Basics #1: a guide to labels and why they matter – fundamentalist, evangelical and pentecostal

(Here’s a post written for that you might want to read. I realise I don’t ever write about any of the basics; this might be the first in a series. If you’ve studied theology, all of this will be superfluous and potentially erroneous!)

Last night I was watching a secular documentary called Jesus Camp. It’s an interesting and rather disturbing look at a ‘Bible boot camp’ run by a Pentecostal children’s pastor in the USA. (The disturbing part was the black and white view of the world these kids were getting, and the pro-George Bush, anti-climate change, anti-the rest of the world attitude. But that’s all a different story.)

What struck me was that on the back cover blurb, the terms ‘Pentecostal’ ‘Evangelical’ and ‘Fundamentalist’ are used interchangeably, as if they all mean the same thing. They don’t mean the same thing, and mixing them up causes a lot of confusion. I get the feeling that most Christians wouldn’t be able to distinguish them clearly either, so I thought I’d give a quick guide. I’ve simplified things a lot here, and I’m just going off the top of my head, so please take this as a starting point, rather than a definitive guide.

‘Fundamentalism’ started early in the 20th century as a reaction against a group of theologians called ‘Modernists’ (or liberals). The Modernists were very taken with the findings of science and rationalism and were interepreting the Bible and theological doctrines in the light of science. (That’s not altogether wrong; but they were certainly taking things too far.) In reaction to this, a group who became known as the ‘Fundamentalists’ issued a series of booklets on the ‘fundamentals’ of faith – doctrines they saw as absolute foundations which were non-negotiable.

The movement – or the label at least – became more and more conservative and reactionary. Fundamentalists became those who shut themselves off from the findings of scholarship and theology; who read the Bible in rigid, literal, unnatural ways and who had a real fortress mentality – ‘them and us’. Today, fundamentalism is also associated with political conservatism and religious fanaticism.

‘Evangelicalism’ in its twentieth century form started as a reaction against fundamentalism. They were Christians who believed the Bible and traditional doctrines of faith but felt that they could still engage with scholarship in science and theology. The movement that grew out of this would tend to be seen as emphasising the trustworthiness of the Bible, the need for a personal commitment to following Jesus, and the importance of evangelism.

Confusingly, fundamentalists would believe these three things too, and the line can be hard to draw. It’s often in the mode of engagement with the world – Evangelicals are willing to dialogue with cultural trends in the world, to make their faith culturally relevant without compromising it, and to politely debate liberals and fundamentalists.

My concern is that if ‘evangelical’ and ‘fundamentalist’ are used interchangeably, the word ‘evangelical’ will be tainted beyond usefulness or redemption – if it hasn’t happened already.

‘Pentecostalism’ grew out of the Azusa Street Revival in the USA in 1904, when the Holy Spirit came upon a congregation and there were manifestations of spiritual gifts. The movement came to generally emphasise the need for a ’second blessing’ or baptism of the Spirit, evidenced by speaking in tongues. Besides the emphasis on the Spirit, the movement was often quite similar to the fundamentalists in tone.

If this was the ‘first wave’ of the Holy Spirit, the second wave came in the 1960s through the mainline (Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran) churches and people affected by this were called ‘Charismatic’. Many of these people stayed in their traditional churches, so you can see why there was a big difference between ‘pentecostal’ and ‘charismatic’.

The ‘third wave’ of the Holy Spirit is where Vineyard fits in. It’s associated with John Wimber and the Vineyard movement starting in the 1980s, and emphasising a basically evangelical outlook with Holy Spirit empowerment, most often shown not in tongues but healing.

The danger with labels is that they can be used to judge too quickly and shortcut really understanding people. But the benefit of them is that they give us an understanding of what tradition, what strand of Christianity a person comes from.

9 thoughts on “Basics #1: a guide to labels and why they matter – fundamentalist, evangelical and pentecostal

  1. Nice post Nathan. As I observe things the ‘Third Wave’, seems but a ripple as time goes on compared to Pentecostalism, Fundementalism, Evangelicalism. I would argue that the ‘Third wave’ theolgy would be found just as much outside vineyard churches as in it. (theology yes, culture no) Yet it’s roots rarely acknowledged!

  2. Пора переименовать блог, присвоив название связанное с доменами 🙂 может хватит про них?

  3. Hey Scott, I think you’re right; third wave is much bigger than the number of Vineyard churches you’ll find across the country. A lot of Baptist churches and other mainstream evangelical churches have been very influenced by it.

    Marinkina, could you translate? 🙂

  4. Thanks Nathan – succinct and helpful! I find it especially good to know a bit of history behind each movement…removing people from their stories somehow makes them easier to dismiss or dehumanise.

  5. Hey Nathan,

    I’m only a couple of months behind!

    This is a helpful history/theology lesson. In the circles I have been in the last few years, there has always been a strong emphasis on ‘e’vangelicalism as opposed to ‘E’vangelicalism. It is a great evil to be called Evangelical in the South-Eastern Uniting Church and to a lesser degree in WA. You can get away with it in South Aust and Qld (with notable exceptions). The rest of the country is comfortable in calling them raving loonies.

    As a conservative-evangelical-liberal formerly of the Baptist, Presbyterian and Uniting Churches, currently not fitting in anywhere, I’m all a bit over labels, but everyone is talking about them! I’ve always been a little too central to fit in with anyone, not liberal enough, not conservative enough. I am shamed by my Baptist church-plant acquaintances because I don’t talk about Jesus enough and slammed by my High-UCA acquaintances because I think that the work of the body of Christ should be inspired by Christ and not some random out-there theory of social justice.

    I am a person on The Way. If only my namesakes could look upon me and write in my obituary ‘A true Israelite indeed’.

    BTW, although I am not a fluent Russian speaker, I believe that Marinkina doesn’t like the name of your blog!


  6. Hey Wesley, Thanks for your interesting comments. There is quite a difference between states. You’ve got a foot in every camp.

    What does the Russian seem to say, dare I ask?

  7. “It is time to rename a blog, having appropriated the name connected with domains can will suffice about them?”

    Perhaps they are offering to buy you a new domain?

    I was suprised about the states thing. I was on the national standing committee of the UCA for a few years after the 2003 decision to leave the ordination of homosexual folk to a case by case basis. I received some nasty stuff from folk in Victoria saying we are condemned because we didn’t make a blacket approval, I received stuff from Queensland saying I was condemned because we let these people into our Church buildings.

    That said, my Uncle from country NSW basically hasn’t spoken to me in 6 years because he is a Bible believing Christian, and I am not, and the most offensive letter I received was from a minister in Victoria telling me that I had earned eternal damnation because I may not have agreed with him.

    Strangely enough, I put myself forward for ordination shortly after this experience began, and all I got out of it was a big black dog and another scarring burn from the Church! Now I have the power of borrowing or recalling books from these very people 😉

  8. Hi Nathan,
    This is a good intoductory history lesson on twentieth century fundamentalism, evangelicalism and pentecostalism. Although these groups appear to be different are they not all in some sense “evangelical”?

    I find the word evangelical is used in many different ways. Should it not just mean “good news”? If evangelical theology is theology consistent with one of the following perspectives (Calvinism, Classical Lutheranism, Anabaptism, Arminianism, and classical Wesleyanism or theologies consistent with these), what does one do with someone who holds to one of these theologies but utilises historico-critical methods to understand the text in its original context? Would they not also be “evangelical” at least in the original meaning of the Greek word used in the NT?

    John Arthur

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