It was my privilege to eat lunch this week with a variety of Christian college presidents. One was an independent Baptist and has been my friend for a long period of time. The others, who also have been my friends for a little while, were from a variety of evangelical persuasions. One was a Freewill Baptist. One was a Southern Baptist. Another was non-denominational. Yet another was from a Reformed tradition. Surprisingly, we had good Christian fellowship as we talked about the challenges facing Christian higher education and a variety of other topics that divide us both theologically (imagine a Freewill Baptist and a Reformed theologian at the same dinner table) and non-theologically (one was a Cardinals fan, and well, I am from New England). Did I happen to mention that the Red Sox won the World Series?
As I left the dinner table of fantastic Indian cuisine, I was reminded that there are levels of fellowship within Christianity. I enjoyed my time with these men. I am convinced that they equally love Christ, and yet they have come down on opposing sides of the table on some significant issues, not the least of which is the Great Rift over Calvinism. The Freewill Baptist asked for a copy of my new book opposing Calvinism. The Reformed theologian did not. All these men have a common desire to please God, and I will be in Heaven, I believe, with all of them. Nevertheless, most of them will never be asked to speak in my pulpit, nor I in theirs.
We call it ecclesiastical separation because it predominantly has to do with local church fellowship. There are people we can have a hamburger with that we cannot have ecclesiastical fellowship with. Local church membership is perhaps the tightest circle. The doctrinal test for this fellowship must not only include fundamental doctrine (such as the virgin birth, the vicarious death, the bodily resurrection, etc.), but also secondary doctrine which is necessary for a local church to all speak the same thing (things like the cessation of tongues, the timing of the rapture, eternal security, etc.).
And here is the rub. These men were college presidents not pastors, and colleges are largely of human invention, not divine. This is not to say that colleges are bad. I am very thankful for the degrees that I have received from various institutions, but I must never look to any college for direction with regard to local church issues. Pastors, not college presidents, are the directors of local churches. When multiple pastors look to a particular college for direction and become known as, for example, a Hyles church or a BJ church, to some degree local church autonomy is weakened.
Perhaps it is best then for those of us who are independent Baptists to insist upon the term fundamentalist, for that we are. On the other hand, the term fundamentalism implies that there is a movement afoot necessitating a guru who exercises control over multiple churches under his particular diocese. Whenever this happens, to the degree that it happens, Baptist church government has been compromised.
No college president, be he Reformed, Freewill, or anything in between, has the right to impose direction or expect binding allegiance from churches that happen to be shepherded by the alumni from their school. This has caused us to have certain networks within fundamentalism that have created more harm than harmony within the body of Christ. When a pastor in a certain state uses screens, or chooses a particular song for his choir, or draws a line of modesty that is different from what has been historically set at his alma mater, the college president honestly has no nickel in the dime of that decision. It is a local church matter.
How great it is to leave a table of college presidents and realize that all of them are friends, but none of them are gurus to whom I must answer for the way I pastor my local church. The individual sole liberty of the believer and the autonomy of the local church have forever settled the fact that Baptist preachers must look to the authority of Scripture and the guidance of the Holy Spirit alone for such matters. Count me as a fundamentalist. I will fight for that title, but if by fundamentalism you mean that I must bow to a particular college town where some president has become an appointed guru for faith and practice, count me out.