Handling extremism and fanaticism in the local church

Helpful insights into the question of relating to difficult people and viewpoints

John E. Tumpkin is a pastor in Zimbabwe, Africa.

Extremsim and fanaticism are not uncommon in the local church. Left untreated, they can quickly spread in the body of Christ and destroy that body's vision, mission, and unity. I suggest a threefold redemptive approach: Recognize, Rectify, and Reclaim.

Recognize the particular ingredients

Dealing with spiritual imbalance in a congregation requires recognizing certain basic ingredients that are at the core of such imbalance. These include the causes, the groups at risk, the signs, the methods, and the results of the extremism.

A major cause of extremism is a major cause! That is to say, the most fertile breeding ground for extremism is what is perceived as a worthy and important cause. Extremism implies the carrying to extremes of something that in itself may be good, important, and exciting. Thus a cause that seeks to acquaint humankind with vital, unusual truths that are largely unknown or neglected, offers a superb setting for the development of extremism.

Consequently, it is not surprising when extremism afflicts wholesome and urgent causes such as nuclear-disarmament, vegetarianism, and environmental preservation. In the religious sphere, a return to primitive godliness, preparation for the soon coming of Christ, and the need for holy living are some of the good causes that become hurtful when taken to the extreme.

When God used Martin Luther to spear head the Protestant Reformation, the movement was hindered and hounded by extreme elements: "A few men, deeply affected by the excitement in the religious world, imagined themselves to have received special revelations from Heaven, and claimed to have been divinely commissioned to carry forward to its completion the Reformation which, they declared, had been but feebly begun by Luther. In truth, they were undoing the very work which he had accomplished." 1 Then, as in our day, some felt that the mainstream reform had not gone far or fast enough.

When such extremism afflicts a movement, many within and without have their faith shaken. Insiders tend to wonder whether their cause is correct, while onlookers may be discouraged from taking any interest at all in the cause. It is helpful to recognize that extremism does not imply that the cause is corrupt.

On a personal level, extremism may result from an imbalanced preoccupation with a particular aspect of Christian belief or lifestyle. Surface or careless reading of spiritual writings may result in the tendency to force texts or passages to strit a "pet" belief. Sometimes a clash with church authority and an unwillingness to persuade patiently may lead to a persecution, prophet, or martyr complex, and a spirit of independent assertiveness.

As important as recognizing the causes of extremism is identifying the groups at risk. It is tempting for a frustrated pastor to think of extremists as loony crackpots with as much sense as a saltshaker. The opposite is often true! Some of our most dedicated and earnest members are in danger of being deluded by the counterfeit righteousness of extremism.

Many younger and older people with a sincere desire to prepare others and themselves for the coming of our Lord are disheartened and distressed by worldliness and the lack of consecration within the church. When people or documents come, deploring these conditions and upholding the "faithful few," it is hard for them to discern the subtle denigration of leadership, cohesiveness, and authentic spirituality that accompany such pleas, pushing them over the line into extremism.

One of the signs of extremism may well be fervent study of "spiritual" material. However, the extremist revival always contains the double-edged sword of exhortation to more serious Christianity on the one hand, and negative, destructive criticism of the church on the other.

A related sign of extremism is the sudden "resurrection" of skillfully and dishonestly selected Spirit of Prophecy quotations, accompanied by the suggestion that there is a conspiracy of some kind in the church, seeking to do away with the work and the authority of Ellen G. White.

This leads us to look at the methods extremists use as they seek to spread their teachings in our churches.

While these vary according to the groups and individuals involved, they all utilize the well-known psychological principle of moving from the familiar to the unfamiliar; from the accepted to the new; from the established to the speculative.

Often, pastors who attempt to deprive their congregations of mate rial emanating from independent movements fail in their quest because there is nothing wrong with the material that is, with much of it.

Sometimes, the suspicions of members are allayed by the presentation of material by Ellen White. However, this material is all too often filled with out-of-context quotations, and mingled with supplemental writing containing more fanciful creations.

A survey of some of these fanciful materials may well lead a pastor to underestimate the allure of particular extremist information. The pastor may see what appears to be unbridled absurdity that would influence no one. This may not be the case. To dis miss extremists as empty and "crackpot" could be a great mistake.

Extremists succeed in deluding people precisely because they move from the real to the surreal. They gain the confidence and allegiance of their adherents by first convincing them of their loyalty to the Christian truths we all believe in; and once this is achieved, they intermingle their more esoteric and peculiar beliefs.

The extremist has the ability to move from the real to the quasi-real to the unreal through their powerful videos. The electronic and film media are highly persuasive when presented in well-modulated tones by an urbane and venerable presenter, in the absence of an opposing view.

How to rectify the problem

A problem recognized is a problem on the way to being solved. Again, extremism implies taking a good cause to excess, whereas fanaticism usually merely implies "violent, unreasoning enthusiasm." 2 While extremism includes fanaticism, it is the more pervasive and basic of the two problems. Extremism unchecked breeds fanaticism. Here are some ways we can deal with extremism.

1. When the writings of Ellen G. White are, for instance, used without properly considering the context, the best remedy is simply to put them back into proper context. Nothing will so clearly rebut the abusers of Mrs. White's writings as a wholesome study of one or more of her works as a whole.

If documents that abuse the Spirit of Prophecy begin to seep into a congregation, perhaps it is time to initiate a prayer meeting series on Steps to Christ, The Desire of Ages, or some other work by Mrs. White. Balance and perspective need no better defender than Mrs. White's own pen.

2. Abuse of the Spirit of Prophecy often arises from unclear views of inspiration and canon. When we ask the average Seventh-day Adventist which is greater, the Bible or the writings of Ellen White, we are likely to encounter hesitation, Mrs. White would not have hesitated. She knew the value of her gift, but she very aptly and unequivocally pictured her role as that of a lesser light reflecting the greater light.

Recognizing that the Bible is the only rule of faith does not diminish the authority of Mrs. White's writings, but enhances it by focusing on the "great light" to which she pointed. To say that the Bible is greater than Mrs. White's writings does not imply grades of inspiration. What it does mean is that the works of Mrs. White are to be tested by the Bible. Even the most extreme adherent of Ellen White would never overtly propose the reverse.

It is very important for a minister to understand and teach a sound doctrine of inspiration and biblical canon so as to minimize the abuse of the Spirit of Prophecy. Extremists will not welcome this approach because it defeats them most effectively. Emphasizing the primacy of the Bible is, therefore, the best and most practical starting point for checking abuse of the Spirit of Prophecy. Some may resent this suggestion, since it levels the playing field by shifting the focus of attention to the Bible.

3. Some may ask, for example, "Which Bible? The good old King James or one of the modern versions?" Here again, Ellen White's balance in appreciating all honest attempts at translating the Scriptures may prove to be the best answer: "Wycliffe's Bible had been translated from the Latin text, which contained many errors.... In 1516, a year before the appearance of Luther's theses, Erasmus had published his Greek and Latin version of the New Testament. Now for the first time many [not all

errors of former versions were corrected, and the sense was more clearly rendered."3

It is evident that Ellen White greatly appreciated Wycliffe's Bible and the incomparable good it did;4 but she was balanced and honest enough to acknowledge errors and appreciate better original manuscripts, even from the hands of none other than the "timid and time-serving"5 Erasmus!

While we may have our pet versions, it would appear prudent to appreciate God's truths in the version where "the sense [is] more clearly rendered!"6 Again, this will be unwelcome news to those who insist, again quite extremely, on the archaic English of 1611.


The best, and even the underlying, reason for rectifying extremism is to reclaim, or to attempt to reclaim those who have been deluded by it. Paul and Simon the Zealot were once extremists, and the Holy Spirit reclaimed and transformed them to do a magnificent work for Christ.

Sometimes we seem to be strong on rectifying, but weak on reclaiming. Without reclaiming, our effort to rectify may indeed turn to be a means of wrecktifying. To reclaim requires a positive approach. Extend the hand of love to those caught in the trap of extremism. Assure them of God's love and intense care for them. Appeal to them to look at the issues with an open mind, letting the Holy Spirit provide the needed illumination. When people sense our genuine interest in them and our sincere Christian love for them, reclaiming them for Christ becomes altogether possible.

1 Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1950), 186.

2 J. P. Brasier-Creagh and B. A. Workman, eds., Purnell's Family Dictionary in Colour (Pauiton, Bristol: Purnell Books, 1982), 313.

3 White, 245.

4 Ibid., 88, 89.

5 Ibid., 216.

6 Ibid., 245.



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