Wednesday, March 06, 2013

The "Fundamentalist Practice of Separation"?

I'm glad Fred Butler is even thinking about separation, let alone talking about it.  It's rare to have an evangelical say anything about it.  They usually are attacking separation (as they are here), but you're thankful for whatever you can get.  At the ETS in San Francisco, I asked the panel why no books on separation in the mammoth book display, and they said it was found in other books in the sections on church discipline, indicative of their missing separation chromosome.  If you think that church discipline is a synonym for separation, or even ecclesiastical separation, then you don't know what you're talking about.

Fred Butler critiqued my series, Separation 101 (uno, dos, tres, quatro) in a recent post at his blog.  First some house-cleaning.  One, Fred is older than I thought, and I get why I thought he was young.  He got  married a little later in years than I, and so it was more of an assumption.  I'm older (I'm 50, Fred, but I understand your thinking I'm younger, it's easy to mistake me for early 40s :-D).  I think he's 44 or so, so he's ancient.  And second, if you're reading him, you might think he's insulting, but don't read too much into that.  He's got strong opinions and he wants to be interesting as a writer.  I get all that.  He's using his serrated edge, to use Douglas Wilson terminology.  Third, I actually like Fred.  I like Phil Johnson.  I like John MacArthur.  I like Dan Phillips.  I like Frank Turk.  I don't care if they don't like me -- I like them.  Just because we have differences, doesn't mean I don't like them.  Even if they are insulting, I get what they're about.  It's part of their shtick.  Bear with them.  Fred's got some church curmudgeon in him.  Then fourth, I'm not a fundamentalist.  I could write a whole post about that, but if Fred knew what he was talking about, he would understand that I'm not, but no offense to Fred, because he's out of his league on understanding what fundamentalism is all about.  If evangelicals don't know what category to stick someone to the right of them, they go with fundamentalist, because it's an effective pejorative.  Other evangelicals do that with MacArthur.  They call him a fundamentalist because he's to the right of them.  He's technically not one as most anyone would define it, even historically.  He doesn't even refer to himself as one usually, even though he's not opposed to someone calling him one.  I'd be glad to be challenged on whether I'm a fundamentalist, but I know I'm not one and would be glad to explain it again some other time.

I wished that Fred didn't read past what I wrote.  It's a bad habit to do that, and in many ways makes for a waste of time.  He writes a lot about the bad discernment of fundamentalism, actually assigning that as a motive or reason we really have for separation.  We can't discern, so we just jump right to separation.  That cracks me up, like Fred calling separation our cherished doctrine.  I guess I'm to assume that Fred doesn't cherish separation, and I would believe that.  The angels in heaven cherish it.  They don't cry "unity, unity, unity" in the heavenly throne room.  Everyone didn't make it on the ark.  The broad road doesn't get to join the narrow road.  Light and darkness are separated.  The tabernacle had an inner court separated from an outer court separated from the holy place separated from the holy of holies.   Curtains of various fabrics and skins were cut and sewn and clasped to separate the out from the in.  Christians cherish the doctrine of separation.  Paul wrote that if you didn't separate, God isn't a Father to you and you aren't sons and daughters to Him.  He wrote about separation in every of his epistles, but I picked just two places to use to apply the doctrine, and Fred blasted the two I used, like I couldn't have picked out others.  But we'll deal with his arguments.  I'm just glad he cared enough.  Thanks Fred, for caring -- serious.

Now let's get down to business.

I don't want to spend a lot of time on what he wrote first, because I want to deal mainly with his treatment of the two passages, but let's consider his "personal take" in the order he wrote it.  One, I believe MacArthur thinks about the differences between him and Piper and Mahaney, but he doesn't do what the Bible teaches.  He writes a book that makes their beliefs look very, very bad, and then he doesn't do what Scripture teaches about men who believe such doctrine.   Sure, have discernment.  Great.  Why is practicing separation against discernment?  It isn't.  You can have both.  Two, separation isn't throwing people under the bus.  It is a loving practice for loving God and the offender.  Not practicing is a form of sentimentalism that is devaluing the truth.  People who don't want to separate have to call it throwing someone under the bus.  Piper's false doctrine offends God and affects him and others, and not separating is to practice something that might be more warm and fuzzy, but it isn't love.  Not separating pushes someone in front of the bus in bus tragedy metaphor.  Three, separation is gracious.  God is always gracious and He still separates Himself.  Stating your opinion without separation is not more gracious.  Grace works toward separation.  It is grace to you (gty).  Four and five, is a conference fellowship?  It is.  Fellowship is working together in common ministry (2 Cor 6:14).  If a conference isn't ministry, then let's do away with conferences.  But if it is ministry, which is its intention, then biblical guidelines for fellowship should enter in here.  They may be in two different arenas for Fred's "discernment filter," but he needs to cherish separation more like God does.  Six, Fred asks questions about how much agreement people should have.  That's a common discussion in fundamentalism, not one so much had in evangelicalism.  Fundamentalists can't seem to agree on how much agreement there should be (ironic, huh?).  Our book, A Pure Church, answers these types of questions with biblical exegesis.  

Which brings us to the exegesis section -- Yes!

The big question here, really, is whether any New Testament passages teach that Christians, or better churches, are to separate from other Christians or churches over doctrine and practice.  I used Romans 16:17 and 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15 for this.  Fred doesn't seem to be very skilled at applying separation passages, and I would think that almost never hearing about it would be a major reason.  We also have 1 Corinthians 5, 1 Timothy 6:1-5, 2 Timothy 2, and others.  As well, the principles of Matthew 18:15-17 would apply.   But let's look at what he says.  Again, Fred, thank you for thinking about these.  You're rare in this for an evangelical.  Most move along through their lives in blissful ignorance of it.

Fred starts by saying that I take the passages woefully out of context, and later he conspiratorializes that "fundamentalists" do this kind of thing to keep their cherished doctrine intact.  That makes me laugh a lot, it's so crazy.  "The man" wants you to separate.  He's got computer chips in your cornflakes.  Don't let "the man" (big brother) control you, take away your liberty.  No Fred, it's the opposite here.  The passages guide our understanding of separation.  We didn't start with a doctrine of separation and then go to passages to attempt to conform them to a predisposed separation manual.  Very odd.

This woeful take on separation that we have happens to be like other commentators I read, when they're just being honest with the text, not attempting to read anything into it, perhaps to protect a cherished practice of not separating (i.e., fake unity).   Lenski says about Romans 16:17 what I would say (read it here), and actually points out the error of what Fred is doing here, that is, stating "that Paul's words can be applied only to these errors, and that we cannot today apply Paul's admonition unless we are able to point to exact duplicates of these errors."  Lenski gives an interesting point in Acts from 15:5, when he talks about "a certain sect of the Pharisees which believed (emphasis his), " former Pharisees, now believers, yet errorists."  That's exactly how Romans 16:17 reads.  Professing believers, professing orthodox, causing divisions in the church at Rome, away from doctrines that were already established teachings.  What are the teachings, for instance, that Piper propagates, a kind of ecstasy like Paul warned about in 1 Corinthians.  It's very dangerous.  What do you do with it?  You mark it an avoid it.  Fred says, "No, you only mark and avoid teachers who teach a false gospel.  Period."  That's not what it says.

Colin G. Kruse in his commentary on Romans says, "These people presented themselves as believers, and in their own minds were probably true believers, but in Paul's eyes 'they were not serving our Lord Jesus Christ'."  Is Piper a believer?  I'm not arguing that one way or another.  I'm not saying "yes" or "no," because it's irrelevant.  Is he serving Jesus Christ with his Charismatic teaching?  That's how Kruse and Lenski handle it.   The people who divide from church doctrine aren't serving the Lord Jesus Christ, even if they profess to be saved (and actually are saved), which is why Titus 3:10-11 say to separate from them.  The point is, of course, to keep the church from their false doctrine.  It says though, "mark and avoid."  It doesn't say, "Write a book or have a private conversation in which we agree to disagree, and then promote through a conference or chapel invitation."   If you are serious enough about a doctrine to write a book about it, and hit that doctrine with a scathing rebuke, why is it not serious enough to separate from?  And when scripture teaches that separation is the thing you're actually supposed to do?

Paul uses the word skandalia ("offenses"), which is used of Christians as recent as Romans 14.  Christians cause other Christians to stumble.  Albert Barnes writes:  "some bold Gentile convert, might deride the scrupulous feelings of the Jew, and might thus lead him into sin in regard to what his conscience really forbade."

For the sake of argument, let's grant Romans 16:17 to Fred.  And then we go to 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15.  Fred, squirms out of this one by saying that this "not working" practice was akin to a freaky Harold Camping holy huddle 'till the rapture, investing in blow guns and survival gear.   That really doesn't fly.  Sure, Paul gets into specifics, but he argues for the specific from the general.  Spurgeon, concerning 2 Thessalonians 3:6 writes:

Paul had been to Thessalonica, and had given oral teaching, and now he commits to the book what he had spoken; but he bids them take care not to associate with those who wilfully broke the ordinances of the church which he had taught them. There are some brethren with whom it is ill for us to associate, lest they do us hurt, and it is ill for them that we associate with them, lest we seem to assist them in their evil deeds.

It's obvious that it isn't just the idle found in the command to disassociate here, but the disorderly and any who do not abide by Paul's epistle (see vv. 6, 14, 15).  And it should apply to more than church discipline.  Consider the following BibSac article from 1895:

Baptists should read their own proof-texts a little more carefully,—2 Thess. iii. 6, 14, for example.  These texts are used by them as authority for the maintenance of church discipline.  But if they authorize withdrawal from one professed disciple because of his disobedience, they equally authorize withdrawal from all who disobey.  Note the language: ‘Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every’ —member of the local church?  No,—‘from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us.’ The same comprehensiveness of statement is found in the fourteenth verse: ‘If any man obey not,’ etc.  Why should not these commands apply to ‘brethren’ outside the church, as well as within its membership?  Baptists should certainly feel constrained to a consistent withdrawal of church fellowship from the disobedient, which means abstinence from all church unions with them.

My Separation 101 posts were to begin exploring the doctrine of separation, its teaching and practice.  I used Piper and MacArthur as an illustration, because they're obvious to many.  As to ecclesiastical separation, with the exception of church discipline, who has MacArthur and his church separated from?   When have they ever encouraged separation?

True unity is based on the truth.  Unity is meaningless without separation.  The fellowship of unity is the light, the truth, the teachings of God's Word.   The false, fake unity gets along by minimizing or reducing doctrine to a low common denominator (reductionism).  Scripture doesn't present unity that way.

We're not concocting artificial qualifications.  These are teachings MacArthur himself by his own standard has said are very, very serious.  We're talking about biblical qualifications.

The point isn't whether MacArthur has compromised 40 years of ministry by having Piper and Mahaney.  The point is whether the Bible teaches separation and then what separation is.  There are too many passages that teach separation just to explain them all away.  None of us are beyond learning from John MacArthur and neither is MacArthur and Fred Butler beyond learning from someone else.

Separation isn't a fundamentalist practice.  It's a biblical and historical Christian one.  Michael Sattler wrote in 1527 in the Schleitheim Confession:

The community of Christians shall have no association with those who remain in disobedience and a spirit of rebellion against God. There can be no fellowship with the wicked in the world; there can be no participation in works, church services, meetings and civil affairs of those who live in contradiction to the commands of God (Catholics and Protestants). All evil must be resisted including their weapons of force such as the sword and armor.


Gary Webb said...

Brother Brandenburg,
This is a clear article, & I hope that some fundamentalists will read it, ponder it, understand it, & eventually embrace it, & practice it. I know it would have made sense to me when I was a fundamentalist & looking at these passages. When preaching through II Thessalonians early in my ministry, I took notice that the big emphasis by fundamentalists on this passage was on "Secondary Separation", while putting virtually no emphasis upon the actual application of this passage in a local church. You would think that fundamentalist & evangelical EXPOSITORS would see the discrepancies in their practice when looking at these passages.

George Calvas said...

Brother Kent,

I agree biblically that we are truly to seperate ourselves from those that are "contrary to sound doctrine" as well as established biblical practices in the body of Christ that do not conform to the image of Christ(music, dress, manner of life, etc.)

Now, I have a few "fundamental" questions to ask you about evangelism as it relates to the church...

1> Do you use Sunday and mid-week church house services to "preach the gospel" to the lost?

2> Do you teach your people to bring "in the lost" when the the purpose of these services ought to be that the betrothed "bride of Christ" meet with Jesus Christ (Ephesians 4)?

3> Do you actually practice the commandment to "go into all the world and preach the gospel" through open-air evangelism (the whole book of Acts taught by the life of Jesus Christ to the Apostles) and even house to house preaching and teaching the gospel of the grace of God?

Joshua said...

Had a new (for me) thought when I was reading Fred's blog and the lads agreeing with him. Try this thought experiment:

MacArthur criticized the charismatic movement as false doctrine and dangerous. Many who looked up to him and respected him therefore were receptive to his criticisms, and thus he taught them well to be ware of the charismatic error.

Imagine if MacArthur had come out publicly warning about Piper's error and refusing to fellowship with him because of the seriousness of false doctrine. If that had happened, then I very much suspect many of the lads on Fred's blog valiantly defending MacArthur's association with Piper would instead be talking about how right it was for MacArthur to separate from all error, even from guys he'd otherwise love to fellowship with like Piper.

That influence that he has over them thus can be used for good or ill. Where MacArthur is biblical, then it blesses them. Where he is inconsistent, it snares them. Because of his fellowship with Piper, they now have to justify it not just as ok... but as downright sanctified and godly. They have to explain away the verses that make MacArthur look bad. All without MacArthur saying a word, he has clearly taught them that just because a teaching is false and dangerous, doesn't mean you should separate from it, and in fact it can sometimes be a great sign of your spiritual maturity and grace that you continue to offer them the right hand of fellowship. Anyone who doesn't like it must be a Pharisaical nitpicking fundamentalist.

There are many young evangelicals who have well learned this lesson, and are now busily applying this principal over boundaries MacArthur would never dream of crossing. Piper holds to false charismatic doctrines, but in grace and humility they can fellowship. Now the next generation has even more grace and humility then he, and can fellowship with chaps like Bell.

There's quite a bit of bitter fruit there to be harvested shortly... all from one seemingly small inconsistency.

Kent Brandenburg said...

Hi Joshua,

Your comment could be a whole post. It is right on. Separation itself is in fact, taught to be some kind of lack of love or factious enemy of unity, which is appealing to many because of what not separating means to them practically. I dealt with this in my last Separation 101 post. With the broad acceptance of various "oddball" views, one might think that separation would be one of the "oddball" views Fred might put up with, as he does Piper, because Piper is some kind of king of Calvinism, but "no," only Charismatic oddballs like Mahaney and Piper are accepted (common denominator: Calvinism), but not separation.

Fred's having a hard time defending his position over there, because his view is in fact the one that veers off Scripture. I say that in a loving way, by the way, very loving :-D.

Kent Brandenburg said...


I never said, thanks, so thanks. I don't want to take you for granted, bro.

Kent Brandenburg said...


In essence, my answers to your questions are 1) no, 2) no, and 3) yes. I don't mind if someone invites an unsaved person to church, but it isn't how we teach it is to be done, since that philosophy isn't in the Bible.

George Calvas said...


Thanks. I appreciate your biblical stance even more because of your consistancy to the basic doctrine of evangelism that sets the foundation of building the church, discipleship (They were first called Christians in Antioch- Acts 11) by teaching the body of Christ the principles of the life of Jesus Christ that become sound doctrine.