Biblical Separation: The Struggle for a Pure Church

JP: I was asked to review Biblical Separation: The Struggle for a Pure Church for SharperIron. My review will be published there soon (it may be edited), but I wanted to provide it to 4BYA. Ernest D. Pickering was a former Pastor of our church. My review follows:

I’m sure you are familiar with the quote “Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it” or more precisely “Studying history is necessary to avoid repeating past mistakes.” This saying comes from the writings of George Santayana, a Spanish-born American author of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

I first read Biblical Separation: The Struggle for a Pure Church in 1979 while a student at Grand Rapids Baptist Seminary. It helped me understand “the struggle for the pure church” and formulate my own views and convictions on Biblical separation.

In the first months of my first senior pastorate, I had the opportunity to meet Dr. Pickering. He was then the Pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Toledo Ohio. His church had an annual Pastor’s conference that I attended. I had the privilege of sitting under the teaching of Dr. Pickering for one week. Interestingly I also then met Pastor Roger Kilian who was Emmanuel’s music Pastor. Ernest Pickering later went on to Pastor Fourth Baptist Church, the church where I now worship and serve. Roger Kilian is currently the executive Pastor of Fourth Baptist.

Biblical Separation: The Struggle for a Pure Church is an important book for anyone who is interested in the issue of Biblical separation. It is an appropriate book for Pastors, Deacons and other church leaders.

That church history would be marked by struggle would be clear from Jesus’ Parable of the wheat and the tares: “the kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field; but while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat and went his way” (Matthew 13:24-25). It would also be clear from Paul’s warning to the Ephesian elders at Miletus: “For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves” (Acts 20:29-30). The Acts passage warns that the church would experience error threats from without and from within.

I understand that Biblical Separation has been in print for 29 years. This important revision by Myron Houghton of Faith Baptist Theological Seminary freshens the book. Kevin Mungons of Regular Baptist Press provides a helpful introduction to the revised edition here.

Biblical Separation is essentially a compact church history that addresses the nature of the struggle for church purity. The book does not begin with the 20th century but rather with the 2nd century and groups such as the Donatists. The issues of that era resonate in our time: the nature of church membership; the fact of apostasy in the established church; separation of church and state; and the necessity of godly ministers. Augustine used the wheat and tares passage to argue that since wheat and tares grow together until the end of the age, there should be no separation until the Lord burns the tares and gathers the wheat. And so from the earliest history of the church we see that there is a question about the nature of separation: stay and try to reform from within or separate for the purity of the Gospel? Interestingly the struggle for purity is not unilateral. Throughout church history, those promulgating error have persecuted those exposing error. In the very earliest cited example, the organized majority persecuted the minority exposing the error. This is seen in the modern era when Harry Emerson Fosdick preached his famous message, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?

I find that some view the separatist as the one promoting conflict while the truth is that error confronts truth just as truth confronts error. It is a genuine struggle for right that will continue until our Lord comes! In additional material in this revised edition, Pickering addresses this fact: “separatists are often blamed for the ‘dirty work’ performed by apostates and compromisers. These persons undertake their nefarious activities, and Bible-believing Christians blow the whistle on them. For so doing, the separatists are deemed troublemakers and disturbers of the peace (pp 242-243).”

Chapter 13 is additional material new to the revised edition. I found this particularly helpful as I have struggled over the term “secondary separation”. Pickering writes:

“This term is fraught with emotional overtones. One who holds this position is looked upon by many as an extremist and a troublemaker who is fracturing the Body of Christ unnecessarily, has no love or sympathy, and is arrogant and unbending. In the minds of many, those who refuse to cooperate with other believers are going beyond the parameters of Scriptural teaching and thus becoming cult-like.

It should be stated that those who hold this position have seldom, if ever, characterized themselves as “secondary separationists”. This term has been thrust upon them by their opponents. There is much truth in the observation of the late Bryce Augsburger, who wrote: ‘The Scriptures say nothing about secondary separation. This term was coined by those who seek to develop grounds for opposing Scriptural separation. Whenever a man cries ‘secondary separation’, in all probability he is an opponent of Biblical separation.’ … Coined in the aftermath of the fundamentalist – modernist controversy, the term ‘secondary separation’ refers to those who will not cooperate with apostates or those who aid and abet the apostates by their continued organizational or cooperative alignment with them” (pp 250-251).

If primary separation would describe the fundamentalist – modernist controversy and secondary separation the issue of ecumenical evangelism issue, I am comfortable with both terms.

Dr Pickering provides extensive documentation of the fundamentalist – modernist controversy and the definition of apostasy: “the Scriptures declare that part of the nature of apostasy is its deceit. Apostates are liars. They operate with ‘feigned words’ (2 Peter 2:3). They can make something mean whatever they wish. … Written documents and position statements mean nothing to lying apostates.” (p 194). He continues “a body is apostate when the following occurs (p 195):”

  • Leadership denies the verities of the Christian faith.
  • Official documents promote ideas contrary to orthodox Christian faith.
  • Official schools employ faculty members or utilize visiting speakers who teach views at variance with essential Christian doctrines.
  • No effort is made by the leadership to expunge the offending parties.

Dr Pickering provides profitable information on the formation of the GARBC, the Conservative Baptist Association, Central Seminary and Pillsbury College. Significant fundamentalists and their influences are highlighted: Myron Cedarholm (CBA), Richard Clearwaters, Bob Jones, R.T. Ketcham and many others. Those interested in the rise and history of fundamentalism will benefit from the thorough subject index! Because of my affiliation with the Fellowship of Fundamental Bible Churches (website, Pickering’s footnote mentioning its predecessor name, the Bible Protestant Church, and its own fine history documented in How God delivered 34 churches (p 120); was a blessing. It also is a reminder that the fundamentalist – modernist controversy was not solely a Baptist issue, but rather rent the Lutherans, the Presbyterians and the Methodists.

The history of Presbyterianism and the fundamentalist – modernist movement; and Princeton Seminary and J. Gresham Machen is documented. The pure church struggle has been a denomination-wide issue and Biblical Separation thoroughly addresses that cross-denominational struggle. Pickering says of Machen, Robert Dick Wilson, and Oswald Allis (all of Princeton Seminary): “they were vilified unmercifully” (p 104).

Of interest to me is his mention of the American Council of Christian Churches (A.C.C.C.) and its contrasting approach to separation from the National Evangelical Association. For those unfamiliar with the A.C.C.C. this section (pp 127-ff.) will benefit them. Undocumented is why the GARBC is no longer a member of the A.C.C.C.

Though not mentioned by name, methodologies of organizations such as Campus Crusade for Christ are highlighted in chapter 8, “The New and Young Evangelicals”. Having served as a campus evangelist with C.C.C. (University of Buffalo, 1971-72), this chapter accurately reflects my own experiences with the philosophy of ecumenical missionary efforts and a willingness to stay within old-line denominations.

Dr Pickering commits an entire section (chapter 9) to the divisive issue of Billy Graham. He wrote: “to criticize a wonderful person like Billy Graham is like criticizing motherhood, the flag and country, or even the Lord Himself” (p 149). Pickering examines arguments used to support ecumenical evangelism:

  • He is winning souls; therefore we ought not criticize him.
  • He obtains a wider hearing of the gospel by inviting liberals to cooperate.
  • Jesus and Paul were sponsored by liberals when they preached in synagogues.

Everyone interested in a pure church must read this section (if not the entire book). I have first hand experience of the Billy Graham issue as when I Pastored in Colorado, our church did not participate in the Billy Graham Denver crusade. One of my deacons wanted our church to cooperate and I withstood that move.

Chapter 10 is an entirely new chapter authored by Myron Houghton. This chapter addresses issues such as the 1994 Evangelicals & Catholics Together statement, recent positive trends in the Southern Baptist Convention, the church marketing movement, and the emerging church movement. I found this chapter very profitable. With regard to the emerging church, John MacArthur’s The Truth War is mentioned: “he explained in the first chapter how John H. Armstrong moved from being a champion for the traditional Bible-believing truth claims … to becoming a voice for the emergent church movement. Dr. MacArthur’s book clearly shows what is at stake for the Christian faith” (p. 183).

The book concludes with practical guidelines for implementing separatist convictions the pitfalls of separation. He mentions these pitfalls:

  • An improper spirit
  • Over-occupation with the issues
  • Uncontrolled suspicion
  • Incorrect labels
  • Gloating over failures

With regard to “incorrect labels”, Pickering states, “the terms ‘new evangelical’ or ‘liberal’ are sometimes loosely employed to characterize all with whom one disagrees or all who have some practice or method deviant from the fundamentalist norm” (p. 289).

I was blessed to read the revised Biblical Separation: The Struggle for a Pure Church. I found the new material very helpful; especially the section on “secondary separation” (I am comfortable with the term), Myron Houghton’s chapter “Separation Issues since Ecumenical Evangelism in the 1970’s”, and the chapter entitled “Implementing Separatist Convictions”. Since Myron Houghton mentioned John MacArthur’s The Truth Wars (which I’ve read), I mention D.A Carson’s Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church: Understanding a Movement and Its Implications, which I found more profitable.

Jude’s warnings and commands still apply to the church: “Beloved, while I was very diligent to write to you concerning our common salvation, I found it necessary to write to you exhorting you to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints. For certain men have crept in unnoticed, who long ago were marked out for this condemnation, ungodly men, who turn the grace of our God into lewdness and deny the only Lord God and our Lord Jesus Christ.” The struggle for a pure church has persisted for two millennia and will continue until our Lord comes. We must scripturally join that fight!

This book is the classic historical and biblical defense of an idea – that the church cannot fellowship with those who deny the doctrines of the historic Christian faith. In print for thirty years, Biblical Separation has been updated in a new format that retains all of the material of the first edition and adds new chapters by Ernest Pickering and Myron Houghton.

The first edition of this book went through twelve printings and is on the required reading list of many Christian colleges and universities. This second edition features 60 new pages of content, and includes new footnotes, bibliography, subject index, and Scripture index.

Ernest Pickering (1928–2000) was a noted leader in American fundamentalism, having ministered as a pastor, seminary president, and leader in missionary organizations. He earned a ThD degree from Dallas Theological Seminary and was a forty-year member of the Evangelical Theological Society. His numerous books, pamphlets, and articles have widely influenced the fundamentalist and evangelical movements. Dr. Pickering also authored the RBP titles Help for the Hurting Pastor and Charismatic Confusion.

Myron J. Houghton is senior professor of systematic theology and chair of the Systematic Theology Department at Faith Baptist Theological Seminary. A former student of Ernest Pickering, Dr. Houghton has earned a ThD from Concordia Seminary and a Ph.D. from Dallas Theological Seminary. He is well-qualified to report on recent theological trends, having also earned graduate degrees from Southern Methodist University, St. Thomas Theological Seminary, and Grace Theological Seminary, and a certificate from St. Stephen’s Course of Studies in Orthodox Theology.

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