The Fragmenting of Fundamentalism

Billy Graham caused the end of evangelical unity, and John R. Rice brought about the end of fundamentalist unity. When Rice formally and aggressively rejected “secondary separation” (i.e., separating from disobedient brothers), he effectively undercut the basis for opposing the new evangelicalism. He laid the groundwork on which Jack Van Impe and Jerry Falwell built their positions. This ended the fundamentalist unity because: (1) it resulted in a softened view toward new evangelicalism and (2) fundamentalists began to split from one another over the question of secondary separation (and the concept suffered at the hands of those who caricatured it and some of those who practiced it!). Both sides claimed to be the true fundamentalists and the fight for that title continues to this day, even as the combatants rotate in and out of the ring like it is a gigantic battle royal.

The breakup of fundamentalist unity (as short-lived as it may have been) damaged the separatist cause. On one side were a group of people claiming to be historic fundamentalists who rejected the idea of separating from disobedient brothers. On the other side, the idea of separating from professing brothers who would not obey clear biblical commands about how believers are to respond to apostasy/apostates degenerated into a free-for-all where any perceived disobedience became the basis for excluding someone from true fundamentalism. As time passed, more and more issues became points of disobedience over which separation was practiced.

My view is that both sides were wrong and should be rejected. It is necessary to separate from professing believers who persistently disobey God’s command to mark and turn away from false teachers/teaching. It is not necessary, though, to separate from those who are committed to this truth, but apply it differently. The application of biblical truth is always situational. One brother is prepared to act now, while another is waiting a little longer. One brother weighs actions differently than another, resulting in a different conclusion. The GARBC men came out in1932, while the CBA men stayed in until 1947. Some separatists worked within the National Association of Evangelicals until the early 50s, while other separatists opposed it from its start in the early 40s. The idea that men of separatist principles and convictions all agreed with each other straight down the line on matters of application is a myth—a myth that usually is wielded by the true fundamentalist crowd in order to marginalize those they want to paint as pretenders. I think I have even been guilty of doing it from time to time over the years.

Frankly, I have no illusions of restoring fundamentalist unity. That ship sailed a long time ago. What I am burdened about is restoring a proper biblical emphasis on the matter of separation from false doctrine and those who teach it. That is such a serious issue that it impacts our relationship even with professing brothers who persistently refuse to obey God on this matter. John R. Rice and those who followed his lead were wrong on this. They abandoned a biblical truth that must not be abandoned. That same truth, though, has also suffered at the hands of those who abused it and produced one schism after another, often for purely partisan reasons. It is crucial, I think, for us to avoid both of these errors so that we guard ourselves from the non-separatist and hyper-separatist ditches on the left and right sides of the road.

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