Reflections III


An important element of my views regarding fundamentalism, evangelicalism, and the matter of ecclesiastical separation is my own personal history. As I’ve already tried to detail, the rethinking of applications that I felt compelled to do in the middle of the last decade has deep roots. I’ve recounted some of the factors connected to that from the 1990s, but it honestly goes farther back than that. Virtually my entire Christian life has been joined to Inter-City Baptist Church (ICBC). I came to Christ here as an 8 year old boy; I attended our Christian school from 3rd grade through graduation; since college I have served on staff here for all but four of the last 28 years, and for 22 of those years I’ve been the senior pastor. Even during the four years I was on staff at another church, I was working on my M.Div. and Th.M. at Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, a ministry of ICBC.

Also, I had the same pastor from the time I was saved until I succeeded him in the pastorate here. He was a godly and gifted leader who had earned a Th.D. from Grace Theological Seminary back in the late 1940s. Dr. Rice was truly a visionary leader who was on the front edge of the Christian school movement and a well-respected pastor whom God used to do incredible things. He was very conservative, but I cannot recall ever hearing him blast anybody from the pulpit and he certainly did not run in the circles of those who did. He did not care for showboats. He just preached the Word and led the church.

What does all that have to do with my view of fundamentalism? When I left for college, ICBC was all I knew about church and fundamentalism, although I doubt that I could have told you what the latter even was. I had never even been on a Christian college campus until I left to go to BJU. I had been to the Wilds for camp a couple of times, but it was actually during our church’s week—the last week of the summer was Inter-City week and we had it virtually to ourselves (the camp was still pretty new at that point). I knew of no preachers except the ones who had preached in our church or I had heard at camp. So, when I arrived at college in the fall of 1979 amidst the whole pseudo-fundamentalism flap with Jerry Falwell, it was quite a shock to my system. I had never heard men and ministries publicly denounced from the pulpit (as mainly guest preachers, for some reason, apparently thought it necessary to do). I could share very vivid recollections of pathetic diatribes passed off as sermons, but the real point is to say that what I was hearing was not what I had heard at home. And it was also a sharp contrast from what I was being taught to do in my ministry and homiletics classes.

I graduated from college and headed off to seminary at DBTS. I was committed to biblical separatism—the kind I had been taught, but not the kind that I was seeing so often practiced away from the church I grew up in. My heart yearned for a theologically sound and expositionally driven kind of ministry that took seriously God’s command about contending for the Faith. Thankfully, God was putting me in touch with people who shared that burden. Some of the rancor of the late 70s and early 80s seemed to be fading away, and as I assumed the pastorate at IC in 1989 I was hopeful that a better day was coming.

I’ve already chronicled part of the story regarding my disappointment with the theological weakness of fundamentalism—that doctrinal matters which concerned me didn’t seem to concern the larger circle, and that I was struggling with the indifference toward these problems which was evident. Another significant part of that story is seen by looking at it from the other side. The folks I thought were on my side of those debates were downplaying these issues, but the folks on the other side were doing anything but that. I’ve alluded to some of the efforts to discredit DBTS or me, but I’d like to give that a little more focus because it is germane to the overall theme I’m developing.

The stuff that has happened really means nothing to me personally—I can’t recall one person whose opinion mattered to me that has spoken ill of me or the work here. I take 1 Corinthians 4:1-5 very seriously and, by God’s grace, hope to live without regard for human judgment. I’ve got a great family, a wonderful congregation to serve, and none of the criticism that has come from outside of our church changes that at all. If I were only a pastor, I would gladly have ignored it all and just kept moving forward with our church. In God’s will, however, I’m also connected to a seminary that trains men for gospel ministry, some of whom are burdened to plant churches in the States and around the world for Christ’s name. Those men are affected by the dishonest attacks on their seminary and by the widespread doctrinal nonsense that has plagued fundamentalism over the past 30+ years.

Think about this all from that perspective for a minute. A godly, gifted young man graduates from DBTS with a desire to plant a church in the US, so he begins the process of pursuing that burden. His home church is prepared to send him out, but: (1) though his desire, affirmed by his sending church, is to use a newer translation, the mission agencies all have a policy that requires using the KJV, not because of theological conviction, but political expediency; (2) he is facing a serious uphill battle for approval with a mission agency because a number of the board members have been prejudiced against him because of things they’ve heard about his seminary; and (3) once he begins the deputation process he constantly runs into closed doors because the air has been poisoned against him by the likes of D. A. Waite, PCC, and a whole host of others from within his own supposed circle of fellowship.

Even when this brother approaches men who would supposedly stand exactly where he does in terms of biblical separation, the door is closed. Why? Not because of differences on ecclesiastical separation, but because of a bunch of other issues. In other words, the fact that he professes to be a fundamentalist really doesn’t mean much at all. Of course, churches are free to choose whom they will support—no problem with that at all. Here’s where the rub is, though. This same brother, while looking for support, comes across some churches that agree with him on basically everything—separation, theological commitments, philosophy of ministry—but they don’t wear the label of fundamentalism. Those churches, in fact, do want to support him because they are committed to the same things he is.

Now he is in a quandary. The brand name fundamentalist churches that won’t support him will label him a compromiser if he accepts the support on the non-brand name fundamentalist churches. Does he give up a meaningless, worthless fellowship with people who don’t accept him to gain the fellowship of likeminded brothers who will? Doesn’t that question almost answer itself?

Let’s remove the support question and ask it like this, “Does he give up the meaningless, worthless fellowship of people who disagree with what he holds dear in order to gain the fellowship of likeminded brothers who will welcome him on the basis of what they mutually hold dear?” Seriously, until you’ve walked into the “fellowship meeting” and had men turn their backs when you come in, you probably can’t answer that question. Until you’ve walked up to warm greetings and walked away only to have knives stuck in your back, you don’t really comprehend the gravity of that question.

Now, for me, I really could care less because I walk back to a great church blessed by God with enormous resources and a full staff of men with whom I can enjoy fellowship. I wake up most Tuesday mornings and get to spend all morning teaching seminarians who love the Word and are headed out to serve Christ. In other words, I’ve got it made ministerially. I don’t need the acceptance of anybody out there. But God has put me in a place where there are real men with a real burden to spread the gospel of Christ and plant churches around the world, and those men need and want real fellowship—the kind of fellowship that surrounds shared convictions and commitments and that helps carry the burden of ministry. As much as I hate to say it, the vestigial organs of fundamentalism aren’t about those things anymore. They are about preserving themselves by distinguishing themselves from all of the other self-professing fundamentalisms.

What do you do if you want theologically centered fellowship that works itself out in Great Commission ministry? You look for people who agree with you on what matters and you partner together for God’s glory and the advance of the gospel. And when you realize that a lot of the people who wear the same label you do really don’t agree with you and won’t partner with you, then you slowly realize that the label has lost its purpose and value. Then, fearing the loss of what matters to you, you determine to neither abandon nor assume those truths, but to make them explicitly the basis of your fellowship and cooperation. IOW, instead of asking, “Are you a fundamentalist?” you will ask, “Do you believe and practice these truths?”

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