Grace Toward the Godly of the Past — Aphorisms for Thinking About Separation

Aphorism 7: Our patterns of application of separation today must include the grace we allow the godly of the past.

Gurnall’s work is peerless and priceless; every line is full of wisdom; every sentence suggestive. This “Complete Armour” is beyond all others a preacher’s book: I should think that more discourses have been suggested by it than by any other uninspired volume. I have often resorted to it when my own fire has been burning low, and I have seldom failed to find a glowing coal upon Gurnall’s hearth. (Charles Haddon Spurgeon, 1834-1892, quoted in The Christian in Complete Armour abridgment and modernization printed by The Banner of Truth Trust)

I am in full agreement with Spurgeon. The Christian in Complete Armour is a spiritual delight and treasure trove. Much of my preaching and illustrating from Scripture relies heavily on Grunall’s example and even remembering his sermons warms my heart to Christ.

Let’s consider a little background on William Gurnall (1616-1679). He signed the Act of Uniformity in 1662, which imposed The Book of Common Prayer, required episcopal ordination, and made the crypto-Catholic Charles II the “only supreme governor” of the Anglican Church. At least 2,000 ministers refused to sign the act and lost their churches. Men like Bunyan, Owen, Howe, and Baxter were persecuted because of the act.

So if we understand the commands to separate to go beyond disbelief and apostasy, when did it stop being a sin to obey these commands in the case of Gurnall?  Does anyone believe Paul would have signed off on the Book of Common Prayer as a burden to the conscience of pastors and congregations or accepted Charles II as the “supreme governor” of the church?

What do we do with Gurnall? It’s obvious from Spurgeon’s statement that Gurnall played a role in the worship at the Tabernacle in his preaching. I’ve testified the same. If we must not only separate from apostasy but also those who do not separate, did Spurgeon sin, am I sinning?

This issue becomes more dire if our practice is to separate from those who cling to different practices and boundary markers then we hold to, where is the cutoff point in time?

Weigh with me just a partial list of unacceptable practice of past historical figures off the top my head: C. I. Scofield was a divorced, old earther. Spurgeon smoked cigars. John Wesley’s relationship with his wife was strained to say the least. Both Wesley and Whitfield were open to personal continuing revelation, and Wesley to speaking in tongues. Apparently, J. C. Ryle flirted with Anglo-Israelism; Richard Baxter had the “new perspective on Paul” before it was new. Jonathan Edwards tended towards pantheism or panentheism—depending on how you define the terms. The list of early American theologians supporting or participating in the American system of race slavery is horrifying. Wilberforce was an opium addict, Luther wrote a stupid letter justifying polygamy and said gross things about the Jews, and so it goes through history.

We might be tempted to think that once they’re dead they’re safe. But saved dead people are still worshiping God, and though dead, their example and teaching still influence us. We can’t fellowship with the godly of the past in the sense of intercommunication, but we do fellowship with them in that we allow them to help direct our worship through their teaching and doctrine.

I know the above argument seems a bit strained, and I am aware it is. But here’s what I am attempting to expose: there’s something unreasonable and unholy about publically separating from a seminary that teaches modern theistic evolution while supporting the work of a Scofield or a B. B. Warfield and A. H. Strong—all of whom also held to or allowed an old earth and theistic evolution.  And there is something wrong about separating from a living evangelist who directs those coming forward to Catholic churches while lauding as a model a dead evangelist who gave decision cards to Unitarian and Catholic churches but preached against liquor—Billy Sunday.

What ends up happening with historical figures is that we praise God for what they did that we find godly and we separate from them by critiquing what they did that we find deplorable. But what we don’t do is absolutely separate from them, unless they rejected the gospel.

In other words, we tend to follow Paul’s model in the letters to the Corinthians and the Galatians. Paul opens up the letter to the Corinthians with thanksgiving for the work of the Spirit in the lives of the Corinthians (1 Cor. 1:4-9) and then he preaches against the schisms, divorces, drunkenness at the Lord’s Supper, lawsuits, denial of the resurrection, and so forth.

So in the case of C. I. Scofield, I praise God that it was his notes that assisted a group of farmers in rural Iowa to separate from the United Methodist because the denomination had sent down a female pastor in about 1954. The farmers started the Fundamental Gospel Church where I came to know the Lord. But when it comes to Scofield’s gap theory on the age of the earth, Jesus having two wives (cf. notes on Hosea 2:2), prophetic winds sweeping away extra numbers (cf. notes on Daniel 12:12), I am rather more critical and separate from him in my teaching.

On the other hand, when it comes to a teacher like the heretic Pelagius (c. 354-c. 418), it’s much more of a Galatians issue. Paul has no thanksgiving for those who reject the gospel, and his final blessing is to those who “walk by this rule, peace be upon them” (Gal. 6:16). There is no peace between a Pelagius and a Christian or between a Christian and unrepentant T. D. Jakes or Bishop Spong.

And it’s here that we enter into the morass of practical application: it’s easy for us to be gracious about Jonathan Edwards owning slaves. He’s dead, it was legal, and he made up for it by preaching to the Indians at Stockbridge.

It’s also easy for us to be gracious with a Gurnall, but it was a rather different case among contemporary Christians. The contemporary response included statements like this:

Neither is Mr. Gurnall alone in these horrible defilements, hateful to the Word of God and His saints, but is compassed about with a cloud witness, even in the same county where himself liveth, men of the same order of anti-Christians priesthood and brethren in the same iniquity with himself. (J. C. Ryle, “William Gurnall,” in Light from Old Times. Charles Nolan Publishing, 2000, 335)

And it’s here that we come to our current application. I can no longer remember the wag who said it, but the following quote may help us, “the difference between an evangelical and fundamentalist is essentially what they think of Billy Graham.” And while he’s not dead, he is old enough to provide a helpful example.

The response among the godly was various:  Martin Lloyd-Jones privately and personally critiqued Billy Graham and refused to publicly cooperate with the Graham Crusades (Iain H. Murray, Evangelicalism Divided, 75-77), but he did not widely publicize his actions. Francis Schaefer cooperated with the Graham Crusades to a degree, but also publicly critiqued his strategies (Ibid. 77).

In the circle of churches that I grew up in, Graham’s actions were viewed with frustration and a degree of exasperation while there was great appreciation for the number of people saved through his preaching.

Others’ responses were more extreme including not only publically separating and critiquing Graham, but also spreading tenuous accusations against Graham, including attending a “marijuana party” (Ashbrook, The New Neuteralism, 85), and against anyone else whom they saw as compromising with Graham. And such authors’ works abound with statements like, “This silly ‘Second Degree’ Separation myth is an invention of the Neutralists, who for the sake of money support or popular approval, refuse to pay the price of obedience” (Ibid, 51).

Personally, as I sit here in my office of a small church struggling to serve Jesus Christ with the gifts he’s given me, it’s not clear to me that my rejection of second-degree separation is motivated by “the sake of money support or popular approval” or that I “refuse to pay the price of obedience.” From what I’ve observed, there’s money to be had and popular acclaim in both separatist and non-separatist camps.

Further, I do not know why Billy Graham cooperated with Catholics or for that matter why J. I. Packer did the same, nor do I know why Schaefer didn’t follow McIntire’s example, or why Lloyd-Jones remained fairly quiet about his disagreements with Graham, or why John Calvin was a hostile witness against his sister-in-law in a suspect divorce case, why Peter Lombard misrepresented Augustine’s positions in The Sentences, or why Augustine and his friends thought it was appropriate for him to abandon his concubine with whom he had a child. All that I know is their actions. I can condemn the actions and doctrine that are clearly ungoldy, but claiming to know the motive goes beyond what I know.

As I’ve read through separatist material and observed my own heart, the key difference that I can see between our assessment of Gurnall’s submission to the crypto-Catholic Charles the II and Billy Graham’s work with Roman Catholics is our perceived ability to identify and judge motives. We assume that we can judge not only the actions but the motives of our contemporaries, but we tend to be more circumspect with historical figures and more willing to be ignorant.

What our graciousness with historical figures and strictness with contemporaries requires is that separation is always contextual and always based on wisdom. The context of our day may require that we limit cooperation with someone like Gurnall, Scofield, or Spurgeon, but we can do so only as our best wisdom and not as if this was the only possible way to obey God.

Next week, we will close with Aphorism 8: All applications must include the sure knowledge that we can’t separate perfectly because we are still sinners living in the regime of sin and death. Thus part of the grace we extend to others must include the possibility that we ourselves are too narrow or too loose.

Shane Walker Bio


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.

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There are 4 Comments

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Defining terms precisely continues to be one of the biggest challenges in conversation about separation. In this particular case, "separation" and "ecclesiastical separation" have rarely been understood to include books (though I have seen that idea suggested here and there... and why a book is different from a panel discussion, a shared platform, or a guest lecture series at a school, etc., is worth delving into)

But, Shane, I can certainly appreciate some things here. There's no question that the demeanor/ attitude/spirit  of many toward those they separate form has often been inconsistent with their attitude toward select leaders of the past who erred in equally serious (in some cases more serious) ways.

It's also true that B. Graham's ecumenical evangelism was a watershed--and for many fundamentalists (though not all), how you responded to his ministry was just about the only criterion for deciding "are you Us or are you Them?" And the result was that sometimes some pretty weighty problems among "our own" were more or less overlooked as long as the offenders were on the right side of the BG issue. But the focus on BG was, for the more serious leaders (e.g., Moritz, Pickering...  R. McCune's Promise Unfulfilled and others), far from arbitrary.

But the days of obsessing over BG are mostly history now anyway, it seems.

I've also witnessed a few fundamentalist leaders who include teaching as an act of separation. Not very many though... and I can't personally see biblically or logically why we should consider teaching against a set of ideas or practices an act of separation. Teaching is just teaching. Separation breaks or preemptively rejects cooperation (i.e. fellowship) and gleaning helpful insights from a book--this is a pretty expansive definition of "fellowship."   (I mean, don't ask me to quote them now, but I've picked up a few insights even from the likes of Bertrand Russell and Robert Heinlein... is this fellowship? I can't believe it is.)

TylerR's picture

Editor

Aaron raised an important point:

I've also witnessed a few fundamentalist leaders who include teaching as an act of separation

  • In Seminary, for example, can you only draw on people from within your own camp to teach topics? If you wanted to hold a seminar in Islam, would a fundamental Baptist Seminary invite James White in? He's certainly qualified! He's a Reformed Baptist. Is that fellowship?
  • What about the local church? For example, if your church is in a very Jewish area and you feel that your folks could use some basic training on apologetics in evangelizing Jews, could you invite Michael Brown in? He's a charismatic Arminian.  

​I say invite them. 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Don Johnson's picture

As I’ve read through separatist material and observed my own heart, the key difference that I can see between our assessment of Gurnall’s submission to the crypto-Catholic Charles the II and Billy Graham’s work with Roman Catholics is our perceived ability to identify and judge motives. We assume that we can judge not only the actions but the motives of our contemporaries, but we tend to be more circumspect with historical figures and more willing to be ignorant.

Then I would say you have a real problem with reading comprehension. The issue with Graham had nothing to do with motives but with actions. The same holds true today, whenever separation decisions have to be made. Please note that we all may from time to time claim to know the motives of another person, but that is not the basis of separation ... ecclesiastical and/or personal separation is much more objective than that.

What our graciousness with historical figures and strictness with contemporaries requires is that separation is always contextual and always based on wisdom. The context of our day may require that we limit cooperation with someone like Gurnall, Scofield, or Spurgeon, but we can do so only as our best wisdom and not as if this was the only possible way to obey God.

Unless some dead person has an ongoing movement that poses a problem for contemporary Christians, separation isn't an issue. They aren't doing anything, there is nothing to separate over.

You may have to caution contemporary believers about the content of a writer - dead or living - but that isn't separation.

Some of your other posts have seemed more relevant, but you really missed it this time.

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

N L Jackson's picture

I think the point that Shane is trying to make is that we need to be consistent in our attitudes toward people past and present.  There would seem to be something inconsistent if I were to separate from Person X who is living today because of something in his faith or practice that makes me nervous while at the same time lauding Person Y from a past century as being a great Christian, despite the fact that Person Y believed or did the same things that cause me to separate from Person X.  If this were the case, Person Y gets a pass because he is from the past and therefore may be called a great Christian, and Person X does not get a pass because he is my contemporary and he makes me nervous.  I think that's the issue Shane is trying to raise.         

N L Jackson

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