Pulpit or Pew – How Our Place in the Church Affects Our View of Separation

Don Johnson

Much discussion followed our last FrontLine issue (“Why We’re Still Here” March/April 2017), both here and elsewhere online. As always with internet discussion, some was inane, prejudiced, annoying, irrelevant, thoughtless, and/or unprofitable. And then there was what others besides me were saying! Seriously, though, any conversations will include a fair amount of chaff along with the wheat. It takes time and patience to wade through all the trivia and get to the meaningful discussion.

Several things were said, however, that deserve further response. I hope to address several follow-up issues in articles in the coming weeks. Today my topic involves the disconnect the average Christian faces from the heady discussions involving ecclesiastical leaders and budding “theologs.” Let me explain what I mean by that statement:

Much discussion online regarding Christian fundamentalism is between men in the ministry and men preparing for the ministry. Much of it has to do with what we might call ecclesiastical values and discernment. What should we do about “Ministry X” or “Evangelist Y” who holds to an aberrant position or promotes worldly values in some way? Various factors are brought to bear on the discussion, including ministry associations, value of theological writings (or not) by the participants, doctrinal positions, historical background and so forth.

The average Christian, on the other hand, may have very little interest in these heady questions. In fact, his concern is not the compromise of some popular preacher in some state, far removed from his own, but it is the more basic question, “Where shall I worship God with my family? Where can I serve without violating my conscience?” The divide between the “ecclesiastical” point of view and the “basic Christian” point of view came back to my attention this week in a personal conversation with an online friend. (In this case, I have actually met this friend in person, he isn’t just a figment of the internet! He has also given me permission to quote from his correspondence.)

Here is the comment that sparked these thoughts:

I owe much to fundamentalism. I wouldn’t be here without it. I travel around a lot, and my family and I move a lot. … In many communities there is hardly a good fundamentalist church around. Many are camped out into various camps, which at the end of the day are a bit of a disaster. I have a home in [a southern town] where I live part of the year. There is hardly a fundamentalist church around, and maybe only 1 that I would associate with. Yet there are almost 20 very conservative CE [Conservative Evangelical] churches in the area, that are not fundamentalist. I hate that fundamentalism is so insulated and paints things with such broad strokes, that we miss whole communities of believers that are trying to live the gospel every day. I go to a small church (about 80 or so on a Sunday morning). We have members who wear head coverings, and we have people in shorts. We sing classic hymns, actual psalms and some lighter contemporary songs, with no bands or lights on the front stage. We are filled with young people from the secular colleges, yet we offer no “programs”. Our services are 2 to 2.5 hours. The focus in everything is how to live out the gospel every day in our lives in light of God’s holiness and despite the world’s trappings. The practices differ from fundamentalism, but the root is no different.

I have no reason to dispute what my friend describes. I am sure that this scenario describes reality in many cities across the land. We would be foolish to deny it or gloss over the problems it reveals.

An obvious problem (from a fundamentalist viewpoint) is that much of fundamentalism has painted itself into a very isolated corner. Unless the average Christian is willing to submit to an authoritarian model of church polity that insists on key non-fundamentalist distinctives, he increasingly has much less fundamentalist church options open to him. Each community is different, but in many communities there may be at least a few options of fairly conservative evangelical churches where he and his family can get expository preaching, be accountable to a church family that expects a faithful Christian testimony, and be free from an overbearing style of leadership. For the average Christian, these features have an appeal.

However, what I have seen over and over again through decades of ministry is that Christians who choose the evangelical model have often found their children taking a less conservative stand. It is not that the “compromise” of the parents puts the family on a slippery slope, but the evangelical philosophy of ministry has its own message and its own culture which is communicated to all within it. The parents may well be outwardly unaffected, but the evangelical philosophy has a flaw in it that leads to theological drift. Without concerted effort, churches with a more “accommodationist” philosophy will accommodate and eventually drift from their moorings. What they will allow creates a culture in which children grow up with less conservative values than their fundamentalist parents.

When the average Christian, faced with the church choices described above, comes across the many discussions of fundamentalism vs. conservative evangelicalism on the internet, he is frustrated as he sees a seemingly endless debate with no resolution, and, it seems to them, a disparagement of the conservative churches that seem like legitimate options for him and his family. Why can’t the fundamentalist see the value of these churches for what they are? Why must he insist on “fundamentalist superiority”? The average Christian is blessed by his conservative pastor. Why can’t the conservative and the fundamentalist just get along?

On the other side of the (figurative) auditorium sit those who are active in full time ministry (or those who would like to be). Most of the discussion over fundamentalist versus evangelical philosophy, the doctrine of separation and its application, takes place in this category. We are not talking about the decision an average Christian has to make for his family in any given town. We are discussing the decisions that are made at the ministerial level about ministry partnerships and about how to guide the spiritual growth of those under one’s ministry in a local church.

In other words, at the ministerial level, we have to decide whether we will cooperate with an evangelistic campaign that shows up in our town, or with a local ministerial association, or whether we should recommend the latest book being touted by the local Christian book store, or if we should warn people about some popular teacher that keeps showing up on the internet. (And many, many more scenarios like these.) It is quite clear from the Bible that those in pastoral ministry have a duty to feed the flock and shepherd the sheep, warning and disciplining as necessary (Acts 20.28-31). If there are serious flaws in some other ministry, we have a duty to our people to expose it and counteract errant teaching, especially if the individuals involved have any kind of influence in the minds of one’s local congregation. In our internet age, that means almost any and every false teacher in the world has access to the minds of our people. When the teachers are not “false,” but merely “erring” in some ways, the average Christian views our distinctions and concerns as paranoia or malice. Nevertheless, the Lord calls us to watch for men’s souls (Heb 13.17).

The seemingly endless discussion over separation, discernment, movements, doctrine, evaluation of teachers, worldliness, holiness, and many other tangential issues is further frustrated by the fact that those participating in the discussion are approaching the discussion from two different points of view.

My friend says, a bit later in his note:

To be very practical, in light of fundamentalism dying in many places, most areas have no good fundamentalist church, and sometimes those that are present can be quite bad and unhealthy. For a lot this is the only option. And after having been on both sides of the fence, it is not a poor option or a second class option. I have seen a healthy side of Christian living that was never present in fundamentalism. … there is another side out there that is healthy, that fundamentalism has painted and put up warnings around, but that, in my opinion, we should be more aware.

I believe that those who champion fundamentalism need to hear this critique. We need to build spiritually healthy churches that encourage discipleship and build up families in the Word. We need to be more interested in faithful disciples of the Lord Jesus and less interested in perpetuating church culture. Cultures change. Discipleship does not.

On the other hand, I believe that average Christians need to look at a bigger picture than merely, “what’s in it for me” when it comes to church selection. Although there are some evangelical churches that are generally healthy spiritually, should we be satisfied with that? If there aren’t enough (or any) good fundamentalist churches in a given locale, shouldn’t we do what we can to start one? Or drive a little further to participate in one? Christians need a pilgrim mindset. Existing churches need to be supportive of multiplying their kind through church planting. Young men entering the ministry need to be prepared for the difficult task of long, slow, patient disciple-making and church building. They need to be ready to be lonely and to not sweat the fact that they are likely going to face small ministries and many disappointments.

As the apostle said, “For a great door and effectual is opened unto me, and there are many adversaries.” (1 Cor 16.9) There are many difficulties, but there is a great mission to be performed. It would be tremendous if Bible believing Christians would get a vision for an entirely faithful mission of building Christians and building churches. The endless debates over discernment would come to an end if we would be faithful to that task.

Don Johnson is the pastor of Grace Baptist Church of Victoria, Victoria, BC, Canada.