Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Tabletalk, R. C. Sproul, and the Evangelical Foray into Ecclesiastical Separation

When I visited the Evangelical Theological Society meeting in San Francisco a few years ago, I scoured their mammoth book room for anything on separation and found none.  I asked men on the panel on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism where they had anything on separation, and one of the panelists said it would be in books in their chapters on the church.  I took that as church discipline. Separation was the same as church discipline.  I noticed that evangelicals seem afraid of a conversation about separation, maybe because someone might think they're a fundamentalist, and they wouldn't want that.

The ecclesiastical separation column for evangelicals lists something positive as of this month.  The June 2014 edition of Tabletalk, the R. C. Sproul, Ligonier, publication proposes ecclesiastical separation, entitled, Guilt By Association.  It contains four separate articles on ecclesiastical separation:  "Degrees of Separation" by David Murray, "Reasons for Separation" by Carl Trueman, "Guidelines for Separation" by Sinclair Ferguson, and "Gospel Association" by Iain D. Campbell.  Ecclesiastical separation is the feature of the June edition of an evangelical magazine, and it is positive.  It is teaching ecclesiastical separation.

Before I break down some of what was said, I ask, "Aren't these men fundamentalists?"  Shouldn't these men be considered fundamentalists?  Their language is what has been explained to me as fundamentalism.  I'd be happy for some input on this question.  They are talking like at least historic fundamentalists with this writing.

The David Murray article is very interesting, although he makes no biblical argument for his position of degrees of separation.  He just asserts these degrees with no biblical proof.  However, consider this line towards the end:

Sadly, the doctrinal and practical disagreements between churches and Christians are sometimes so serious and substantial that there is really no option but to separate on both an institutional and personal level. We cannot unite, we cannot associate, we cannot endorse, and we cannot even remain friends.

Wow, huh?  And that's not all, Murray asserts "secondary separation."  He says:

 In 1963, Billy Graham asked D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones if he would chair the first Worldwide Congress on Evangelism. Lloyd-Jones said he would gladly do it if Graham stopped including liberals and Roman Catholics on his crusade platform and staff. They talked for three hours, but when Graham refused to agree to this, Lloyd-Jones said he could not o”ffer any support or endorse Graham’s campaigns. Lloyd-Jones had a high regard for Billy Graham but separated from him formally because of his associations with others. 

That’s secondary separation, and again, it should be limited to denial of primary biblical truths, or else we will end up in a church of one, isolated and completely alone.

That's his limit on a secondary separation explanation, but he is espousing it, nonetheless.

Carl Trueman is, as many of you know, a huge favorite of conservative evangelicals and their closest fundamentalists.   Since he is writing on separation, it's probably going to be fashionable now, even among what Joel Tetreau calls type B and C fundamentalists.  Separation will be permissible to talk about again (not that celebrity affects anything among those).  He writes in his introduction:

In the current church climate, the issue of separation is set to become more significant, not less. One hundred years ago, as the liberal-fundamentalist controversy was reaching its peak, the issues were relatively straightforward: there were those who affirmed supernatural Christianity and there were those who denied it. Now, the situation is far more complicated, as disagreements on ethical issues have moved to the fore of discussion even among those who might otherwise assert supernaturalism.

And, of course, he's talking about same-sex marriage, and acceptance of homosexuality in evangelical churches, especially.  Trueman says that separation is not the fault of the ones separating, but "those who are theologically or morally deviant are the true agents of separatism."  He refers to "Romans 16:7" (sic, actually Romans 16:17, but we understand the infrequent reference to these passages could result in a mix-up) to identify the truly divisive ones.

Trueman doubles down on Murray's article by emphasizing again "distinctions between different degrees of fellowship and separation proper."  Like Murray, he doesn't provide a biblical basis for this, just asserts it.

He references 2 Corinthians 6:14 and gives some elementary ecclesiastical instruction, saying that "there is to be no positive working relationship between the church and the world, between those who believe the gospel and those who do not."  His last line is tell-tale:

Separation is hard and it is profoundly countercultural.  But it is a biblical mandate that we must follow in certain circumstances.

I see this as potentially a new movement in modern evangelicalism, a new-fundamentalist movement in which ecclesiastical separation is being taken from the biblical and theological closet, dusted off, and being used again.

Sinclair Ferguson's "Guidelines for Separation" is the most exegetically robust of the four articles.  All of it is very basic for someone already a separatist.  His last paragraph expresses his commitment:

The principle of separation has been abused, but it remains a biblical principle. There is a biblical separation that applies at the personal, the fellowship, and the ecclesiastical level. Overstep here and we do damage to the unity of the church. But fail here and as individuals and fellowships we will become like jellyfish with no central nervous system. Instead of swimming against the tide, we will simply float with it and eventually be thrown onto the shore, there to remain until another tide sweeps us out to sea.

The article, "Gospel Association," by Iain Campbell, expresses the basis for associating with others for the sake of proclaiming the gospel.  It is true that one church will not fulfill the Great Commission, because one church cannot witness in both Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the uttermost parts of the earth simultaneously.  The proclamation of the gospel to the ends of the earth requires cooperation with other churches.  His article lays out the basis of the association in doing that.  He's saying that a church cannot associate with everyone, but here are the grounds for doing that.  This is again separation talk, coming from an evangelical.

I'm not saying that these men are teaching what the Bible does about separation.  If you want to find that out, read A Pure Church (buy it, I'm not making any money on it).  Scripture is far more expansive and plain than what they even say.  That doesn't mean that I don't applaud steps that they do take.  I do rejoice in this positive step.  Perhaps it is because they are confessional Presbyterians for whom separation comes a little more naturally, especially than evangelical Baptists.

I had not heard a peep about this in what would be the usual sources for finding out.  Does anyone else think this is an amazing development?  Evangelicals supporting ecclesiastical separation?  They even support secondary separation from Billy Graham.  They sound like fundamentalists.  Is this the start of a new movement?  Are other evangelicals, even conservative ones, afraid of tweeting, linking, etc. because they might be accused of supporting separation or being a fundamentalist?


Tyler Robbins said...

Wasn't aware of this at all. I believe the conservative evangelicals are finding themselves part of a larger movement that, now more than ever, has become increasingly unrecognizable as "Christianity." They see the need to draw some lines. Ironically, they find themselves in precisely the same situation as fundamentalists did in the 1950s. The tables have turned.

Kent Brandenburg said...

"tables have turned"---pun intended? :-D

d4v34x said...

These men, at least Sproul and Trueman, are Confessional which I suggest is a different category from both Fundamental and Evangelical.

I have made a total of two visits to truly confessional churches (one visit each to two churches). At one the pastor made a separtistic statement about the WELS church he had prayed for earlier in the service. His point was to preserve the unity of the Church while not affirming and joining with each church in every last thing.

I don't think separatism is foreign to confessional types, I just don't think it's loudly emphasized.

d4v34x said...

So, I had not read the last 1/4 of your article where you also point out the confessional connection. I do agree that the emphasis of this subject in a prominent periodical, probably read by many Evangelicals, seems new.

Jon Gleason said...

Separation is nothing new for David Murray. He was in the Free Church (Continuing) which is certainly separatist. I have a lot of appreciation for some of those men, who paid a price in leaving the Free Church of Scotland. They are more Biblical than most of the alleged Baptists in this country.

Murray works with Michael Barrett, also a separatist. Others can assess how Biblical and consistent these men are in their separation. But certainly, separation is not new for them.

What is new is it getting a hearing in places that it might not have in the past.

I'm glad. Instead of a knee-jerk rejection of separation, to start to talk about it causes people to search the Scriptures on it. Who knows where that will take people?

Jim Camp said...

"He refers to "Romans 16:7" (sic, actually Romans 16:17, but we understand the infrequent reference to these passages could result in a mix-up)"

That was funny!

Thanks for the article. Perhaps if they look a little farther they will find
immersion baptism of converts.

Anonymous said...

"sic, actually Romans 16:17, but we understand the infrequent reference to these passages could result in a mix-up"

*Sniff, sniff* do I smell snark?