by Richard Flanders
This article first appeared in FrontLine • January/February 2000. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
The year 2000 is bringing with it plans for Fundamentalists to cooperate in a number of evangelistic efforts. Area-wide revival campaigns, joint church-planting projects, and new missionary ventures are bringing separatists together.
Fundamentalists have historically had reservations about working with other churches. The unscriptural compromise of Billy Graham’s “cooperative evangelism” made many skittish of united campaigns. Our withdrawal from denominational associations and programs in order to separate from heresy (Rom. 16:17) left us with a suspicion of religious alliances.
As we approach the new century, the religious scene in our country seems more complicated than ever. Policies of cooperation and separation developed 30 years ago fail to address some of the situations we now face. As always, Christians must turn to the teachings of Scripture to determine how to handle the challenges of life. In the Second Epistle of John we find principles that will safely guide us into Christian cooperation that pleases God and guard us against wicked alliances that offend Him.
The theme of 2 John is “love in the truth” (verse 1). The book is a letter addressing a situation familiar to preachers that contend for the Faith. An elderly lady with a kind heart had been helping people she should not have been helping. She had been housing and feeding not only faithful proclaimers of the true gospel, but also the false prophets who claimed to be Christian ministers. Like many kindly widows today, she was lacking in discernment, and needed instruction about the relationship between “truth and love” (verse 3).
Truth May Be Known
The great problem of our day is that the very existence of knowable truth is disputed. Every opinion of philosophy, religion, or politics is weighed as an unverifiable proposal, and there is no room in many minds for indisputable absolutes. We must remind ourselves again and again that this way of thinking is wrong. There is such a thing as truth, and truth may be known.
John, the last living apostle of Jesus, wrote: “The elder unto the elect lady and her children, whom I love in the truth; and not I only, but also all they that have known the truth” (verse 1). The Lord Jesus Christ taught us that truth will be discerned by the man whose will is submitted to God: “If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself” (John 7:17).
Known truth is the most important factor in a Christian’s life. It comes to us by divine revelation, verbal inspiration, and spiritual illumination (see 1 Corinthians 2). We must learn it, proclaim it, and hold on to it. John wrote this epistle “for the truth’s sake, which dwelleth in us, and shall be with us forever” (verse 2).
Truth and Love Are Inseparable
John makes it clear that loyalty to the truth and love for others are not mutually exclusive qualities. In fact, throughout this epistle truth and love have the closest possible connection (see verses 1, 3, 5, 6). Obedience to the truth requires love. True love requires obedience to the truth. Love without truth is not Biblical love. Truth without love is not Biblical truth.
Some years ago, a sincere Fundamentalist pastor told me that he would rather be “too separated than not separated enough.” He would prefer to err by breaking fellowship incorrectly with a brother than to risk fellowshipping with some he ought to shun. That approach is a cop-out. Our Lord’s command that we “love one another” (John 13:34-35, 15:12) is just as binding as the command to “beware of false prophets” (Matt. 7:15). Do we imagine that the Lord will excuse our disobedience of one command because of our preference to keep another? God is both Light and Love (1 John 1:5, 4:8). Just because it takes effort and discernment to maintain the balance of love and truth does not mean that we are excused from seeking that balance. Defenders of truth must be loving as much as lovers of the brethren must stay loyal to the truth.
Truth Is To Be Lived as Well as Believed
The lady’s children not only knew the truth (verse 1); they also lived the truth (verse 4). This principle of “walking in truth” is at the root of the Biblical teaching about practical holiness and marks a key distinction between Fundamentalism and evangelicalism. Most evangelicals today are satisfied to believe and to teach sound doctrine, but fail to observe the practical obligations that orthodoxy places upon its adherents.
People are shocked to learn that the popular radio and television preacher who has served as president of the Southern Baptist Convention publicly defends the toleration of serious false doctrine at convention seminaries and colleges. He denounces liberalism over the airwaves, but advocates the use of liberal professors in theological education. The most famous evangelist of our generation has courted the sponsorship of men who reject nearly all the truth he preached. Any sensible person can see the inconsistency of this, and any Christian familiar with the Scripture must know that God forbids such duplicity. Believers in the truth must walk in the truth. Participation in inter-church activities and endorsement of parachurch ministries must never be maintained at the expense of our allegiance to the truth in creed and conduct.
Truth Must Guide Love
Look carefully at the relationship between truth and love in 2 John 6-11 and you will notice that truth is the dominant principle in the relationship. Genuine, Biblical love always prompts obedience to truth.
For years evangelicals have gathered under the banner that “doctrine divides, but love unites.” This sets love and doctrine (i.e., truth) against each other and exalts love as better than truth. That love is illicit that is disloyal to the truth. Paul reminds us that love never rejoices in iniquity but always only in truth (1 Cor. 13:6). The Bible teaches us that all expressions of love must be directed and defined by the truth we know. We “love in the truth” when we allow the truth of God’s Word to draw the borders of our Christian fellowship.
Love demands that we “walk after” God’s commandments, which we “have heard from the beginning” (verse 6). Jude 3 likewise exhorts us to “earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints,” and Paul reminds believers that “any other gospel . . .than that ye have received” is a perversion of the truth (Gal. 1:6-9). New doctrine is false doctrine and is not to be followed. We must beware, John adds, “for many deceivers are entered into the world, who confess not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh” (verse 7). The deceivers are not to be joined or helped or encouraged in any way (verses 8-11). The truth puts restrictions on our expressions of love.
The New Testament teaching of separation is twofold—separation from the people of darkness (unbelievers) and separation from the works of darkness (whether practiced by unbelievers or believers). “Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness?” (2 Cor. 6:14). “And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them” (Eph. 5:11).
In order to be lovingly loyal to the truth of God, I must refuse to be “yoked together” in any spiritual endeavor with those who reject the gospel. I must also never endorse or participate in anyone’s disobedience to God. Isn’t it obvious that meaningful allegiance to the truth will guide and limit our cooperation in religious work? We cannot work with unbelievers, and we cannot endorse the errors even of fellow-believers. But that does not mean that we should not love other believers in the gospel and to express that love in every way possible without giving up or compromising the truth.
A born-again Pentecostal pastor in our area (and a good soul winner too!) came to my office to ask me to help him bear a burden he was carrying. We prayed together earnestly. Yet, as he left my office, I realized that praying together might be the most we could do together for Christ in the light of our serious doctrinal differences. The areas of agreement (fundamentals, denominational distinctives, convictions) determine the level of cooperation that is appropriate, and the degree of agreement in those areas generally determine the level of cooperation that is possible. The key is to “love in the truth.”
Doctrine does divide. Romans 16:17 makes it very clear that doctrinal differences are a necessary cause of division; however, it is not those who separate that cause the division, but those whose doctrine or behavior necessitates the separation: “Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them.” Notice again that truth (“the doctrine which you have learned”) is the determining factor. Love does unite, but only where truth allows.
Truth Is an Expression of Love
Second John 11 warns that whoever bids a false teacher “Godspeed is partaker of his evil deeds.” Those who encourage a heretic by associating with him are not showing love toward him! They are helping him stay in darkness. Those who stand for the truth against his false doctrine are loving him better than those who cooperate with him. Will evangelistic campaigns or denominational programs that honor liberals as Christian ministers win the infidel to the truth? It doesn’t happen that way. The Fundamentalist who reproves false doctrine has the greater chance of convincing the gainsayers. It is not unloving to insist upon the truth. It is the most loving way to approach teachers of falsehood.
Let us not miss the chance to work together for the cause of Christ in the coming years! May we never betray the truth for the love of man and never forget to love when we stand for truth. May God help us in the new century to learn how to “love in the truth.”
At the time of first publication, Dr. Richard Flanders was pastor Juniata Baptist Church in Vassar, Michigan.