By Ernest Pickering (1928-2000). Read Part 1.
The Practical Implementation of Separatist Convictions
The teachings of Scripture regarding separation must be implemented in a practical manner, or separation becomes a meaningless theory to which one gives lip service but that has no practical value in everyday life and ministry. Consider some of the areas of Christian work in which this doctrine must be obeyed.
Maintaining personal relationships
Separatists may have personal friendships that are broader than their official ties. Personal Christian fellowship is grounded primarily in a mutual knowledge of Christ as Savior. Personal interaction with other Christians is not wrong if it is found in contexts where compromise and disobedience are not involved.
Fellowshipping with other local churches
A church that would be true to God must not involve itself in a fellowship of churches or organizations in which it is going to compromise its character. Sometimes, because of expediency and in response to the trend of our times, churches are tempted to join some local body of churches. This is often done on the pretense that they are going to “promote the unity of the Body of Christ” or “show the unsaved world that Christians can get along with one another.” Their cooperation sounds kindly and magnanimous, but it is really subversive of a pure testimony for Christ. It sends mixed signals to the community: On the one hand, the church claims to proclaim and practice the truth; on the other hand, it is willing to cooperate with other churches that do not do the same.
Here are some questions a church could ask concerning any local church fellowship:
(1) Is the church happily cooperating with apostasy? If it is in an apostate group, and contentedly so, proper fellowship would be impossible.
(2) Is the church moving toward separation from an apostate group? If God is working in a church and the people are demonstrating dissatisfaction with their present apostate affiliation, they should be encouraged. The fellowship of separatists could provide that encouragement.
(3) Is a godly pastor seeking to strengthen the stand of the church that has had new evangelical tendencies? If so, a helping hand may be timely.
(4) Does the church have a good reputation in the community?
(5) Are the doctrines of the church compatible with those of your church? This compatibility would not necessarily imply 100 percent agreement, but it would demand a considerable agreement. Here again, prayerful judgment must be exercised.
(6) What do your members think about such cooperation? Will it cause a problem in your church?
(7) Will such cooperation damage the clear witness your church has maintained (assuming it has maintained such)?
Cooperating with interdenominational groups
Cooperation with interdenominational groups can be a sticky problem for pastors, since members of separatist churches often have direct or indirect connections with some interdenominational bodies. Some of the problems that separatists face with interdenominational groups are as follows:
(1) Their doctrinal position is usually rather general and broad.
(2) Comparatively few interdenominational groups take a strong separatist position because to do so would be to offend much of their constituency.
(3) They may tend to cultivate people’s loyalties and wean them away from, or at least weaken, their participation in the local church.
(4) If their stand on separation is weak and they have an influence within your church through some of the interdenominational group’s members, confusion and conflict can result.
Many separatist pastors have had heartaches as a result of interdenominational influence in their churches. The spirit of interdenominationalism is broad, and it is difficult to coordinate it with a separatist testimony. Some interdenominational organizations, however, have sought to be faithful to Biblical separation.
Accepting invitations to speak
Not all separatists face the same degree of problem in the area of their public speaking, but the problem can be a real one for separatist leaders who receive many requests for their ministry. A speaker may not have a personal knowledge of a pastor or church that extends an invitation, so care must be exercised because damage can be done if a separatist leader seems to condone a ministry that is not standing where it should.
Some questions to ask concerning groups requesting a speaker may provide help:
(1) What is the doctrinal position of the church or group? This position can be ascertained either from believers familiar with the group’s beliefs or from a printed statement.
(2) Does this organization cooperate with the apostasy in any way? If it does, and a separatist speaks there, his action will be interpreted as approval.
(3) Will your participation create a problem for local pastors in the area? Sometimes faithful separatist pastors discover that one of their leaders is a featured speaker in some church or group that has opposed the testimony of the local separatist churches for years. It can be extremely embarrassing for local pastors if their people say, “You have told us for years that So-and-So is not taking a firm stand, but Dr. What’s-His-Name [a leading separatist] is speaking at his church next Sunday. Why is this?”
(4) Do you run the risk of damaging the overall separatist testimony by your appearance? If so, is a onetime exposure really worth the risk?
Inviting speakers to your platform
Some leaders operate on the principle that they will use speakers who are well-known—even though they may be shaky in their convictions in some areas—because they have specialties that are helpful and thus can be a blessing to their students or congregations. However, the wisdom of following this course of action is doubtful. For instance, this writer once objected to the president of a professedly separatist college that a man who had been a featured speaker at the school was not a separatist and definitely was not in favor of the separatist position. The answer was, “But he was such a blessing to our students—a very gifted communicator.” Giftedness hardly constitutes a sufficient reason for bringing a man to the platform of a separatist school to address impressionable young students.
The speaker may have expertise in the Scriptures, be fundamental in doctrine, and possess a tremendous gift of communication. He may also be one who goes everywhere, evidencing little discernment in the choice of places where he ministers, speaking one week at the separatist college and perhaps the next at a Bible conference controlled by new evangelicals or their sympathizers. Some see no harm in using such a man. They consider only the messages he delivers from the platform, which in themselves may be without fault.
But a man is more than his pulpit messages. He brings to the pulpit a lifetime of associations, actions, and perhaps writings. He comes as a total person. Is he in his total ministry the type of person you would want the young people at the separatist college to emulate? Perhaps you—as an adult, mature believer—could make the necessary adjustments in thinking and divorce what he is from what he says. Most of the youth would be incapable of doing that. The same would be true of most church members. They would be influenced by the man’s example as well as by his preaching. If he is a compromiser, his example would be harmful, and the college president would be at fault for setting him up as a role model. The separatist cause is not advanced by featuring nonseparatists.
There are at least three questions to ask concerning people invited to speak at a separatist church or school:
(1) In his public ministry, does the man speak out clearly against not only the apostasy but also against new evangelicalism and the compromise of fellow believers? Many men bring helpful Bible messages, but they do not wish to be identified with any controversies, nor do they wish to “positionalize” themselves publicly on any thorny issue. They lack the fortitude and courage to be honored as featured speakers for separatist bodies.
(2) With whom does he regularly associate? If the man appears in conferences of a compromising nature, why should he also be used at a conference of those who are trying to avoid compromise? Many noted Bible teachers will appear at some separatist institution while their next engagement will be at some new evangelical conference. They are “evangelicals” in a broad sense and do not see any contradiction in such broad associations.
(3) With what group or denomination is he affiliated? If a man is, for instance, a leader in the Southern Baptist Convention, which includes many apostates, should he be featured at some separatist college even though he himself is a Bible-believing minister? By his actions is he not denying a fundamental truth, that is, that one should separate from apostates? His position is contrary to the position of the school where he is appearing, and no amount of fine preaching will obliterate that fact. He is doing wrong by cooperating with a denomination that permits false teachers in their midst.
Choosing mission agencies
Every church of Christ should be vitally concerned with the evangelization of the world. Assisting the church in fulfilling this obligation is the mission agency, which provides certain services that the average local church cannot provide. But compromise with unbelief has infiltrated many mission agencies, and careful screening should be done to see where one stands on the vital question of separation, as well as other doctrinal matters. It is sometimes difficult to obtain clear information on this topic from certain agencies. They want to put nothing in writing that will jeopardize their support from any portion of their rather widely varied constituency, so they will make generalizations but avoid specifics. A church should be interested not only in an agency’s published or official statement on separation (if there is such), but also in ascertaining what is the actual practice on the field. Often there are considerable discrepancies.
Some questions to ask concerning mission agencies are these:
(1) Do the leaders of the mission follow a consistent pattern of separation themselves? Are they involved in questionable associations?
(2) Does the mission include in its official documents statements of its position on ecumenism, new evangelicalism, the charismatic movement, and other troublesome issues?
(3) Do the mission and its missionaries actually implement the position outlined in their official documents?
(4) Are the missionaries of the mission knowledgeable regarding the Biblical teaching on ecclesiastical separation, and do they wholeheartedly endorse and practice it?
(5) Does the mission cooperate at home or on the field with organizations and persons who may not be consistent with their position?
(6) Is the board of the mission composed of strong separatists?
Recommending Christian colleges, universities, and seminaries
A local church should consider carefully what educational institutions it recommends to its young people. More than one youth from a separatist congregation has been sent off to a supposedly fundamental school only to come back a full-blown new evangelical or, at best, a watered-down separatist. While no church can (or should) control the individual decisions of each believer, a church does have the responsibility to teach its youth the Biblical principles upon which it stands, and to encourage them to attend colleges, universities, and seminaries that are consistent with that position. The separatist position will be perpetuated as we have leaders who are well trained in the Scriptures and have internalized separatist convictions rather than merely adopting those of someone else. Normally such leaders will be produced in institutions that possess such convictions themselves.
Many Christian colleges claim to be separatist schools, but they do not offer to their students any structured courses in the history and theological basis of separation. As a result, graduates of these institutions come out devoid of any real convictions. The separatist movement today is much weakened because many supposedly fundamental colleges have assumed that students learned all that was necessary to know about the separatist position in their local churches and that it was, therefore, unnecessary to teach them anything further in the college classroom. In some institutions while faculty members may give lip service to the cause of separatism, in their classroom teaching and in their private contacts they tend to undermine a strong position and turn students away from separatist convictions. A considerable number of schools believe that separation involves only removal from direct associations with apostates and does not include refusal to fellowship with disobedient believers. These are usually the ones who condemn what they call “secondary separation” as unbiblical.
Some questions to ask concerning Christian educational institutions give local churches some guidance:
(1) Is the school’s leadership outspoken and clear in embracing a Biblical position on separation?
(2) What kind of speakers address the student body? Are they men identified with the separatist cause, or are they “middle-of-the-roaders” who go either direction?
(3) Do members of the faculty have a reputation for teaching separatist principles in a cogent manner?
(4) What kind of men and women serve on the institution’s board of trustees? Are they separatists with convictions? (The makeup of a board of trustees has an important impact upon the position of the school.)
(5) Do the school’s graduates give some evidence of being well-taught in separatist principles, or do most of them tend to vacillate?
Evaluating literature and curriculum
It is truly amazing how many churches purporting to be separatist in character use Sunday School and other literature that is in contradiction to that position. It is not acceptable that literature used for the training of believers be merely “evangelical” in its content. It needs to be more specific than that. We will never produce men and women of conviction if we do not teach them clearly and systematically the things for which we stand.
There are some questions that an individual needs to ask in determining where he should go to minister or whom he should use to fill his pulpit. For laypeople, the issue is where they can go to minister (e.g., music), who should publish their books, who they may invite to speak to men’s and ladies’ groups, and the like. Here are some questions to consider:
(1) How will my actions affect the ministries of other believers who are trying to take a stand for God in their own communities? On one occasion a professedly separatist college sent its choir to perform at a new evangelical church in an area where some separatist pastors were taking a stand against that church and its compromises. Needless to say, much harm was done.
(2) What theological confusion will be conveyed to the public if I (or my church) follow a given course of action? Will the position that I have occupied be blurred in the minds of people by my association with certain persons or groups? Is consistency important?
(3) What is the real purpose behind a group’s efforts to enlist my support? Nonseparatists often like to include separatists in their organization or cooperative endeavor as a kind of window dressing to prove that their group is truly a separatist body when, in fact, it may not be.
(4) What are the general attitudes of the body or individuals with whom I am considering cooperation? Have they demonstrated a true commitment to the principles that I hold? Are they willing to pay a price to hold them? And there is a price to be paid.
(Next: The Pitfalls of Separatists)
Ernest Pickering (1928–2000) was a noted leader in American fundamentalism, having ministered as a pastor, seminary president, and leader in missionary organizations. He earned a ThD from Dallas Theological Seminary and was a 40-year member of the Evangelical Theological Society. This article is an excerpt from his book Biblical Separation: The Struggle for a Pure Church, published by Regular Baptist Press. This book, along with his pamphlets, articles, and additional books, have widely influenced the fundamentalist and evangelical movements.