Six Degrees of Separation
(and the rapid crumbling of the IFB)
Years ago an actor named Kevin Bacon was so ubiquitous that we had a cultural moment with a game called The Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. Basically, the game works like this. Anyone in Hollywood could be connected to Kevin Bacon by simply looking at his extensive filmography, identifying a costar who happened to work with another costar – who happened to work with another costar – who happened to work with Kevin Bacon. It was hypothesized that this ever-present actor was actually connected, within six steps, to every other actor in Hollywood.
This is a terrible thing in Hollywood if you want to distance yourself from Kevin Bacon. You can refuse to appear in a movie with Kevin. You can even refuse to be in a movie with anyone who has ever been in a movie with Kevin. You can EVEN refuse to be in a movie with anyone who has been in a movie with anyone who has been in a movie with Kevin. But eventually, no matter how much of a separatist you become, someone is going to connect you to Kevin Bacon.
And now we arrive at the extreme frustration of the ever-dwindling but increasingly-separated Independent Fundamental Baptist Movement.
Separation – In our DNA
The Independent Baptist Movement began as a protest against the Southern Baptist Convention. Several vocal leaders within the SBC took exception with the idea of raising $75,000,000 for a Cooperative Program that would provide funding for international evangelism, domestic church planting, and college/seminary advancements. It was the latter of these three with which many had a problem. Genuine liberal theology had begun to seep into the classroom through professors who considered themselves modernists. These modernists/liberals were questioning fundamentals of Christian doctrine like the inerrancy of scripture, the deity of Christ, and the blood atonement. Theologically conservative leaders within the SBC were split as to how to address this issue. Some like W.A. Criswell chose to stay within the denomination and fight for decades to bring about a conservative resurgence. Others like J. Frank Norris chose to distance themselves from the SBC thus establishing the Independent Baptist Movement.
The Independent Baptist Movement grew rapidly under the leadership of great men like Evangelist John R. Rice with his periodical The Sword of the Lord, Evangelist Bill Rice II and his incredible Ranch, Pastor Lee Roberson and the rapidly growing Highland Park Baptist Church, Lester Roloff and the Homes he established for needy children, and Pastor G.B. Vick who inherited the prestigious Detroit pulpit from J. Frank Norris after they had a falling out. It was then that Vick founded the Bible Baptist Fellowship branching out from Springfield, Missouri.
While men like W.A. Criswell, Adrian Rogers, and Paige Patterson strategized as to how they might wrestle control of the SBC away from the more liberal leaning factions within its movement, men like Lee Roberson, Jack Hyles, Harold Sightler, Tom Malone, and Jerry Falwell built large and influential churches in Independent Baptist Fellowships. Institutions of higher learning as well as mission boards were established and supported by the growing and rapidly reproducing Independent Baptist churches and parachurch organizations across the United States.
The 1960s and 1970s were an incredible time for Independent Baptists. Unity was their reality! These institutions, churches, and leaders cooperated and complemented each other. Cooperation was their mantra! They thrived as they worked together, sent missionaries together, and preached together. Though remaining separate from the SBC the IFB seemed to retain a modicum of harmony within its own ranks. But something happened to bring division and separation into the heart of the Independent Baptist Movement.
The Death of John R. Rice
I propose that John R. Rice (though not a perfect man) was the great intellect and unifier of the Independent Baptist Movement. Upon his death in 1980 there remained a mantel of leadership that many differing factions attempted to claim. The Sword of the Lord was left to Curtis Hudson. Bob Jones University & Pensacola Christian College attempted to fill the academic void. Jerry Falwell was already looking to expand his influence and college into broader evangelicalism. And Jack Hyles laid claim to soul-winning and church growth. These once unified men began to split apart and create separate “camps” within the IFB.
The Rise of Hyper-Separatism
During the 1970s and 1980s several books were produced by modern fundamentalists attempting to chronical the history of fundamentalism and help forge a path forward. Many books like A History of Fundamentalism produced by Bob Jones Press and written by George W. Dollar, In Pursuit of Purity produced by Bob Jones Press and written by David O. Beale, The Fundamentalist Phenomenon written by Jerry Falwell are all helpful to the student of Independent Baptist history.
But I believe there to be one book from this era that has caused more damage to the future of the Independent Baptist Movement than any other. Ernest Pickering’s book Biblical Separation: The Struggle for a Pure Church does harm because it strongly advances the unbiblical practice of second-degree-separation. This is not to say that Pickering doesn’t adequately express the view of a separatist. This is not to say that Pickering wasn’t an amazing man of God who lived a very holy life. This is to say that this book was flawed in its explanation of ecclesiastical separation and has caused irreparable damage to a once thriving movement.
The Splintering of Independent Baptists
Am I wrong? Then, from whence came the splintering of the IFB? What has happened to the once unified, powerful, and thriving movement known as Independent Baptists? Why is it that the various leaders of these different “camps” rarely work together, preach together, or are even seen in the same room? I believe there is one primary answer to this question: The acceptance and advancement of the spurious teaching of second-degree separation.
Yes. The elevation of preferences to theological status did not help. To codify a style of music, building decoration, pulpit attire, and service schedule as Biblical helped to corrupt our churches. But it was the teaching that a man must separate himself from anyone who doesn’t completely and utterly agree with him that truly sowed the seeds of destruction into our movement. And then we added a Bible verse to make it true…
Amos 3:3 Can two walk together, except they be agreed?
So then, we have now set the table for demanding absolute and complete agreement on theological fundamentals, secondary theological issues, philosophical convictions, methodological preferences, and personal fashion choices (wire-rimmed glasses & goatees anyone?).
If you happen to disagree with anyone in the family of God, about anything in the universe, you have a right and obligation to separate yourself from them as soon as possible. And the average minister that promotes this philosophy wonders why church members find it so easy to separate from their church when a disagreement arises.
Second-Degree Separation and The Punishment of Isolation
“Fundamentalists view themselves as the legitimate heirs of historical New Testament Christianity. They see themselves as the militant and faithful defenders of Biblical orthodoxy. They oppose Liberalism, communism, and left-wing Evangelicalism. True Fundamentalists hold strongly to the same basic tenets they were debating seventy-five years ago. These defenders of the faith range from well-educated professors to backwoods preachers.” This definition of fundamentalism was given by Jerry Falwell in the early 1980’s during what he considered the resurgence of historic fundamentalism in America. It clearly expresses the views of a fundamentalist.
Yet at this point in Falwell’s life most Independent Baptists would not allow themselves to be seen in public with this fellow IFB leader. Why? Because Jerry didn’t toe the line of ecclesiastical separation that was expected of fellow “Independent” Baptists. He would partner with Southern Baptist leaders, appear on Trinity Broadcast Network, and even offer to help the failing PTL ministries.
“But wait,” some may retort, “wasn’t Jerry Falwell free to associate with whom he felt led of God to associate?” “Yes!” Comes the reply, “and every other IB leader was free to disassociate themselves from Jerry Falwell for doing so.” We cheered him on every time he spoke to Larry King but couldn’t sully our reputation by allowing him join us in our assemblies.
Jerry Falwell was free to do whatever he believed God was leading him to do. And we were free to isolate him as punishment for practicing his autonomy. And I’m sure the Lord was pleased.
Nearly five years ago I invited a childhood hero to come and preach in the Southern Hills Baptist Church pulpit. Evangelist David Ring was known to me primarily because I grew up in a pastor’s home and every Sunday morning my father would watch D. James Kennedy of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church and Jerry Falwell of Liberty Baptist Church on television. Occasionally Falwell would invite David Ring, the gifted gospel communicator who happens to have cerebral palsy, to preach in his place. I loved hearing this godly man declare, “I’ve got cerebral palsy, what’s your problem?” This was one of the many inspiration messages that led me into the ministry.
I’ll never forget having lunch with this godly man the Sunday after he spoke in my pulpit. He asked me why I had invited him to speak in our church. I told him the story of hearing him as I grew up. He then shocked me by his next statement. “I can count on one hand the amount of Independent Baptist churches I’ve preached to in the last 25 years.” Innocently I inquired, “Why won’t you preach for them?” “Because they won’t have me Josh. About 25-years ago I was invited to preach at the Crystal Cathedral in Anaheim and once I preached for Schuller – the Independent Baptists were done with me.”
“You tell me what you would do Josh! If given the chance, as an evangelist, to preach the gospel to thousands of people in a church that might not hear a clear presentation of the gospel very often – would you go?”
NO! I wouldn’t! An evangelist should limit his preaching to only churches that are filled with born-again Baptists – just like the Apostle Paul did.
Now I ask the question. Is it because David Ring’s or Jerry Falwell’s theological positions had changed that they were isolated from Independent Baptist circles? No! Their associations, not their theology were in question. A man could have exactly the same theological position on every matter of theological importance but happen to allow himself ecclesiastical association with another minister of differing theology and he now made himself untouchable to the hyper-separatist.
The Unrealistic Expectation of Second-Degree Separation
If Fundamentalism is defined as one who believes and defends the fundamentals of the faith, then I am a fundamentalist. If, as I was taught in college, Fundamentalism is defined as one who “separates” from those who do not believe in the fundamentals of the faith, then I am not a fundamentalist. I was taught that a Liberal (Harry Emerson Fosdick) was a Bible denier, and a Neo-Evangelical (Billy Graham) was one not willing to separate from a Liberal. They concluded that a Fundamentalist was one who separated from the liberal and would have no association with him. But the true fundamentalist went further and would also separate from the new-evangelical who refused to separate from the liberal. This is second-degree separation.
It seems like the requirements for ecclesiastical separation have grown in just the past 20 years since I was taught these principles. Now we are expected to not only separate from the Liberal (1st degree), but also the New Evangelical (2nd degree), but continue to the fundamentalist who spoke in a conference with the New Evangelical (3rd degree), and further stay away from the friend who would have the fundamentalist who would speak with the New Evangelical who would associate with the Liberal (4th degree). For me, this type of bondage, this is too much.
I have no desire to be in association with true liberal theologians who deny the Bible and undermine Scripture like Rob Bell and Brian McLaren. I suppose this makes me a separatist. Others would disagree because I don’t take my separation to the 2nd, 3rd or 4th step. Stay away from the preacher who would preach with Rob Bell – 2nd. Stay away from the preacher who would preach with the one who would preach for Rob Bell – 3rd. And stay away from the preacher who would preach with the preacher who would refuse to separate from the preacher who would sit on the same counsel as Rob Bell. My Word – it’s exhausting!
Let’s take my Southern Baptist friend as an example. I have no desire to join the SBC at this moment in my life. However, if they are gracious enough to be my friend I have no problem associating with someone in the SBC. Yet, this causes me a problem because I now have a godly, theologically conservative, soul-winning pastor who I cannot preach for or preach with because he is part of the largest denomination in the United States that may contain someone with “liberal” theology. If I have him preach for me, then my IFB friend “Joe” won’t be able to preach for me because he might be concerned his Alma Mater or mentor might not have him back because he preached for a guy who preached for a guy who might know a liberal. Again, this is just too much for me. At this point I’ve decided that I’m going to preach for whomever the Lord (through prayer) allows me to preach for and have preach for me those who are still willing to do so.
Falling into Our Own Traps
The Reverend Joseph Parker once stated quite humorously, “There are those today who would clap their hands at the name of Bunyan who would not admit a living Bunyan into their fellowship.” Yes, to this! A thousand times over – yes to this!
Hyper-separatists quote men like Spurgeon, a self-proclaimed Calvinist, but would blush at the idea of having a Calvinist preach in their pulpit.
Hyper-separatists relish in the term fundamentalist though the movement itself was established as an interdenominational movement by Presbyterians like J. Gresham Machen and Francis Schaeffer, Reformed Episcopalians like James Martin Gray, and Evangelical Free ministers like G. Campbell Morgan.
We align ourselves closely to dead men with whom we would have much to disagree but we distance ourselves greatly from living men with whom we disagree slightly in comparison.
Why is another Baptist who uses contemporary music a more likely candidate for separation than a man who performs infant baptisms? Why is another Baptist who uses another version of the Bible more theologically distant than an Evangelical Free minister or Reformed Episcopalian? Why is it a problem for me to have an actual Baptist Calvinist like John Piper preach in my church when someone else will quote weekly from an actual Baptist Calvinist like Charles Spurgeon every week? We idolize C.S. Lewis but wouldn’t allow ourselves to preach in the same meeting if given the chance. After all, someone might see the conference brochure and accuse us of being less holy, distinct, and separate.
Could it be that this kind of hyper-separatism is less about holiness and more about denominational control or political maneuvering?
The Tangled Web of Hyper-Separatism
We live in a moment where good men are politically trapped. Young pastors are afraid of trying new ideas because they see the political price they will pay for doing so. Older pastors are afraid of disagreeing with denominational leadership lest they lose lifelong friendships and well-earned influence. Institutional leaders are afraid of filling the chapel pulpit with the wrong person lest a busybody with blog report these misdeeds and denominational support dry up. Evangelists are trapped into preaching in only approved churches who happen to be in good standing with the most conservative churches. Missionaries are pressured to pretend they agree with everyone’s theological, philosophical, and methodological preferences lest they lose out on another $50 per month.
I’m not angry with those who have promoted this unfortunate philosophy for so many years. I’m sad for them. They have been caught in their own trap because now each of these “camps” find themselves in increasingly diminishing spheres of influence. Pretty soon their churches, schools, or parachurch organizations will either experience a change or they will dry up and die.
And so, the proverb is proven true, “The fear of man bringeth a snare.”
Hope for the Future
But the rest of the proverb is equally true, “whoso putteth his trust in the Lord shall be safe.”
What if we break the bonds of oppression? What if young pastors think only of God’s heart and God’s will for their church? What if older pastors ignore denominational politics and celebrate not only conservative theology but also variant methodology? What if institutional leadership didn’t have to worry about financial backing – trusting God to provide for their ministry? What if Evangelists were allowed to go to the churches that need revival the most without losing meetings for doing so? What if missionaries were able to talk more about their passion for evangelism than their dedication to denominational traditions?
I’ll tell you what I think! I think that if we put our trust back in the Lord and start emphasizing unity rather than separation – we can once again see God do a miraculous thing in the Independent Baptist Movement.
Why Write this Article?
Two years ago, I wrote a blog post called The New Independent Baptist hoping to inspire an up and coming generation of Independent Baptists to stay positive and remain focused on the things that truly matter. In the final note of that post I mentioned a new article that I was working on called The Six Degrees of Separation. Knowing that this post could not express the tone of positivity found in the previous post – I held it back.
Why now? I felt it was time.
I was born and raised in the Independent Baptist Movement. I was trained and ordained in the Independent Baptist Movement. I planted an Independent Baptist church and have supported Independent Baptist missionaries since I was 13 years old. I love our history. I love our passion for evangelism. But I refuse to remain silent while the sin of disunity defines the movement and leads to our demise.
Why not just leave? Because this is where I am.
I’m more of a Puritan than a Separatist. Separatists saw doctrinal compromise, questionably morality, and denominational control and decided to leave their respective denominational constraints and establish something new. Puritans saw the same problems but felt called to speak out and attempt to fight for the future of their denominations, conventions, and movements. I relate to Criswell more than Norris. I choose to stay and fight for the soul of our movement.
We Can Change!
Rising up, according to God’s sovereign plan, is a new generation of Independent Baptists. They are radically dedicated to the concept of Biblical Authority – even if it disagrees with denominational tradition. They do not demand absolute conformity on preferential issues. They are equally pleased to fellowship with a Southern Baptist as they are with an Independent Baptist (just as our IB forefathers). They have started viewing fellow pastors as peers rather than papacy. They are rejecting subjective separation and political separation for the far superior biblical separation. They are honoring of the past without being subservient to it. Change is coming – and it is freeing us to accomplish more for the Kingdom of God than we ever thought possible.
What are your thoughts? Where am I going wrong? Where do you agree? What have I missed? Please comment in the thread below and I will attempt to answer each.
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 This is admittedly a very brief and incomplete history of IB churches.
 Bob Jones Sr., a close companion of John R. Rice, though originally a Methodist evangelist started Bob Jones University that has produced thousands of graduates that find themselves serving in Independent Baptist Churches and Independent Baptist institutions. One of their graduates, Arlin Horton, started Pensacola Christian College in Pensacola Florida. For the past thirty-five years this institution has produced thousands of ministers, and laypersons who have filled Independent Baptist churches across America. Dr. Myron Cedarholm founded the Maranatha Baptist Bible College in Watertown, Wisconsin. This school along with Ambassador Baptist Bible College, and Northland Baptist College have all been influential in the Independent Baptist movement and influenced by John R. Rice, Bob Jones, Jerry Falwell and Lee Robertson. The influence of Jack Hyles cannot be understated for he not only established the Hyles-Anderson College in Indiana but has indirectly spawned Heartland Baptist Bible College, Golden State Baptist College, Trinity Baptist College, West Coast Baptist College, and Crown College. These schools, though varying in some aspects of belief and practice are still producing large amounts of young ministers who are winning souls and planting churches.
 Ed Dobson, Ed Hindson and Jerry Falwell, The Fundamentalist Phenomenon (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1986), 1-2.
 I’m Kidding.