Unanimity and Unity

Bob Bixby posted a lengthy article on his blog Pensees entitled “Unity and Unanimity are Not the Same Thing“. In the ensuing discussion I made several comments that I would like to re-address and expand upon. Rather than post my lengthy response directly to Bob’s blog, I have decided to post my response here with a short note on Pensees. I welcome additional discussion.


I would like to respond again to the article, “Unity and Unanimity are Not the Same Thing” by Bob Bixby. It appears that I am lately come to this conversation and as such may seem to some of you who are reading this blog as somewhat of an intruder.

Let me say first of all that I appreciate the opportunity that blogs represent. They are an interesting internet phenomenon and seem to invite discussion of ideas. You probably are already aware of the vast array of ideas discussed in blogs. The vast majority are emblematic of the message of Ecclesiastes and aren’t worth the electrons they are written on!

Regardless of the quality of most blogs in general, for people of fundamentalist heritage or persuasion, the ideas you are present in this article are worthy of discussion and debate. As a “formerly-young-now-middle-aged” fundamentalist, I would like to address at least some of them. You may or may not agree with all that I have to say.

Bro. Bixby’s article is quite lengthy, so it is unlikely that I will be able to address every point, although I may address some of them here as time permits. At the moment, I do want to address a couple of points that seem critical to me. In addition, there are a couple of other things I should say before I begin.

1) When I first ran across Bob’s article, I posted a reaction to it that included these words: “MacArthur will go anywhere and support any kind of group.” One person contacted me on this point and challenged the statement. After thinking this all over, I realized that the statement itself is overly broad. I am sure there are many places and groups with whom Dr. MacArthur will not associate. My expression of my sentiments in that post was therefore wrong and a ‘hasty generalization’. My apologies! I should know better, but I am prone to propaganda too! (That is not to say that I agree with MacArthur’s associations, just that I was wrong to state my disagreement in such an overly general way.) Further to this, in my first response I stated that MacArthur spoke in a Baptist Union church here in our city in the past. I have since been unable to verify this, so my memory is probably faulty. I apologize for making an accusation that I cannot back up.

2) Now, by way of introduction, I am a BJU grad, class of 1979 (Bible/Greek) and 1983 (MDiv.) My wife and I are missionary church planters in Victoria, BC, Canada. We are appointees of Baptist World Mission.(Please note my disclaimer below.) We have been here 19 and a half years and are just now getting our church to where there is some hope it will be self-supporting soon. Our growth has been slow (long story, many factors, including the preacher being a slow learner). In any case, we seem to be making progress in the right direction, for which we thank the Lord. I am also the father of five, with two children now at BJU, a son as a Junior Bible major this fall and a daughter who is a freshman Church Ministries major. I am a “lifer” in the Alumni Association, and proud of it.

Now for my response to the paper:

1. My first reaction was reactionary – and still is to some extent. I mentioned these in my first posts on this subject.

Dr. Bell

Foremost was my reaction to the references to Dr. Bell. These seemed to be gratuitous cheap shots that really have nothing to do with advancing the argument of what Fundamentalism is or should be. You said, in objecting to Davey’s comment about disciples of evangelicalism being unable to discern between *anagnwsis* (book learning) and *epignwsis* (life knowledge): “This is coming from a conference comprised of many who are affiliated with an association whose leader resigned just recently for public drunkenness.” May I ask what this has to do with your point? You know, I am sure there are associates of MacArthur who have resigned in disgrace from their positions. I don’t personally know of any, but knowing human nature, I would be surprised if it hasn’t happened. Would such an association damage what MacArthur has to say about discipleship?

You later stated: “The ‘fightin’ fundamentalists’ pound the pulpit and warn the younger generation of John MacArthur, but never – I repeat never – named Rod Bell when it was obvious even before his drunkenness that his ways were wrong.”

The general point of the article is that we don’t need unanimity, just unity. Is there anything that Dr. Bell taught that attacked the unity we ought to have? Is this unspecific criticism of Dr. Bell’s failings a new insistence on unanimity?

Really, I object to making mention of him at all. Dr. Bell resigned his posts of leadership in shame. How does it help to advocate for a point of view by scoring points off his humiliation?

John MacArthur

In addition, I reacted to the overly favorable view of MacArthur. In subsequent discussion on your blog and elsewhere, as well as further investigation on my part, I still object.

Among other things on this point, it was said: “There is no evidence given that John MacArthur does not embrace the so-called ‘third pillar.’ One cannot honestly say that MacArthur is not a separatist. He’s paid the price for separation.” (The third pillar is what Davey described in his article as separation.)

In all of my subsequent thinking on this point, I have wrestled with this: where is MacArthur making his error? I think that for the most part MacArthur is utterly orthodox in his teaching. There are a few areas that I am not certain about, and it appears that in some areas MacArthur himself has made some clarifications, so I will not quibble with those. I don’t agree with MacArthur systematically, but that is not a quibble either – I am not insisting on unamimity. In fact, the problem I have with MacArthur is not so much with his doctrines as it is with his associations. He apparently is happy to be listed on the platform with clearly evangelical or charismatic leaders. I wouldn’t say that he would appear with just anyone, but he does appear with many who are definitely moving in a much more ecumenical direction. (Franklin Graham, for example.)

Some might quibble with me here. I can almost hear the cry “secondary separation”. How to answer? I was thinking about this today in the context of the brouhaha over the Swift Boat Veterans and the Kerry campaign. The Swifties are what is called a 527 organization. Under current campaign law, such organizations must have no connection with any candidates campaign. One veteran resigned yesterday from his volunteer post in the Bush campaign because of his involvement with the Swift Boat campaign. Today, a lawyer who has advised both groups came under fire. He claims that his situation is permitted under the law. (He has subsequently resigned his position as well, in order that his association with the Swifties not harm Bush’s re-election.)

On the other hand, there are many seemingly much more significant links between the Kerry campaign and Democratic 527 groups. There is someone who is the former campaign manager of Kerry’s campaign now working as executive director (or some such title) of one of the Dem 527s. There is the situation where Kerry and/or his wife Teresa have attended as headline speakers at events sponsored by MoveOn.org, a Democratic 527. All of these associations are being called into question by the Bush campaign.

It seems that association matters. Under this current campaign law, the associations you make in the current political campaign are under a great deal of scrutiny. ASSOCIATION MATTERS!! And because association matters, separation also matters.

When we come back to our religious world, do associations matter?

I don’t think it matters if I as an individual go to a meeting to hear a famous evangelical speaker such as MacArthur, Graham, or whoever… I think it does matter if I have such a speaker in to preach at my church. Or if I put myself on a platform with him and join in conference work with him. Associations matter.

Is MacArthur a fundamentalist? No, I don’t think so. His associations tell me he is not. Oh, he is fundamental in his doctrine, he just isn’t a fundamentalist.

2. As to the substance of the article, I agree in principle that we are not after unanimity. Fundamentalism would be a very small movement if that were the case. (It is small enough as it is!) Unity is the answer. But… unity around what? It seems to me that the article is saying unity around the fundamentals is sufficient. (There have been several listings of ‘the fundamentals’ or ‘the essentials’. I think that a collation of these lists adequately describe the essence of the fundamentals. (For an itemization of several such lists, see THE SELF-IDENTITY OF FUNDAMENTALISM by Roland McCune in DBSJ 1 (Spring 1996): 9–34 – this is available here on the Detroit Seminary website.)

Historically, fundamentalism has involved more than just an adherence to a list. It has always involved an attitude — a “mood” as they used to say. That attitude is best expressed by Jude, “earnestly contend for the faith.” The early fundamentalists did so. They shared doctrinal views with conservative counterparts in their denominations. They were not willing to hold those viewpoints silently, they would not shut up about them. Ultimately, the contending led to the act of separating, including separation from men who held to identical doctrinal systems. Contending and separating cannot be… well… separated. They go hand in hand, and always have.

So the unity of fundamentalists has always been around the area of doctrine plus the willingness to contend for the doctrine. Some might contend that MacArthur does this. But does he? He makes strong statements about the charismatics, but then he speaks at Greg Laurie’s “Preach The Word: Not Ashamed of The Gospel” Bible Exposition conference in September 1999. I am not arguing at this point about separating from MacArthur. My point is that MacArthur often speaks strong words, but then he makes inconsistent associations. It is not speaking the strong words that is sufficient, or the mark of the fundamentalist. It is the willingness to back the strong words up with strong action.

Fundamentalist unity includes doctrine and action (contending and separating when necessary). But… what about those fundamentalists who are constructing shibboleths that must be adhered to or else… what of them? What are they? I suppose we could call them hyper-fundamentalists. When a preacher makes the use of the King James Version a test of fellowship, he is a hyper-fundamentalist. When someone makes Calvinism a test of fellowship, he is a hyper-fundamentalist. When someone makes dispensationalism a test of fellowship, he is a hyper-fundamentalist. On this point I would refer you to another Roland McCune article, DOCTRINAL NON-ISSUES IN HISTORIC FUNDAMENTALISM (DBSJ 1 (Fall 1996): 171–185), available here.

It appears that some of the objections made in the article are linked to the preaching of standards and so-called legalism. In my experience, those who love the term legalism are looking to get away with questionable behaviour. The favorite question is, “What’s wrong with X?”

However, I will grant that many fundamentalists think that if people will conform to an outward moral code, they are spiritually OK. I don’t know how widespread it is. There is no doubt in my mind that it is not an insignificant proportion of fundamentalism. This has been the case for the last thirty years that I know of, probably longer. I agree that it is a problem, but it has not been a problem for me in my ministry.

In many cases, the so-called “legalist” is merely a brother with a weak conscience a la 1 Corinthians 8. He needs our love, not our knowledge (1 Cor 8.1). These matters of conscience are tricky… The conscience is a funny thing. There are some things that are just not an issue here in Victoria, BC, that was (or still is) an issue in the South. There are other issues that even the evangelicals here have problems with that people in the South just didn’t make a big deal of. Some of our matters of conscience ARE just matters of culture and not of Bible.

I think it is a fruitless excercise trying to go around policing every other man’s conscience. Or criticising the same. Rather, let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind. There IS a limit to how much we should engage in the culture of this world. But there is no hard and fast rule that enables us to determine with surety what that limit is. And we are often inconsistent in our own applications of these standards.

Do our choices here limit our fellowship? Sure they do. Some who eschew the standards of someone with a weaker conscience will find that those with the weaker conscience will not walk with them. So be it. For example, there are fundamentalist brothers who I can fellowship with on a personal level, but I would not take my young people to their church or to their camp ministry or what have you. Why? Standards of behaviour are not high enough. Music standards are not quite where mine are. Does that make me right or wrong? I don’t know. Does it make me more spiritual? Hardly! What it does make me is someone who is guided by scriptures in protecting myself and my own ministry from what I perceive to be a too loose relationship with the world.

But let’s get back to your thesis: Unity, not unanimity. I agree that this is the essential question. And I agree that some have grievously erred in adding to the fundamentals. The solution, however, is not in divorcing fundamentalist practice from fundamenatal doctrine.

Well, that is enough for now. There are more things that I would like to address in your article, but that will have to be on another day.

(DISCLAIMER: All opinions expressed in this post are my own and do not necessarily represent the positions of organizations or institutions of which I am a member.)