On Friday and Saturday (January 7-8), more than three hundred registered attendees (and about that many more walk-ins for the evening service) gathered for a “symposium on biblical separation.” I’m pleased to have had the opportunity to be among them.
Though the event could be improved in some substantial ways, it was an important step toward developing a biblical separation model that (a) improves on what separatists have practiced in the recent past and (b) functions better in the current evangelical landscape in America.
A significant plus is that this more theologically grounded and thoughtful approach to separatism stands a chance of winning the acceptance of theologically serious young people within fundamentalism (but on their way out) or outside fundamentalism but still listening to its better representatives.
Host pastor Mike Harding described the goal as a “theologically robust” and “biblically consistent” separatism as well as “cultural conservatism.”
What follows is a survey of conference highlights followed by some analysis.
The event began with two workshop periods of about an hour each. Due to a snow storm I hadn’t anticipated, I missed the first hour and walked in just as the second was about to begin. Since I was late, I just headed straight for the nearest workshop.
It turned out to be one in which Dr. Bruce Compton provided an analysis of Wayne Grudem’s view of the NT gift of prophecy (a non-authoritative and potentially erroneous cousin of the OT gift). Grudem’s view has been foundational for much of current non-cessationist thought about the gifts of the Spirit. Compton’s analysis was interesting and helpful and highlighted some of the unresolved problems with Grudem’s view. The session concluded with brief consideration of whether non-cessationism is a separation issue. Compton’s view was that personal fellowship with non-cessationists was not a problem, but that continuationism’s threat to our belief in a closed canon is serious enough to preclude some other forms of fellowship. He explained that this included avoiding ministry cooperation and pulpit cooperation with non-cessationists.
An evening double-header
The evening service began at 7 PM. I was encouraged by the quantity of teens and young adults attending. This was not one of those “old guys bemoaning how things aren’t like they used to be” events. The gray hair ratio was probably well below 50%.
To me, things had a noticeable “Bob Jones” feel as well. Maybe it was the giant piano on the unusually high platform or the duet Mr. & Mrs. Scott Aniol sang in the characteristic BJU vocal style (thankfully, not with the full operatic-amplitude vibrato I recall hearing so often in my BJU days). Maybe it was the relative scarcity of women in pants (there were a few here and there, I think, though I didn’t exactly make a study of it). Men involved on the platform were in coats and ties but I saw few elsewhere.
The BJU déjà vu passed when we sang two songs I’d never heard before by Chris Anderson and Greg Habegger (words projected on the big screen and sheet music in the conference binder). These were traditional hymn-structured songs but still clearly (to me, anyway) not set to music of the 19th or 20th centuries. I’d characterize them as thoughtful, doctrinally meaty and not short on pathos and warmth. We’ll definitely sing these at our church.
Chris Anderson was the first of the evening’s two speakers. His message on “Gospel-Driven Separation” (from Jude) set an excellent tone for the meeting. The high insight-per-paragraph ratio will reward taking the time to hear the mp3. Some points:
- Jude 3: Jude was a reluctant warrior. His delight was in the gospel and he wanted to write a letter focused on “our common salvation.” The situation required that he write about contending for the faith instead.
- Our own contention for the faith must begin with a delight in the gospel. “If we don’t defend the gospel, we lose the gospel.” But we must make sure the fight has not become our delight.
- Jude urges the defense of the faith on every believer. It is not a fundamentalist thing. It’s a Christian thing.
- Contending does not begin with separation. This comes late in the process.
- Jude is not about separation from disobedient brethren (taught elsewhere). Our dealings with brethren in error do not fall under the Jude umbrella.
- If we allow the fight to distract us from the faith, we experience a slow death.
- We must delight in the gospel, defend the gospel, and advance the gospel (v.20-22).
After a song or two, Dr. Mark Minnick took the pulpit and preached on the topic of what the gospel is. Again, the audio is well worth hearing. This was the first message I’d heard by Dr. Minnick in person since the late 1980’s. I was encouraged to see that his love for people, love for the gospel, love for the Scriptures and love for teaching are undiminished.
Saturday’s first session belonged to a newly-bearded Dr. Kevin Bauder who noted that he was lecturing, not preaching. The topic was officially to be “A Fundamentalism Worth Saving, Part 1,” but rather than rehash the points of his 2005 address by that title (given to the American Association of Christian Colleges and Seminaries), he focused on what else (beyond defending the gospel and practicing separation) a future fundamentalism should do.
The rest of the lecture articulated a vision for a relentlessly—and comprehensively—thoughtful fundamentalism, one that concerns itself with all of life, especially the questions weighing most heavily on the society in which we live. A key component, he said, was to recover the Christian doctrine of vocation and stop viewing God’s call to business, science, medicine, the arts, etc. as inferior to God’s call to do the things we usually think of as “ministry.”
I can’t begin to say how encouraging I found that lecture. Where can I sign up? It’s true that the vision is far from the reality, but everything important begins with a vision. If we can get the audio transcribed, the lecture may appear here at SharperIron in written form down the road.
Later in the morning, Dr. Dave Doran provided a thoughtful exegesis and application of Romans 16:17. A twenty-something young man told me later that this was the most persuasive case for separation he’d ever heard and that he was now far more open to the whole idea.
The discussion session
The highlight of the event for many was probably the afternoon “discussion session.” All the platform and workshop speakers were invited to the platform to discuss a series of selected questions.
Though the audio will probably be available shortly, you’d really have to see video to fully appreciate this session. The body language was at least as interesting as the verbal responses (and several moments in the audio will make no sense at all without seeing the interaction).
Several thoughts stood out in my mind when the session ended.
- These men possess serious and thoughtful convictions. The discussion format was making some of them squirm but their willingness to be involved speaks well of their courage as well as their desire to be persuasive.
- The old separation-by-category (or maybe separation-by-acronym, as Chris Anderson observed in his Friday PM message) paradigm doesn’t work anymore. There are too many leaders and ministries promoting and defending the gospel these days that just do not fit into the boxes we used in the 70s and 80s (it’s debatable whether the boxes worked well back then either, but that’s another subject). There seemed to be general agreement on this point, though Doran was most emphatic and Minnick most hesitant.
- We need more of this. When the hour ended, there was a silence I took to mean something like “What? We’re done already?” It’s difficult to impossible to alter the schedule of an event of this sort on the fly. But I wished we could have taken a break and resumed the discussion for another hour.
- We separatists have work to do. As a thoughtful conversation about separation—with no fear of anyone labeling anyone else a “neo” or “pseudo” for differing on one point or another, the discussion was important and encouraging. But it also revealed that though we’ve awakened to the deficiencies in the separation paradigm of the past, we do not yet have another paradigm to adopt in its place. Many questions remained unasked and unanswered.
I came away with the feeling that more work toward a “theologically robust” and “biblically consistent” doctrine and practice of separation is too urgent to wait for 2013 when the next PTC is tentatively planned. I also believe that what we need now is not so much a conference as a work group of some kind that produces a document or two—not another “resolution” by a fellowship or association, but a document aimed at answering the questions most are actually asking about separation, developed through a process that is sure to attend to those questions. Ideally, the document(s) would have the support of leaders from multiple associations and fellowships.
Mike Harding suggested that the next PTC may be devoted to “cultural conservatism.” Either way, I look forward to how this event develops in the future.
Aaron Blumer, SharperIron’s second publisher, is a native Michigan and a graduate of Bob Jones University (Greenville, SC) and Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). He and his family live in a small town in western Wisconsin, where he pastored Grace Baptist Church for thirteen years. He also teaches high school logic and rhetoric at Baldwin Christian School.