Is it time for fundamentalists and evangelicals to explore ways they can cooperate with one another?

This question was the background to the following article excerpt, first published in the Baptist Bulletin in March 1986. Twenty years ago, the issue of cooperation was particularly troubling to fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals. Edward Dobson, then the associate pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia, had just written In Search of Unity as an appeal to fundamentalists and evangelicals to “stop fighting with the friends of the gospel” (p. 152). The resulting movement was known, for a time, as “new image fundamentalism.”

Pickering challenged this idea and asked, “If it was wrong to adopt this principle thirty or forty years ago, what makes it right today?”

Now more than twenty years have passed since the publication of Dobson’s book and Pickering’s response—time enough for a measured evaluation of the issue, and time enough to note that this issue has never completely gone away.

Here, Pickering does not appeal to “secondary separation.” With this article, Pickering suggests that Dobson’s appeal to “friends of the gospel” cleverly avoids defining the content of the gospel—the core evangelical doctrine. “True revival cannot result in the compromise of truths that cannot be compromised,” Pickering said.

But Pickering was no “fighting” fundamentalist. His comments here are an epilogue to his own ministry, including a brooding disclosure that “our hearts ache as does yours for the fractured state of the visible Body of Christ.” Humble to the end, Pickering reminds readers of our difficult task and “our many shortcomings.”

In his book, In Search of Unity, Edward Dobson expresses optimism that his dream for increased unity between fundamentalists and evangelicals may be becoming a reality. In his chapter entitled ‘The Road Back” he cites some encouraging signs that the evangelicals may be drawing closer to the fundamentalists; namely: (1) the prominence of contenders for Biblical inerrancy; (2) the challenge of Southern Baptist conservatives to the liberalism of their denomination; (3) the influence and direction offered by Francis Schaeffer. For fundamentalists he sees as hopeful signs of a newfound “togetherness” such things as (1) Jerry Falwell’s appeal for unity (2) the convening of Baptist Fundamentalism 84; (3) the published apology of Jack Van Impe for his past “exclusivism”; (4) the rise of “new image fundamentalists.” What would be involved if fundamental separatists were to travel the “road back” outlined in this volume? Most certainly it would mean cooperation with those who accept some form of “inclusivism,” the principle that both Bible believers and apostates can exist within the same organization or denomination without violating Scriptural principles. Many separatists would be forced to ask: If it was wrong to adopt this principle thirty or forty years ago, what makes it right today?

To travel the road back certainly would mean cooperation with those who favor the philosophy of ecumenical evangelism popularized by Billy Graham. Dobson certainly is correct in noting that the practice of Billy Graham in fraternizing with Bible-denying liberals “became an issue of great debate” and that this issue is “the watershed that divides fundamentalism from evangelicalism even today” (p. 124). But if we heed the plea of Dobson, it will divide us no longer. Interestingly enough, Dobson never positions himself in his book as to whether Graham was right or wrong in the position he took. Is this only a minor issue that can be “swept under the rug” in favor of a more congenial, friendly and cooperative spirit? While Graham himself is probably in the sunset of his ministry, the seed he has sown has resulted in a frightful harvest of confusion and compromise. “Shouldest thou help the ungodly, and love them that hate the Lord?” (2 Chronicles 19:2, KJV). Heretofore separatists have answered no. Were they wrong in so doing? Should they now link arms with those who say “yes” to this unbiblical practice? Certainly if we fundamental separatists travel the road back we will be obliged to become involved in fellowship at some level with those of Pentecostal, holiness and charismatic persuasion, since these comprise a considerable percentage of the “evangelical” movement They probably represent, for instance, a numerical majority of the groups that are part of the National Association of Evangelicals. Fundamentalists steadfastly have refused to become involved with these groups. Charismatics, as an example, are “evangelicals” believing in the “five fundamentals,” but they are an increasing problem for Bible-preaching churches.

At the conclusion of the book is a strong appeal for revival. Many of us share the author’s concern for revival. We need it in our own lives, and we certainly need it in our churches. Many of our fundamental, separatist churches are dry and dead and need the outpouring of power from the Lord. Let us not be misled, however. Revival does not render obsolete and unimportant deep differences of doctrine and practice that touch on the holiness of God and affect vitally the life of His churches. To experience true revival is to be drawn more closely and to be bound more tightly to the truth of God as contained in holy Scripture. No amount of revival, if Scriptural revival, could clear the way for us to approve, for instance, the program of uniting believers and unbelievers in evangelistic crusades. This would be a revival that contradicts God’s Word, an unthinkable anomaly indeed! True revival cannot result in the compromise of truths that cannot be compromised.

A Personal Word

Permit me a personal word in conclusion. I have been involved in places of leadership in the separatist movement for over thirty years. I have been editor of a leading separatist magazine, dean of a separatist seminary, president of two separatist schools, pastor of some great separatist churches, and presently am serving as chairman of the executive body of a separatist association of churches. I have enjoyed fellowship with hundreds of separatists belonging to various bodies (and some to none). Their lives and ministry have touched my own and I have benefited thereby. While not pretending to speak officially for them, I believe I know many of them well enough to be their spokesman on this occasion.

Dr. Dobson, we want to say that we love you and those who espouse your position as brothers in Christ. We are not “hatemongers.” We do not view ourselves as “extremists.” Our hearts ache as does yours for the fractured state of the visible Body of Christ We desire growing and vital churches. We are concerned for the lost souls of men. We are not sour, dour, pugnacious persons who always are looking for someone to attack.

Many of our friends probably would number themselves among those “new image fundamentalists.” While not agreeing with their position, we nevertheless seek to maintain our friendship and respect them as Christian brothers. Many of them pastor sizable churches, head Christian schools or organizations, and are articulate, winsome and influential. We thank God for all the good things about them. It is hard for us to disagree with them, to take an opposite position, and to risk lifelong friendships and much misunderstanding by doing so. We do not enjoy it. We shrink from it. But we must be true to the Word of God and to our own consciences. We do not take our stand against our Christian brethren carelessly or with a frivolous spirit. We do it with grief and struggle and, yes, even tears.

I, with others, was involved in the original conflicts over ecumenical evangelism. Some of us raised the first cries against the principles of the “new evangelicalism.” We have labored for years to defend our young people, our churches and our educational institutions against the watered-down theology and middle-of-the-road philosophy held by many of those with whom you would have us unite. The arguments we hear now we recall very vividly hearing thirty years ago from those who wanted us to move “beyond the fundamentalist-modernist controversy” to a more “centrist” position. The new evangelical movement began years ago with what one astute observer aptly called a “mood.” Moods are difficult to define sometimes, but they nonetheless can be real and potent forces. Theirs was a mood of toleration, an acceptance of widely varying theological concepts—a mood of “broadmindedness.” We fear such moods since we have seen, within our lifetime, their final outcome—a full-blown movement steeped in compromise. We believe we sense such a mood abroad today among those who, in all sincerity no doubt, think we should broaden our bases and reshape our image.

What we say, Brother Dobson, to you and others of your viewpoint is this: We cannot walk the “road back” with you. Our refusal arises out of no personal animosity or out of a desire to have a “good fight” Many of us fervently wish we could quit the battle but we dare not We want to be loyal to God, to ills Word and to His standard of holiness. Painfully conscious of our many shortcomings, nevertheless it is our aim to imitate the balanced life of our blessed Lord Who was “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). We want to be “speaking the truth in Love” (Ephesians 4:15). We have tried to do it here. Pray God we have succeeded.

Excerpt from “Should Fundamentalists and Evangelicals Seek Closer Ties?” by Ernest Pickering, first published in the Baptist Bulletin, (March 1986).