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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