A hallmark of the movement known as Christian fundamentalism has been the willingness to practice ecclesiastical separation from those who deny the “fundamentals,” the doctrines of orthodoxy—particularly the Gospel itself. Scriptural injunctions such as the following have motivated this separatism.
Now I urge you, brethren, keep your eye on those who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you learned, and turn away from them. For such men are slaves, not of our Lord Christ but of their own appetites; and by their smooth and flattering speech they deceive the hearts of the unsuspecting. (Rom. 16:17–18, NASB)
Anyone who goes too far and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God; the one who abides in the teaching, he has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house, and do not give him a greeting; for the one who gives him a greeting participates in his evil deeds. (2 John 9–11, NASB)
Fundamentalists have also separated from professing Christians who characteristically and unrepentantly disobey biblical commands, including the commands quoted above. Many have defended this action as an extension of local-church discipline passages, particularly 2 Thessalonians 3:6 (NASB):
Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from every brother who leads an unruly life and not according to the tradition which you received from us.
Separation Past and Present
Fundamentalists have made plenty of mistakes in the effort to preserve the purity of the Gospel and the church. For instance, they haven’t always delineated carefully what constitutes a “fundamental” doctrine and which issues require separation. This has led to opposite errors: On the one hand, separation over debatable doctrinal and practical matters. And on the other hand, the failure to deal appropriately with clearer matters. Furthermore, in their practice of separation the attitude of some fundamentalists has been less than Christ-like.
Despite such failures of fundamentalism, I’ve tried to resist the temptation to throw out the baby with the bathwater. My fundamental reason (pun intended) is the Bible’s teaching concerning ecclesiastical unity and purity. This teaching has long been unpopular, especially within broader evangelicalism. In recent days, however, it seems to be making a kind of a comeback. Some are recognizing the confusion that results when one affiliates closely or officially with those who obscure, call into question or deny one’s core beliefs.
A Few Relevant Illustrations
Even some secularists appreciate the basic idea here, applying it more extremely than many fundamentalists have. See here and here for the view that if one supports the contemporary sexual revolution he must not eat at Chick-Fil-A.
Issues of separatism, or at least intentional non-affiliation, have surfaced within the Southern Baptist Convention this summer. In June a church in Georgia was removed from the convention over charges of racist attitudes and actions.
At a panel during the SBC’s 2018 annual meeting, one of the topics discussed was the struggle some younger pastors are having over whether they should stay in the convention. Of significant concern to these men is the SBC’s invitation of US Vice President Mike Pence to speak at the annual meeting. To them this invitation politicizes the convention, associates it with undesirable elements of President Donald Trump’s administration, and takes the focus off of Christ.
If these pastors remain in the Southern Baptist Convention, will the people they are trying to reach infer that they endorse everything connected with the convention? Will SBC membership detract from or dilute their Gospel message and mission? Such affiliation questions are troubling some Southern Baptists today, and they are reminiscent of the kinds of questions fundamentalists have long wrestled with.
A Striking Twist
I could cite other examples of recent attention to ecclesiastical affiliations, but the one that has most intrigued me is an article by Michael Bird, a prominent Australian evangelical theologian. Bird states that he will not go hear Franklin Graham preach when the evangelist tours Down Under in 2019. Bird will also be encouraging fellow believers to stay away from the Graham meetings.
Bird’s reason? “Franklin Graham has tethered himself to the Trump administration, and he has used Christianity as a political prop to sanitize Trump for some Christian voters—despite Trump’s egregiously non-Christian character and the dubious moral quality of many of Trump’s policies. . . . My opposition to Franklin Graham is not based on his political preference for Trump. I have American friends who voted for and against Trump. And while I am no Trump fan, even I can admit that Trump has scored some victories in economics, judicial appointments and foreign policy. Rather, my opposition is to Graham’s idolatrous devotion to Trump—the way he has messianized Trump to look like Jesus and caesarized Jesus to look like Trump.”
Ah, the irony! It was separation from Franklin Graham’s late father Billy that virtually defined the fundamentalist movement in the mid-twentieth century. Major fundamentalist leaders concluded that they could not collaborate in ministry with Billy Graham because of his inclusion of liberal and Roman Catholic leaders in crusade planning, platform and follow-up ministries. Their concern—shared by some outside of fundamentalism such as the famed Welsh preacher David Martyn Lloyd-Jones—was that Graham was extending Christian recognition to non-Christians. They held that Billy’s ecumenical approach was undermining the Gospel message he was preaching. Because they believed so much was at stake, these fundamentalists further concluded that they could not minister alongside evangelicals who participated with Graham.
Fundamentalists have been widely scorned by evangelicals for their separation from Billy Graham and his supporters. Now, however, an evangelical theologian cannot in good conscience attend Franklin Graham’s crusades. While honoring the older Graham’s evangelistic legacy, Michael Bird believes that the younger Graham’s political message and affiliations are undermining the Gospel and should not be supported by Gospel-loving people. Sound a bit familiar?
It does sound familiar, but there are differences nonetheless. Here’s one that stands out. My examples of current evangelical separatism center on socio-political positions and practices that are believed to be in tension with the Gospel. On the other hand, fundamentalists have tended to focus on more overtly “religious” positions and practices that are believed to be in tension with the Gospel. We all have different “filters” that shape our perspectives and different “hot buttons” that energize us. And at some point probably more people than expected practice some kind of separation when the things they care most strongly about are seriously threatened.
As I continue to monitor current events, I want to keep an eye on the distinction between socio-political and religious issues to see what trends develop. Whatever the case, both types of issues may merit distancing or separation since both have theological bases and theological implications. The challenge is to practice unity and separation in a principled and consistent way across the board, not just with reference to those issues we are most personally burdened about.
Refocusing on Affiliations
My purpose in this post isn’t to render a verdict on the contemporary illustrations I’ve cited. It should also be clear that I’m not defending everything fundamentalists have ever done. All I’m doing is drawing attention to what some outside of fundamentalism have recently affirmed: affiliations matter. To one degree or another, our affiliations will have an impact—positive or negative—on the clarity of our message and the integrity of our ministries. Are we assessing them biblically to ensure that we’re not giving with one hand and taking away with the other?
With the ecclesiastical controversies of the twentieth century fairly clear in the rear-view mirror, it would seem that believers of all stripes are in a good position to begin recognizing our blind spots. May we all look with fresh eyes at the Scripture’s teaching on ecclesiastical affiliations and grow in our ability to apply that teaching to the specific issues we face in an ever-changing world.*
*For some helpful resources in this regard, see the following:
- Richard I. Gregory and Richard W. Gregory, On the Level: Discerning the Levels of Biblical Relationships among Believers
- Iain H. Murray, Evangelicalism Divided: A Record of Crucial Change in the Years 1950 to 2000
- Andrew David Naselli and Collin Hansen, eds., Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism, especially the chapter by Kevin T. Bauder
- Ernest Pickering, with Myron Houghton, Biblical Separation: The Struggle for a Pure Church
- Mark Sidwell, Set Apart: The Nature and Importance of Biblical Separation
This post was originally published on Theology in 3-D.