gospel-driven separation: is it enough?

What would you say to a group that believes the following:

We affirm the Trinity – God who is a community of three persons … We believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God, the Word made flesh, the Savior of the world, fully human and fully divine … This new life is the loving gift of God’s grace that becomes ours through faith and repentance.

Does that sound OK to you?

Suppose the group is one that holds to high moral values and eschews worldliness. What would you say?

A Canadian evangelical magazine asks:

The question Evangelicals must ask is: What shall we do about how much we have in common?

The magazine concludes its article on this group with this paragraph:

There is a tremendous opportunity for Canadian Evangelicals when it comes to the _________ of ______. They are a relatively small group within Canada that gives much independence to each congregation. They have a good orthodox statement of faith and a focus on Jesus Christ. … Can we as Evangelicals come alongside the _________ of ______, not denying our differences, but embracing our common faith?

The group in question is called the Community of Christ. Not familiar with that name? Try this one:

The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints

That’s right. The Mormons. Not the main group headquartered in Salt Lake City, but the splinter group that formed after Joseph Smith, Jr., died and was originally led by Smith’s son, Joseph Smith III.

The magazine in question is Faith Today, a publication of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (they send a free copy to our church from time to time). The article discussing this issue comes from the January/February 2011 issue, pp. 30-32 and is entitled:

“Can Evangelicals Welcome the Community of Christ?”

The article carries this subtitle: “Evangelicals have an opportunity to encourage orthodoxy and build fellowship with a small, Mormon-related denomination.”

Really now… nothing should surprise me about the muddled thinking of evangelicals, but this is truly amazing. The article notes that the Community of Christ has applied for membership and been accepted in the National Council of Churches, an organization that includes a number of apostate groups. The article mentions this as if it is no big deal.

The article isn’t fully supportive of embracing the Community of Christ because, as it does acknowledge, the Community of Christ also believes this:

We affirm the Bible as the foundational scripture for the church. In addition, Community of Christ used the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants – not to replace the witness of the Bible or improve on it, but because they confirm its message that Jesus Christ is the Living Word of God.

That would be a problem, eh?

The general tenor of the Faith Today article seems to answer its own question positively, in spite of this problematic point of doctrine. It excuses the Community of Christ here because in 2007 a motion to affirm the Book of Mormon as inspired was rejected. But still… the Bible is only ‘the foundational scripture’?

My point in mentioning this story is not because I am worried that fundamentalists might become open to fellowship with the Community of Christ

I mention it because in recent days we are hearing a considerable emphasis on ‘gospel-driven separation’, as if all that matters is the gospel, we need not consider questions outside the gospel in making separation decisions.

This story starts with the gospel. The Community of Christ makes a statement that sounds fairly biblical as far as an understanding of key gospel points are concerned: Trinity, deity of Christ, salvation by faith and repentance. But there is so much more to the story.

The current noise about ‘gospel-driven separation’ demonstrates a wizened and shriveled understanding of separation. I believe that it opens the door to significant errors, many of which I have discussed and warned about in earlier posts.

I don’t think we are in any danger of joining with a group like the Community of Christ … yet.

But I do wonder what our formerly fundamentalist churches and schools will look like in ten or twenty years.

don_sig2

Comments

  1. Keith says:

    What would you say to a group that believes the following: “We affirm the Trinity – God who is a community of three persons …”

    This evangelical said to himself, after reading the above and no more, “That is not an affirmation of the Trinity.” It did not sound OK to me.

    When one adds the knowledge that the group also affirms the Book of Mormon, it is clear that they do not believe in the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity or of the orthodox position of Sola Gratia.

    In other words, gospel-driven separation would be enough here. As long as one has a well informed understanding of the gospel.

    If you don’t think that these guys are completely off about the gospel, then on what basis would you separate from them? They are probably not “worldly” by fundamentalist standards. I bet they don’t drink, don’t smoke, and dress conservatively.

    It seems that you actually proved the opposite of what you intended about gospel-driven separation.

    Now, if your point had been that Canadian evangelicals (like American evangelicals) are increasingly muddled, well, it looks like you’ve got a strong case. But it’s not a case against gospel-driven separation. It’s a case for better theological training in the evangelical world. Something probably needed in the fundamentalist world too (the KJVO crowd is proof enough of that).

    But hey, the doctrine of the Trinity is arrived at through the human logic of systematic theology anyway. So, maybe we can’t totally defend it. I speak as a fool.

    • Well, I agree that their affirmation on the Trinity is a bit loose, but I suspect that there are evangelicals who have loose theology at certain points like that who are considered ‘within the tent’, even by conservative evangelicals.

      And I should say that the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada isn’t considered ‘conservative evangelical’ either… they would at best be ‘broad evangelical’. Mostly they are a political action group trying to imitate the Christian Coalition in the States. It doesn’t go over that big here, but hope springs eternal…

      I would separate from a group like this simply on their affirmation of the Bible as ‘foundational Scripture’ and their acceptance of the Book of Moron. Some would say that the doctrine of Scripture would be tangentially related to the Gospel, but I don’t think that is so. I think it is possible to be off on inerrancy and still be born again through faith in Christ. I would still separate from someone like that, if they wouldn’t hear rebuke, but I wouldn’t necessarily think they were lost, unlike someone who denied the deity of Christ or the Trinity, for example.

      And yes, the Trinity is somewhat a Systematic concept, but its essential features are all Biblical affirmations. They are: God is one; the Father is a person who is God, the Son is a person who is God, the Spirit is a person who is God. The concept of the Trinity is no more than a compilation of those Biblical statements. Where we have Systematic differences on those points are where we might go beyond the clear statements of Scripture to define some less clear aspects of the Trinitarian relationship, like, for example, the eternal generation of the Son or the mutual generation of the Spirit by Father and Son (not sure I am using the right terms for that last one).

      Maranatha!
      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  2. Roger Carlson says:

    Don,

    I am not sure you really made your point. Here’s why. When we were having the Calvinisim/Arminian debate in my state, there was a large church that was very much anti-calvinism. They said there were people coming in their church who didn’t hold to the doctrinal statment.

    Well, the statement was about a paragraph and used language similar to the one you quoted in your first paragraph. The statment was so general that one could be a Calvinist, Arminian who held to eternal security, or as you now pointed out a Mormon.

    Our churches are in a mess because we are bearing what was sown. We ripped the New Evangelicals rightly because they had the philosophy that doctrine divides. The problem though is we did similar things practically with weak statements and shallow preaching and teaching. This isn’t true of our whole movement, but i think it is fair when large churches in our movement have weak doctrinal statements that you could drive a Mack truck through.

    On second thought, maybe you made your point. But the point is just as much about “us” as it is “them.”

    • Well, I am all for strong doctrinal statements. Our own in our church is not really sufficient (no one to blame but me, I wrote it, back when I was an idealistic young pastor).

      But my point is that it is a mistake to say simply ‘gospel-driven’ when it comes to separation. Our friend Kent may go further than I would into what some derisively call ‘everythingism’, but I think he has a better grasp of the importance of all issues than the glib ‘gospel-driven’ crowd.

      Biblical separation is concerned with doctrine, especially certain core doctrines (not all of them directly gospel doctrines), AND it is concerned with philosophy of ministry AND relationship to the world. Biblical separation is not merely ‘gospel-driven’ and to make it so waters down this most essential doctrine.

      Maranatha!
      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  3. Don,
    I would still claim that the problem isn’t gospel-driven separation, it’s taking a minimalist attitude toward what gospel-driven separation means. I contend that the gospel is concerned with core doctrines, philosophy of ministry, and relationship to the world. That’s Romans 12:1-2. The gospel changes things in a person’s life and if that change isn’t there, then there is a gospel issue at stake. A pastor who swears and says perverted things, for example, needs to be separated from because of what that person’s life says about the gospel. Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice.” If someone denies the voice of Christ by denying core doctrines, then that is a gospel issue.

    Similar to what I just said over on Chris’s blog, I don’t think gospel-driven has been defined very well, yet. If we let the Gospel Coalition do it, or T4G, then I think you are going to have some issues along the lines that you are suggesting. I also have no doubt that some use this terminology intentionally to narrow what we separate over. Nevertheless, if we can get people to the point that they agree that the gospel is significant enough to separate over, then at least they are giving acknowledgement that separation is sometimes required. The next step, and the key step, is to then define what that means Biblically…and I think you can do that. The benefit will be that some will stop separating where they don’t need to, and others will start separating where they have not. It changes the conversation in a healthy way because I think it helps us focus on the problem from a more Biblical perspective.

  4. Keith says:

    “the New Evangelicals rightly because they had the philosophy that doctrine divides.”

    They did not have this philosophy. They were opposed to divisiveness. They weren’t opposed to doctrine. Two different things.

  5. Keith says:

    “the glib ‘gospel-driven’ crowd.”

    “Our own in our church is not really sufficient (no one to blame but me, I wrote it, back when I was an idealistic young pastor).”

    Am I getting this straight? The “gospel-driven crowd” is glib — even though some of this crowd subscribe to the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms and the PCA Book of Church (not to mention suplemental use of the Heidelberg Catechism and other thorough documents). But, folks whose “statement of faith” was written singlehandedly by novice pastors are the serious ones?

    • Keith, you are missing the point and taking two quotes out of context to try to make me say something I am not saying.

      This issue isn’t about doctrinal statements.

      The issue is whether separatism should be ‘gospel-driven’ and no more. I am certainly comfortable with separating over the gospel. But there is more to separation than the gospel alone.

      The PCA and whoever else you might be thinking of are not in view here at all. They aren’t talking about separation at all, unless it is from the fundamentalists. That could hardly be called ‘gospel-driven’.

      Maranatha!
      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  6. Keith says:

    Don,

    I wasn’t trying to put words in your mouth. Sorry it came across that way. I pulled two quotes and juxtaposed them to make a point.

    The point is that much (most/all) the talk about the importance of separation — even separation beyond the gospel (taken out of context as referring to a minimalist “how to be saved” definition of the term) — is coming from people with statements of faith that come nowhere close to the comprehensiveness of some of those “gospel-driven” separatists.

    I’m sure that your criticism of the “gospel-driven crowd” at the moment has Bauder, Doran, etc. in mind. However, you have in the past included the T4G guys and the Gospel Coalition guys in this label. Well, Duncan (T4G), Keller (Gospel Coalition) and others in these orbits subscribe to the Westminster Confession and Catechisms, the PCA Book of Church Order, etc. Documents hammered out by a community of ministers with much prayer, deliberation, and study and refined over years.

    Further, to keep the record straight, the PCA was born out of real, costly actual separatism — not the kind of separatism that is merely public criticism of people they disagree with. In 1973,the southern branch of the PCA separated from the mainline southern presbyterian church (PCUS) when that church merged with the liberal northern presbyterian church (to become the PCUSA). Many lost their buildings and more. In 1982, the northern branch of the PCA joined the southern branch. The northern branch (RPCES) had separated from the liberal northern presbyterian church in the 1930s. They also suffered great, real losses.

    And, the PCA still deals with issues of separation all the time. Some issues of separation that have been dealt with in recent years: What views of eschatology demand separation? What views of women’s roles in the church? What about paedo communion? What views of the application of Old Testament Law? NT Wright/New Perspectives on Paul? Federal Vision? etc. And, there a process to do this carefully, with checks and balances. It isn’t one pastor or one Bible college president deciding that someone is a heretic.

    • Hi Keith

      I am aware that the PCA was born out of real struggle with modernism. I am all in favor of what they have done in that regard. But quite clearly from your account, they too do not see separation as merely gospel-driven.

      But they are really outside the parameters of this discussion. What I am after in this are those in ‘our’ crowd who are trying to minimize separatism by using the term ‘gospel-driven’. They are backing off the issues that divide fundamentalists from evangelicals. I still maintain that those issues are real and important. They still create a barrier to cooperation because evangelicals will not guard their left.

      You mention NT Wright and the NPP. Clearly it is a matter of controversy in evangelical circles. Some are open to him, others are not. Yet after ample evidence of heretical views, evangelicals cannot come to a definitive view of Wright/NPP. Fundamentalists do not have this problem. But we would have the problem if we joined in cooperation with those who are unwilling to take a definitive stand against the NPP.

      Maranatha!
      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  7. Keith says:

    Don,

    What have fundamentalists done to separate from, or even take a clear stand on Wright (who I wouldn’t classify as a heretic, even though I wouldn’t agree with everything he says)?

    Most fundamentalists probably didn’t/don’t even know about Wright. And, if they do, their separation amounts to . . . what?

    The PCA on the other hand, studied the matter, clearly stated its concerns and disagreements and what they would do about it. It’s more than just lobbing newsletter (in the old days) or internet (now) grenades.

    But, I’ll leave it alone because you’re only talking about guys in “your” crowd — whatever that is (which is really the problem, as a loose network of independents there is no productive way for the crowd to be defined or for the crowd to act corporately).

    • Keith, what do we need to do? We don’t have a problem with Wright’s influence because we guard the door on the left hand side. The evangelicals don’t, which is why they constantly have problems with leftward drift.

      The PCA’s efforts against Wright now, what has it amounted to? Is NT Wright still a problem in the PCA or not? I think he is, from the PCA guys I read. So spare me the superiority of denominational response. It hasn’t been terribly effective because evangelicalism doesn’t really guard the door on the left – evangelicalism is committed to dialog to some extent or other. Your unwillingness to brand Wright a heretic is a case in point.

      Maranatha!
      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  8. I don’t think gospel-driven has been defined very well, yet. If we let the Gospel Coalition do it, or T4G, then I think you are going to have some issues along the lines that you are suggesting. I also have no doubt that some use this terminology intentionally to narrow what we separate over.

    Indeed! If we look at what the T4G/TGC will tolerate and allow for under the umbrella of gospel-driven affiliations we see this includes Charismatic theology, ecumenical compromises with unbelievers, compromised SBC preachers, CCM, amillennialism.

    These are the same issues that certain self-proclaimed separatists in IFB circles have come to tolerate and allow for so that the can converge around a certain interpretation of the gospel with evangelicals in the T4G community.

    Gospel driven separation alone is the new obedience* to separatism.

    The paradigm shift away from separation for the sake of a pure church as good men like Dr. Ernest Pickering defined the biblical mandates. Today fellowship and cooperation around an interpretation of the Gospel apart from- withdrawing from, avoiding/marking and/or separating from men and movements that compromise the Gospel and the Scriptures.

    LM

    * What I mean to communicate and why I use “obedience” is because true obedience to all that the Bible calls for separation/withdrawing from has been replaced by obedience to the new narrow grounds for separatism, the gospel, which IMO has lead to disobedience.

  9. Keith says:

    No need to get fiesty. No offense intended.

    And, no denominational superiority intended either. What I was getting at wasn’t superiority, it’s just simple logic. A conected church CAN do something with checks and balances that independents cannot. The debate as to whether this is better or not is a separate issue.

    And, seriously now, you really think that reason that “fundamentalism” doesn’t have a problem with Wright is because someone has been guarding the door? I’d argue that a better analogy is that no one is answering the phone. You can’t have a problem with outside influences when you are unaware of them.

    No, NT Wright is not a problem in the PCA.

    As to my unwillingness to brand him a heretic. Well, I could take the same approach to your unwillingness to brand the KJVO crowd as heretics. But, what does it really matter? Who cares if I brand anyone a heretic — who am I? And who cares if you do? Who are you? When the church brands someone a heretic, well then it means something.

    If you want to persuade the church at large to agree that Wright is a heretic (not just in error), have at it. But no individual’s decision is normative. I seem to remember Bob Jones Jr. and III unilaterally branding John MacArthur a heretic and making quite a stir. Only problem — it wasn’t true.

    • Well, we’ll have to disagree. I am not overly concerned about my influence on the church at large, but I am concerned about guiding the flock that the Lord has given me and for which I am accountable. We watch for error and false teaching and as needed point it out if and when our people run into false ideas.

      Maranatha!
      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  10. Keith:

    You wrote, “No, NT Wright is not a problem in the PCA.”

    Maybe not in the PCA, but in a FrontLine article (about a year ago) Dr. Mark Minnick noted NT Wright as a wolf in sheep’s clothing and in the article chastised John Piper for giving Wright an endorsement.

    FYI,

    LM

  11. Keith says:

    Lou,

    I’m not really sure how to respond.

    I don’t know what “endorsement” Minnick would be referring to. Piper wrote a 240 page book arguing against what he sees as the problems in Wright’s work. That’s more than any fundamentalist, including Minnick, has come close to doing.

    If Minnick is just unhappy that Piper didn’t present his criticism harshly, well that’s a lot different than “endorsement.” And, honest men can differ on when and how it is appropriate to be harsh.

    Personally, I don’t see that saying, “You are wrong and an intentionally deceptive and destructive creature,” adds anything helpful or productive to just saying, “You are wrong here, and here is why.” You and Minnick are free to disagree.

    Out of curiosity, how much Wright have you and Don read? How do you know he is heretical? Because Minnick says so? Why should Minnick’s approach be accepted over Piper’s? How will you independents decide which approach is normative?

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