Baptists (especially the Reformed stripe) and the rest of the Christian world are a lot like Gene and Finny. It’s not a perfect allegory, but there’s enough correlation to make some fine points about both parties. For example, neither side is actually perfect: one side is a little too concerned with being the best (in spite of his self awareness that he has many flaws), and the other side has no regard for such a thing to the point that it clouds his judgment and causes him to be foolishly innocent.
Fair enough, right? That’s a broad brush, and a broad brush tends to slop the paint around, and one winds up getting some on his own hands. In this book, Gene and Finny have to separate – because Finny dies. They go their own ways because Finny dies during an operation, but the author’s point is writing the story is that Gene realizes, in the end, that while he called Finny his friend he was never really “right” with Finny – he was jealous of him, and was somewhat slyly-hateful toward him. Finny’s death was a catalyst for Gene, sadly, to “get over it” – that is, it took a cataclysmic event to make Gene know something about himself that needed fixin’, and he was able to fix it.
In my mind, this is exactly what the Baptist ideal of separation is like – and I know this is going to draw some ire from people I consider friends, so let me lay out a qualifier before I go any farther: when it comes to the Gospel, we ought to give no quarter to those who want to water it down. We ought to contend for the faith. We ought to stand for fundamentals as if there was nothing else to stand for.
That qualifier, of course, comes back to the issue of orthodoxy and what the essential doctrines of the faith are, right? So I’m not talking about having some index card of faith-truths we are willing to die for, and the rest is cotton candy: I’m talking about a robust orthodoxy which holds up as important everything the Bible holds up as important, to the same extent that the Bible holds it up as important, and then the rest is fine for rumination and consideration.
If you want a specific example of what I’m talking about, marriage is a non-negotiable of the Christian faith. The mere orthodoxy types never consider this, but marriage is an essential part of Christian theology for a long list of reasons (I have listed some of them elsewhere), and those who would corrupt it or abolish it or tamper with it are the kinds of troublemakers we should separate from.
However, the marriage ceremony is not non-negotiable. There’s no fixed ceremony expounded in the Bible, and the kind of marriage celebration sort of taken for granted in the Bible makes the Baptist practice of marriage rites look somewhat bloodless and mopey. It ought to be joyful; it ought to be public; it ought to be focused on Christ; it ought to be honoring to the bride and the groom. That’s it – after that, I think we have the liberty to enjoy ourselves. We ought not to be separated from people who have Tarzan-themed weddings, or whatever: the ceremony is only a tactic in implementing the strategy of the actual institution of marriage. I might have more to say about stupid objections like, “well, what about a nudist wedding,” or “what about a cannibal wedding,” or “what about a wiccan wedding”. Each of those violate one of the things I have already mentioned as hallmarks of what the Bible describes in wedding ceremonies.
Nathan Busenitz has been off on the issue of separation over at Faith and Practice blog, and my good friend Phil Johnson has called that series “stellar” – and I think Phil is right. But Nate’s last post in that series drew this comment from a reader:
Fundamentalists would agree with your view of Billy Graham and would have no association with him. Then, I think, the argument would go this way: since Dr. Mohler does not separate from Billy Graham, but associates with him (the Louisville Graham Crusade), Dr. Mohler, by his practice, is rejecting the doctrine of separation, and therefore is a disobedient believer who must be separated from.Which, of course, is a pretty lousy argument if you ask me, but it’s the kind of thing that comes up when this issue gets tossed around.
Now, I want everyone reading this blog to think about something: does this person actually “get” the doctrine of separation at all? I am pretty widely on-record as finding stadium evangelism for the most part disreputable because it removes the responsibility for evangelism from the local church, but do I think we ought to be separated from anyone who cooperates with a stadium event?
Good heavens – I’d have no church to belong to!
Listen: at the core of the doctrine of separation are a couple of things which the reactionary, the zealot, and the bigot (which are not all the same things) ignore pretty strenuously – that is, they have to exert a lot of energy to ignore these things.
The first thing is this: every mistake is not apostasy and sin. Can we agree on that? For example, when Paul separated with Barnabas over Mark, neither man was falling into apostasy. Barnabas may have made too much out of the necessity of bringing the young man along, and Paul made have made too much out of leaving him behind, but neither man was violating the Gospel over that matter of tactics.
We all make mistakes. Some of us make bigger mistakes than others – because some of us work on a bigger canvas. You know: a guy with a blog that pulls in 500 readers a day can make a bigger mistake than a guy with 5 readers if they both express the same opinion at the same time over the same subject – like demanding that Joel Osteen is a rank heretic. I don’t think Osteen is a rank heretic: I think he’s a pastor who has made some grave tactical errors, and he’s unable to demonstrate that he can express or defend the Gospel on national TV. What that means is that he’s poor evangelist, and he doesn’t have a lot of experience in apologetics. On those grounds, you’d have to call a lot of pastors in America today heretics. Does that sound reasonable to anyone? It doesn’t sound reasonable to me to call a lot of pastors “heretics” because they aren’t skilled in arguing and facing arguments about the doctrines of the faith.
So every mistake is not apostasy. Sorry! If it was, it would be a lot easier to exercise separation, but it would also probably leave you personally as a person from whom we need to be separated.
The second thing is this: choosing to separate is a matter of conscience. In the post Nate made which elicited this response from his reader, he (Nate) cites Spurgeon’s willingness to separate from his church association as a fine example of separation in practice, and in doing so quotes John MacArthur as saying this:
Spurgeon did not actively seek to pull others out of the Union, but he could not understand why men who wanted to remain faithful to the Scriptures would continue to belong to an organization that was so obviously barreling down the down-gradeCertainly, Spurgeon was withdrawing for “principle” – but he did not condemn those who did not withdraw as heretics but as brothers who were making a faulty choice. They have joined to what Spurgeon himself calls a lost cause, but that doesn’t mean they are themselves lost.
In that, the example of Al Mohler “cooperating” with the Billy Graham Crusade is significantly misused. Dr. Mohler has chosen to do something, frankly, I would not choose to do – but that doesn’t make Dr. Mohler a person of theological disrepute. Dr. Mohler has made the choice to go where there are lost people (along with his church) and seek to deliver the Gospel to them. Is there some question of whether or not they will be confused by seeing Catholic, Reformed Baptists and Finney-esque “evangelicals” all lined up together? Why yes: I think there will be some confusion, and there may be some equivocation.
But what is worse: standing next to a Catholic or a wobbly evangelical and preaching the Gospel to the lost, or sitting in at your desk someplace typing on your computer demanding such a stringent form of separation that we have no opportunity to ever see a lost person, and we studiously avoid events where the lost are bound to be. I think the latter is an offense to Christ, and the former is not.
Last (for the sake of the blog this week) is this, which I have eluded to, above: it’s not a sin to preach the Gospel. Um, Duh? It’s not a sin to preach the Gospel – it’s the #1 thing we are called to do. In that, we don’t, for example, become strip-club owners to preach to strippers and their oglers, but we do have an obligation to preach the Gospel to strippers and their oglers. We don’t become murderers to preach the Gospel to murderers. We don’t become thieves to preach the Gospel to thieves, or drunks to become a preacher to drunks. But we must engage our faith in some way that preaches the Gospel to murderers, thieves, drunks, oglers, and strippers.
You know: the sin is in actually being the servant with the single talent. You know that story, right? Mat 25:14-30? The one servant gets one lousy talent, and rather than do something with it for the sake of his master, he does nothing with it for the sake of his master and is frankly punished severely.
Don’t be that servant. That’s the guy who is going to have a very long and uncomfortable time in front of Christ in the final account because he had received the mercy of the Father (allegedly), and then he did nothing with it or because of it.
That’s where I’m going to stop this week, and just as a reminder to myself, this actually has something to do with the alcohol stuff I’ve been posting, so think about that as you try to keep your grass from spontaneously combusting this weekend.
And, of course, be with the Lord’s people on the Lord’s Day in the Lord’s house this weekend. Don’t pretend you’re alone in this world: there are plenty of other hypocrites and sinners just like you who this week will turn towards their savior and worship Him for what He has done. You can join together in the praise. Go do it, and stop pretending that you’re a better person for using separation from sin as an excuse for failing to be obedient to God.