Posts Tagged Evangelicalism
This CT article on a new document regarding evangelism produced jointly by the World Evangelical Fellowship, World Council of Churches, and the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue is both fascinating and frustrating. It is fascinating in the way it speaks so easily of evangelicals beginning to view themselves as fitting into the “classic” Christianity represented by the mainline and Catholicism. Maybe I am just exposing myself as living deeply inside the separatist ghetto, but the tone of the article is so nonchalant that it fascinates me. It almost seems to be a given that this is a good thing with a few kinks that need to be worked out.
My list of frustrations with the article is longer than fit a blog post, but at the top of the list is the incredible danger of faulty assumptions. The largest and most dangerous assumption is that all three of these groups represent genuine Christianity simply because they bear that religious designation, i.e., they are Christian in contrast to Muslim. The assumption shines brightly in the words of a former president of the National Association of Evangelicals which are quoted in the article, “we’re seeing each other for who we are rather than who we’re against.” Granting that assumption inevitably leads to others which undermine the very fabric of biblical Christianity. It is at least a little encouraging to see that some evangelicals interviewed for the article see some of these weaknesses.
To me, the wrongness of this project is magnified by its uselessness. “What’s valuable about the document is that Christians are letting the world know that they are intending to be respectful, loving, and transparent in their approach to missions and that they do not intend to be seen as violent or coercive,” claims Craig Ott from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Seriously? Publishing this document will do that? Is “the world” really reading documents put out by groups like this? Why do evangelicals keep chasing after the elusive dream of getting the world to think differently about them? Why do they keep chasing that elusive dream with ecclesiastical tokens like documents and statements?
The view from the separatist ghetto looks like this: professing evangelicals keep getting hoodwinked into publishing documents that never accomplish their purpose, but do in fact erode the boundaries of the faith. The world will not even notice this document, but the World Evangelical Fellowship and the World Council of Churches will feel better for playing nicely with each other, and Rome is happy that they are doing on their way back home.
The apostasy continues apace.
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 Right. A 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.
This series is a “wrap it up and then move on” series, so it of necessity is picking up themes and ideas about which I’ve written and said a lot over the years, especially the past few. In some ways that is good because it is very hard to crack through pre-conceived ideas. The most stubborn of those is the equation of fundamentalism with separatism in a way that immediately concludes that questioning the former ipso facto questions the latter. That would only be true, though, if all who claim to be fundamentalists were actually separatists (a point that hardly any fundamentalists would admit) and if all who claim to be separatists also claimed the label fundamentalist (something, for instance, that someone like Kent Brandenburg doesn’t do, but who could deny that Kent’s a separatist?)
To argue that fundamentalism took the right position in the early and mid 20th century is not a point of debate with me. They did. It is 2011 though, not 1921 or 1961. My simple contentions are that: (1) there is, at this stage of history, no fundamentalism, but a number of fundamentalisms, each with their own shibboleths; (2) almost every effort to reclaim fundamentalism has been an effort to impose a different set of shibboleths on the movement; (3) many serious minded separatists find that they fail the shibboleth tests that have been imposed by many of the subset movements; (4) the idea of being asked to be committed to something that won’t fellowship with you anyway is just plain ridiculous; and (5) most of the shibboleths, while perhaps well-intentioned, are over-extended applications designed like fences to prevent a future disobedience somewhere down the line.
Let me unpack that last one a little bit. Building fences in advance of trouble is a good thing. I am not opposed to these kinds of fences at all—I think there is biblical warrant for looking ahead to where trouble is and avoiding it (cf. Pro 22:3). Building a fence to prevent us from getting into trouble is good, but the tension for us is how far away from the potential for trouble do we build the fence. Our answer to that question is tied to our view of slippery slopes, i.e., where is the point where a slide toward the cliff becomes virtually irresistible (although I know most fundamentalists don’t like words like irresistible!)? The dominant view seems to be that you can’t be too safe, so build high, strong fences as far away from trouble as possible.
I don’t agree with that mindset. You actually can build the fence so far back from trouble that you end up in trouble on the other side—think of the Pharisees not receiving sinners and eating with them or having rigid rules about hand washing that missed the point about real defilement. The goal isn’t to build your fence the farthest away. The goal is obedience to Christ and fences are a servant to that goal. Remember, fences work like this: In order not to fall or slide over that cliff, we will build the fence right here. The cliff is where disobedience is and the fence is intended to keep you from falling over it (or even starting to slide toward it). If the fence keeps getting pushed back until the cliff can barely be seen, then it will stop functioning effectively, and a fence that far back cannot be defended as the only right and proper place for a fence.
Yet, in many ways that’s exactly where we are—debating the placement of the fence and willing to break fellowship again over differences about it. I am not advocating extending Christian fellowship to those who have denied the faith. I am not advocating toleration of those who do it. Just the opposite, in fact. I am advocating that these very specific questions be the ones that govern our decision making. Those questions are the baseline for fellowship and cooperation. A lot more matters to me than these, but anything other than the right answers here prevents it. The circle of people that can answer these questions satisfactorily is not limited to self-professing fundamentalists. IOW, there are separatists who don’t claim to be fundamentalists. My fellowship is limited to those self-professing fundamentalists who are genuine separatists and also other genuine separatists even if they don’t call themselves fundamentalists.
That last sentence prompts the real question of the hour—will the self-professing fundamentalists build a fence that excludes people who won’t limit their fellowship to only those who claim the label of fundamentalism? Is that label so tied to the essence of the biblical position that to not wear it means you fall on the wrong side of the fence? If so, is that a fence that can be defended biblically and practically?
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?”
I am working on a string of posts which attempt to explain why I began re-thinking the application portion of what I believe about biblical separation. The first post attempted to give more detail to one crystallizing moment for me and explain a little of why it was pivotal. To put it in a nutshell, while nobody seemed to disagree with my description of the roots and realities of fundamentalist fragmentation, there was no consensus or commitment to a theologically centered remedy. Please note very well that we are talking about fundamentalism, not any of the institutions represented at the meeting. I firmly believe that all of the institutions were committed to strong theological convictions. My point is not about the individual institutions or particular branches of fundamentalism. It is about the whole enchilada.
Recognizing that is critical to my overall point. Why did I begin to rethink the application process? One significant element was the continuing fragmentation among self-professing fundamentalists that produced subset after subset that claimed to be the true heirs of fundamentalism. Since some of those subsets were sub-orthodox in their doctrine and practice, my hope was to see those with roots in the historic mainstream rally around our theological convictions and mark ourselves off from the Johnny-come-lately types who kept adding things to the fundamentals. If there was no heart to do that, that meant, or at least suggested, that: (1) there would be no deliberate effort to pull away from these deformed branches of fundamentalism; (2) it would continue to send a mixed message about separation to the men who are preparing for ministry; and (3) the label fundamentalist would continue to deteriorate as a meaningful label for determining ministerial cooperation. In this post, I’ll start in on that first point.
I’ve spoken of things coming to a head for me in the middle of the last decade, and by that I am speaking mainly about the repeated controversy I found myself in with other self-professing fundamentalists. I’ll quickly confess that I was a willing participant in most of these—they were connected to doctrinal matters that I considered very important. One of the great blessings of my present pastoral ministry is that it is connected to a seminary, but having a seminary also draws the negative attention of people who don’t like what you teach. As the seminary’s influence expanded, so did the amount of criticism directed at it and those of us associated with it. That’s really quite understandable. What was disappointing to me was the lack of ethics and courage that so often was evident—private correspondence turned into a booklet that was being sold; letters sent behind my back to call for my removal from speaking engagements, while maintaining a feigned friendship to my face; whisper campaigns. Supposedly valiant defenders of the faith were too often cowardly weasels who loved to say things behind people’s backs that they’d never have the courage to say to their faces. I know that may sound harsh, but sadly it’s true.
As disappointing as this was, my view of what the Bible teaches about depravity kept me from being too surprised by it. People are sinners, and sinners do things like this. The part that I’ve never been able to accept, though, is the toleration of aberrant doctrine. Denying, for instance, the full humanity of Jesus Christ under the banner of zeal for “the Blood and the Book” is completely unacceptable—if Jesus Christ did not have human blood, He was not fully human (Heb 2:14); if He was not fully human, then He could not make atonement for our sins (Heb 2:17-18); if we deny that He came as fully human, then we have denied apostolic doctrine (1 Jn 4:1-6). This is a theological error of the first magnitude. It cannot be accepted and it should never be tolerated. It was, however, not only being tolerated, but actually promoted in certain quarters. By the end of 2005, I had spent more than a decade and half arguing that if we are serious about sound doctrine, we have to do something.
In the middle of the 1990s, the translation issue blew up. Obviously, a fight over that issue had been developing for a long time, but Jack Hyles and PCC raised the stakes in the spring of 1996. Hyles had conveniently changed his view to KJVO and was trying to write everybody else out of fundamentalism. PCC, not to be run out easily, sent Dell Johnson out to let everybody know that they really were on the KJV side of the debate. It’s hard to say which of the PCC videos was the most pathetic, but thinking about Dell and his “hiss of the serpent” nonsense still gives me the creeps. Once PCC got blowback because of the first video, the fight was on—the Hortons weren’t going to be forced to back down by the BJU denomination! It is hard to top the stupidity of the “Leaven in Fundamentalism” video—somehow I had infected DBTS even though the seminary had held the same text view for 13 years before I came into any leadership position. Think about what was happening here. One of the pillar doctrines of the Faith, biblical inspiration, was being used as a marketing tool by both Hyles and PCC. That makes it doubly offensive—the doctrinal error is compounded by the deceptiveness of their methods. There should have been no toleration of this. None.
That’s the rub for me. Granted, letters were written; resolutions were passed; and even a video was made. But at the end of the day, too many people wanted the translation issue to just go back away. Instead of resolving it, the mood was to sweep it back under the carpet so that there would not be unnecessary division over it. This became absolutely clear to me in the summer of 2001. That summer, Dr. Mark Minnick preached an excellent message at the FBF Annual Meeting entitled “The Supremacy of God in Preaching.” Great sermon. At one point in the message, Dr. Minnick paused to share a concern of his regarding the translation issue, namely, that some people seemed intent on taking away our liberty to use the original languages to bring clarity to the explanation of the English translation. He was referring to the common preacher kind of statement that goes something like, “Another way to translate this would be…” or “Perhaps a better translation of this would be…” It would seem to me that only the hardcore KJVO position could disagree with this—you have to be a virtual Ruckmanite, it seems, to give the English translation priority over the original languages! That’s why I was absolutely stunned that there was criticism of Dr. Minnick’s message by folks in the FBF. A very influential person in the FBF expressed concern to me about the fact that Mark had addressed the translation issue at all—his words were something like, “I thought we were at the point where we laid down our swords about those issues before we come together.” My reply: when has the other side ever laid down their swords?
I could add more doctrinal controversies, but I think I’ve said enough to illustrate my point. For sake of clarity, though, let me make my point very clear: by 2005 I was becoming convinced that: (a) the doctrinal matters that matter to me were apparently not doctrinal concerns for Fundamentalism; and (b) the tendency toward doctrinal indifference on these matters was not something with which I was comfortable.
The blog has been pretty quiet for a while now. Part of that is simply the nature of life and ministry currently—it’s a busy season right now. The more significant reason, I think, is the combination of feeling I need to say something about the ecclesiastical landscape while, frankly, being tired of saying things about the ecclesiastical landscape. Well, I’ve got about two weeks until I leave for vacation, so I’m aiming to wrap up my contributions to the discussion by then so I can move along to other matters. Perhaps I should be more specific—“the discussion” to which I am referring is about fundamentalism, evangelicalism, and the relationship between these two. That seems to be the hot issue right now. I feel like I need to address this because: (a) I’ve been very vocal in asserting that I don’t believe those labels (fundamentalism, evangelicalism) are very helpful in determining ministerial fellowship anymore; (b) it seems safe that my view is disturbing to some folks, including some friends (and their concern matters to me); (c) some people seem determined to start a new internecine war over these things; and (d) I’ve made some public comments that probably need elaboration and/or clarification. I’d like to start working on that fourth point today.
During the first panel discussion at the Advancing the Church Conference in Lansdale, I made a comment about the need to make fresh applications of biblical principles or we will find ourselves walking away from the principles themselves. I also expressed concern about the fossilization of our applications. That led to a question about what prompted me to rethink my applications of biblical principles regarding separation. As is the nature of panel discussions, I needed to give a compact answer to a large question, so I pinpointed the middle of the last decade as a point where a number of things came to a head for me. Because we were talking about applications, I referred to issues both internal and external to the circles of my normal fellowship. I gave one example from both—a meeting of educational leaders in which a discussion happened about drawing some theological boundaries for our kind of fundamentalism and my interaction with Phil Johnson over the “Dead Right” presentation he made at the 2005 Shepherds Conference. Regarding the former, it became clear to me that something that I felt was a necessary thing wasn’t going to happen. In contrast, Phil acknowledged something publicly about “secondary separation” that, at least to me, hadn’t been readily apparent previously.
I plan to unpack my larger point regarding changing within and without over the next few posts, but here I’ll just add some more color to my point about the meeting of educational leaders. I’ve mentioned this before on the blog, but in February of 2005 I did two presentations at the annual meeting of the American Association of Christian Colleges and Seminaries—one on the fragmenting of Fundamentalism and one on the practical side of making separation decisions. As part of the presentation on the fragmentation in Fundamentalism, I contended that Fundamentalist unity will probably only be achieved if there is a clear animating reason for existence, and that the two options for such a reason would seem to be either activist or doctrinal. IOW, it could be a movement around accomplishing something or around believing something. Further, my view was that given our historic roots as a theological movement and the present state of everybody already having their own activity centers, the wisest course of action would be doctrinal (vs. activist). In addition, I argued that the toleration of theological aberrations was not only severely damaging our credibility, but prevented any real unity for action anyways.
It became clear to me that mine was not the prevailing view and that what I hoped and worked toward for some time was not going to happen. In many ways I understand this completely—my proposal would have been difficult to implement and would have inevitably led to some level of conflict. I fault no one for disagreeing with me, though I was surprised at the lack of participation in such an important discussion. Basically, two of us with differing perspectives engaged in a conversation about while others mainly watched. Given the circumstances, it seemed obvious to me: (1) that a significant number of the most influential people within fundamentalism were less interested in a theological reformation of fundamentalism than I was; and (2) that my growing sense that a genuine reformation was not going to happen was in fact accurate. I’ll say more about that phrase “growing sense” later, but for now I’ll just remind you that I said things were coming to a head, not starting, in 2005.
Being the stubborn man that I am, I didn’t quit making my case for a theologically centered fundamentalism. I did a presentation a few months later at the 2005 Faculty Summit entitled “A Fresh Attempt at Identifying the Fundamentals” and a workshop at our 2005 Fall conference entitled “The Gospel and the Boundaries of Fundamentalism” (as well as another one entitled “Christian Liberty and Ecclesiastical Separation”). Later posts will address why this matter was so important to me and what impact preparing for these presentations had on my thinking, but the basic point now is that I was coming to the conclusion that whatever remained of a fundamentalist movement was not mainly held together by shared theological convictions. That is not to say that there were not shared theological convictions, but that these convictions were not the animating force. In fact, there seemed to be some fear that articulating strong theological convictions would divide the movement. To me, in many ways, that was the handwriting on the wall.
I start to feel old when I reference articles or messages that I wrote or preached a long time ago, but I think my part in the current discussions about fundamentalism, evangelicalism, and separation needs to be viewed against a larger backdrop of what I’ve said for a long time. Also, it seems necessary for me to point some of this out because some folks seem intent on making the case that I’ve turned away from what I used to believe. Since articles and resolutions from the 90s are being improperly used against me, I think it is fair to point out more of what I was saying in the 90s.
Specifically, in the fall of 1995 I was part of a group of men who did four one-day seminars for the Mid-America Baptist Fellowship in Chicago, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, and Detroit. I did two presentations as my part of the proceedings. One was a very short deal, as part of a panel, on why I can’t accept the King James Only position—wow, what fun that little ditty generated! The meeting in the Chicago area was the most toxic for some reason, but the worst to come out of it was that some people questioned my fundamentalist credentials. It wouldn’t be too long before the geniuses at PCC were accusing me of being part of the leaven in fundamentalism (ostensibly over the same issue, but really because I got my undergrad degree at BJU). So, let me state clearly that I have been calling fundamentalists to deal with this issue for a long time.
More importantly, the other presentation that I did was entitled, “Re-forming or Reforming Fundamentalism: A Call to Re-think the Re-thinking Process.” It was a long presentation that covered a lot of turf, but for now I’d like to talk only about the basic idea which drove it. That idea hinges on the play I was making with the words re-forming and reforming. The former, I believe, involves a change of the basic form of something, whereas the latter speaks of keeping the same basic form or substance, but refining or improving it. The one makes it into something new and different, while the other helps it be a truer expression of its original form.
My contention in the presentation was that many so-called reform efforts are really re-formation efforts, i.e., the architects are trying to design a new house, not fix a problem with the existing one. Historically, I think that Marsden’s Reforming Fundamentalism shows that the new evangelicals weren’t really trying to reform fundamentalism, they were re-forming it into something very different than it was (i.e., a non-separatist orthodoxy). To some extent, I think that is what Falwell (aided by Dobson and Hindson) tried to do with The Fundamentalist Phenomenon and through The Fundamentalist Journal that they wrote and edited, respectively. And this is clearly what Hyles tried to do in the late 80s and early 90s in order to rally his troops and deflect attention away from Sumner’s exposure of his moral issues. I pointed these things out then, and I believe them now.
In many ways, the precipitating cause for that presentation was the debate that was happening because of Doug McLachlan’s book, Reclaiming Authentic Fundamentalism. I think Doug was writing a book aimed to reform (not re-form) fundamentalism, but some were reacting like it was the opposite. In some ways, those days were very similar to today in that some were concerned that negative things being said about fundamentalism might lead to a revolt against it. I have to admit that I shared those concerns. But I also thought Doug was making some very important, much-needed points about the deterioration of our house. My effort in that presentation was to urge caution all around while taking the steps that we ought to engage in reform, not re-formation. I closed that message by arguing that we must be committed to biblical orthodoxy joined to militant separatism. I know some find this hard to believe, but I believe those same things today.
If I were to do a contemporary version of this same message, it would include more examples of re-forming and reforming, and it would probably focus on the biblical concept of separatism instead of the historical movement of fundamentalism. As I’ve said before, I was more hopeful back then about the fundamentalist movement. Remember, that was October of 1995—within six months PCC would start the video wars and the landscape (or at least my perception of it) began to change significantly. Looking back, I think that was the beginning of the doubts in my mind about whether the movement still was controlled by theological conviction or if it had become a constellation of entities with a common heritage, yet not held together by common convictions.
I told a group of educators this past week that I genuinely understand and share some sympathy with good men who are concerned about some of the things happening in our ecclesiastical and educational neighborhood. It’s not completely clear what is going on and where it all might lead. I have concerns too. To say it like I did in 1995, I am very much in favor of efforts to reform orthodox separatism, but I also am very opposed to any re-formation which turns out to be something non-separatistic. Re-formation arguments usually sound a lot like revolution against the former things, and anti-reform efforts tend to double down on what has always been done. A genuine reformation will focus on what is biblically required of believers and churches, appreciating the good and refining what is not. Discerning the difference between reformation and re-formation is the challenge of our day. May God give us wisdom to know what’s right and the courage to do it regardless of who is happy or not!
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.
This article on the Christianity Today site regarding two recent evangelical conferences is an interesting read. The writer recognizes that both conferences call for unity, but approach that subject from different angles. As one might expect in a CT article, the tilt seems toward the Wheaton conference more than T4G. The author contrasts the two conferences by suggesting that the T4G conference focuses on unity based on common disagreements with false doctrines, while the Wheaton conference focuses on unity by highlighting what people share in common. He wonders if unity can actually be achieved with such divergent approaches so prominently on display. Perhaps I’ll return later to whether his presupposition about unity is correct, but for this post I want to zero in on what I believe is a core issue confronting evangelicals—the place of doctrine in the pursuit of unity.
My take on things is that most of the folks connected to T4G represent a wing of evangelicalism that recognizes that minimizing doctrine has hurt evangelicalism. Why do I think this?
Al Mohler’s essay entitled “Reformist Evangelicalism: A Center Without a Circumference” (in A Confessing Theology for Postmodern Times) makes an excellent case that evangelicalism has perpetually had identity problems because its founders focused on establishing a center, but failed to give sufficient attention to boundary markers. He writes,
The objective of these founders was to establish a firm center, and yet the boundaries were kept less clear. The pressing energies of a fight against liberalism and the hope of a larger culture-shaping coalition formed and forged these early evangelical leaders in such a way that they put a primary emphasis on the center while acknowledging the task of boundary-making. But they were never quite clear about where the boundaries should lie (p. 133).
John MacArthur, too, has expressed himself clearly about the danger of broad evangelicalism:
An aggressive effort is being made to divest ‘the fundamentals’ of key evangelical distinctives. Influential voices within evangelicalism are urging us to pare back the essentials to the barest possible statement of faith, and these voices can be heard across the spectrum of evangelicalism. Appeals for broader tolerance and more inclusivism have come from charismatics, dispensationalists, Calvinists and Arminians, Reformed and Lutheran leaders—so-called evangelicals of almost every stripe (Reckless Faith, p. 97).
R. C. Sproul, in Getting the Gospel Right, writes:
We hear people who call themselves evangelical who at the same time say that doctrine does not matter. They are non-theological or even anti-theological Evangelicals. Since historic Evangelicalism was thoroughly doctrinal and confessional, this would signal a serious shift in the meaning of evangelical. In historic terms the idea of confessing Evangelicals would be a redundancy. But the term’s historic meaning can no longer be assumed or taken for granted (p.43).
To be sure, the folks at the Wheaton conference are deeply interested in theology, but, as Brett McCracken recognizes, they are approaching their theological differences from a very different angle than the T4G men. To couch it in Mohler’s terms, the Wheaton crew seems to be focusing on the center and fine with allowing a great deal of latitude in determining the circumference. The folks at T4G, on the other hand, are very concerned about clarifying the boundary line that forms the circumference.
It’s hard to imagine any doctrine more crucial to that discussion than justification by faith, so it is no surprise to find the CT article surfaces that difference. McCracken seems to put his finger on the central tension:
It’s hard when one side (Piper/T4G) sees the Reformed doctrine of justification (imputed righteousness) as the lynchpin litmus test wherein believers are found to be either orthodox or borderline heretical. Disagreement on justification seems to stymie any further discussion for the neo-Reformed crowd, a position which immediately rules out fellowship with large (increasingly so) swaths of Christendom. For Wright, justification is certainly crucial, but what seems even more crucial for him is the unity of the church. Paul, after all, speaks of justification only in a few places (Romans, Galatians, etc.), while unity is a topic that shows up constantly in nearly everything he writes.
That quote probably warrants an entire post, but let me stay focused on the issue of doctrine vis-à-vis unity. I think McCracken is basically right in his assessment—two wings of evangelicalism are in tension over the place that doctrine has in the pursuit of unity. In that sense, evangelicalism is facing the same problem it faced in the mid-20th century with one crucial difference. Back then, the question was whether evangelicals could pursue unity with non-evangelicals. Because that question was answered wrongly, the same problem comes dressed in different clothes—can evangelicals pursue unity with “evangelicals” who hold non-evangelical doctrines? IOW, because the early evangelicals failed to erect boundary lines, non-evangelical views moved into the evangelical tent. Once someone is in the tent, trying to remove them seems, to many people, like an act of disunity. At least that’s what the CT article seems to be saying.
How much better it would have been if folks would have heard and heeded the warning of men like Lloyd-Jones back in the mid-20th century:
The New Testament everywhere insists upon true doctrine. I emphasize this because, as we have seen, the whole tendency today is to discourage talk about doctrine and to urge that we work together, pray together, and evangelize together, because ‘doctrine divides.’ Doctrine is being discounted in the interests of supposed unity. The fact is, however, that there is no unity apart from truth and doctrine, and it is departure from this that causes division and breaks unity (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, The Basis of Christian Unity, p. 50).
Agreement produces unity. What a novel idea.