Recently I was both amused and informed as I ran across a tidbit of wisdom from a sage of the past. It seems that Sir Winston Churchill is credited with having offered this definition of a fanatic: "A fanatic is one who cant change his mind and wont change the subject."
The more I read this little quotation, the more I thought of certain individuals whom I have met through the years. They fit this definition to a "T". So, I quickly copied the quote down on the back of a business card in my wallet for future reference. Just this week I ran upon it again (this time in my wallet). Once more, I thought that the statement was filled with the wisdom borne of observation and experience. So, I thought it good to share it with you in this article. Several things are clearly true about fanaticism and the fanatics it spawns:
1. Fanatics Never Consider Themselves as Fanatical. Most always they think of themselves as zealots for some unnoticed and unappreciated cause. By dictionary definition a fanatic is one who "is marked by excessive enthusiasm and intense uncritical devotion" to some cause, position or per- I son. Devotion to a good cause is, of course, to be commend-ed. But two aspects of the definition of a fanatic make him unworthy of commendation. First, his enthusiasm is excessive. He becomes over zealous and extreme. Second, his devotion is uncritical of the object of his zeal. He is obsessed to such an extent that he is unreasonable and irrational.
Both these circumstances make him difficult to reason with and impossible to deal with. That group in early Christianity known as "Judaizers" fit this description exactly. In Acts 15, Luke informs us that they came down from Judea to Antioch, where Paul and Barnabas had experienced great success in reaching Gentiles for Christ. They dared to challenge Paul and Barnabas with a gospel which demanded circumcisim of Gentiles: "Except ye be circumcised after the custom of Moses, ye cannot be saved." "No small dissention" is what erupted at Antioch after their spreading of this doctrine among the saints there. Evidently they claimed to represent the position of Jerusalem and its apostles, so Paul and Barnabas traveled there to stop the error at its source.
When they reached Jerusalem and rehearsed the specifics of their work among the Gentiles, Paul and Barnabas were immediately confronted by the factions: "But there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees who believed, saying, It is needful to circumcise them, and to charge them to keep the law of Moses" (v. 2). If this is not a case of brazen fanaticism, I would not know one if it bit me! Imagine the gall of these men, who confronted the apostles of Christ, and had the audacity to put them on notice as to the terms of the gospel! These people did not see themselves as fanatics!
2. Fanatics Cannot Change Their Minds. Line up all of your arguments. Carefully put together your presentation. Make sure your logic is flawless. No matter! If you are dealing with a fanatic, he still will not change his mind. Remember, a fanatic can never be critical of the object of his devotion.
Paul makes mention of another experience that he had with fanatics in the second epistle to Timothy. He says (2:16ff.): "But shun profane babblings: for they will proceed further in ungodliness, and their word will eat as doth a gangrene: of whom is Hymenaeus and Philetus; men who concerning the truth have erred, saying that the resurrection is past already, and overthrow the faith of some." Of Hymenaeus (with a certain Alexander), he formerly wrote, "whom I delivered unto Satan, that they might be taught not to blaspheme" (1 Tim. 1:20). Even in the face of an apostle of Jesus Christ, these men could not change their minds! Is there any wonder that fanatical false teachers to-day are beyond the reach of Scripture, or good sense, or logic?
3. Fanatics Wont Change the Subject. In the past we have often made use of the term "hobbyist" to describe someone who, like a scratched record, does not seem capable of talking about other things than his favorite subject. The Christian system involves balance. A person is "well-rounded" in the New Testament sense only when he is capable of declaring, as Paul said he did, "the whole counsel of God" (Acts 20:27).
I remember a young fellow in his mid-twenties, saying once that he had been studying "the covering question" for ten years. This statement painted a portrait in my mind of a fifteen-year-old beginning a ten-year intensive investigation of all the Bible says about the covering (which would quite easily fit into one chapter of the Bible, and could be rigorously studied in a week!). How absurd! Again, I recall a man standing outside the local grocery store handing out tract materials to everyone who walked in the door. I took the tract and looked at it when I got inside. It was a poorly-printed and shabby document that decried the "Sunday school" and "located preacher" system in the churches of Christ and in denominationalism. This poor fellow was such a fanatic that he could not change the subject long enough to talk to these folks about the salvation of their souls which is the first order of business for unbelievers and sectarians. But, once more, that is not at all surprising because fanatics wont change the subject!
Good People Can Fall Prey to Fanaticism. The sad fact is that even those who have the truth on certain issues at times become fanatical. A fanatic can do more harm than good, even though his heart is in the right place. He clumsily parades his favorite issue before all who will hear, regardless of the occasion or the appropriateness of the subject for the victim of his tirade. He shows no love or kindness or tact in his presentation, and in the end he makes it impossible for someone with skill later to reach that soul for Christ. Do not fall prey to fanaticism! It can be a soul-damning evil, if it chases people from before the gate of the kingdom of God (Matt. 18:6; Lk. 11:52).
Guardian of Truth XXXVII: 14 p. 20-21