christian… So I really think evangelical Christians should be taught to question that kind of stuff more and not just automatically accept anyone who says “this is the BIBLICAL way and everyone else just wants to sin, don’t listen to them.” Hmm maybe I’ll blog about that sometime.

    • perfect#, I’ve heard about this “Purity Culture” thing before, but never quite understood it. Can you tell me more about it or send me to a web site where I can learn more?

      • If you go up into my “other dragon fighters” page, I have a bunch of links at the bottom that talk about this.

      • Thanks for asking! So “purity culture” starts out with the premise that premarital sex is a sin (and yeah I personally agree it’s a sin- but purity culture handles it all wrong and is really harmful) and treats it like it’s THE WORST SIN EVER and makes a person permanently damaged, worthless, unable to ever have a good marriage, etc etc.

        And other things besides sex too- purity culture says you shouldn’t kiss, should date that much, shouldn’t be friends with the opposite sex, etc etc- the LESS stuff you do with the opposite sex, the better potential husband/wife you will be. It never talks about having communication and respect and healthy relationships- it only focuses on whether the couple is having sex or any other physical things- purity culture says that’s all that matters.

        And there’s a bunch of other harmful ideas thrown in there too- men are horny and can’t control themselves, it’s women’s responsibility to set the boundaries, if a woman gets raped then she’s “damaged” and not worth as much…

        But like I said in my comment above, it’s presented like “If you follow the rules and don’t have sex and pray and be a good Christian girl, then God will reward you with a perfect marriage and you’ll never have heartbreak”- unfortunately the flip side is that if something bad happens then it must be YOUR OWN FAULT for not listening to God or whatever.

        Here’s one of the posts I’ve written about purity culture: Purity for the sake of purity
        Also, Libby Anne at writes a lot of insightful stuff about purity culture.

    • Yes, yes you should. 🙂

  • My IFCA (Independent Fundamental Churches of America) experience was way back when I was between 3 and 11, so my memory of it is a little fuzzy, but I do remember that when my family moved and started attending a Free Methodist church that it was really different. I did, however, go to college with forgedimagination and it was quite a ride. My mom recently asked me if I was glad I went there. It was something I had thought about a while ago, and yes, I am glad I went. I most certainly don’t agree with everything the college did or stood for, but some amazing things happened to me there. I still have my undergraduate ring which I wear everywhere (when I’m not losing it), and when I see it, I’m reminded of what God did for me there, and I’m burdened because I love my alma mater and it saddens me to see some of the problems it has.

    But, anyway, for this discussion, I’ve always been impressed by Fundamentalism’s strength in standing for what it believes is right. I wish I had half of that strength or courage to defend truth and the Bible. Thing is, I never really got the feeling that were were defending the Bible because it was the right thing to do, or that we were defending certain doctrines because they were biblical. Of course it is the right things to defend the Bible and many Fundamentalist doctrines are correct, but we did it because it was what we had always done. We believe in eternal security not because we can find it in the Bible, but because we’ve always believed that. I’m not saying that you *can’t* find evidence for eternal security in the Bible, but Fundamentalism wants to believe in it sooooooo bad that it will take Scriptures out of context and make bogus arguments. Same things with wine and alcohol. That, however, I didn’t come to realize until after I had graduated the first time. For a good while I found myself *wanting* to believe what they said. They were so sure about themselves on everything that my mind gradually pushed aside the part of me that was pointing out any fallacies. It wasn’t until I was done there that I suddenly realized that a lot of the standards and beliefs I was holding onto was not because I had found them in the Bible, thought about them, and made a conscious decision that they were what God wanted me to do and believe in. I was clinging to them because I was afraid of what my Fundamentalist friends and teachers would think. Even after I was on the other side of the country, held no obligation to my college whatsoever, and was attending a Free-Will Baptist church (which is not at all an IFC from what I can tell), I still was worried about crossing the Fundamentalist standards. It took a little while for God to get my head on straight and get me think more critically about this.

    Now, the good thing that came out of all this is that I’m less susceptible now to simply believing what someone else says. I want to find it in the Bible for myself and think about it before agreeing with anything someone else teaches. I also was exposed to some doctrines that I hadn’t thought about before, and I ended up agreeing with them. I also was exposed to some new ones that I now wholeheartedly disagree with, but that taught me to go to the Bible for what I believe, not to just accept it from someone.

    I would like to say, though, that not *all* Fundamental Baptist churches are this way. While at college I interned at a church some miles away. The pastor was amazing and the people there were wonderful. One of our members, and the person who took over the youth group when the interns left, came to church almost every Sunday in jeans, and the pastor was totally fine with that. We also had a couple from the Methodist church that would come on Sunday nights, and my pastor was thrilled to have them. The church wouldn’t ever compromise on doctrine, but in no way was the pastor ever abusive to his people. He had a very good, very discerning head on his shoulders. No I acknowledge that many IFC’s, like the one forgedimagination grew up in are … well, just bad, and either need to ask God for help to change, or need to die, but not all of them are like that. Some have figured out that the “Independent” in their name really means they are independent, and they don’t need to be like the other churches.

  • So, I know that this is my first time posting and I am new to the conversation, but here is my two cents. For me, there is a big distinction between cultural fundamentalism and doctrinal fundamentalism. If fundamentalism is defined by someone who holds to the “five fundamentals”:

    1. The inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture
    2. The deity of Jesus Christ
    3. The virgin birth of Christ
    4. The substitutionary, atoning work of Christ on the cross
    5. The physical resurrection and the personal bodily return of Christ to the earth

    I am guilty as charged, although I shun the label because of how both out church culture and wider culture has defined the term fundamentalist. I used to like the label “evangelical”, but I believe that term has lost it’s value as a well. When people are attempting to pigeon hole me, I will settle on “historical christianity”. My credo at the present is that I profess to the those things held historically by all Christians everywhere. I don’t know who came up with that phrase but I like.

    As to cultural fundamentalism I reject it. For me cultural fundamentalism is defined by a separatistic, pietistic spirituality with a focus on distinctive dress from the wider culture, insider language, abstinence from various practices considered taboo by whatever church tribe you belong to, (mine growing up was no movies, no rock music, no dancing, no card playing, no drinking, no tobacco, no membership in secret societies and probably a few no’s I am forgetting).

    I came to understand this distinction when I attended seminary. The seminary I attended was founded by a group of men who were at the leading edge of the fundamentalist modernist controversy. It was there that I observed some people who we doctrinally conservative but not culturally fundamentalist and some who were doctrinally conservative and culturally fundamentalist. The school was the first place where I had been exposed to conservative Christians who were not “young earth creationists”. Another interesting fact is that one of the professors who was both doctrinally and culturally fundamentalist was one of the original organizers of the IFCA (Independent Fundamental Churches of America). Those who were only doctrinally fundamentalist tended to be part of “reformed” churches.

    One last point–yesterday I was with a fellow pastor and were talking about an evangelism project we are working on together. His comment was very insightful. He said many attempts at evangelism are about “converting someone to a sub-culture rather converting them to Christ”.

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  • Amy

    Definition questions… (If the answer is complicated, maybe you can point me to another post or blog)
    What is the difference between an Evangelical and a Fundamentalist? I read a lot of blogs and sometimes the words seem interchangeable, and sometimes people take offense to the suggestion that they’re the same thing.
    Also, IBF and IFCA, are they truly independent meaning different from each other as well as from other denominations, or is that a denomination name for a homogenous group?

    • Hello Amy– thank you for stopping by and giving me the opportunity to talk about this.

      I have noticed, too, that there are some who seem to switch back and forth between using “evangelical” and “fundamentalist,” and while there are significant differences, I think there is a fluidity between the two, and overlapping patterns, that create some confusion.

      In general, the term “evangelical” is used to mean, essentially, “Protestant.” However, Baptists have insisted over the years that they’re not really Protestant (which is debatable), so the term “evangelical” is a larger umbrella to cover all the bases. It also has a connotation of being a more “modern” term, and some people use it to include non-mainline denominations. The “emergent” movement is included in “evangelical.”

      Fundamentalists frequently describe themselves as purely a doctrinal stance, but that is rarely the case. Usually being a fundamentalist means that you ascribe to most doctrines in Protestant Orthodoxy, AND you tack on a bunch of cultural and legalistic things on top of that, as well as a harsh, strict, view of biblical literalism (which is a heresy called biblical docetism, which I’ve written about before in “taking things literally and why that’s a bad idea”).

      The best way I’ve found to think of fundamentalism is not as a specific denomination, but as a subset of other denominations. There’s your average, run-of-the-mill Pentecostal/Assembly of God, and then there’s Pentecostal Holiness and the snake-handling type. As far as I can tell, each “main” denomination has a fundamentalist version of it, but the one thing that all fundamentalists have in common is the biblical literalism.

      Independent Fundamental Baptists (IFB) have no hierarchical structure whatsoever. They do not have organizations, fellowships, nothing. They believes themselves to be “local churches” and an authority unto themselves. They do occasionally interact with other IFB churches (attending each other’s revival services, etc.), but they keep their governance and church bodies completely separate.

      The IFCA is a little weird– there’s organization, but I think it’s mostly for things like pooling resources for mission work and such. The hierarchy is loose, if there is any. The idea behind “Independent” here is that each church governs themselves. In Presbyterian churches, for example, ministers are “called” to individual congregations, and they can choose to answer the call or not, but there’s this sense that churches are like postings, although there’s some independence and the PresbyterianUSA and the EPC run themselves differently.

      Hopefully this has answered your question– if you need me to clarify something, please don’t hesitate to ask.

  • *warning long rant*

    Interesting. I don’t know if you could have ever called me a fundamentalist of the sort of Bible thumping characteristic of the term today (though I recognize and acknowledge as true the fundamentals of the faith) but I did grow up in a IFB school in New Jersey. It certainly isn’t as hardline as some in the south and midwest though (i.e. they never did enforce the rules about music and a lot of the people that attended the school weren’t IFB, my remaining friend from there is a presbyterian, nominally anyway). While going there I went to a charismatic church with my parents (Though I must say, i lean on the cessationist side now) and after a rather traumatic experience with not being able to speak in tongues, and the visible destruction of that church (an event that made front page of county papers), I, for a few years, turned towards fundamentalism in a way perhaps unmatched by my peers becoming myself rather vocal about perceived ills in society in line with the teachings of the school.

    I can’t say when I left, because there wasn’t a definitive moment, but I disagree greatly now with such narrow interpretations of scripture, though I think it might be because of fundamentalism itself that I left. The one thing I did take away from fundamentalism is a love of theology, a love of scripture, and a seeking of truth. I’m not afraid to confront problems such as this lack of social care in fundamentalists (for where a church has four main roles, teaching, fellowship, evangelism, and social concern, fundamentalists get three our of four at most by following scripture so narrowly). People up there say fundamentalists are consistent. I disagree, when thinking about it I found that they said that we should care about others and have social concern, but the extent of the social concern was only as much as it would get people saved, hardly completely loving and recognizing people as bearers of the image of God, however defaced.

    Don’t get me wrong here, I disagree even with my more moderate fundamentalism I was surrounded by, even if it was formative for my spiritual formation but there are people remaining in it that think it to be true, and I love them nonetheless (yes, even those ones attending school in South Carolina, even they finally allowed facebook XD). I deeply respect them because today I have been gifted with a love of theology (evangelical, I still cant bear liberal theology even if i think it might have too much stigma than is necessary in evangelical society) and now, in University, I am using that knowledge and love of scripture to both grow in my knowledge and love of God and also help other people grow to love the grand tradition of theology we’ve all been blessed with. So I am thankful for fundamentalism, for without it I would have never been allowed by God to bless others with a recognition that we follow in the footsteps of the witnesses that have come before.

    I will never cower from questions and their answers, even if, after my minor stint with fundamentalism it almost led me to atheism, or even if now I may not like some of the answers my searching, the Bible, and theology show me. (also why on my blog post i’m working through basic Christian theology in a neutral and historical context, though also within the grader schema of reformed theology as a guide, with respect for other major forms of protestant and catholic theology).