This continues the first two installments of the ACCC’s The Bible Doctrine of Separation: A White Paper of the American Council of Christian Churches (here and here). Please go to our store page for ordering information to order a hard copy.
The Principled Application of the Bible Doctrine of Separation
Given the theological importance of this doctrine, and understanding its biblical content, how do we apply ecclesiastical separation to our lives and churches? Related questions are often not easily answered. When the local Presbyterian Church U.S.A. choir invites your church’s choir to sing together at the town Christmas caroling and tree-lighting event, should you accept the invitation? If a fundamental Baptist church in your area is hosting a men’s gathering featuring a former Red Sox player who advertises the 700 Club on his website, should you promote the gathering? If the Congregational Church in a neighboring town is hosting a Joni and Friends presentation for ladies, should you encourage your ladies to go? If a renowned evangelical scholar, who is a member of a church that claims Billy Graham as its favorite son, is conducting a Bible conference in your neighborhood, should it be on your church’s calendar?
In these days of increasing theological confusion and ecclesiastical compromise, the faithful fundamentalist pastor will find himself faced with questions like these that challenge him to prayerfully consider a principled application of the Bible doctrine of separation. The Scriptures help in this regard by providing counsel regarding an Old Testament example and a New Testament passion.
An Old Testament Example
We begin with some lessons from the life of Jehoshaphat, King of Judah. Jehoshaphat was a godly king who was greatly used by God; nevertheless, it is Jehoshaphat, surprisingly enough, who provides for us a negative example in regard to separatist convictions. Separation was not really important to Jehoshaphat, even though the Lord was. This single flaw in the life of this great king seemed like a mere gnat not worthy of the strain of concern during Jehoshaphat’s lifetime, but it is Jehoshaphat’s legacy which tells the whole story. Because Jehoshaphat repudiated separation from Ahab, generations that followed suffered greatly.
The compromise we see in Jehoshaphat existed first in his father, Asa. He too was a godly king, greatly admired by the devout in Judah. The nation knew the blessing of this kind of faithfulness for thirty-five years before Asa stumbled. The tragic last six-year period of Asa’s reign is given as much coverage as the blessed first thirty-five years. The lesson the chronicler of Israel’s history seeks to emphasize is that Asa’s demise began with an ungodly alliance with Benhadad (2 Chron. 16:1-10). The words of Hanani the seer leave no doubt regarding the Lord’s assessment of ungodly alliances: “You have relied on the king of Syria and have not relied on the Lord thy God” (v. 7).
The axiom that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it held true for Asa’s son, Jehoshaphat. His alliance with wicked Ahab came earlier in his reign, was arranged under less desperate circumstances, and was tied with a tighter knot than his father’s alliance with Benhadad.
Here we see two other axioms at work. One is that each generation of compromisers becomes progressively worse than its predecessor, a truth related to the watershed importance of ecclesiastical separation.10 The second principle is that Satan can use both times of difficulty and times of success as temptations for compromise. God’s people need to be aware of both temptations. Some may think that we need to compromise our principles because our church or movement is struggling so. Others may think that the old principles are passé and out-of-date because we are so successful now. Whatever our situation, the principles which are right and godly should not be compromised. They have not changed. They are not matters of convenience, but mandates of eternal truth.
Whereas Asa’s day had its Hanani, Jehoshaphat’s had a Micaiah. While the revivalist king, beloved in Israel, went out to the glory of battle in disobedience with Ahab, the faithful prophet who had condemned the whole effort sat in prison where he was given water to drink and bread to eat. This contrast is instructive. If we were to ask, “Who influenced more people to follow the Lord?” or “Who was more appreciated by God’s people?” or “Who was given the greater venue of influence for God?” we would answer, “Jehoshaphat.” But were we to ask the questions, “Who was more hated by God’s enemies?” or “Who was more obedient to the Lord?” or “Who suffered faithfully for the cause of Christ?” we would have to answer with the chronicler, “Micaiah.”
Perhaps the most important question to be asked of Jehoshaphat’s example is, “What was the legacy of his compromise?” The answer, of course, tells the sad tale of the destruction of his household and the plunging of his nation into pagan darkness (2 Chron. 21:17). Is it merely a coincidence that our nation’s plunge into pagan darkness came a generation after the new evangelical experiment that repudiated ecclesiastical separation? If not a coincidence, then is not today’s fundamentalist forgetfulness regarding the dangers of new evangelicalism reminiscent of Jehoshaphat’s failure to learn from Asa’s mistakes?11
While it may be true that no one boldly and honestly clings to the label new evangelical anymore as Ockenga stubbornly did, it is nonetheless true that new evangelicalism’s repudiation of the Bible doctrine of separation is a timeless temptation. Neglect works just as well as repudiation when it comes to this sin. Potential for this failure is at least as old as the history of the kings of Israel and as recent as the last time our own hearts were tempted, either by too much difficulty or too much success, to follow in their steps. It is easier to aspire to be a Jehoshaphat who is going to change the world than it is to be content to be a Micaiah who sits in prison with his bread and water. But as much as we can appreciate the influential Jehoshaphats of our day, we must still be Micaiahs when faced with that choice.
This is the first thing we must do in order to apply the principles of ecclesiastical separation to our lives and ministries. We must aspire to be Micaiahs rather than Jehoshaphats. We can appreciate the good done by gifted people greatly used of God, but we must require that they not have the blind spot of a Jehoshaphat regarding obedient separation before we embrace their ministries and organizations. Obedience to this Bible doctrine must be more important than influence and opportunity. This is how we guard the future of the faith once delivered to the saints from the legacy of a Jehoshaphat-like neglect or repudiation of the Bible doctrine of ecclesiastical separation.
A New Testament Passion
In addition to choosing the correct Old Testament example, we must cultivate a New Testament passion before we can correctly apply the Bible doctrine of ecclesiastical separation to our lives and ministries. Emotions can be visceral and powerful forces in our lives. One need only remember the power of music, the language of emotion, to destroy a nation’s godly culture to realize the power of this part of our makeup in the image of God. It is not surprising that compromise in the realm of music often precedes compromise in the realm of theology, because it turns out that cultivating correct feelings is essential to the right application of doctrines like ecclesiastical separation.
This feeling is found throughout the Gospels’ descriptions of the life of Christ and the writings of the apostles like Paul, Peter, and John. One need only read Matthew 23 and listen to the woe after woe against the false teachers of His day to see that Christ felt very strongly about the need for separation from these teachers. He calls them whited tombs full of dead men’s bones. We blush at times as the apostle Paul writes to the Galatians about their desertion from Christ for a different gospel and to the Philippians about the dogs and concision that they needed to avoid. Peter felt it too as he called false teachers unreasoning animals, stains, blemishes, and much more. When we read expressions of ecclesiastical separation in the New Testament, we read expressions of great emotion and passion.
Historic fundamentalism once felt that passion against false teachers, but more common today in fundamentalist circles is a similar passion directed not at false teachers but at faithful fundamentalists.12 The passion of Christ and the apostles against apostasy has been harder to find, and the woes in Matthew 23 originally directed at those who taught false views of Christology, soteriology, and revelation, often have been directed at a fundamentalist heritage in need of appreciation and respect instead. We still have emotion on this topic, but it is not the New Testament passion. If we are going to apply faithfully the principles of ecclesiastical separation to our lives and ministries, we need to recover the feelings that Christ and the apostles had about these matters. We must be jealous for the people of God with a godly jealousy (2 Cor. 11:2-4).
10See the section on “Ecclesiastical Separation from False Teachers” here.
11David Beale describes a phenomenon that began with Jerry Falwell’s move with the Moral Majority into broad evangelicalism in the 1970s and early 1980s: “Many of this movement’s adherents are former Fundamentalists still clinging to the label. Both the secular and the religious media, recognizing the new movement’s shift away from separatist Fundamentalism, have dubbed it the ‘new fundamentalism’ or ‘neo-fundamentalism’” (p. 9).
12See, for instance, Jerry Falwell, Ed Dobson, and Ed Hindson, The Fundamentalist Phenomenon (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1981), p. 248.