Applying Separatist Principles
Fundamentalism 101 is pretty clear. It teaches that the gospel is the boundary of the Christian faith, the Christian community, and of Christian ministry. Spiritually, Christians hold nothing in common with people who deny the gospel. Therefore, Christians must never extend Christian recognition or fellowship to people who deny the gospel.
Some people deny the gospel explicitly. Perhaps they are adherents of pagan religions. Perhaps they are atheists. At any rate, they are easily recognized for their denials of the gospel. They reject Christianity altogether and without pretense.
Other people, however, claim to affirm the gospel even though they deny teachings that are essential to it. Such essential teachings are known as fundamentals. To deny a fundamental is to deny the gospel itself, and to deny the gospel while claiming to be Christian is just as serious as rejecting Christianity altogether.
In fact, it is more serious. To deny the gospel while claiming to be Christian involves a level of duplicity and hypocrisy. The New Testament has much to say about people who do this. Paul mentions those who preach another Jesus, receive a different Spirit, and accept a different gospel (2 Cor. 11:4). In a different place, he anathematizes them (Gal. 1:6-8). John commands believers not to welcome such individuals or even to give them a civil greeting (2 Jn. 10). The entire epistle of Jude and the second chapter of Second Peter are directed against these people.
Such people are known as apostates. An apostate is simply an individual who claims to be a Christian while denying some essential element of the gospel. Apostasy was a problem in the New Testament and it is still a problem today.
The New Testament clearly teaches that no spiritual commonality or fellowship exists between a Christian and an apostate. For a Bible believer to extend Christian recognition or fellowship to an apostate is simply hypocritical. It is never justified. It is always wrong.
In other words, Fundamentalism 101 requires separation from apostasy. Christians must never extend Christian recognition to people who deny the gospel, whether or not those people name the name of Christ. Fellowship between Christians and apostates is biblically intolerable.
Fundamentalism 101 seems simple, but certain questions do complicate the matter. These are questions over which fundamentalists have always disagreed. Not surprisingly, these questions also come up in the interaction between fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals. Even people who agree on the principles of fundamentalism 101 may disagree on the applications of those principles. The following questions help to explain why.
Question One: What constitutes an expression of Christian fellowship? Most fundamentalists would not withdraw from a political party or a social club over the presence of an apostate in its membership. They recognize that some level of social interaction is possible because it does not rise to the level of Christian fellowship.
Knowing where social interaction ends and Christian fellowship begins is not always an easy matter. On one occasion, J. Gresham Machen attended an event that honored a prominent liberal at Union Seminary in New York. He was sharply criticized by Arno Gaebelein. In response to the criticism, Machen pointed out that the event was purely academic and did not constitute Christian fellowship. Evidently, fundamentalists have always disagreed to some extent about exactly which activities constitute Christian fellowship.
Question Two: When is an organization apostate? Almost everyone agrees that an organization does not become apostate the moment that someone notices a false teacher in it. Nevertheless, it is not easy to say when the line is crossed. Is a seminary apostate when it knowingly tolerates a liberal professor? Does it become apostate when liberals are in control of its decisions? Or does it become apostate only when it specifically bans Bible-believers from the faculty?
Fundamentalists have answered this question differently. Rarely, however, have they viewed an organization as apostate the first moment that a false teacher was discovered in it. They have usually seen the presence of apostasy as a defect to be addressed rather than an indictment of the organization as a whole. The point at which the organization itself becomes apostate is not a matter that can be judged with mathematical precision.
Question Three: When is the time to shift from “purge out” separation to “come out” separation? In other words, when is the time to stop fighting to clean up a church or an institution, and to abandon it to apostasy? Fundamentalists have often disagreed about the answer to this question.
In 1932, the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches was organized as a separatist body outside of the Northern Baptist Convention. Those who affiliated with the GARBC had decided that the battle within the convention was unwinnable. They thought that it was time to come out.
Most of the convention’s fundamentalists, however, thought that they still had some chance of purging liberals from the organization. When the GARBC pulled out, these individuals stayed in and continued to fight. Only in 1946 were they effectively barred from the convention. At that time, they organized the Conservative Baptist movement, out of which came both the New Testament Association of Independent Baptist Churches and the Fundamental Baptist Fellowship, International. For fifteen years the Regular Baptists and the Conservative Baptists had disagreed about the necessity of separating from the convention.
The same disagreement continued internally within the Conservative Baptist movement. At the outset, the Conservative Baptist Association refused to require separation from the convention. Eventually, however, a “hard core” party insisted that the time had come for separation to be made mandatory. The resulting conflict splintered the Conservative Baptists into a range of competing organizations.
Question Four: May Christians remain temporarily in an apostate organization for tactical reasons? In other words, once an organization is clearly and irretrievably apostate, must Christians separate instantly, or can they work within the organization temporarily in order to recover as much of their investment as possible?
Some Christians have thought that by remaining briefly in the apostate organization they could retain a platform and influence a greater number of Christians to make the break in the long run. Others have envisioned the possibility of keeping pieces of the apostate organization in the hands of Bible believers by breaking those pieces away from the apostate organization. Sometimes this tactic has been successful.
As fundamentalists separated from the Northern Baptist Convention, R. V. Clearwaters and his associates moved more deliberately than some. They worked temporarily within the convention structures to find ways to capture parts of pastors’ retirement programs. They managed to gain control of the entire Minnesota Baptist Convention. Along with it, they gained ownership of Pillsbury Academy, which they reorganized into a college. By working within the structures of the apostate denomination, these fundamentalists ended up preserving much of the investment that Minnesota Baptists had made in the Lord’s work. Today’s Minnesota Baptist Association is the old Minnesota Baptist Convention. Clearwaters became fond of saying that in Minnesota, fundamentalists saved “not only the faith, but the furniture.”
All four of these questions are important. What constitutes an expression of Christian fellowship? When does an organization become apostate? When is it time to shift from “purge out” to “come out” separation? Are there good, tactical reasons to stay in temporarily?
The questions are important, but fundamentalists have often disagreed about the answers to them. This does not mean that fundamentalists held different principles. Rather, it indicates that people who hold the same principles will sometimes apply them in different ways. How one answers these questions does not necessarily determine whether or not one is a fundamentalist. More importantly, one’s answer to these questions does not always determine whether or not one is biblical.
Fundamentalists who hold the same principles have regularly applied those principles differently. Therefore, it is at least possible that part of the difference between fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals is not a difference over principles, but a difference over application. In the next essay, I would like to examine some situations in which this might possibly be the case.
Henry Vaughan (1621-1695)
Jesus, my life! how shall I truly love Thee?
O that Thy spirit would so strongly move me:
That Thou wert pleas’d to shed Thy grace so far
As to make man all pure love, flesh a star!
A star that would ne’er set, but ever rise,
So rise and run as to out-run these skies,
These narrow skies, narrow to me, that bar,
So bar me in that I am still at war,
At constant war with them. O come, and rend
Or bow the heavens! Lord, bow them and descend.
And at Thy presence make these mountains flow,
These mountains of cold ice in me! Thou art
Refining fire, O then refine my heart,
My foul, foul heart! Thou art immortal heat;
Heat motion gives; then warm it, till it beat;
So beat for Thee, till Thou in mercy hear;
So hear, that Thou must open; open to
A sinful wretch, a wretch that caus’d Thy woe;
Thy woe. Who caus’d his weal; so far his weal
That Thou forgott’st Thine own, for Thou didst seal
Mine with Thy blood, Thy blood which makes Thee mine,
Mine ever, ever; and me ever Thine.