Book Review: Biblical Separation, 2nd Edition

Pickering, Ernest D. Biblical Separation: The Struggle for a Pure Church. 2nd edition. Schaumburg, Ill: Regular Baptist Press, 2008. Paperback, 264 pp. $14.99.

(Review copies courtesy of Regular Baptist Press.)

Biblical SeparationPurchase: RBP | CBD

ISBNs: 9780872278035

Excerpts: TOC & Introduction (13 pages); Chapter One (16 pages)

Subjects: Ecclesiology, Fundamentalism, Separation

Ernest Pickering (1928-2000) was a noted leader in American Fundamentalism, having ministered as a pastor, seminary president, and leader in missionary organizations. He earned a Th.D. degree from Dallas Theological Seminary and was a forty-year member of the Evangelical Theological Society. His numerous books, pamphlets, and articles have widely influenced the fundamentalist and evangelical movements.

I’m sure you’re familiar with the quote “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”—or more precisely, “Studying history is necessary to avoid repeating past mistakes.” This saying comes from the writings of George Santayana, a Spanish-born American author of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

I first read Biblical Separation: The Struggle for a Pure Church in 1979 while a student at Grand Rapids Baptist Seminary (Grand Rapids, MI). The book helped me understand “the struggle for the pure church” and formulate my own views and convictions on biblical separation.

During the first months of my first senior pastorate, I had the opportunity to meet Dr. Pickering, then the pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church (Toledo, OH). His church hosted an annual pastor’s conference, and I had the privilege of sitting under the teaching of Dr. Pickering for one week. He later pastored Fourth Baptist Church (Plymouth, MN), where I now worship and serve.

Biblical Separation: The Struggle for a Pure Church is an important book for anyone interested in the issue of biblical separation. It is an appropriate book for pastors, deacons, and other church leaders. That church history would be marked by struggle is clear from Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the tares.

The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field; but while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat and went his way. (Matt. 13:24-25, NKJV)

Paul’s warning to the Ephesian elders at Miletus also makes it clear that church history would be marked by struggles.

For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves. (Acts 20:29-30)

This latter passage warns that the church would experience threats of error from without and from within.

I understand that Biblical Separation has been in print for twenty-nine years. This important revision by Myron Houghton of Faith Baptist Theological Seminary (Ankeny, IA) freshens the book. Kevin Mungons of Regular Baptist Press also provided a helpful introduction to this revised edition.

Biblical Separation is essentially a compact church history that addresses the nature of the struggle for church purity. The book begins, not with the twentieth century, but rather with the second century and groups such as the Donatists. The issues of that era resonate in our time: the nature of church membership, the fact of apostasy in the established church, the separation of church and state, and the necessity of godly ministers. Augustine used the wheat and tares passage to argue that since wheat and tares will grow together until the end of the age, there should be no separation until the Lord burns the tares and gathers the wheat. Therefore, from the earliest history of the church, we find a question about the nature of separation: stay and try to reform from within, or separate for the purity of the gospel? Interestingly, the struggle for purity is not unilateral. Throughout church history, those promulgating error have persecuted those exposing error. In the earliest cited example, the organized majority persecuted the minority who were exposing the error. We find an example of this persecution in the modern era when Harry Emerson Fosdick preached his famous message, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?

I find that some view the separatist as the one promoting conflict, but the truth is that error confronts truth just as truth confronts error. The genuine struggle for right will continue until our Lord comes! In additional material provided in this revised edition, Pickering addresses this fact:

Separatists are often blamed for the “dirty work” performed by apostates and compromisers. These persons undertake their nefarious activities, and Bible-believing Christians blow the whistle on them. For so doing, the separatists are deemed troublemakers and disturbers of the peace. (pp. 242-243)

Chapter 13, “The Problem of So-called Secondary Separation,” is brand-new material I found to be particularly helpful since I have struggled with the term “secondary separation.” Pickering writes,


This term is fraught with emotional overtones. One who holds this position is looked upon by many as an extremist and a troublemaker who is fracturing the Body of Christ unnecessarily, has no love or sympathy, and is arrogant and unbending. In the minds of many, those who refuse to cooperate with other believers are going beyond the parameters of Scriptural teaching and thus becoming cult-like.

It should be stated that those who hold this position have seldom, if ever, characterized themselves as “secondary separationists.” This term has been thrust upon them by their opponents. There is much truth in the observation of the late Bryce Augsburger, who wrote: “The Scriptures say nothing about secondary separation. This term was coined by those who seek to develop grounds for opposing Scriptural separation. Whenever a man cries ‘secondary separation,’ in all probability he is an opponent of Biblical separation… . Coined in the aftermath of the fundamentalist–modernist controversy, the term ‘secondary separation’ refers to those who will not cooperate with apostates or those who aid and abet the apostates by their continued organizational or cooperative alignment with them.” (pp. 250-251)

If “primary separation” describes the fundamentalist–modernist controversy and “secondary separation” describes the issue of ecumenical evangelism, I am comfortable with both terms.

Dr. Pickering provides extensive documentation of the fundamentalist–modernist controversy and defines “apostasy” as follows: “The Scriptures declare that part of the nature of apostasy is its deceit. Apostates are liars. They operate with ‘feigned words’ (2 Peter 2:3). They can make something mean whatever they wish… . Written documents and position statements mean nothing to lying apostates” (p. 194). He continues,

A body is apostate when the following occurs:
  • Leadership denies the verities of the Christian faith.
  • Official documents promote ideas contrary to orthodox Christian faith.
  • Official schools employ faculty members or utilize visiting speakers who teach views at variance with essential Christian doctrines.
  • No effort is made by the leadership to expunge the offending parties. (p. 195)

Dr. Pickering provides profitable information on the formation of the GARBC, the Conservative Baptist Association, Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN), and Pillsbury Baptist Bible College (Owatonna, MN). Significant fundamentalists and their influences are highlighted, including Myron Cedarholm (CBA), Richard Clearwaters, Bob Jones, R.T. Ketcham, and many others. Those interested in the rise and history of Fundamentalism will benefit from the thorough subject index! Because of my affiliation with the Fellowship of Fundamental Bible Churches, Pickering’s footnote mentioning its predecessor name, the Bible Protestant Church, and its own fine history documented in How God Delivered 34 Churches (Camden, NJ: Bible Protestant Press, 1964) was a blessing. It also is a reminder that the fundamentalist–modernist controversy did not solely affect Baptists. It also divided Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Methodists.

The history of the fundamentalist–modernist movement as it affected Presbyterianism and, in particular, Princeton Seminary and J. Gresham Machen is documented. The pure church struggle has been a denomination-wide issue, and Biblical Separation thoroughly addresses that cross-denominational struggle. Pickering says of Machen, Robert Dick Wilson, and Oswald Allis (all of Princeton Seminary), “They were vilified unmercifully” (p. 104).

Of interest to me is his mention of the American Council of Christian Churches (ACCC) and its contrasting approach to separation from the National Evangelical Association. For those unfamiliar with the ACCC, this section (pp. 127-ff.) will benefit them. What is undocumented is why the GARBC is no longer a member of the ACCC.

Though not mentioned by name, methodologies of organizations such as Campus Crusade for Christ (CCC) are highlighted in chapter 8, “The New and Young Evangelicals.” Having served as a campus evangelist with CCC (University of Buffalo, 1971-72), this chapter accurately reflects my own experiences with the philosophy of ecumenical missionary efforts and a willingness to stay within old-line denominations.

Dr. Pickering commits an entire section (chapter 9) to the divisive issue of Billy Graham. He wrote, “To criticize a wonderful person like Billy Graham is like criticizing motherhood, the flag and country, or even the Lord Himself” (p. 149). Pickering examines arguments used to support ecumenical evangelism such as the following:


  • He is winning souls; therefore, we ought not to criticize him.
  • He obtains a wider hearing of the gospel by inviting liberals to cooperate.
  • Jesus and Paul were sponsored by liberals when they preached in synagogues.

Everyone interested in a pure church must read this section (if not the entire book). I personally had to deal with the issue of cooperating with a Billy Graham crusade in Denver when I pastored in Colorado. Our church did not participate. One of my deacons wanted our church to cooperate, but I withstood that move.

Chapter 10 is an entirely new chapter authored by Myron Houghton. This chapter addresses issues such as the 1994 Evangelicals and Catholics Together statement, recent positive trends in the Southern Baptist Convention, the church marketing movement, and the emerging church movement. I found this chapter to be very profitable. In regard to the emerging church, the book mentions John MacArthur’s The Truth War.


[MacArthur] explained in the first chapter how John H. Armstrong moved from being a champion for the traditional Bible-believing truth claims … to becoming a voice for the emergent church movement. Dr. MacArthur’s book clearly shows what is at stake for the Christian faith. (p. 183)

The book concludes with practical guidelines for implementing separatist convictions and also identifies the pitfalls of separation. He mentions the following pitfalls:

  • An improper spirit
  • Over-occupation with the issues
  • Uncontrolled suspicion
  • Incorrect labels
  • Gloating over failures

With regard to “incorrect labels,” Pickering states, “The terms ‘new evangelical’ or ‘liberal’ are sometimes loosely employed to characterize all with whom one disagrees or all who have some practice or method deviant from the fundamentalist norm” (p. 289).

I was blessed to read the revised edition of Biblical Separation: The Struggle for a Pure Church. I found the new material to be very helpful, especially the section on “secondary separation” (I am comfortable with the term), Myron Houghton’s chapter “Separation Issues since Ecumenical Evangelism in the 1970’s,” and the chapter “Implementing Separatist Convictions.” Since Myron Houghton mentioned John MacArthur’s The Truth War (which I’ve read), I would also suggest D.A Carson’s Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church: Understanding a Movement and Its Implications, which I found to be more profitable.

Jude’s warnings and commands still apply to the church.


Beloved, while I was very diligent to write to you concerning our common salvation, I found it necessary to write to you exhorting you to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints. For certain men have crept in unnoticed, who long ago were marked out for this condemnation, ungodly men, who turn the grace of our God into lewdness and deny the only Lord God and our Lord Jesus Christ. (vv. 3-4)

The struggle for a pure church has persisted for two millennia and will continue until our Lord comes. We must scripturally join that fight!

Jim PeetJim Peet is husband to Kathee (33 years) and father to three adult children. Jim was saved in 1969 while a student at the University of Cincinnati. Jim is a graduate of the University of Cincinnati (1971) and Grand Rapids Baptist Theological Seminary (1983). He pastored for sixteen years. In 1987 Jim suffered a spinal court injury. He currently works for Wells Fargo in technology. He is a member of Fourth Baptist Church (Plymouth, MN) and directs the church’s 4BYA ministry (young adults).
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