Fundamorphosis: How I Left Fundamentalism but Didn’t Lose my Faith
Civitas Press, 2012
206 pp., pb.
What is it like growing up in a Fundamentalist home? Are there any alternatives to Fundamentalism? Is it possible to leave Fundamentalism and still be a Christian? Pastor Robb Ryerse explores these questions and gives us some intriguing answers in his book Fundamorphoses: How I Left Fundamentalism but Didn’t Lose my Faith.
As it turns out Pastor Ryerse and myself have quite a bit in common. We were both raised in churches that were affiliated with the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches (GARBC). We both lived, at least for a while, in Upstate New York – he near Utica and I near Syracuse. We both studied, at least for a time, at Baptist Bible College of Pennsylvania, where we both had the privilege of sitting at the feet of the school’s beloved history professor, Dr. Rembert Byrd Carter, or “Doc Carter” as he was affectionately known. We both went on to study at seminaries connected with the Reformed tradition – he at Biblical and I at Westminster. But then our paths diverged.
Pastor Ryerse went on to pastor some Fundamentalist Baptist churches, but became increasingly frustrated with what he found in them and with the whole Fundamentalist movement in general. He eventually left the GARBC to become involved with the “emerging church” movement. I, on the other hand, never went into the formal ministry, but was involved in a lay capacity in a wide variety of churches – Reformed Episcopal, Primitive Baptist, Mennonite, Plymouth brethren, and Reformed Presbyterian. Theologically I moved in the opposite direction from Pastor Ryerse – I looked to the past for answers – to the Puritans and Reformers – and basically became a Reformed Baptist. I am currently part of an informal house church group. Musically I could do without the guitars and drums – give me the old time shaped-note hymns from The Sacred Harp in four part a cappella harmony. And so, having both left the GARBC, Pastor Ryerse and myself have very different perspectives on life.
Pastor Ryerse’s book is part spiritual autobiography and part treatise on Systematic Theology. He tries to be charitable in describing Fundamentalists, but it is clear that he has major problems with the movement. He describes how Fundamentalism didn’t meet his needs, and explains why he is on a path that he thinks will be more rewarding.
So what exactly does Pastor Ryerse think is wrong with Fundamentalism? He has a host of familiar complaints – its narrow-mindedness, its judgmentalism, at times its outright hypocrisy. What is striking, however, is his diagnosis of these ills. He basically criticizes Fundamentalists for taking the Bible too seriously, or at least too literally. He tells us that “Emanating directly from their strict interpretations and applications of the Bible, Christian fundamentalists in America have built a rigid superstructure of legalistic tradition that defines their church and home cultures” (p. 21). He then goes on to assert that “Certitude produces legalism,” and “legalism produces judgmentalism” (Ibid.).
His solution is to argue that the Bible is just one of several sources from which we draw our theology. In particular throughout his book Pastor Ryerse measures doctrine by his own experience. “Theology is conceived and born in the minds, hearts, and lives of people who are asking the big questions and seeking answers that resonate,” he says (p. 106).
However, the idea that Scripture should be our only rule of faith and practice did not originate with American Fundamentalists in the 20th Century. What Pastor Ryerse is arguing against is nothing less than the Reformation principle of “sola Scriptura,” and long before the GARBC came into existence orthodox Lutheran and Reformed theologians insisted on the same principle. On this point Fundamentalists are simply following the historic Protestant approach to Scripture.
While I would personally hesitate to say that the “autographs” are “inerrant,” we must nevertheless come to terms with the claims that the Bible makes for itself. “. . .for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (II Pet. 1:21; NKJV). If this claim can be taken at face value, then the Bible is, in fact, the inspired Word of God, God’s own revelation to us, and is fully authoritative in all that it teaches. Our role, then, is to submit to its authority, not bend it to fit our own desires.
The problem is that by subjecting Scripture to the test of experience we wind up making our theology conform to our lives instead of making our lives conform to what God has revealed. At the bottom of it we are either pursuing God’s will or we are following our own. And the latter is nothing less than self-delusion.
If Fundamentalist doctrine and practice is shallow and superficial, might not the problem be a failure to take Scripture seriously enough?
The fact of the matter is that virtually the only way we can know about God and salvation is through divine revelation. God must tell us what is true about these things – about the origin, purpose and meaning of life, about what happens after death – we have no other path to knowledge about these things. If God has not spoken then we are in ignorance. Thus any theology not based on sound exegesis is a delusion.
Likewise Pastor Ryerse’s view of salvation is problematical. He describes the Fundamentalist view of salvation this way: “For someone to ‘get saved,’ they had to believe a certain set of propositions about Jesus. If a person confessed to having these beliefs, we were willing to give her assurance of her standing before God and eternity in heaven” (p. 69). In other words, in this view “faith” is merely mental assent.
Pastor Ryerse’s own view of salvation is that “The real power of faith is not in leading us to a climactic moment of conversion but in shaping the entirety of our lives. The point of our belief is not punching our ticket to heaven but in growing us and growing with us throughout our lives” (p. 70).
The problem here is that he doesn’t distinguish between justification and sanctification. Justification is an act by which we are declared righteous in the sight of God; it takes place instantaneously. Sanctification is a process that begins at conversion and gradually changes us over time. It lasts throughout our pilgrimage here on earth.
It is easy to see how a person raised in a Christian home could be confused on this point. Young children are often encouraged to make professions of faith before they are old enough to understand the basic concepts of sin and redemption. Some churches are reluctant to talk about sin and repentance, which means that their congregations rarely if ever hear convicting sermons. And in the GARBC the situation is further by the fact that sanctification is often described as “personal separation,” as if the Christian life boiled down to little more than “I don’t smoke and I don’t chew; and I don’t go with girls that do.” Thus it is relatively easy for a young person growing up in a Christian home to think that because he is doing all the right things outwardly he must be genuinely a Christian.
The situation is even further complicated by the fact that the pastors themselves often show little understanding of what the new birth is. Thus they will often accept a candidate for baptism and church membership on a bare profession of faith with little or no evidence of regeneration. Then everyone in the church, including the candidate himself, assumes that he is a genuine believer.
What is missing in this scenario is any conviction of sin. What we forget is that God looks on the heart. No matter how righteous and upright a person may seem outwardly, he still is a human being with a sin nature. What we human observers see is a well-behaved youngster who is active in his church and Christian school. What God sees is a heart filled with pride, anger, selfishness, lust and greed. God knows what we are really like inside, and if the motive is present, even when the outward action is not, we are still guilty in the sight of God. What God wants to see is a pure heart, not a proud hypocrite. And here we all fail, no matter how righteous we may appear to be outwardly.
True conversion, then, begins with the conviction of sin. This is not to say that a person must weep over his sins for at least a half an hour before he can pray and ask for forgiveness. Personalities and circumstances differ. But in order for true conversion to take place there must be a clear understanding of the real issue: our sin and guilt before a holy God whose law we have broken and whose justice we have offended.
By the same token true saving faith is not just assent to a set of propositions; it is an act of the will in which we place our trust in Christ as our Savior. We do not just believe things about Christ; we believe in Christ; we place our trust in Him. We rely on Him for salvation. Faith acts on the promises of God’s Word. Faith obeys. Hebrews 11 is the great roll call of faith.
The Work of the Holy Spirit
What is strikingly absent in Pastor Ryerse’s account of the Christian life is the role of the Holy Spirit. Sadly, many fundamentalist Baptist churches have so reacted against Pentacostalism that they hesitate even to mention the Holy Spirit for fear of sounding like “holy rollers.” And in those churches more inclined toward an Arminian theology there is a tendency to downplay the role of the Holy Spirit in conversion. And yet the New Testament makes it clear that the Holy Spirit is the agent of the new birth, and it is the Holy Spirit who creates the spiritual life of the church and makes its ministries effective. Paul could say, “And my speech and my preaching were not with permissive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (I Cor. 2:4). Without the Holy Spirit the church is just plain dead.
The new birth itself is a deep, inward change produced by the Holy Spirit. In the case of a person raised in a Christian home there might not be a dramatic outward change. Such a person will continue to be the same outwardly moral and upright person that he always has been. The real change takes place inwardly. The newly regenerated Christian has a new understanding, and new interests and desires. He is conscious of a new relationship with God. He has a prayer life, and he delights to feed upon God’s Word.
It is here that many nominal Christians raised in Christian homes have difficulty. They go through life simply reacting to the opinions of others. It is all a matter of external pressure. But to really know God in a personal, intimate way is liberating. God’s opinion is the only one that matters. Everyone else’s opinion is only secondary. As someone once put it, “the fear of God is the fear that drives away all other fear.” It was this fear of God that prompted Martin Luther to stand before the Emperor and all the assembled nobles of the Holy Roman Empire and declare, “Here I stand; I can do no other.” If we are feeding on God’s Word, if we are spending time with Him in prayer, if we are growing ever closer to Him, the opinions of men simply do not matter. The only question is, what does God think? If I am truly born again, if I have genuine spiritual life within me, it is no longer a matter of trying to please others and live up to their expectations. My aim is to please God and I don’t need any external prompting.
The difference can be illustrated by the life of Paul. In a sense we could say that Paul had a “Fundamentalist” upbringing, if we could use that term in a Jewish context. He was a devout Jew – “circumcised on the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; concerning the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; concerning the righteousness which is in the law, blameless” (Phil. 3:5,6). He even had the added advantage of theological training under one of the leading rabbis of his day. But in the end it was of no avail. In a fascinating piece of psychological introspection he describes his inner conflict in Romans chapter 7. Intellectually he had a high regard for Scripture. He could see that “the law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good” (Rom. 7:12). But he also saw something else at work inside of himself – something dark and sinister. For all of his outward righteousness he was still a human being, born with a sin nature that led him in the complete opposite direction. This created a strange paradox in his psychology. “For what I am doing I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do” (v. 15; cf. v. 19). “But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members” (v. 23). And this led to his anguished cry in verse 24: “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” Is it not fair to say that this describes the experience of many today who were raised in Christian homes?
The answer to the question is found in chapter 8: “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death” (8:2). What makes the difference in the life a person who has genuinely been born again is the Holy Spirit, and Paul describes the work of the Spirit at length in chapter 8. The Spirit gives life (vv. 4-11), the assurance of salvation (vv. 14-17), hope (vv. 23-25), and intercession (vv. 26,27). And thus Paul concludes the chapter on a triumphant note: “Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us” (v. 37). What makes the difference between chapter 7 and chapter 8? The presence and activity of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer! Is that not what we are missing in our churches today? And Paul is very blunt about the matter: “Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His” (Rom. 8:9b). Where does that leave us?
Which brings us to the subject of the church. In the last chapter of his book Pastor Ryerse describes the type of “emerging church” his is planting in Arkansas. He criticizes traditional churches for putting “belief and behavior ahead of belonging” (p. 202). Candidates for membership have to believe a certain way and behave a certain way in order to belong. At his new church, however, Pastor Ryerse says that “For us, it’s not about who is in and who is out. We see ourselves as a community of people on a journey, trying our best to follow Jesus together. We want to affirm anyone who is on that path, regardless of how far down the trail he or she may be’ (p. 203).
It is a little hard to see how anyone who has sat in Doc Carter’s classes could say such a thing. For Doc Carter, beyond anyone else, was quick to point out that a Baptist church, indeed a New Testament church, should be a believers’ church with a regenerate church membership. And this is important, not just because it is a Baptist distinctive, but because it is the only way that a church can manifest life in Christ to the surrounding community. It is the only way that a church can even begin to function the way a church is supposed to. The operative principle is that each individual member of the church is supposed to be vitally connected to Christ through the indwelling Spirit. The church is supposed to be a spiritual fellowship, the communion of the saints, drawn together by a common love for Christ and for each other. This is why Baptist churches traditionally have had church covenants – you were making a formal commitment to your fellow believers to live the Christian life and to function together as a spiritual body.
Is not our problem today that our churches are not very spiritual? For the most part they have become social clubs, with the paid, professional pastor acting as CEO and master of ceremonies. You can get 90% of the congregation out for a “fellowship” dinner, but scarcely 10% out for prayer meeting. Since when did casseroles become more important than prayer? Is Christ present in our gatherings?
What is largely missing in Pastor Ryerse’s book is any sense of the holiness of God, of the sinfulness of man, of the need for repentance, and of the transforming power of the Holy Spirit in the new birth. Pastor Ryerse seems instead to take a sociological approach to religion. Fundamentalism is a subculture that makes certain demands on its members. But for Pastor Ryerse it was all external pressure – he didn’t feel anything within. At one point he says that “many of us have wondered why some biblical writers speak of God’s presence being so close and near to them while our own experiences have been of a God who is far away” (p. 102). At another point he admitted, “I’m not very good at praying . . . I’ve just never been able to develop prayer as a consistent discipline in my life” (p. 189). In short, what we seem to have here is the psychology of an unconverted person, caught up in a religious milieu but lacking any direct experience with God personally. And thus it was only a matter of time before he would try to redefine his faith to correspond with how he actually felt within.
But in the end as human beings we all have to deal with God as He actually is. In one sense Pastor Ryerse is certainly correct when he says that “theology is conceived and born in the minds, hearts and lives of people who are asking the big questions.” That is, in fact, exactly what most of the great preachers and writers down through the centuries did, from John Bunyan to Martyn Lloyd-Jones – most of them had no academic training in theology at all, but they concentrated on asking the big questions, and tried to understand how the answers applied to life. This is what the older writers called “experimental divinity,” or experiential theology as we might say today, if we could even conceive of such a thing. Pastor Ryerse’s problem is that he is “seeking answers that resonate” with him personally. Rather the great preachers and writers of the past went to Scripture for the answers. (And Moses, Jesus and Paul were no ivory tower armchair theologians!). And that is what we must do. We must go to the Bible and try to interpret it honestly and humbly, allowing ourselves to be taught by God’s Word. We must learn to apply it to our lives. Simply to base our theology on our own feelings and experiences is to lead ourselves astray. We cannot afford to go through life making up things about God because they make us feel good. For this reason I am afraid that Pastor Ryerse’s solution to the problem of Fundamenealism is probably a dead end.