The Line between Gospel Faithfulness and Unfaithfulness II


I expressed the view, in yesterday’s post, that the label “secondary separation” is in some ways understandable, yet unhelpful. I tried to explain the part of it that seems understandable, so now let me take a crack at the unhelpful part of the equation.

The most serious way it was unhelpful is that it allowed the impression that this issue was not as important as separation from false teachers. In other words, the use of primary-secondary language could be interpreted as establishing a priority structure, but that really was not the point. Primary, in this context, did not mean of “first importance” and thus result in a meaning for secondary something like “of lesser importance.” One of the points of the earlier post was to show that it was secondary in the sense that it came as a consequence of something which preceded it (refusing to obey clear biblical commands). Primary addressed the application of the separation commands to the false teachers, and secondary addressed the implications regarding believers who disregarded those commands.

My contention is that since the gospel is at stake, both are important and necessary. It is serious, deadly business any time that the purity and clarity of the gospel are being compromised. I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but this was the watershed issue between the fundamentalists and the new evangelicals. To grant Christian recognition and fellowship to those who deny fundamentals of the faith betrays the gospel by making it seem unnecessary for one’s salvation. So, planning an evangelistic crusade, for example, which holds men up as legitimate spiritual leaders who deny the deity of Jesus Christ does two things at once: (1) it turns the crusade planners into partners in the evil deeds of the false teacher and (2) it communicates to all who see that you don’t have to believe that Jesus is God to be a Christian. Only man-centered pragmatism would attempt to justify this kind of compromise.

The most common way that the secondary separation tag was unhelpful is that it was too easily susceptible to misunderstanding and misrepresentation. What I’ve written to this point has attempted to address the misunderstanding side of it, but let me add that any label that is so easily misunderstood is of very limited value. It seems hard to toss it out completely because of its common use, but the better part of wisdom might be to jettison it. Along with depending less on labels, we should be more specific in our questions about this matter. Instead of “do you believe in secondary separation” we should probably ask “do you believe that granting Christian recognition and fellowship to those who deny essential doctrines is an act of disobedience that warrants separation from those who do so?” Cumbersome, but clarifying.

The term secondary separation also seemed like easy pickings for those who wanted to caricature it. The main caricature was to claim that secondary separation always leads to tertiary separation and beyond. When someone really wanted to mock it, the idea of degrees was injected—first degree, second degree, third degree, etc. In The Fundamentalist Phenomenon (Dobson, Hindson, and Falwell, p. 129) it gets described as a separation-isolation cycle that runs from first degree to fourth degree. Consider their explanation of the degrees: first degree—compromising brother; second degree—friendly with a compromising brother; third degree—friendly with a friend of a compromising brother; fourth degree—friendly with a friendly friend of a compromising brother. Hopefully you can see why I’ve chosen the term caricature to describe this.

Now, let me concede that some have practiced a distorted kind of separation that operates by this kind of connect-a-dot association game. I know because I’ve been the object of it—anybody remember the “leaven in fundamentalism” video put out by PCC? Against this caricature, though, we need remember that a sinful application does not invalidate a biblical principle. Also, sinful applications can’t legitimately claim to be biblical. Perhaps an analogy would help. If someone beats his child under the guise of corporal punishment: (1) it would be wrong to abandon corporal punishment because of this person’s sinfulness; and (2) it would be wrong to even describe such beatings as corporal punishment. So, the fact that some people have claimed “secondary separation” as the basis for sinfully schismatic behavior does not invalidate the concept of separating from those who refuse to obey clear biblical truth about separating from false teachers. In fact, we should not allow them to claim that term at all.

I believe that the real issue that must be the center of our concern and the contemporary conversation is the demand that gospel fidelity places on us. Genuine Christian fellowship is limited to those who have a credible testimony of faith in the gospel. You cannot extend Christian recognition and fellowship to those who are outside of the gospel without dishonoring God by distorting the very message of the gospel. Either there is only One Way to the Father or there are multiple ways. If you, by word or action, communicate that there are multiple ways, then you have betrayed the gospel and faithful believers and churches should refuse to participate in your disobedience.

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