A few years ago, when Dr. Paisley made, what some saw as uncharacteristic political choices, the whole of Britain and Ireland, indeed the world media, buzzed with the news. I also was surprised, and, like a good Ulsterman and expat, I had my opinions. Ironically, I was in Northern Ireland at the time doing research on fundamentalism and preached for Dr. Paisley in his church in Belfast. Some wondered how I could disagree with Dr. Paisley and still preach for him.
To my mind the answer was very simple. Unlike many who publicly and vigorously disagreed with him, I found that my differences with Dr. Paisley did not impinge on my relationship with him and did not diminish my respect for him as a preacher of the gospel. Although I still had many questions, I could disagree with him without separating from him.
The question of what biblical ecclesiastical separation is has become pivotal in fundamentalism. Along with its “war psychology,” mentioned in a previous article, fundamentalism’s view of separation has become one of its most unfortunate characteristics. It has taken separation to outrageous lengths, failing to analyze it in the light of history or to base it on sound biblical exegesis, instead constructing its foundation on a number of misused scripture “proof texts.”
Furthermore, with many fundamentalists, separation has become the first and only choice for dealing with the slightest differences. In the fundamentalist mentality, disagreement on any level and on any issue constitutes a good reason for ecclesiastical separation. They disregard the possibility that some areas of separation could, and should be, dealt with on a case-by-case basis.
In some cases personality clashes and power-struggles even became the impetus for separation. This is why fundamentalism as a movement evolved from a coalition of churches holding mutually to the core doctrines of Scripture into a group of factions within a broader movement. This is the fly in the ointment.
The place to begin to understand the fundamentalist mentality on separation is the 1920s and 30s. The teaching of the church on separation prior to this time was very different. Read Calvin’s letters and see the spirit of catholicity; notice Whitefield’s acceptance of John Wesley; observe the Anglican J. C. Ryle during his bishopric in Liverpool. Read the life of Spurgeon and see the inter-church relations practiced in London during his tenure in the Metropolitan Tabernacle. How was their practice of separation different from what we know today?
I have already noted one difference in a previous article: unlike their predecessors, the fundamentalists “failed to connect their convictions with the classical creeds of the church.” There’s another difference. The church splits of the late 1920s and early 30s were so novel, so ground-breaking, and so traumatic that many of that generation never recovered from the trauma. Christendom had not seen such a divisive period since the time of the Reformation. Whole ministries were shaped by the battles of the 1920s and by its atmosphere of antagonism. The antagonism of that period became the animas of fundamentalism in later years and shaped the way many fundamentalists viewed others in the broader Christian church.
Many were never able to move on to the next battle, or to adjust the level of aggression to what was appropriate according to the seriousness of an issue. Because every issue was a crisis moment in the church many could not see the dangers that were up ahead for the next generation. For many young people (second and third generations) growing up in fundamentalism, church history consisted of learning about the battles of the “first generation fundamentalists,” rehearsing the 1920s and 30s. Many fundamentalist young people grew up with annual celebrations of the fundamentalist/liberal controversies.
This rehashing the old battles left the fundamentalist church anemic and intellectually impotent for the present battles. It is the conservative evangelicals who are leading the charge on gender issues, on the Charismatic movement, on open theism, and other current debates. The fundamentalists have brought nothing of significance to the table.
If these words attributed by some to Martin Luther are true, one has to wonder how “faithful” fundamentalism really is today:
If I profess, with the loudest voice and the clearest exposition, every portion of the truth of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christianity. Where the battle rages the loyalty of the soldier is proved; and to be steady on all the battle-field besides is mere flight and disgrace to him if he flinches at that one point.
The doctrine of separation, which had been very much a black-and-white issue in the context of liberal theology, remained black and white in every issue. Every issue that arose in the church became a test case and a reason for separation.
Scriptures that are used by fundamentalists today to defend the doctrine of separation are often taken out of context and interpreted exclusively within the parameters of the modern fundamentalist struggle. Many fundamentalists who coldly and dogmatically “refused to defile themselves” (Daniel 1:8), ignored the gracious manner with which Daniel dealt with his situation.
For the fundamentalist to have fellowship with a group or individual (unless that person was already a fundamentalist, for, as we shall see, fundamentalists are very forgiving of their own), every detail of the life of the church or the individual had to be scrutinized: the books one read, the music one listened to, and the hymns that churches used. Everything was under the microscope and one became guilty even on the basis of a loose association with what was considered to be unacceptable. New terms were coined or borrowed to perpetuate this unbiblical doctrine of separation, terms such as “platform fellowship” and “associational compromise.”
Furthermore, the doctrine of separation very often became extremely censorious and degenerated into a discussion about everyone else. The fundamentalists were not emphasizing what they believed to be right; their focus was on the presumption that everyone else was wrong. This hyper-separatist view passed judgment on everyone else’s standing with the Lord, their orthodoxy, and their experience of God. Many were so busy trying to correct the ills of others and of the broader church that they neglected their own glaring inconsistencies (Matthew 7:5): their lack of fellowship and love for the brethren and their own weak spiritual growth (1 Timothy 4:16).
Could it be that the brother who “walketh disorderly” (2 Thessalonians 3:6) is not necessarily the one who has a broad view of fellowship but the one whose doctrine of fellowship is too narrow, divisive and schismatic? Could it be that the “disobedient brother” is not the one who is over-generous in his acceptance of others, but the one who lacks that gracious and magnanimous spirit? Could it be that those who have “caused division and offenses” are indeed the hyper-fundamentalists and that we should “avoid them” (emphasis added, Romans 16:17)? Could it be that the hyper-fundamentalists are the ones who have trespassed against their brothers and that it is these who need to be brought before the church (Matthew 18:15–17)?
These are the questions that fundamentalists need to ask and that our young people are already asking. Some think they have waited long enough for answers that haven’t come and they are moving on. They have concluded that they can’t get the fly out of the ointment, so the ointment has to go!
Before I close with a parallel from history, it is worth noting that in the post-Christian culture we live in we are going to find natural centripetal forces bringing the Christian church together on the core values of the faith and especially on issues of Christian ethics.
This has already begun to happen. As I write this, just today in Belfast the Pentecostal pastor Rev. James McConnell appeared in court for a sermon he preached against the Muslim faith. Hundreds gathered at the court to support him and many from other denominations have posted their support on Facebook and other social media sites.
It was also seen in Belfast earlier this year in the legal action taken against Ashers Bakery by the Equality Commission of Northern Ireland. This affair brought the broader Christian community together in an unprecedented manner. Thousands congregated in one of Ulster’s largest arenas from a variety of evangelical denominations, from Psalm-singing Reformed churches to experience-focused Pentecostal churches. The crowds were so large that many could not gain admittance and stood outside and sang hymns.
This is the type of Christian fellowship that happens only in an environment where people recognize a real danger to the church and not merely a perceived danger or the machinations of their own bigotry. Across the western post-Christian world we are going to see an escalation of these incidents. The church, the true church, will be forced to stand together and things that once separated us will be viewed in the future as insignificant, even stupid.
In a previous article I addressed some of the personalities of fundamentalism. In that article I showed that while Dr. Paisley thundered with pulpit rhetoric and maintained a public persona as Ulster’s “fire-brand preacher,” on a personal level he had a very open mind. Individuals whom Dr. Paisley disassociated himself from and hotly opposed publicly in the 1950s remained his personal friends throughout his life. The same openness is also seen in his practice on separation. This 1979 sermon give some indication of his breadth of fellowship:
I say to all men who believe in the Infallibility of the Book, all men who believe in the Virgin Birth and the full Deity of the Lord Jesus Christ; all men who believe in the Vicarious Death and the Substitutionary Atonement of the Saviour and His Bodily Resurrection, and His Coming again in power and great glory; all men that believe that men depraved by sin need to be born again by the Holy Spirit if they would get to Heaven; all men that believe in what Thomas Chalmers said were the grand peculiarities of the gospel, the great fundamental principles of Christianity, all such men should unite today; and if I see another regiment in God’s Army giving the Devil a hot time I have time to cheer them on as I go into the battle. I am not going to turn my guns on them.
Many of Dr. Paisley’s followers within the church followed the public persona of hardline militancy rather than the spirit of fellowship that Dr. Paisley knew and enjoyed on a personal level—even with those in the Irish Presbyterian Church from which he separated.
Let me finish this article with an illustration from history that in many respects points out a wrong-headed separatist mentality, separation from good men. You will see from this illustration that today’s fundamentalists do not have a monopoly on harshness and bigotry.
In 1746 the great Baptist theologian and preacher John Gill was ministering in London. At the same time the Anglican/Methodist evangelist George Whitefield was setting England alight with the gospel of saving grace. Christians today, who hold Whitefield in such high esteem, might be surprised to know that the great John Gill vigorously opposed any association with Whitefield’s evangelism.
Some who opposed Whitefield referred to him as an “incarnate devil,” an “enem[y] of God, Christ, religion” because he engaged in the uncommon practice of “field-preaching” and, it is supposed, was “too hasty in accounting the numbers of his converts.” The irony is that many of the people sitting in the Baptist pews were converts of Whitefield. An unknown writer says,
Sir, you and others cannot but be sensible, in the judgment of charity, that they have many seals of their despised ministry in your own churches.
In the letter addressed to Dr. John Gill recommending “unity among Christian ministers and people” the writer pleads with Dr. Gill to be consistent, to show the same grace to the Methodists with whom he disagrees as he shows to the Baptists with whom he disagrees. He pleads for a less bigoted and tribal mentality: “When will Judah no more vex Ephraim, nor Ephraim vex Judah?”
We learn a number of lessons from this parallel.
- Tribal Christianity is no new thing!
- Just as many of the people in Gill’s pews were converts of Whitefield, many of the people in fundamentalists’ pews are getting their theological instruction from conservative evangelical ministries, with whom their ministers would not fellowship.
- Many are critical of faults in others that they are willing to overlook among themselves; Gill was willing to treat Baptist faults with a leniency he was not willing to afford the Methodists.
- When men look back in history to our day, will they wonder what caused good men in our society to keep such a distance and to speak so harshly of each other?