The concept and practice of so-called “secondary separation” is a divisive issue within fundamentalism. It is appropriate now, more than ever, to examine the matter in light of Scripture. What follows is an all-too brief survey of several respected fundamentalist leaders of the past 50 years on this very matter. Their views are briefly presented and analyzed, and some conclusions will be drawn at the end. Hopefully, this modest study will edify the body and exhort fundamentalists to be captive to the Scriptures, wherever they may lead.
At the outset, a brief definition of fellowship must be offered so we’re all on the same page going forward. Loosely, “fellowship” is defined as a union for spiritual purposes. More precisely, a partnering of individuals, churches, organizations or any other group for the purpose of promoting Biblical truth, based on a common spiritual foundation. Therefore, when we discuss a separation among brethren, we are really pondering the question, “With whom or what can I legitimately enter into a spiritual partnership with?” (Oats).
What in the world is “secondary separation?”
A secondary separatist would be one who will not cooperate with (1) apostates; or (2) evangelical believers who aid and abet the apostates by their continued organizational or cooperative alignment with them; or, as employed by some (3) fundamentalists who fellowship with those in the previous category. (217)
“Secondary separation” is the refusal to cooperate with erring and disobedient Christians who do not adhere to primary separation and other vital doctrines. (146)
Familial separation is the unfortunate necessity of functional severance from members of the family who are true Christians, when doctrinal or ethical compromise creeps into their lives or ministries. (132)
John R. Rice:
Do you see that since this secondary separation is an artificial, man-made doctrine, in every case it must depend on one’s personal, variable judgment? How much better to follow the simple rules in the Bible. Since there is no clear-cut Bible teaching on the question, secondary separation is a manufactured doctrine that leads to great confusion. And, sad to say, it also leads to passing judgment on Christian brethren, judging people’s motives, and this leads to division and strife among people who really are serving the same Saviour, who believe the same Bible, who preach the same Gospel, and both seek to win souls. That is unfortunate and, I think, unscriptural. (228)
In light of the above, my own working definition of so-called “secondary separation” is this:
A secondary separatist is a Christian who will not cooperate with:
- true Christians who aid and abet the apostates by their continued organizational or cooperative alignment with them
- true Christians, when a Scripturally defensible claim of doctrinal or ethical compromise creeps into their lives or ministries
This is a concise definition, and one all fundamentalists would do well to adopt. Many would disagree, and I believe they are wrong. John R. Rice, as we will see, draws his circle of fellowship around the fundamentals of the faith and allows very wide latitude within this boundary. His views may surprise many, especially fundamentalists of the Sword of the Lord vintage.
John R. Rice
Rice was strongly against secondary separation. His primary focus was revivals and soul-winning, and his theology on separation reflects this. For Rice, the threshold of orthodoxy was the fundamentals of the faith—period. Rice would accept any Christian so long as he espoused (1) faith and salvation in Christ, (2) the Bible, (3) the virgin birth, (4) blood atonement, (5) the deity and (6) bodily resurrection of Christ (182, 224). I have chosen to spend a great deal of time on Rice because I believe he speaks for a great many frustrated fundamentalists on this matter.
The important thing is, is a man for Christ and the Bible? If he is, and he makes no divisive issues and strife, then fellowship with him. So the Scripture teaches. That means I can fellowship with some who fellowship with some they ought not to fellowship with. (182)
[W]e have an obligation to have brotherly love and kindness and charity toward those who are weak in the faith, but just so they are “in the faith. (224)
Rice would likely separate from fundamentalists who were in favor of secondary separation, citing Rom 14:1 as support.
Listen, you are not to run with anybody if it means quarreling and strife and division and hair pulling and hell raising. Say to that one, “God bless you, but go your way, and I will go mine.” If there is going to be strife and no real unity and no real heartfelt joy and results for God, then sometimes we cannot cooperate with Christians who make strife over minor issues. They are weak in the faith and they make an insistent division over it. (184)
Rice decried what he saw as undue obsession with division at the expense of evangelism. Fighting modernism was not Rice’s main priority—evangelism was.
The tendency to go to extremes appears in the matter of defending the faith and standing up for Christ and the Bible. Those of us who would defend the faith and expose false prophets are constantly urged to attack good Christians, to spend our time and energy in fighting good Christians who may not agree with us on some matters or may be wrong on lesser matters but are born-again, Bible-believing, soul-winning Christians. We have followed a simple course down through the years. We are against infidels and false teachers. We are for good Christians. (196)
Rice’s most passionate plea was for Christians to have perspective. The great division, he warned, is between those who are saved and those who are lost. “Let us face it honestly: Are we going to fight for God’s people and against Satan’s people? That is what we ought to be” (197).
Rice’s critique of secondary separation
Rice’s guiding verses on this matter were Ps 119:63 and Rom 14:1 (221). He outright denied that Scripture teaches separation from brethren. “No, there is nothing in the Bible like that” (224). He saw separation as an “all or nothing” proposition. He did not allow for the different “levels” of separation that Ernest Pickering wrote about, which we will examine in the next article. He defined the doctrine as follows:
But what is called ‘secondary separation’ means not only must the Christian be separated from liberals, modernists, unbelievers, but he is to separate from anybody who does not separate enough from unbelievers. (218)
Rice charged that Christians are commanded to fellowship and love other Christians (Jn 13:34-35), and this very love, not division, should guide Christians in this matter. Fractious, subjective battles among real Christians divide the body and hinder the cause of Christ.
But still the weight of the Scripture here is tremendous. We should love other Christians as Christ loved us. Our love for others ought to be such an obvious fact that people will know Christians are different. So only a very serious matter ought ever hinder the fellowship of good Christians who love each other. (222)
Most fundamentalists who uphold separation from brethren point to 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15 as support. Their arguments will be presented shortly, but I ask Christians to examine the passage for themselves and reach their own conclusions. Rice expressly denied that 2 Thess 3:6-15 teaches secondary separation, labeling this “a clearly biased interpretation” (226). He maintained it merely taught that the disorder in question was eating without working (224-225).
Going back to his call for unity for the sake of evangelism, Rice protested that secondary separation resulted in arbitrary decisions. “Where can one draw the line? Unless he takes the plain Bible position of separation from the unsaved and the restrained fellowship with Christians who live in gross sin, one will make subjective decisions according to his own preference” (226-228). Fred Moritz dismisses such objections as a “smokescreen,” and calls for biblical discernment on the matter (84).
Finally, Rice appealed to examples of other Godly fundamentalists to bolster his case, men who did participate in inter-denominational fellowship for the sake of the Gospel, including Moody, Billy Sunday, R.A. Torrey, Bob Jones, Sr., H.A. Ironside, W.B. Riley, Bob Schuler and J. Frank Norris (228-234).
Rice’s work on separation was published in the midst of his very public falling out with Bob Jones, Jr. Any honest Christian will admit that views change with perspective, as hard-won knowledge, wisdom and experience are brought to bear upon tough issues. Perhaps Rice would have taken a harder line on separation earlier in his ministry. Regardless, a position must be evaluated in light of Scripture, not by the character of the man promoting it.
Rice’s plea for unity is appealing, but incorrect. He errs by failing to acknowledge different levels of fellowship and ignores Scriptures which clearly teach separation from brethren. In this respect, Rice epitomized a particular fundamentalist mindset which is antithetical to militant separatism. George Marsden remarked,
Antedating fundamentalist anti-modernism was the evangelical revivalist tradition out of which fundamentalism had grown. The overriding preoccupation of this tradition was the saving of souls. Any responsible means to promote this end was approved. (67)
Rice’s was a “big tent” fundamentalism, and given the nature of his revivalist ministry, perhaps it is understandable Rice was so inclusive about doctrine. He was still mistaken. I will survey several fundamentalist leaders who believe Rice was mistaken in the next article.
Marsden, George M. Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991. Print.
McCune, Rolland. Promise Unfulfilled: The Failed Strategy of Modern Evangelicalism. Greenville: Ambassador International, 2004. Print.
McLachlan, Douglas. Reclaiming Authentic Fundamentalism. Independence: AACS, 1993. Print.
Moritz, Fred. Be Ye Holy: The Call to Christian Separation. Greenville: BJU, 1994. Print.
Oats, Larry. American Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism. Watertown: Maranatha Baptist Seminary, 2012. Unpublished class notes.
Pickering, Ernest. Biblical Separation: The Struggle for a Pure Church. Schaumberg: Regular Baptist Press, 1979. Print.
Rice, John R. Come Out or Stay In? Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1974. Print.