Separation: The GARBC, Cedarville, and the SBC (Part 4 of 4)

nullNow I want to discuss the two statements from the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches (GARBC) Council of Eighteen regarding separation and Cedarville University. Cedarville University has agreed to allow the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) to “recommend” Cedarville University to its people. The representatives of the GARBC chose to deny allowing Cedarville to set up a promotional display at the 2005 Annual Conference. Should the GARBC be in partnership with Cedarville University?

For those who have not read parts 1-3, I’ll give a quick review. Recently, I have heard fundamentalists apply separation in an unusual way. They are lumping separation from sin with wisdom and efficiency choices in fellowship. This is problematic in that it generates confusion. The confusion arises because of two issues: One issue is whether separation is to be done only as a response to unrepentant sin and false teaching or if it applies to any type of departing. The other is whether these specific types of “separation” are commanded in Scripture and therefore whether these commands apply evenly to all of what has been lumped into “separation.” When I first read the idea that some consider separation to include situations without censure of sin or false teaching, I was flabbergasted. I took my undergraduate education at Bob Jones University, which I think of as a separatist school. I don’t think I ever heard that idea promoted while I was there. It is not discussed in the BJU faculty paper on separation (…ion/separation/).

A separation passage like Romans 16:17-18 has specific conditions that indicate when it should be obeyed. When we try to apply the concept of obedience to that passage even when we admit those conditions are not met, we are not making sense. By changing the conditions of the commands, we are really making up our own commands and calling them biblical when they are not. I do not think this is intentional on anyone’s part. But if our militancy in “separation” is based on our own confusion, we end up picking fights at times when we could be exhorting and admonishing one another. What does this look like to God? We are drawing lines, picking fights, and sometimes simply sniping from a safe distance. When we do these things, we use words that imply we are obeying certain Bible passages. But are we?

Before getting to the GARBC Council of Eighteen statements, I want to review separation as I see it by going back to the second Venn diagram from Part 1 in my series on separation. I’ll review the items in the diagram, discussing them as I add to them. Then I’ll take a look at the issue with the GARBC, Cedarville University, and the Southern Baptist Convention.
We begin with the pink circle that indicates things that are “Commanded.”

The orange circle adds “Separation.” Since this is commanded by the Word, it is placed inside the “Commanded” circle.
Inside the “Separation” circle is “Church Discipline (CD)” and “Withdrawing from False Teachers (WFT).” These are not all there is to separation, but a sampling.

We are commanded to separate when …

  • A believer has disobeyed an explicit biblical command and is unrepentant.
  • A believer says he has not obeyed a Bible principle despite having been convinced by his own study and application of Scripture that he should have done so–and he is unrepentant.
  • A believer preaches a false doctrine that denies the true Gospel.

I covered this more completely and in more detail in Part 3.
“Non-Fellowship of Convenience (NFC)” is added as a blue circle. Sometimes we will feel compelled to do this by principle. At these times, it is commanded “by good and necessary consequence” (cf. Westminster Confession of Faith, Article 6). These “necessary consequences” must occur in our own minds. So for some who find that consequence a reasonable conclusion, these are commanded; for others, it is not. Thus, the “NFC” circle is only partly within the “Commanded” circle.
nullThe diagram is complete with the addition of a few things that fit within “NFC” and with the addition of “NFI.” “Convict” refers to ways in which we are convicted to separate but which do not involve sin or false teaching. “P-B” is the Acts 15:39-40 situation in which Paul and Barnabas departed. “P-KB” is the non-fellowship which occurs between Paul and Dr. Kevin Bauder and between Paul and myself. It is impossible to fellowship with him because Paul is dead.

Now look closely at two sections of the full diagram: “Convict” (within “NFC”) and “WFT” (within “Separation”). In practice, these bear many similarities. They both involve refusing or limiting fellowship. They both are done out of obedience to applied Scripture (though not the same Scripture). They are both done with confidence that we are obeying some biblical principle. These similarities, I believe, are the source of a great deal of confusion in the practice of separation within Fundamentalism.

How does this confusion occur?

A pastor might avoid fellowship with another church over music but without in any way calling the music of that other church “sin.” But something may be lost in the translation. After all, the important thing is that the church leadership has established rules for music. They should be followed.In my terminology, this would be “NFC”–possibly out of “Conviction.” By not calling it “separation,” I would be clear that I don’t think of it as obedience to 2 Thessalonians 3, etc. Some would call it “separation,” insisting that separation does not require censure. Thus, the character (is it or not?) of the music in question and the biblical guidance (conditioned on ataktos) for their “separation” is unclear. They don’t feel the need to be clear, however. To them, separation is about much more than sin and false teaching. It is about deliberate restrictions of fellowship. That is what this pastor wants to do: restrict fellowship from those who would use music he finds worldly. So clarity is put aside. To them, the important thing is that we are restricting fellowship, not why. This is step one toward the confusion.

Step two occurs when we teach the doctrine of separation. Separation may be defined as “the practice of the principle of the purity of the visible church.” We also teach that separation is commanded and that “secondary separation” is simply the obedient act of separating from a brother who has sinned by not obeying the command to separate.

Steps one and two combine to suggest a more complete (but erroneous) picture of the above “separation” over music. That is, if we call the withdrawal of fellowship over that music “separation” and if “separation” is taught as “the practice of the principle of the purity of the visible church,” then we have implicitly called that music “sinful impurity in the church.” And the church that doesn’t separate from that music (or from those who use it) is failing to separate. Therefore, that church must be accommodating impurity.

Another issue must be addressed. Some speak of a view of separation they call “all or nothing.” “All-or-nothing separation” presumably means that there is a single “line” of difference beyond which we radically separate (“all”). If that line isn’t crossed, then we would be able to fellowship without any restriction (“nothing”). This should be refuted biblically. Second Thessalonians 3 tells us to separate (have no “company”) but also to admonish as a brother. Clearly even in situations involving separation, there should be contact and discussion. This refutes the “all” part of “all or nothing.”

This brings up the GARBC document, Ecclesiastical Separation and Its Associational Applications (

The “nothing” part of “all or nothing” is sometimes refuted inappropriately. Some have the idea that “ecclesiastical” separation is simply a void caused by the lack of fellowship. Viewed in this way, separation would be passive. By “passive,” I mean that it is defined by seeking the truth and not by seeking to divide. It would not be something we choose. Rather, it would be a state of being less than perfectly unified. The terms “commonality” and “unity” are sometimes used here, as in the GARBC document Ecclesiastical Separation and Its Associational Applications:

Ecclesiastical separation is also rooted in a love for the truth, because the basis of unity is agreement about the truth of the Scriptures (Ephesians 4:11-16; Amos 3:3; John 17:17). The extent of fellowship depends upon the level of agreement about the truth.

This views all differences in doctrine and practice as deficits in unity and therefore, “separation.” This has intuitive merit; it seems obvious. Keep in mind that this type of “separation” is true as a passive state. That is, unity is defined first and separation is a derivative of that. In the paragraph previous to the one I just quoted, we find the following:

Ecclesiastical separation is rooted in the holiness of God and the truth of His Word. God commands holiness for every believer and for every local church because He is holy (1 Peter 1:14-16; 2:5-9). The standard for ecclesiastical holiness, therefore, arises from God’s own character and from His standards that He has established in His Word… . This divine sanctity compels local churches to strive for moral, doctrinal, and ministry purity (1 John 1:5,6). (emphasis mine)

There is a bait and switch here. Take the issue of doctrinal purity. We are compelled to strive for doctrine which is ortho. That is, we are to strive for correct biblical doctrine. As we do so and others do not (or do not do so as excellently as we do), differences in teaching will arise. These are indeed areas of non-unity. But we should note that here we are obeying 2 Timothy 3:16-17 and striving to know the doctrines of the Word; we are not striving to follow a mandate to separate. In other words, we are not motivated in this by commands to be separate; rather, this “separation” is an unhappy byproduct of our study. That’s the bait and switch. We are baited with the encouragement to strive for moral, doctrinal, and ministry purity. We know that is biblical, so we accept it. Then we are told that it is “separation” we are doing. That’s the switch.

The next step, according to the understanding some have of ecclesiastical separation, is to acknowledge these deficiencies of unity and to actively limit fellowship accordingly. In the paragraph after the first quote, the GARBC statement says, “Individual believers and churches must, therefore, be vigilant to turn from sin and hold to what is true and pure (Romans 12:9, emphasis added).” Romans 12:9 says, “Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good” (ESV). Here “holding to truth” is linked to “turning from sin.” When this is extended to doctrinal issues that are not sinful, we can easily become confused. We do, as Baptists, limit our fellowship in the GARBC to those who agree with our doctrinal statement. Is this Romans 12:9? Is this “separation”? Our Presbyterian brothers, who hold some different doctrines, are thus prohibited from joining the GARBC. This is exactly what many would refer to as “ecclesiastical separation.” The problem comes when we return to that first description of ecclesiastical separation. It is depicted as “doctrinal purity,” “rooted in holiness,” “vigilan[ce] to turn from sin,” and “separation from sin and error.” If so, then we can easily but wrongly identify the doctrines of our Presbyterian brothers as unholiness, impurity, sin, and error.

The problem is that unity is indeed a highly variable thing. Paul’s letter to the Galatians speaks of the need for the most basic bedrock of unity–the Gospel. Paul spent a large part of that letter pushing them to come to unity over just the Gospel. Compare this with Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. They already had unity to a higher degree than the Galatians had. With them, Paul wanted progress toward more unity in more areas. Paul goes much further in his goals for the Ephesian church in the area of unity (see ch. 4). Dr. Kevin Bauder, in his Address to the Geneva Reformed Seminary 2006 Graduating Class, said the following:

Think of it this way: the Gospel is the boundary of the Christian faith. If you don’t have a clear understanding of the Gospel–if you don’t believe the fundamentals of the faith, you are not in the faith. The faith also has a center and the center of the faith is the whole counsel of God. For those of us who are inside the circle–we are inside the the boundary–we approximate that center to greater or lesser degrees.

Here Dr. Bauder describes approximately what I am saying about unity. There is a sharp boundary outside of which we have no Christian fellowship. This boundary is the Gospel. Inside that boundary, we have variable amounts of unity according to our positions on various doctrines. But that boundary of the Gospel is important. For me, it includes unrepentant sin. When a person refuses to repent of known sin, this triggers separation in which we consider the person not to be a believer–not to have accepted the Gospel. But inside that boundary, we still may draw lines of “departing.” I call them “Non-Fellowship” simply because I want to point out that I am talking about deficiencies of unity within the boundary of the Christian Faith. Those deficiencies of unity are qualitatively different from those that place us on opposite sides of the boundary of the Christian Faith. I want to express that qualitative difference with a different word.

Thus, my dispute with the GARBC’s version of ecclesiastical separation is that it confuses the picture. On one hand, it purports to be about doctrinal consistency even in matters about which true believers honestly disagree. It tells us that local churches will function best when they are unified around doctrine to a great extent. Thus, it would be well nigh impossible for a “Bapto-Presbyterian” church to exist and to be peaceful and fruitful and not to cause unnecessary confusion. But on the other hand, it attempts to treat issues of purity from sin and unholiness using the same principles that it uses to treat issues of legitimate doctrinal disagreement. We should not always think of the doctrines of our brothers as unholiness–even when they disagree with us. Why should we lump our thoughts about dealing with sin and impurity with our thoughts about dealing with honest doctrinal differences? This distinction is important because we are commanded to separate from unholiness (sin)–but we are not commanded to separate from all doctrinal differences. We often do anyway but not because we are commanded to in separation passages. We do this for efficiency of ministry, convenience, peaceful co-existence, etc. But we confuse ourselves by thinking that all of these are about holiness or turning from sin.

This brings me back to the idea of splitting and lumping and the danger of the fallacy of the undistributed middle (see Part 1).

Later in the GARBC statement, the council discusses the fact that it is “difficult to practice separation consistently.” Then it says, “Acknowledging the difficulty of practicing ecclesiastical separation in no way diminishes the necessity for this kind of separation.” It is true that this is necessary (commanded)–but only in part. “Ecclesiastical separation” is an admixture of commanded separation from sin and non-commanded practical ministry choices. Both of these are appropriate choices for churches and parachurch organizations to make. But it is wrong to try to apply the “commanded” and “censure” aspects of separation to wisdom choices made in ministry. The GARBC statement, Ecclesiastical Separation and Its Associational Applications, does not insist on doing this, but it is vague and favors such distribution.

Concerning the GARBC statement, The Council of Eighteen Decision Regarding Cedarville University

There are three separate lines of thinking I want to present:

  • My understanding of the thinking of Cedarville University
  • My understanding of the thinking of the GARBC Council of Eighteen
  • My own thinking about the validity of these

First, what is the position of Cedarville University on the GARBC decision and on the Southern Baptist Convention?

I direct the reader to the document, CEDARVILLE UNIVERSITY AND THE GARBC - Frequently Asked Questions, 2004 ( I’ll quote a couple sections (emphasis mine):

What led to Cedarville’s relationship with the Southern Baptists?

Cedarville has served students from a variety of conservative evangelical churches for decades, including Southern Baptist churches. These churches have embraced the University because of our doctrinal stand on the fundamentals of the faith and our emphasis on teaching and living the Word of God. In 2001, the State Convention of Baptists in Ohio launched a study to investigate establishing a theologically conservative Baptist college to educate its young people. Because of their familiarity with Cedarville through students who attended, they sought to establish a similar school. The more they learned about Cedarville, the more they realized that we already offered what they aspired to provide. Consequently, these Southern Baptists voted in their November 2002 state meeting to terminate their study and to “recommend Cedarville University to all Southern Baptists.”

What is Cedarville’s relationship with the Southern Baptists?

Cedarville is a university “recommended” by the State Convention of Baptists in Ohio. Cedarville has no official ties to the SBC like the SBC colleges and universities across the nation that are supported financially and controlled by the state conventions. We have the unusual opportunity to continue as an independent university while working with conservative evangelical groups, including Southern Baptists. We are very grateful for the widespread return to orthodoxy within SBC churches, seminaries, and agencies. As is the case with the GARBC and other groups that recommend Cedarville, we expect that only those churches, pastors, students, and parents who share our doctrinal position will be attracted to Cedarville.

In an e-mail, Dr. William Brown, president of Cedarville University, told me, “Cedarville has never changed its doctrinal statement. It maintains the same position on separation it has always held. Cedarville cannot separate from the Southern Baptists because we are not in any formal or informal association with them.”

What changes have occurred at Cedarville to prompt these new relationships?

No changes have occurred at Cedarville to gain new recommendations, and, thankfully, that is the reason behind the new relationships. Theologically conservative churches are attracted to Cedarville because we have not changed our doctrinal statement or spiritual distinctives. They also express appreciation for our daily chapel services required of all students and our requirement that every student complete the equivalent of a minor in Bible. The changes in these churches and church groups in their return to conservative theology have prompted them to notice Cedarville and come to appreciate what God has done through the University’s ministries for decades.

Cedarville University maintains that they have not made any doctrinal or policy changes in order to court the SBC.

How does Cedarville expect the GARBC to react to its new relationships?

We rejoice in the movement of God in many churches in reclaiming them from liberalism and giving them a commitment to inerrancy and a love for the doctrinal fidelity that has long been a hallmark of the GARBC and Cedarville University. We would hope that our friends who have prayed regularly and given sacrificially for Cedarville’s advancement would rejoice with us that so many more brethren now recognize the value of Christ-centered higher education and now recommend Cedarville because of our fidelity to the Scripture. We believe God is giving us an unparalleled opportunity to reach many more young people, and we intend to pursue vigorously all such opportunities with gratitude and joy.

How do I respond to Cedarville University’s position?

  • It is significant to note that they have not changed their doctrinal statement or their position on separation.
  • Their relationship with the SBC has come as a result of real changes within the SBC. I concur that the SBC has cleaned house to a large extent. They show signs of wishing to reform and pursue purity in their own institutions.
  • In accepting this relationship with the SBC, Cedarville University has not relinquished any control of their institution either doctrinally or academically.
  • I would not call Cedarville’s relationship with the SBC “sin.”
  • I believe that Cedarville has acted wisely and consistently with a biblical understanding of fellowship in agreeing to a relationship with the SBC.

How does the GARBC Council of Eighteen respond to Cedarville’s new relationships?

I refer the reader to The Council of Eighteen Decision Regarding Cedarville University, which, to my knowledge, is not available online. I will try to give the salient points.

Section 1 quotes Article XVI of the GARBC Articles of Faith. It then says, “…withdrawal from erring believers and from brothers with whom there are irresolvable theological differences may be required.”

Section 2 quotes Article II of the GARBC Constitution: “…to raise a standard of Biblical separation from worldliness, modernism and apostasy…”

Section 3 says, “The majority of the Council felt that Southern Baptists are inclusivists and permit the presence and ministry of liberals within the Convention.”

Section 4 says, “Although prior to November, 2004, Cedarville University had invited Southern Baptists to enroll as students, to teach as professors, and to serve as trustees of the Board, these were not a major factor in the Council’s decision. Rather, the Council principally made its decision in light of the University’s publicly declared relationship of ‘partnering’ to be inconsistent with the GARBC’s statement of doctrine and purpose.”

Sections 5, 6 and 7 had to do with circumstances leading up to the decision.

Section 8 says, “The refusal of Cedarville’s request was not made as a commentary on the University’s integrity nor as an attempt to accuse the University of changing its doctrinal statement. The Council acknowledges that there is a difference of opinion existing within our Fellowship in the area of separation and its application to contemporary ministry issues.”

Section 4 surprised me. The council actually says that having members of the SBC as students, professors, and Board trustees was not particularly bothersome to them–but this very loose “relationship” did bother them.

I did discuss some portions of this statement with one of the members of the Council of Eighteen by email. He gave permission for me to use one quote from that discussion:

I asked him the following:

Regarding section 8, which says, “The refusal of Cedarville’s request was not made as a commentary on the University’s integrity,” does this mean that the Council does not consider the University’s position to be one of ‘sin’?

His answer:

The key… is that the council did not see the action as ‘sin’ but inconsistent with the GARBC doctrine and purpose statements which the messengers of the GARBC had voted as the standard the council was to use for approval.

How do I respond to Council of Eighteen’s statement?

  • They do not call Cedarville’s choice to have a relationship with the SBC “sin.” This means that the trigger for “separation” has not been tripped and that “separation” is not commanded. Fellowship is not required, either; and even without “separating,” some may find enough difference to warrant departing. Therefore, the choices before the GARBC are fellowship with Cedarville or non-Fellowship.
  • If they insist on separating and calling it obedience to the Bible passages cited in this paper, then there is a problem. They are claiming to obey a biblical conditional command. By “conditional command,” I mean a command we are to obey when certain conditions are met. However, those conditions are not met. This is tantamount to adding to Scripture. They are placing additional conditions as triggers for the command so that they can “obey” it even though obedience is not actually indicated by the text.
  • With a couple amendments, however, they should be able to make the statement more appropriate. They must make it clear that the GARBC does not hold Cedarville to be in a position of sin, and that this is “separation without censure.” The council should acknowledge that there is no command to “separate,” while still asserting that the ministry choices of Cedarville are different from the GARBC as they understand them. Thus the council would be recommending “separation without censure” (of course, I’d prefer if they used a different term besides “separate”).
  • I do believe that the council does not intend to judge Cedarville University’s action as “sin.” But the current language makes this unclear. The Scriptures cited in the council’s statement on Cedarville are as follows:

1 Corinthians 6:14-7:1–This deals with idol worship and unbelievers.

1 Thessalonians 1:9-10–This deals with idol worship.

1 Timothy 6:3-5–This deals with false teachings.

Romans 16:17–This deals with causing divisions and with laying stumbling blocks before brothers.

2 John 9-11–Again, false teachings.

1 Corinthians 5:1-6–This deals with sin in the church and church discipline.

2 Thessalonians 3:6–This deals with those in sins of practical disobedience.

All of these passages deal with sin or false teaching. Should we not infer that the council does mean to say that Cedarville is hamarantos (sinful), ataktos (disobedient), hairetikos (heretical), or even apistos (without faith)? No we shouldn’t infer that. The reason is simply that such confusion is rampant in fundamentalist thought today. They might use these verses to bring up the subject of separation but not because they mean to imply that any of the conditions of these verses have actually been met. These are simply the verses one uses to defend “separation.” That these verses only defend the subset of “separation” to which they do not refer goes unnoticed.

All of these passages deal with commands that are to be obeyed when a person refuses to repent of sin or false teaching. It seems that the council wishes to have us take their statement as a position of obedience to Scripture. How can they do this when they admit the actual conditions in which that would be obedient have not been met? The council should not have included these Scriptures since they don’t apply to the situation at hand.

If the statement is amended so that it is obviously merely recommending non-Fellowship, then at least it would be clearly a legitimate Scriptural statement. If not, then I certainly hope that the GARBC Messengers would vote it down.

However, if the statement was so amended, I would still oppose it. My opposition would no longer be that it is vague and possibly anti-biblical, but that it would be a legitimate ministry choice with which I don’t happen to agree. If the statement is amended to show that there is no censure, then this becomes a matter of opinion. It is permissible to fellowship with Cedarville, but such fellowship is not required of the GARBC. Some in the GARBC may be of the opinion that Cedarville is simply not going in the same direction and that it is better to depart. Fine. My opinion is that Cedarville is making wise choices in regard to their fellowship. In general, we should preserve fellowship if possible. Even if the SBC has done an incomplete job of cleaning house, they still have nevertheless made impressive progress. I hope that biblical teachers, pastors, and lay people will pray for the SBC and do what they can to keep the SBC in the right direction. If Cedarville University can play a role in influencing the SBC to become more pure, I would rejoice in that.

Dan Miller is an ophthalmologist living in Cedar Falls, Iowa. He received a B.S. in Premed from Bob Jones University in 1991 and an M.D. from The University of South Carolina School of Medicine in 1995. He serves as youth leader and board member at Cedar Heights Baptist Church, also in Cedar Falls. He has been happily married to Jenny since 1992. His opinions are not necessarily those of his church or board.

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