There are several denominations in this country which are in the midst of bitter struggles between “liberals” and “conservatives.” In several of these denominations, the conservatives have given up hope that their denominations will return again to the truth of the Scriptures and their confessions. The result is that organizations have been formed in these denominations by conservatives to prepare for eventual separation so that the cause of the truth may be continued. One such denomination is the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. A Federation For Authentic Lutheranism (FAL) has been organized by means of which conservative Lutherans hope to continue confessional Lutheranism and seek fellowship with other conservative Lutheran bodies. The same is true in the Southern Presbyterian Church. Four conservative organizations .have joined forces to defend and continue a confessional Presbyterianism. In this organization, thePresbyterian Journal has taken a leading role. Because of this position of the Presbyterian Journal, one of its editors has resigned. L. Nelson Bell wrote that he resigned from this position because he could not support the efforts being made to bring about separation.
In a recent issue of Christianity Today, in the rubric “A Layman and His Faith,” he defends his position and discusses the whole subject of separation. Among other things he writes:
There seem to be two indisputable causes for separation. If those who control the church to which I belong should demand that I not teach, preach, or witness according to the plain teachings of Scripture, then I would have no choice but to renounce such leadership and seek an environment in which I could continue to witness.
In the second place, should my church, by official action of its governing body, renounce the Christian faith in favor of some syncretistic religion that denies the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as God’s Son together, with his atoning death and actual resurrection, I would be forced to renounce and denounce such apostasy.
But in the question of separation there are many gray areas where, if we are not careful, we may let personalities, prejudices, defeats, and extraneous activities become determinative factors while we fail to look at the basic issue that should determine our decision.
For one thing, the “doctrine of separation” can lead people to abandon the opportunity for witness where it is most greatly needed. The Bible teaches that we should be separated from sin, but not from the sinner. Surely we should not remove ourselves from the scene where we are needed most. . . .
Had I children who were being spiritually starved—or poisoned—by the teaching, preaching, and programs of my local church, I would try my best to remedy the situation; and if this proved impossible, I would take these children elsewhere.
But at the adult level, my own reaction would be to stay in and witness with love and conviction, praying that the Holy Spirit will use this witness to help those who need to be changed.
There is a temptation against which we must guard: frustration because of failure to gain our own way in the church courts—that is, defeat in these courts on positions that we are convinced are right. We need to remember that our risen Lord commissioned his disciples to witness for him. He did not say that our witness would always be effective. In fact, we are not responsible for the effectiveness of our witness (unless, on the negative side, we violate Christian principles in what we say or do), for the fruit of an effective witness is produced by the Holy Spirit and not by us or any ecclesiastical organization. . . .
This whole subject of separation is a very difficult one. It is difficult from an objective viewpoint because it is not always easy to know when the call to separation comes to us. But it is, above all, difficult subjectively, for there is nothing quite so heart-rending than to have to leave the denomination where one has been nourished from childhood with spiritual food—especially when that denomination has gone the way of apostasy. We have nothing but sympathy for those who are faced with this agonizing decision.
But is Dr. Bell correct in the position which he takes? We think not. There are several weak points in his argument which we believe will not stand. In the first place, Dr. Bell writes: “Our decision to stay or to separate should follow very definite prayer for God’s leading, with the request that we be kept from allowing personalities and prejudice to dictate our decision.” With the last of this we, of course, agree. And we agree, too, that the decision to separate should come only after much prayer. But what is missing from this quote and what is so essential is that God’s leading comes only through the Scriptures. So many times when we read expressions like the above we are left with the impression that those who write this way expect some inner light and mystical leading which the Lord will provide which is apart from the Scriptures. Also in this important decision, the Scriptures alone must be our guide.
In the second place, we do not agree entirely with Dr. Bell’s reasons for separation. That is, we do not agree that these are the only reasons. Dr. Bell speaks of “gray areas”; and he seems to mean that there are gray areas with respect to the truth. This surely is not the case if the Scriptures are our guide. In the third place, we do not believe that the Bible teaches that “we should be separated from sin, but not from the sinner.” There are just too many passages in Scripture which teach the contrary to accept this statement. We may not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. The faithful remnant in Laodicea is called out of the congregation if it does not repent.
In the fourth place, Dr. Bell’s remarks concerning witnessing are not very much to the point. The Scriptures indeed call us to be witnesses of Christ. And this witness must be made continuously. But it must be a witness by the believer in fellowship with his church to those outside who walk in sin. It surely is a sad day when this witness must be made within the church to those who are, as far as the visible church is concerned, one with us in the household of faith.
There are several considerations which must be taken into account in this matter of separation.
In the first place, in a general way, it is true that one ought to stay within a denomination as long as possible—even if he does not agree with all that goes on. If he is faithful to his calling and maintains the truth of the Scriptures and if he is permitted to do this, he should very seriously consider remaining. This does not always (or even usually) happen, however. As often as not when liberals take over the denomination they, at best, harass and, at worst, put out those who oppose their liberalism. Or they make it impossible by one means or another for a faithful child of God to remain faithful in all his life.
But this is not quite the whole story. For one thing, there is the strange tendency in many denominations today to ignore the protests of conservatives. They are not put out—although they may be harassed in one way or other. They are ignored. The liberals, firmly in control and convinced of ultimate success, simply go their own sweet way regardless of what conservatives say. How long must this continue?
For another thing, if a conservative is faithful, in his protest against the evils in his denomination, he is obligated to protest these matters. This brings these matters to the higher ecclesiastical cows. If the higher ecclesiastical assemblies decide these matters contrary to his conviction, he has some very hard decisions to make. It is not sufficient for him to say: I will continue on my way regardless of what has been decided. He is morally bound to submit to the decisions taken because the Church functions corporately through its major assemblies. He speaks to those outside though these assemblies whether he agrees or not. This is the whole concept of church federation and the whole importance of denominational life. He is witnessing through these decisions as long as he remains a member of that denomination. Furthermore, he is obligated before God and the Church to support these decisions with his work, his life, his prayers. He is under moral necessity to support morally his denomination in which he finds his church home. The work of a denomination in the cause of God is too important a part of the Christian’s calling to do anything less.
And that brings me to the second point. There is a corporate responsibility that is very real and concrete in denominational life. To ignore this or to deny it is tantamount to saying that a denomination is no longer an organization in which congregations which manifest the body of Christ upon earth do the work of Christ’s kingdom in cooperation with each other.
So true is this that Dr. Bell rightly talks about the responsibility of children’s parents and the consequences for children in this whole matter. If one thing is certain (and many parents give testimony to this with grief and sorrow) it is this: if a denomination has set itself upon the path of apostasy by official decisions of the highest ecclesiastical assemblies, to remain in that church means, finally, to go lost in one’s generations. Parents may disagree, even violently, with decisions. They may be able to withstand the pressures exerted upon them and maintain the cause of the truth during their life time. But their children will be unable to do this. Not because their children have not been clearly shown the right way. Not because their children are weaker than their parents from a spiritual point of view. But because God is not mocked; and the Church is not something to make a game of. Children are members of the denomination and bear the responsibility of that denomination’s decisions and commitment to the truth. Children must and shall assume that denomination’s position with respect to the truth. And if that position is wrong, the children will be wrong. And, as the church continues down the road of apostasy (for no denomination can stand still), the children and children’s children go along. There is something inevitable about this.
Does this mean then that separation should come for anything—for any reason? Indeed, it does not. Separation must come when a church has departed from the truth in matters of the confessions—as long as those confessions contain the truth of the Word of God. Just as confessions are, most emphatically, Forms of Unity, violations of them are causes of disunity. When doctrines of the confessions are openly denied and officially repudiated, then disunity and schism exist—whether an individual wants to admit that or not. The unity is then broken. It is a kind of farce to retain an outward form of unity when no spiritual and doctrinal unity, in fact, exists.
But all this is true because the truth of the Scriptures is the truth of God. Dr. Bell may argue that, in his denomination, no official decisions have been taken which deny “the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as God’s Son together with his atoning death and actual resurrection”; but the fact remains that this has been denied when one denies any confessional truth of the Scriptures. For the truth is one. And denial at one point leads inevitably to denial in all points. And the truth is God’s truth. It does not really matter what may or may not happen to an individual person, or even to a congregation or denomination. The truth is God’s truth. And heresy does something terrible to the almighty God of heaven and earth. Heresy is a slander of Him, a subtraction from His glory, an insult hurled in His face, a dastardly attempt on the part of man to raise himself above Scripture and above God to impose upon the Most High his own wild inventions. That truth is more important than anything else.
It is true that Luther did not leave the Roman Catholic Church although it is an unproved (and, perhaps, unprovable) assumption that he neverintended to leave. The pope took matters into his own hands. The pope excommunicated Luther before he had exhausted the channels of protest and before Luther was able to prove that the Church was beyond repentance. It took Luther’s excommunication to prove that this was true.
This has then become the charter of liberty since the protestant reformation: that the child of God, in the defense of the faith, must preserve that truth at all costs; by separation when necessary. This is also a solemn obligation to which he must give heed for his soul’s sake and for the sake of the children who are his responsibility. May God grant that His people, in every place, do this.