In the interest of understanding biblical separation, I offer some criticism of an article by Rick Flanders at the Revival Focus blog. I have a narrow focus in my review, dealing only with the separation topic, and not with revival, soteriology, discipleship, nor sanctification. Just because I don't touch on those doesn't mean that I believe Flanders is correct on those. With our having just published a book on ecclesiastical separation, A Pure Church, I continue to have an interest in related articles.
Flanders uses Luke 9:49-50 to make a point about separation, a generally good point. We shouldn't separate from people unnecessarily. The men not following Jesus and yet casting out demons were not opposing Jesus. There was no reason to stop them from casting out demons. Having demons leave people is a good thing. Flanders goes from there to say that we should not separate from other people just because they are not in our particular group.
Maybe some base their fellowship on whoever is in their group or circle or network. He describes this as casting "out like-minded Christians just because they don’t know them very well." So Flanders is confronting a problem. The only people I have ever seen, who operate like Flanders describes, are fundamentalists. The typical situation is that you don't send your students to a particular Bible college or university, so you diminish in your favor with that school. In certain instances, only by attending a particular conference or supporting certain missionaries will you people held in enough esteem to include in cooperation. These are fundamentalist politics, wielding influence within fundamentalism by playing these types of games. Flanders is dealing with something he sees and I don't know if this is it. It's the place where I see what he's talking about.
Flanders defines a fundamentalist as someone who "thinks of himself as standing faithfully for the fundamental doctrines of the Gospel." That statement is loaded with so many qualifiers that make it unhelpful. Are you a fundamentalist if you merely think of yourself as standing faithful to certain doctrines? It would seem that thinking alone wouldn't cut it. And he narrows it down to the fundamental doctrines of the Gospel, not fundamental doctrines of Scripture, only the doctrines that are fundamental to the Gospel. That really wouldn't make you any different than a conservative evangelical. He provides no basis for this definition of fundamentalism. The only fundamentals I had every heard, were the ones in the pamphlets, The Fundamentals, and then called "the fundamentals of the faith." It didn't dawn on me until I was pastoring for awhile that the reason for having fundamentals was to create a unity that was less than biblical unity. For instance, you could be unified with people who sprinkled babies as long as they believed the fundamentals. Every movement that provides for a unity that reduces the basis of fellowship to arbitrarily chosen fundamentals is a movement to reject. Let God be true and every man a liar.
OK, what motivated me to write this began in about the 8th paragraph, when Flanders wrote: "The truth we mutually understand and follow can be the basis of some Christian cooperation, although disagreements on other things must limit the extent of it." This is where he takes an application of Luke 9:49-50 too far, if that is in fact the basis of this statement. He doesn't supply any support for it. He is saying that we can cooperate with one another, that is, fellowship based upon truth we mutually understand. The fellowship, however, is limited by disagreement "on other things." What other things? Are these the truths we don't mutually understand and follow? In other words, fellowship can still occur with a degree of false doctrine and practice. The Bible not only doesn't teach this, but it teaches against it in all the major separation passages.
Let me use Flanders himself as an example. I don't oppose him in those doctrines and practices that are right. I don't go out of my way even to deal with those areas. However, different doctrine and practice doesn't just bring a different degree of fellowship, but it results in not fellowshiping at all. I like Flanders a lot. I would enjoy getting together with him, talking about doctrine, sitting for a cup of coffee. However, I won't fellowship with him. Why? I don't believe the same as him. I know this to be true from reading what he is written. I can't ignore those doctrinal differences to cooperate with him. That doesn't mean that I don't appreciate where he is right. I do. I rejoice in it. I would even defend him when he is attacked on the truth. We are not fellowship with those who have a wrong doctrine and practice. We're talking about a doctrine the Bible teaches. Romans 14 is a passage that relates to those doctrines and practices the Bible doesn't either forbid or teach, that is, liberty issues. We should not relegate doctrines and practices the Bible teaches to matters of liberty.
A primary thought behind fundamentalism, represented by Flanders' article, is that we have varying degrees of fellowship based upon varying degrees of doctrinal disagreement. The Bible does not teach that at all. He doesn't prove it either. Fellowship is cooperation in ministry or worship (2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1). The basis for cooperation is the truth (1-3 John). It's true that we don't break fellowship just because someone hasn't "been in our group." However, we do break fellowship for more than "fundamentals to the Gospel." We don't start fellowshiping based upon a percentage of mutually agreed truths, and fellowship to the degree that we agree. Something the Bible teaches will be left out in that equation, purposefully dismissed solely for getting together.
We fellowship based on everything the Bible teaches, all its doctrines and practices. We break fellowship for unrepentant violations of biblical teachings and deeds. Once we know someone does believe and practice according to God's Word, we welcome fellowship. This is what John talks about in 2-3 John. It's not based on camps, on networks, or groups.
It might look like churches that believe and practice the same are a group. It might look like churches that will not fellowship outside of that group are not doing so because they won't welcome anyone who isn't in their group. I know that this isn't true. The churches our church fellowships with today we didn't even know about until doctrine and practice became our basis of fellowship. When those churches found we believed and practiced like them, they gladly welcomed us. They didn't shun us just because we weren't in their "group."
Doctrines and practices should not be ignored in order to fellowship. We should not be reducing doctrines to mutually agreed upon ones or to those merely fundamentals of the gospel as a criteria of our fellowship. There is no fellowship that is worth ignoring doctrine and practice in order to keep it. If it is called fellowship, and it isn't based upon all of the truth, then it isn't fellowship anyway, just a facade of fellowship, a counterfeit. God doesn't require any group, but that one He started Himself, the church. No group outside of the church is worth cooperating with in order to try to gain some kind of "influence." It's not a necessary influence. Purity and truth are necessary, not these influences.
Now I'm going to do something a little different. I'm going to anticipate the biggest disagreements with this post. People will disagree with me and their basis will be my own practice of what I'm writing about there. If they can find me inconsistent, then they have liberty to practice differently than what I'm teaching. They don't even have to find an inconsistency. Of course, the real basis for disagreement will be ecclesiology. Flanders likely believes in a universal church, so that we must have unity with all believers in some way---that's how he gets his fundamentals of the gospel idea. If that's the case, then he will need to find a way to fellowship with all believers, including evangelicals. Others will just call it divisive and heretical, that is, just call it names. I can see Flanders complaining that I misrepresented him or wondering why it is that we can't just be an encouragement, because he really only wants to help people. Others will just ignore it. If they ignore it, then they are not unifying with me, a believer, and therefore being divisive. Oops. But that will be OK, because no one that believes the way they do can practice either biblical unity or separation and be obedient to God anyway. Ignoring me won't change that.