The entire “Now About Those Differences” series is available here.
Differences in Application
Fundamentalists have agreed that Christians have no fellowship with those who reject the gospel. They have agreed that people who deny fundamental doctrines are apostates who must never receive Christian recognition. They have agreed that such apostates must be removed from Christian organizations and enterprises. If the apostates cannot be removed, fundamentalists have agreed that the organizations themselves must be deemed apostate. At some point, Christians have a duty to abandon the organizations and to begin new fellowships in which the integrity of the gospel is maintained.
While fundamentalists have agreed on these principles, they have often disagreed on certain points of application. 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 an apostate organization temporarily? Fundamentalists have given different answers to these questions.
More recently, fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals have also tended to answer these questions differently. Examples are abundant and, in some cases, matters of public dispute. Albert Mohler was willing to join Roman Catholics in signing the Manhattan Declaration. He was willing to help sponsor the Billy Graham Crusade in Louisville. Southern Baptist Seminary (president Al Mohler, board chairman Mark Dever) dedicated a pavilion to Duke McCall, the “moderate” president under whose leadership heterodoxy flourished in that institution. For all his criticism of Open Theism, John Piper has not led Bethlehem Baptist Church out of the Baptist General Conference (now Converge Worldwide).
Fundamentalists unanimously disagree with these positions. No recognizable fundamentalist has attempted to defend any of them. In these matters, I believe that fundamentalists have correctly applied the principles of the Bible. Clearly a disagreement exists between fundamentalists and at least some conservative evangelicals over these points (it is worth noting that some conservative evangelicals have offered much the same criticisms as fundamentalists).
Beyond question, fundamentalists would and do make different decisions than these conservative evangelicals have. What is at question, however, is the source of these differences. Have these conservative evangelicals made their decisions because they hold different principles, or have they made their decisions because they hold the same principles but apply them differently? In other words, can we meaningfully speak of conservative evangelicals as separatists even though they have made decisions that, from a fundamentalist’s perspective, appear to be inconsistent with separatism? In many instances, it is possible to know the principles that went into the decisions.
Piper has stated his reasons for not pulling Bethlehem Baptist out of Converge Worldwide. In the first place, he does not consider the church’s formal membership in Converge to constitute Christian fellowship. He is quite clear that the church sends no support to the denomination. In the second place, he does intend eventually to be separated from Converge, but he believes a more clear statement will be made if the denomination expels him than if he simply withdraws.
Mohler’s signing of the Manhattan Declaration is similar. By his own account, he did not consider his signature to constitute an attempt at theological common ground or an extension of Christian recognition or fellowship. He was able to sign the document because he saw it as an affirmation of solidarity around Christian convictions on certain social issues. He understood these “Christian convictions” in the broadest possible terms, inasmuch as all signatories drew their moral insight from values that have been perpetuated within a Christian (as opposed to a Muslim, Buddhist, or secular) tradition.
What about the dedication of a pavilion to Duke McCall? Two considerations must be borne in mind. First, the honor was extended as an academic and not a theological matter. Second, people who benefit from institutions do owe a debt to their predecessors within those institutions, even when the predecessors may have exhibited serious flaws. To honor McCall as an academician and administrator is very different than honoring him as a theologian.
The chairmanship of the Graham crusade, however, was not an academic exercise. It was an evangelistic enterprise. According to one of Mohler’s closest advisors, he accepted the chairmanship only after he had been assured that the platform would not feature apostate churchmen. Whatever the outcome, there was evidently an effort on Mohler’s part to preempt Graham’s usual cooperative evangelism.
In every one of these instances, conservative evangelicals were in their own minds acting consistently with separatist principles. Certainly, their application of those principles differ from the application fundamentalists would make. Differences over application, however, do not necessarily constitute differences over principles.
Contrary to common belief, we are obligated to judge motives and intentions. In fact, we make these judgments constantly. Someone treads on our foot in a crowd and causes us real pain, but we instantly forgive him because we recognize that the misstep was accidental. Someone takes a swing at our nose and misses, causing us no pain, but we still react angrily because we recognize that the intention was to attack.
Sometimes intentions must be judged according to patterns rather than according to isolated instances. In the case of conservative evangelicals, Albert Mohler risked his reputation, his career, and perhaps his life in order to purge heterodoxy from Southern Baptist Seminary. He has maintained a consistent pattern of upholding orthodoxy within that seminary. In spite of occasional and isolated decisions that seem inconsistent, we must take his decades-long pattern as the indication of his principles and intentions.
Does this mean that we simply give Mohler and other conservative evangelicals a pass? No more than we should give ourselves a pass when we err in the application of biblical principles. Even if the principles of these conservative evangelicals are right (and I think they usually are), their applications are sometimes flawed to the point of being disastrous. Participation in Converge Worldwide really does extend Christian fellowship to Open Theists. Signing the Manhattan Declaration really does imply Christian recognition of Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox. Duke McCall’s role as administrator of a seminary cannot be so easily separated from the theologies that he permitted to flourish on that campus. Billy Graham carries his defense of cooperative evangelism into every venue that he enters, whether or not any apostates sit on the platform.
While I do not wish to overplay the importance of these mistakes, I do not wish to minimize them, either. In every instance, the significance of the gospel itself is at stake, either directly or indirectly. It is not possible to say that these decisions are simply incidental. No, they matter a great deal.
Before this conversation concludes, we need to say a word about how the difference over separation should affect the possibility of fellowship and cooperation between fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals. I intend to do that. First, however, one more matter needs to be discussed, i.e., the importance of separation itself. That topic will occupy the next essay.
Henry Vaughan (1621-1695)
O holy, blessed, glorious Three,
Eternal witnesses that be
In heaven, One God in Trinity!
As here on Earth, when men withstood,
The Spirit, Water, and the Blood
Made my Lord’s Incarnation good:
So let the anti-types in me
Elected, bought, and seal’d for free,
Be own’d, sav’d, sainted by you Three!