do conservative ‘e’s separate?

Mark Dever asks, I think, for fundamentalists to clearly and consistently spell out what separation means to them. I could be wrong, and am willing to stand corrected, but I think he is asking the same question that I thought was unanswered in the Minnick interview (see previous posts).

Here is my initial answer to Dever’s questions as posted in the comment section of the 9marks blog (I add a bit more below my quoted answer):


Bro. Dever,

I don’t have time for a full response, I’ll try to put one on my own blog a bit later.

I am a BJU graduate (a former student of Mark Minnick’s in Pulpit Speech, lo, these many years ago … about 30 to be exact). I am a committed fundamentalist.

In my view, it is a mistake to call church discipline separation. Church discipline is difficult and necessary, but it isn’t what the fundamentalists and the evangelicals divided over in the 1950s. You confuse the issue by adding church discipline to the mix.

A key concept is the meaning of the term “fellowship”. In our current usage, fellowship has been watered down in English to mostly mean ‘friendly social interaction’. Koinonia, I believe, is much closer to our English term ‘partnership’ than ‘fellowship’ [in current usage]. In a business partnership, each partner is completely liable for the commitments of the other partner. One must be sure of one’s partner.

When it comes to ecclesiastical partnership, i.e., sharing pulpits, joining together in conferences, boards, evangelistic efforts, etc., I must be sure of my partners lest I become entangled in their liabilities. See 2 Jn and not bidding godspeed.

So for example, your association with Mark Driscoll’s organization, with the emergent fellows at the Whiteboard Sessions, and even the ongoing connection with the SBC are things that make ecclesiastical partnership with you very problematic for me. I don’t want to be in partnership with those fellows.

There are others with whom you would partner who have aberrations in theology that are significant enough for me to refuse partnership. And still others whose worship seems so worldly that I would not want to be in partnership with that, either.

I am only speaking for myself, but this is a small sample of fundamentalist philosophy as I understand it. There are a number of folks who appear to be disgruntled with fundamentalism who are ready to ignore the ramifications of these partnerships, but I just can’t go there.

I hope that might bring a little light to the issue.

Now I’ve got to beat it… It’s 8:30 am here, and I’ll be in the pulpit in an hour and a half.

Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

I’d like to add a bit more to the above.

First, I’d like to address several of Dever’s points more specifically:

“OK,” my fundamentalist critic may respond, “but only in your local church.” Well, that is certainly my primary responsibility. And the Lord’s teaching through Matt. 18 and I Cor. 5 is certainly given with the local church primarily in view.

I would say that Mt 18 and 1Co 5 have only the local church in view. They have nothing whatever to do with ecclesiastical separation. They have everything to do with the purity of the local church.

Can principles be derived from these passages to apply to a broader circle? Perhaps, but exegetically, the focus is only on the local church.

In my initial reply to Dever above, I said that it is a mistake to confuse church discipline with separation. While a separation of sorts does take place, it is not historically what was meant when the New Evangelicals of the 1950s repudiated Fundamentalist separation. The issue then and now is what to do about cooperative Christian endeavours when some involved have compromising associations.

When the Jones’ et al separated from Graham in 1957 it was because of his cooperation [partnership] with liberals in his crusades. The separation did not mean personal animosity (according to Bob Jones III in a personal conversation recently) but it meant the Fundamentalists decided they could no longer conscientiously support the Graham evangelistic effort. The decision was made with the knowledge that it could seriously impact the Jones’ own ministry at the University, but it was made because it was believed it was the right thing to do.

The matter wasn’t a matter of discipline. It wasn’t a matter of expulsion. It was a decision to no longer endorse, support, join or otherwise promote the ministry of another believer. It was a refusal of partnership. This is quite another thing from church discipline.

Dever says:

Having said that, I have tried to have a wider ministry of encouraging godly cooperation and discouraging ungodly associations. This is one of the sources of my being unpopular and even unwelcome in some circles. So we declined an invitation to give leadership in DC to a Graham-like crusade. Furthermore, we worked to get the Southern Baptist Convention to de-fund the local DC Baptist Convention, because (among other reasons) the convention’s organ, the Capital Baptist, had mocked those who believed that faith in Jesus was the only way to be forgiven for our sins, or who believed that Mormons need to be evangelized.

I applaud these decisions. These are separatistic decisions and are exactly consistent with what fundamentalists have always advocated.

Dever asks:

1. Is ______ a sin?
2. Is this sin (mentioned in #1) a sin we should separate over?
3. If so, what should this separation consist of? What should it include and what should it allow?

Here we are getting to some important questions, especially number 3. Let’s try plugging in a few possibilities:

  1. Is partnership with Open Theists by joint membership in a denomination a sin?
  2. Is partnership with men who deny the accuracy of Acts 21.11 a sin? [Some say Agabus was wrong when he says that the Holy Spirit told him to say certain things. That isn’t what the Bible says!]
  3. Is partnership with a man who criticizes the Graham compromise at some points but willingly partners with the Graham organization by speaking at the Cove and writing in Decision Magazine a sin?
  4. Is partnership with Mark Driscoll or Emergent/Emerging types in a joint conference a sin?

The crux of the matter here is first of all whether you consider it a sin to be in partnership in any of these ways. Of course we could add more, but these will suffice.

If affirmative agreement is found on these questions, then the answer to the next question should be obvious. If these partnerships are themselves sins, then they demand separation. That is, they demand a refusal of partnership in gospel work.

What should such separation consist of? Well, for starters, that would pretty well end the ‘Together 4 the Gospel’ endeavour. It might end other associations as well.

For example, what about affiliation with the SBC? Historically, some fundamentalists remained in denominations longer than others. From my understanding of their strategy, they remained in these groups militantly attempting to reform the organizations. If someone was to remain in the SBC but be publicly and consistently agitating for reform in the direction of orthodoxy, it is possible that such an association would not in itself constitute a compromised position. The same could be said of someone in other denominations, as long as they were agitating for change.

Agitating for change is a key factor here. Some stay in while “agreeing to disagree” – there is no militancy about it. I would have a hard time finding common cause with someone taking that approach.

One last question from Dever’s post:

is there liberty between Christians of good will and basic orthodoxy on the Gospel to disagree over any or all of these three questions? I have not yet perceived how in a fallen world there can always be complete consistency of practice on these matters between churches. I think some allowance must be made for differences with our brothers on such issues.

Yes, I agree. There should be some liberty where individuals apply these things differently. But the amount of liberty depends on the overall consistency of the position, not on absolute consistency and absolute agreement on every question.


Well, if you have read to the end you deserve an award for endurance. I hope there is at least some clarity in my thinking. As I said in my original post on Dever’s blog, I speak for myself. This is an expression of my philosophy as I understand it. There may be errors and inconsistencies. I welcome corrections of viewpoint on those. I hope that my application in specific areas can be discerned from this.



  1. Keith says:

    So, Don, if Bob Jones had been a church elder and Bill Graham had been a church member, would Bob Jones have disciplined Billy Graham? I think the answer is yes.

    You seem to be implying that Jones thought Graham’s strategy did not merit discipline. That’s very hard to believe.

  2. No, not at all…

    I don’t believe Mt 18 and 1 Cor 5 are separation passages. Some are touting that today, I just don’t believe it addresses the issue, especially in direct application.

    When it comes to separation, we are talking about the decision whether or not to participate together as ministry partners. Obviously if we are talking about two people who are members of the same church some local church issues are also going to come into play. However, it is a smokescreen to attempt to make these passages apply across the board to separation.

    How can I put Billy Graham out of the assembly, not being a member of the same local church? I can’t. But I can choose not to be in ministry partnership with him.

    That is a critical difference.

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  3. One more thing… I would challenge anyone to find the leaders of Fundamentalism ever using Mt 18 or 1 Cor 5 as a biblical justification for their actions of separation in the 1950s/1960s. You can see lots of 2 Cor 6, 2 Jn, Titus 3, Romans 15, etc. I very much doubt you are going to find much reference to Mt 18 and 1 Cor 5.

    I certainly was never taught those two passages with respect to separation in the 1970s by my fundamentalist professors.

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3