Several bloggers have recently addressed the subject of separation, suggesting that current leaders such as Kevin Bauder, Dave Doran, and Tim Jordan are moving to a position that contradicts the teaching of an earlier generation of fundamentalists.
In reality, the leaders of the 1960s and 70s did not always agree on the best way to apply biblical teaching about separatism, either. Separatism then and now has always reflected a range of values, with good men differing on particulars as they responded to the issues of their era. For instance, Bob Jones Jr. and Bob Jones III were sharply critical of Pickering’s pamphlet “Baptist Principles Vs. Interdenominationalism.” They later faulted Pickering for accepting speaking engagements from organizations they considered to be new evangelical. The leaders eventually reconciled in the early 1990s, but had rarely spoken to each other for twenty years previous.
Disappointed with the rough-and-tumble disagreements of his era, Pickering concluded his seminal Biblical Separation with a critique of fundamentalism’s well-documented foibles—advice that would have saved us a lot of grief, had we listened. A portion of the book’s conclusion follows.
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The pitfallls of separatists
Separatists are human. They have sins. They are not perfect. While the matters about to be discussed are not problems exclusively for separatists, separatists are especially vulnerable to them by virtue of their unique position.
An improper spirit
It is possible to believe the right things, but to hold them and present them in the wrong way. Paul told us this when he spoke of those in Philippi who preached Christ “of envy and strife” and “of contention” (Phil. 1:15, 16). He was saying that he was happy for their message—Christ—but saddened by their spirit. Because separatists are in almost constant conflict in order to maintain their position against the tremendous attacks mounted against them, they can develop a spirit of bitterness and acrimony. They are under the gun most of the time, and this situation can take its toll. It is very important to be “speaking the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15). On occasion, some separatists may be long on truth and short on love.
Over-occupation with the issues
The issues are matters related to the apostasy and the response of separation. Some preachers become specialists in exposing the apostasy. They become consumed with the negative. They fail to feed upon the Word themselves, and they fail, therefore, to feed their people. The pastor is to declare “all the counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). This description means he must not major on any one theme, but must seek for a full orchestration of Biblical truth. In some separatist congregations, people starve for lack of wholesome food while their pastor rants about the issues.
Some separatists see a new evangelical under every bush and a compromiser in every other pulpit. They are constantly “uncovering the dirt” about other believers. They have just heard this, or they have just heard that. They see sinister meaning in perfectly innocent actions. It is this characteristic, probably more than any other, that is sometimes referred to by nonseparatists as part of the “separatist mentality.” We would not hesitate to confess that this characteristic could be used to describe some separatists. On the other hand, we believe that this characteristic is not the essence of separatism and that it would be most heartily repudiated by most separatist leaders.
We certainly ought not to be gullible nor should we be silent when it is required that we should speak. But we ought not to make the main emphasis of our ministry “detective work.” One can develop a suspicious attitude toward everyone that can militate against helpful interaction and constructive growth.
Certainly separatists should immerse themselves in 1 Corinthians 13. Paul made an interesting statement: Love “beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things” (v. 7). Does this statement mean we should gullibly accept whatever we are told? Does it support the idea that we should accept everyone’s Christian profession with no questions asked? No. The thrust of this verse is that we should be optimistic, hopeful, and positive in our relationships toward others—not suspicious and distrustful. If, of course, individuals show themselves through repeated actions as unworthy of trust, then we are forced to make appropriate judgments.
We believe R. C. H. Lenski had a helpful observation when he said that love “refuses to yield to suspicions of doubt. The flesh is ready to believe all things about a brother and a fellow man in an evil sense. Love does the opposite.”1 Biblical separatists are people with strong convictions. They are resolute. They have something of Elijah, John, Paul, and Jude in their natures. The very traits God uses to make them strong must be controlled, or separation can turn to fragmentation.2
Not everyone from whom we would be called to separate is an apostate. Nor, on the other hand, would they all be new evangelicals or liberals. The terms “new evangelical” and “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. This is not an accurate usage of the term and is an example of the techniques that sometimes bring unnecessary derision upon the heads of separatists.
Gloating over failures
On occasion some separatists seem to view with glee the uncovering of some fault in another Bible-believing servant of God. We ought to weep and not rejoice. “Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth, and let not thine heart be glad when he stumbleth: Lest the Lord see it, and it displease him” (Prov. 24:17, 18). If this should be our attitude toward our enemies, should it not be even more so toward our fellow believers? Paul warned his brethren “with tears” (Acts 20:31). Separatists could use a few more tears.
A desire to dominate
Separatists tend to produce some strong-willed leaders. In the conflicts of separatism, strength of will can be an asset; but it can also be a drawback. In the process of arriving at their positions of leadership, separatist leaders must guard against an insatiable desire to dominate everyone and everything and to build empires. If someone disagrees with us on some minor issue, we should resist the temptation to make a major issue of it, brand the offender as a new evangelical, and ostracize him from our fellowship. Separatists must ask God for humility. We do not know everything. We can yet learn from others. Our Lord was “meek and lowly in heart” (Matt. 11:29). We ought to emulate Him.
Hasty rejection of offenders
All separatists have made mistakes of judgment. Good men who are trying to take a stand for righteousness sometimes become involved in something or with someone who may seem inconsistent with a separatist position. They may have someone visit their pulpit who, in the judgment of other separatists, is not taking a proper stand.
Separatists need to learn to distinguish between occasional lapses or misjudgments, which are part of the frailty of human nature, and patterns of consistent compromise. The former must be looked upon with some charity, while the latter is more serious and demands a stronger stance. We ought not to make a man “an offender for a word” (Isa. 29:21).
John Ashbrook has rightly stated:
It is easy to separate from a brother because he has a speaker we would not have, supports a mission we would not support or recommends a school we would not recommend…. I have had speakers, supported missions, and recommended schools that I would not have, support, or recommend today…. Be careful not to run up the red flag for every mistake or differing decision. Wait to see if it is a pattern.3
Some separatists have evidently tried to imitate Martin Luther and other controversialists of his age (and other ages) in employing rather strong, colorful, and pungent language about their evangelical brothers and sisters. It is true that the New Testament uses some rather strong language in reference to apostates. However, separatists need to employ caution and restraint when speaking of those who are our brethren but with whom we may disagree. Tongues and pens need to be controlled by the Spirit.
A young lady once approached me in tears. She had written to a separatist leader, expressing disagreement with him on a minor point. She received a three-page diatribe in reply (which she shared) in which the man called her names and used very strong language, professing horror that anyone would dare to disagree with him. I was extremely embarrassed, since the writer of the letter was a well-known figure. “My brethren, these things ought not so to be” (James 3:10). Being a fundamentalist and battling for the faith does not give one the right to ignore plain Scriptural commands to use speech that is pleasing to God. “Let your speech be alway with grace, seasoned with salt, that ye may know how ye ought to answer every man” (Col. 4:6). We are to be “speaking the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15). We are to put away “evil speaking” and “malice” (v. 31). No improper words ever escaped the lips of our blessed Lord. Let this be our example.
Public instead of private rebuke
At times, matters of serious import must be discussed in public, and proponents of erroneous views must be exposed in public. On the other hand, some times public discussion is most certainly not in order. Some separatists take to the printed page with barbs, innuendoes, and castigations of their brethren without ever checking privately and carefully to see if they have the facts straight. If a personal grievance or a compromise (real or imagined) has occurred, they make no effort to correct it privately, but simply blast away in some public organ. Broadside attacks and startling revelations about the supposed shortcomings of other brethren may make readable copy (depending upon one’s tastes), but such an approach may not be the finest and most productive method of dealing with problems. This is especially true when one is dealing with other brethren who take the same general position as they do.
The matters discussed here should not in any way become a cause for the repudiation of the doctrine of separation. It rests upon a solid foundation: the Word of God. No Biblical doctrine should ever be rejected because of the faults and foibles of its advocates. However, its advocates should humbly seek the face of God and inquire about how to improve their testimony before other believers and the world. I certainly do not agree with everything that the early Baptist leader John Smyth wrote, but I think all separatists could profit by reading his last book. In it he confessed the bad spirit that characterized some of his earlier debates; and, while still maintaining what he viewed as truth and defending his right to argue for it, he pled for a proper spirit in so doing.4
God is concerned not only with the truth that we hold, but also with the spirit with which we hold it. When we stand before the Lord someday, He will examine “the counsels of the hearts” (1 Cor. 4:5). God desires “truth in the inward parts” (Ps. 51:6). Our prayer should be, “Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength, and my redeemer” (Ps. 19:14). Our hearts must be pure before the Lord if we are to expect His blessing.
I have been involved in the separatist movement for many years. No finer group of men and women could be found anywhere, and my fellowship with them has been life-enriching and challenging. Most separatists, we believe, have a desire to do God’s will, to honor God’s Son, and to “adorn the doctrine of God” by a Spirit-filled life (Titus 2:10).
1 R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Paul’s First and Second Epistles to the Corinthians (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1961), 560.
2 John Ashbrook, Axioms of Separation (Painesville, OH: Here I Stand Books, n.d.), 20.
3 Ibid., 21.
4 John Smyth, The Last Book of John Smyth Called the Retraction of His Errours, and the Confirmation of the Truth.
Ernest D. Pickering (1928-2000) was a noted leader in American fundamentalism. He served in many roles during his years of ministry. He pastored several churches, served as president of Baptist Bible College and president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary as well as deputation director and, later, field representative for Baptist World Mission.