Aphorisms for Thinking about Separation: Setting the Stage

Some time ago I had a long talk and walk with an older, godly, academic separatist about the history of separatism. By separatist, I mean someone who separates not only from apostasy but also separates from those who do not separate from apostasy. (I am being vague on the timing and details as the conversation was a friendly courtesy to me.)

About an hour or so into our talk, I played my rhetorical trump card—the original word for Pharisee means separatist. It cut him deep. And for first time we moved from theory to life. I looked into the eyes of a godly, thoughtful man and recognized the truth of what he next said with tears welling up in his eyes, “I am not trying to be a Pharisee; I am just trying to serve Jesus.”

I backpedalled a bit and tried to draw out the sting of my words. We recovered the emotional balance of the conversation and moved on. Yet the Holy Spirit has used the conversation and the moment of deeply hurting a servant of my Lord as a helpful reminder to speak and write carefully on this issue.

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Look Who's Separating Now

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.

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Church Planting Thirty Years Later

In 1982 my wife and I planted our first church in Philadelphia – Faith Independent Baptist Church. The long church name seemed awkward back then but I wanted to be sure people knew up front where I stood. Fresh from eight years of ministry training at fundamentalist schools, I was a committed independent, fundamental Baptist. As extra insurance to validate my IFB credentials, I often added “militant and separatist” as well. The church’s doctrinal statement enshrined a dispensational hermeneutic essential for correct interpretation, the pre-tribulational rapture as the next event on the prophetic calendar, and the King James Version as the official translation. As a church we were known more for what we were against than for who we were.

Fast forward to 2011 where in the same city I am now working with a team of elders to plant another church in a spiritual wasteland where we parachuted in with a few families but without a significant core group. After thirty years of church planting I claim no special expertise, offer no guarantees of success, and sense an even greater dependency upon the Lord to build His church. Similar struggles, resistance to the gospel remain.

This one-year-old church is elder led, non-denominational, non-dispensational, and uses the English Standard Version. Much has changed. Most remains the same. I would venture to add that what is essential has not changed. In areas where change has occurred, thirty years of ministry, of study, of relationships, and of experiences have conspired to bring me to the place I am today. For many years IFB was all I knew or cared to know. Now I find myself rarely at home in this fragmented movement of competing networks. I find myself increasingly on the outside looking in. This is my journey, but I’m glad I was not alone.

After planting a church in Philadelphia from 1982-1987 my family and I went to France and then Romania in church planting and pastoral training ministry. Those years spent overseas provided opportunities for fellowship with believers from different horizons and spared me the need to engage in many of the needless conflicts being fought in the States. There was less need to conform to others’ expectations of what it meant to be safely within the fundamentalist orbit.

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The Fortress


Once upon a time, a kingdom was attacked by brigands while the King was absent. The brigands captured much of the King’s territory, at least temporarily. Some of the King’s subjects even made peace with the brigands. One band of hardy yeomen, however, determined to defend the kingdom at all costs.

Perceiving (as they thought) that they could not repel all brigands everywhere, they gathered in the heart of the kingdom. If they could not defend the entire kingdom, they would at least protect its heart. They staked out their territory in the heart of the kingdom, and there they erected a fortress from which to hurl stones and shoot arrows at the King’s adversaries.

Their fortress, however, was small and rather rude, while the subjects who had capitulated often dwelt in cities that were passing fair. Many who hated the brigands thought that they could live safely in these cities while occasionally protesting against the invasion. Others hesitated in between, not liking the cities and wanting to fight the brigands, but liking the look of the fortress even less. That is when a few within the fortress shouted, “If you will not come within our walls, then you are the enemy!” And they threw stones at them.

For many years the situation remained thus. Some who lived in the fortress would speak with some who dwelt in the land, but this, too, was hazardous. To be seen speaking to one who was not of the fortress was to risk a stone to the noggin. Those who lived in the fortress could not always tell the difference between a defender of the heart of the kingdom, a capitulator from the cities, and a person of the land who dwelt in neither place.

As the defenders began to erect the second story of the fortress, a few of them created private chambers of their own. Such insisted that their chamber was the entire kingdom, and its builder was the King’s anointed. These builders provoked conflicts with the builders of other rooms and chambers. Not infrequently, they would assassinate their rivals within the fortress. Because the bodies were buried carefully in a deep dungeon, no one thought that they would ever be found.

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"Every Southern Baptist conservative is a New Evangelical."

“This year Kevin Bauder of Central Baptist has used his blog to praise ‘conservative evangelicals’ such as Southern Baptist Seminary head Al Mohler, John MacArthur, John Piper, D.A. Carson, and R. C. Sproul. Central recently invited Bill Edmonson, a graduate of the New Evangelical Gordon Conwell Seminary, to lead a workshop in February 2011. Central graduate David Sorenson observes: ‘Dr. Clearwaters, the founder of Central, would roll over in his grave if he knew this.

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