Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

29 Aug 2015

Ethics or Theological Subscription as the Ground of Functional Christian Fellowship?


A couple of weeks ago Union University made news by practicing secondary separation (or at least what fundamentalists have been pummeled over the last 70 years for practicing under that label): they broke fellowship with an organization of professing believers—the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities [CCCU]—because the Council had failed to censure two member institutions—institutions that had capitulated to the prevailing Zeitgeist on the matter of homosexual marriage. Union president Dub Oliver explained: “Our faithfulness to the authority of Scripture takes precedence,” adding, “Our advocacy for Christ-centered higher education means that we must stand with institutions that share our commitments.” He concluded, “The reason we are passionate about this is because what we are talking about is not a secondary or tertiary theological issue—marriage is at the heart of the Gospel. To deny the Bible’s concept of marriage is to deny the authority of Scripture.” But here’s the thing: the CCCU has for years had as member institutions schools of various branches of the Churches of Christ, a Seventh Day Adventist School, at least one (very) Roman Catholic school, and a few other nominally “Christian” institutions that have given little thought to the details of the Christian Gospel and the authority of the Word of God for decades. These theological errors are not separation-worthy, but homosexuality is? Hmmm.

Example 2: Last week I stopped by a church blog that I frequent. Again, I applauded the author’s powerful argument regarding the use of Hillsong music in his church: due to Hillsong’s “normalization of immorality” (again, homosexuality), the author reckoned, “our music ministry will no longer use any material written by Hillsong.” But then came the curious caveat. The author admitted that Hillsong had long ago abandoned sound doctrine, but argued that “we were never concerned that using this song would lead our people into prosperity theology or wild charismaticism.” So his church had continued to use Hillsong music. But homosexuality? That went too far. Now it has become time, the author concluded, to “watch out for those who cause confusion regarding sound doctrine, and turn away from them.”

On the one hand I’m happy about these decisions—I rejoice in them as refreshing matters of biblical obedience. And maybe I should do nothing but offer a hearty “Amen” and applause to both. I agree with the willingness to part ways with disobedient brothers and appreciate their courageous stands in the face of stiff opposition. Overlooking or endorsing homosexuality IS a big deal. A really big deal. And I’m glad that these two men and the organizations they represent are refusing to shrug their shoulders and look the other way.

But I struggle with the implied suggestion that the error of homosexual marriage is a bigger deal and a greater affront to the Gospel than the denial of justification sola fide, or that advocating for homosexuality is a bigger threat to God’s people than advocating for a prosperity “gospel” that boasts no more of the Gospel than my pet rabbit. It seems that homosexuality has temporarily become more of a gospel issue than, well, the Gospel. Why is this the case?

Two responses to this trend have come to us from the confessional community (Carl Trueman and Scot McKnight). These argue convincingly that the bare evangelical model, despite all its talk of the Gospel, offers an insufficient basis for determining what constitutes a “big,” “important,” and therefore “gospel” issue, instead leaving the church to posture rather arbitrarily according to the prevailing winds of the day. At one time we pounded on smoking and drinking and rock music, but that’s much too 1970—the 21st century whipping boys are homosexuality and egalitarianism on the left and “legalism” in the right. That’s where the conservative evangelical will take a stand and practice “secondary separation.”

Now, admittedly, the 21st century evangelical watersheds do seem a bit more serious than those from 1970, so I must be charitable. Scripture itself tells us that homosexuality, especially, is a “bigger” or at least a more advanced sin problem than others (so Rom 1:24ff). Still, I think Trueman and McKnight are on to something: the bare evangelical model may be able to see that homosexuality is a big issue, but it has trouble offering a unified explanation as to why it is a big issue. To do that, one needs more than the Gospel and a few Bible verses. We need instead a holistic network of collocated theses that connect the doctrines of God, Scripture, creation, law (natural and biblical), the imago dei, the relationship of Church and culture, the state of man (both old and new), sin, atonement, sanctification, perseverance, pneumatology, apologetics, ecclesiology, the ordinances, and even eschatology. In short we need to take our stands within comprehensive traditions. Without them, we may experience the meager satisfaction and applause that comes from picking at the scabs of homosexuality and egalitarianism, but we risk ignoring the melanoma spreading beneath.

We cannot save the Christian faith merely by erecting a fortress around a few gospel loci and supplementing that defense with occasional sorties against ethical brigands. Instead, we must take our stand in the ontological and epistemological foundations from which the Gospel and its ethic flow.

10 Responses

  1. d4v34x

    “We must take our stand in the ontological and epistemological foundations from which the Gospel and its ethic flow.”

    Which, as you seem to say (and, if so, you say rightly, in my opinion) can only be done (or at least is most feasibly done) from a confessional quarter.

    But confessionalism, where it exists, is usually the continuation, centuries long, of a confessional tradition. (People I know who know such things better than I differ on whether the Reformed Baptists trace a solid tradition back to the 1600s in the way the Presbys do). So how does fundamentalism, the Land of 1000 Doctrinal Statements (of about a dozen points each) transition to any sort of coherent confessionalism?

    To sum up, I’m agreeing with you, but what’s the way forward?

  2. Mark Snoeberger

    Great question. I suppose the simplest answer is to create and join a band of churches that share a comprehensive confession to which you can subscribe. This approach is best seen, perhaps, in the Westminster Presbyterian group. Baptists have tried to do this too, but rarely matched the energy or perseverance of the Presbyterians. Baptists are, after all, of separatist vintage, having been birthed in a crucible of their conscientious refusal to subscribe to the prevailing confessions of their milieu (WCF and the 39 Articles, respectively). They simply had too many “scruples” to earn the right of admittance.

    While Baptists have many times sought a confessional identity (the London Confessions, Philadelphia Confession, New Hampshire Confession), their history has rendered them as a whole somewhat hesitant, and in some cases even hostile to the confessional model. I can sympathize with these sentiments, and I affirm with my Baptist brothers the doctrine of individual soul liberty as a safeguard against the excesses of confessionalism.

    Still, I cannot endorse the minimalist approach that the evangelical movement has tended to champion–fellowship strictly around a bare gospel, inerrancy, or even “the fundamentals.” These simply do not offer adequate sod for sustaining a robust Christian orthodoxy. Which is why I worry that the evangelical movement (like liberalism before it) may end up trending inexorably toward ethics and service as their REAL rallying points (the alarm raised in my original post). My hope is not to start a new Baptist presbytery or anything of that sort, but I would like to gently press our readers to give less attention to matters of service and ethics (i.e., the approach that says, “I know that’s a good church/leader because they oppose abortion/homosexuality and promote adoption/poverty relief”), and greater consideration to broad theological agreement as the basis for functional fellowship.

  3. Tim Scott

    RE: Still, I cannot endorse the minimalist approach that the evangelical movement has tended to champion–fellowship strictly around a bare gospel, inerrancy, or even “the fundamentals.” These simply do not offer adequate sod for sustaining a robust Christian orthodoxy. Which is why I worry that the evangelical movement (like liberalism before it) may end up trending inexorably toward ethics and service as their REAL rallying points (the alarm raised in my original post).


    This part is somewhat confusing to me. You talk about liberalism preceding evangelicalism, but most historians (Bebbington, Noll, McNeill, Wolffe, etc.) argue that evangelicalism as a movement began at least as early as the 1730s (Wesley and Whitefield et al.) and some see it as beginning with the Protestant Reformers. Liberalism is normally seen to be a movement that begins in the mid-to-late 1800s and runs into the early 1900s (and beyond), although you could argue that there were theological liberals going back to the 1500s & 1600s. Are you referring to “new” evangelicalism strictly? Clarity is important here for a number of reasons. For one, evangelicals, by and large, have been confessional. Evangelicals in virtually every major Protestant denomination have held to orthodox confessions of the faith (WCF, 39 Articles, 2LBC, etc). Those confessions agree on the vast majority of Christian doctrine (e.g., the 39 Articles influenced the WCF, which influenced the 2LBC). Due to the vast agreement among groups holding these confessions, considerable unity or fellowship was possible. The main differences tended to be around issues of baptism and church government. I consider myself a confessional evangelical, but I see myself as part of a Protestant movement that precedes liberalism and even “new” evangelicalism. I don’t necessarily see fellowship around the gospel, inerrancy, and the “fundamentals” as minimalistic, as quite a bit of systematic truth goes into the fundamentals of the faith (Bible, God, Trinity, Deity of Christ, the Incarnation, justification, sanctification, etc.). The fundamentals of the faith would seem to me an adequate basis for maintaining Christian orthodoxy because they are, after all, the definition of Christian orthodoxy!

    I don’t disagree with most of what you have said here by the way. I do wonder if the context of a broad Christian academic fellowship affects the separation discussion in some way. Is associating with a secular accrediting agency, for instance, off limits because of questions of orthodoxy or are there legitimate educational reasons for entering into such a “fellowship”? Schools aren’t churches and usually have concerns that a church might not have. But I have rambled on long enough.

  4. Mark Snoeberger


    When I hazarded that evangelical theology is in risk of going the way of liberalism before it, I’m not trying to make a statement about the origin of evangelicalism. Nor am I attempting to say anything at all about the new evangelicalism–that movement has by and large disintegrated. I’m saying that the evangelicalism that exists today may eventually end up in the same place that liberalism found itself a century ago–a shell of service/ethics that has been hollowed out of all its theological commitments.

    I recognize with you that the evangelical movement has its roots in the anti-creedal continental pietism of the seventeenth century and came into its own in the “evangelical revivals” of the eighteenth century. And you’re also absolutely correct that the evangelical movement was initially populated by individuals from a variety of confessional traditions.

    But here’s where I want to push back a little. The reason that the evangelicals were able to galvanize into a recognizable movement in the 18th century is because of a shared view that they could get more done by setting aside confessional differences and uniting instead around two bare theological foci that Bebbington calls Biblicism and Crucicentrism–ideals that could survive apart from and irrespective of confessional commitment. And it was only by so doing that the evangelicals could pursue their REAL rallying points, which Bebbington describes as Activism and Conversionism. If I’m reading Bebbington right, he seems to be arguing that the evangelical approach has, from its beginning, had a penchant for replacing comprehensive theological bases of unity (confessions) with minimalist statements about the Bible and the Gospel, and then rallying around evangelism and social activism as its functional (and most rudimentary) basis of fellowship.

    I appreciate the attempt by some conservative evangelicals (like Mohler, Dever, and company) who are trying to balance the evangelical impulse with a bit more confessional substance (the Abstract of Principles is a bona fide creed, and the reclamation of SBTS by demanding subscription to it was a beautiful thing). I definitely do not want to diminish this or suggest that it was a sham. At the same time, I don’t think that the conservative evangelicals of the SBC uniformly find their functional unity in their confession. If the recent response of Union University is any sort of a broad reflection of the state of confessional evangelicalism, then I’m worried. It seems, from where I sit at least, that service/ethics (Bebbington’s “activism”) was way, way more important than confession in drawing Union’s boundary lines.

    Thanks, Tim, for the pushback. You’ve furthered the discussion and I’m grateful for it.

  5. Tim Scott


    I appreciate you pushback even if we don’t entirely see eye to eye on nature of evangelicalism. The movement is more complex than I feel you are willing to admit. It is important to note that Bebbington is providing the bare minimums for being an evangelical and his quadrilateral should not be understood as a statement of all that evangelicals are. You and I can both agree that there is a spectrum of confessional commitment within the larger movement. In my dissertation work, I have found it rather fascinating that confessional, evangelical Anglicans like Thomas Scott (1747-1821) were close friends with confessional Baptists like Andrew Fuller, William Carey, and John Ryland Jr. Scott even contributed financially to the Baptist Missionary Society from time to time. They agreed on the vast majority of Christian truth, though they disagreed on matters of church government and baptism. The problem today, at least as I see it, is that you cannot assume the same Christian, orthodox agreement among people who use the label “evangelical” (which I think is partially what Trueman is getting at). However, I still believe that the idea of cooperation among confessing evangelicals is a good one (e.g. Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, T4G, etc.). But this discussion is really off the subject in some ways from your original post.

    It might be helpful in this discussion to point out that Union has been increasingly moving in a confessional direction. Their statement of faith (albeit brief) was only adopted in 2005 (see:, so you could actually see this as the natural outflow of a move in a more conservative/confessional direction (see also: we could argue that the statement doesn’t go far enough (I’d even be sympathetic to that position), but there are many SBC schools that don’t have one at all (sadly enough). As an aside, I personally heard Dave Dockery in a Ph.D. class here at SBTS talking about how he had really pushed for a doctrinal statement at Union because he wanted to try to give the school a basis for persevering orthodoxy in much the same way SBTS had been able to recover theirs (Dockery taught at SBTS after Mohler came if I’m not mistaken).

    Have they handled their relationship with the CCCU well? Hard for me to say entirely. As I said before, schools often do things that are educational in nature rather than purely doctrinal (Northland was part of the NCCAA, an organization that had quite a few questionable Christian schools in it, but the purpose was for athletics). I’m not fully informed on the exact nature of their relationship with the CCCU and how comfortable they were with that relationship generally. It could be that they have wanted out for some time, and the homosexual issue gave them a good excuse to leave (I really don’t know). I have no particular dog in the Union fight, so please don’t understand me to be defending their actions per se. I am just trying to give them a fair hearing.

    I’m not sure that the liberalism parallel works entirely either. Liberals moved toward ethics/social work because they had abandoned the faith. Today, they also have basically abandoned Christian morals as well. I don’t see Union or any other confessional evangelicals as doing quite the same thing. They are taking a stand because they actually do believe in something doctrinally. Liberals were trying to seem intellectually respectable in the world’s eyes and still maintain Christian trappings (largely for emotional reasons, IMO). Evangelicals who stand on Christian morals are losing public respectability because they are standing for things that the world has rejected.

    I’d also be careful in projecting this one instance on confessional evangelicals as a whole. I would also point out that at least in the SBC, some of our “activism” is contingent on confessionalism. In order to be sent out as a missionary under the NAMB and the IMB, for example, a person has to subscribe completely to the Baptist Faith and Message 2000. There may be more functional unity tied to our confession than you realize.

    Anyway, I’ll bow out of the conversation for now. I appreciate your perspective, and I’m certainly not trying to be hostile.


  6. BE


    It is certainly important to offer a charitable interpretation for Union’s actions. I think it is interesting that you suggest that this issue of homosexuality would give them an excuse to leave–as though leaving for the sake of sola fide would not be seen as a legitimate reason…

    But it’s not like this is the only instance in which ethical/cultural concerns have been argued as crucial by conservative/confessional evangelicals when doctrinal concerns were already minimized (at least implicitly). Let me offer a few other examples that I have noticed over the last few years:

    Back in 2012, DeYoung wrote a blog post predicting that “once flourishing” denominations like “the PCUSA, ELCA, RCA, UMC, and Episcopal Church” would not survive the crisis on homosexual marriage. At the time I commented to some friends that most of these denominations had stopped flourishing long ago. For example, the PCUSA grew out of the denomination Machen was forced to leave because of his stand against liberalism. That was decades ago. Yet these denominations that had abandoned orthodoxy years ago were now going to cease to be legitimate organizations because of their stand on homosexuality?

    In 2013, John Piper spoke with Judah Smith at the Passion Conference which focused on ending human trafficking. Yet Judah Smith preaches a prosperity gospel, the kind of gospel Piper has said before is not a saving gospel. Apparently it is ok to miss out on the real gospel so long as you are passionate about social justice?

    Even a couple of weeks ago Piper referred to the Planned Parenthood Protest as “explicitly Christian” and then mentioned the presence of Roman Catholics there, with whom he would disagree on big issues. It’s certainly good that Roman Catholics and others are opposing the destruction of human life, but why confuse the reality of Christianity in supporting that cause?

    In 2014, there were calls in the SBC to publicly affirm that a church in CA was not in friendly cooperation with the SBC because of their stance on homosexuality. In fact, Mohler even argued for secondary separation from the church in CA that was the mother church if the mother church did not sever ties with their daughter church over this issue: “the ‘mother’ church must act decisively to discipline the mission, assert its own leadership, and demand confessional integrity. If the mission continues in its revolt, that parent church must either repudiate the mission and sever fellowship, or it will violate its own confessional integrity and effectively remove itself from ‘friendly cooperation’ with the SBC.” Yet there are numerous churches in “friendly cooperation” with the SBC who do not affirm inerrancy. Why not take steps to state that these churches are not in “friendly cooperation”? Why does the SBC have no statements or actions for severing fellowship with churches over doctrinal issues but only over cultural/ethical ones (i.e., homosexuality and women pastors)?

    And this does not include the statements like the Manhattan Declaration that confuse the nature of genuine Christianity because of the importance of social issues.

    So why take a stand on these issues and not on issues of inerrancy, the prosperity gospel, reality of the resurrection, etc.? I think it is tied to the activism Mark mentions above. The issues of inerrancy, justification, virgin birth, etc. have no apparent impact on the culture, but the issues of gender roles and homosexuality do. And, as a leading light among conservative evangelicals once said “nothing is so essential among Fundamentalist essentials as a world-relevance [social/cultural engagement] for the Gospel.”


  7. Dan Kreider

    Hi Mark,

    A friend referred me to your post regarding the Hillsong issue. I’m grateful for the opportunity to discuss.

    I’m absolutely in agreement with the point of your post. The gospel and its distinctives are central to the church. They are, in short, what we’d take a bullet for. I want to make clear that our church holds the proliferation of sound doctrine to be foremost in our priorities. The point which I hoped to make in my post was that this was a wisdom issue, and not one that could be reduced to whether we merely agreed with the doctrine of the author. That would be a simpler test of acceptance or rejection, admittedly, but not one that we’d subscribe to primarily. This was a matter to which we’ve given much thought over a period of time.

    A church’s stance on any core doctrine is determined by the whole of its pulpit ministry, which in our case has been unmistakably clear and faithful to Scripture, and willing to call out anything that obscures the gospel.

    So yes, we had continued to use a song, knowing that there would be no confusion on the part of our congregation regarding the clear teaching of Scripture (and the association was not that widely known). But even so, the song had been “on the fence” for precisely the reasons you pointed out. The recent affirmation of homosexuality was for us both an indication of the doctrinal seeds being brought to harvest, as well as the straw (or club) that broke the camel’s back.

    When we decided to stop using Hillsong’s music, we saw this as an opportunity to teach our people about the thought processes behind association issues and how we seek to make wise decisions as a leadership. It wasn’t intended to state in any way that a specific sin was more grievous than an obscured gospel.

    We have sister churches of ours who continue to sing Hillsong, and that’s their prerogative, since the song is not the person. Neither does this parting of ways extend to personal and family choices. It’s merely the acknowledgment that this had pushed things over the edge of what we felt was wise as a ministry.

    Again, thanks for the article, and for the larger point.


  8. Dan Kreider

    As I re-read the title of your post, I think the issue may be a difference of understanding regarding the definition of “functional Christian fellowship.”

    I’d posit that singing a song doesn’t necessarily imply fellowship (even functional fellowship) with the organization associated with it. But on this point we may disagree.


  9. Mark Snoeberger


    Thanks for your thoughtful reply and for your continued contributions to the blogosphere. You are very right, of course, that associations are not an easy problem to navigate. And I share your sentiment that an association may be so distant, obscure, or innocuous as to merit no action (just because Elvis sang “Amazing Grace” doesn’t mean I need to stop singing it).

    So I agree that if one’s church is completely unaware of the theological and ethical tensions in the Hillsong community or if one’s church is demonstrably not being “carried off” by Hillsong’s winds of doctrine/philosophy/practice, then disassociation may not be necessary. I appreciate your caveat that every church that fail to censure Hillsong music on the grounds of association is not for this reason in error. This is a wisdom issue, like you said.

    What surprised me was the suggestion that when the egregious theological errors of Hillsong were well known, these did not constitute grounds for disassociation, but when egregious ethical errors emerged, we reached a tipping point. It seems to me (and here’s where I struggle) that the message this sends is that right behavior (being straight) carries more freight than right belief (being orthodox) in establishing/maintaining ecclesiastical associations.

    Thanks for the irenic pushback–it is refreshing and profitable.

  10. Dan Kreider

    Mark, “tipping point” is a good word for it.

    Say each song sits in the balance, and 50 pounds is the point at which the offence or collected offenses of a song outweigh its usefulness. This song was perhaps sitting at 45 because of the doctrinal issues. It didn’t take much.

    I think the way that we clear up confusion regarding the perception of elevating homosexuality above wrong doctrine is by portraying it as a wisdom issue. The measurements themselves are very arbitrary, and that’s precisely the point. We explain them to our people that there is a point at which we say, “enough.”