Sunday, March 20, 2016

Conservative Evangelicals Explore the Doctrine of Separation, part one

Not until very recently have I ever heard an evangelical talk about the doctrine of ecclesiastical separation.  When I attended the ETS meeting in San Francisco half a dozen years ago, I looked everywhere, scouring closely in the mammoth book room for a book on separation, and found none.  I have begun to hear some mentions of ecclesiastical separation in the last few years, but the Shepherd's Conference this year in Southern California dedicated an entire break-out session to this doctrine with Albert Mohler, called The Dividing Line.  Don't be confused about the mimicry of the title of James White's live webcast, The Dividing Line, which is not about ecclesiastical separation. Mohler was teaching on ecclesiastical separation, essentially giving guidelines for this almost non-existent doctrine in evangelicalism.

This year's Shepherd's Conference at Grace Community Church included a number of sessions that dealt with the worldliness found in evangelicalism -- another surprise -- and perhaps I'll explore some of those later after I've discovered everything covered at the conference.  For instance, Phil Johnson treats the "young, restless, and reformed," while Nathan Busnitz confronts "evangelicalism's quest for popular acceptance."  For the next couple of days, however, I want to work my way through Mohler's presentation.  I've listened once to his whole seminar, so I'm going to provide an overall evaluation in this post.  I will get into detail in the very near future.

For those of you who do not know, Albert Mohler is the now long time president of the flagship seminary of the Southern Baptist Convention, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.  Albert Mohler himself is often referred to as the intellectual leader of the Southern Baptist Convention.  This is not his first foray into teaching on separation.  Mohler became well known for his essay and instruction about what he called a "theological triage."  In the 2005 article, you won't find the word "separation" anywhere.  Later in 2011, Mohler contributed a considerable portion of Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism, where he essentially distinguished his position from those of fundamentalism over the doctrine of separation.  Again, Mohler didn't talk specifically about separation, except where he criticized the chapter written by the fundamentalist, Kevin Bauder.

In The Dividing Line, Mohler does approach the doctrine of ecclesiastical separation.  When he says, "dividing," he does mean "separating."  In his presentation, Mohler sounds like a traditional fundamentalist.  Many fundamentalists would really enjoy what he had to say.  He represented fundamentalist style separation in his speech like I have never heard an evangelical address the issue.  It was fascinating in that way to hear an evangelical, even though a conservative evangelical, talk about the subject.

I rejoiced to hear Mohler speak on separation.  I was glad that evangelicals are at least encouraging separation and giving some kind of instruction on it.  I think everyone should be happy for this step taken by an evangelical.  What do I think of what he said?

Overall, the presentation was terrible for many reasons.  First, his presentation was not biblical.  He did not report what the Bible teaches on the subject (which you could get if you read the book, A Pure Church).  You will not get ecclesiastical separation correct if you do not look at what the Bible says about it.  People need biblical instruction and he does not give it.  That is very sad.  I started to listen to the panel discussion from the conference and in it the three panelists talked about theology.  John MacArthur said you must start with biblical theology before you move to systematic.  I heard the other speakers, "Amen."  Mohler does not start with biblical theology, so he failed there.  He talked for over an hour and did not give biblical teaching, where the Bible is rich with teaching on this subject.

Second, Mohler doesn't even practice what he teaches in his own session.  If he did practice what he taught, he would need to leave the Southern Baptist Convention.  I have not heard that he has done that yet.

Third, Mohler gives no justification for his conclusions than his own seat-of-the-pants theology and his own philosophy.  Maybe that's good enough for that audience.  I would hope not.  However, it is not unusual for evangelicals to seek biblical exposition on many different subjects, but look for some kind of pragmatism on the doctrine of separation.  How could anyone who claims to be biblical sit through that session and either agree or enjoy it?

I could give some more minor criticisms of Mohler's presentation.  I recognize that from the three points, one would think I didn't like what he said.  I didn't, but I was glad that the conference and Mohler tried to say something about it.  Mohler did edge and dance around the subject without really teaching it.

I believe that the reason we're hearing finally and now on separation is because of the same sex marriage issue.  We're seeing same sex marriage accepted in churches.  Many are starting to pull separation out of the mothballs because they can see they might need it as a tool in their toolbox, just to preserve a certain proximity to the status quo.

Mohler makes some very strong statements.  It's hard to think he believes some of what he states.  Do evangelicals really believe what he says?  I know they don't practice what he says. I would be hard pressed to find one evangelical in the world who practices some of what Mohler said.  I'll tell you what those statements were when I provide my analysis here in the next few days.


Ken Lengel said...

Also, it is important to note that Mark Sidwell from BJU has written a book on separation entitled "The Dividing Line" as well. I am very interested in the subject on separation and a few years back now, I interviewed Bauder, Sidwell, Moritz, and Doran on their views on biblical separation. I am planning a short work on these interviews this year, Lord willing.


James said...

That would be interesting. Sidwell's book is almost 20 years old. BJU no longer decries publicly or in policy much of what they once did or what Sidwell's book does. There is more talk of separation and worldliness out of parts of the SBC these days than in "fundamentalism". My point is that your work would be extremely interesting to see how the views or applications have shifted--both of BJU and those you interviewed.

Kent Brandenburg said...


I would love reading the work. Thanks.

Ken Lengel said...

I know Mark told me that he is working on a new edition of his book, so it will be interesting to see it when it arrives. One of Kent's last comments remind me of what the problem is. Leaders, especially those who are looked to by many others for spiritual guidance and direction, are often misguided by their own sense of "rightness".

They understand what they mean when they want to say something, and they believe it fervently, write it down, and would defend it. However, their practice never seems to match up because they are blinded by their own nuance, and their own situation.

For example, when discussing the Strange Fire of Charismatics, John MacArthur says that non-Charismatic churches start practicing Charismatic beliefs because those churches promote, sing, and listen to Charismatic music. If you let in the music the "theology" and the practice will follow. I agree with that wholeheartedly, but he is blinded to the ramifications of that belief in his own ministry as well as others.

If a youth group sponsor will accept listening to and singing the praises of a secular artist, the teens who like that leader will come to the conclusion, that it is okay to listen to secular music, of at least, that secular artist. In our culture, we do not understand that our actions and not our words often drive our practices, and influence the actions of others. This in turn is what alters our beliefs from previous generations, and why we find ourselves constantly redefining or minimizing them.

Tyler Robbins said...

Listening right now. Mohler: "You should separate when it is no longer a church." The Gospel as the irreducible minimum. Mohler is usually excellent. We'll see how the rest of his presentation is. But, it looks as if the Gospel is the "dividing line" for him - hence the title of the message!?

Kent Brandenburg said...


Whenever you're done with your book, let me know. I agree with your assessment about the evangelical and now fundamentalist view of truth. I'm going to talk about it as I continue with Mohler's presentation.


It's interesting to hear the seat-of-the-pants take from Mohler. It reminded of his wife's presentation on 1 Cor 11 when she said the symbol was not the head covering now, but the wedding ring. Why? Same type of argumentation follows. You just believe it because someone is a Mohler.