There are certain words that are conversation killers:
- Hitler (doesn’t matter what you’re comparing, if you bring in Hitler, the conversation is over)
- Nazi (whether grammar, brand, or any other modifier one may choose to use)
- Homophobe (because, well you know…)
- K (because it’s a letter, not a word)
- YOLO (because it it makes you look like an idiot)
In Christian circles, we have our own conversation killers, in addition to the ones we’ve picked up from the surrounding culture. Most of these are buzzwords like “missional” and increasingly “gospel centered”—the terms and phrases we either overuse or just haven’t bothered to adequately define, thus rendering them meaningless. But there’s one word to rule them all—one forged in the fires of Mount Doom:
“Fundamentalist” is a big word, and not just because it has 14 letters. It’s one that some—usually those who prefer the term “progressive” to describe their doctrine and outlook—use with alarming frequency, arguably more than some folks use “heretic.” And for Christians, it really is the ultimate conversation killer. After all, no one wants to be called a fundamentalist—homophobe we can handle. Out of step, ditto. Being on the wrong side of history, no problem. But “fundamentalist”? No way—that’s like being the kid who had cooties on the playground during recess!
Okay, I kid a little. (Maybe. Probably not.)
But you often see the F-word used by the desperate, the folks who put something out there but what they’re saying doesn’t really have legs. Here are the two ways I typically see it play out:
1. To defend preference. There’s a great deal of freedom in the Christian faith, on this I hope we can all agree. And there are certain things we cannot reasonably be too hardline about. For example, if I were to say all alcohol consumption is sinful, I’d have a hard time squaring that with Scripture. Now, I don’t drink due to personal conviction, so for me it would be sinful unless I had a change of conviction (which I have not). That is perfectly within the bounds. However, if I were to say “and you drink can’t either—everyone,” I’d be on the wrong side of the Bible (Romans 14:1-12).
However, there are other things that aren’t really up for debate (even if we still debate them anyway). If we’re participating in occult practices or taking part in spiritual practices from other religions, we’re going to have a hard time squaring that with the Bible. We point to Paul’s words about eating meat sacrificed to idols in 1 Corinthians 8, and say that idols aren’t living things, but ignore that later he warns us against participating in idolatry itself in 1 Corinthians 10:14-21. We talk about Paul’s freedom in eating meat sacrificed to idols—but we forget that he’s talking about meat purchased in the marketplace, not being part of the sacrifice itself.
In our day, it’s things like yoga, The Walking Dead, and 50 Shades of Creepy.These are the things where we disagree (rightly or wrongly). But if we’re going to disagree, let’s at least make sure that our views are based on something a little more substantial than “I like it,” “it feels good,” or “it works for me.” Actually have a good argument.
2. To defend syncretism. This is the second time the f-word is typically dropped—on the clear black and white issues like the supremacy of Christ, the authority of the Bible, who goes to heaven and hell, sexual morality… Big stuff. Fun fact: I once read a blog where the writer called Scripture’s command that a man spiritually lead and provide for the needs of his family (cf. 1 Tim 5:8; Eph 5:22-33) a misogynistic, patriarchal attitude and anyone who says different is, well, you know…
On big issues—the things where the Bible doesn’t give any wiggle room whatsoever—it’s not being fundamentalist to say “Nope, Christians can’t affirm XYZ”. It’s not unloving or unkind. It’s just being honest. And when we resort to name-calling and conversation killers rather than engaging people honestly, it just says we’re desperate, proud and kind of lazy. It might be easier to demonize those we disagree with—regardless of our position on the theological spectrum—but it’s not worth it. And I don’t think any of us want that.
An earlier version of this post was written in 2010.