Partnering with God to Break the Yoke of Christian Fundamentalism

By Seth Wade

Fundamentalism is making faith impossible for more and more people.

“Is this not the fast that I choose . . . to let the oppressed go free and to break every yoke?”

Isaiah 58:6

God’s call requires movement.

Like Abram and Sarai, we set out not knowing where we are going. We follow a living God toward a city we have not seen except by faith, striving always to keep up with the Spirit. The Messiah may have come, but our lives are still open-ended. We see dimly and know only in part (1 Cor 13:9, 12). To travel well, we need provisions for the journey. But we should beware if our baggage is so bulky that, like David in Saul’s armor, we find ourselves saying, “I cannot walk” (1 Sam 17:39). Flexibility is a virtue.

Of course, pilgrims in passage need support. We need community, structure, and direction. Institutional forms of Christianity began precisely to meet these needs. But like all institutions, their demands grew heavier with time. Lengthy creeds and confessions subsumed Jesus’ two great commandments. The church canonized twenty-three additional books alongside the four Gospels. Throughout the patristic, medieval, reformation, and modern periods, theological developments added yet more to the weight of the tradition—increasing its resources and its liabilities.

Christian fundamentalism arose in the late nineteenth century as a reactionary movement against developments in the natural and social sciences. Like their predecessors, contemporary fundamentalists view the Christian faith as a fully-formed object meant to be maintained and handed on unchanged. There is little if any room for theological questions, diversity, disagreement, or development. Of course, whether or not they realize it, their doctrines are already colored by 2,000 years of shifting interpretations. But from this point on, there can be no alteration. Borrowing from the parable of the talents, the master’s talent is deemed to need protecting and so they lock it away, afraid of divine displeasure if anything were to happen to it (Matt 25:14-30).

As someone who grew up in the borderlands of fundamentalist Christianity, there was much value in my religious inheritance. The churches of my youth taught me to love God. They introduced me to Jesus. My family was relatively healthy and stable in their shared convictions. They knew well the benefits of faith and worked to share these with others. But they were also fearful people whose anxieties were legion.

In college, I began to notice that the worries of others were weighing me down and closing me off. Leaders within my denomination discouraged any constructive dialogue with (for example) science, historical criticism, postmodern philosophy, progressive Christianity, or non-Christian religions. Our minders assumed that we had nothing to learn and everything to fear from these potential conversation partners. They assigned the works of traditionalist apologists to show us why all outside perspectives were wrong and how we could “defeat” them. We could only be trusted to interact with the outside world after we were inoculated from change and breadth of learning. Even then though, contact was to be limited to the mutual antagonism of debate. Non-Christians were mission projects. Friendships across enemy lines were risky, and marriage was out of the question.

But life is change. While we can seek faithfulness through change, we cannot go around it.

Freezing a faith is a sure way to kill it. You can only remain in a premodern bubble for so long. If your faith is incapable of synthesizing new insights and making adjustments, it cannot make honest sense of real life. At some point, you must ossify or opt-out, leaving faith behind.

A pilgrim people on an adventure with God needs daily bread, fresh words. In a world of evolving complexity, yesterday’s manna is insufficient for today.

To be fair, fundamentalists are correct that there are dangers along life’s roads that necessitate discernment. Not all paths are equally life-giving, and there is much wisdom in the counsel that Christians should “test the spirits” (1 John 4:1) against the one we call the Christ. We should also honor what is valuable in our history. But we cannot confine the God “of the living” to the past (Mark 12:27). Nor can God’s work in the world be limited to Christianity (in general) or one’s own branch of Christianity (in particular). God is not a tribal deity for Christians, but the one God for all creation.

I have spent years disentangling Jesus the Jew from the trappings of Christian fundamentalism. It has been difficult, even excruciating at times. But I am convinced that the very possibility of Christian faith for many depends on the plowing of this field. This has been the case, at least for growing numbers of my friends and students. Therefore, I have come to bring good news of great joy—Jesus is gentle and humble in heart. He offers rest for timid and weary souls (Matt 11:28-29).

Yes, Jesus had high expectations of his followers and called them to righteousness. But he was also courageously compassionate. Jesus was nurturing like a mother hen (Luke 13:34). He restored failures (John 21:15-19). He was neither offended by questions (Luke 7:18-28) nor short with doubters (Mark 9:24; Matt 28:17). When he encountered the spiritually curious and unsure, he extended an invitation rather than a demand (John 1:37-39).

Jesus challenged narrowness and inflexibility within his community. He told stories of faithless insiders and faithful outsiders (Luke 10:25-37). Jesus highlighted God’s provision for foreigners (Luke 4:16-30) and warned about totalitarian religious leaders (Luke 12:1). He wept because his contemporaries did not have eyes to see what made for peace (Luke 19:41-42).

Like Jesus, those called to follow him will need to partner with God to prevent rigor mortis—the stiffness of death—in their faith traditions.

It is a scandal that people are crushed under the inflated requirements of Christianity in Jesus’ name. He left no Bible, creed, or doctrinal system. His yoke was easy and light (Matt 11:30).

He asked only for faith the size of a mustard seed (Matt 17:20). He neither told slaves to submit to their masters nor taught a hierarchical relationship of men over women. Instead, he came to bring good news to the poor and proclaim release to the captives (Luke 4:18). He instructed his followers to train servant disciples, not to found authoritarian “Christian” nations.

My students are increasingly ambivalent about Christianity and yet attracted to Jesus. I no longer see any reason for treating the former as a prerequisite for the latter. The cart does not pull the horse. So, I ask them, “Is there anything that you can believe?” Or, “Is there something you wish you could believe?” The gracious presence of God-with-us is pure gift. It is not the result of works (Eph 2:9).

Some seekers may end up finding the broader Christian tradition to be a source of valuable goods. Others may discover beloved community elsewhere. The point here is that rigidity is not conducive to abundant life. Furthermore, all-or-nothing religious ultimatums are increasingly going the way of the “nones.” If we do not break the yoke of fundamentalism, we risk perpetuating harm and depriving many thoughtful people of the joy of consciously partnering with God.

We cannot control a faith we hope to share. It is time to release it to the winds of the Spirit (John 3:8).

Questions: If Jesus was not a Christian, is it necessary for his followers to be Christians? What might the easy yoke of Jesus look like today?

Seth Wade is a pastor and teacher in Texas. He loves thinking about God, reading philosophy, and playing the guitar.


Sanders, John. Embracing Prodigals: Overcoming Authoritative Religion by Embodying Jesus’ Nurturing Grace (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade, 2020).

To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Partnering with God: Exploring Collaboration in Open and Relational Theology.

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