Reflections V

Last month at the Lansdale conference I was asked what prompted me to rethink the application aspect of ecclesiastical separation, and my answer pointed toward changes that I saw happening both within the normal circle of my fellowship and outside of it. I’ve spent the last few posts talking about the changes internally, some of which certainly can be called changes in my perspective, not only changes in the folks around me. Things which I had hoped would experience positive change proved to be more resistant to change than I anticipated, and in some ways there was regress, not progress. Additionally, I became convinced that what D. G. Hart had written in Deconstructing Evangelicalism about evangelicalism was basically true about fundamentalism—its status as a movement was more myth than reality.

If I am going to wrap this up properly, I still need to address the other side of this issue—what was happening in evangelicalism that affected my thinking regarding applications? Well, books like Hart’s provide one category of answer to that question. A series of important doctrinal issues were coming to a head in the 1990s among evangelicals, and the rise of an openly declared and aggressive evangelical left presented a serious challenge for theologically conservative evangelicals. Big ticket items like Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT) clearly gained most of the attention, but there was a deeper, broader challenge connected to the embrace of postmodernism.

Examples of the leftward push were chronicled in largely unfavorable way by Millard Erickson in The Evangelical Left (1997). More positive assessments have come from the pen of Robert Webber (The Younger Evangelicals, of which a critical review by Dr. Rolland McCune can be found here) and Dave Tomlinson (The Post-Evangelical). Gary Dorrien, in The Remaking of Evangelical Theology, took direct aim at historic New Evangelicalism in an effort to show that it was, in his estimation, nothing more than “fundamentalism with good manners” because it did not reject the theological structure of fundamentalism. Theologians like Stanley Grenz engaged in ambitious efforts to move Beyond Foundationalism in order to do theology in a post-modern context. In addition to this larger philosophical shift, the Open Theism issue bloomed into full controversy across the evangelical landscape.

Prompted by this leftward tide, and directly opposed to it, a wide range of evangelical authors began to speak and write about the need to formulate doctrinal boundaries. Just a quick list from memory of books in my own library includes works by: D. A. Carson (Love in Hard Places); Al Mohler (“Reformist Evangelicalism” in A Confessing Theology for a Postmodern Times, edited by Michael Horton); Wayne Grudem wrote a chapter entitled “Why, When, and for What Should We Draw New Boundaries” in Beyond the Bounds; MacArthur touched on this in Reckless Faith (the pertinent chapter was also published in Truth Matters); R, C. Sproul tackled the ECT issue in Getting the Gospel RightA combined effort to offset the inroads of postmodernism captures the spirit of what I was seeing—it was entitled Reclaiming the Center: Confronting Evangelical Accommodation in Postmodern Times. If I were in my office I’d be able to supply more bibliography, but this is probably enough to make my point—the evident presence of theological error among evangelicals was forcing conservative evangelicals to wrestle with the boundaries of evangelicalism, and that, of necessity, raises the question of separation. IOW, you can’t mark a boundary line without making distinctions and establishing differences. The affirmation-denials of the initial T4G conference was also intended to do this, although it did it quite tamely, from my perspective.

As I mentioned during  the Lansdale conference panel discussion, Phil Johnson, of Grace to You, also acknowledged in 2005 that the concept of secondary separation has biblical validity, though he contended that it has been misused and abused too often by those who claim it. This was a significant admission as far as I’m concerned. In 2006, Mark Dever and I crossed paths for the first time and engaged in the quizzing of each other to figure out what each believed. I’ve had a number of other conversations with men from outside of the traditional fundamentalist orbit who clearly believe that the Bible teaches separation from false doctrine and also believe that God’s people are obligated to obey the Bible on this point.

Further, I know a number of men who had become dissatisfied with movement fundamentalism, if I may call it that, but had not repudiated separation per se. In their minds, the weak preaching and theology, majoring on minors, and constant in-fighting just could not be tolerated anymore. A lot of these men found themselves pushed out of the “fellowship” over some minor ministry issue or alleged compromise. It is flat out dishonesty to call these men neo-evangelicals. They take separation seriously, but have broken from what they consider to be a defective group.

So, as I have looked around the past few years it has forced me to admit that there are men who are committed to separatism that don’t practice it exactly like I do—both within and outside of my normal circle of fellowship. A lot of latitude was granted to those with the fundamentalist label to make their own decisions about fellowship, provided they stayed roughly inside the label boundary, even if that label was no longer appropriate. Latitude to cross the label boundary was not extended, even if the man or ministry actually lined up better with what a separatist fundamentalist ought to be like. If the basis of fellowship is what we share in common, then lining up on sound doctrine, ministerial practice, and commitment to defend the faith means more than professing oneself to be a fundamentalist. Actually being one means more than claiming to be one. At least, that’s what I think.

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