By Norm Olson. Republished with permission from Baptist Bulletin Jan/Feb 2012. All rights reserved.
In an ecumenical age when Christians are expected to shed their differences in order to achieve whatever man-made unions can be mustered, Bible-believing fundamentalists are often castigated for emphasizing pure doctrine. We’re seen as negative, obstructionist, bigoted. “Separation” becomes a dirty word, an old-fashioned idea from another era.
But in recent days a most interesting phenomenon has been taking place—people in mainline denominations are separating in droves! Three groups in particular have been in the news: the Episcopal Church USA, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and the Presbyterian Church USA. These groups, rather than experiencing the unity they are so adamant about, are witnessing a proliferation of new denominations or associations composed of dissatisfied members. Why are these people leaving and forming these new groups? Are certain Biblical teachings nonnegotiable after all?
Before taking a look at each of these three representative groups, one should note that the mass exodus of people from these denominations is actually not new and has been occurring for many years, particularly since the late 1950s. I spent the first 11 years of my life in an ELCA church, and I remember vividly the events surrounding my parents’ seeing ominous clouds on the horizon in the group even in the late ’50s. As born-again believers, they felt the need to leave for doctrinal reasons, as did a number of other families and individuals. The exodus continued. Between 1988 and 2008, the ELCA lost 737 congregations and 654,161 members. Some congregations lost up to 50 percent of their members. Denominations lost millions of dollars in annual giving.
Today the issue of homosexuality has become the last straw, finally grabbing the attention of church members in the fracturing groups. More than a social issue, the religious acceptance of homosexuality reveals the long-term denominational drift regarding the authority of Scripture in all matters of faith and practice.
It is evident that leading neo-evangelicals believe that our main goal is to eliminate doctrinal distinctives and to emphasize unity among those claiming to be believers.
One of the basic ideas of today’s philosophy of ecumenical evangelism is that love is more important than doctrine. Ecumenical evangelists say that doctrine divides, whereas love unifies. What does the Bible say? Is it true that in the New Testament love is more important than doctrine, or truth?
In the so-called “love chapter,” we are told: “Now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love [agape]” (NKJV, 1 Cor. 13:13). Some say—“That settles it: love is supreme!” But when we examine this chapter more carefully, we discover that truth is also mentioned. In v. 6 we are told that love “rejoices in the truth.” In other words, faith, hope and love are virtues, but truth has an altogether different status. It is the frame of reference, the foundation, the atmosphere without which virtues such as love cannot exist at all.
Love “rejoices in the truth.” Why? Because without truth to define, interpret, protect, guide and channel it, love can become a total disaster. We dare not place truth on the same level as virtues. Virtues would shrivel up and die if it were not for truth.
Here is an example from the natural world. We cannot imagine life on this planet without water. Water is absolutely essential for life—as long as it stays within proper channels, such as canals, aqueduct and pipes. But when water gets out of control, it is the second greatest catastrophe that can happen to this planet—second only to fire. On the one hand, it is an absolute blessing, but on the other hand it can be a total disaster. So it is with love.
Panel discussion at Advancing the Church conference. Mark Dever, Dave Doran, Kevin Bauder, and Tim Jordan respond to questions posed by Sam Harbin, February 23, 2011.
Lately, some fresh thinking has been going on in the area of biblical separation (especially “ecclesiastical separation”). A much-needed rethinking has begun, and I, for one, am glad to see it.
The rethinking comes with some hazards, though. One is that we’ll only think far enough to unravel some bad ideas and practices of the past then sort of leave the yarn all over the family room floor for some future generation to make into something. Of course, there’s also the danger that, having discovered a flaw or two in the scarf, we’ll unravel well past the flaws and undo the good with the bad—and never quite put it back.
But enough knitting analogies.
One of the matters we need to think further about is what exactly we mean by the term “separation.” To some separatists, separation happens any time we decline to get involved with another leader or another ministry. A few apparently believe this is the case regardless of the reason for not cooperating. Separation is simply the absence of active fellowship.
I argue here that biblical separation is a much weightier act, a punitive and censorious one. Its face is not a petulant sneer but is also not an ambivalent smile given to a neighbor who happens to prefer the other side of the street. The face of biblical separation is a pained and grieving one, even while it is angry and frowning in deep disapproval.