So what of the future for fundamentalism? Is there hope? (cont.)
3. A more theological view of separation
Third, I think we need to work toward better approach to separation. Our practice is often weak and sloppy. This is because our thinking is weak and sloppy. We don’t read widely or think deeply about much of anything. Theological reflection is rare among us. We want simple answers to complex questions.
This sloppiness may be seen in the way we practice separation. It is often harsh and inconsistent. It lacks thoughtful reflection and purposeful expression. But we are not alone in our weak view of separation. I think evangelicals are also weak in this area. They actually do practice secondary separation but they do so inconsistently.
When I was at Southern (2000-2004), I remember a conversation with Craig Blaising, now provost at Southwestern Baptist Seminary in Ft. Worth, TX. He rejected the notion of secondary separation and belittled it. Yet as I took my classes, it was clear that many Southern men actually did hold to secondary separation. Bruce Ware, Blaising’s close colleague in the graduate school, led the unsuccessful effort in ETS to oust Clark Pinnock and John Sanders, for open theism—the hyper-Arminian view of God. The unsuccessful efforts at the November 2003 meeting in Atlanta, in which the membership of Pinnock and Sanders was sustained because of an insufficient number of affirmative votes, demonstrate that Ware argued for a de facto secondary separation. I had occasion to sit with Pinnock and converse with him. I found him to be affable and courteous. He professed to be a believer and he affirmed inerrancy. Yet his theology is considered by many to be outside the acceptable bounds of Christian orthodoxy. Many, apparently, concurred, but the vote to remove him did not carry by the requisite 2/3 majority. In Sander’s case, the vote was closer—less than 25 votes were lacking. Though more than 50% of the membership wanted to oust him, his membership was not overturned.
I must also mention a presentation from the 2008 Shepherd’s Conference by Nathan Busenitz, an elder of Grace Community Church and John MacArthur’s personal assistant. Busenitz presented the doctrinal understanding of secondary separation held by the elders at Grace. I found much in the message with which I could agree. According to Busenitz, Grace would not affiliate with those who undermine the Gospel. However, I think he failed to grasp clearly is the true nature of so-called secondary separation, which he identified as separation from those who do not practice primary separation. Secondary separation is not simply a matter of separation over separation, but separation because of disobedience to the clear teaching of the Scripture. He argued that when practicing this secondary position one needs great wisdom in deciding what brother to work with and what brothers to break with. Many fundamentalists would agree. Bob Jones Sr. was fond of saying that “you go as far as you can on the right road,” which I heard occasionally applied to those in error. Work with a man if he seems to be going the right way. Where he is at positionally is less important than where his feet are pointed.
To be sure, many parts of fundamentalism have been hasty and ungodly in the quest for “purity.” We have spoken harshly without due care and attention and often before all the facts are in. Often we have not carefully weighed the facts. It seems to me that as we evaluate where a man stands and what direction his feet are pointed, we need to think of four levels of disobedience. Although they may all involve real disobedience to the Scripture, our response to them should differ in severity. Is the behavior flagrant, careless, ignorant or pragmatic? The answer will guide us in our response to the behavior.
Four levels of disobedience
Let’s take speeding as a mundane analogy. Speeders fit into these same four categories. There is the flagrant speeder. He has a radar detector in his windshield and a wanton disregard of the law in his heart. He speeds for pleasure or to escape the consequences of some other unlawful act. The common denominator of this type of speeder is contempt for the law. A second type of speeder is simply careless. He is driving along in his own world not paying attention, just doing what he wishes. He doesn’t worry too much about the law, only about what others are doing around him. Police love to stop these careless speeders; they are breaking the law. But they often choose to be lenient and let the speeder off with a warning.
A third kind of speeder is the ignorant speeder. This is a guy who for any number of legitimate reasons may not know what the posted speed limit is and breaks the law accidentally. He is still guilty, but if he can prove that the signage is ambiguous or obscured by brush or some other legitimate reason for ignorance, he might just beat the rap. The last speeder is the pragmatist—the end justifies the means. He’s got a wife in labor or is carrying someone else to the hospital. He has a “good reason” to drive fast and he hopes the cop, if he stops him, will understand. I can tell you though, from four years of driving an ambulance professionally, if you speed and cause an accident, you will be held liable. We were reminded repeatedly that, while we did not legally have permission to speed, most of the time the police would understand that we were on a life-or-death mission and would not interfere. However, if we caused an accident and someone was injured or worse, we would be in serious trouble. We could usually speed without fear of a ticket, but if we caused an accident, we would be in serious trouble.
Apply this to separation. There are some individuals who flagrantly violate the Word. They have an agenda and the Bible gets in the way. Or they think that separatism is just “someone’s narrow interpretation” and refuse to consider seriously the Bible.
Other believers are ignorant or careless in their associations. They have never been taught nor have they ever thought through the issues carefully. Or they may simply not appreciate the depth of disobedience the professing individual is involved in and they fail to separate out of ignorance. It is, to some extent, understandable.
Finally, there are those who think pragmatically. It’s almost a “greater good” defense in associations. Look at how much good Rev. So-and-so does. We cannot separate from him. It will hurt the cause. It is interesting that on the cusp of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy, when the battle lines were just being drawn, Shailer Mathews, infamous liberal dean of the University of Chicago Divinity School, was president of the Northern Baptist Convention. He had a banner made for the platform which read, “Let’s get together by working together and praying together.” Working together to promote denominational efforts was more important than the theological issues that divided the Northern Baptists1. Clearly there are levels of disobedience among us all and our response to varying levels of disobedience ought to be carefully measured. It seems to me that we should treat the violations of Scripture in different ways depending on who and what is at stake. This is not to say that, in the end, we don’t separate. But we ought to be slow to break fellowship in some of these cases to give time for instruction and interaction.
Busenitz has a legitimate complaint of separatists in criticizing the way many fundamentalists practice it. Drawing a comparison with church discipline, separatism—he opines—often omits the issue of restoration. Fundamentalists give little thought, if any, to how to restore a wayward brother. While this is undoubtedly true in many cases, we should at least consider a comparison of primary and secondary separation on the point. In primary separation, our motive of withdrawing from false doctrine has less to do with restoration of the errant individual and more to do with protecting our own flock. Why would it be right to protect our flock from false religion and not protect it from serious disobedience?2 Still, restoration is important. Separatists often seem pleased to separate rather than grieved. Frankly, I never once enjoyed disciplining a child and I sure didn’t enjoy having to speak to a wayward church member. How can I treat a fellow believer with any less concern?
At the 2009 Shepherd’s Conference, hosted by the Grace Community Church, Phil Johnson gave what I think was a great response to Mark Driscoll and company’s recent penchant for sexually explicit sermonizing.3 Without actually calling for a breach in fellowship (secondary separation), Johnson loudly lamented of the “pornification of the pulpit,” arguing for an implied separation. He finds Seattle pastor Mark Driscoll’s behavior severely objectionable, and, I presume, if his effort to call Driscoll to repentance were to be unsuccessful he would consider Driscoll a disobedient brother. Surely he would not publicly rebuke him and then make common cause with him as though there was nothing amiss with his behavior. It seems clear that Johnson was arguing for action that would either pressure Driscoll to repent of his indiscreet pulpit work or withdrawal fellowship.4 This implied separation was further supported as recently as mid-April, when John MacArthur wrote a four-part blog entry for Pulpit Magazine website, entitled “The Rape of Solomon’s Song.”5 MacArthur compared the seriousness of Driscoll’s behavior to Spurgeon’s battles in the 19th-century Downgrade Controversy. “It is past time for the issue to be dealt with publicly.” He also questioned other evangelicals trying to correct Driscoll’s misconduct conduct through mentoring.
It seriously overstates the involvement of John Piper and C. J. Mahaney to say they are “discipling” Mark Driscoll. In the first place, the idea that a grown man already in public ministry and constantly in the national spotlight needs space to be “mentored” before it’s fair to subject his public actions to biblical scrutiny seems to put the whole process backward. These problems have been talked about in both public and private contexts for at least three or four years. At some point the plea that this is a maturity issue and Mark Driscoll just needs time to mature wears thin. In the meantime, the media is having a field day writing stories that suggest trashy talk is one of the hallmarks of the “New Calvinism;” and countless students whom I love and am personally acquainted with are being led into similar carnal behavior by imitating Mark Driscoll’s speech and lifestyle. Enough is enough.6
Again this is the evangelical right, but given the desire on the part of new-image fundamentalists for a closer identity with the evangelical right, I would assume that they would not object to MacArthur’s position.7 I would presume that in their desire to move closer to the right wing of evangelicalism, they would not object to the de facto secondary separation taking place, at least where Driscoll is concerned. The case of Mark Driscoll is especially pertinent. Driscoll is an orthodox believer, or so he claims. He holds a high view of Scripture, is a new Calvinist, a complementarian, etc. The issue with Driscoll is not theology but practice. It is this praxis that is called into question. The statements by Johnson and MacArthur are calls for public censure and ultimately calls to withdraw fellowship if the censures go unheeded. How could anyone censure Driscoll so severely and then make common cause with him? What kind of confusing message would it send if it were otherwise?
I want to believe that John Piper and C. J. Mahaney also reject the “pornification” of the pulpit, but neither man has been willing to publically rebuke Driscoll. I hope that Don Carson and Danny Akin are repulsed by Driscoll’s worldly interpretation of the Song of Solomon and his frank public conversations about sex. Perhaps I am wrong. Maybe Johnson and MacArthur alone feel the way they do, but I hope not.
What will MacArthur do? He obviously feels very strongly about Driscoll’s behavior and likewise about the non-action of Piper and Mahaney. What does Grace do after it takes such a strong stand against Driscoll? Will it make common cause with supporters of Driscoll? Won’t that ultimately mute MacArthur’s objections? For a consistent fundamentalist, the answer is yes. Driscoll’s behavior is egregious. Failure to rebuke him amounts to disobedience and warrants censure, as do those who become complicit in his behavior by failing to call him to account. With MacArthur on Driscoll, we are in whole-hearted agreement. The question remains—what if Driscoll rejects the criticism? MacArthur identified his worldliness—his grunge Christianity—in 2006 and that went unheeded. Things have only gotten worse. Will MacArthur reach a point where something more must be done? And what if Piper, Mahaney, Carson, et al fail to act? Will their non-action be seen as tacit approval? What recourse does someone have who sees this issue as one of testimony for the cause of Christ? Must one simply “grin and bear it?” It all comes down to consistency—the bane of us all!
If we understand separation in the context of church discipline, we have a clearer picture of what is to happen. I think that too many evangelicals and fundamentalists hang separatism in thin air without carefully grounding it in church discipline. Church discipline is the action of the church whereby it maintains its distinctive testimony by identifying and addressing certain censorious behavior in its members, calling for repentance. If repentance is not forthcoming, the church is mandated to censure the professing believer by publicly noting the behavior and withdrawing corporate fellowship. The goal is to maintain a clear public witness for the church, identify unbiblical behavior in the membership and warn the saints of consequences of sin.
In the same way, separation is designed to protect the larger Christian witness—the universal church. One believer or a group of believers, not necessarily in organic fellowship through a local church, nevertheless are called upon to censure egregious public behavior that violates clear biblical instruction. For example, Paul tells Titus what to do with a schismatic person: “have nothing to do with him” (Tit 3:10). Secondary separation addresses the behavior of a person outside the local assembly. To suggest that we can break fellowship with some in the context of a church that we have no mandate to disfellowship outside the church seems an odd approach to the Bible.
Levels of fellowship and disassociation
There are levels of fellowship and levels of disassociation. I can drink coffee with most anyone—lost or saved. I cannot have fellowship with an unbeliever—“what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness?” (2 Cor 6:14) The closer our relationship becomes, the greater the doctrinal agreement required. I can have good general fellowship with many kinds of believers at a table or across the fence in the neighborhood, but as a pastor, I cannot bring my church into a church-planting relationship with other churches who do not share my understanding of what a church is.
There are also levels of disassociation. I may choose not to work with someone for any number of reasons ranging from matters of practicality to matters of disobedience. Some forms of disassociation are simply issues of impracticality: I cannot work with an individual because he does not “fit” our program or schedule. In my opinion, these we ought to minimize and seek to work together for the greater good of God’s glory wherever possible. But in other cases, such cooperation brings doctrinal confusion. For instance, how could John MacArthur have a meaningful working relationship with Mark Driscoll unless and until Driscoll repudiates his conduct or MacArthur retracts his criticism? It seems like some form of separatism is likely to occur, even if that was not the intended outcome at the start. This is what secondary separation comes down to. It does not mean that we treat these brothers as lost but that we mark their behavior and disassociate for the greater witness of the Church.
4. A spirit of true humility
Finally, if we are to have a future, fundamentalists need to learn biblical humility. This is something we don’t talk about much. On the contrary, we see someone who acts in humility as weak or indecisive. We want men who will make stronger decisions and take decisive action. But the action needs to be expressed carefully, considering ourselves. The spirit of Galatians 6:1 ought to guide us in this: “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.” Separation is the last course of action, not the first. It is the final resort for serious disobedience. Unity ought to characterize us, not separation. Yet it is most often what we are known for. Instead of “Together for the Gospel” we could call some of our conferences “Alone with My Agenda.” “There are only two of us left standing, and I am worried about you!” God deliver us from an Elijah complex. He thought he was the last man standing, when in fact there were 7,000 who had not bent their knees to Baal (1 Kings 19:9-18).
Now I will not tell you how to be humble. To learn humility take a long look into the Word of God. We offer no course in humility at Central Seminary. In most cases, humility is caught, not taught. I think this is one reason why it is so scarce in our movement. There are few men who model it and hence few to teach it. I also think this is one reason why our young men seek role models elsewhere. They fail to find serious Christians in fundamentalism so they look elsewhere. I know a man who is a model of this seriousness. He is a Southern Baptist. He is not a separatist. But he is a godly man. I praised him to a fundamentalist friend as a great professor. He had a fine combination of personal godliness and scholarly erudition. To this my friend balked. How could a Southern Baptist who was “disobedient” to separatism, as he defined it, be godly? Boy if that wasn’t an arrogant thought. He might as well have said, “If you don’t come to my conclusions, you are stupid!” Paul said I am what I am by the grace of God (1 Cor. 15:10). What do we have that we did not receive? Where would we be today apart from divine grace? Perhaps manifesting a little of the grace given to us by God might be a better way to hold our theological apartness. We need a Christ-like disposition as we hold to a biblical position.
So, does fundamentalism have a future? Some days I wonder. At times, I am not too hopeful. Then I go to class. What a privilege to work with the next generation of men committed to following Christ and proclaiming His Word. Where will they end up? Where will my son end up?
1. See Shailer Mathews, New Faith for Old (New York: MacMillan, 1936), p. 136.
2. For the full message see Nathan Busenitz, “The Dividing Line: Where We Draw the Line on Biblical Separation,” Shepherd’s Conference 2008, 7 March 2008. Available online here. Accessed 25 April 2009. You will have to register to get the free download.
3. If you are unfamiliar with the emerging church, see Jeffrey P. Straub, “The Emerging Church: A Fundamentalist Assessment” DBSJ 2008: 69-91.
6. John MacArthur, “The Rape of Solomon’s Song,” Part 4. Available online here. Accessed 23 April 2009. At least one blogger sees this as evidence of MacArthur’s “fightin fundy turn.” See Art Boulet, “Mark Driscoll: a rapist?” Available online here. Accessed 27 April 27, 2009.
7. This emerging middle, as some new image men have called themselves, is defined as “the rapprochement of biblically-grounded, historical centers of two hitherto unconnected orbits of Christian fellowship: the ‘fundamentalist’ orb and the ‘evangelical’ orb.” Bob Bixby, “The Emerging Middle” Pensees 4 August 2007. Available online here. Accessed 23 August 2009.