Posts Tagged Convoluted and Disordered Thoughts

The Line between the Church and the World III

The Bible is very clear that there is difference between the children of God and the children of the devil (1 John 3:9-10). This difference is created by God’s power through the gospel to change lives. The Lord Jesus Christ mentioned this in His high priestly prayer recorded in John 17. We find these words in verse 14, “I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.” The Word effected such a radical change in them that they are said to be no longer “of the world.” The believer’s relationship to Christ changes his relationship to the world.

To talk about the line between the church and the world means we have to define the terms world and worldliness. What is it that we are to be distinct from? What does it mean to be worldly? Biblically, the word world may mean: (a) the universe, i.e., the sum total of creation (Jn 17:24); (2) the earth, i.e., the inhabited world (Rom 1:8); (3) the people who dwell on the earth (John 3:16; 1 Jn 2:2); and, (4) the evil world order controlled by Satan and in opposition to God (2 Cor 4:3; John 12:31; 14:30). The one that matters for the subject at hand is the fourth—the evil world order which opposes God. The general nature of that definition presents some challenges for us in terms of application, but at its core it is rebellion against the Maker and rightful Master.

Trying to define worldliness is also a challenge, but here is my attempt to synthesize what I believe the Bible teaches on this. Worldliness is having a heart and mind shaped by the world’s beliefs and values (1 John 2:15-17; Matt 6:24-33; 13:22) so that we engage in its sinful pleasures (Eph 4:17-19, 22; 1 Peter 4:2-5) and pursue earthly treasures (Matt 6:19-24; Col 3:1-4; 1 John 2:17). Obviously, I could spend a whole sub-series unpacking this definition, but let me just broadly address the three main parts of it.

A heart and mind shaped by the world’s beliefs and values

Ephesians 4:17-19 is very clear about the condition of man’s heart and mind apart from Jesus Christ. Paul describes it in very negative terms—“futility of their mind, being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart….” Because man has rejected God, his heart and mind are without light. In his blindness he believes lies and puts the wrong price tag on everything around him. Believers, on the other hand, have been enlightened by God’s Spirit so that we can know the truth and can see the true value of things (cf. 1 John 2:17, 20). Worldliness is when a believer looks at life like a lost person does and when he accepts the appraisal of the world about what really matters.

We engage in its sinful pleasures

It is important that we not trivialize worldliness. 1 John 2:15-17 paints a very stark picture that pits love for the world against love for the Father in mutually exclusive terms. How might we trivialize worldliness? By treating it as if it means something like “popular among lost people.” Being popular among lost people does not necessarily mean that something is worldly or sinful. There are plenty of popular things that are actually good. Sure, given the fallen condition of lost people, many things that are popular are also sinful. They might be popular because they are sinful, but being popular does not make it sinful. So, if someone says, for instance, that a certain hairstyle or style of clothing is worldly simply because a lot of lost people wear them, that trivializes the meaning of worldliness. If the hairstyle or clothing is immodest, then there is biblical warrant for questioning it, but in that case it wouldn’t matter if it was popular or unpopular among lost people.

The consistent witness of the NT is on the sinfulness, not popularity, of any particular practice. Just after instructing the Ephesians in 4:17-24 about not living like those who don’t know Christ, the Apostle Paul provides practical instruction about what that means in 4:25-5:14. The contrast he draws is between vice and virtue—don’t lie, but speak the truth; don’t steal, but work and share; don’t use unwholesome words, but those which edify. He focuses on matters like immorality, impurity, greed, and filthy talk. In the same way, Peter marks off the difference in terms of vices like sensuality, lusts, drunkenness, carousing, drinking parties, and abominable idolatries (1 Peter 4:3).

Churches that are serious about resisting worldliness, then, will be serious about dealing with sin. Being anti-worldly isn’t about staying away from things simply because they are popular with lost people. It is about not adopting the sinful practices of those who have not experienced the saving grace of Jesus Christ.

Pursue earthly treasures

Temporal, material preoccupation is clearly a sign of worldliness and must be resisted by believers and congregations. Frankly, assessing this aspect of worldliness has always been difficult since there is nothing inherently evil about material prosperity and it can be tricky to spot the line between having things and them having you. This is even more difficult when we apply it to congregational life. We all probably have our own views on when the line is crossed, but we’re not talking about disagreements or things we find objectionable. We’re talking about matters which cast doubt on one’s profession to be “seeking the city which is to come” (Heb 13:14).

I want to be very clear about what I am advocating so that there is little confusion (I’ve given up on pursuing no confusion when it comes to discussing separation!). I am talking about what would demand that separation take place for the sake of the gospel. The standard for making that judgment is very high. We may choose to limit our ecclesiastical fellowship for the sake of conscience or for discipleship purposes, but that’s not my point. The real point, from my perspective, is identifying the point at which a church has so compromised the gospel that we must separate for the sake of the gospel?

, , ,

No Comments

The Line between the Church and the World II

If you’ve been following along over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been attempting to make the case for gospel-driven separation. Separation is necessary at those points where the gospel is at stake. As I see it, defense of the gospel demands that we draw three lines very clearly: (1) between belief and unbelief; (2) between gospel faithfulness and unfaithfulness; and (3) between the church and the world. If we disregard the first line, then the purity of the gospel will be lost. If we ignore the second line, then the clarity of our gospel message will be lost because we extend Christian fellowship to those who are outside of the gospel. If we are not careful with the third line, then the credibility of the gospel is damaged by those who claim to be saved without showing any credible signs of genuine conversion.

It’s the third line that was introduced in the last post and that is the subject of this post. The NT is clear about the transforming power of the gospel. Those who have experienced the new birth are changed because of it (2 Cor 5:17). The difference between those who are born again and those who are not is so clear that the Apostle John could write, “No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God. By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother” (1 John 3:9-10). To deny this distinction is to deny the power of the gospel and open the door of the church to those who have no saving relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

It is clear from what the Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians that the local assembly must give careful attention on this point as it relates to the issue of membership. In 1 Corinthians 5:9-13, Paul confronts the congregation about its misunderstanding of separation and its toleration of sin within the church. They had taken the mistaken position that they should not associate with lost people who were practicing sin, but Paul refutes that on the basis that believers would then “have to go out of the world” (v. 10). Instead, his concern was that they not “associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler—not even to eat with such a one” (v. 11). Of special interest here is Paul’s designation of this person as a “so-called brother.” The person in question is someone who professes to be a Christian, but whose unrepentant sin contradicts that claim (cf. 1 John 3:9-10). In fact, the contradiction is so profound that fellowship must be withheld so as to not create confusion about gospel issues like the new birth and the nature of the church.

That the nature of the church is at stake is confirmed by the language Paul uses in vv. 12-13. Those who are the “people of this world” (v. 10) are called “outsiders” in v. 12. The “so-called brother” is viewed as being “within the church” (v. 12) and therefore should be removed (v. 13). This insider vs. outsider language also is used in Colossians 4:5, 1 Thessalonians 4:12, and 1 Timothy 3:7. These texts all mark off the local church as community which is distinct from the world around it—believers are insiders while non-believers are outsiders.

A definite boundary line is established between the church and the world, and the call for church discipline in this passage means that the boundary line must be maintained. In terms of our larger subject, anytime the distinction between the saved/church and lost/world is removed, it is a gospel issue. For the sake of the gospel, then, churches must not extend fellowship to those churches which deny, whether in belief or practice, the transforming power of the gospel and the truly distinctive nature of the church.

, , ,

No Comments

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.

, , ,

No Comments

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.

, , ,

No Comments

The Line between Gospel Faithfulness and Unfaithfulness

The clarity with which the Bible speaks of our responsibility to mark and maintain the boundary line between belief and unbelief is what leads to the second plank of biblical separatism: For the sake of the clarity of the gospel, believers and churches must separate from those who compromise the faith by granting Christian recognition and fellowship to those who have denied essential doctrines of the faith (Rom 16:17; Phil 3:17-19; cf. 2 Thess 3:6-15). This aspect of separation has sometimes been labeled “secondary” or “second degree” separation. In some ways this is understandable, yet unhelpful.

It is understandable for at least two reasons. Most obvious is the fact that the liberal and the non-separatist need to be distinguished from each other, so talk of separation tried to distinguish between them. It simply isn’t right to speak of a brother in Christ as if he denies essential doctrine, but it also isn’t right to ignore his willful disobedience to clear biblical commands. Though it didn’t work well, some tried to distinguish between the two by speaking of two kinds of separation (primary and secondary). Primary related to unbelievers and secondary related to believers.

The more significant reason, from my perspective, is that this aspect of separation really is a consequence of disobedience to the clear biblical teaching about separating from false teachers and teaching. It might be called secondary in that it is triggered by the failure to obey Scripture. If the biblical teaching were applied, there would not be any need to separate like this. Separation from those who extend Christian recognition and fellowship to those who have denied essential doctrines of the faith is secondary only in the sense that it follows as a consequence of disobedience.

One way to look at it would be as lines of defense against deadly theological error. Scripture establishes the first line of defense in texts like Romans 16:17-19 and 2 John 9-11. As we’ve seen in earlier posts, we are clearly told to turn away from false teachers and not to extend Christian fellowship to them. What must happen if this primary line of defense is compromised by the disobedience of professing believers? A second line of defense must be built in order to contain the infection (or, using biblical language, to stop the leaven from spreading, cf. Gal 5:9). This secondary line of defense is a necessary consequence of the breakdown on the first line.

Some may question whether it is a necessary consequence or not, but I’d contend that the ramification of 2 John 11 makes it so. Note John’s words, “the one who gives him a greeting participates in his evil deeds.” This text makes it clear that fellowship in evil deeds is at stake in this matter. Disobeying God’s command on this point makes you a partner in the evil of false teachers. In reality, then, what we are dealing with here is still the boundary between belief and unbelief. One who disobeys 2 John 9-11 is, by that disobedience, attempting move the boundary line. He is accepting as a Christian one who cannot credibly claim to be so, and such an act has the effect of blurring the line between believers and unbelievers. It compromises the clarity of the gospel.

If there is a legitimate distinction between primary and secondary, then, it is at the level of application. The primary application of these separation texts is toward those who deny essential doctrines of the faith. The secondary application would be regarding those believers who refuse to obey what these texts teach. Same texts, but their significance depends on one’s relationship to them. The same issue is at stake in both—not granting Christian recognition and fellowship to those who deny essential doctrines of the faith.

Or, to put it a different way, the central issue is what it means to be a Christian and that question has significance in relation to both theological liberals and those who accept them as Christian brothers. When a genuine Christian brother welcomes into Christian fellowship someone who teaches false doctrine, that genuine Christian brother, according to John, has become a partner in the false teaching. Standing against the false teaching means standing against this partnership with it. The truth and seriousness of the issue at stake necessarily demands this additional application. I’ll let Spurgeon put the finishing touches on this post, “It is our solemn conviction that where there can be no real spiritual communion there should be no pretence of fellowship. Fellowship with known and vital error is participation in sin” (as cited in The Forgotten Spurgeon, p. 144).

, , ,

No Comments

The Line between Belief and Unbelief II

The first commitment of biblical separatism aims to guard the purity of the gospel by maintaining the line between belief and unbelief. We must be careful to avoid two opposite responses to the question of what should provoke separation. On one hand are those who seem to think that no theological position actually represents an abandonment of the faith which should provoke a breach among professing Christians. On the other hand are those who seem to believe that orthodoxy hangs on every doctrinal issue. The position I’ve been advocating is that there are doctrines that comprise the essence of Christianity and these are the doctrines which must be protected to the extent that we must separate from those who deny them.

Biblical basis for practicing separation like this is found in the explicit teaching of texts like Romans 16:17-19 and 2 John 9-11. The circumstance in both cases involves people would ostensibly claim to be Christians, otherwise there would seem to be little reason for the instruction. That’s what makes false teachers so dangerous—they come dressed in camouflage. Although the description in Romans 16:18 is shocking for us when applied to professing Christians, that’s the point. Among the professed followers of Jesus Christ are some who are not His followers at all, but really are slaves of their own appetites. That, by the way, means we need to test motives by the doctrine, not doctrine by the motives. Our day has this almost completely backward. If someone seems to have good motives, we tolerate all manner of horrible doctrine. Paul says the real test is doctrinal and that departure from apostolic doctrine reveals self-centered motives.

These teachers were causing “dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching” the Romans had learned. Because of that, Paul was very clear about how the local congregation should respond to them—keep your eye on them and stay away from them! There is no doubt that some people err by becoming super sniffers who smell doctrinal trouble where none truly exists, but I doubt that this is greatest danger among professing Christians. A far greater threat facing the church is the tendency to assume the best well after someone’s recasting of the apostolic doctrine is so contorted that it can no longer credibly claim to be apostolic at all. One wonders if any doctrine is so off base that it can’t find a place to rest inside the evangelical tent.

Paul is equally clear that we cannot extend Christian fellowship to such false teachers. Telling us to “turn away from them” is directly opposite of his instruction to “accept one another, just as Christ also accepted us to the glory of God” (15:7). There is to be no welcome in the congregation or by the congregation of those who have turned away from apostolic teaching and who are teaching things which lead toward apostasy (“hindrances”).

The issue confronting John’s readers was a denial of Christological doctrine. The basic points of John’s instruction are: (1) that such teachers are not truly God’s people (v. 9 “have not God”); (2) that the believers are not to extend Christian fellowship and greeting to such false teachers (v. 10 “do not receive him into your house, and do not give him a greeting”); and (3) disobeying this command makes one a participant in the false teachers evil deeds (v. 11 “participates in his evil deeds”). While some may disagree, I take house here to refer to the meeting place of the local assembly and that the point of this exhortation is to warn “against the dangers of entertaining heretics and their views in such a way as to strengthen and develop their erroneous position, and so compromise the truth” (Smalley, “1, 2, 3 John” WBC, p. 334).

More definitely could be said and more biblical proof offered, but how much more really needs to be said and how much more proof needs to be offered? The amount of verses that support biblical separatism isn’t the issue. It is the clarity of verses like these that matter. God’s will for his people is to mark off the line between belief and unbelief, never compromising that line by extending Christian recognition and fellowship to those who have denied the essentials of the faith.

, , ,

No Comments

The Line between Belief and Unbelief

In the last post in this series, I listed three statements that I consider to be the irreducible minimum of separatist commitment. By describing them that way, it should be clear that there is more to the separatist position than this, but it doesn’t seem, to me, that one can reasonably claim to be a separatist if you deny any of these statements. The first two statements are closely related, with the second growing out of the first, and the third addresses a separate, but important aspect of separation that is rooted in the gospel. The very idea of reducing biblical separatism to a few brief summary statements has drawbacks, no doubt. In the face of a changing ecclesiastical landscape, though, it seems more profitable to focus attention on the belief and practice rather than an outdated label system.

The first statement attempts to mark the boundary line between belief and unbelief—“For the sake of the purity of the gospel, believers and churches must separate from those who deny essential doctrines of the faith (Jude 3; 2 John 9-11; Rom 16:17).” I’ve already attempted to show the connection in my thinking between the gospel and the faith once delivered to the saints. We’re talking about a body of biblical truth which includes not only the message which must be believed in order to be saved, but includes those doctrines which cannot be denied without tearing the very fabric of genuine Christianity.

The phrase “essential doctrines” is a less than perfect way to express the point, but it seems that quibbles are made about any attempt to distinguish the core of Christianity from the totality of its teachings. The most obvious objection is that identifying “essentials” suggests there are “non-essentials.” That’s why I’ve tried to avoid this terminology in the past, but eventually adopted it simply because there isn’t any better way to state what I consider to be a significant point.

The problem is that the word essential is sometimes used as simply meaning important, and, thus, non-essential would mean unimportant. But that’s not what the word essential means in the statement above (or normally when people use it in contexts like this). If something is essential it relates to or constitutes the essence of something. As the dictionary states, “essential implies belonging to the very nature of a thing and therefore being incapable of removal without destroying the thing itself or its character.” So, to speak of the “essential doctrines of the faith” is to talk about those doctrines which cannot be removed without destroying the faith itself or its character.

The issue is not important versus unimportant doctrines. It is about the doctrines which form the essence of Christianity—if you remove them then you no longer have the Christian faith. I hold very firm convictions about what I believe the Bible teaches regarding the return of Jesus Christ. These matters are very important to me because I believe they are important doctrines. A person can be wrong on the details of these matters, though, and not have removed something that destroys the faith or its character. If a person denies that Jesus Christ is coming again, that does cut to the essential doctrines of the faith (cf. 1 Ths 1:10), but being wrong about the timing of Christ’s return does not.

We are talking about the fault line between gospel churches and false churches, not about the relative importance of our more narrow doctrinal distinctives. Every truth in Scripture is important, but not every truth in Scripture belongs to the essential nature of the Christian faith.

, , ,

No Comments