The entire “Now About Those Differences” series is available here.
SEPARATION! A History, continued
Continued from last week…
To fundamentalists, Graham’s conduct was as inexplicable as it was inexcusable. True, Graham preached the gospel. In his conduct, however, Graham effectively denied the right of the gospel to define the boundary of Christian faith and fellowship. At Fuller Seminary, Carnell opined that some liberals were more pious than fundamentalists; Graham simply put Carnell’s theory into action.
As far as fundamentalists were concerned, faithfulness to the gospel required repudiation of the neo-evangelical agenda. Fundamentalist leaders could not endorse what Carnell said and they would not participate in what Graham did. It is not simply that they saw Graham’s conduct as sinful—they saw it as a scandalous betrayal of the gospel itself. They refused to recognize Graham, Carnell, and their ilk as legitimate Christian leaders.
This is the practice that some labeled “secondary separation.” Whatever one thinks of that label, it is clear that separation from neo-evangelicals was no afterthought or appendage to fundamentalism. It was the only faithful way of implementing fundamentalist ideals.
Theological liberalism is apostasy and liberals are apostates. Apostates are enemies of the gospel and, therefore, enemies of Christ. To extend Christian fellowship to an apostate (a liberal) is to make common cause with Christ’s enemies against Him. If an apostate is an enemy, then a neo-evangelical must be considered a traitor to the cause of Christ. Why would anyone point to such a person as an example of Christian virtue? How could a fundamentalist knowingly follow such leadership?
Fundamentalists did not separate from neo-evangelicals because of petulance. They separated because they really had no choice. The gospel was at stake. It was being denied by liberals and betrayed by neo-evangelicals.
Separation from new evangelicalism was necessary, and by the mid-1960s it had become a characteristic of fundamentalists. At this point in history, however, some fundamentalists adopted attitudes that guaranteed the disintegration of their movement. Not all fundamentalists shared these attitudes, but those who did managed to confuse the idea of fundamentalism in important ways.
First, many fundamentalists adopted an all-or-nothing attitude toward fellowship and separation. They failed to recognize that the New Testament depicts multiple levels of fellowship. Consequently, when they found it necessary to separate from a brother, they closed legitimate doors of mutual recognition and even cooperation.
Second, some fundamentalists took a binary approach to understanding evangelicalism. One was either a fundamentalist or else one was a neo-evangelical (or at least a fellow-traveler, which amounted to the same thing). No middle ground was allowed.
Third, some fundamentalists adopted a rule-or-ruin stance toward evangelicalism and sometimes even toward fundamentalism. These leaders demanded support for their institutions, programs, and agendas—and sometimes even for their persons. Anyone lacking the requisite level of loyalty was considered suspect. It was whispered that such persons were not really fundamentalists, and, since only one other position was possible, they must really be neo-evangelicals.
Fourth, some fundamentalists clouded the criteria for separation. While their practice of separation was becoming more and more draconian, their criteria were becoming less and less significant. Fundamentalists began by separating from those who denied the gospel. Then they separated from those who demeaned the gospel by depriving it of its rightful role as the boundary of Christian faith and fellowship. By about 1970, however, some fundamentalists were practicing separation from “disobedient brethren” of any sort—and, of course, “disobedience” could be understood to include almost any disagreement. In the early 1970s, one brother even published a history devoted to the notion that fundamentalism involved the militant exposure of “all non-biblical affirmations and attitudes.” For such people, fundamentalism had become virtual everythingism.
During the 1970s and 1980s (which is where my narrative ends), the fundamentalist movement began to fall apart. Some fundamentalists retreated into enclaves and then acted as if their enclave was the only true fundamentalism. Other fundamentalists began to confuse defense of the faith with militant political involvement. Still others began to rally around unusual and sometimes anti-biblical doctrines.
Repulsed by what fundamentalism was becoming, a large number began to move toward the left. People like Jerry Falwell and Jack Van Impe attempted to leapfrog the development of fundamentalist history, connecting themselves directly with the authors of The Fundamentals. Others became enamored with the church growth and church marketing movements. Some of the largest fundamentalist organizations seemed to be poised to leave for good.
In the meanwhile, the bulk of evangelicalism was neither fundamentalist nor neo-evangelical. The large center of the evangelical movement agreed with the fundamentalist rejection of liberalism, but those evangelicals could not bring themselves to offer a public repudiation of neo-evangelical figures. They might be pressured to participate in a Graham crusade, but they never approved of his cooperative evangelism.
In The Young Evangelicals, Richard Quebedeaux referred to this position as “Open Fundamentalism,” but these people generally preferred not to be known as fundamentalists at all. Their moderate evangelicalism included organizations like Dallas Theological Seminary, Moody Bible Institute, and the Radio Bible Class, and names like Lehman Strauss and J. Vernon McGee. These are the direct ecclesiastical ancestors of today’s conservative evangelicals—indeed, in some cases, they are the same people.
Falwell’s position must be rejected as overly simplistic. The fundamentalist movement has always done more than affirm the fundamentals. Fundamentalism is the recognition that the gospel forms the boundary of Christian faith and fellowship. We must not extend Christian recognition or fellowship to people who deny the gospel.
As fundamentalism developed, it had to confront not only the denials of apostasy but also the betrayals of indifferentism. If one accepts the fundamentalist commitment to the gospel, then the repudiation of indifferentism necessarily follows. Fundamentalists were right to reject the anti-separatism of neo-evangelicals and the cooperative evangelism of Billy Graham. By refusing to acknowledge this, Falwell and others really did place themselves outside of historic fundamentalism.
Conversely, some of Falwell’s critics also placed themselves outside of historic fundamentalism. A belief that separation from some believers is sometimes necessary does not imply that separation must follow incidental disagreements. When the Fundamental Baptist Fellowship repudiated fundamentalists “who are unwilling to practice a militant exposure of all non-Biblical affirmations and attitudes,” it crossed this line (1980 resolution regarding fundamentalism). The following year it went on to insist that Jerry Falwell and his organizations were properly categorized as neo-evangelical (1981 resolution regarding the Jerry Falwell ministries).
Falwell was wrong for his rejection of separation from believers. In no sense, however, could he legitimately be called a neo-evangelical. Both positions (Falwell’s and the FBF’s) illustrate the fissures that had developed within the fundamentalist movement by the mid-1980s. By 1990, fundamentalism was falling apart.
I have taken the time to discuss fundamentalist history in order to illustrate the difficulties of defining a single fundamentalist position on separation. Nevertheless, if some generalization cannot be made, then no comparison (either positive or negative) will be possible.
Equal difficulties attend the attempt to define a conservative evangelical position on separation. Before we engage in that task, however, a word needs to be said about the development of a self-aware conservative evangelicalism. That is the task of the next essay.
William Cowper (1731-1800)
O LORD, my best desire fulfill,
And help me to resign
Life, health, and comfort to thy will,
And make thy pleasure mine.
Why should I shrink at thy command,
Whose love forbids my fears?
Or tremble at the gracious hand
That wipes away my tears?
No, rather let me freely yield
What most I prize to thee;
Who never hast a good withheld,
Or wilt withhold from me.
Thy favor, all my journey thro’,
Thou art engag’d to grant;
What else I want, or think I do,
‘Tis better still to want.
Wisdom and mercy guide my way,
Shall I resist them both ?
A poor blind creature of a day,
And crush’d before the moth!
But ah! my inward spirit cries,
Still bind me to thy sway;
Else the next cloud that veils my skies,
Drives all these thoughts away.