Reformed Theology

Calvary Chapel and Fundamentalism

The word Fundamentalism was once a proper noun referring to the conservative religious movement that pushed back against old-school Protestant liberalism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The label has come to be applied much more broadly, even in use now to describe ultra-conservative factions in various religions, not just Christian.

Recently someone described me as an ex-fundamentalist. One doesn’t usually see oneself as one’s opponent; even when one meets a list full of definitions, there is a sort of revisionist history in one’s progressive mind regarding the label itself. (This, despite the fact that I wrote a blog several years ago entitled "I am a Fundamentalist", which focused on the original Five Fundamentals, and not the conservative movement fundamentalism has become.) I think back to when I was in junior high and high school in Las Vegas, when I strongly opposed my science teachers and picketed alongside fellow churchgoers with "No on 7" signs in 1990. Of course that kid was a fundamentalist. I guess I had attributed that to my own mistaken zeal rather than to the result of what I had been taught in my religious upbringing in Calvary Chapel. Today’s post is a short therapeutic exercise to point out ways in which the church I was brought up in was fundamentalist, so I can tie the millstone of blame around the neck of my teachers and pastors.

Before we continue I need to reiterate the above phrase: teachers and pastors. I recognize that the sheep don’t necessarily agree with their shepherds on all things, and there is greater diversity in congregations than in their leadership. But because I’m such a good student, I had always aligned myself with my leaders. And the Bible seems to hold spiritual leaders accountable for how they teach and lead.

The Calvary Chapel movement was birthed by holey-jeans-and-flip-flop-wearing hippies on the beaches of southern California. They’d probably think of fundamentalists as those grumpy preachers in the movie Footloose. They would have associated fundamentalism with hair length. They’d describe an old-fashioned guy in a suit like John MacArthur as a Fundamentalist (and I would agree), but they certainly wouldn’t think of themselves that way. In their own literature they claim to be in the "middle ground" between fundamentalism and Pentecostalism. But these two things are not different ends of a continuum; they are different categories altogether. Fundamentalism is a reaction to modernism, not to spiritual gifts. As for the Pentacostal category, Calvary Chapel is not cessationist or even halfway there. They are actually quite charasmatic, just in a way that is more palatable to rich white Southern California suburbanites. One can be a fundamentalist charasmatic just as easily as one can be a theologically-liberal cessationist. (If they didn’t despise the seminary, they would know this.)

Fundamentalists are opposed to alcohol and supported prohibition a hundred years ago, even though the Bible is replete with the joyful imagery of the fruit of the vine. Calvary Chapels are anti-alcohol, though they would hesitate to admit it. If they saw you walking into a pub they’d condemn you for stumbling the weaker brethren. They would say, "The Bible doesn’t say drinking is a sin, but if you look at this, this, and this, it’s hard how you can say that you can drink to the glory of God, tsk-tsk."

Calvary tends to lean inordinately rightward. Adherents watch Fox News religiously. Pastors participate in conferences in which separation of church and state is decried and Christian Fascism is promoted. They invite GOP candidates to speak from their pulpits, though this is a violation of the historical Protestant doctrine of the two kingdoms, as well as federal laws governing tax-exempt organizations.

One of the biggest themes for fundamentalists has always been their opposition to the theory of evolution, though B. B. Warfield, who was one of the authors of The Fundamentals (1915), did not consider evolutionary science to be in conflict with a proper understanding of Scripture. Calvary Chapel certainly fits the anti-evolution bill. Chuck Smith is a staunch opponent, and all students at Calvary’s Bible college are required to listen to his sermons through the entire Bible, beginning, of course, with his views on origins. Chuck Smith, Jr., who indicated openness to the theory, was actually excommunicated from his own father’s denomination.

Fundamentalism has its roots in dispensationalism, for which Calvary Chapel is the earth’s torchbearer. They require unequivocal conformity to their own eschatological position, which closely resembles Harold Camping’s (Chuck Smith used to predict the second coming just as often as Camping, which is ironic because they usually make fun of datesetters now). Because of their escapist apocalyptic views, many don’t educate their kids or seek gainful employment or secure housing because they don’t expect to be around much longer. I would imagine there are thousands of children all over the country who have been left uneducated and without an inheritance due to Calvary’s teachings. This, I think, is the most damaging of their policies. For the poor ordinary folk in their congregations, it means they are left without stability in the event that a pastor passes away, since no plans are made for the future. Many of their buildings are strip malls or movie theaters instead of permanent, lasting structures. But the worst part is the lost futures of all the children, who have had no investment made in their future while their parents sit around and wait for the next comet.

Finally, Calvary Chapel militantly opposes Calvinism in ways that are, frankly, uncivil. George Bryson gets his blood pressure up and refers to Calvinism as "The Dark Side." I’ve known many individuals removed from ministry positions after they discovered the Doctrines of Grace, and you can search the web to find it’s a nationwide phenomenon. Calvinists are treated as cultists, which is an ironic position coming from Calvary Chapel. Though there are Calvinist breeds of fundamentalism, the hard line Calvary takes against Calvinism is really indicative of their intolerance of diversity of opinion. They’ve
built a homogenous empire that goes way beyond fundamentalism in its exclusivity. Fundamentalism was actually an ecumenical attempt to combat ivory-tower academics. But Calvary sets itself in opposition to any form of denomination. As the Lord tarries, the empire will crumble and they will find themselves without allies in a world where the rest of the Christian church has passed them by. They’ll find that all the bridge-burning wasn’t such a good idea after all.

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3 thoughts on “Calvary Chapel and Fundamentalism

  1. Finally got around to reading this… Having not considered “the movement” much in a long while, it was a really interesting read, to say the least. My most pressing personal issues with Calvary as a denomination (it is one) are perhaps those more common to Evangelicals in general… but I do find that, amongst those, the Pharisaic tendencies are particularly sanctioned and celebrated within the Calvary fold.

    Also, as someone who reasons deductively, I never liked the focus on inductive study. I’ve seen too many stupid positions formed inductively, when a mere second or two of natural deduction would have made a world of difference to what was considered not only orthodoxy but especially orthopraxy… Lack of orthopraxy being my other main issue with CC.

    • Indeed. My biggest issue with IBS is the over-emphasis on application. Not every verse in the Bible is about you, you know? They tell you it’s not a good sermon without the application, but I think if you preach rightly, you can leave it up to the Spirit to “apply” the Word.

      • That was my assertion as well. The more often I was told I wasn’t providing enough application, the more I found peace in simply giving the sense and exploring the context of what things meant THEN and ORIGINALLY… and in doing so, people IMPLY themselves by the text, which is way better than any cheap application I can offer up.

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