Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Conservative Evangelicals Explore the Doctrine of Separation, part two

Part One.

The Bible teaches separation from the very first chapter when the earth was without form and uninhabited, that is, unusable, and God began separating, starting with light from darkness.  Nothing functions without some sort of separation.  You really can't have unity without separation.  God is a Separatist.

When someone, like Albert Mohler in his The Dividing Line, gets separation wrong or gets it unbiblical, he doesn't just get separation wrong.  When someone misrepresents or perverts separation, he also gets God, scripture, the truth, the church, and even the gospel wrong.  Every doctrine relates to separation.  The wrong view of separation corrupts a Christian worldview. You may ask, "What do you mean?"

God doesn't condone sin or error.  God will not deny Himself.  He becomes that God when we teach separation wrong.  That's a different God.  He isn't holy any longer and He can't be just either. Scripture isn't plain any more.  The truth is either this or that.  The church accepts error.  The gospel doesn't quite change a person or isn't quite following Jesus or it's a different Jesus.  The Christian worldview is one truth and this permits two.  I understand that a Mohler would likely deny all this, but I would debate him on the issue so that he couldn't weasel out in order to show that what I'm claiming is true.

Imagine taking the Mohler separation worldview and applying it to everywhere else in the world.  It doesn't actually work anywhere else in the real world, which is the only world, the one God created.  Allowance of violations of God's laws are not allowed anywhere.  If this were a bridge builder club, would there be a school that said to allow anything but complete compliance to the laws of bridge building?  Why should the world take Christianity seriously when Christianity doesn't take Christianity seriously?  By the way, this is not advocating sinless perfection, but rejecting a dividing line that falls short of full compliance to what God said.

I believe that I know why Mohler gets separation wrong and it isn't that difficult to ascertain.  I say, "I believe that I know," even though "I know," not just believe that I do.  Mohler could start with the Bible, but that would mean he would have to do what the Bible says.  That would so transform his life, it would be like starting over.   Southern Baptist Theological Seminary would shut down and he would be out of a job.  Instead, he is adapting the biblical doctrine of separation to his life.  Separation is being used by him.  It's handy for him.  He's not obeying what scripture says about it.  Separation is a tool of preservation, like separation of light from darkness preserves light.

To begin, Mohler welcomes his crowd and says that the presence of so many people indicates the "urgency of the question."  I would guess that the popularity of such a session on separation would be to hear something never taught at an evangelical gathering with the curiosity of who is going to be separated from.  There would be suspense for a session on separation like no other topic, because it means that someone is going to be a 'have-not.'

After praying, Mohler says that he wants to read a passage of scripture just to set a template for everyone's understanding.  Then he introduces the question, "When should churches separate from other ministries?"  I said he used the "s" word, separate, and he did it right away.  Notice that the question wasn't "when should churches separate from other churches?" but "other ministries?"  He's talking about churches and "ministries," an entirely unscriptural idea, some separate entity, known as a "ministry."  That could open up a whole other important topic, but it does introduce part of the problem right away, the lack of regulation by scripture in what evangelicals do.  Ministry is a very important word, and yet it is used in such a gumby-like way by Mohler.

Mohler then says that the answer to the first question has the same answer as, "when should a believer leave a church?"  Shortly thereafter, he says, "This is not as new a question as might appear to us."  Why would the question seem like a new question to any believer?  And yet it is a new question for an evangelical gathering.

The passage that Mohler chooses is tell-tale, which is John 6.  For sure separation is found in John 6, but for anyone who wanted to investigate ecclesiastical separation, he would not start with John 6. The people who separated in John 6 were unbelievers separating from believers.  That isn't how separation works, that is, making unbelievers uncomfortable with your doctrine to the extent that they leave you.  John 6 is providing a very great template for answering Mohler's question.  He goes to the Old Testament as a second example with Elijah proclaiming, "Choose you this day whom you will serve."  That example is similar to John 6, both of which do not offer teaching about ecclesiastical separation.

Mohler brings then the thought of the dividing line to the debate about the Trinity in the counsel of Nicea, a gathering which he says is the church trying to settle a question.  He continues explaining how that issues continue needing to be settled, and then comes to a full and abrupt stop to answer the question stated earlier with a one sentence answer:  "You should separate when it is no longer a church."  Wow.  What?!?   The question was, when does a church separate from a ministry?  Then he said that a similar question was, when do you leave a church?  He answered those by saying, "You should separate when it is no longer a church."  That doesn't answer the first question.  It is strange answer to the second one.

Albert Mohler uses history to make his point.  He says that "the church" didn't decide on Christianity and some lesser Christianity, but on the gospel, and that a church that wouldn't teach this, I guess meaning the gospel, is no longer a church.  He says that Augustine dealt with this in the Donatist controversy and that the issue is, "is what you are seeing a church?"  He continued by saying this was the central question of the Reformation, where Calvin and Luther weren't starting new churches, but were saying that schism with the church at Rome was necessary because the church at Rome was no longer a church.

Mohler goes to Luther to define what is a church, saying there were two marks and without either mark, it wasn't a church.  Mohler uses Luther to say that it is, first, where the Word of God is rightly preached, and, two, where the sacraments were rightly ministered.  Mohler says that by the Word of God Luther meant "the gospel," that is, where the gospel is rightly preached.  For the sacramental part, Mohler said that in the free church tradition, it is "where the church rightly ordered by the Word of God."  Mohler turns this into a debate on the gospel and the authority of scripture.  Mohler followed that by saying that the solas were what made a church a church.

Mohler says that the question of when a church was a church was really important to Calvin, Luther, and their colleagues and heirs, because they were really concerned not to be schismatics -- he says they didn't want to be the cause of division in the church.  According to him, they wanted to pastor the church, but the question was 'where was the church to be found.'  The first thing Mohler says that Luther tried, and that everyone should try, is to try not to be schismatics, that Luther nailed the theses to the door of the Wittenberg church to stay in the church at Rome.  Mohler maintains that we need to be very careful not to try to make the church into our image and then to separate from true brothers of Jesus Christ, adding "in terms of where we find the true church."  Further, he contends that we do, however, need to be discerning.

It's hard to follow Mohler.  I'm just reporting.  He continues by saying, not only do we need to be discerning, but that the New Testament teaches us to separate from unbelief.  Mohler sounds like he is improvising, completely speaking from the seat of his pants, making it up as he goes along.  I hope these were not his notes, because he isn't giving close to a clear answer.  If someone did know what the Bible taught on separation, he would be more confused after hearing Mohler's presentation.

Following up on separating from unbelief, Mohler says, "to separate from any false gospel, to separate from any unbiblical union."  Unbiblical union?  That is about as ambiguous and muddy as someone could get.

From there, Mohler says that in the history of evangelicalism, some big names jump out at you on this subject:  Charles Spurgeon and J. Gresham Machen.  Like Luther was excommunicated, Spurgeon was kicked out of the Baptist Union after trying to reform it from the inside.  In other words, Spurgeon didn't separate.  Machen was also kicked out of his Presbyterianism denomination because of his actions as it related to error there.  Machen, Mohler says, was just attempting to separate Christianity from liberalism.  Two men who were kicked out of their denominations doesn't seem to be very practical teaching on separation, unless the Bible teaches, really teaches, that separation is waiting for someone to excommunicate you.

Starting around the 17 minute mark, Mohler gives a brief history of the fundamentalist movement of the late 19th and early 20th century.  Mohler uses the example of fundamentalism to separate between Christians and liberals, although he says that these mainly were people kicked out of liberal denominations who had no where else to go. He brings back in John 6 here and says that this is Jesus saying then to the Christians in modernist denominations, "Will you also go away?"  I guess they say, "Yes, we want to go away."  This is the dividing line, Mohler posits, who will stand on the gospel, and who will not?  Some of the churches never separated, so they just went completely the way of liberalism, fully denying the gospel.  It's hard to stick with this flow of thought, his attempt to justify his view of separation by this wandering quasi-historical presentation.

Next Mohler moves to the example of D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones.  He says that Lloyd-Jones taught that the church is a household of faith, so faith is the dividing line.  However, in the house itself are many rooms.  Aaaah.  He says that just because we're in the same house, that is, we're saved, doesn't mean that we might not have different rooms in that house.  You stay in the house and you pretty much go to your particular room, I suspect, certain walls dividing various beliefs within the same big house. This house-room teaching is interesting, but it would be really good if it were in the Bible.  The house-room teaching isn't in the Bible.  Mohler treats it like it is.

I'm stopping here (32 minute mark), but I'll come back soon this week for more analysis, Lord-willing.


Lance Ketchum said...

The problem with these people trying to define their ecclesiastical separation is that their Ecclesiology is Reformed Catholicism and their Church is Universal/Mystical in nature. Therefore the imperative for "unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" (Eph. 4:3) is within some ambiguous Church entity known as Christianity. They can't make it work without inclusivism while they know there must be some degree of exclusivity. As a new evangelical once told me, "we never are to separate from other Christians." This is why they must interpret Romans 16:17-20 to refer only to unbelievers.

Kent Brandenburg said...


You are nailing it. Completely right. I can't really add anything to what you wrote.

d4v34x said...

I'll be honest and basically say that I basically agree with Lance's assessment and, to a significant extent, at least, affirm what he decries. Apart from the big C Catholicism. I am a small c catholic.

Jim Camp said...

Do you mean you "disagree" instead of "agree" with Lance's assessment. It sounds
like you are disagreeing.