I was asked by Dr. Mike Harding to deliver an address titled “The Legitimate Concerns of the Next Generation (An Objective Analysis”) at the Foundations Baptist Fellowship International (FBFI) annual meeting in Troy, Michigan, June 12–13, 2018.
A few prefatory comments: this is inside baseball that readers who do not share my background will not understand; the FBFI is my “denomination.” It is one of the institutions that is trying to preserve the heritage I was handed. And I’ve had legitimate concerns about it for a long time—along with genuine appreciation for what it has given me. Every time I have expected that my legitimate concerns about it would boil over in frustration or get me run out on a rail, another door has opened in front of me to speak to those concerns, to build a bridge between groups within the group, especially between generations. I’m certain not everyone who heard me at the annual fellowship agreed with me on all my points, but all responses were gracious, and some were enthusiastic (particularly but not only from those in my generation). Dr. Bob Jones III, who attended the talk, wrote me a very nice note humbly thanking me for my insight and expressing grandfatherly pride in a BJU graduate. That meant a lot to me (though this does not mean Dr. Bob endorsed everything I had to say).
Other people were born or brought into the SBC; others the AG; others the RPCNA or the FPCNA—or one of countless other Christian denominations, each of which has strengths and weaknesses. Christ’s counsel to people who found themselves in one troubled local church, that of Sardis, was to “strengthen what remains.” And in general, that’s what I say to people in other evangelical denominations. (Those in apostate groups, such as the PCUSA, get a different biblical message: “Come out from among them and be separate, and touch not the unclean thing.”) If it proves they can make no headway strengthening what remains, or if for various reasons the Lord moves them on, I’d welcome them to my own group, to share in our strengths and to work on our weaknesses. I think our strengths are strong. But in order to enjoy those strengths, I’ve got to bear with the infirmities of our weaknesses, as it were.
I just heard Larry Summers, former president of Harvard, tell the Freakonomics folks,
People always think more about how new ground can be broken than they think about how existing institutions can be sustained or existing facilities can be maintained. It leads to a constant trap where we underinvest in old things, then old things disappoint us, then we feel a need for new things, then to satisfy that need for new things we under-invest more in old things and the cycle goes on.… I think the fetish of novelty and the lack of glamor of maintaining and sustaining things is a besetting problem.
That’s the way I feel about how people my age are treating my denomination. If all the people who are frustrated with it but still generally appreciative of what it gave them would jump in and get involved, it could be a stronger place.
So, without further ado, here’s an audio recording, and below it, the full text of the address. (My talk followed an excellent plenary session from Dr. David Saxon on generational differences, hence the opening comments in the audio.) If you get a chance to listen to the audio, that’s the best way to experience the talk: you’ll get to hear the responses of my small audience (60ish people the first day, the day of this recording, 35ish the second day).
The best thing about owning a church web and logo design business on the side is getting to know pastors and their ministries. I have designed and hosted websites for multiple fundamentalist churches, and after Mike Harding invited me to speak on “The Legitimate Concerns of the Next Generation (An Objective Analysis),” I asked one of my clients, Craig Hartman, whom I consider a respected friend, who has given me key personal career counsel, whom I’ve come to love after many phone conversations—and who authorized me to tell this story—I asked him, “What are the legitimate concerns of the next generation in our crowd?”
Dr. Hartman’s passionate Brooklyn accent of was in full force when he replied to me on the phone, “There are no ‘legitimate’ concerns!” I confess I was a little disappointed, because I felt that his response didn’t bode well for my talk today. Either he’s right and there are no legitimate concerns and my talk is not only needless but itself likely sinful; or he’s wrong, and there will be men I respect like him who feel the same way he does, meaning I have an uphill climb. Either way, I was in for trouble.
But we kept talking, and that did bode well. I kept asking questions and Dr. Hartman kept responding openly and honestly. Later in an hour-plus talk, he told me a little story. He said he had spoken to a regional FBFI gathering not long ago. He told them that a lot of them had been misusing a passage of Scripture, namely 2 Chronicles 7:14: “If my people which are called by my name, shall humble themselves…” He beseeched them, lovingly, to see that the statement does not and cannot refer to America. He said, “If we’re going to fault allegorists, we ought not do the same thing ourselves if we want our argument to be heard.” He gave contextual reasons from the passage why this interpretation was wrong. I later listened to his message: it was excellent. Dr. Hartman, a converted Jewish man and a heart for his people who is now in Israel (and gives his regrets for not being present), told me that he was concerned that the incorrect exegetical approach to the Old Testament found too often in our circles undermines the doctrines we say we believe. He told me on the phone that he figured guys are just doing what they were taught.
I knew that, like a good lawyer, I had my witness pinned in the cross-ex. I said, “Dr. Hartman, I thought you said there were no legitimate concerns!” Like that rare breed, a smart and humble Christian, he just chuckled and said, “Okay, ya got me.” [UPDATE: He later explained—and I had indeed misunderstood him—that his first response had been purposefully hyperbolic.]
I think if you talk to anyone in the FBFI long enough, he or she will acknowledge some of the legitimate concerns I’ve been asked to raise. Precisely because we are fundamentalists, Bible people, we know that we are sinners. We know we have weaknesses. Not every blade of grass in our pasture is green.
With all due respect, and I sincerely mean that, the next generation does does have legitimate concerns. And a number of men and women in the older generation are going to have to get past their initial response—“There are no legitimate concerns!”—and think to themselves humbly in the words of Bob Jones Sr, “No doubt the trouble is with me,” or this session will be wasted for both of us. You’re going to have to do what Bob Jones III did really well in a recent issue of FrontLine and think hard about how you can serve the next generation by addressing their concerns.
Listen, I think the older generation has legitimate concerns about the younger generation, too! I tried to speak to some of those in that recent issue of FrontLine, which I co-edited with Kevin Schaal. We younger guys are laissez faire about institutions, arrogant about our superior knowledge of technology, beholden in some ways we can’t always see to terminological fads, and, yes, often dismissive of people who are eligible for AARP memberships. We act offended when the older generation scoffs at our gospel-centered Cheerios®. We’ve got our own problems.
But try to put yourself in my wingtips today. I feel genuine respect and gratitude for countless individuals older than me. I don’t want to fail to acknowledge the ministry faithfulness and fruitfulness of men who have gone before. I covet it greatly. Greatly. I pray for it. I’m not so immature as to think that I know better than they on all counts. I just know that in God’s providence, I was asked to represent the “legitimate concerns” of the younger generation. So I spoke to the young pastors on the phone, on Facebook, over email, in person, and through an online survey. And here, refracted I admit through my own viewpoint, is what they said. Here is what we say—in the form of three questions.
- Why do the institutions of non-KJV-Only fundamentalism still insist on the use of the KJV?
- Why are legalism and gracelessness such a common charge, even from those who’ve stayed “in”?
- Why do so many young people support our general stance against worldliness and doctrinal compromise but view us as tribalistic?
In each case I’ll explore my question and try to offer a few practical steps toward solutions.
But I also want to pull out an old revivalist tactic and ask you a question before I launch into my three concerns: I want to ask you to pray silently to the Lord and tell him you are willing to change if he reveals any error in your thinking or practice. I am doing the same as I speak. Will you? Will you pray? Please do. Because there are only three ways for the generations to come together, and two of them are probably bad:
- The older generation could conform to all the desires of the younger generation. I think that would be bad, not to mention impossible.
- The younger generation could conform to all the desires of the older generation. That’s bad, too, not to mention impossible.
- The generations will have to move toward each other. We will have to do something fundamentalists hate doing: we will have to compromise with each other.
That means for me to be successful today I will have to change almost everybody’s minds, young and old, and I’ll have to get rock-ribbed fundamentalists to compromise. Ouch. But I am attempting to be a peacemaker between generations by standing in between them and pulling them toward each other. I have hope that this is possible because Christ is powerful and is still head over his church.
1. Why do the institutions of non-KJV-Only fundamentalism still insist on the use of the KJV?
A son of GFA missionaries listed as his first “legitimate concern” about our crowd, “Continued preference for the KJV in spite of not being KJV-only.”
And I’m flummoxed. Our group has firmly and unequivocally condemned King James Onlyism ever since it became an -ism. BJU has always opposed it. And the FBFI has also done so for many years. This is from an official FBFI resolution in 1995:
Any attempt to make a particular English translation the only acceptable translation of Fundamentalism must be rejected.
I was a 14-year-old KJV-Only kid who’d never heard of the FBFI when the board wrote that. Now I’m a 37 not-KJV-Only not-kid who’s been in FBFI circles for 20 years. My generation just doesn’t understand why our supposedly non-KJV-Only institutions (again—not just the FBFI) still insist on the use of the KJV in public settings. My job for nine years was to write Bible textbooks for high school students, and the KJV was—to use a word Mark Minnick once used to describe the KJV—an “impediment” to my work. It isn’t always possible to explain Elizabethan English, as I discovered over and over. When you’re in the middle of a paragraph for ninth graders about eschatology, it’s very awkward to have to explain that “the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption” (Rom 8:21 KJV) actually means “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption” (my translation). This is not a made-up example. Repeatedly I had to choose not to quote the Bible in my writing because I knew my readers would not understand the KJV.
Jim Berg is one of our most gifted Bible teachers in non-KJV-Only fundamentalism. And the Bible quotations in his books are dotted with brackets explaining KJV words to his readers. He apparently thinks they won’t understand the KJV without help. I checked with him, and he confirmed my interpretation of his brackets.
The KJV is not entirely unintelligible, but neither was the Latin Vulgate when it was translated. The Vulgate became unintelligible to normal people over time. The battle for a Bible in our language is not something you win once and then move on from; it’s a value you have to keep fighting for. The KJV is a revision of a revision of Tyndale’s work, so a good deal of it is 500 years old. English has changed a great deal in that time—as my new book, Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible, has tried to show. Every besom, every chambering, every wantonness in the KJV is a “dead word” taken out of the hands of today’s readers. And the special burden of my book is to show that there are many “false friends” in the KJV, words we don’t even realize we’re misunderstanding—words that have changed their meaning in 400 years. Even a statement as simple as “Remove not the ancient landmark,” ironically, doesn’t mean what you think.
Paul in 1 Corinthians 14 ties edification to intelligibility. Reasonable people can disagree about how unintelligible a Bible translation should be permitted to become before we revise it or make a new one. But my generation is asking: why wouldn’t Bible people, of all people, be first in line to promote a more understandable but still accurate Bible? Why would evangelistic people make bus kids and our own kids learn Elizabethan English in order to read God’s Word? Particularly when the older generation has repeatedly insisted that they are not KJV-Only?
I’d love to see our crowd do what Fred Moritz recommended in a FrontLine letter to the editor last year:
[The] FBFI should have quit dancing around the KJV-only issue long ago.
We are fundamentalists. We’re supposed to have titanium backbones. Why do Clarence Sexton and Shelton Smith and Paul Chappell make our spines turn to jelly? It’s because of the masses they represent—masses to whom the KJV is a totem, a symbol of a set of values. When I proposed dropping our KJV-Only policy for FrontLine and conferences, a courteous FBFI board member shot straight with me, and I appreciated it: he said, “If I give in to the desire of younger people in my church to use the ESV, I feel like I’ll be indicating that I’m going to give in on other things, too. It’s a package deal.”
But it just can’t be; we can’t let it be. KJV-Onlyism is a direct challenge to the Bible-centered nature of fundamentalism, because it makes void the Word of God by our tradition—by forcing people to read that Word in a language they don’t and can’t fully understand. It also treats the KJV as perfect and inspired, as an act of divine revelation. This is very serious.
Kevin Schaal said at the Gospel Proclaimed conference, “We have a lot of fundamentalism that, whether ignorantly or deliberately, has stepped outside of the realm of [bibliological] orthodoxy.” And I’m thinking: we’re supposed to defer to them on precisely the point at which they’ve stepped outside orthodoxy? Schaal said, “We have to stand for…biblical truth about the Bible…. What we’re supposed to believe about the Word is what the Word says about the Word.” Amen.
KJV-Onlyism has picked a symbol of doctrinal faithfulness that has come to violate that doctrinal faithfulness. Ask them, as I have done: they won’t even change amongst to among; “You can’t change the Word of God,” one of them told me recently. They have built their institutions on the “perfectly preserved” KJV; they can’t change without splitting their churches and schools. Their movement is past the point of appeal.
Here’s what I think we should do:
- Separate from KJV-Only institutions. No platform fellowship. As musician Ben Everson, who is himself KJV-Only, said on Facebook,
The two sides…will never meet. Never. Won’t happen. As an evangelist ministering in churches on both sides of this issue…. I’ve prayed with men on BOTH sides who simply can’t understand the other side and beg God to heal the rift.… These efforts simply can’t work. More than music or even Calvinism, the two underlying philosophies/theologies of Bible translation…are diametrically opposed to each other.
I have prayed those same prayers, and I agree with Ben. The debate is over. Compromising with KJV-Onlyism won’t win them; it will only drive young guys in our own circles away—and hurt our own evangelism and discipleship.
- Nonetheless, we must adopt a compromise within our own not-KJV-Only crowd. Here’s what I propose: 1) I think the older generation should give liberty to men in our public gatherings and publications to use other good translations. And I’m not just talking about the FBFI; I’m talking about camps and colleges. A young pastor friend of mine just said to me this past week, “If our crowd could drop its KJV-Only policies, that would be huge for us.” Another said to me, “The younger generation wants their children to actually understand the verses they’re memorizing in AWANA.” And 2) I think the upcoming generation should do what I myself have done: stick with and continue to support non-KJV-Only fundamentalist institutions that nonetheless still feel they need some time. Every institutional leader is, understandably, afraid to make this move. I’m not demanding an instant decision. But I say to pastors and presidents: let 1 Corinthians 14 drive you on. Do right and let the stars fall.
2. Why are legalism and gracelessness such a common charge, even from those who’ve stayed “in”?
I have thought for a long while that Facebook could mean the death of our crowd’s institutions. That’s because social media hits us with a double whammy: 1) it shows us the worldly things our former campers and Bible college grads “like” ten and twenty years after we last saw them, which can be pretty discouraging; and 2) it lets us in on the terribly bitter things some of them are saying about us, the people who gave up jobs that actually paid US dollars so we could serve them. That, also, is disheartening. Now, I know countless godly and grateful people who are products of the same institutions that shaped me, but the naysayers are impossible to miss.
The disaffected have always smeared us with the charge of “legalist.” To them, we as a group have never “gotten” grace. And as long as it’s only the disaffected who are saying this, they’re easy to ignore, even if it does smart a bit.
But, friends, it’s not just the disaffected. It’s faithful pastors who told me that they have consistently failed to form connections with older nearby pastors in our circles, because those pastors can’t get past issues we all officially agree to be minor.
One young pastor who took my survey wrote,
I have immense respect for my heritage, for those who have loved and taught me over the years, and for so many who have poured their lives into mine, but it seems to me that many who gladly call themselves “fundamentalists” do not really know what it means to be one. The heart-breaking result of forgetting what the real “mountains” are is that each and every “molehill” has now become a “mountain.”
Surely, there are people who do this in every group. But perhaps we’d all acknowledge that this is more likely to be a problem with us than it is within the Protestant mainline? Our strength—doing what’s right no matter what others think—carries a concomitant weakness: we tire of the hard work of discovering when we ought to be flexible because the Bible allows for or even encourages it.
One pastor wrote in my survey,
Even though one of the qualifications of a shepherd is that he not be “quarrelsome,” it seems that many pastors within fundamentalism are actually proud of their ability and willingness to quarrel.
Another young man in our circles wrote me,
Fundamentalism seems to distinguish itself not necessarily as the group that “earnestly contends for the faith” but as the group that “earnestly contends for the faith” AND certain music/dress/social standards.
I tend to like those standards, and I dress conservatively and use traditional worship music in my church—but I feel the truth of this. We’ve let the applications of a previous era remain and have failed to rigorously distinguish between Bible statements and prudential decisions.
I’m now going to complicate matters by tying this issue of legalism to another hot-button: it’s the “New Calvinists” who are most likely to see legalism and gracelessness in their fundamentalist forebears. I think some of New Calvinists are being immature and unfair in making this charge, but I also remember something Dr. Bob Jones III said once in BJU Preacher Boys class. He was no fan of Calvinism, but he observed that it arose as a response to a great deal of man-centeredness in American Christianity, including in fundamentalism. I thought that was perceptive. Even if you don’t care for John Piper—or even Jonathan Edwards (same theology)—I think you should be alert to the possibility that there’s more than a grain of truth in the charge of “legalism” and even “Pharisaism” and “externalism.”
I don’t think those labels stick to our best leaders, like Mark Minnick and Kevin Bauder. Every single one of the (non-KJVO) fundamentalist leaders that I know well personally has been gracious to me, even in disagreement. But legalism in the group is a legitimate concern on the part of the next generation. We are more likely to be Calvinistic than the older generations in our circles. But if you’re not a Calvinist, I encourage you not to assume that every charge of “legalism” is traceable solely to differences over the “doctrines of grace.” Calvinists do not have a lock on grace; Calvinists don’t own it. Every true Christian has it, and is supposed to show it in our speech (Col 4:6) and in our treatment of others (Rom 14:1–4; Matt 7:1–2).
What do I propose we do about legalism and Calvinism?
- I propose the older generation find a point of common ground with the New Calvinism and read a book I promise every true fundamentalist will love: Kevin DeYoung’s The Hole in Our Holiness. You’ll shock the Calvinist young people you know if you praise this book, and it will be a biblical bridge between you. As I read it, I found myself saying, “This is what my brand of fundamentalism at its best has always said.” I think most FBFI readers will conclude the same. This book is a great model for how to hold on to the all-important personal holiness our group values while filling it with the love that will ensure it does not become legalism.
- I also propose that every FBFI member purpose in his heart not to defile himself with the idea that Calvinism and our brand of fundamentalism are incompatible—and here I speak to both old and young. John Vaughn wrote quite specifically in FrontLine as he stepped down from the FBFI presidency, “Calvinism…has always been a legitimate doctrinal position within Fundamentalism.” Fundamentalism has always been a coalition including Calvinists and Arminians. Neither has yet succeeded in evicting the other (though the KJVOs have indeed evicted all five tenants of Calvinism [ahem]); I hope we never comes to such a split. I’m willing to work with people who disagree with me over this issue, just like John Vaughn said I should be.
3. Why do so many young people support our general stance against worldliness and doctrinal compromise but view our arguments as tribalistic?
Pretty much anybody who has stuck around “our circles” supports our generally conservative stance on separation from the world and from disobedient brothers. We more or less like the doctrinal and practical places our movement has landed—but I sense among the young a general unease about the path we took to get to those places. At least we feel that the arguments that used to work don’t work anymore, and we’re afraid that tribalism has taken their place.
A young professional in an FBF-style church said in my survey:
I’m decidedly conservative in my music styles, especially for worship, but aside from [the] “don’t-worship-like-the-world” argument, none of the others have really been convincing in the long term. I really wonder how much of my position is merely tradition and preference, and I have a certain sympathy for people who no longer hold to the same standards. If I’m not convinced with the standard arguments, how can I expect them to be?
Particularly with regard to worldly worship music, but also with some other traditional abstinences like theater attendance, younger people feel as if we’ve been handed sociological totemic symbols of group identity—this is just the way we do things—rather than carefully wrought applications of biblical principle. With regard to music in particular, we as a group have done excessively little to man the barricades with real arguments. “Our” most recent books are a generation old. The lone exception—Scott Aniol’s books—isn’t enough. Where are our blogs and articles and books on this topic?
In the absence of argument, some of our separatist practices seems like turf-preservation and in-group loyalty tests rather than what they should be. In other words, again, our young people see us tribalistic, even when they agree with our basic stance.
One young man wrote:
Separation seems to have morphed into a self-congratulating isolationism.
I hasten to say that I think we have historically gotten key aspects of separation right, and that’s why I’m here. We argued our case well against Billy Graham’s ecumenical evangelism. Our case was clear; we were right.
But the line between good and evil doesn’t run between groups but right through every human heart. Graham was right in some key ways, too, and we ought to say so: Billy Graham’s racial integration of his crusades was an implicit indictment of our circles’ slowness to see the implications of the image of God in man. Being right about Graham’s compromises did not automatically place us on the side of the angels for all time.
And yet our crowd has often demanded institutional loyalty as if this were so. One very conservative young pastor wrote,
After working for over a decade in an institutional setting and now pastoring/church planting for over 5 years, I am much less loyal to an institution. I appreciate what I received. But the people I shepherd could care less where I graduated from. They are in such great spiritual need that all they care about is getting the food of the Word week in and week out. I fear that institutional loyalty and identity sometimes handicaps our ability to effectively disciple desperate people.
One of the most important diagnostic questions I’ve come across for combatting tribalism—for helping us understand our proper place in the Christian world is this: what if all of Christianity were like us? Would that be good or bad?
Some things would be great: there’d be no more Joel Osteen, Rob Bell, or Carl Lentz, no more rainbow flags on churches, no flimflam televangelists, no Left Behind movies, and no Precious Moments Bibles.
But I’m not prepared to wish for all Christianity to be like us. Because there’d also be no D.A. Carson, no John Frame, no C.S. Lewis, no Kevin DeYoung (the list could go on and on and on)—there would be very few people writing books and articles that open up Scripture with extreme depth or tackle the issues of the day with real insight. There’d be no Joe Carter or Marvin Olasky summarizing the news for us carefully and from a Christian perspective. No Crossway churning out solid lay-level books and works of evangelical biblical scholarship. No Bible translators bringing God’s words into English. Almost no one fighting liberalism in the academic sphere. No Alan Jacobs to be a public intellectual. I have disagreements with the men I’ve named, but Paul said in 1 Corinthians 3, “All are yours.” I see them as gifts to Christ’s body for such a time as this—gifts God did not give through fundamentalism.
We can’t exist alone. What would our shelves—what would our sermons—be like without other Christian groups?
If there’s one key way in which I and my generation differ from the older generation, it’s probably that we don’t see our crowd as the only legitimate choice available. As I wrote in a FrontLine article some time back,
I think there probably are sections of conservative evangelicalism where the ratio of brown to green grass is similar to what I experience in [my sliver of] fundamentalism. But God did not place me in those pastures. I write Bible study material and articles for all Christians, but I think that attempting to converge with them formally, institutionally, would invite new problems into my pasture without doing much to help my people—or theirs. That may change someday; visible unity with all true Christians must not become a forgotten ideal. But for now, the only place I know of where I can reliably get and promote…things I value is within the institutions of self-described fundamentalism.
Our style of fundamentalism is a good choice, even the best choice for many people. But it’s tribalism to think it’s the only permissible choice, or to assume something is right because we do it.
- So my practical solution is to agree together to change our self-talk. We should by all means “magnify our office” by committing to give to the church what we have: our backbone, our desire for personal holiness, our evangelistic fervor. But we should also stop talking as if Christianity would solve all its problems if it would just be us. We have strengths; so do other groups.
- God hates those who sow discord among brothers; I take this seriously when I call for separation. But I think one key move of separatism would go a long way toward convincing the next generation that we’re not just defending our tribe. And this brings us back to point 1: if we separate from KJV-Onlyism, we’ll show that we’re consistent instead of selective separatists—that we have a border on our right and not just our left. Everything we say about separatism from Scripture—2 These 3; Rom 16—could and should be applied to the men and institutions who are insisting that God has given us only one English Bible translation. In my experience, there are very few true moderates in that camp. Talking to even the most responsible men among them quickly becomes a game of whack-a-mole: they will not budge a millimeter from their doctrine. We’ve repeatedly told ourselves that the KJV is “not a separation issue,” but, funny enough, that’s not the way our KJV-Only brothers view the matter. For them it is THE separation issue. I think we need to respond in kind and stop tolerating their bibliological error.
Typically when we use th[e] word [“tribalism”], we use it to refer to a malformation of group identity, a group identity in which loyalty … to the people that you perceive as your in-group overrides everything else…. And so I think, if, for instance, you’re the sort of person who can be appropriately critical of your own in-group, and you can, at times, call people to account for higher and better standards of behavior, then that’s an indication of a group identity that is not tribalist, but if you defend what your people do no matter what… that’s… tribalism.
So this is good: you are part of a group that is willing to pay the airfare for a guy whose job it is to issue “Legitimate Concerns” about you to you. I was a little concerned that only people my age would show up, and that would make total sense. I don’t like to listen to people sharing legitimate concerns with me, let alone concerns I consider illegitimate. So I congratulate you for being here, because whether my prescriptions are right or wrong, I can say that the Bible repeatedly praises the wise for being willing to listen to “legitimate concerns.”
I just named the the three legitimate concerns of the next generation of (non-KJVO) fundamentalism as KJV-Onlyism, legalism/Calvinism, and separatism-as-tribalism. I named what I and a lot of people my age see as the 3.5 elephants in the room; and I offered some practical steps for bridge-building between generations on each issue.
I am not arguing that if you follow my practical steps, our brand of fundamentalism will suddenly become attractive to young people. I can’t and won’t promise that: everyone and his cousin is going to pick his or her favorite issues as The Solution to the exodus of the young. What I will say is that to make the changes I’ve suggested is biblical and right, no matter what the results are. That’s what fundamentalism taught me: do right, do right, do right.
Generations always see things a little differently, sometimes a lot differently. The reason I think the generational gap is particularly acute right now is that there are so few of the young guys left who want anything to do with “our” institutions, and the ones who are left have both very nice things to say about older fundamentalist individuals and, frankly, very cynical things to say about the group as a whole. A lot of those cynical things, I think, actually apply more to the KJV-Only sector of fundamentalism than to us gathered here. That’s a big reason I’m trying to drive a wedge between us and them.
But I’m not cynical about our crowd; I’m hopeful. I really did get so much good from my heritage, and so did all the people who took my survey. It is achingly hard for us—like it is for every group on the planet—to reevaluate our traditions at generational junctures, but it can be done.
Theologian Alastair Roberts has pointed out that important issues often “become snarled up in the instinctive antagonisms and alignments of a crowd.” This happens to us. But I actually believe us when we shout our most traditional tradition: we want to follow the Bible. What kind of group has the best chance of changing for the better, of standing on Bible principle against instinctive alignments of tribe? I genuinely hope it’s us, the group that believes in its bones that all Scripture is God-breathed and capable of equipping us for every good work.
So I want to end with two positives.
First, a quote from a BJU grad assistant pastor ministering sacrificially on a U.S. mission field, and who took my survey:
I observed a genuine walk with Christ by parents and older pastors, not hypocrisy. I was shown the importance of personal spiritual disciplines, “caught” the vital role of sanctification (particularly through Berg’s Changed Into His Image series), and absorbed a clear view of life under the sovereignty of God. I developed careful hermeneutical instincts.
In my current role as a Christian school teacher, I rub shoulders with pastors and believers from broader circles of evangelicalism. I have found that their devotion to Christ and love for others is a fantastic influence on me, but I have also found that their understanding and use of Scripture is subpar. This pattern will leave well-intentioned but unprepared future generations of Christians, loving but unstable. I am thankful to have been raised in and now to serve in the subset of fundamentalism where I find myself.
I firmly believe that there are many younger men who want to link arms with you, younger men like me who are not Rehoboam’s friends who want to further your work. But it will take concerted effort and difficult decisions on your part.
Second positive: I’ve been reading a book called Why Liberalism Failed by Patrick Deneen. He argues that the political order around us is disintegrating and will necessarily continue to do so, because liberalism has always contained the seeds of its own demise. He recommends “smaller, local forms of resistance to liberalism:… the building of resilient new cultures against the anticulture of liberalism.” Rod Dreher’s recent buzz book The Benedict Option recommends something similar.
Silently we’ve been doing this. We’ve been doing something that I think more and more true Christians are going to come to see as needful as our national culture degrades along a Romans 1 path. We’ve been constructing a culture of resistance, one in which kids don’t have to feel the pressure to recite the latest trivialities of an inane and promiscuous popular culture, one in which individualism isn’t allowed to go unchecked because we are Christ’s body, one in which women are treated with greater respect and care than in the secular world precisely because they are not regarded as wholly interchangeable with men, one in which we acknowledge a divine order in nature, one in which we don’t forget the identity of the Geist in the zeitgeist.
My alma mater was wrong to have its interracial dating ban, and that’s an awkward and difficult topic. But BJU also proved something for thirty years: Christian institutions don’t have to live on the government dole. When California cuts off funding to Christian colleges, and when some cave and make peace with perversity, a great shudder will run through all evangelicalism. Many will look for doctrinal backbone. I pray we’re still around to provide it.
We’ve got to sift our tradition in order to save it, for the good of the world. Winnow—and hold on tight. Reevaluate—and recommit.
In 2005, there was a FrontLine issue titled “Passing the Torch.” In 2010 there was an issue titled, “Passing the Baton.” It’s 2018 now, and for various understandable reasons the torch and baton are still in the hands of older generations. I know that the final issue of FrontLine will not need to be called “Passing the Buck,” because you love our movement too much to let that happen. There are things you can do—I’ve named quite a few—to preserve our institutions and pass them to my generation so we have to deal with the problems. I pray you succeed. I’m for you. Godspeed.