Posts Tagged Separation

Stuff Fundies Should Hate

Psalm 119:30 says, ‘I have chosen the way of truth: thy judgments have I laid before me.’ That word laid is a sexual term which literally means the same thing as a man laying with a woman. God was saying that God’s laws should be as intimate as a marriage partner in a sexual liason.

In the next verse, David gets more graphic. ‘I have stuck unto thy testimonies: O LORD, put me not to shame.’ That word stuck means ‘the act of a man entering his wife’; it is sexual intercourse. God says that the Word of God should be the Christian’s lover, and nothing should be closer to him than the Bible. The Words of God are supposed to be the most intimate lover of his life.”

- Dr. Jack Schaap, Marriage: The Divine Intimacy, p. 50.

I was reminded again of this nonsense by a site that likes to skewer fundamentalism by pointing out its strangest birds and their bizarre views and practices. Where does one start when interacting with garbage like this? Let’s start with the bad exegesis and work out from there. First, I have no idea where Jack came up with these definitions (other than his twisted imagination). The words used here don’t mean anything close to what he says. The Hebrew word translated “laid” has absolutely nothing to do with sex. It looks like Schaap is importing English slang into his definition of a biblical term. Frankly, that he sees a reference to sex in the meaning of that word is disturbing.

The word translated “stuck” does not mean what he says either. It can be used to signify close relationships like husband and wife (Gen 2:27), but is also used in this way about Ruth and Naomi (Ruth 1:14) and the men of Judah and David (2 Sam 20:2). The word has nothing to do with one thing entering another. It means for two things to be attached to one another. Six verses earlier the psalmist uses the same word when he writes, “My soul cleaveth unto the dust” (Ps 119:25).

Even if Schaap could make the case, which he can’t, that in some places the word has a sexual nuance, he is guilty of a basic exegetical fallacy to conclude that it has that nuance in this verse. Context is always king in determining the precise meaning of a term out of its possible meanings. To have a sexual connotation would demand that there be something about sex in the context, but there is nothing that would even remotely suggest that here. Schaap reads that into the text, not out of the text.

So, there is absolutely no justification lexically for his seeing sexual analogies in these words. It’s possible that, in a moment of charity, we might grant that, since the word translated “stuck” can be used of how closely attached to one another a husband and wife ought to be, it is possible to argue that the relationship between a person and God’s testimonies ought to be like the closeness of a marriage. To say that a husband and wife are inseparable, though, isn’t a reference to sex. To pick that part of the marital relationship and transfer it to a person’s relationship to God’s Word is just plain sick. It is patently unfaithful to the text of Scripture and creates a horribly distorted conception of how we relate to God’s Word.

If this bizarre window into the mind and ministry of Jack Schaap and FBC Hammond were an anomaly, it might be understandable to not make too much of it. It isn’t an anomaly though. God’s Word carries about as much authority there as a book of illustrations—both function as convenient sources from which texts and stories can be sprinkled throughout the pastor’s speeches. Whenever God’s Word is subjected to an egotistic agenda like the one that has ruled Hammond for decades, that same agenda will produce and protect the kind of moral perversions that have plagued that place.

Theological perversion and moral perversion tend to go hand in hand. When Schaap treats God’s Word like this, it is not difficult to see why the two grow side by side. Describing a believer’s commitment to God’s Word in sexual terms is sick and sickening. Only a warped mind would see sex in Psalm 119:30-31.

I am extremely grateful that I grew up and have served Christ in a completely different orbit than the one inhabited by men like Hyles and Schaap. I first heard of Hyles while I was a college student, but it didn’t take more than a few sermon tapes (back in the days of cassettes!) to conclude that I had heard enough. During my senior year (1982-83), when Hyles came to Greenville to preach, I volunteered to work in the dorm in place of the guys who wanted to go hear him. What stands out about that now is that he preached some weird sermon about “giving your all to Jesus” from Isaiah that included an edgy sexual slant to it (at least that was the report from one of the guys who went). And even back then there were moral issues being covered up. I raise this to simply point out that none of this is a new phenomenon. Hammond has been marked by biblical and moral unfaithfulness for decades.

Frankly, I would be very happy to live my life completely ignoring the weirdness found in Hammond and its orbit. It matters to me mainly as a window into the very strange ecclesiastical politics by which too many people operate. Men can go to Hammond or speak along side of Schaap and it doesn’t really seem to matter at all. Schaap trys to recoup some of his losses among his father-in-law’s old guard by cozying up to some new friends and we’re supposed to be hopeful that changes are being made. 

None of this is built on theological agreement. It’s all about pragmatic alliances. This will last about as long as when the Sword crowd and the FBF/World Congress of Fundamentalists forged a temporary alliance against Falwell in the mid 1980s. It will end in the same kind of ugly break up that did, but that’s not the real problem. The real problem is that, just like back then, talk about biblical separation will ring hollow because it is being applied so arbitrarily. Seriously, Schaap is okay, but Dever is not? Complain about both or neither, but don’t bother talking to me if you intend to justify or ignore Schaap while condemning Dever. If you are vocal about “platform fellowship” with others, but ignore it with Schaap, you have no credibility. (If you don’t have a problem with Schaap, you lack a lot more than credibility!)

If people are really concerned about the next generation, then they should get serious about applying the truth in this generation.

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Reading it In or Drawing it Out?

The last post focused on one way to handle the problems assumptions can cause in communication—we should ask questions to help surface and evaluate assumptions that have a significant impact on the discussion. I am not advocating questioning people and ideas as a method for nitpicking our way to winning a debate. That’s the opposite end of the spectrum from the guy who won’t answer questions because he is after his agenda, not the truth. Nitpickers are not after truth either. Let’s avoid both of those in pursuit of constructive, candid discussion about things that matter.

Another kind of unhelpful assumption is one that takes place when an interpreter reads his ideas into a comment or text instead of hearing what the speaker or writer is actually saying. My guess is that this happens most often due to carelessness, not maliciousness. When carelessness doesn’t have serious consequences, we can be content to write it off as a simple mistake. A friend of mine likes to joke that ours is the coldest church in America because we tend to keep the temperature in the auditorium pretty chilly. Suppose someone hears my friend say this and assumes that it is a description of our spiritual temperature—that would be a simple mistake that could affect the third person’s view of our congregation negatively, right? That wouldn’t be cool (pardon the pun), but it wouldn’t be a serious problem unless the third person began to spread that wrong conclusion to other people. “Inter-City is one of the coldest churches in America!” At that point it degenerates from a simple mistake to a culpable error. Bottom line: rather than assuming that you understand what a potentially negative statement means, verify it.

It is always, though, a serious problem when anybody makes careless assumptions about what the Bible means. My main concern here is not with the person who repeatedly and deliberately twists the Bible—that kind of person isn’t worth trying to engage in conversation with, just rebuke and withdraw from him. My concern is with the well-intentioned person who does this. Sadly, there is a long history of snatching texts out of their historical and biblical context to use in ways that “speak to us” personally in spite of the fact that they simply don’t mean what we are now saying they mean. Instead of these personalized little “blessings” we find this way, we should seek the meaning of the text that: (1) it had at the time it was written; (2) is found in the words chosen and arranged by the writer; and (3) is consistent with the overall message and doctrine of the Scriptures. The technical way of saying that is that we should use the historical, grammatical, theological method of interpreting Scripture.

I’d like to use an example again because it might be helpful, but let me repeat my concern about examples tending to draw us away from the idea which they serve. Let’s consider how someone might read their assumptions into a text like Romans 16:17, “Now I urge you brethren, keep your eye on those who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you learned, and turn away from them.” This is a very important text that should control our thinking about how we respond to false teaching, but even clear and important texts can be handled carelessly.

For instance, suppose someone takes the words “the teaching you learned” (or as the KJV puts it, “the doctrine which ye have learned”) as meaning “the things you were taught by your teachers,” would that be the correct way of understanding these words? To put it more clearly, is the Apostle Paul really saying that once you have been taught something, you are to reject anybody that teaches something different from what you were taught? Or is he saying that we must reject those who are teaching something different than the truth of God’s Word? Those are two very different conclusions.

The former really creates a cult-like adherence to the teachings of men, while the latter places all teachers under the authority of God’s Word. The former fails to read the text in terms of its historical and biblical context, resulting in the strange argument that to obey this text means that nobody would ever be able to shift their views from whatever they were taught. That would mean that if you were raised being taught that sprinkling water on infants was correct, then you should avoid those who teach things contrary to “the teaching you learned.” Some of us who have had mixed messages taught to us are in trouble! In college I was taught to be suspicious of dispensationalism, but in seminary I was taught that it was good. Should I have stayed suspicious or was I right to change my view?

Clearly, Paul was not teaching the infallibility of all teachers in all times. He was anchoring these Roman believers in the gospel and Apostolic doctrine which they had received and which he had just reinforced via this letter. The obligation of every believer is to test what he has been taught by human teachers against what has been taught in the Scriptures. No one who finds that he was taught wrongly can justify continuing in that error simply because it is what he was taught. Understood in its context, Paul is telling them not to turn away from God’s truth communicated in the Scriptures (cf. 1:1-2; 16:25-27). I’ve had the privilege of sitting under great teachers, but none of them would claim infallibility and none of them would believe that their teachings are the test of truth. They would say that their teachings must be tested by the Truth.

Arguments like this really are careless with God’s truth and make it the servant of a preconceived idea. Even if well-intentioned, that pre-conceived idea serves as an assumption read into the text, not drawn out from it—“such and such a group teaches something different than I was taught, so they must be marked and turned away from.” My point is that both “such and such a group” and you need to test what you believe by the Bible itself, not by what someone taught you about the Bible. The issue isn’t really whether they agree with you or your teachers; it is whether they agree with the Bible. (And if you assume that you are infallible in your understanding of the Bible, you need serious help!)

So, think about this the next time you hear someone shouting (or planning a conference under) the words “Remove not the ancient landmarks!” or “Touch not the unclean thing!” Ask yourself, was the writer of Scripture speaking about the same thing that they are speaking about? What were the ancient landmarks referred to in those passages? What is the unclean thing to which the text refers? It is quite possible that someone is assuming that the Bible is saying what he actually wants to say! If we intend to speak on behalf of God, then we can’t afford to be careless with His Word. We better say exactly what He said and that means replacing assumptions with careful exposition and application.

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The Quixotic Quest for Conformity

Over the past couple of posts I’ve tried to assert main two ideas: (1) we should recognize the difference between principles and their applications; and (2) we must treat disagreements over applications differently than we do disagreement over principles. I think these are helpful ideas, but even if we agree on them, we still have to put them into practice and inevitably differences will surface. My hope is not to end or avoid all differences, but to help us be able to interact about them more effectively so that we make biblically sound decisions and provide wise leadership for our churches.

In trying to show the difference between principles and applications, I mentioned the timeless, transcultural principle that children are to honor their parents, but I also pointed out that applying that principle takes different shapes in different cultures. And it was this difference that I tried to highlight in the second post with the shorthand of this and that. We might agree completely on the obligation that children have to honor their parents, but disagree just as completely about what that means when it comes down to the choice of a mate, for instance. Clearly, some have elevated their particular application to the point where it must be followed or else one’s commitment to the principle is called into question. In terms of my two main ideas, because they fail to distinguish between principle and application, they subsequently fail to treat the disagreement on this matter properly (i.e., as a matter of judgment, not as a matter of disobedience).

To move it closer to the issue which is central to this whole discussion, even if two people agree completely that, for instance, 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15 teaches a principle which calls for separation from persistently disobedient brothers, the task of making applications still has to be done. Using my this and that rubric, these two may agree fully about this (the biblical principle), yet not be completely in agreement on that (to whom it applies). My contention is simply that debates about applications should be handled differently than disagreements about principles.

Let me share an anecdote to illustrate my concern. Years ago, our pastoral staff attended a conference in which a number of hot topics were being addressed and position statements were being formed to rally the younger generation to stand for the truth (and at that time I was 28 years old and clearly part of that younger generation). One of the topics was dress standards. I’d already clashed with some folks at the conference on another issue, so I decided to stick to something where I could just sit quietly in (basic) agreement, but a couple of men from our staff decided to attend this session. The man leading the session did an excellent job, I was told, of navigating a pretty strenuous debate about how to word the position statement. The side that won the debate produced a statement that focused on the principles of modesty and gender distinction, whereas the side that lost wanted specific applications that detailed exactly what those principles looked like in the fall of 1989. One of our guys heard one of the men who had lost the debate complaining on his way out of the session, “We need to give our people absolutes and we just gave them relativism.” This guy had it completely backward!

He wanted to make his applications absolute and bind the consciences of God’s people with them. Allowing room for godly believers to wrestle with applications seemed to him to be a concession to compromise. There are probably a few reasons for this kind of thinking—faulty views of sanctification and pastoral leadership being two of them—but they’re not my concern right now. More significant to me is the danger that his thinking would do if it were included in the mechanism being used by the conference. The goal was to produce a statement that outlined commitments to remain faithful to God’s Word. Injecting his applications into it would have placed them on the same level as Scripture. That would have been both unfaithful to the Word and unfruitful for God’s people.

I am sure this brother was not self-consciously wanting to add to the Scriptures and, thereby, undercut their sufficiency. His dogmatism about his own particular applications, though, had the functional effect of doing just that. He had decided what modesty and gender distinction actually looked like, so everybody else needed to get in line with that. To doubt his applications was tantamount to rejecting the Bible’s authority (and clearly to show that you were not Spirit-filled!). I wish what was happening in this case was unusual, but the fact is that we’ve all seen plenty of similar kinds of man-made guidelines passed off as biblical requirements—no hand held microphones, no overhead projectors, no singing songs not in our hymnbooks, no facial hair, no small groups on Sunday evenings, no playing sports against public schools, etc.

I honestly have little problem with anybody who happens to think the things on that list are defensible applications of some principle, but none of those come close to being the principle itself. Getting to them always takes at least one step and thus they must be held more loosely than Scriptural mandates. The failure to recognize that step has lead to a lot of unnecessary fights among God’s people.

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Agreement on Principles, Disagreement on Applications

In the last post I argued that we must see the difference between principles and their applications. Principles are timeless and absolute, whereas applications necessarily are timely and relative to the context in which the application is being made. I would also contend that failure to recognize the distinction between the two inevitably leads to trouble. Debate about biblical principles should always be controlled by the text of Scripture—what does it say and how should it be properly understood? Applications, however, require us to look outside of the Bible and reflect on how the biblical truth relates to life. That means we have to understand aspects of the world around us so that we can discern what significance particular biblical truths have to any particular piece of life. A simplified (hopefully not simplistic) way of thinking about it might look like this: The Bible says this, how does it relate to that?

Sometimes the relationship between principle and application is very clear, a relationship we could describe as this is that. Most believers agree with each other in such cases. There are times, though, when the relationship isn’t as clear, perhaps it could be described as this is like that. While there might be mainly consensus, this is where believers begin to disagree with one another, simply because they don’t all agree as to how much this and that are alike. What I’d like us to remember is that they do not disagree on the principle (this), but regarding its application (that). Unless we have legitimate reason to question the sincerity and integrity of those who disagree at the application level, we should allow for differences of application.

Another kind of relationship between principle and application introduces even greater variety of viewpoint into the equation. Sometimes people develop a position that could be described as that leads to the violation of this. Personally, I think this is a valid concern and represents a wise perspective on the danger of sin and the potential for dangerous self-confidence. There is Scriptural warrant for being more careful than careless about the pursuit of holiness and obedience. Yet, we must recognize that two people may agree on the principle (this) and not agree with each other on what might lead to its violation (that). The very fact that we say it might lead to its violation is precisely where the rub is. Again, believers should discuss and even debate the wisdom of their applications, but they must not do so with the dogmatism that is only proper for a valid, exegetically-derived biblical principle itself.

When we attribute the same weight to our applications that we do to the Scriptures (unless this is actually that), we are guilty of what the religious leaders in the Lord’s day where doing (Matthew 15:1-9). They were concerned about violations of “the traditions of the elders” more than they were violations of “the commandment of God” (vv. 2-3, 6). While I would never advocate being anti-tradition, we must never become traditionalists. This is where we legitimately can use the term Biblicist, i.e., the Bible is the source of our authority, not tradition. We of all people should have such a thorough commitment to the authority and sufficiency of Scripture that we refuse to allow man-made traditions to threaten the functional control of the Word over all of our lives, including our separation and fellowship decisions.

The application of biblical truth is a matter of wisdom and discernment. It often requires us to make a judgment call. It is quite clear to me that we’ll never have universal agreement on judgment calls in this life! It won’t happen, so I see no point in pursuing it as a goal. A better approach would be to pursue relationships that have a basis in shared principles—relationships that agree on what stands as written by God and is non-negotiable. It would seem that if we are sure that we agree on principle, then we can have open, constructive debate about our applications. If, however, we confuse the difference between the two, it usually leads to questioning the motives of those who apply the Word differently than we do. Because we think doing something different than what we would do is actually a violation of the principle, we tend to assume it must be rooted in sinful desires.

It might be, but it may simply reflect a lack of discernment (not a good thing, but certainly better than evil motives). It also may reflect other factors of which you are unaware. It might even mean that your application is not as clear as you think it is.

I am not asking for something strange or new, but perhaps something that we’ve taken for granted too long. The first step in talking through our differences is to turn to the Scriptures to talk through the biblical principles which we believe are at stake. It is that discussion which is most significant, for if we disagree there, then talking about applications becomes somewhat irrelevant. If we agree there, then we have an objective reference point from which to evaluate the differing applications. We may not get past our disagreement on some issue of application, but at least we will know why this brother has made the judgment call that he has. How much room we will allow for differing applications is then the judgment call that we’ll have to make.

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On Principles and Applications

I am convinced that a very significant issue at stake in present discussions about ecclesiastical relationships and the practice of separation is recognizing the distinction between biblical principles and their application in specific contexts. I can’t recall if I’ve blogged on this before, but I know I’ve spoken on it tons of times over the past two and half decades. It probably warrants a string of posts to explain fully, but let me do the risky thing of boiling it down to an axiom—principles are absolute and timeless, applications are relative and timely.

If you’ve properly identified a biblical principle (through solid exegesis), then it stands as God’s Word regardless of time and place. But you still have to apply it to specific times and places, and because time and place introduce variables, the application needs to be fitted to each particular time and place. The biblical call for children to honor their parents is timeless and transcends all cultures, but what obedience to that looks like will vary from culture to culture (and sometimes even within the same culture). And it may even change within the same culture as time passes and the culture itself changes. The principle, being absolute, remains fully intact, but the application, being relative, adjusts so that the principle is truly honored.

This holds true to the application of the biblical principles regarding separation from false doctrine and compromise with it. Those principles never change, but the application of them must be done in real time. We generally concede this when we look back in time. For instance, we applaud the early, original fundamentalists for pursuing separation first by trying to remove the liberals from their ecclesiastical fellowships, but then, realizing that the leaven had spread too fully, deciding to pull out in order to have no fellowship with liberalism. They held to the same principles, but different circumstances demanded different applications.

It is the application side of the equation that introduces so much complexity to our discussions. I hope to address a few aspects of that complexity as time and interest allows, but there is one that I think is germane to a few recent posts (and the present ecclesiastical landscape). I would contend that we will actually compromise our commitment to biblical principle if we do not periodically review our applications to make certain that they still fit. This is where I see the connection to the issue of labels. If the labels are imprecise, then they don’t help the application process and may even hinder effective application. Part of the imprecision comes from the changes that take place over time—changes in the people or ministry with the label, but also changes in the landscape.

I’m going to risk an analogy from history, so please work with me here. Let’s assume, for discussion, that we embrace as a governing principle this idea, “We must not treat our enemies as if they are our allies.” In 1943, Japan was labeled an enemy while the Soviet Union was labeled an ally, but in 1963 it was clearly the opposite. Obviously, the alliance with the Soviet Union was pragmatic in that we had common enemies. Once those enemies were neutralized, the alliance was over. By 2003, there was no Soviet Union and our relationship to the countries that composed it varied—some favorable and positive, some not so much. Wouldn’t it be short-sighted and unproductive for the USA to look at the Ukraine as if it were still a Soviet satellite? My point is that the principle remains intact even though its application changed in significant ways over those six decades.

Let’s think about the situation with Japan a little too. Clearly there was enormous conflict between the USA and Japan and even though the United States emerged victorious, the tensions of that war were not immediately erased. Officially, and in reality, Japan moved from enemy to ally over the years following the end of WWII. The two nations generally stand together against the same enemies, share many of the same objectives, and view each other as partners in tackling problems in the world (except competition in the automobile industry!). Clearly the situation has changed so that our principle, while still true, would not apply with regard to Japan any longer.

Here’s part of the rub—we acknowledge that last sentence in our heads, but that’s easier than accepting it in our hearts. Years ago I was visiting the Pearl Harbor Memorial and was very surprised to see so many Japanese people there—it just felt very odd. That’s all it felt for me, odd, but I’ve talked with some folks who were older than me, people who were children or young adults during WWII and it felt worse than odd to them. They were actually indignant about it. My guess is that my sons, being so far removed from the actual events, wouldn’t even think about it (9/11 is the new December 7th for them). I don’t think anybody in my story would deny that Japan is really no longer our enemy, but they would all feel differently about how we should relate to the Japanese people and government.

So, back to my point—to keep treating former Soviet bloc countries or Japan as enemies even though they no longer are is to actually invalidate the principle, not honor it. Failure to update the application results in disregard for the principle itself. Further, persisting in that application is more likely rooted in prejudice, not principle.

This is my concern about a lot of contemporary discussions regarding separation. Labels, because they are application-oriented, run the risk of serving prejudice more than principle. IOW, rather than really looking at what that man believes and practices, I judge him on the basis of a label. “He’s a fundamentalist” is used as the shorthand for he’s okay or he’s a kook (depending on who’s talking). “He’s an evangelical” is used for shorthand for he’s cool or he’s a compromiser (again, depending on who’s talking). I would argue that kooks and compromisers come with either label. That means neither label really helps me know who is okay. I can only make that call when I look at things in light of biblical principles. Bottom line: applications that turn into traditions can be a dangerous thing if they are allowed to rival or supplant the Scriptures.

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After Movements Die…

I want to address one aspect of Don Johnson’s post on movements separately from my larger answer posted last week. Part of my argument then was to suggest that Don did not give sufficient weight to Webster’s use of organized in its definition of movement. One way in which Don downplays the organized aspect is by appealing to the example mentioned by the dictionary:

However, in the sample phrase the dictionary gives (‘the civil rights movement’), tight organization is not much more evident than we have seen in fundamentalism or evangelicalism, so I suspect the emphasis of the definition should fall on ‘activities working toward an objective’ or ‘effort to promote or attain an end’ rather than on the word organized.

This is one of those strange situations where I think Don’s example actually supplies more evidence for my point than for his because it shows the kind of presentism that misreads history by reading the way things are now back into the way they were. In its present state the civil rights movement is actually no longer a movment since it is not organized and lacks clear objectives, but that wasn’t always the case. Back in its heyday there was very clear and careful coordination of activity and effort aimed at advancing a definite agenda. Protests and marches were planned and executed. Legislation was introduced and achieved. Leaders were known and recognized as directing and speaking for the movement.

That does not mean that it was a single organization, but it would be fallacious to equate being organized with being an organization. In this regard, Don has set up his argument by using a qualifier—tight organization—that makes it hard to refute his point because there are varying definitions of tight.  But, the fact is that the reason the description “civil rights movement” could be applied to it was that there was a definite objective and the parties interested in that objective worked together toward it. Each may have had a particularly slant or sub-agenda (e.g., labor issues), but it was all part of the overarching objective. There is no doubt that the major portion of the movement was the objectives, but we cannot properly deny that there was organized effort to achieve these objectives.

When their goals were largely achieved and the collectiveness of their efforts began to break down, the movement stalled and died. That’s why most histories of it have a specific set of dates for the civil rights movement. They don’t all agree, as is common in these kinds of historical, sociological assessments, but they have an end date. This is why I think Don’s example, borrowed from Webster, actually reinforces my point, not his. The movement existed where there were clear objectives and organized effort to accomplish those. The same was true about the fundamentalist movement.

The dark side of drawing analogies between the civil rights movement and the fundamentalist movement is that it raises the question of whether some of what we see and detest about the vestiges of the civil rights movement actually has parallels in the vestiges of the fundamentalist movement. In its worst present day moments some heirs of the civil rights movement grandstand in order to build a following for themselves and feed on old grievances in order to advance current agendas (and sadly they usually have Rev. before their names!). Something tragic happens and they seize it to stir up trouble. Someone misspeaks or makes what looks like a bad decision and they pounce on it as an opportunity to score points. In the absence of real, significant objectives, the focus shifts toward keeping themselves relevant and recognized.

Frankly, it makes me very unhappy and uncomfortable completing the analogy. A movement has to be for something and it has to be working in coordination (even if loosely) to achieve it. When it loses its reason for existence and fragments into competing agendas, then it ceases to be the movement it once was. Subsets of the once strong movement begin to compete to be the true heirs of the movement, each adding some unique twist to identity markers and boundary questions. Rival voices try to prove their bona fides by taking on some opponent (real or imaginary). Loyalty is built by demonizing the others. Doubts about the need for and existence of the movement are met with them versus us talk rather than explanation of contrasting ideas and animating beliefs.

Thankfully, there are heirs of the fundamentalist movement who have retained their commitment to the ideas and animating beliefs, and that are motivated by a desire to guard the gospel and the purity of the church, not merely position themselves as the true defenders against all the pretenders. The fact, though, that there is very little unity and virtually no organized effort toward a common objective makes me firmly convinced that we cannot look to the movement to do what needs to be done. Really, we never should have made so much of the movement in the first place since the centerpiece of the battle is the church, not the movement.

Churches which agree regarding sound doctrine and separatist commitments should work together as they deem fitting to advance the mission of Jesus Christ. We don’t need anything bigger than that.

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Phantoms or Straw Men?

Don Johnson has written a post that provides a helpful contrast to what I have been writing here lately. I think this because he: (1) challenges my basic argument that there are no distinct and coherent movements at this stage of the game; (2) sets forth an argument that there are movements with differing objectives; and (3) raises questions about either the commitments or wisdom of those who gather together from what he considers to be the two movements. I think that’s a fair summary, but read it for yourself to check.

It seems to me that everything hangs on that second point, so let’s examine that. Ironically, both Don and I quote Webster dictionary as the basis for making our assessment. He does it in his post and I do it to make the opposite case in a post in October 2009. So, at least we can say that we agree that for a movement to exist there must be some unifying objective. Where we part, obviously, is that I don’t believe this to be the case anymore. He does. So what are the unifying objectives for evangelicalism and fundamentalism according to Don:

The evangelical objective is cooperation with as many as possible while maintaining in some fashion the integrity of the gospel.

On the other hand, there is a group of churches, individuals, and Christian institutions that pursue separatism as an objective.

I have two main objections to Don’s view of things. First, the reasons why Don and I can both use Webster to argue opposite points is that Don drops part of Webster’s definition. Now, to be sure, he acknowledges this—“Based on this definition, one could dispute whether there has ever been much of a fundamentalist movement, especially if the word ‘organized’ is emphasized”—yet dismisses this as a non-problem. But it is a serious, thesis refuting problem! A thousand people at the shopping mall to buy clothes for school all have the same objective, but nobody would consider them a back-to-school clothes buying movement, would they? Without organization and coordination of effort, there is no movement. When you drop the word organized from the Webster definition you actually change the meaning.

Secondly, I think he has missed the mark on the statement of objectives too. Let me start with Don’s statement of evangelicalism’s objective. I think it unfortunate that Don inserts the words “in some fashion” as a means of calling into question their commitment to gospel integrity. Those words prejudice the sentence terribly and if they were dropped, one might legitimately wonder whether any early fundamentalists would actually have objected to it. Read the early history of the fundamentalist movement and you’ll quickly see that they were working hard to forge “cooperation with as many as possible” in order to counter the modernist threat.

That sentence not only prejudices the discussion, it also seems completely ineffective in summarizing the evangelical movement. It grants way too much for many professing evangelicals—maintaining gospel integrity doesn’t even seem to be on the radar for them. And it sells short some of the men that Don clearly thinks are evangelicals by ignoring their very strong defenses of the gospel.

More importantly, I believe he misses the mark on the objective of fundamentalism by making separatism the objective rather than the means to the objective. Fundamentalism formed for the defense of the faith, not for the purpose or objective of separation. Separation was seen as a necessary response to the denial of fundamental truths by the modernists (in the first round of fights) and to the embrace of ecumenicism by the new evangelicals (in the second round of fights). Never was the objective to separate. Laws said it was to do battle royal for the fundamentals of the faith. Pickering said it was to struggle for a pure church. Moritz called it contending for the faith. Beale said it was the pursuit of purity. Nobody that I know of said it was for separation’s sake. The difference between viewing separation as a characteristic versus an objective is huge.

Why is this important? If the point of fundamentalist separation was the purity of the church or the purity of the gospel (take your pick in my mind), then the place where one departs from the fundamentalist movement’s objective is when one abandons the purity of the church or the defense of the gospel, right? We must separate from those who deny the truths which are fundamental to the church’s faith, and we must separate from those who grant Christian recognition and fellowship to those who deny those truths (in belief or practice).

Now, the main reason I think it is worth interacting with Don’s post is really more procedural in nature, i.e., how one goes about making separation/fellowship decisions. I will grant that Don represents one way of doing things and I am arguing for a different way of doing them. Don’s argument hinges on the existence of two movements, so he has to craft the case that they still exist. Once he has (or thinks he has) established that, then the case can be made that “people from each of the two movements” are joining together and that this might represent someone moving from one movement to another, or that some new objective is being pursued (which I take, given his definition, to be an implication of a new movement starting), or that confusion is being created. Everything hangs on his definition of movement and his supposition regarding objectives for the “two movements.” I would contend that he has built a straw man by redefining movement and prejudicing the discussion of objectives.

While I reject Don’s argument, I want to be clear that I do so for the sake of biblically defined and practiced separatism, not to reject it. What I have been trying to argue is that it is the movement mindset that obscures the issue, not clarifies it. Thinking in movement terms is what causes confusion, especially for those who trying to understand why we separate from some and not from others. 

Further, separation which is aimed at preserving a movement is fundamentally misguided and precisely why fundamentalism fragmented into its current state in the first place. Separation was never (or should never have been) about forming a movement. It was about the health of Christ’s church and the purity of the gospel. 

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On the Problems of Rejecting Labels While Retaining Separatist Commitments

Running short on time, but I do want to follow up on yesterday’s post, so I’ll do so in bullet style:

  • One of my greatest fears in openly challenging our over-dependence on labels is that some will fail to distinguish between the label and the content. When I say that I will not make separation and fellowship decisions merely on the basis of the label, it is precisely because I no longer have confidence that the label accurately represents the truths that matter to me in these areas. The truths believed and practiced are what matter.
  • Rather than de-emphasize separatism, my position actually seeks to maximize it by focusing attention specifically on that subject rather than assuming it. IOW, to say that the label Fundamentalist won’t be the basis for separation/fellowship decisions is not the same as saying commitment to orthodox doctrine and biblical separation won’t be.
  • One of the significant limitations in discussing this subject is that it is almost impossible to do without actually referring to the pre-existing labels. Even more significant is the fact that, in my experience, a lot of people think of it as erasing the lines between two groups of people. It has absolutely nothing to do with erasing any biblically drawn lines. My point is that wherever God has drawn the lines, those lines must be maintained and over-dependence on labels is actually obscuring the lines at some places and adding lines at other places.
  • Those first three points should make it clear that I am in no way trying to make a case for some kind of third party or middle movement between two movements. I don’t know how to be any clearer about the fact that I think that there are not two movements from which a third movement might emerge. It’s a combo of sloppy history and ecclesiastical mythology that shapes that paradigm.
  • It is vitally important for understanding my argument to distinguish between the movement concept and positions on separation. To say that there are not two movements is not the same as saying there are not two positions on separation. I reject the current binary labeling system because the labels have lost their value, but I actually embrace a binary taxonomy regarding separatism. IOW, there are separatists and non-separatists.

The bottom line is that our fellowship should be limited to those who are fundamental in doctrine and separatist in their commitments. Others, with more influence than me, have proposed alternative labels, but nothing has stuck. Even if something did, it would have a limited shelf-life and would face the same problem as the current labels. So, let’s look more deeply and carefully than the labels.

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On Movements, Labels, and Assumptions

I’ll not rehash my arguments here, but I’ve previously argued (repeatedly and rigorously) that there are no coherent and distinct movements that fit the Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism labels. I gladly concede that there are Fundamentalists, but there is no Fundamentalist movement. There are Evangelicals, but there is no Evangelical movement. As far back as the 70s people starting adding modifiers because of the breakdown of Fundamentalist unity, and the Evangelicals have experienced the same thing.

I think there are clear, distinctive markers by which one may identify both Fundamentalists and Evangelicals, but hardly anybody agrees about exactly what those are and some of that disagreement produces the modifiers and qualifiers. I spent a significant amount of time earlier trying to unpack the idea that we should, therefore, stop using those labels as the means by which we make separation decisions. One man’s Fundamentalist is another man’s Conservative Evangelical. And one man’s Conservative Evangelical is another man’s Fundamentalist. Also, one man’s Fundamentalist is another man’s Heretic (actually this one often is applied mutually).

My point has been to argue that the real issue is biblically defined separation since the biblical call to separation existed long before Fundamentalism. If I lived in 1915, my responsibility would be to understand and apply the biblical principles to the challenges of that day. Nobody made their fellowship decisions on the basis of whether someone self-identified by the label Fundamentalist or not. Since the Bible is the normative standard for our practices we must base our decisions on what it states, not traditions (as in traditionally held applications).

Let me sharpen my point a little. When I read or hear someone call for separation from another person or ministry on the basis that they are not Fundamentalist or that they are Evangelical, my first question is something like, “On what basis is that assessment being made?” Perhaps I’m a little gun shy since I’ve had people say that I am not a Fundamentalist because I preach from the NASB (or for any number of items from a list that ranges from what our girls wear to my soteriology). But it’s worse than being gun shy, it’s rooted in the horrible decisions of self-professing separatists to ignore serious theological error merely because someone wears the right label or has historically run in the right crowd. That someone like Jack Schaap calls himself a Fundamentalist means absolutely nothing to me in terms of whether I can have ministerial fellowship with him or not. That someone who grew up outside of the Fundamentalist orbit and never identified himself by that label doesn’t do so means almost nothing to me in terms of whether I can have ministerial fellowship with him or not.

If a man believes (and practices that belief) that there is no Christian fellowship outside of agreement on the fundamentals of the faith, and that man believes (and practices that belief) that it is wrong to grant Christian recognition and fellowship to those who deny essential Christian doctrines, then I really don’t care what he calls himself. If he chooses to call himself a Fundamentalist, so be it. If he chooses not to call himself that, so what. The issue is separation vs. non-separation, not wearing the right label.

This is where the assumption part comes into the discussion. It seems to me that one ramification of the over-dependence on the labels is that it makes assumptions about what really needs to be proven. Of course, that is actually part of how labels develop and function—we put tags on things in order to cut down on the time it takes to sort everything out. I pastor a Baptist church and that label—Baptist—is shorthand for some specific beliefs and practices. I love that label and think it still serves its purpose very well, but I don’t think the Fundamentalist label does that anymore. Think about it, if you kept visiting Baptist churches that didn’t believe in the immersion of believers, wouldn’t begin to think that the label Baptist was becoming less effective? You would no longer be able to assume what you used to assume.

My contention is that there are Fundamentalists about whom it would be dangerous to assume that by wearing that label they hold to historic Fundamentalist beliefs and practices. Likewise, there are Evangelicals about whom it would be dangerous to assume that they hold to historic Evangelical beliefs and practices. Not all who claim to be Fundamental are. Not all who claim to be Evangelical are. Here’s the tricky one—some who don’t claim to be Fundamentalists actually are. The bottom line is that to base one’s fellowship decisions on the labels would be a serious mistake.

A few years ago one of our seminary grads was preparing to plant a church in another state and wanted support from our church. We had a pretty straightforward conversation over lunch one day about the church he intended to plant as to whether or not it was going to be a Baptist church. The cause of the discussion was the fact that the word Baptist was not going to be used in its name. That didn’t really matter to me. I wanted to know what the doctrine and practices of the church would be. The funny part of the conversation, at least to me, was when he kept saying it wouldn’t be a Baptist church (because it wasn’t named that) but couldn’t tell me one thing that a Baptist church believed and practiced that this new church wouldn’t believe and practice. Because I was convinced that it was in fact a Baptist church, I lead our church to help significantly in the church plant. Now, I readily acknowledge that some of my Baptist brethren would not do so. That’s fine. Each assembly needs to do what it thinks best on these matters. For me, though, the label wasn’t the issue. The content was.

The same thing holds true regarding ecclesiastical separation. What does a man believe? Does he implement those beliefs clearly and with some consistency? I may be out on an island by myself, but I’ve put the label thing behind me–unless I can get everybody to embrace a new one that I get define! :)

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Because Philly is lovely in February…

Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary has announced the new format and the speakers for their February conference. The announcement has already generated some discussion and met with some complaints. That’s probably a good thing. Although I intend to ignore the lunatic fringe, I do think that there is some profit in examining some of the issues a conference like this might raise. First up, for me, is the question of how I made the decision to participate in it. There are probably several facets to my answer, but let me start with a somewhat mechanical one. Back in 2001 I did a workshop for the Mid-America Conference on Preaching entitled “Where the Rubber Meets the Road: The Application of Ecclesiastical Separation” (UPDATE: I remembered that I also did this for an AACCS meeting in 2005 and they posted in online, so here it is if you want to see the outline) and in that session I laid out a series of questions that govern my decisions. Here they are:

  1. At what level is this relationship? (e.g., personal, educational, ecclesiastical)
  2. What variables are involved?
  • Are they fundamental in doctrine? If no, then it is a dead issue. If yes, then…
  • Are they separatist in commitment and practice (i.e., they call themselves that and actually implement it)? If no, then the relationship is stalled. If yes, then…
  • Are they compatible with our theological distinctives?
  • Are they consistent with our philosophical direction?
  • Is this a matter of immediate significance to our church?

So, let me apply to this to the conference in Lansdale:

  1. At what level is this relationship? Since this is a conference connected to Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary, I take it to be mainly an educational/academic setting, but that is a point open to debate since it is closely connected to Calvary Baptist Church.
  2. What are the variables involved?
  • Are they fundamental in doctrine? Yes, CBTS and all speakers involved are.
  • Are they separatist in commitment and practice? Yes, CBTS and all speakers involved openly state their belief in separatist principles and have implemented them. Granted, there is not complete agreement among the speakers with regard to some applications, but none disagree with what I consider to be the sine qua non of separatist commitments. Positive answers to these two questions means that some level of cooperation is permissible.
  • Are they compatible with our theological distinctives? There is enough compatibility for a conference context. IOW, the differences between DBTS and Calvary are not such that would compromise our distinctives. The differences between the other speakers and DBTS or myself are not the kind that would compromise our distinctives, particularly since we are in very close agreement regarding the specific conference theme.
  • Are they compatible with our philosophical direction? In terms of the conference theme, I believe the answer is yes. In terms of ministry philosophy, Mark Dever and I are very compatible on this point.
  • Is this a matter of immediate significance to our church? Nope. It’s a conference in Philly that most of the folks in our church will be unaware of unless I happen to mention it in a request for prayer support. It does not commit our church to anything or involve it in any ecclesiastical relationship.

I would imagine that some take exception with my answer to the separatist question, especially as it relates to Mark Dever. On that point I would simply say: (1) Mark has personally affirmed to me his agreement with what I believe to be the three essential points regarding biblical separatism; (2) Mark and Capitol Hill have actually applied these principles in real life; and (3) Mark and CHBC do some things and have some relationships that I wouldn’t feel at liberty to do and have, but then again so do a whole lot of other people along side of whom I’ve spoken in conferences.

There are other factors that go into most decisions, but what I’ve tried to outline here is what I consider some non-negotiable (fundamental doctrine, separatist convictions and practice) as well as practical matters (consistency regarding important beliefs and practices). Other prudential and personal matters have their proper place, but this is the basic grid from which I operate. 

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