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The Dividing Line: Understanding and Applying Biblical Separation

Chapter 9
The New Evangelicalism

"Neo-Fundamentalism"

One other theological movement belongs in this discussion of the New Evangelicalism. It has been called different names by different writers. Earle Cairns refers to it as "Open Fundamentalism" in contrast to the "Closed Fundamentalism" of militant separatists.38 Fundamentalists themselves label it "Psuedo-Fundamentalism."39 However, "Neo-Fundamentalism" is probably the closest to an accepted academic term.40

Neo-Fundamentalism took as its goal reforming Fundamentalism, much as the New Evangelicalism had sought to do. There are many parallels between the movements. Like the original New Evangelicals, the Neo-Fundamentalists moved in Fundamentalist circles and proclaimed their allegiance to the heritage of Fundamentalism. They argued that the movement had become too narrow and was not sufficiently active in social issues. The differences between it and the New Evangelicalism were, first of all, that Neo-Fundamentalism showed no interest in any ties to liberalism, as Billy Graham had. Furthermore, by social action, Neo-Fundamentalism meant greater involvement by Fundamentalists in behalf of conservative political causes.41

The most important formative figures in the movement were Jerry Falwell and, to a lesser extent, Jack Van Impe, both of whom typify the movement. Van Impe was an evangelist and television preacher well known in Fundamentalism. He had held numerous successful citywide campaigns and had addressed the first World Congress of Fundamentalists in 1976. In the late 1970s, however, he began to denounce what he called a hate movement among Fundamentalists. He claimed that Fundamentalists were majoring on (and separating over) minor issues. In 1984 he published the book Heart Disease in Christ's Body in which he outlined these charges and finalized his own break with separatist Fundamentalism.

Far more important to the Neo-Fundamentalist movement was Baptist pastor Jerry Falwell of Lynchburg, Virginia. A member of the Baptist Bible Fellowship (one of the largest independent Baptist groups), Falwell had begun to attract attention in the 1960s. The remarkable growth of his congregation, the Thomas Road Baptist Church, made it one of the ten largest Sunday schools in America by 1969. He also benefited greatly in Fundamentalist circles from the warm support and promotion of John R. Rice in The Sword of the Lord.

Falwell achieved national renown after he founded the political action organization known as the Moral Majority in 1979. This organization was one of many conservative religious groups credited with helping elect Republican Ronald Reagan to the presidency in 1980. Falwell found himself famous but also under attack. Political liberals accused him of trying to force his religious beliefs on the United States. Fundamentalists charged him with compromising the Faith. Despite opposition, Falwell maintained an extensive national outreach through his television program, The Old Time Gospel Hour; his school, Liberty University; and his periodical, The Fundamentalist Journal.

Theologically, Neo-Fundamentalism was initially critical of New Evangelical tolerance and Billy Graham's cooperation with liberals.42 The movement, however, bases its practice of separation on the distinction between first-degree and second-degree separation (discussed in Chapters 1 and 5). As a result, Neo-Fundamentalism rejects false teaching but is much less likely to separate from other Christians.43 Neo-Fundamentalism insists strenuously on the cardinal doctrines of the Faith, especially the inerrancy of Scripture. But the movement uses this doctrinal stance as a basis for suggesting closer alliances between themselves and conservative Evangelicals dismayed by the excesses of the "worldly Evangelicals" described by Quebedeaux.44 Part of their argument for this position parallels that of the New Evangelicals: Neo-Fundamentalists maintain that they represent an earlier, purer form of Fundamentalism that has been obscured by the militants.

Fundamentalists became very concerned that Falwell was actually promoting a religious unity far beyond that dreamed of by Billy Graham and the New Evangelicals in the 1950s. In his Moral Majority, Falwell claimed that he had founded a nonreligious political organization that would lobby for morality in legislation and politics. Therefore, he did not hesitate to invite Roman Catholics, Jews, Mormons, and other diverse religious groups to work with him. Militant Fundamentalists rightly pointed to the near impossibility of holding a "nonreligious" crusade for morality, especially when its leaders were all clergy. Inclusion of these groups in the Moral Majority would only lead Bible-believers to accept the validity of their positions.45 Saying that these efforts were building religious alliances through political activity, Bob Jones III described Falwell's approach to political action as "the ultimate ecumenism."46

Falwell and Van Impe were able to cite some genuine grievances. Sometimes militant Fundamentalists were harsh or extreme in their criticism, and some separatists certainly majored on minors. However, the pose of Falwell and Van Impe as reformers trying to call Fundamentalism back to its original position was undermined by their own shifts in theological alliances. Falwell clearly moved from an opposition to the Charismatic movement, for example, to a cooperation with the movement. Liberty University began to accept Charismatic students after Falwell had earlier said it would not do so.47 Van Impe moved even farther in his associations. Most surprising was his jubilant embrace of Roman Catholicism as a partner not just in moral reform but also in evangelism and discipleship.48 No appeal to any previous period of Fundamentalist history could support alliances such as these.

It is difficult to see Neo-Fundamentalism as any more than a halfway house to the New Evangelical position. C. T. McIntire observes that Neo-Fundamentalists "tended to blur the distinction between fundamentalist and evangelical."49 Neo-Fundamentalism's position on ecclesiastical separation—the crucial difference between Fundamentalist and non-Fundamentalist Evangelicalism—is virtually indistinguishable from that of the majority of Evangelicals. Falwell eventually ceased calling himself a Fundamentalist in favor of the name Evangelical. He openly affirmed his cooperation with non-Fundamentalist Evangelicals, Charismatics, and Catholics. By the time Falwell invited Billy Graham to speak at the commencement of Liberty University in 1997 (where Graham's grandson was part of the graduating class), there seemed to be no difference at all between the two movements.


The Dividing Line: Understanding and Applying Biblical Separation. By Mark Sidwell. ©1998. BJU Press. Reproduction prohibited. This work is available for purchase at the Bob Jones University Campus Store (phone: 1-800-252-1927; web address: www.bju.edu/store.)

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