Baptist Ecclesiology: “Be Ye Separate” or “Be Ye One”?

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Introduction

The books of First and Second Corinthians present an interesting dilemma for Christians. Both deal strongly with regaining / retaining unity within the body of Christ, yet in both letters we are also given principles of disunity – separation for the sake of the the body of Christ. This creates a tension that demands resolution.

The tension is one felt by all branches of the faith, but Baptists are a good test case for this problem given that they are a group that is identifiable, yet which does not affirm membership standards above that of the local church (or, in a sense, the individual), and that emphasizes the separation ideal strongly. Thus I have chosen Baptists as my interlocuters for this discussion; however, as will be made more clear in the conclusion, the problem posed by the twin principles of unity and disunity is more difficult to solve than non-Baptists might think.

“Be Ye Separate”

The idea of Christian separation is very important in many Christian circles, but for many Baptists it is a foundational principle. Here is how it is described by one Baptist church which includes this notion in its doctrinal statement:

“We believe in obedience to the Biblical commands to separate ourselves unto God from worldliness and ecclesiastical apostasy. 2 Corinthians 6:14-7: 1; 1 Thessalonians 1:9,10; 1 Timothy 6:3-5; Romans 16:17; 2 John 9-11. We also believe that the Bible commands us as believers to separate ourselves from professing Christians who indulge in behavior or espouse beliefs that are contrary to scripture if they refuse to repent after being instructed in the scripture.”

The Baptist focus on separation coupled with church (and personal) autonomy have resulted in numerous splits at both personal and church levels. This helps explain why multiple Baptist churches can exist in one area (my old Baptist church had two or three within walking distance). In response to this disunity, Baptists typically attempt to achieve small-scale unification under various groups (e.g.,  Particular Baptists, General Baptists, Northern Baptists, Southern Baptists, Conservative Baptists of America, the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches, not to mention unaffiliated and smaller Baptist “denominations”). but these are not to be confused with Protestant denominations, which have leadership structure higher than the local church.

Of course, if “Be ye separate” were the only biblical injunction facing churches and individual Christians, then this situation might seem to be the normal and expected state of Church’s existence. There is, however, an opposing principle which must be considered as well.

“All Be One”

In the Gospel of John, Jesus prayed for Christian unity:

“I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth. I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17:15-21 ESV)

Note that in this short passage Jesus not only prays for unity, but he does so in the context of the Christian’s relation to evil, the world, the truth, and how Christian unity relates to others coming to faith in Christ. It also reveals the unifying aspect of Christianity which Christ himself said was a means of identifying his followers. Now, neither Christians in general nor Baptists in particular (pun intended) can simply reject something so important that Jesus requested it just prior to his death.

Nor is it this the last word on the subject in the Bible:

  • Luke 11:17 – Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and a divided household falls.
  • John 17:20-23 – I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. . . . May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
  • Romans 15:6 – That together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
  • Romans 16:17-18 – I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive.
  • 1 Corinthians 1:10 – I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought.
  • 1 Corinthians 12:12-25 – The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body-whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free-and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Now the body is not made up of one part but of many. . . . But God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body . . .
  • Ephesians 4:3-7 – Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit-just as you were called to one hope when you were called – one Lord, one faith, one baptismone God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
  • Philippians 2:2 – make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose.
  • Colossians 3:14 – And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.
  • 1 Peter 3:8 – Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind.
  • Titus 3:10-11 – As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.

Christian unity, therefore, is not just some side issue!

Further, as made clear in Jesus’ prayer, it is not just separation from “the world” that is at issue – Christians are left in the world to serve as its light. We are to separate from “worldliness” (sin) – and this sometimes means with people who claim to be Christians (e.g., Mt. 18; 1 Cor. 5). Just as separation from evil and error is a biblical principal, so is unification in goodness and truth. But if unity is only to be maintained in agreement with the truth, what standard should be used to determine when separation is justified?

The “Fundamentals”

One group that came up on the first page of a Google search for the phrase “be ye separate” explains how they found it necessary to separate from “apostate liberal churches”:

“Liberal brethren have also departed from the truth to commit unrighteousness and lawlessness (1 Jn. 3:4) . . . the spirit of apostasy has continued to work among them as they have moved further and further from the truth . . . [for example] using mechanical instruments of music in worship . . . sing[ing] solos, quartets, and other singing groups, . . . using church funds to support human institutions such as: missionary societies, hospitals, orphan homes, colleges, old folks homes, conducting ‘children’s church’.”

So for the above group, objectionable music styles and children’s programs are indications of an ecclesiastical apostasy which must be met with separation. I am sure that such a position would seem absurd to many people – including many Baptists – but without a standard higher than a given groups’ interpretation of the Bible, there seems to be little that could be done to successfully critique it.

The standard most often used when limiting legitimate separation are the “Fundamentals” of the faith – essential beliefs thought to be both necessary and sufficient for remaining in Christian unity. The question is how to arrive at these fundamentals. While some might point to the principle of Sola Scriptura, in Baptist circles this ideal is often not expressed in the manner of the original reformers and most of other Protestant denominations. While these latter groups affirm that the Bible is the supreme – not the only – authority in matters of faith and practice, a more independent view (sometimes referred to as “Solo Scriptura”) is expressed in many Baptist doctrinal statements.

Examples:

  • “Baptists emphasize that the Bible is the sole written authority for Christian faith and practice” – BaptistDistinctives.Org
  • We believe a Baptist church to be local, visible expression of the church of Jesus Christ and the Bible to be the only and sufficient authority for belief and practice” – Grace Baptist Church
  • “The Scriptures provide the standard for the believer’s faith and practice” (South Park Baptist Church)

The difficulty with expressions such as these is that the Bible does not list the Fundamentals over which Christian unity must remain. So if the Bible alone is the only standard of truth and Christian unity, then how could any extra-biblical list of Fundamentals ever serve such a purpose?

Moreover, even when Baptist belief concerning biblical authority is stated in a fashion more in line with the traditional notion of Sola Scriptura (which it often is), the view that the Bible is the only authority seems implicitly demanded by the Baptist doctrines of local church autonomy and soul liberty (aka, “soul sufficiency” or “soul competancy”). And this is not just a theoretical issue. Competing lists exist even within Baptist circles. The Southern Baptist Association has a different Fundamentals list than the GARBC, for example (plus they have the membership requirement of “generally holding to the convictions” of the The Baptist Faith and Message).

If any two Baptist groups remain separate, is it because they disagree on the “Fundamentals”? Perhaps so, but Baptist distinctives such as the autonomy of the local church, soul liberty, or dual role church leadership must be worth separating over as well – for the very reason Baptists exist is because they have separated with other Christians over such things.

Possibilities for Christian Unity

This brief discussion serves to highlight a problem for any Christian group: how to distinguish between unbiblical unity or disunity. This issue is not limited to Baptists, however – for other postions entail other issues.

1. “No Creed but the Bible”

Most independent Christian groups (or individuals) tend to claim the Bible as their only standard. But simple appeal to the Bible as the standard for unity begs the question in favor of any particular group’s (or individual’s) understanding of what it teaches (even when limited to truths related to the Gospel). Such a method is not, therefore, able to avoid disunity (even on such fundamental issues as salvation). On the other hand, autonomously produced doctrinal statements are not, by nature, able to ensure unity between churches because they have no authority to compel beliefs between each other. Nor can the standard for Christian unity simply be an aggregate of the views of only Bible-Only Christian groups – for these will only serve to exclude those who were already excluded and repeat the original problem.

2. “No Creeds but the Confessions”

On the other hand,the Protestant practice of affirming the creeds or confessions of any given denomination simply takes the problem up a level. While these more authoritative doctrinal statements may provide better grounds for unity / disunity, they retain some of the problems noted above. Once again, this is not merely a theoretical problem – most denominations are divided as well (both externally between one another, and/or internally between various factions). So finding a basis for Christian unity seems to mean moving to an even higher level – but this reintroduces the problem of affirming an authority higher than these groups are willing to recognize.

3. “No Creed but the Local Church’s Doctrinal Statement”

The Baptist theological method sometimes stands somewhere between the hyper-individuality of completely independent groups and the more confessional denominations. In their attempt to promote ecclesiastical purity, Baptists have chosen a method that errs on the side of separation. But it seems to me that Baptists cannot consistently affirm any basis for unity other than complete agreement with all beliefs that a particular Baptist church holds to be those over which separation must occur. Any appeal to a higher-level authority to promote unity is at odds with the very Baptist distinctives over which they have separated with others. Thus it seems that all of the items on any particular Baptist doctrinal statement can be seen as worthy of invoking 2 Corinthians 6 over and against John 17 or 1 Corinthians 1.

Conclusion

In order to avoid both fatal division and false ecumenism, true Christian unity must be maintained along with the principle of Christian separatism. Because private interpretation -even in its more systematized denominational forms – cannot serve as a principle of unity, it will only produce division. One body requires one head, and this is why an ultimately singular leadership structure is required to maintain the proper balance between unity and disunity.

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