Aphorism 5: No one knows when Jesus is coming back or how long it will be before Jesus comes back, and so application of separation passages cannot be dependent on how close or far the return of Christ is.
The words are startlingly clear—“the Pope of Rome … is that antichrist, that man of sin, and son of perdition, that exalteth himself in the church against Christ, and all that is called God; whom the Lord shall destroy with the brightness of His coming.” This statement is found in The London Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689 (26.4) as well as in unmodified versions of the Westminster Confession of Faith (25.6). Currently most modern Presbyterians and Baptists using these confessions have changed the wording or do not enforce this section. However, some stalwarts still remain.
Let’s unfold the exegesis a bit. There are about a dozen passages of Scripture in play, and application has been made. The “man of sin [has been] revealed, the son of perdition” (2 Thess. 2:3, KJV). The “falling away” has occurred and the person bearing the title “the Pope of Rome” is the end time’s figure of the final antichrist (cf. 1 John 2:18). Of the 7 billion people on the planet currently, only one man or his successor can be the antichrist. There is now no possibility of salvation for some future pope, because he is the antichrist. And there is no point in continued exploration of the meaning of Daniel, Matthew 24, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, and Revelation on this issue.
Our brothers in the 1600s and 1700s created a particular reading of human history and the Bible. The exegesis of both history and the Bible was then made normative and placed in their doctrinal statements and to a greater or lesser degree enforced. The wider context of the unfolding of human history was simplified to provide a single possible context—the pope is the antichrist—and then all Scripture and applications of Scripture related to this were understood under the first interpretation. By elevating a probable interpretation of Scripture and history to the level of a necessary interpretation, they began the process of adding to God’s Word.
Please allow me to be clear the Bible commands separation from apostasy—apostasy liberal, conservative, and historical. As long as any church denies salvation by faith alone, Bible believing Christians should separate from them. Having said this, there is no necessary conclusion within Scripture that the pope is the antichrist nor does history require it. For all we know the antichrist will be an independent Baptist. We should not separate from Rome because we know that the pope is the antichrist, but we should separate from Rome because she teaches a false gospel. We should also separate from Bible churches, Baptists, Brethren, Methodist, Anglicans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and anyone else who does not love Jesus as reveled in the Bible. Paul puts it rather clearly, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed” (Gal. 1:8, ESV).
We need to highlight a brief distinction here between a necessary and probable interpretation. The doctrine of the Trinity is a necessary interpretation of the Scripture. To hold the unity and diversity of the relationship of the members of the Trinity as revealed in Scripture, one must come to the conclusion of the Trinity. We can add other necessary interpretations—the virgin birth, Jesus Christ being fully God and fully man, inspiration of Scripture, and other cardinal doctrines. These are often rightly called the fundamentals that make up the “faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). But on other and secondary issues, there are more or less probable interpretations and applications. This is particularly the case in issues of the end times.
What the London Baptist and Westminster Confessions of Faith illustrate is the tendency to absolutize a probable interpretation as a normative application. The list of ways that Christians have made the probable absolute is mind boggling. And one of the first steps is to universalize the context outside of the intention of Scripture or what is knowable—all Christians everywhere must do x, because all Christians everywhere share in the identical context.
One historical way of absolutizing is to assume that the doctrine of the imminent return of Christ necessitates the contemporaneous return of Christ. If the soon return of Christ is knowable, then how the Scriptures are applied is dependent on this knowledge.
The logic of such a misapplication of Scripture might work like this: Jesus must soon return. Therefore Satan is currently preparing his antichrist and the single world religion foretold in Revelation; any cooperation with impure, confused, or compromising churches or organizations is then to cooperate with the end times’ church of Satan. The possibility of reformation or revival within impure or confused churches is rejected because of the lack of time before the return of Christ.*
Please notice, I am not claiming that the pastors and authors who promote this view are setting a date for the return of Christ. But they are confusing the scriptural truth of an imminent return with the likely return of Christ within the lifetime of their hearers.
The rhetoric of “we know the ship is sinking fast” tends to ratchet up the perceived need for separation and to develop models of separation that prioritize separation over the other commands of Scripture. Their reading of modern history coupled with their interpretation of the end times then create applications. Yet to prioritize separation over the other commands of Scripture is directly forbidden by Jesus Christ in Matthew 9:11-13 (cf. Aphorism 4).
Until Jesus returns, we cannot know if the Spirit of God will sweep through the Roman Church, the apostate liberal denominations, or any other group of professed Christians. We cannot separate to avoid cooperating with the satanic one world religion of the last day, because we won’t be able identify that entity until the return of Christ. All that we can do with biblical warrant is separate from disbelief as wisely as possible.
The same tendency that drove the authors of the Westminster and London Baptist Confessions of Faith to identify the pope as the antichrist rather than an antichrist can now be used to motivate separation from those perceived as compromising. The impulse is the same even though the historical motives are somewhat different (cf. Joel R. Beeke and Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology for a fascinating discussion of end time views in the Westminster era).
The difficulty facing all of us on the issue of separation, and many other secondary theological issues, is that we all fall into patterns of interpretation and application. The patterns tend to be ingrained in other theological conclusions as non-articulated assumptions, and we rarely pause to think through the relationship between our reading of the world, the Word, and our applications.
The entire purpose of this series up to this point has been to tease out these assumptions in our exegeses and application to make sure we are biblically framing the issue of separation. We now need to turn to how our patterns of application expose our agreement or disagreement with God’s Word. Lord willing, we will continue next week with aphorism 6.
Aphorism 6: Our patterns of application of separation need to include people to the left and the right on the group boundary markers—our “friends” and those who make us uncomfortable. Grace on believers who are like us or provide advantages to us but no or little grace on believers who are different is a sin (James 2:1; Luke 6:3-32).
* I’ve included a selection of quotes from William E. Ashbrook to show that this summation is not hyperbole on my part: “[The New Neuteralism] is propagated for the most part by men who at best are shaky and uncertain as to that great New Testament doctrine of the imminent return of Jesus Christ… . Uncertainty concerning the truth of our Lord’s return, coupled with fuzzy thinking as to the rapture of the Church, has provided an open door to the errors of this current neutralism.”(4) “[H]ave highly intelligent men learned no lessons from Church history? Can they not see that embracing New Evangelicalism means helping build the World Church and the World Government of the end times?” (26) “Put these signs together in one unprecedented package and one must conclude we are living in what the Bible calls ‘the last days.’” (118) William E. Ashbrook, Evangelicalism: The New Neturalism (Columbus, OH: Calvary Bible Church, nd).
Similar language can be found in John E. Ashbrook’s writings. Ernest Pickering in Biblical Separation takes a more careful and scholarly stance but comes to similar conclusions.
Also, I would like to make two pleas in regards to William E. Ashbrook (1896-1977) to the readers of SharperIron. My research suggests that Ashbrook was a key figure in the development of secondary separation in the United States, but as far as I can tell this has not been explored by historians.
I am deeply concerned that the primary source documents (sermons, articles, letters, and biographical material) on both of the Ashbrooks may being lost to future historians. So, please if you are aware of primary source documents for William E. Ashbrook or John E. Ashbrook forward them to the Fundamentalist File at Bob Jones University or to some other research facility.
The second issue is that there is rich ground here for a dissertation that would help illuminate the background of the development of fundamentalism in the United States. Please consider this as an avenue of research if you are pursuing a doctorate in American church history.
Shane Walker became the pastor of Andover Baptist Church, Linthicum, MD in June of 2007. Raised in Iowa, Shane graduated from the University of Iowa in 1996. He holds a Master of Divinity degree from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He and his wife, Kimberly, have four children: Hannah, Malee, James, and John.