Implementing Separatist Convictions, Part 1

by Ernest Pickering (1928–2000)

Considerable discussion is taking place today as to why so many younger men raised in the separatist tradition are failing to take a good position and, in some cases, are backing off from the fray. One of the major reasons, it seems to me, is that they are disgusted with the lack of discernment on the part of some separatists who cannot distinguish between what is truly crucial to fellowship and what is not crucial.

It is one thing to embrace Biblical truth concerning separatism. It is quite another to implement it in day-to-day relationships. While a person may possess good convictions, he or she may not be able to clearly discern the right course of action; and separatists do not always agree among themselves as to the proper response to a given problem. So we separatists need to give attention to how we implement what we believe.1

Guidelines for Determining the Extent of Cooperative Fellowship with Other Believers

A few questions are suggested by Scripture that will aid the sincere believer in determining the boundaries of fellowship.

(1) Am I honoring God by my fellowship? “Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). When a believer remains in an apostate denomination, that believer is supporting the Lord’s enemies through his or her money and presence. Is that believer honoring the Lord by “staying in”? In all that we do we must earnestly seek to honor God.

(2) Am I aiding or encouraging someone to continue a walk of disobedience? The Bible clearly teaches that believers are to separate from apostasy. If a great preacher continues to remain within a group largely influenced by apostates and a separatist church has him speak, is this occasion helping or hindering others?

After Paul was converted, he went to Jerusalem, where he received the “right hands of fellowship” from James, Peter, and John (Galatians 2:9). Later, however, when Peter went to Antioch, Paul said he “withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed” (v. 11). Peter had not clearly enunciated that believers are delivered from the Mosaic law, so Paul undertook to correct his Christian brother. In this case, Peter repented of his error, and the purity of the faith was preserved. True fellowship demands confrontation when problems arise.

We can, in the name of brotherly love, employ men who are still in the apostasy. They can speak at our Bible conferences or write for our publications. But when they do, we are really telling them that their fellowship with apostates is not so bad after all. Having them participate with us is not the way to assist them from the path of disobedience.

(3) Will my cooperation with a person or organization give the impression that I condone a lackadaisical attitude toward apostasy and compromise? Did not the writer of Proverbs say, “The fear of the Lord is to hate evil” (Proverbs 8:13)? Is the support of apostasy, its publications, schools, spokesperson, and missions evil? If it is, do I as God’s child truly hate it? Or do I have softer feelings toward it? Believers cannot afford to have lackadaisical attitudes toward false religious systems that the Lord hates. Yet if believers continually fellowship with people who remain in these groups and support them, what are they saying by such actions?

(4) Will others under my leadership or influence be tempted to further compromise or be confused or weakened in their testimony because of my actions? Leaders are to be examples to other believers (1 Timothy 4:12). We must always ask the question, What is my responsibility to others? We cannot live to ourselves. We are responsible for our brothers and sisters as well.

(5) What long-range effects will cooperation have? Bob Jones Sr. often said, “Never sacrifice the permanent on the altar of the immediate.” It is a principle worth pondering and applying. We must consider what effects, good or bad, will accrue from a certain course of action.

Henry Parsons Crowell, a great Christian businessman, pondered the reason for the success of the apostasy within his own denomination and others. His biographer (who, incidentally, spent many weeks in personal conference with Mr. Crowell) gave this analysis of Mr. Crowell’s conclusions regarding the limits of cooperative fellowship:

Mr. Crowell finally realized that all attacks on faith were essentially the same; the discrediting of the Bible as the inerrant and perfect revelation of Truth and the Will of God. That was the Leaven of the Sadducees, whether it was the innuendoes of a maturing mind, or the broadside blasts of an endowed professor.

The integrity of the Bible, he felt, was the issue to be maintained no matter where it led! You can see in his own life just where it led him!

He began his Christian life by holding the Bible as true and authentic history. Then, he began to feel that his belief was a necessary qualification for every gospel worker.

Then he realized the case could be lost if it were not implemented at this point. No general worker should be kept on church pay rolls who did not accept the Bible as true and authentic history. Moreover, no one should be tolerated in high authority who did not accept the Bible as true and authentic history.

To his amazement, he saw that even with these precautions, faith was still losing the battle!

He realized that not only must faith be careful to select workers and leaders who are Bible believers; but these workers and leaders themselves must be intolerant of unbelievers in office! If they were tolerant it could bring defeat just as effectively as if they themselves were infidels. Therefore, faith must not support men in authority who, though they are themselves Bible believers, are tolerant of others in positions of trust and authority who do not so believe.

Mr. Crowell saw that the battle against the Leaven of the Sadducees was being lost in Christendom today by reason of—Tolerance toward believers who were tolerant toward unbelievers.2

Some General Considerations for Separatists

Separatists need to remember certain axioms as they wend their way through the maze of varied situations that they constantly face.

Some issues are complex

Fundamentalists and separatists are accustomed to seeing things in blacks and whites. For them (theoretically at least) there are no grays. From God’s viewpoint that is true. Our problem is that we cannot always tell immediately what is the right or wrong course of action in a given situation. Not everything is always crystal clear. Some separatists, quick on the draw and perhaps blessed with more discernment or faster spiritual reflexes than others, come immediately to what they consider the heart of a problem, draw the lines, and expect everyone immediately to step over them. Many factors, however, must be considered in approaching a problem. Some believers may still be weighing those factors and trying to determine the mind of God, while others have already “passed over Jordan.” Sometimes we give the impression that there are pat, easily accessible answers for every decision we must make regarding separation. That is not always true. Life is complex, and we must face that fact.

Personalities differ

Some people are by nature scrappers. They are not afraid to confront a situation immediately and take a strong, open stand. Some are by nature pugnacious and rather enjoy a good fight. Others who may possess separatist convictions are by nature more reticent to become involved in open controversy. They will follow separatist convictions when driven to a decision, but they will tend to avoid a confrontation if possible. Many of these differences are reflections of varying personalities. Separatists are people too! There are different kinds of them. In fairness we must recognize and accept that truth and be careful lest we, too, carelessly mark as a compromiser someone who may not approach a problem in the same manner as we do.

Contexts differ

One may see an issue a bit differently than another because of the context in which he or she is operating. We all tend to be influenced by our background and experiences, and we all have different points of reference. A separatist must try to see his brother’s point of view before acting too hastily to turn his back on him. This is especially true if a brother has maintained a consistent separatist testimony through the years but differs with someone else on some isolated question of implementation. We must be careful not to compromise vital convictions, but at the same time we must be big enough to allow another person to differ with us without rejecting that person.

(Read Part 2.)

Notes

1 In addition to the material from the first edition of Biblical Separation, portions of this article are from a later booklet by Ernest Pickering, Should We Ever Separate from Christian Brethren? An Examination of the Issue of So-Called Secondary Separation (Minneapolis: Central Baptist Theological Seminary, n.d.). Two former associates of Pickering have produced works from a similar perspective that discuss the implementation of separatist convictions. See Mark Sidwell, The Dividing Line: Understanding and Applying Biblical Separation (Greenville, SC: Bob Jones University Press, 1998); and Fred Moritz, Be Ye Holy: The Call to Christian Separation (Greenville, SC: Journeyforth Press, 2000). See also the suggestions offered by Douglas McLachlan in “Implementing Authentic Separation,” Reclaiming Authentic Fundamentalism (Independence, MO: American Association of Christian Schools, 1993), 114–142.

2 Richard Ellsworth Day, A Christian in Big Business (Chicago: Moody, 1946), 268–69.


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.

Republished with permission from Baptist Bulletin © Regular Baptist Press. All rights reserved.

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There are 41 Comments

Jay's picture

Help me if my logic is wrong. However, it seems to me that if you accept these two premises, you have to accept the conclusion:

1) CCM is wrong (ie sin).
2) A person that continues in sin is not saved.

Conclusion: People that continue to listen to CCM are not saved.

Hey Greg -

Good questions.  I actually agree with you that the use of CCM is not a sin or wrong (again, depending on how you define and use it). I also agree with Bert's statement "I detest most CCM because it is lyrically and musically deficient IMO", because it really is that way.

For the second point, Matthew 18:17 would indicate that a believer who continually persists in their "sin" is not saved and should not be treated as believers.

Finally, there are more than a few people that I could name and who I do respect that have said that the use of CCM is a separation issue for them and their church, and that they would limit fellowship and co-working with other organizations on the basis of its' presence or use.  So my point to them has always been - so then this is a sin issue.  And their typical response is "no, it's not that serious to warrant disfellowship".  You can read the SharperIron archives to see it plain as day.

So what is it?  Either it's serious enough to label as a sin and separate or it's not.  But don't claim it's both.  This is why all the discussions about cultural fundamentalism are so important.

"Our task today is to tell people — who no longer know what sin is...no longer see themselves as sinners, and no longer have room for these categories — that Christ died for sins of which they do not think they’re guilty." - David Wells

Larry's picture

Moderator

Well, what do the Fundamentals state about the proper modes for praising God?  Or the Apostle's Creed, or the Trinity, or the Solas?  They seem pretty quiet, hence the proper modes for praise do not seem to be a fundamental.

You're big on what you call "the first fundamental" and yet here don't even appeal to the Scripture here. Odd, isn't it? Has it occurred to you that perhaps the whole idea of "fundamentals" as a list of really important doctrines to define fellowship over is not actually supported by the Bible? That's not to say it isn't useful in some contexts, but it seems to me that if the Bible teaches something, it is to be obeyed, no matter what it has been called or how important one deems it to be. Perhaps the standard is not whether something is "fundamental" but whether something is clear. So it goes back to the biblical basis for declaring worship to be flexible. It is the second commandment and then built up in many other passages. 

However, God killed people for worshipping him wrongly. Not sure whether that makes it a fundamental, but if you're dead, does it really matter what it was labeled?

 

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

It's always going to be a bit fuzzy at the borders, but a "list of fundamentals" of some sort is essential to any viable separatism. Without it, either separation doesn't occur when it should, or it occurs when it should not. In the beginning of the movement, though there wasn't a single agreed upon list, there was substantial unity around a set of core beliefs that were under attack. This allowed "fundamentalism" and separatism to cohere enough to attempt to regain control, then, failing that, separate.

But over time as consensus around criteria for separation faded, separatism atomized.... precisely because of lack of something pretty close to a list.

But there are two different things we're in danger of conflating here:

  • Ability to take a firm stand on what we believe to be obedience to Scripture
  • Need to sever all ties from a ministry/leader, declare him "the enemy," and devote significant amounts of energy to denouncing that ministry/leader

There's a space the size of the Milky Way between those two, but it's amazing how often nobody seemed able to see it, back in the day.

Our present situation is better, though more complex, maybe even chaotic. It's better to be messy than to march in lock step over a cliff.

Larry's picture

Moderator

It's always going to be a bit fuzzy at the borders, but a "list of fundamentals" of some sort is essential to any viable separatism. 

It might be fuzzy at the borders, but that only matters if borders of fundamentalism matter. Anytime we are talking about fellowship, we have to talk about purpose: What are we fellowshipping for? The purpose of the fellowship will determine the extent of agreement needed. The idea that there is a list that is all-sufficient is, well, insufficient.

Bert Perry's picture

Larry, a basic principle of literary interpretation is that any text has its central points, without which the whole text falls apart. So at one level, the principle of fundamentals is inherent in the basics of literature, and does not need to be repeated.

But that said, it's not like Scripture doesn't give us any hints as to what is more important.  The gospel of John leads with a longer passage emphasizing the deity of Christ, a pattern repeated in 1 John.  The general theme of Romans is of course sola gratia and sola fide.  Genesis leads with the basic fact of creation, and really even Genesis 1 falls apart without an understanding of the Trinity, as does Psalm 110.

But if you want everything to be a fundamental, be my guest, I guess.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Larry's picture

Moderator

But if you want everything to be a fundamental, be my guest, I guess.

A basic principle of literary interpretation is start with reading what was actually said. If you want to converse (or argue) with someone who wants everything to be a fundamental, then you will have to find that person somewhere else. I am not that person. Please don't clutter up the thread with this. If you wish to respond to what i said, I will be glad to interact. Otherwise, I won't.

Greg Long's picture

Larry, I think it's more than just if a certain doctrine in clearly taught in Scripture, correct? It would also be how much weight Scripture gives that doctrine? Paul said the gospel is of first importance, which means that not everything can be of first importance. Other Scriptural doctrines--even clearly presented doctrines--are not of first importance.

Forgive me for stating the obvious, but I think this is the foundational problem with certain aspects of fundamentalism. All the teachings of Scripture--and a lot of teachings added to Scripture--are elevated to the level of first importance. And therefore, nothing is of first importance.

-------
Greg Long, Ed.D. (SBTS)

Pastor of Adult Ministries
Grace Church, Des Moines, IA

Adjunct Instructor
School of Divinity
Liberty University

Bert Perry's picture

Larry wrote:

But if you want everything to be a fundamental, be my guest, I guess.

A basic principle of literary interpretation is start with reading what was actually said. If you want to converse (or argue) with someone who wants everything to be a fundamental, then you will have to find that person somewhere else. I am not that person. Please don't clutter up the thread with this. If you wish to respond to what i said, I will be glad to interact. Otherwise, I won't.

It's worth noting that if you look at the full comment I made, I did indeed respond to you in some detail, and moreover, if we cloud the distinctions of fundamentals, we are indeed preparing the ground for everythingism, whether you would confess to that or not.  Perhaps....read what I wrote in context and don't cherry-pick things to pick at me?

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Larry's picture

Moderator

Larry, I think it's more than just if a certain doctrine in clearly taught in Scripture, correct?

What do you mean "more than"? "More than" for what purpose? I know you are not suggesting that we can pick and choose what parts of Scripture we believe and obey, right? Since we can't pick and choose what we believe and obey, the only alternative i can see is that we obey all of it. We allow difference on things that are not clear because we aren't sure what obedience looks like.

For instance, we might disagree on whether obedience requires a plurality of elders. I think it's pretty clear; others do too, but on the opposite side. That doesn't matter if we are having a cup of coffee together. It does matter if we are planting a church. Now, in between those two, we have to decide how much it matters for a given participation together. A Christmas Eve service? Good Friday service? Combined choir concert? Supporting a missionary? 

But regardless of one's position, there is a true position, e.g., one that God has decreed to be correct. Either plural elders are required (in some fashion) or they are not. There is no middle ground on that. God did not both require plural elders and allow for solo elders.

It would also be how much weight Scripture gives that doctrine? Paul said the gospel is of first importance, which means that not everything can be of first importance. Other Scriptural doctrines--even clearly presented doctrines--are not of first importance.

I am not sure the category of "weight" is a biblical one. Something is either true or not. And the standard for that is whether or not God said it, not how many times he said it or some sort of "weight" we might assign to it. It might be unclear exactly what the truth is, but it is either truth or not. It is true that some doctrines are essential to  Christianity, that is, without them we have no Christianity at all. It is also true that some doctrines can be denied without losing Christianity. So in that sense, "fundamental" makes sense. But what is that actually useful for? (See above.)

And "first importance" might not mean "more important than anything else." It might mean more foundational to the Christian faith. 

Forgive me for stating the obvious

I am not sure that what you stated was obvious at all.

But again, we have to go back to more foundational question, one of "first importance" if you will, namely, What is the purpose of this proposed fellowship? Depending on how we answer that, we can then determine what level of agreement is necessary for participation together. 

I think what you and Bert (and many others) have suggested is what leads to the idea that we can pick and choose what we obey and what we don't. Of course you wouldn't say that, but how do you avoid it?

In the end, all doctrines are not equally significant for everything. But everything God has revealed is true and is required to be believed and obeyed with appropriate application.

dcbii's picture

EditorModerator

Larry wrote:

I am not sure the category of "weight" is a biblical one. Something is either true or not. And the standard for that is whether or not God said it, not how many times he said it or some sort of "weight" we might assign to it. It might be unclear exactly what the truth is, but it is either truth or not. It is true that some doctrines are essential to  Christianity, that is, without them we have no Christianity at all. It is also true that some doctrines can be denied without losing Christianity. So in that sense, "fundamental" makes sense.

...

In the end, all doctrines are not equally significant for everything. But everything God has revealed is true and is required to be believed and obeyed with appropriate application.

I agree with your last statement.  But Jesus himself brings up the concept of "weight" in Matthew 23:23, while still affirming your last statement:

Matthew 23:23 -- Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone. [bold mine]

Jesus makes clear that all of the law is to be obeyed, but that some matters are indeed weightier than others, and he points out that to be so picky about the less weighty matters while omitting the more weighty ones is both hypocritical and worthy of special derision.

Since we need to obey everything in the Word, the concept of weight doesn't give us an "out" to ignore any of it, but the fact that it is there and stated pretty clearly would seem to indicate where we need to concentrate our priorities.

Of course, you've also mentioned the issue with clarity or interpretation of things God said or what we interpret them to mean.  Since those are difficult to solve, it is still useful to keep a core set of beliefs we can agree on (like in a creed) to give us some help when choosing who to work and fellowship with.  Clearly, both credo- and paedo- baptists can't both be right (though both could be at least partly wrong about how they exercise the doctrine of baptism), and differences will limit fellowship and working together, but as far as I can tell, those differences do not allow one to declare the other outside the fellowship of Christ, even when both can't be completely obedient on that doctrine.  That's why I believe the concept of "core" doctrines is still valuable, even if flawed.

Dave Barnhart

Greg Long's picture

Larry, of course I'm not suggesting there are some parts we should obey and other parts we shouldn't. 

As Dave pointed out, I think there is validity to the idea of what "weight" a doctrine is given in Scripture. I think the concept of "first importance" is related to "weight." We give more "weight" to things that are of higher importance. 

Obviously we each have to come to a place of conviction on the clarity and importance of various doctrines of Scripture and how that will affect personal and ecclesiastical separation.

-------
Greg Long, Ed.D. (SBTS)

Pastor of Adult Ministries
Grace Church, Des Moines, IA

Adjunct Instructor
School of Divinity
Liberty University

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