Fellowship, Separation, and the Local Baptist Church

We Must Not Ignore Biblical Principles of Separation in Our Desire to Work with Others

When I was growing up in the 70s, the watchword among independent Baptists was separation. And with good reason. Many of my mentors were men who had come out of denominations that denied the inerrancy of Scripture, miracles of the Bible, and even the virgin birth of Christ. I was privileged to personally know men who had taken a costly stand for truth (Dr. Don Sisk, Dr. James Rushing, Dr. Lee Roberson to name a few)—in many cases losing their churches, friendships, and being misunderstood for their convictions.

These were men who then watched the rise of what Fuller Seminary and Harold Ockenga termed “Neo-Evangelicalism”—an effort to bring together liberals and fundamentalists. Bible-believing pastors who had already taken a strong stand for truth recognized the danger of such collaboration and called for separation. Their concerns were further confirmed when Billy Graham began collaborating with leaders of all faiths, including inviting Catholics and Modernists (who denied the basic doctrines of the faith) to share the platform in his crusades. (A member of our church walked out of a planning meeting for the Los Angeles crusade when the Catholic priests were introduced.)

In Amos 3:3, God poses the question to Israel, “Can two walk together, except they be agreed?” And in 2 Corinthians 6, Paul asks a series of questions with the same obvious answer:

Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness? And what concord hath Christ with Belial? or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel? And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols? for ye are the temple of the living God…Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord…—2 Corinthians 6:14–17

So we know that separation from false religion and pagan practices are an essential call to the Christian who desires to walk with God.

To those of us who received first-hand accounts of what it meant to stand for the faith against ecumenicalism and doctrinally-drifting denominationalism, we appreciate the courage of those who separated and taught us the importance of this Bible truth. We recognized that the birth of the autonomous Baptist, or independent Baptist, movement was made through courageous decisions, based on deeply-held convictions concerning the doctrine of separation.

I have in my files a letter from Dr. Curtis Hutson which he wrote me just a few months before he went to be with the Lord. One paragraph reads, “I challenge you to take your place in the long line of independent, fundamental Baptists who have stood for separation and soul winning (and I speak now especially of ecclesiastical separation) and to hold that banner high until Jesus comes or God calls you Home.” I treasure this letter, its admonition, and the relationship I had with Dr. Hutson, as well as with other leaders of his era.

Now, however, we’ve come a generation or two from those who took those kinds of stands when it was so costly, and we have many pastors who have always been independent Baptists. These men have not had to pay the same price over decisions to separate. These younger leaders still hold to the fundamentals of our faith. They are our co-laborers…and there is much that my generation can learn from them.

If, however, the watchword of my generation was separation, the buzzword of younger leaders is collaboration.

Their heart for collaboration isn’t unbiblical. In fact, it is very much like the Apostle Paul who was more concerned that Christ be preached than that others recognize his leadership.

Some indeed preach Christ even of envy and strife; and some also of good will: The one preach Christ of contention, not sincerely, supposing to add affliction to my bonds: But the other of love, knowing that I am set for the defence of the gospel. What then? notwithstanding, every way, whether in pretence, or in truth, Christ is preached; and I therein do rejoice, yea, and will rejoice.—Philippians 1:15–18

Paul, who was willing to separate when need be, was also desirous to work with others who would “stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel” (Philippians 1:27).

Younger men have less of the World War II, single-leader-forge-the-way picture of leadership and a greater desire to work together with other leaders.

The bright side of this is that these men are usually less concerned with who gets the credit than they are with the desire to be a part of something larger than themselves.

The downside is that those of us who are more familiar with the top-down leadership style too easily feel uncomfortable with collaboration and can be suspicious of compromise, fearing a lack of separation.

So who’s right? Both.

Who’s wrong? Both can be.

There’s a ditch on both sides of the road.

It is entirely possible to be so hyper-separated that you alienate fellow brothers and sisters in Christ who share your doctrinal convictions and biblical practices. The separatist who has no heart to collaborate is wrong, because the Bible commands us in 1 Corinthians 3:9 to be “labourers together with God.” The leader who sets himself as superior to others and instructs people to follow him is fostering the carnality Paul warned against in this passage.

But just as it is possible to hyper-separate, it is entirely possible to so over-collaborate that you reach across lines of doctrine or holiness where there should be separation. The fact is that Bible-believing men can and should collaborate, but I fear there are some men today whose collaboration will lead them into alignments that belittle the preservation of Scripture, the “whosoever will” call of the gospel, and biblical worship in the church.

So what is the answer?

Both. And both in balance.

Collaboration is biblical and vital. But unchecked collaboration leads back to the compromise my mentors taught me to stay away from. Separation is vital, but separation just for the purpose of separating becomes isolation and pharisaicalism.

This is why we must manage the tension between separation and collaboration. And I would say that a big part of that is to learn from one another.

Those of us who have the spirit of a separatist and have taken a stand and avoided preaching in certain places or endorsing certain personalities, need to learn from others and be reminded that there is a need for greater fellowship, prayer, and striving together with others. We need to model collaboration among independent Baptist leaders in this needy hour.

The younger leader who desires greater collaboration needs to remember that there is also great importance in the biblical commands regarding separation.

If you are a leader who enjoys greater collaboration, could I encourage you to guard against dismissing the importance of separation?

I am not exaggerating to say that the collaborative man whose emphasis is on simply getting rid of the old, tired, burdensome machinery of legalism and basking in the freedom of grace and innovation may unintentionally (or intentionally) begin to espouse, endorse, and platform ideologies that ten years ago he would have said were wrong—including differing Bible versions, Calvinism, charismatic doctrine, and more.

Yes, you have liberty to invite personalities to your church, but a leader must be wise lest his actions become a stumbling block.

The principle regarding the conscience of a weaker brother, from 1 Corinthians 8, applies here.

But take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumblingblock to them that are weak….But when ye sin so against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, ye sin against Christ. Wherefore, if meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world standeth, lest I make my brother to offend.—1 Corinthians 8:9, 12–13

Spiritual leaders are careful to recognize the stewardship of their influence, and they work to protect those who may be weaker in the faith from mixed signals. This is one reason I don’t believe it is wise to have someone in to speak who promotes doctrine that is contrary to our church’s doctrinal statement.

To avoid being a stumbling block, I pray that my love will abound in discernment, as Philippians 1:9–10 admonishes.

And this I pray, that your love may abound yet more and more in knowledge and in all judgment; That ye may approve things that are excellent; that ye may be sincere and without offence till the day of Christ;—Philippians 1:9–10

As a pastor then, I do not want to offend the conscience of a younger or weaker Christian, and I don’t want to build a bridge over which others may walk to unbiblical doctrine. The actions of some independent Baptist pastors, with good intentions, are sometimes building bridges I prefer not to build.

I have no desire to control other flocks, and I respect the soul liberty of other pastors, but I desire to protect the church of which I am an undershepherd. Acts 20:28 instructs, “Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.” This is where I must pray for wisdom and exercise discernment in who I fellowship with and invite to preach in our pulpit.

I encourage pastors to weigh the influence of a guest speaker, blogger, or author upon their personal life and upon the life of the flock where they serve. As we think of the strengths and weaknesses of potential guests, we could consider what we may unintentionally endorse by inviting the guest.

 

Strengths Weaknesses
Skilled apologist Believes in Theistic Evolution, doesn’t preach against same-sex marriage
Strong stand against Charismatic doctrine Hyper-Calvinist, critical of the KJV
Evangelism Rock music to draw crowds, worldly lifestyle
Passionate for soulwinning Prideful, critical spirit
Promotes missions Sows discord among people who don’t do it his way
Encouraging writings Emphasis on unbiblical meditation and the Spiritual Formation Movement

In every case represented by this chart, I’m thankful for the strengths listed in the left column, and I rejoice in souls that are saved through any person or ministry that proclaims Christ. But that doesn’t mean I have to shut my eyes to the weaknesses in the right column or invite someone with doctrinal differences or an unholy lifestyle to preach to our church. Our goal is to become increasingly like Christ, “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

I recently was speaking with a young leader from our own state of California about this subject, and he expressed his concern over it as well. His words were that he fears that the current spirit of collaboration among some of the younger leaders could become the seeds for the next generation of new evangelicalism. Some are even now, in fact, refusing to consider the reality that fellowship with those of doctrinal differences is even a concern. I am not advocating the type of subjective rabble rousing that alienates good men over petty issues. I am talking about biblical holiness, the doctrine of salvation, the Word of God, creation, eternal security, and yes, holiness in worship.

My challenge to you is to hold to the truth and fellowship with those who do. Truth is never worth compromise. Hold it fast. Study, preach, and live sound doctrine.

Holding fast the faithful word as he hath been taught, that he may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers.—Titus 1:9

I am comfortable fellowshipping with Baptists of like doctrine and practice. Yes, I wish there was greater collaboration in our ranks, but my main concern is the local flock. The conviction of early fundamentalists and independent Baptists was that doctrine determined fellowship. Further, we must not only hold to truth, but we must contend for it: “Beloved…it was needful for me to write unto you, and exhort you that ye should earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” (Jude 3). To promote on our church or social platforms men who deny or twist biblical truth is the opposite of our calling. Be careful then that in your desire for fellowship, you don’t over collaborate and end up of a different doctrinal persuasion or dismissing the biblical ministry philosophy you’ve been taught.

Don’t dismiss biblical separation. It is still a vital part of the Christian life, and we need to practice it as much now as we ever did.

If you are a leader who defaults toward separation, could I encourage you to guard against dismissing those who need your encouragement?

Don’t write others off. God often uses both Pauls and Apolloses to give the increase (1 Corinthians 3:6). Be willing to work to understand those younger than you and to rejoice in the ways they evidence another side of spiritual leadership that sometimes we are less drawn toward. My desire is to hold to a right position with a right spirit. Not every young man who is doing some things differently is a rebel.

It is possible to have collaboration without compromise. And it is possible to practice separation without pride.

May we be people who guard against the extremes of both—who collaborate with one another to contend for the faith and to lift up Jesus!

If this article was a help to you, consider sharing it with your friends.