Evangelicals vs. Fundamentalists: What’s the Difference?

Broadly speaking, there are four kinds of people in Protestant Christianity. These are not denominational lines, but apply more broadly, affecting the entire Christian worldview. What are these sections? Liberalism, progressivism, evangelicalism, and fundamentalism. All of these are rather distinct. Liberals tend to deny fundamental tenants of Christian doctrine in favor of a more private and unobtrusive spirituality, with an emphasis on social issues. Progressives tend to hold at least to the basic creeds of Christian belief (one God, Trinity, deity of Jesus, historical death and resurrection of Christ, future resurrection, etc.), but feel free to discard certain traditional teachings usually involving the Old Testament revelation of God, Hell, homosexuality, and abortion, among others (obviously within progressivism there is quite a bit of variety on these matters).

But the divide between evangelicals and fundamentalists is not always as clear-cut, and indeed to most liberals and progressives there is no real difference. Being an evangelical myself, though, I think the issue deserves further clarification. For most people, “fundamentalist” is a pejorative term, which “evangelical” doesn’t always have the same connotations. Moreover, the confusion of the two groups both causes bad association arguments by people both within and without them. 

To further complicate matters, not everyone agrees on the definition of “fundamentalist.” To some people, “fundamentalist” just refers to those who believe the basic tenants of Christianity, which would even include many progressives. To others, a fundamentalist is someone who believes that the Bible is inerrant. To still others, a fundamentalist is anyone more conservative than themselves.

The working definition I will be using here for “fundamentalism” aligns more or less with that used commonly by studied evangelicals. We recognize ourselves as distinct from but in some ways near to fundamentalism, but take many sharp breaks. So I’ll be for my purposes counting fundamentalism as more or less like you would see in an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist church, or this fundamentalist website. Evangelicalism will be represented by something more along the lines of where I am, the more average church with which my friends and family would be familiar, or names like John Piper, Michael Patton, Bobby Grow, Francis Chan, David Platt, William Lane Craig, maybe John MacArthur, etc.

So without further ado, here’s how I would differentiate between evangelicals and fundamentalists, using various issues to demonstrate. As always, these rules are pretty general and the lines can be really blurry at times.

  • Evangelicals celebrate Christian liberty; fundamentalists restrict it. Evangelicals are not likely to indiscriminately classify dancing, drinking alcohol, contemporary music, or movies as sinful. Fundamentalists tend to consider all of these and more as unacceptable and compromise with the world.
  • Evangelicals treat secondary doctrines with more charity; fundamentalists treat almost all issues as essential. Evangelicals usually allow for disagreement on questions like election, free will, modes of baptism, eternal security, spiritual gifts, styles of music and church services, etc. Evangelicals are charitable to those who disagree on such issues and will often cooperate with them for the Gospel. Fundamentalists often are quite strict on these matters, setting up stuff like the timing of the Rapture or the rejection of Calvinism as if they could make or break true Christianity.
  • Evangelicals are eager to celebrate many ministries proclaiming Jesus; fundamentalists are suspicious and looking for faults in well-known preachers. A great example of this: most evangelicals appreciate Billy Graham and his son Franklin Graham. Fundamentalists tend to consider them both dangerous compromisers. Evangelicals may like John Piper, Rick Warren, Beth Moore, or Francis Chan, while fundamentalists would be afraid of them all.
  • Evangelicals are generally more open to other Christian traditions; fundamentalists accept only a small minority. While not all evangelicals agree on all the boundaries, as a general rule evangelicals are more likely to consider people across certain major denominational lines like Catholics, Orthodox, or Lutheran as true brothers in Christ. Fundamentalists decry them all, and none more than the Catholics who they regard as the worst offenders of false gospel.
  • Evangelicals believe in God’s wrath; fundamentalists obsess over it. Evangelicals do believe that God has wrath and in hellfire for the unrepentant, but that is not the focal point of their theology. Usually, God’s love and grace are given a bigger spotlight as they deserve. Fundamentalists get really pumped from preaching God’s wrath and putting sinners under judgment. They act like Hell is the center of the Gospel: it looms, Jesus gets you out of it, so tell everyone else to avoid it.
  • Evangelicals allow for different opinions on creation; fundamentalists treat a young earth as core to the faith. Many evangelicals believe in a young earth, but many also believe in an old earth, or that God used evolution as His tool in creation, and even when they strongly disagree with each other they accept each other as brothers in Christ and cooperate in ministry with grace. Fundamentalists warn that anything other than a young earth belief is liberal compromise with atheists, and undermines the Bible’s authority, and sometimes even that it sends people to Hell.
  • Evangelicals freely use whatever translation suits their devotional life and ministry; fundamentalists usually only use the KJV. While evangelicals recognize that God’s word is best heard in whatever makes His voice clearest, and so are willing to use the HCSB, ESV, NIV, or NLT with few qualms, fundamentalists don’t trust newer versions and are usually unwilling to go further than the NKJV. Not all of them say the KJV is God’s only word (though many do), but if nothing else there’s usually a very strong preference.
  • Evangelicals believe in culturally appropriate modesty; most fundamentalists tend to straight-jacket attire into very specific and arbitrary forms. Everyone knows that evangelicals care about modesty, and of course it’s a controversial issue even among us. But fundamentalists are often not willing to even participate in this kind of discourse. Many of them are in the “women can’t wear pants” crew, or would balk at girls wearing anything without complete sleeves. They do not see rationally on how culture, modesty, lust, and practicality intersect because of traditions of men.
  • Evangelicals want to help improve the fallen state of the world; fundamentalists are content to condemn people and wait in their pews for the end. Evangelicals are willing to preach that we should help share life and grace in the world not just by witnessing, but also by projects which meet people’s physical, mental, or emotional needs. Food pantries, crisis pregnancy centers, orphanages, and other social projects actually have evangelical volunteers. Fundamentalists tend to simply complain about the state of things and sigh while they wait for Jesus to show up. Some of them even say we shouldn’t bother with these matters when we could be soul-winning.
  • Evangelicals try to win the world to Christ; fundamentalists just talk about soul-winning. In the evangelical world, people actually try to use whatever means they can to show people the life available in Jesus. They, like Paul, are willing to “become all things to all people” to save some. But fundamentalists tend to preach about evangelism, but instead of actually trying to win people they tend to do whatever it takes to repel and disgust them. They’ll witness about grace without using any, or talk about a Jesus no one wants to follow.
Evangelicals vs. Fundamentalists: What’s the Difference?

Why I’m Still An Evangelical Protestant

Before I get into the meat of this post, I’ll define my terms for any readers who don’t know exactly what Evangelical Protestant refers to. “Protestant” encompasses all churches descended from the Reformation, when Martin Luther and others concluded there was rampant intuitional and doctrinal corruption in the Catholic Church. They tried to reform it, but wound up breaking off into their own churches. Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, Pentecostals, and most other non-Catholic churches fall under this label. While there’s a lot of diversity among Protestants, we all agree that the Roman Catholic Church is not the one true church, and that their Pope, Magisterium, and Tradition do not have special/infallible teaching authority.

The other part of this label—”Evangelical”—is harder to give a simple definition for, but really applies to churches which, after the fundamentalist/liberal wars of the 20th century, carried on most of the fundamentalist theology with an emphasis on evangelism and Bible. Baptists and Pentecostals make up most of the Evangelical demographic, along with non-denominational churches, and smaller portions from the Lutheran, Reformed, and even Catholic traditions.

Most of you, my readers, are probably Evangelical Protestants, too (though I know I have a few filthy Papists reading!). If you’re Baptist, I guarantee you are one of us. If there’s any further confusion, what I’m going to say in a moment will clear it up more.

So why am I writing this? For two reasons. For one, in the wider world of Christendom, Evangelicalism gets a bad name. We’re viewed as immature, shallow, and ignorant. But while there are several valid critiques by people both inside and outside Evangelicalism, I think much of the disdain is also undeserved or at very least exaggerated. We have strengths which offset and I daresay outweigh our weaknesses, and they deserve a fair hearing. The second reason for this post is to reassure you all that I really am still an Evangelical at heart. I frequently criticize the Evangelical world, and I often also defend other traditions, but I want to clarify that I only do this because Evangelicals are my own flesh and blood. Evangelicalism is still my home, and as such I’m more aware of its flaws than those of any other group. Who do you criticize more than your own family? But as family, however critical I may be, I’ll defend my Evangelical brethren to the death.

So, without further ado, here are the things that I think Evangelical Protestantism gets right, the things which keep me from leaving home.

Biblicism
We Evangelicals have a unique respect for the authority of Scripture. Radical fundamentalists treat Scripture like the Pharisees with their actually unbiblical rules and regulations. Liberal Protestants treat the Bible as an inferior thing to their modern and postmodern values, eschatologies, and science. Catholics give their own so-called “Sacred Tradition”equal weight to Scripture and give their leaders the ability to set interpretations in stone. As far as I’ve seen, only Evangelicals consistently try to live under the Bible, taking it at its word as best as we understand. Even when we let other stuff mess up our understanding of Scripture, there’s always a willingness to simply follow what it says.
Relationship
However much the term “personal relationship with Jesus” is overused and abused, there remains a very legitimate concept that each of us must have intimate fellowship with the Father through the Son through the Spirit. We emphasize the personal: you do not inherit union with Jesus from your parents or culture but must embrace Him yourself. We pound hard on the relationship: Jesus is personally invested in us with a great love and seeks for us to reciprocate. Prayer, Scripture, and all Christian acts bring us to know our Savior.
Passion
Nothing says “passion” like a big gathering of Evangelicals, especially teenagers. Sure, some of its hormones and shenanigans, but there’s real stuff, too, because in Evangelicalism we teach people to own their faith and let it drive their lives. Challenges and energy define our events and movements. While passion alone can be misplaced or fizzle out, when used properly it is a valuable asset for Christianity, moving people to really carry forth the love of Christ in the Gospel in a visible and impactful way.
Cultural Engagement
I’m not a fan of full-blown efforts to be/become “relevant,” but if there’s one place Evangelicals stand out most obviously it is in attempts to contextualize the truth and use popular culture and media to spread the Gospel. Sure, it’s usually done awkwardly and sometimes even embarrassingly, but that’s precisely why we need to keep people in Evangelicalism: so that theologians, data experts, and other people with necessary skills can round out the group in such attempts.
Evangelism
Last, but far from least, Evangelicals practically have a monopoly of the namesake, evangelism. As far as I know, no other tradition comes close to matching Evangelicals on the priority of taking the Good News about Jesus to those who haven’t heard. The Southern Baptists practically rule the missionary world. We’re not the only ones who believe in Hell, but we probably take it the most seriously. Plus, while most of the other traditions are talking about the importance of social justice, meeting needs, and solving problems in society (usually over the importance of evangelism), we Evangelicals are often out incorporating those very things into our mission work, spreading the Gospel while improving the world. And this, I believe, is of the utmost importance. After all, what was is the martyrs who Catholics so revere died doing? To what cause did Peter, supposedly their first Pope, devote his life?

I could probably extend this list a bit, but I think what I’ve mentioned so far, especially the first and last points, is enough to make my point. Despite all my theological musings, perplexities, and wanderings, these qualities of Evangelical Protestantism have kept me here. I honestly believe this is the best tradition for these reasons, even if I offer plenty of criticism, too. I only complain because I want to see us become the best and most Christian we can really be. And again, it’s these first and last points that really hold me in. I cannot conceive of doing Christianity that it’s robustly and ministerially Biblical, and emphatically evangelistic (even if in my personal life I don’t always live these out). So I plan on sticking around. And unless God decides to seriously throw me off, I expect that’s just what I’ll do.

(P. S. The Frances Chan featured image is because I think he’s one of the best we Evangelical Protestants have to offer.)

Why I’m Still An Evangelical Protestant