Archive for January, 2011

To change, or not to change: that isn’t the question

I’ve been asked what I think about Pastor Arrowood’s open letter, but I really don’t have any interest or desire in spending much time on it. He’s shared his concerns and let us know that a lot of people agree with him. You’ll not hear me complain that a pastor has voiced his opinion or that others have hopped on board with him about it. It would be extremely hypocritical of me to complain about people expressing their beliefs on these matters since I’ve been quite open and vocal about my views. I think the light of day is a great thing because it allows people to practice discernment. It also ends up producing more actual unity because the people who agree with one another are drawn together on the basis of agreement, not some artificial clustering.

So, I have absolutely no problem with Pastor Arrowood (or anybody) making the case that certain actions being taken and arguments being made might be detriment to the health of biblical Christianity. I do wish, however, that he had made his case more carefully and biblically. In the main I agree with him—we must be vigilant in our defense of the faith and never waver on our commitment to God’s Word regarding doctrinal and moral compromise. The problem, though, is that Pastor Arrowood and I seem to disagree strongly about the basis for identifying doctrinal and moral compromise. I believe the standard is God’s Word and Pastor Arrowood writes as if it is fundamentalist tradition and history (or, more specifically, his version of both of those). Couching his whole letter in terms of changing versus not changing is, at the least, a distraction or, at the worst, a deadly mistake. The fact is that nobody avoids change—you can’t live without changing and everybody knows this. The specific issues that confronted us twenty years ago have been replaced by newer versions which introduce new wrinkles that require new responses. The goal is obedience and the pursuit of holiness today, not the preservation of yesterday’s applications.

The “no changes” mantra can be worse than a distraction in that it can represent a lack of submission to God’s Word. The one who declares that he will never change presupposes that he has never been wrong and that what he has done up to this point in his life has been without error. It also gives an authority to our forefathers which they do not have and probably never wanted—we are under no obligation to do what they did simply because they did it.

The fact is that the separatist position has always been ready to change depending on what it was believed the Bible required. The separatists within the Northern Baptist Convention fought from within to remove apostasy. Eventually they recognized that they weren’t going to win that fight, so they changed their response to apostasy and withdrew from fellowship with it. Yet, even that simple observation isn’t completely accurate because the decision to withdraw was not made by all men at the same time—some left in the early 1930s and formed the GARBC, while others stayed in to fight until the late 1940s before leaving to form the CBA. So, for about fifteen years two groups of separatists took two different paths toward separation. And among that second group were hard-core and soft-core fundamentalists, and the hard-core men (the separatists with whom I agree, btw) took another decade plus to finally break free from the soft core.

I wonder if Pastor Arrowood has reflected much on the fact that the FBF, of which he is part and for which his church will host an annual meeting, has its roots in the CBA group that stayed in the convention well past the early separatists and remained tied to the soft core for quite a while? To be clear, I don’t have a beef with how these men responded to the challenges of their day. My sympathies lie with the early GARBC men, but that reflects my personal heritage. My point is that the challenges of the day constantly forced people with biblical commitments to update their response to those challenges. The principles never changed, but as the context changed, the implications of those principles were seen more clearly and a change of response was necessary.

Acting as if there have been no changes in the ecclesiastical landscape over the past 60 years is simply ridiculous. To argue that we keep doing the same thing simply because that is what we’ve always done is unbiblical. It elevates the traditions of men over the Word of God. I genuinely doubt that this is what Pastor Arrowood wants to do, but the core of his argument amounts to that. In one sense, he has served us all well by showing exactly what is at stake—will our ecclesiastical relationships be controlled by man-made traditions (Matt 15:3), or we will apply the word of righteousness to the issues of our day so that we can discern between good and evil (Heb 5:13-14)?


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Arrowood, Dever, and Me

As you can tell, blogging has not been at the top of the priority list for life lately. The past month has had some extra life and ministry commitments, so something had to give and blogging was it. I wish I could say that I’ve passed through the “extra” period for a while, but I’ll be on the road for parts of four out of the next six weeks as well. I wish more of them were going to be somewhere in the sun!

Some of you may know that Pastor Rick Arrowood has written an open letter expressing his concerns about what he perceives to be changes in fundamentalism. In that letter he writes, “I emailed Dr. Doran, asking him to explain his decision to preach with Dr. Dever. In his answer he justified it on the basis of Dr. Dever being a ‘conservative’ that fights for biblical truth in the SBC.” I figured that since my reply to him was mentioned openly, I’d supply my full response for those who might be interested in reading it. I never heard back from Pastor Arrowood regarding my reply (which is fine since he was under no obligation to do so). Anyway, here it is (with two grammatical errors in the original corrected):

Pastor Arrowood,

Thank you for your email and the kind words it contained. And thanks for asking me directly about the basis for my decision to participate in the ATC event at Calvary Lansdale.

I think it is fair to interpret your question as assuming that speaking with Mark at ATC is something that is not proper, hence your request for a biblical justification. The reason I interpret it that way is simply that I’ve never been asked for the biblical justification for speaking at an FBF meeting or BJU Bible conference—such events are assumed to be okay, so no one would ask such a question. That it is asked here suggests that there is a presumption of wrongdoing that needs to be explained. Obviously, I don’t agree with that presumption or I wouldn’t be speaking at this conference.

That said, let me offer my thinking about why I don’t believe my speaking there needs to be justified. For context, I’ve spoken at all of the annual conferences at Lansdale since they started way back when, so it was something of a given that I would speak at this one. In other words, the burden of proof was on the side of why would I not speak (vs. why would I speak). I’ve posted something about my rationale for making speaking decisions on my blog, so you can read that for a longer explanation. The shortened version is simply the answer to these questions:

(1)     Do Mark Dever or CBTS extend Christian recognition and fellowship to those who deny the Faith?

(2)     Do Mark Dever and CBTS oppose the granting of Christian recognition and fellowship to those who deny the Faith?

(3)     Do Mark Dever and CBTS obscure the distinction between the church and the world by denying the transforming power of the gospel, by embracing worldly approaches for the church’s growth and/or worship, or by failing to articulate and practice genuine church membership and discipline?

I suppose someone could disagree with me about these, but my answers to these questions are, respectively, no, yes, and no. Since I believe that Christian fellowship and recognition is limited to those who embrace the Faith once delivered to the saints (Jude 3), that we cannot ignore or disregard God’s commands about separation (Rom 16:17-18; 2 Ths 3:6-15), and that the distinction between the church and the world must be guarded (1 Cor 5; 1 John 2:15-17), these are the biblical justifications for and biblical boundaries of ministerial cooperation and fellowship.

I am no fan of the Southern Baptist Convention, but I also will not categorically assign everyone in it to the non-separatist category. Just as there were committed separatists within the Northern Baptist Convention for decades fighting for its purity, and just as there were men who fought for a long time within both the Presbyterian and Methodist churches, there are men of separatist conviction who have been fighting to remove liberalism and compromise with it from the SBC. Mark Dever is one of those men.

I trust that you will have a blessed Christmas.

For the sake of His name,



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Some thoughts on Us & Them

This past weekend was the Preserving the Truth Conference at the First Baptist Church of Troy, MI. I had the privilege of speaking in a main session and was also asked to participate in a panel discussion. I believe the audio will be posted soon, but the site already has some of the notes up from other speakers (I didn’t supply any). In prep for the panel discussion, we were given a list of potential questions that might be asked. As a participant, I appreciated this since it allowed me to think generally about the topic before the discussion started.

A couple of the questions touched on areas about which I have been writing and speaking over the past few years, and one in particular strikes me as representative of the present challenges we face when talking about the ecclesiastical landscape. Here’s the question: “Much has been written about the differences between fundamentalism and conservative evangelicalism. What do you consider to be the most significant differences and why?” When this question came up, it was directed toward me, so I got to kick off the discussion (for better or worse). The problem for me is that I have been arguing for a while, and stated again during the panel, that I think those categories are not helpful any longer. I was able to offer a brief answer there and I’d like to restate and expand on it here.

I believe the question presupposes an Us and Them arrangement that isn’t workable for a few reasons: (1) there is no consensus on who the Us or Them actually is; (2) there is little agreement on what makes Us to be Us or Them to be Them; and (3) some of what some claim is distinctive about Us also happens to be reflected in Them (and vice versa). Let me unpack that a little more.

Contrasting fundamentalism with conservative evangelicalism will only work if it can be shown that both labels represent distinct and coherent groups. If, however, one or either of them lacks distinctiveness and coherence, then the contrast and comparison process is severely hampered (if not rendered impossible). Does anybody really doubt that a distinct and coherent fundamentalism no longer exists? How many sub-groups within self-professing fundamentalism have formed their own Us so as to be distinguished from a Them composed of other self-professing fundamentalists? And there is even less clarity about what constitutes a conservative evangelical at this point in developments on the evangelical scene.

Even if I were to grant, for sake of discussion, that fundamentalism as an identifiable movement still exists, there still isn’t agreement as to what makes it distinct and coherent. The question presupposes that there is something about us which gives us our identity and that something is clearly distinct from what gives the conservative evangelicals their identity. Let’s say, for instance, that fundamentalism represents a combination of orthodox doctrine and a commitment to separatism (a claim with which I would agree in principle). Are there not significant debates happening among those who claim this name about orthodoxy and separatism (both in theology and practice)? In truth, aren’t there debates about whether mere orthodoxy is a sufficient doctrinal basis for fundamentalism? Are there not significant debates about the meaning and practice of separatism?

Whatever remains of the movement is not driven by common theology and conviction regarding separatism, but by long-standing relationships and institutional identities. We have our circle of friends and the institutions of which we approve (and the friends of our friends and institutions in fellowship with the ones we like), and these constitute the Us that we then label as fundamentalism. But there are a bunch of groups just like this that all claim to be fundamentalism and operate with a similar Us and Them mindset. Each subset is trying to forge its own distinct and coherent version of fundamentalism, and when it does it is also identifying an Us as distinguished from Them. Even the conference last week, good as it was, still was working at a reformulation of what constitutes a fundamentalism worth saving as in distinction from those kinds of fundamentalism which shouldn’t be saved and from evangelicalism (conservative and beyond).

I believe that this paradigm is broken. Instead of evaluating the ecclesiastical landscape by the truth claims of the Scripture, it can easily fall prey to evaluating it by party affiliation. If the Scriptures require that we be orthodox in doctrine and separatist in commitment, then those are the real tests of our fellowship. We may choose to limit some aspects of our fellowship for more narrow reasons, but the reasons for doing so on the basis of perceived status within or outside of fundamentalism.

When the case for barring fellowship is made in terms of what it does to the boundaries of fundamentalism, I would contend that there is enormous danger that the Us versus Them paradigm is contaminating the discussion. That someone or some institution doesn’t wear our label isn’t the issue. The real issue is whether they hold to the Faith once delivered to the saints and whether they will earnestly contend for that Faith.

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