Thursday, June 18, 2009

Separation, Cooperation, and Confusion: A Rambling Rant by Yours Truly!

I’m starting to understand more and more that the term “fundamentalism” means something different to nearly everyone who claims to be a fundamentalist. To some it is best described as a separation from certain things or a separation to God. Both these views tend to end up being described by rather large “lists” of do’s and don’t’s which differ depending on the person, the church, the culture, etc. To others fundamentalism is more of a philosophical system of earnest contention for truth and radical separation from error. This is the best approach in that it can certainly serve to keep one’s feet firmly planted under them in an ever-changing world. What I mean by that is that there is no need to constantly address whatever new “thing” might be out there and to modify your “list” accordingly. This is because the focus will tend to be towards an inward commitment rather than an outward conformity. But even amongst those who view “fundamentalism” as a philosophical approach to life and church, there is still plenty of disagreement.

One of the main areas of disagreement amongst many fundamentalists comes down to the ever-controversial issue of separation. My experience is that the overwhelming majority of fundamentalists will teach and practice primary separation but beyond that things begin to get controversial and murky. Some on one side will say that there is a call to separate from anybody who doesn’t separate from the people / groups that we clearly need to separate from. On the other side there is a call of “foul” claiming that secondary (and beyond) separation is a downward spiral that, ultimately, leads us to have to separate even from ourselves! Then the first group will come back and say, “we don’t advocate this so called secondary separation….it’s all primary separation in that the brother who isn’t separating from those we are separating from is in disobedience….”. And it goes on and on…

I’m actually getting off what I want to be the point of this post, so I’ll take a step back.

Separation from sin and separation to holiness….this is the call that we all hold dear and the goal towards which we all strive. The scope of our cooperation and fellowship is with others who have this as the overarching philosophy to why they do what they do. But we all know that, even within the same stated goals, there are differences. So where do we draw the line. I think this is important and it gets awfully sticky.

I find myself drawing lines at different places than I thought I would several years ago. For instance, a man-centered philosophy – whether that’s demonstrated by a purely hyped-up emotional approach towards “worship” or by a shallow and “issues” dominated approach to preaching – is a place where I might draw a line. However, when it comes to the opportunity to be involved in a joint endeavor to present the Gospel to an entire community, I might not stand so firm on this (this seems like a consistent stance with early Fundamentalism, by the way). I would personally separate from any church who takes a radical KJVO approach as quickly as I would a church that embraces the pragmatism of the Emergent Church scene.

As a family we are making difficult decisions in this realm right now. I find myself asking questions like, “is it any better to associate with the irresponsible and liberal approach to the scriptures that leads one to believe that a woman who wears pants is in sin than it is to associate with the liberal and irresponsible approach to the scriptures that leads one to question the inerrancy of scripture?” We tend to wink at certain travesties when they occur in our own ranks; however, the method that gets one to an asinine belief on women’s dress that I mentioned above is not merely a matter of interpretation. It’s a fundamental flaw in thinking and is indicative of deeper issues - such as putting one’s personal hobby horses above true fidelity to the scriptures.

One of the issues that I see in fundamentalism is that we are quick to separate from anything that doesn’t “look right”, but we will rarely do anything about the liberalism that has infiltrated our own ranks. We slammed Billy Graham’s brand of “easy believism” for years, but the “superstar” fundamentalist evangelists were given a free pass in this regard. If Graham had never left Fundamentalism he would be a hero in the movement today – even with his approach. We are quick to call out men like Bill Hybels for the pragmatic approach he has taken and for the lack of any real doctrine in the churches that have come out of there, but we turned a blind eye to Jack Hyles and the lunacy that came out of Hammond for decades. If a group questions the inerrancy of the Scripture we are quick to point them out as liberal compromisers, but those who take the extreme position on the King James Bible and engage in bibliolatry are generally winked at. We point to the liberalism that leads some to abandon all standards when it comes to modest dress, yet we say nothing about the liberalism that leads some to claim that a woman wearing pants is an abomination.

Personally I think all these things need separated from. I no more wish to be associated with some church that has a Saturday night service complete with a heavy metal band and a mosh pit than I do a church that takes a radical KJVO position and doesn’t “allow” women to wear pants. Both are liberal. Both have perverted the issues of personal liberty. Both do a great deal of harm to the cause of Christ. I don’t mean to harp on the same sets of issues, but they are weighing on me today.

With that said, where is the line to be drawn? Is there a place for fellowship or, more accurately, cooperation with some groups who are skewed on some of the more “minor” issues? I think there is, but I think that great caution needs to be used. I’m of the mind that cooperation on some levels can serve to righteously further the cause of Christ without “tainting” us. It seems that some want to equate cooperation with endorsement and agreement, but those terms are not synonymous. A practical example would be to go back to the last World War. The United States and the Soviet Union were in “cooperation” with one another for a common purpose, but that cooperation was certainly not indicative of a deeper agreement…maybe not the best example, but a practical one when it comes to this issue of cooperation versus agreement. I would wager that most people – inside and outside the church – understand that.

Forgive my rambling. Actually, I think that most of my posts are nothing more than extended periods of rambling….I just don’t always recognize it!


Jim Peet said...

I'm not always sure I understand you, but I DO ALWAYS read you.


Tonya said...

Ellis, I have very much enjoyed reading these posts. I'm struggling with these issues myself and I agree with this post completely - KJVO is just as dangerous as denying that the scripture is inerrant, but somehow is better tolerated. Go fig.

Ellis Murphree said...


Same here - I almost ALWAYS read what I post....on some occasions I even understand myself...

Don Johnson said...

Hi Ellis

I did a quick scan and agree with the general thrust of what you are saying, but there are a couple of points I think you should consider.

First, Jack Hyles wasn't always the lunatic he is most remembered as. And for all practical purposes, fundamentalism as a movement has never been a formally linked and intertwined body. Many people didn't ever have anything to do with Hyles and didn't see much need to take a public "stand" against him.

Second, I think it is an error to call extreme KJO etc. "liberal". Most people would not define liberal that way. I agree that these areas certainly can be problematic, but I think liberal is the wrong term.


I have bookmarked your article and will read it more thoroughly later... on the run right now

Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Ellis Murphree said...


I might agree with you to a point about Hyles...however, the pragmatism and man-centerdness of his portion of the movement didn't exactly happen overnight. Granted, some of the more peculiar things didn't come until later, but many of the core issues were there for decades. All that said, I think that era as a whole is bit of a black eye for the movement. It's probably not fair to consisitently point to that time in Fundamentalism as the definition of what it is. Am I making sense?

Regarding your thoughts on the extreme KJVO position not fitting well into the definition of "liberal" very well, I'm not sure I agree with you. The non-orthodox and theologically dangerous steps one has to take in regards to how they handle the issue of inspiration to arrive at this conclusion is, at best, extremely alarming.

While the term "liberal" may not be the most accurate in a theological sense (it also isn't the best for use with the "worship service" with the mosh pit), I think it fits the bill as most tend to understand the word. My use of the word should be understood as "left of right" :)

Don Johnson said...

Hi Ellis,

With respect to 'liberal' I think most people would understand KJO to be on the extreme right of the spectrum rather than the left. But that is a minor quibble.

I've had time for a more detailed read of your article ('ramble') and don't find it too rambling. Your analogy regarding WW2 at the end is quite interesting. I would suggest that it might fit Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority a bit better than where you placed it. There, people of quite widely different theological beliefs joined together in common moral cause as a semi-political organization. I always thought that was mistake.

And I agree that drawing the line is complicated. I think cooperation with error (classic liberalism) is tainting. Graham is tainted that way and his doctrine has suffered over the years. But would I become 'tainted' by cooperation with a "MacArthur clone" for example? Well, I don't think 'taint' is the right word. I think that from a pastoral perspective, you will find churches that are heading on different theological/ecclesiastical trajectories just don't have that much in common. And as a pastor, I have a concern for the well being of the sheep and want to direct their attention a certain way.

So... we make judgement calls based on what we think best as to who we can and can't cooperate with and how much. I do think we need to be careful about associations and perhaps it would be a good thing if we got a little less excited about some of the choices our brethren might make. But we do have to be careful and make choices, sometimes hard ones.

Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Ellis Murphree said...


Thanks for the dialogue. I appreciate your insight.