Sunday, April 13, 2008

Greatest Blow to Superlative Separation

This just hit me today -

I now realize and remember what it was that first blew gaping holes in the concept of separation as held by the majority of fundamentalists I grew up with:

Christ-like "non-fundamentalists".

What do I mean? Well, when I arrived at college, I started to meet Christians from different backgrounds then me, some who would never be accepted in fundamentalist circles. While my first instinct was recoil, I soon began to realize that there was just something about them that made it impossible for me to discount their authentic expression of faith.
They were like Jesus.
You can argue with theological positions, but it is hard to argue with fruit of the Spirit.

I was reminded of this because the doctor who delivered our baby yesterday (Preslie Taylor, who is inexpressibly beautiful...) is a faithful Roman Catholic. My wife and I have known her for a few years, and she has participated in the birth of all three of our daughters. We have had numerous conversations outside the medical context, often about Christ and faith. There is no doubt in my mind that she has a saving faith in Jesus, and it is evident to all who know her. She radiates with love, graciousness, and servanthood. She has become more a friend than a doctor, and we are so blessed by her.

But in the back of my mind when I first found out she was Catholic was - "Is she really a believer...?" I mean, she talks about Jesus, but she is Catholic???

Well, while there is no doubt we would disagree about many theological issues, she clearly says to people that she believes in Jesus Christ for her salvation. For her, it is all about Christ.

So, I ask... Do we have the right to second-guess someone's faith? If they claim to be trusting in what Christ did on the cross for their salvation, realizing it is all about Him... Who are we to argue?
Particularly when they evidence the fruit of Spirit as abundantly as those old starburst commercials (if you remember them... if not then just imagine fruit flyin everywhere.... :) ).


  1. I first came to a similar realization studing church history in college. Being raised a Dispensatioalist, I began to feel that it was pretty arrogant to think that we had to answers to all these questions Christians had struggled with for 2000 years. Sometimes we leave no room for mystery, for paradox, for the realization that there are some thing we will never understand this side of eternity. I think we can be confident of what we believe, but still sympathize with those who disagree. Realizing that theology is not as simple and cut and dry as we may want it to be. I think this is where the fundamentals of the faith should come into play. If we can agree on these key points and not focus so much on other issues, then we can work together for the good of the kingdom.

  2. Like any denominations, there will always be theological debates. I have come to learn at college that catholics, although practice a lot of tradition, are just as much Christ-followers as anyone else who follows Christ. In any denominations, there are people who claim to follow Christ who may not truly. and I have met many catholics who Truly love God just as Mark and Jen's doctor. How people choice to worship the lord and express forgiveness and receive communion does not mean they do not Trust in Jesus for their lives. NO ONE has God figured out and if we all agreed on everything their would be no denominations.

  3. I think that the last paragraph of your post does not flow with the beginning. I personally am not familiar with a fundamentalism that in the practice of seperation is questioning someones personal faith. I in no way question the personal faith of men like Ligon Duncan, C.J. Mahaney, J.I. Paker, etc. but as I understand the srciptures teaching on seperation, I must seperate from them on some level, to some degree. It is disingenuous to asert that one who practices some form of secondary seperation is questioning the faith of the one they are seperating from. The NT is very clear (in my reading) the there are brothers that we should seperate from.

  4. Thanks for the invitation Mark, I'll have to put this one on the favorites list and see what happens. The word fundamentalist has become a very interesting word especially when it comes to its connection to radical Islam and other violent groups. The media loves to lump any one who believes the Bible to be God's word with every violent and extreme group out there. For us the word fundamentalist can have many shades of meaning. To the world a fundamentalist Christian is anyone who actually believes that the Bible is authoritative for everyone.
    Thanks for the comment about the way you judged people unbiblically when you first came to college, I did the same thing. You have to start asking yourself some questions when you find out things you have been taught all your life aren't supported by scripture.
    Congratulations on the new baby girl! There's nothing like God's gift of life, nothing.
    I have one question for you in regard to your doctor who is Roman Catholic. Does she hold to the Catholic position on justification?

  5. Joel,
    Thanks for commenting brother.
    I whole-heartedly agree that there are times when we are to separate from other believers. The Bible clearly tells us that we must separate from professing Christians who are living in blatant habitual sin and are unwilling to repent . Of course, this is after we have followed the Biblical guidelines of confrontation found in Mat. 18.
    However, in my study I have never found an exhortation to separate from fellow believers with differing theological persuasions who embrace the true gospel and are humbly and fervently pursuing Christ.
    This to me is superlative separation.
    If we are going to break fellowship (and consequently break God's heart as His body fragments), we had better be sure that it is over something related to outright sin and not a personal preference or interpretation. Further, we must be sure that all other avenues have been pursued (confronting one-on-one, taking another brother, and then the sad but therapeutic step of church discipline.)

    I believe there would be far less fragmentation in the church if we would observe these words from Gal. 6:
    1Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. 2Carry each other's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. 3If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself.

  6. Mark,
    Thanks for the invite to your blog. I agree with you wholeheartedly.
    I think it is difficult to suggest that we have the "right" to judge the "salvation" of those who profess to be Christian, especially if they show some fruit. I am not the judge, God is.
    One quick statement about definitions. We must be willing to define what we mean by certain things. For instance, what Mark believes is 'fundamentalism' may not be what Evan believes is 'fundamentalism' (though I do believe we are talking about the same thing, but there is a possibility we may not). Or, also for instance, what Paul believes about the 'authority of the Bible' may not be what Mark believes about the 'authority of the Bible.' Thus, this may be why others are struggling with your post.
    Therefore, I would ask: Could you please define what you mean by 'fundamentalism' so we can better understand what you struggled with?
    I think this is an excellent blog and a much needed conversation...Thanks, Mark.

  7. Mark, I agree with your deffinition of biblical separation. We have fellowship with one another through a common confession of faith in Christ. My question about your Roman Catholic friend is whether or not you have a common confession of faith with her. If she is a "faithful Catholic" as you said, then she denies that salvation is by faith alone. She does not agree that "Abraham believed God and it was counted (imputed) to him for righteousness." On the basis of that teaching alone can it be said that the Roman Catholic church holds to the true gospel?

  8. Paul,
    I know where you are coming from brother.
    I myself have felt the same way towards Roman Catholicism.
    However, I would caution against a generalization of Roman Catholics. There are so many different nuances of Catholicism (just as there are so many nuances of Baptists, Presbyterians, you name it...)
    On top of that, the average partitioner is rarely aware of the intricacies of their particular church's doctrinal statement, and in fact there are a spectrum of views in any given church.

    I say all this to make the claim that an individual cannot be judged based on their denomination or church's doctrine. (I certainly would not want anyone to generalize me by the negative reputation that the Baptist church often has had...)

    Now, as far as my Catholic friend's view of justification, I have to confess that this is not something we have delved into yet. Perhaps someday we can.
    My main point with this whole blog entry is that this is not the most pressing conversation. We often are so quick to analyze and examine someone's theology.
    I am not sure why this is, but I myself have done it. Perhaps it is so that we can wrap a label around them (at least in our mind because it makes things neater and more manageable.)
    Whatever the reason is, I believe we should approach a relationship with more charity than that. If my friend tells me they are trusting in Christ alone for salvation, than I believe I should give them the benefit of the doubt, rather than press them further by asking - so, do you believe that justification is a process, or that it is punctiliar?
    Not that these are unworthy conversations, because they certainly are ones we need to work through.
    But, (and perhaps I run the risk of being called a heretic, wouldn't be the first time....) maybe there are different ways of viewing the mysteriously beautiful doctrine of justification. In some definite ways I can see God's declaration of righteousness upon my life as happening in the past, and yet there are some ways in which He is still doing that as He actually makes me righteous.
    "Well, Mark, that is sanctification" - some would say. Ok, but perhaps our systematic categorization of theology is not as bulletproof as we might sometimes think. I think that is Tim and Mike's point.

    My main goal is to refrain from boxing in my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ so that we can get to this point in the discussion. So that we can sharpen each other with our theological ponderings. So that I can discuss justification with my Catholic friend.
    15 years ago I would have never got that far.

  9. Evan,
    You bring up a good point.
    My idea of fundamentalism is not what another's is.
    I think one of my next blog entries is going to need to be a little of my background, so you guys know where I am coming from.
    Oh yeah, and sorry to everyone for my random winking smiley faces. I am not sure what I typed to produce that, but.....

  10. sin is a weird thing. i remember about 5 years ago when my daughter was born, who's mother is a non-christian, that i had a really good friend stick by me knowing that most other christians had given up trying to 'steer me right'. you know, if it wasnt for that one friend, i wonder where i'd be. i'm so thankful sometimes that fundamentalism didnt trap his thinking, love and grace controlled him!

    so by that little story and the comment at the end, you can probably tell my thoughts on the term fundamentalism. its kinda wild, i'm going to an AG church now (no they dont speak in tongues!!), but they get hung up too on people who are of other theological perspectives and want to separate from them. honestly, these people are awesome, do i agree with them on some major theological points, nope, but most of the time it dosent matter. it does make for great discussions, but its only brought us together as followers of christ.

    so i dont mind being ripped apart theologically or by my little stories, i'm still a good little calvinist, but i think there is some merit in realizing that as paul had a massive conversion and peter had this gradual change throughout his live, so is the christian walk...its about the Father perfecting his work in us and we follow his lead.

    fundamentalist or not...i'm still going to have my been on reformation day!!

    thanks for the invite mark...its been a long time since those days drinking down a bag of sugar trying to study greek!

  11. Interesting... Part of the issue that we face here is one of personal separation vs. ecclesiastical separation. The other part of the issue at hand is one of fellowship vs. endorsement.

    Personal vs. Ecclesiastical separation: If a genuine Christian (not just someone who loves God or loves Christ - alot of unsaved Mormons do that) happens to remain as a part of a Catholic church (whether by tradition or lack of information), I see no reason to separate from them personally. They do not believe the doctrinal error of the Catholic Church if they are saved by faith in Christ ALONE; therefore, I can fellowship with them as a brother/sister in Christ. However, does my association with a truly saved Roman Catholic brother mean I should associate myself (or my church) with his/her church? The Bible clearly teaches that anyone who tampers with the Gospel (as the RCC CLEARLY does...otherwise, why a Reformation?) should be marked and separated from. This isn't just a fundamentalist thing, its a Bible thing (see Galatians, esp. 1:6-9; Rom. 16:17). I am under biblical mandate to separate myself from those who teach the works-centered gospel of the RCC and, by extension, their churches; however, this mandate (Gal. 1) does not apply to believers who remain in their churches. This distinction is vital and should not be blurred.

    Fellowship vs. Endorsement: One must be cautious not to allow his fellowship with a Roman Catholic believer turn into an endorsement of Christians remaining in the RCC. In a heterodox, works based system such as Roman Catholicism, a believer is sure not to grow spiritually and theologically (hence warnings such as Col. 2:8). As a brother that cares for their soul, I should not only seek their fellowship ("things which make for peace..."), but also recommend a Bible-believing church for them to attend ("things wherewith one may edify..." - Rom. 14:19). My desire for fellowship with a believer in the RCC should not turn into endorsement of their attendance to the mass.

    "that your love may abound yet more and more in knowledge and in all discernment"

  12. You're right Mark, I don't like it when someone thinks they know what I believe based on labels. I would add though, that all of us do make assumptions about people's doctrine based on the historical positions of their denomination. Sometimes this is a bad thing, but we do have to start a doctrinal discussion and ask questions at some point unless we are going to accept every type of teaching provided it comes from a nice person.
    The position of the vatican is clearly salvation by faith plus meritorious works(the Reformation, church councils, and Roman Catholic catechisms confirm this). This may not be the position of every Roman Catholic church member, but to the extent that they disagree with the formally stated position of the church is the extent to which they are not a "good Catholic."
    So when I bring up the question of justification, it is not an attempt to discredit someone's profession, it is an attempt to clarify what someone means when they say they trust in Jesus. Maybe a better way to do it would be to ask them how they came to faith in Christ rather than assaulting them with theological jargon!

  13. Paul,
    Right on brother - that is exactly what I pray for - generous and gracious discussions where we listen to each other, and explore where our brothers and sisters are coming from.
    A lot of times, it is all in the spirit - if we begin conversations aggressively, they usually go nowhere and only divide further.
    We can't do this anymore!