I was raised a fundamentalist, and I personally embraced fundamentalism at a very early age. I felt a need to be ‘saved’, so I went to the altar and prayed through. I ‘accepted Jesus’ as my ‘Lord and Savior’; and, along with that, I accepted all the harmful and misguided baggage of fundamentalism that came with it.
However, before I was out of high school I began to question certain things. I didn’t rebel, but I started to consider things that did not make sense to me. My first big issue was legalism. In our fundamentalism of that time, we could not watch movies, wear shorts, swim with the other gender, dance, drink, listen to ‘worldly’ music, or do a host of other things. Women could not wear pants or cut their hair short, and men could not wear long hair.
Besides imagined specific biblical prohibitions, there were two driving principles behind these restrictions. The first was to ‘Abstain from all appearance of evil,’ as it was stated in the King James. This meant that anything that was remotely questionable was prohibited. For example, it was a bad idea to walk on the sidewalk in front of a movie theater because someone might see you and assume you had been inside. It was a bad idea to drink a Coke from a can because someone might think it was beer (this was in the 1960s when canned soft drinks were new).
The second principle was, in the King James, ‘It is good neither to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor any thing whereby thy brother stumbleth, or is offended, or is made weak.’ The idea was that, even if something was not a ‘sin’, if someone else thought it was a sin then don’t do it. We should not offend others with our behavior, and self-righteous legalist constantly ‘took offense’ at other people’s behavior.
In the beginning it was not legalism as a concept that I questioned but specific items. Perhaps my first serious issue was movies. At 17, I worked through the arguments and supporting biblical principles that were applied against Christians watching movies and, after considerable struggle, concluded that the prohibition against movies was not biblically valid. Christians were free to attend movies.
This was not rebellion; it was theology. In fact, I had no great need for movies, but one day I stopped by a movie theater on my way home from work and saw a delightful film called My Side of the Mountain. Funny thing about tradition and guilt–even though I was 100% convinced that there was nothing wrong with watching the film, my conscience still yelled “Guilty!” I felt as though I were sitting in a den of iniquity. I was sure the ‘rapture’ would occur while I was in the theater.
Sometimes you have to tell your conscience what to do.
In addition to things we could not do, there were lists of things we had to do, such as tithing, constant church attendance, memorizing Bible passages, and ‘witnessing’. Over time, I abandoned legalistic rules completely. I also dealt with other baggage that came as part of my fundamentalist religious tradition and asked:
- Is the KJV the exclusive word of God? Answer: No
- Is the dispensational worldview biblical? Answer: No
- Are our beliefs about Satan true? Is he even real? Answer: No; No
- Is our traditional understanding of hell biblical? Answer: No
- Are Genesis chapters 1-11 meant to be understood historically? Answer: No
- Is the Bible equal to ‘God’s word’ (inerrancy)? Answer: No
- Are those who never heard of Jesus ‘lost’? Answer: No
As I worked through many other questions as part of my journey from fundamentalism, I attended a conservative evangelical college and received a degree in Biblical-Historical Studies and even took some seminary classes. Parts of my journey from fundamentalism were very scary, but gradually I discovered that much of the baggage I had accepted along with the message of Jesus was not legitimate.
My journey from the baggage of fundamentalism was quite significant and enlightening. But, at one point, a fundamentalist preacher told me I took away everything and left nothing for people to believe in. He was correct; I focused on exposing the baggage instead of sharing the positive message, and there is a very positive message. After sorting though the baggage, I found that the person of Jesus (as described by his earliest followers) is still very compelling. He is the good news for us.
Jesus remains the most important thing in my life. He included me in his invitation, ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.’ And I accepted his invitation (he also included you.)
Issues of baggage are not exclusive to fundamentalism. Most Christian traditions contain baggage of different sorts. Many evangelicals, Catholics, and others are well aware of it. On this blog, we discuss unloading the burden of the religious baggage that has been added to the message of Jesus, but we will also discuss that wonderful message itself. I invite you join us as we explore Jesus without baggage.
One more thing, starting the journey from fundamentalism or conservative Christianity can be very frightening, as we have constantly been warned to avoid being deceived by ‘Satan’ or ‘false prophets’ and from leaning to our ‘own understanding’ (instead of the understanding of our teachers and our tradition).
In fact, at one point I descended into more than a year of anguish and of grief over the loss of God, which developed in three phases during my journey from fundamentalism. I talk about that in My Spiritual Crisis.