How do conservatives and fundamentalists differ?

It is often very difficult to define concepts with precision. To cite an example: When is someone an extremist or a fanatic? When is he/she more aptly called tenacious and principled? Sometimes it is very clear that someone has crossed a definite boundary, but often it is not. In many cases it remains very subjective whether you find someone to be tenacious in holding to his/her principles or consider that person an extremist. For me the most important criterion is whether one wants to impose a certain point of view on others or whether one grants freedom to others and is prepared to change one’s mind if there are decisive arguments for doing so.

Another example is the opposition between orthodox and liberal. There is a line between these two categories, but where exactly? Are you a liberal if you doubt certain teachings of the denomination to which you belong? And is it primarily about “doctrine”, or first and foremost about lifestyle? Can you be liberal in your theology but orthodox in your way of life? And vice versa? And how does one determine orthodoxy? In the eyes of some fellow believers I am a liberal, but other Christians may consider me as very orthodox. Who is right?

Perhaps it is even more difficult to mark the boundaries between conservatives and fundamentalists. In some denominations–including, certainly, the Adventist Church–both categories occur in ample measure. Initially, the word “fundamentalism” applied to the resistance in certain Protestant circles to the “modernism” that had gained the upper hand in many churches. The fundamentalists’ struggle focused primarily on the inspiration and authority of the Bible. The Bible, the fundamentalists argued, was verbally inspired and inerrant, and was also authoritative in historical and scientific matters. This fundamentalist movement gained–to this day–much influence among Adventists. [Over time, the term "fundamentalism" broadened considerably. People now often also refer to Muslim fundamentalists.]

Fundamentalism is often characterized by aggression. George Marsden, a well-known American church historian, once said that a fundamentalist is an evangelical who is angry about all kinds of things. It is not so easy to point out exactly what the difference is between conservative Christians and Christian fundamentalists. There are certainly points where the two groups overlap. This week I came across a concise but very clear explanation in the book Profile of a Religious Man, written by Dr. Edwin Zackrison (b. 1941). With its 600-plus pages, it is quite a bulky book. I have agreed to critically review this autobiographical book in a theological journal.

Zackrison grew up in an Adventist bubble, became a pastor and, after receiving his doctorate, taught at one of the Adventist universities in the USA. Eventually he became persona non grata there. Anyone who wants to read this complicated but fascinating story should order the book from Amazon.

Zachrison definitely denies that he is, or ever was, a fundamentalist, but he did not object to the conservative label. He points out that a fundamentalist, unlike an average conservative person, usually has a very negative attitude toward the academic study of theology. A fundamentalist usually already knows everything and needs no further study. In the Adventist Church, the main issue centers on the authority and inspiration of the Bible. Fundamentalist Adventists have a rigid doctrine of inspiration and usually assume that Ellen White was inspired in the same way as the Bible writers. For them, Ellen White has the final say regarding the proper interpretation of the Bible, rather than the other way around. Most conservative Adventists agree that our atonement was completed when Christ died on the cross, while many fundamentalist Adventists deny this. Fundamentalism is also usually linked to perfectionism.

For me, Zachrison’s comments were enlightening. One difference he did not mention, but which I have often experienced, is that, while conservative Christians tend to have very outspoken opinions, they are usually open to dialogue. With die-hard fundamentalists, however, no real conversation is possible. They have the Truth. They are right. Period.

Fundamentalists are a danger to the church. They cause rigidity and paralysis. The church, on the other hand, needs both conservatives and liberals. Liberals are good at asking questions. Together, conservatives and liberals should seek sound answers. This ensures that the church remains a living organism where we can grow together in our faith.

2 thoughts on “How do conservatives and fundamentalists differ?

  1. Sandra

    I see this subject as a huge dividing issue in our church and I see it concurrently dividing our families, even my own. I find myself becoming silent on the spewn, perfectly memorized EGW quotes. I am feeling battered and alienated and even emotionally and spiritually separated from my loved ones. I am feeling less and less love. The destruction of relationship is unrecognized. God save us. Save me. I feel the doom.

  2. Bill Pritchard

    Thank you for you thoughts on the story of Dr. Edwin Zachrison and his book. Through his posts on Facebook I was intrigued by his parallel upbringing in the SDA church. While I have never met Dr. Zachrison, or lives overlapped in the Southern California SDA bubble of the 1950′s and 1960′s. That alone brings a camaraderie of experiences that are memorable; mostly good memories, understandable memories and a witness to the struggles of a small conservative Christian Church in the age of the Baby Boomers.

    For me, his books was a combination of a wonderful walk down memory lane, sympathy with our shared spiritual pursuits, and highlights of the common issues in SDA theology. Sadly, it was with great regret to read about the literal persecution of a devoted follower of Jesus Christ. His story is a sad warning for denomination employees to be cautious about combining their employment, their spiritual calling, and their daily devotional relationship with Jesus Christ. How sad it would be to lose heaven over the meandering and random mismanagement of institutional leadership.

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