Soft separatism is a separatism that is ineffective to protect the Lord’s people from spiritual dangers. It is characterized by professing to believe in separation but doing things that make the separation ineffective, such as focusing on positive truth and avoiding “negativism and criticism”; avoiding dealing with “personalities”; refusing to distance oneself properly from those who are headed in a wrong direction in order to cut off the leaven of compromise from one’s personal life and family and church; and messing with dangerous things such as compromised authors.
Soft separatists are more concerned about the danger of “fragmentation” and are more desirous of “unity” and getting along with the brethren than about standing for the truth, if such a stand proves to be divisive.
“Soft separatist” Independent Baptist preachers such as the extremely influential Lee Roberson, of recent memory, pastor of Highland Park Baptist Church of Chattanooga, Tennessee, and those today who are leading large segments of the Independent Baptist movement in the same soft direction, allow bridges to be built between IBaptists and the evangelical/Southern Baptist/contemporary Christian music world. This is because they have a “keep it positive” philosophy whereby they don’t typically reprove error plainly or name the names of compromisers. They might name the name of a Billy Graham or a Robert Schuller or even a Rick Warren, but not that of a compromising fundamental Baptist leader. They don’t effectively expose the conservative evangelical bridge builders such as Ed Stetzer and John Piper, and they don’t reprove and disassociate from Independent Baptist preachers who are affiliating with the Southern Baptist Convention and evangelicalism at large.
Even if they do disassociate to some extent, they do it “quietly” and no one knows what is happening and the leaven of compromise is not therefore stopped.
Lee Roberson, pastor of Highland Park Baptist Church for 40 years and founder of Tennessee Temple University, was the king of “soft separatism” in the fundamental Baptist movement. Everything was kept on a positive, upbeat note. Dr. Roberson’s official biographer observes:
“Roberson developed a focus that controlled his ministry. 'I kept my mind and ministry settled -- winning people to Christ, getting people to grow in grace,' he said. 'Stay out of controversy in the pulpit--stay out of it and stay on the main line. I think that helped me a lot. I tried to avoid personalities and stay on the main line: preaching the gospel, emphasis on winning people to Christ, emphasis on developing the spiritual life, dying to self, the fullness of the Spirit, the second coming--kept on the positive side, kept negatives away from the people.’ ... Negativism and criticism simply were not a part of Lee Roberson’s life” (James Wigton, Lee Roberson--Always about His Father’s Business, pp. 78, 243).
As a 1970s graduate of Tennessee Temple, I can testify that this is an accurate description of Dr. Roberson’s ministry.
Typically, warnings were given only in generalities. Leading compromisers such as Jerry Falwell or James Dobson or Bill Bright or Charles Swindoll were not identified by name from the pulpit and their error was not detailed and highlighted so that the people could get a proper grasp of the danger they represented and where their compromise would lead.
“Later when Billy Graham’s ecumenical cooperation became a controversial issue among fundamentalists, Lee Roberson quietly backed out of such cooperation. ‘Dr. Roberson NEVER SAID A CRITICAL WORD ABOUT IT,’ said Faulkner. ‘If he had anything to say, it was always positive. That was his position on all issues. He just never had a critical word about anything. ... He won’t talk about the brethren. You never heard him in the pulpit here call anyone names.’ ... Ed Johnson, always loyal to Dr. Roberson said, ‘He avoided controversy. We were not exposed to the rise of the neo-evangelicalism in my days at Temple. Doc stayed away from that controversy.’ ...
“When it became common for some independent Baptists to criticize independent Baptist leaders such as Jerry Falwell or evangelist Tim Lee for preaching for Southern Baptists or other non-independent Baptist ministries, Roberson never wavered in his support of such men. He felt that men like Falwell and Lee had a heart for the Lord and for souls, and that was all that mattered to him” (Wigton, Lee Roberson, pp. 240, 241).
IT HAS BEEN SAID THAT NO POSITION CAN BE MAINTAINED WITHOUT A CAMPAIGN, AND I AM CONVINCED THAT LACK OF CAMPAIGNING IS ONE OF THE CHIEF REASONS WHY HIGHLAND PARK BAPTIST CHURH (new name Church of the Highlands) IS A SOUTHERN BAPTIST ROCK & ROLL INSTITUTION TODAY.
And lack of campaigning for separation is a chief reason why most Independent Baptists will be New Evangelical rock & rollers within 20 years.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Highland Park claimed to be fundamentalist and professed not to be New Evangelical, but there was no real campaigning for separatism and against New Evangelicalism.
They were Independent Baptist, but there was no real campaigning against the Southern Baptist Convention and little or no clear exposure of the compromise there. Further, the bridges to the Convention were not properly burned. Biblical separation requires tearing down bridges, not maintaining them!
As a student at Temple in the 1970s, I learned many good things and I thank the Lord for it. What I learned and experienced there has been a tremendous help in my Christian life and ministry, but the problem was more in what I didn’t learn. This is the heart of New Evangelical error. The fundamental problem is not the heresy that is taught; it is the truth that is neglected. It is not characterized by a complete lack of Biblical stance but by the softness of that stance.
At Highland Park in the 1970s and 1980s it was not uncommon for pot shots to be taken against real separatists and those men who did issue plain warnings.
Positivism is death in the pot of any church or school that wants to maintain a biblical position, because the Bible contains a lot of very “negative” material, and the plainest warning against sin, error, and compromise is a major characteristic of New Testament writings.
Paul often named names, and he said, “Brethren, be followers together of me, and mark them which walk so as ye have us for an ensample” (Philippians 3:17). In the Pastoral Epistles, he named the names of false teachers and compromisers many times -- Hymenaeus and Alexander, Phygellus and Hermogenes, Hymenaeus and Philetus, Alexander the Coppersmith, Demas. These epistles were used among the churches to train preachers in that day. Paul’s “criticism” of these men was a matter of public record, which is how it must be.
How can it be reasonable to allow compromisers to influence people without PUBLICLY reproving them? Private reproof doesn’t help those being influenced by them.
Because of Dr. Roberson’s -, bridges were maintained with the Southern Baptist Convention and the broader evangelical world. They “messed around” with evangelicalism rather than plainly separating from it.
“Roberson never fought against Southern Baptists, nor did he openly criticize them” (Wigton, Lee Roberson, pp. 227, 228, 232, 242).
The soft stance on separatism and the wrong associations and lack of clear teaching and warning about error were the reason why the church’s deacons were not properly prepared to choose a pastor to replace Dr. Roberson. They were not properly educated about many important issues pertaining to the “isms” and schisms of our day, and the association with New Evangelicals and Southern Baptists was already established. So it is no surprise that the deacons chose an even softer fundamentalist followed by an out-and-out New Evangelical to replace Dr. Roberson.
When churches and schools “mess around” with evangelicalism, they are in great danger, for the Word of God twice repeats the warning that “a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump.”
I witnessed this on a recent preaching trip to the States. I preached two Bible conferences in Pennsylvania; and while visiting relatives in other states, I attended a couple of Independent Baptist churches, and I was deeply disturbed by what I saw. One church was using a book by Randy Alcorn for Sunday School. Alcorn is a deeply compromised evangelical who glowingly recommends the writings of Mark Driscoll of Seattle, where they have champagne dance parties and rock & roll “worship” in a darkened building and the usherettes and church members wear mini-skirts and tights and where Catholic contemplative mysticism is promoted. This church had books by other evangelicals for sale in its bookstore with no warning.
If a Bible-believing church does use materials by evangelicals, such as those by Answers in Genesis, the people must be educated about the compromise that exists in these ministries. Typically, though, in churches that are messing around with evangelicalism, the members aren’t properly educated, because the pastor himself either is ill-informed or is enamored by what he finds among “conservative evangelicals” or is afraid of offending his congregation.
When a fundamentalist preacher begins to give up on separation, he still claims to believe in it, but he doesn’t love it, and the softness of evangelicalism resonates with his own spirit.
Another way that soft separatism is seen is the way that many pastors and schools use and recommend dangerous authors.
I recall a visit to Northland Baptist College back in the 1990s, and I was concerned then that the bookstore was filled with the writings of popular evangelicals such as John Piper. It is no surprise that the school is Southern Baptist today.
Consider Paul Chappell of Lancaster Baptist Church of Lancaster, California, one of the most prominent and influential Independent Baptist preachers.
Pastor Chappell’s “soft separatism” was on display when he brought in Michael Redd, a Christian NBA player, to speak to a youth rally at Lancaster Baptist Church (“A Great Weekend of Ministry,” Oct. 11, 2010, PaulChappell.com). Redd is a rock & roll Pentecostal, and though we do not doubt his faith in Christ or his sincerity in Christian service, he is not someone who should be speaking at a fundamental Baptist church, because of his doctrinal errors and the fact that his life preaches a rejection of biblical separatism. God forbids this type of ecumenical joint ministry, because it is a compromise of sound doctrine and results in spiritual confusion and weakness. Redd helped purchase a building for the Philadelphia Deliverance Church of Christ in Columbus, Ohio, pastored by his father, and in an interview he stated that he did so not merely out of family affection but out of personal conviction that what that church is doing is right and important (“NBA Star Says Some Players ‘Church-Hurt,’” The Washington Post, April 4, 2008). A web search shows that the church that Redd funds and supports is a rock & roll Pentecostal congregation filled with the doctrinal errors relating to the Pentecostal apostolic denomination. His mother is one of the preachers. Some of “Sister Haji Redd’s” sermons are on YouTube.
Pastor Chappell’s soft separatism was on display when he published a glowing recommendation of a book by Rick Warren’s associate Lance Witt (Chappell’s blog, November 28, 2012). The book review begins, “If you are in Christian ministry and are looking for a refreshing (yet convicting and challenging) book--and especially if you are a senior pastor--I suggest Replenish: Leading from a Healthy Soul by Lance Witt. When I read this book on my kindle recently, I had eighty-two highlights that filled over eight pages. There were so many truths the Lord used from it to speak to my soul.” Chappell’s review does not contain even a hint of warning about Witt.
I can’t imagine a more dangerous and spiritually ignorant recommendation for a fundamental Baptist pastor to publish. Witt is the executive pastor at Saddleback Church, and more dangerous spiritual waters do not exist anywhere. Warren is closely and warmly affiliated with New Agers and universalists (e.g., Tony Blair, Mehmet Oz, Daniel Amen, Mark Hyman, and Leonard Sweet) and promotes Catholic contemplative mysticism. (See the “Rick Warren” section of the Article Library at www.wayoflife.org). Witt personally promotes contemplative mysticism and even recommends Richard Foster and Buddhist-Catholic Thomas Merton in his book Enjoying in Solitude. It was via the path of Foster and Merton that Sue Monk Kidd traveled from being a Southern Baptist Sunday School teacher to a goddess worshipper. And yet Paul Chappell has the audacity to think that Witt is promoting healthy waters from which fundamental Baptist pastors should drink. (See “From Southern Baptist to Goddess Worship: Sue Monk Kidd” and “Richard Foster: Evangelical’s Mystical Sparkplug,” and “Thomas Merton: The Catholic Buddhist Mystic” under the Contemplative Prayer section of the Article Database at www.wayoflife.org).
Chappell’s soft separation is further evident in his Ministry 127 blog’s recommendation of a number of unsound authors, including John Maxwell and Donald Whitney. This is a very disturbing and dangerous practice. The reviewer of Whitney’s Ten Questions to Diagnose Your Spiritual Health is Cary Schmidt, who until recently was the Associate Pastor at Lancaster Baptist Church. He writes, “Every page was intensely scriptural, very articulate, and powerfully inspiring regarding the healthy Christian life.” What Schmidt fails to say is that Donald Whitney, a New Evangelical Southern Baptist Calvinist, is a bridge to some extremely dangerous things. Whitney has some sound and helpful things to say, like any prominent New Evangelical, but the truth is mixed with error, and he has no proper boundaries, having rejected “separatism.”
By this glaring omission and by recommending Whitney so highly, Schmidt and Lancaster Baptist are helping people to cross the bridges that Whitney has built. Lancaster is doing the same thing with literature that they are doing with music. They are messing around with the wrong stuff. It is the same “soft separatism” that destroyed Highland Park Baptist Church.
First, Whitney is a bridge to contemplative mysticism, and these are the most spiritually treacherous waters that exist. What Whitney touches on lightly in Ten Questions, he covers in some detail in Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life. Though Whitney emphasizes the supremacy and authority of Scripture, he recommends unscriptural mystical practices and favorably and repeatedly quotes radical mystics Richard Foster and Dallas Willard. Whitney praises Foster for his “great contribution” (Spiritual Disciplines, p. 22) and recommends the practices of “the medieval mystics” (p. 65), referring to the Catholic monks who invented contemplative mysticism in their benighted monasteries. It is unconscionable that Whitney doesn’t warn his readers that these mystics were committed to Rome’s damnable sacramental gospel and venerated Mary. Whitney promotes the practices of silence, journaling, and spiritual direction, and the “silence” recommended by Whitney is not merely to get alone with God and His Word in a quiet place. It is maintaining silence “inwardly so that God’s voice can be heard more clearly” and “does not always require words [or] sounds” (p. 184). This is blind and dangerous mysticism. To be alone with God in a quiet place and to meditate on His Word is NOT the same as sitting in silence and trying to hear God’s voice internally. One is scriptural and profitable; the other is mystical and dangerous.
Second, Whitney is a bridge to Reformed Theology, with its error pertaining to God’s election and its Augustinian allegoricalism and replacement theology which confuses Israel with the church. Whitney continually quotes the “Puritans” and recommends meditating on their writings as a devotional practice (“Do You Thirst for God?” 2001, p. 9), which is a recipe for being captured by the heresy of Reformed theology--something that is happening to many students in IFB Bible colleges. Whitney recommends John Piper in the most enthusiastic manner.
Third, Whitney is a bridge to the very dangerous world of New Evangelicalism. He quotes from New Evangelical writers continually and in the most favorable manner, such as William Barclay, Elisabeth Elliot, Philip Yancey, and Jerry Bridges. He even cites Billy Graham, the Prince of New Evangelicalism, as an example of true godliness and the wise practice of spiritual disciplines (Spiritual Disciplines, p. 191).
In some ways, “conservative evangelicals” like Donald Whitney and Ed Stetzer are more dangerous than the Richard Fosters and Dallas Willards and Rick Warrens, because they are considered to be “safer,” yet they are bridges to the treacherous spiritual waters represented by the latter names.
Independent Baptists who are careless about separating from “conservative” evangelicals are building bridges to the bridge-builders.
Another way that soft separatism is evident is in the widespread habit among Independent Baptists of messing around with shallow, heavy-backbeat, ecumenical Southern Gospel groups that influence the church members with their worldliness and carelessness in associations. Few men have done more to tear down the walls of biblical separation than Bill Gaither, and he has spread his unholy ecumenical philosophy through the popular Homecoming specials. (See the free eBook Southern Gospel Music and the free eVideo download on Southern Gospel at www.wayoflife.org.)
The fruit of soft separation is now evident for all to see.
The church Dr. Roberson pastored for 40 years is Southern Baptist today. His funeral was preached by a man who led his college into the Southern Baptist Convention (Paul Dixon, president of Cedarville University). Roberson’s authorized biography was written by a rock & roll Southern Baptist pastor.
All of this is the fruit of soft separatism and a weak stance toward the great spiritual/doctrinal/moral compromise within evangelicalism today.
Highland Park Baptist Church and Tennessee Temple University are in treacherous spiritual waters, and one of the reasons is that the separation that was practiced by the former leader was too soft. He was much more a bridge builder than a bridge destroyer.
Dr. Roberson has had a massive influence in the Independent Baptist movement and many preachers are following in his footsteps and committed to his principles.
They are more concerned about avoiding “fragmentation” and building unity and “friendship” among Independent Baptists than standing against error. They will “talk a good talk” about separation privately, but there is no campaigning for it in their public ministries. They aren’t careful enough about their associations. They say they are opposed to the Southern Baptist Convention, but they make no serious effort to expose the Convention’s errors and they do not effectively reprove and disassociate from preacher friends who are building unwise bridges to the Convention. They speak highly of men like Lee Roberson who built bridges to the Convention and beyond that many have traveled; they mention such men in their lists of heroes and build monuments to them, and any criticism of such men is extremely low-key and vague. More often the criticism is non-existent and not even allowed, and those who issue such “criticism” are considered enemies of the truth and fair game for cheap mockery.
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