Archive for November, 2009

The Line between the Church and the World

Traditionally, the separation discussion has had two components—personal and ecclesiastical—that address individual and congregational responsibilities. I hope to have a separate post (DV) that I plan to title “Putting the Ecclesiastical Back into Ecclesiastical Separation” in which I intend to argue that ecclesiastical separation has to do with the local church and its relations to other churches and those ministers and ministries which serve the local church. I believe a lot of confusion has entered the discussion due to the failure to think clearly about the ecclesiastical nature of ecclesiastical separation.

That being said, it isn’t possible to isolate completely the individual and congregational aspects of separation from one another. A congregation, after all, is made up of individual believers, so the values and behaviors of those individuals affect the life of the congregation. The character of congregational life affects individual lives too. It seems clear that the nexus of these two is having dramatic effects on churches. The culture around us is in a time of transition and turmoil, and there is little uniformity to how local churches are responding to all of this.

In terms of the historical relationship between fundamentalism and new evangelicalism, it seems very clear that there was a difference in how the two movements responded to the culture around it. Marsden, for instance, in his history of Fuller Seminary, entitled Reforming Fundamentalism, notes that the pioneers of the new evangelical movement were intent on a departure from fundamentalism’s approach. Marsden writes, “On this point Henry and Ockenga were zeroing in on what they saw as the major weakness in fundamentalism. The fundamentalist preoccupation with separation both ecclesiastically and in personal mores had cut the group off from any real social impact” (Reforming Fundamentalism, p. 80). Dorrien states it more bluntly, “A generational retreat from the world was being called off” (The Remaking of Evangelical Theology, p. 7).

We could probably spend a lot of time discussing the historical differences between the two groups, but I think that would lead us down a side path that wouldn’t be that profitable. After all, the real issue isn’t who was right back then as much as where do we stand right now. My point here is simply to note that the new evangelical departure from fundamentalist separatism included the personal aspect as well the ecclesiastical. The new evangelicals were advocating a change of stance both toward the apostate denominations and the culture around it. Whether you think it was right or wrong, it definitely was a change of stance.

The question of whether it was right or wrong is an important one, but it is also more difficult to answer than some seem to suggest. If anecdotal evidence is sufficient, then both sides could offer up proof that the other was wrong. There is no doubt that there are fundamentalists who go beyond biblical teaching in order to maintain tribal traditions. There is no doubt that there are evangelicals who have thrown off biblical restraint under the guise of freedom. Offering a few bad examples doesn’t really prove much. We need to think more carefully than that. We need to think of core issues, not surface ones.

I believe that making the gospel the touchstone moves us in the right direction for this aspect of the discussion too. I will unpack what I mean more fully over a few posts, but the basic points are that: (1) the transforming power of the gospel changes lives so that there is a clear difference between the saved and lost; and (2) the church, then, must cultivate, maintain, and display this difference so that the line between the church and the world is clear for all to see.

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Having Lost Both Map and Compass…

Another piece of evidence that our discussion here about separation is not merely an academic exercise comes via this Christianity Today article about the dialogue between evangelicals and Mormons. Two money quotes that I’d like to highlight:

What next? Hush-hush chats occurred between ranking LDS authorities and nationally prominent evangelicals in 2004, 2007, and earlier in 2009, though those familiar with the meetings won’t name names. Participants hope for a publicly known conference between leaders, perhaps as early as next year. Another prospect is a series of formal statements on agreements and differences along the lines of Evangelicals and Catholics Together, though that will require LDS officialdom’s sanction.

Isn’t that exactly what we need—the Mormon equivalent of Evangelicals and Catholics Together. Yeah, right. And the motivation for pursuing this common ground is virtually identical too.

One undoubted factor in the search for better relations is that evangelicals and Mormons today unite on various moral issues and feel on the defensive, especially in shared opposition to same-sex marriage. Whatever differences they may have about the nature of God, “when you’ve been in the trenches together, it often generates new respect,” said evangelical attorney David French, who leads the Alliance Defense Fund’s (ADF) campus religious freedom project. “The LDS commitment to core values is one that betters our country, without question.”

I can’t help but think that this is exactly the kind of scenario that the Apostle John was concerned about when he wrote 2 John 9-11. The ecumenical mindset adopted by the new evangelicals in the mid-20th century has turned in a direction that I don’t think the founders of that movement would have ever imagined. My guess, based on his preaching, is that Ockenga would be appalled at Evangelicals and Catholics Together and almost apoplectic at the thought of an Evangelicals and Mormons Together. What modern evangelicals, and those fundamentalists who seem sympathetic toward evangelicalism, need to ask themselves is how did we get here? What happened that the great walls of the Reformation are being torn down and the idea of greater relations with Mormons could be positively heralded in the flagship magazine of evangelicalism? Where was the turn in the road that took us to this place?

If evangelicals figure out where that turn was, perhaps they can retrace their steps and recover themselves from debacles like this. If fundamentalists can keep it clearly in mind, they can avoid starting down the path that leads to this kind of non-sense.

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