Friday, June 1, 2012


The Fundamentalist/Modernist Controversy of the mid-twentieth century was an artificial split in the Church's mission to the world. The church's primary mandate--our Great Commission--is to take the gospel to all the world, making disciples of Jesus Christ and baptizing them in his name. Our secondary mission is to be salt and light to the world at large.

Like the American Civil War, the Fundamentalist/Modernist Controversy ripped the church apart with passion, violence, and an utter disregard for grace. Neither side gave ground, each insisting that their interpretation of the mission was not just the primary, but the only tenable vision. "Modernists" argued that the divine inspiration of scripture, the substitutionary atonement on the cross, and the second coming of Christ were all based in old-fashioned religious ignorance. They said advances in science had made that thinking irrelevant in a modern world. Therefore, the church's only job must be to usher in the new millennium of the social gospel of "Saving Society."  "Fundamentalists" responded that the preaching of the gospel for the salvation of the soul was the only legitimate calling of the church.

Really?  Does it have to be either/or?    ...Actually, no, it doesn't. Like the proverbial athlete, the Church of Jesus Christ is capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time.

Yes, the world is lost and in need of eternal salvation. Christians are to proclaim Jesus the Christ as God in human flesh who gave his life in ransom for ours. Believe in him and trust that his blood covers our transgressions and you will have eternal life because of him. At the same time, throughout scripture, God has called his people to do justly, love mercy and walk humbly. This is about how we live in the world. We are supposed to help the poor, the widow and the orphan, regardless of what the government does. The greatest commandments are to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves. That love is manifested in actions, not feelings. There is no getting away from the fact that God calls us to do BOTH missions: either/or is ungodly, sub-christian partisanship.

But, some will say, doing good to those in need is something manifestly evident in this world. All that salvation-blood of Jesus-Heaven or Hell nonsense is old fashioned and out of date: but definitely.

Harry Emerson Fosdick was pastor of First Presbyterian and Riverside Churches in New York City in the 1920's. His was a powerful voice in the Modernist movement. He had an illustration comparing the differences between the two schools. (my paraphrase) Fosdick said; imagine a bad curve in a road near a cliff. People often drive off that road and crash at the bottom. Fundamentalists have kindly placed ambulances there to pick up the wreckage and transport them to a hospital. Modernists, on the other hand, take steps to improve the road. They put up barriers and lighted signs warning of the danger ahead.

I take exception to this illustration. Fundamential-Evangelical-Bible believing Christians do not accept the premise. We say, if you stood at the bottom of that chasm, you would not need to simply rescue the occasional wayward motorist. The picture we see is that of standing at the bottom of Niagara Falls for all the people going over the cliff. "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God."

The church has pretty much absorbed the Fundamentalist/Modernist movement. Mainstream churches, noted for a social conscience and a strident unbelief in all things supernatural, are shrinking every year. Evangelical churches are booming and have embraced the need to live their faith. The vast majority of Christian social works these days are evangelical in nature.

The division is still with us, however; only the names and venues have changed. The division is now along social and political lines. The names are Liberal and Conservative.

No comments: