Over the last few weeks, I have written a few articles critical of the fundamentalist movement. One might wonder (and some have through comments, phone calls, and emails) why I still consider myself a fundamentalist when the movement has such obvious problems.
The main reason (and there are others) why I will always be a fundamentalist and why I do not consider myself an evangelical or even a conservative evangelical is because I believe in the biblical doctrine of Ecclesiastical separation. What is this doctrine of Ecclesiastical separation? I’m glad you asked.
In the later part of the 1800s, the world was in the beginning stages of a radical technological revolution. It seemed like overnight people were figuring out problems that had plagued the world for ages: like how to cut down on death rates in surgery (Joseph Lister), how to keep your house lit at night without burning something (Thomas Edison), and how to efficiently move stuff and people from point A to point B (Trains and automobiles). By the early 1900s, scientific advancement had produced so many lifestyle improvements that it seemed like the world had been changed for the better overnight. People placed a great deal of hope in science and the scientific method, and openly predicted a time when the world’s evils would be made a thing of the past by scientific and technological betterment. They didn’t know that the scientific ideas they uplifted would produce the gassings and killings of World War 1, the Eugenics movement, and ultimately the Haulocost. Science was the messiah of the day, and questioning science was sacrilege.
Because of this, many religious leaders started to take a second look at scripture and question the things that were “non-scientific”. The creation, the crossing of the Red Sea, the virgin birth of Christ, the inspiration of scripture and many more scriptural teachings came under the scrutiny of these self styled “Modernists” or “Progressives”. Organizations that had long stood firm for the principles of scripture (Like the Presbyterian Church USA, the American Baptist and Southern Baptist Conventions in the USA and the Baptist Union in England) began to be infiltrated and influenced by these “Theological Liberals”. In a short time they had secured places of leadership in denominational colleges and seminaries.
These changes did not go unnoticed by faithful pastors and teachers and many of them stood up for the “faith once delivered to the saints”. People like J. Gresham Machen of Princeton Seminary and Charles Spurgeon in London went on the attack for the “fundamentals of the faith” and tried to rid their respective denominations of doctrinal deviants. When these and others were unsuccessful, they left, either starting their own denominations (like the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church) or choosing to remain independent of any denomination. These pioneer fundamentalists paid a heavy price, often losing their retirement funds, having their ordinations revoked and being formally blackballed by their old associations.
The principle these men (and later generations of fundamentalists) invoked in their exodus of mainline denominations was ecclesiastical separation.
Ecclesiastical separation is the refusal to associate with churches, leaders, or institutions that reject the open teaching of scripture.
Not many pastors and churches practice ecclesiastical separation – most of those who do are considered “fundamentalists” and are thus marginalized by mainstream christianity – so you would think that scripture says little about this subject. After all, if so many pastors and leaders aren’t practicing ecclesiastical separation, surely there isn’t any clear cut scriptural doctrine on it.
One would think that, but one would be wrong.
There are many passages that, if followed, would result in clear convictions about ecclesiastical separation. Consider 1 Timothy 6:3-5:
“If any man teach otherwise, and consent not to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which is according to godliness; He is proud, knowing nothing, but doting about questions and strifes of words, whereof cometh envy, strife, railings, evil surmisings, Perverse disputings of men of corrupt minds, and destitute of the truth, supposing that gain is godliness: from such withdraw thyself.”
Notice Paul’s succinct advise to Timothy on dealing with false teachers: “from such withdraw thyself”. Sounds like separation to me.
Consider also Romans 16:17
“Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offenses contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them.”
Again, what possible interpretation of that verse could be made other than that we are to mark and separate from those who teach false doctrine. Mark them, avoid them. Pretty clear.
We could go on. A quick perusal of 2 John or the book of Jude would make you think ecclesiastical separation should be a foregone conclusion to any open minded student of scripture. Unfortunately, it’s not.
There are many evangelicals who, though they themselves believe in the clear teachings of the Bible, are more than willing to associate with those who do not. They, through their denominations, endorsements, speaking engagements and other allegiances profess to stand for the truth while standing next to those who are tearing it apart.
I’m sorry, but that’s not for me.
A relationship with Christ demands purity. Just as my relationship with my wife keeps me from close association with women my age, my relationship to Christ and to His word keeps me out of association with those who are tearing down His teaching and denying His self-professed character.
That is why I am a fundamentalist: Ecclesiastical Separation.
Unfortunately, I can’t stop there. Many people label themselves a fundamentalist and profess to believe in separation but distort it. They take this Biblical doctrine, meant to keep the body of Christ pure, and they use it to preserve their own clique or to insulate themselves from any criticism.
There is a big difference between ecclesiastical separation based on principle and flowing out of obedience to Christ and God’s word and ecclesiastical separation as a convenient excuse to never explain your positions, to exercise control over your tribe, and to prevent any changes from occurring in your church or movement.
I want to point out three errant variants of ecclesiastical separation, which are, unfortunately pretty prevalent in modern fundamentalist “circles”:
Camp Separation is refusing fellowship with other churches because they aren’t a part of your particular tribe. I’ve heard of churches who will only fellowship with churches and pastors who graduated from Hyles Anderson College. I’ve heard of churches who refuse to take on missionaries because they are supported by independent Bible churches, and I’ve heard of baptist churches breaking fellowship with a man because he preached for a fundamentalist group of Presbyterians.
In each of those cases, it was obvious that ecclesiastical separation was invoked not because of doctrinal error, but because of harmless labels and associations.
I’m afraid that in the arms of the wrong men, ecclesiastical separation is little more than a weapon to use against Christian brothers who dare to think for themselves. The doctrine of separation was never meant to be a whip to scare young preachers into staying in a certain circle, but unfortunately I think that is how it is often used.
Closely tied to camp separation is what I would call everythingism separation. Whereas fundamentalist refuse to associate with those who don’t agree with them on the fundamentals of the faith, everythingist refuse to associate with those who don’t agree with them on everything.
I’ve heard of pastors who were ridiculed and pushed out of fellowship for growing goatees, for using a screen in church, or for having midweek services at a different time than on wednesday night at 7:00 p.m..
No where is this kind of separation more evident in fundamentalism than in the area of music. I’ve heard many many times that a church was “off” in their music and needed to be avoided. The churches in question weren’t bringing electric guitars into their service, they weren’t hiring a “praise team” or rapping out for Jesus. Usually, they were just using a style of music that was unfamiliar or different from what their critics used. For example, I have many times heard West Coast Baptist College criticized for their music and they recently produced a book which is, in my opinion, the best polemic in support of conservative Christian music I have ever read.
Again, this kind of ecclesiastical separation ends up just being a tool that pastors and leaders use to control and threaten their followers.
The last errant variety of separation that I see in fundamentalism today is “Old Paths” Separation. There are pastors who are threatened by anything new, even if it is outside of the realm of biblical criticism, and they want to form fellowships that insulate them from any change.
Culture changes and culture has changed. The Bible is mute in some areas where culture has changed. The Bible says nothing, for instance about what type of microphone you use or whether or not you use a screen in church. The Bible says nothing about your use of facebook, twitter or the church website (although it says a lot about how we communicate, and those rules still apply). The Bible says nothing specific about pews, architectural styles, or even about dressing up in church. (Did it ever occur to people that most of the Christians in the world probably don’t have two changes of clothes, never mind a suit?) There are biblical principles that apply to all of those areas, but those biblical principles don’t necessarily cement churches into being exactly what they were in 1960.
Unfortunately, some pastors will use ecclesiastical separation (or the threat of ecclesiastical separation) to try to insulate their church from change. The pastor is free to determine the direction of their church, but using the doctrine of separation to manipulate people is wrong, plain and simple.