Thanks to Mark Dever’s Nine Marks Ministry there is a fresh round of conversation entertaining many evangelicals and fundamentalists on the merits and demerits of American Fundamentalism. Nineteen men, most of them leaders, were asked the simple question, “What can we learn from the Christian Fundamentalists?” and directed to give a brief response. It’s good reading. Check it out here. The best summary of various answers can be found on Chris Anderson’s blog.
It may shock my readers, but I have opinions on the matter. However, I think that it would be beneficial to contribute to the noise of evangelical/fundamentalist palavering over a relatively easy question some was-there reporting of a real conference among real fundamentalists. I’d like to add to the venerable colloquium who carefully crafted answers to the question “what can we learn from fundamentalists?” an actual observation and an answer or two of what one can learn by a normal guy at a fundamentalist conference. A respectable conference. No snake handling. No stupidity either. At least not officially.
I’m allergic to stupidity. I react strongly, whether it’s my own or somebody else’s. But I dare say that if stupidity were an odor, I’d pass out cold at some fundamental conferences. So I’m careful about where I go.
Therefore, being the fundamentalist that I am, I decided to go to the National Leadership Conference. Take a look at their workshops. You’ll find plenty of provocative subject matter with qualified speakers (for the most part). You will not find, as at the KJV-only conference, a workshop entitled “Combating the Craze of Contemporary ‘Scholarship.’”
That is not to say, however, that the NLC was not sprinkled with we/they and us/them rhetoric. It could hardly be a fundamentalist conference if there were not some self-congratulatory self-definition as distinctly not them. Separation must be discussed. And in order to be distinctly fundamentalist it must be discussed in such a way to assure the auditory that the particular brand of separation with its minute details is the only balanced practice.
Thus, the first workshop that I attended was Dave Doran’s lecture on the application of ecclesiastical separation. Dave Doran was one of the nineteen men questioned by Nine Marks. He is, of course, a fundamentalist. One will never hear a non-fundamentalist speak at a fundamentalist conference. (Just in case you didn’t know). Anyway, the advertisement for the conference had billed the workshop as “a new grid for the application of ecclesiastical separation,” but by the time the handouts had been prepared the word “new” had been modestly deleted. Thus, “Where the Rubber Meets the Road: A Grid for the Application of Ecclesiastical Separation” was the first subject of the day after Kevin Bauder’s tremendous opening session.
Many of my readers do not know who Dave Doran is, so it is important that I preface what I am about to say by saying that I pretty much agree with Dave on most things and I think he’s a good guy. There are guys who fall either in my “like” or “dislike” category. Dave fits nicely in the “like” category (please forgive the syrupy sappiness). Dr. Doran is a President of a Baptist theological seminary that is widely respected for its academics. He also pastors a solid church with great missionary zeal. Doran is a four-point Calvinist with a healthy respect for real Calvinism and is very involved in the discussion about contemporary fundamentalism whether it is in back rooms or in cyberspace. I respect Dave even though I have been lacerated and decimated on a few occasions in the blogosphere by his superior intellect. But I have always been very comfortable in disagreeing with Dave so I didn’t walk into his workshop to drink his kool-aid.
I was baited by the word “new,” because I have said before that fundamentalism has large sub-groups that are denominational in culture and that the NLC reminds me of a convention with the speaking roles carefully allocated to the principle players in the sub-group, usually representing the favored schools.
This year, for example, the list was once again very representative. The Dean of Heart of America Seminary, the President of Central Baptist Seminary, the President of International Baptist College, the Vice-president of Appalachian Bible College, the President of Detroit Theological Baptist Seminary, the President of Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary, a professor of Bob Jones University, and so forth. Other schools and groups have been represented in past conferences and so far as I can tell everything is fair.
Thus, when I found the notion that a “new” grid of eccesiastical separation would be propounded by one of the denomination’s most articulate speakers you can be assured that I had no intention of missing it. I wanted to know how everybody was going to think once the new way had been opened up to them.
I was sorely disappointed. It was much better than I expected.
Doran introduced his lecture with three simple and obvious premises:
1. The Great Commission mandate is larger than any one local assembly.
2. It is clear from the NT that not all cooperation is acceptable.
3. The line between separation and isolation seems to be getting blurred.
That last point is a very subtle way of saying, “separation is complicated.” That, my friends, is new. More on that later.
Doran laid out the biblical basis of separation and got plenty of atta-boys from the suited sector of the congregation. I had not quibble with anything he said. I agreed. I have fully embraced the fundamentalist insistence that separation is necessary. It’s the application part that gets interesting.
For the purpose of explanation, Dave offered a simple taxonomy. There are three categories of people, he said:
1. Those who are in error on essential doctrines.
2. Those who hold the truth and oppose error.
3. Those who hold the truth and cooperate with those in error on essential doctrines.
It’s a bit simplistic, but I’m not sure how to improve on it so I locked my mind on his taxonomy for the duration of the workshop in order to follow this line of reasoning. That categorization, he said, places two questions before us:
1. Can we have fellowship with those who are in error on essential doctrine?
2. Can we have fellowship with those who refuse to obey God’s commands regarding separation.
“I believe the answer to both of those is ‘No,” said Dave.
At this point, I’m in the familiar situation of agreeing in principle with the thrust of Doran’s argument, but finding the language problematic. The words “refuse” and “God’s commands” and “separation” are loaded words. The proof texts for God’s commands are given as 2 Thessalonians 3:14-15 and Romans 16:17. The conclusion is obvious to Dave. It says “separate.” But the separation discussed is not separation from those who refuse to obey God’s commands but from those who refuse to obey God’s commands about separation.
Doran then gave practical applications. “We must recognize the different levels of fellowship and interaction, ” he said. He suggested four levels of “fellowship and interaction”:
1. Personal level
2. Educational and/or recreational level
3. Professional or commercial level
4. Ecclesiastical level (which is “chiefly the local church level”).
I found this discussion to be confusing. First of all, I could not decide if he was using the conjunction “and” in the “fellowship and interaction” phrase in a copulative sense or in a correlative sense. Sometimes Doran used the two words interchangeably. At other times his application clearly distinguished the two. Sometimes he was very confusing. It became embarrassing.
I actually wrote those words in my notes: “it’s embarrassing.” Here is an intelligent man with a Ph.D. from TEDS justifying watching a basketball game with pastors of different persuasions. That any of us should need to be assured that watching a game with an Evangelical was okay is enough to make a thoughtful person blush. But when Doran justified watching the game with them by saying (get the recording) “in fact we should probably admonish them” and making reference to 2 Thessalonians 3:14-15 I just shook my head.
At a basketball game???
Dave is smarter than that. But one got the impression that he felt he was walking on thin ice with his fundamentalist audience so he just had to be sure they understood that his “interaction” was only the kind of low-level “fellowship” that could feasibly be justified by his responsibility to admonish them.
It’s a language/semantic problem again.
Doran was right to explain the difficulty of the separation conversation because, as he said, “the language of separation was crafted, rightly so, when we were parts of things – - it’s a little bit difficult to talk about separating from somebody that you have no connection with.”
True enough, but I think the current explanation of “levels” of fellowship is not very helpful. Particularly when one “level” of fellowship is actually mere interaction. This seemed like it was obvious to Dave most of the time throughout his session. At one point he opined, “I don’t think selling a book is like having someone to preach.”
Someone said, “Amen!” I chuckled. It’s so obvious. At what point does saying the obvious start sounding ridiculous? Maybe that’s why there were not many pastors my age at the conference. And, frankly, I don’t think many of us fault Dave and others for having to state the obvious. It’s just astounding that anyone thinks it’s necessary. I think it is partly because fundamentalists in the main have no doctrine of unity. Thus, necessarily, their doctrine of separation is warped.
Fellowship is a spiritual exercise. It is a means of grace. In a theological sense we have fellowship with every believer in the world. Christians have fellowship with one another in spite of themselves. Watching a game, talking about sports, riding in a car together, or eating dinner together is not necessarily fellowship. It is, necessarily, interaction. If the other person happens to be a believer there is fellowship already with that person in in the noun sense of the word even though there may be no fellowship in the verb sense.
Doran knows this. He said, for example, “Music is not an issue of separation. It might affect our relationship,” but it is not an issues of separation. In other words, our level of interaction may be impeded by our different views of music.
This makes sense to me. In my mind, there can be multiple levels of interaction, but varying kinds of fellowship. I prefer the word “kind” even though it as well is problematic. Theologically, I have fellowship with a brother, but my interaction with him is determined by all kinds of variables. Of the many variables that would affect my interaction with a believing brother are known sin, differences of our understanding of 2 Thessalonians, philosophy of ministry, and personal tastes, but not all non-cooperation can be called separation just as not all interaction can be rightly called a “level” of fellowship. But that is the doctrine of Biblical unity and fundamentalists have for so long avoided that clear teaching that they cannot even begin to articulate it.
In the main, I think Doran’s explanation was well-reasoned and practical. I also was very blessed by his obvious effort to make sure that he was not issuing an opinion that he thought was biblical dogma for everyone else to comply with. Often he said that it was his private opinion. In this sense, his talk on separation was given with a real sense of humility and an obvious understanding of the complexity of the matter, and that, my non-fundamentalist friends, is so unusual it could possibly be called “new.”
In the final segment of his workshop, Dave gave five points to ponder. These are points that many of us have discussed for years and have ceased pondering, but now some in the NLC orb are admitting out loud in workshops:
1. Are all disagreements of equal weight and significance?
You non-fundies may marvel that this is a point to ponder.
But we ponder – PONDER! – deeply. We are not sure. We have not been sure. But lately a revolution has been rocking large sections of the fundamentalist sub-culture because some, after much pondering, have come to the bold conclusion that not all disagreements are of equal weight. This is truly history in the making. (Excuse the sarcasm.)
2. What about when we agree on the principles, but disagree on the application?
Now this was significant. (No sarcasm here.) I think at this point Dave tacitly rejected tertiary separation. This is important. He did not blow off the argument that secondary separation could logically lead to tertiary separation and so forth. Doran allowed for Christian liberty and autonomy of the local church and said that he could fellowship with friends who fellowshipped with people he would not fellowship with as long as those people were not fellowshipping with heretics. (I think that makes sense.)
In other words, by a tacit rejection of tertiary separation he, in my opinion, positively stated that fellowship can be had among people who disagree on the application of secondary separation.
In other words again, hypothetically (all other things being equal), Dave may invite me to preach in his church even though I had John MacArthur speak in my church even though Dave would not feel comfortable with John MacArthur’s more lenient application of separation from those who don’t separate from heretics.
3. How much room should we allow for differing convictions on separation issues?
I’m fine with pondering on that one, but I want to scream out why do we have to groupthink and collectively wring our hands over this? Why can’t we just let each man decide for himself?
4. Is there a difference between aberrations and patterns?
After a great deal of pondering, I have to say “Yes.”
5. Are we in need of new definitions and labels?
I don’t care.
In summary, Doran’s explanation of how he decides who he will fellowship was not very different than what conservative evangelicals have been doing for a long time. In that sense there was little that was new. Nor was it new that a group of fundamentalists should be in a classroom soberly weighing the various levels of fellowship between basketball games, selling books by “new-evangelicals,” and groping for an easy answer.
But there was something new. Doran refused to give an easy answer. Doran did something that is rare in fundamentalist circles and has been almost unheard of in the past fifty years when the hallmark of fundamentalism, ecclesiastical separation, is discussed: he humbly offered his opinions, admitted its complexity, and closed with questions! That, my friends, was a blessing! The tone in this meeting and in all the meetings of the conference (except for one) was clear: we’re not going to come to a consensus, but maybe we don’t need to.
Now, I could say “Amen” to that!