Dispensationalism: A Basis for Ecclesiastical Separation

Larry R. Oats


There is a crisis in Baptist life today which cannot be resolved by bigger budgets, better programs, or more sophis­ticated systems of data processing and mass communication. It is a crisis of identity rooted in a fundamental theologi­cal failure of nerve. The two major diseases of the contem­porary church are spiritual amnesia (we have forgotten who we are) and ecclesiastical myopia (whoever we are, we are glad we are not like “them”). While these maladies are not unique to the people of God called Baptists, they are perhaps most glaringly present among us. . . .

We have lost the great historic traditions which have given us our vitality and identity. Seduced by the lure of modern­ity (“whatever is latest is best”), we find ourselves awash on the sea of pragmatism (“whatever works is right”), indif­ference, and theological vacuity.[2]

One of the traditions subject to loss is ecclesi­astical sepa­ra­tion. Violations of this doctrine come from two directions. One is the isolationist position or the strong denominational posi­tion. A church or religious organization must be in absolute or near absolute agreement with another church or religious organization or must belong to the right associa­tion or denomination for there to be any fellowship. This type of separa­tion can take place over doctrine or church polity, but it may also occur because of issues such as dress, haircuts, Bible versions, etc. This position, while sometimes very popular, is often damaging to the people involved. It can create a false sense of superiority; bitterness and rancor are too often its by-products; and it assuredly subverts the com­mandment to love the brethren.

Of more concern is the movement of some of our fundamentalist brothers into an “evangelical ecumenism.” The lure of the megachurch and marketing movements, the need to do battle in the arenas of abortion, euthanasia, politics, and numerous other worthy areas, the appeal of the supposed simplicity of the emerging church, as well as the attractiveness of evangelicalism’s irenicism all serve to draw some fundamentalists into a closer fellowship with evangelical churches and organiza­tions. Some fundamen­talists have already left the fold; others are re-examining their commit­ments. Others have asked why fundamen­talism cannot return to its early, interdenominational days, when essen­tially all true believers were able to fellow­ship together and stand against the “real” enemy of liberalism and unbelief.


Fundamentalists must look to their past to understand their present and to determine their future. Fundamentalism is not a recent phenomenon. Kirsopp Lake’s famous declaration that fundamentalism reflects the view of the biblical writers and was once the position held by all Christians is familiar to many.[3]

On the other hand, there is the realization that as Christendom changed in the first half of the twentieth century, fundamentalism had to change as well. This change did not bring about a new atti­tude in separa­tion, as is often argued. There have been sepa­ratists since before Constantine derailed Christianity. Although we may not agree with all their doctrine, the Novatianists and Donatists were separatists. The later Albigenses and Waldensians were also separat­ists. Charles Spurgeon was a separatist who had to stand nearly alone in the Downgrade Controversy. As liberal­ism invaded America in the 19th century, ecclesiastical separation con­tinued to be an issue. It is often unknown or purposefully ignored, but D. L. Moody argued for a separatist position. He was not a theo­logian, nor did he have significant theological training, nor was his theology always consistent, but he clearly rejected liberal­ism and liberals and argued for separation from them.[4]

The battles between liberalism and fundamentalism during the late 19th century were quiet and rarely publicized. Funda­mental­ists were in control of the denomina­tions, but in the spirit of soul liberty tolerated the presence of liberals. At the turn of the century this began to change. Liberals were taking control of the denominations and the schools. In the early decades of the 20th century, major battles erupted and on most fronts fundamentalism lost.[5] As early as 1919, the issue of ecclesiastical separation was raised as a possible solution to liberal inroads into the denominations. At a meeting at Moody Bible Institute the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association was formed. The leaders of the conference “requested all present to purge their denomina­tions of heretics, and, failing that, to consider the possibility of establishing a new church.”[6]

This created a quandary. There is clear Scriptural teach­ing that a church should remove from its fellowship a heretic or a disobedient brother, but there is nothing nearly as clear about believers leaving apostate churches or funda­mental churches separating from apostate denomina­tions. During this time some fundamentalists left and some stayed. Those who stayed criticized those who left for abandoning the fight and leaving the denominations in the hands of the modern­ists. Those who left criticized those who stayed for compromis­ing their position. Still others tried to do both.[7]

Nancy Ammerman, in the opening article of The Fundamen­talist Project, argues that fundamentalism and evangelicalism were the same movement during the first half of the twentieth century. “During most of the first half of the twentieth century ‘Fundamentalist’ and ‘Evangelical’ meant roughly the same things. People might use either name to describe those who preserved and practiced the revivalist heritage of soul winning and maintained a traditional insistence on orthodoxy.”[8] She further deline­ated four characteristics of fundamentalists: evangelism, inerrancy of the Scriptures, premillennialism, and separation. She indi­cated that the first three are not really distinctive elements, but the last is. “Fundamentalists insist on uniformity of belief within the ranks and separation from others whose beliefs and lives are suspect.”[9]

After the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversies of the early 1900s, fundamentalism became increasingly prone to fracture, resulting in the emergence of two divisions: new evangelicalism and fundamentalism. In the 30s and 40s turmoil reigned. Fundamentalist organi­zations rose and fell. T. T. Shields abandoned American fundamentalism and retreated to Canada; J. Frank Norris and John R. Rice battled over Rice’s defection from Norris’ camp. The Presbyter­ians defrocked J. Gresham Machen in a travesty of justice and a spirit of rancor. The spirit of ecumenism reflected by the National Council of Churches eventually held sway in the great denominations of the north and in the eyes of the public, while the Southern Baptists and Southern Presby­terians retreated into a tenuous attitude of tolerance. Conser­vatives did not withdraw from their denominations. They did not seek to divide, but to purify the denominations. “Indeed because they loved their denominations—often unduly—and wished to preserve them from liberal inroads, their resort was not in new schemes of scriptural interpretations, but in shoring up old schemes, not in new doctrines, but in official confessions.”[10]

The 1940s and 50s saw a major movement develop. Carl McIntyre started the American Council of Christian Churches in 1941, but many fundamentalists of that time believed he would be too strict theologi­cally. Therefore, the National Association of Evangelicals was started in 1942. The choice of the term “evangelical” was intentional. “It slowly became clear that the name they had chosen—‘Evangelical’—was designating a group increasingly at odds with the ‘Fundamentalists,’ who sought more militancy.”[11] Evangeli­cals and fundamentalists were still on friendly terms, but there was division in the ranks.

In 1976 Harold J. Ockenga made the following declaration:

New-evangelicalism was born in 1948 in connection with a convocation address which I gave in the Civic Auditorium in Pasadena. While reaffirming the theologi­cal view of fundamentalism, this address repudiated its ecclesiology and its social theory. The ringing call for a repudiation of separatism and the summons to social involvement received a hearty response from many evangelicals. The name caught on and spokesmen such as Drs. Harold Lindsell, Carl F. H. Henry, Edward Carnell, and Gleason Archer sup­ported this viewpoint. We had no intention of launching a movement, but found that the emphasis attracted widespread support and exercised great influence. Neo-evangelicalism differed from modernism in its acceptance of the super­natural and its emphasis on the fundamental doctrines of Scripture. It differed from neo-orthodoxy in its emphasis upon the written Word as inerrant, over against the Word of God which was above and different from the Scripture, but was manifested in Scripture. It differed from fun­damen­talism in its repudiation of separatism and its determination to engage itself in the theological dialogue of the day. It had a new emphasis upon the application of the gospel to the sociological, political, and economic areas of life.[12]

While reaffirming traditional fundamen­talist theology, Ockenga identified two elements which distinguished the emerging “new evangelicalism” from the old fundamen­talism: a rejection of fundamentalist ecclesi­ology (and the accompanying doctrine of ecclesiastical separation) and rejection of the fundamentalist social theory. Fundamen­talists responded with a call for separation from new evangelicalism.[13] The result was a rift in the movement.

Fuller Seminary was founded to provide a place to train these “new evangelicals.” In Ockenga’s inaugural address he “unequivocally . . . repudiated any support of ‘come-out-ism.’”[14] Having just returned from a recent trip to war-ravaged Germany, he argued that it was imperative that the church not “withdraw itself to a separated community again.”[15] Also in the inaugural address, perhaps to placate the Presbytery of Los Angeles who had voted not to allow its candidates to ministry to attend Fuller, Ockenga declared that Fuller would be “ecclesiastically positive.” This was also a direct attack on fundamentalists and their belief that separatism was foundational to fundamentalism.[16]

Edward John Carnell was the second president of Fuller; he had a problem with faculty member Charles Woodbridge, whom he felt was undermining the seminary. He declared to Ockenga:

The issue, of course, is the struggle between dispensationalism and the new evangelicalism. Dr. Woodbridge is a straight-line fundamentalist. He has been an enemy of your philosophy of the new evangelicalism from the very inception of the institution. My being appointed president crushed his hope of seeing the institution coming under the control of his position.[17]

Then came 1957 and Graham’s New York Crusade. For the first time, Billy Graham invited liberals to join him in his evangelistic crusades. Billy Graham’s response to critics of his ecumenical evangelism was stinging, “It is interesting to note that Jesus spent more time rebuking the Pharisees who were the ‘funda­mentalists’ of his day than He did the Sadducees who were ‘moder­nists.’”[18]

Through the 1960s fundamentalism and evangelicalism each attacked the other, pointing out problems and inconsistencies. During this period the issue of secondary separation arose, best exemplified in the separation of Bob Jones and John R. Rice over the issue of Billy Graham. During this time the Sword of the Lord rose to prominence as a leading fundamentalist periodical. Its primary counterpart in evangelicalism was Christianity Today. It was also during this period that educational institutions on both sides were estab­lished and/or began to grow both numerically and in status with their own constituency and the educational world at large.

Various historians have attempted to determine the root causes of the separatist attitude among fundamen­talists. While several sociological theories have been proposed, the studies have concluded that separatism is primarily doctrinal and not sociological. There were no significant differences in the constituency of fundamen­talism (small town versus big city),[19] in educational backgrounds of either the leaders or the constituencies,[20] or social backgrounds.[21]

The Significance of Dispensationalism

When Ockenga decried the ecclesiology of fundamen­talism, he undoubtedly had reference to the premillennial, dispensational ecclesiology so common to the movement. While not all fundamentalists were thorough-going dispen­sa­tional­ists, the movement drew support from a premil­lennial pessimism about the future of the church.[22] Historians generally agree that the teaching of dispensa­tionalism regarding the apostasy of the church was critical in the develop­ment of fundamentalist views of the church.[23] Fundamentalism generally taught that apostasy had set in early in church history. Passages such as 2 Tim 3:1–7, interpreted from a dispensa­tional point of view, taught that the last days would be preceded by a large scale apostasy, led by the Antichrist who would use apostate churches and denominations to carry out his purposes. The result would be the total leavening of professing Christendom and the rise of the Babylon church of Revelation 17 and 18. “Babylon the Great” was interpreted by some fundamentalists as the World Council of Churches[24] and by most of the rest of fundamentalism as the Roman Catholic Church.[25] The fundamentalist viewpoint required the fundamentalists to separate from the apostate Church and preserve the purity of the true church until the Lord returned. An emphasis on personal holiness, predicated by the dispensa­tional view of an imminent second coming, demanded removing oneself from worldly practices on a personal level and from doctrinally corrupt churches and denominations on an ecclesiastical level.[26]

Two decades after the schism, Richard Quebedeaux summed up the attitude of much of evangelicalism toward fundamentalist dispensationalism:

[T]here is in the New Evangelicalism a marked aversion to Dispensationalism and its inherent apocalyp­tic speculations. This firm repudiation, of course, frees the scholars in question to deal more constructively with the present ills of society and thus develop a positive Evangelical social ethic, unhindered by Dispensational pessimism concerning the human situation.[27]

After the passage of two more decades, attitudes had not changed. Darrell Bock, a leader in Progressive Dispen­sationalism, declared, “I am a dispensationalist. And that means I’ve got a bad reputation with many evangelicals.”[28] Bock and others attempted to produce a dispensationalism more in keeping with reformed theology and hence more acceptable to evangelicalism as a whole. A sidebar to Bock’s article declares, “The newer dispensationalism also wants to bring itself in line with mainstream evangelicalism. The older attitude that saw ‘dispensational truth’ as over against everything else is being replaced by the realization that what binds evangelicals together is much greater than what sepa­rates them.”[29]

Historians have recognized the importance dispensa­tionalism played in the development of fundamentalism as a definable movement. A new phase in the interpretation of fundamentalism began with Ernest Sandeen.[30] Having acknowledged that scholars before him had confused the fundamentalist movement with the fundamentalist/ modernist controversy, he was among the first to evaluate fundamentalism as a theological movement. He understood fundamentalism to be the alliance between the Princeton doctrine of biblical inerrancy and dispensational premillen­nialism.[31] He stressed that the movement was more than merely anti-modern and anti-liberal and that it was not simply conservative Protestantism. He argued that the strength of fundamentalism was in the large cities such as Philadel­phia and New York, while the South was virtually unrepresented.[32] He attacked Cole’s five-point basis of fundamentalism as obscuring its real roots.[33] He argued that fundamentalism as a movement had been extant through the nineteenth century in the form of premillennialism, dispensationalism, and belief in verbal inspiration and biblical iner­rancy.[34] In reference to the dispensational view of the church, he stated, “It is impossible to overestimate the importance of this ecclesiology for the history of Fundamentalism.”[35] He summed up the movement, however, as “the decline if not collapse” of millenarianism and as a “valiant nineteenth-century minority view.”[36]

The most significant response to Sandeen came from George Marsden.[37] Marsden contended that Sandeen had ignored vital ingredients within nineteenth century evangelical­ism. In a theological study of Presbyterianism, Marsden identified the importance of the ecclesiastical practice of New Presbyterianism in Presbyterian fundamen­talism.[38] His research appeared in 1980 in the seminal Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth Century Evangelicalism 1870–1925. This was the most thorough treatment of fundamentalism to its time and is still a critical work in the understanding of fundamen­talism. In Marsden’s view, fundamentalism became a coalition of dispensationalists and separatists, while evangelicalism sought to retain its essential commitment to evangelical orthodoxy and anti-modernism while getting rid of “these more recent aspects of fundamentalism.”[39]

This premillennialist, futurist, dispensational theology had a profound effect on the fundamentalist worldview and temperament. Distinctive dispensational beliefs—that all of the fearsome events of the Apocalypse portrayed in the Bible would be literally fulfilled in the near future, that an unholy conspiracy involving an apostate church and a satanically inspired Antichrist was in the offing, that the Jews would face terrible persecution before their redemption, and that the church’s main mission was not working for the kingdom of God on earth. . . —all contributed to fundamentalism’s alarmist, conspiratorial, and alienated outlook.[40]

Dispensationalism, Evangelicalism and the Church

Dispensationalism became the primary doctrinal and hermeneutical approach for fundamentalism. Systematized and popularized by John Nelson Darby in his frequent trips to America in the nineteenth century, dispensationalism spread among the fundamentalists through the prophetic conferences held in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. An important difference between dispensa­tionalism and those who reject this system of interpretation is the role of the church in the Old Testament, the New Testament and in the future.

Ockenga, and those who joined him in the rejection of fundamentalist separation, realized that ecclesiology was critical.

Shall we contend against these unbelievers who are now in our churches and often in positions of great power, or shall we just quietly and unobtrusively withdraw from the church, giving up the buildings, the endowments, the great name and heritage of that particular local congregation or that denomination? Or should these adopt something which they call Christianity but is not Christianity at all when it is judged by either the history of the church, the creed of the church, or the incorporation papers of the church? . . .  Unless we understand the nature of the church, we will never know how we should withdraw ourselves or separate ourselves from those who are not in the church.[41]

The evidence of dispensational thought among some of the new evangelicals was particularly manifest in their discussions of the start of the church. A good example this was Harold John Ockenga. In a discussion of Romans 11, Ockenga declared,

[T]he Church is not Israel and Israel is not the Church. This illustration of the olive tree makes this clear. . . .  The Church as the bride of Christ was initiated at Pentecost. The promises of Israel do not transfer to the Church which has specific blessings and privileges of its own.[42]

The branches in Romans 11 are Israel; the grafts are individual Jews and Gentiles who believe. “The nation of Israel has no special place in God’s redemptive scheme today. . . .  Yet God has a future for Israel and it will as a nation be grafted into the olive tree.” However, he believed the saved of all ages would be part of the church: “We must insist that Abraham, David, and Paul were redeemed as we are through Christ and therefore that we are one in the church (Gal. 3:7, 14, 29).”[43]

Although many of the early new evangelicals came out of a dispensational background and carried some dispensational thinking with them, new evangelicalism as a movement was heavily influenced by covenant theology. Carl F. H. Henry took a covenant approach. He, too, believed that the doctrine of the church was critical to the division between fundamentalism and new evangelicalism. Henry believed fundamentalism had neglected

the doctrine of the Church, except in defining separation as a special area of concern. . . .  This failure to elaborate the biblical doctrine of the Church comprehen­sively and convincingly not only contributes to the fragmenting spirit of the movement but actually hands the initiative to the ecumenical enterprise in defining the nature and relations of the churches.[44]

He firmly believed that the evangelicals needed to emphasis the spiritual unity of the church.[45] While he himself did not write extensively on the church, articles he approved for Christianity Today and Basic Christian Doctrines: Contemporary Evangelical Thought,[46] which he edited, identified his position.

J. I. Packer, who wrote a chapter for Henry’s Basic Christian Doctrines, argued that the “church is not simply a New Testament phenomenon. An ecclesiology which started with the New Testament would be out of the way at the first step.”[47] He based his argument on Paul’s image of the olive tree, which he viewed as the church, from which the Jews were essentially removed and replaced with Gentiles. He also argued that Paul called the Gentile believers “Abraham’s seed” and “the Israel of God.”[48] For Packer, the fundamental idea of a biblical ecclesiology was of “the church as the covenant people of God.”[49] Christ was the link between the Mosaic church and the Christian church, and baptism was the New Testament correspondence to circumcision.[50] The New Testament adds to the Old Testa­ment notion of a covenant people the picture of a new creation in Christ, raised with him from death, and possessed of a new life from the Holy Spirit.[51]

Edward John Carnell agreed. “The church is a fellowship of all who share in the blessings of the Abrahamic covenant.”[52] He believed that the Church was a continuation of Israel, the “spiritual Israel” of the New Testament.[53] He viewed the Old Testament church as the bud, and the New Testament church as the flower. “The two phases differ in glory but not in substance. The church is one because the prophets and apostles spoke one Word. The church is the seed of Abraham.”[54] He defined the church in keeping with the Apostles’ Creed: “True believers are a fellowship in Christ. This fellowship is not an external society whose rights dissolve when the corporation dissolves; it can exist without any organization at all.”[55] Carnell viewed Romans and Galatians as “the highest ranking sources in theology, for they alone develop the terms of the Abrahamic covenant in systematic, didactic language.”[56] Carnell also declared that anyone who denied the “fellowship of all who share in the blessings of the Abrahamic covenant” was separatistic in nature and thus “cultic.”[57]

Carl McIntire is an interesting example of how important dispensationalism was in the fundamentalist/ evangelical debates. McIntire is best characterized by New School Presbyterianism, an Americanized version of Presbyterianism. The New School was strongly influenced by the revivals of the early nineteenth century and adopted Nathanael Taylor’s “New Haven Theology.” There was an emphasis on volunteerism, interdenominationalism, millen­nialism, and the visible signs of faith, especially a conversion experience and a separated life.[58] Although McIntire was a student and disciple of J. Gresham Machen (Machen insisted he was not a fundamentalist, even though he stood shoulder to shoulder with them in the battles against modernism), he rejected Machen’s pure Reformed Presbyterianism, preferring instead a broader fundamentalist version. He was also committed to his own modification of a dispensational interpretation of Scrip­ture.[59] Machen was an amillennialist, and his lack of tolerance for dispensational premillennialism precipitated the 1937 departure of the Bible Presbyterians. It is significant that Machen’s view of the church was condemned as not purely reformed; a study of Machen’s position, however, will reveal that it is completely in line with the Westminster Confession and other Presbyterian ecclesiologies, with one single exception—Machen was willing to separate when doctrine was at stake. Carnell believed that McIntire’s departure from Machen’s denomination was a fitting judgment on Machen’s theories.

Machen . . . honored Reformed doctrine, but not the Reformed doctrine of the church. This inconsistency had at least two effects: First, it encouraged Machen’s disciples to think that the conditions of Christian fellow­ship could be decided by subjective criteria; secondly, it planted the seeds of anarchy. . . .  The result was a subtle reversion to the age of the Judges: each man did what was right in his own eyes.[60]

The Future of the Church

The Scofield Reference Bible was one of the most important contributors to the spread of dispensationalism in the United States. It became the Bible of fundamentalism in the early twentieth century. Scofield emphasized a number of distinctives,[61] but it was his emphasis on a strict division between Israel and the church as two separate peoples of God which would affect fundamentalist ecclesiologies. In his Reference Bible Scofield declared:

The word [ecclesia] is used of any assembly; the word itself implies no more, as, e.g., the town-meeting at Ephesus (Acts 19. 39), and Israel, called out of Egypt and assembled in the wilderness (Acts 7. 38). Israel was a true “church,” but not in any sense the N.T. church—the only point of similarity being that both were “called out” and by the same God. All else is contrast.[62]

Scofield understood the church to exist in four senses. First, the true Church is the whole body of the redeemed during the present dispensation, composed of every believer of this dispensation.

The true church, composed of the whole number of regenerate persons from Pentecost to the first resur­rection . . . united together and to Christ by the baptism with the Holy Spirit . . . is the body of Christ of which He is the Head.[63]

This church is part of the kingdom of God, but is not the whole of the kingdom.[64] This church “is formed of regenerate persons, vitally united to Christ and to one another by the baptism with the Spirit, . . .  and all true believers of this dispensation are the members.”[65]

Second, the local church is “an assembly of professed believers on the Lord Jesus Christ, living for the most part in one locality, who assemble themselves together in His name for the breaking of bread, worship, praise, prayer, testimony, the ministry of the word, discipline, and the furtherance of the Gospel.”[66]

A third use of “church” is to designate a group of local churches. This is always found in the plural. He argued that there was

no form of organization by which they were united together within territorial or doctrinal limitations. All such arrangements are post-apostolical. . . .  The Scrip­tures know nothing of a “church” made up of many local churches united by peculiarities of doctrine, ecclesiastical order, or territorial convenience.[67]

The fourth sense of the word was as the “visible church.” This church is “distinguished from the local church, and from groups of local churches, in that it is broad enough to include all who profess to believe in Christ; and from ‘the church which is his body’ in that the latter includes only regenerate persons and is invisible as a body, while the former includes profession and is visible.”[68] This “church” is similar to Luther’s greater church, of which the true church was the regenerate part. Scofield spoke of

that visible body of professed believers called, collec­tively, “the Church,” of which history takes account as such, though it exists under many names and divisions based upon differences in doctrine or in government. Within, for the most part, this historical “Church” has existed the true Church. . . .  The predicted future of the visible Church is apostasy.”[69]

This expected apostasy of the institutional church was an important factor in dispensational thought and in the separatism of the fundamentalists. Scofield believed that the “Judaizing” of the church had destroyed her spirituality. This he viewed as the Catholic and Reformed position of using Old Testament scriptures to refer to the church. These churches lowered the purpose of the church “to the civiliza­tion of the world, the acquisition of wealth, the use of an imposing ritual, the erection of magnificent churches, the invocation of God’s blessing upon the conflicts of armies, and the division of an equal brotherhood into ‘clergy’ and ‘laity.’”[70]

In early fundamentalism, “prophecies about the Great Apostasy seemed increasingly relevant. In the fundamen­talists’ eyes, their debates with the liberals in these days of world crisis began to take on cosmic proportions. No longer was liberalism simply a tendency to be deplored, but generally tolerated. The ruin of the church, long predicted and discussed in dispensational circles, now seemed to be happening before their eyes.”[71] Dispensationalism focused its view on “the ruin of the church.”[72]

Carnell rejected the dispensational view of eschatology. He stated, “Dispensationalism is anxious to have the church raptured in order that an earthly Semitic kingdom might be founded. But this anxiety is fathered by a capital theological error. Unless the future of saved Jews falls within the general life of the church, we replace the spirit of the gospel with the spirit of Old Testament Judaism.”[73]

The rejection of dispensational eschatology seemed more connected to the social activism of the new evangelicals than to any doctrinal problems. For instance, Ockenga declared, “The social theory of the fundamentalists was governed by eschatology. It was believed that conditions would grow worse and worse so that until Christ came again, the only effective application of the gospel could be to the individual.”[74]

Henry believed that the new evangelical movement needed to “restudy eschatological convictions for a proper perspective which will not unnecessarily dissipate evangelical strength in controversy over secondary positions, in a day when the significance of the primary insistences is international.”[75] He viewed himself as “broadly premillennial,” but rejected dispensationalism and its “postponement theory of the kingdom.”[76] By placing the kingdom in the future instead of the present, fundamentalism had, in Henry’s mind, eliminated the necessity of any kind of social activism. George Ladd’s already/not yet view of the kingdom became the common position of evangelicalism.[77] Millard Erickson declared post-tribulationism to be the official view of new evangelicalism.[78]

Part of the confusion is the relationship between the church and the kingdom. Evangelicalism tied the church to the kingdom. “No study of the kingdom teaching of Jesus is adequate unless it recognizes His implication both that the kingdom is here, and that it is not here.”[79] The dispensational emphasis on the church age breaks down with an acceptance of a current kingdom. One must either split the Davidic kingdom into two segments, a spiritual and a physical, or he must accept two kingdoms. If the evangelicals are right that there is a current kingdom in some sense, then unity becomes a more pressing issue.

The result of a wrong view of the future of the church in new evangelicalism is two-fold. First, there is confusion in its eschatology and, as a result, a diminishing emphasis of future themes. Second, by arguing for a present kingdom, evangelicalism was able to defend doctrinally its renewed emphasis on social activism.

Evangelism and Salvation

Carnell criticized the fundamentalist for making the chief end of man “to win souls,” whereas the chief of man for the evangelical is “to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”[80] Sadly, too much of evangelicalism has replaced the necessity to glorify God in all that is done with a willingness to evangelize at any cost. Even Carnell, just a few pages later, taught that there are but two reasons to leave a denomination – eviction and apostasy. How does he define apostasy? “If a denomination removes the gospel from its creed or confession, or if it leaves the gospel but removes the believer’s right to preach it, the believer may justly conclude that the denomination is apostate. It is no longer part of the church; a new fellowship must be formed.”[81] What was Carnell’s view of the Gospel? What is it that must be removed before a church is apostate? Is it the whole counsel of the Word, or only a part? Carnell defined the Gospel in several places. It is “the good news that God entered history and did something that man could not do for himself. The redemptive events are the foundation of the normative interpretation, and not the other way around.” Christ is the “federal head of a new and holy race. . . .  The human nature was then offered on the cross to satisfy divine justice. Being propitious toward the world, God forgives all who repent. This is the gospel.” “The gospel is the good news that God offers a full pardon to all who repent.”[82]

This over-emphasis on the gospel and evangelism is still present. Millard Erickson states, “To Paul, the gospel is all-important.” He then defines the gospel as the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ.[83]

The emphasis on evangelism at Fuller Seminary (Charles Fuller was an evangelist and heavily involved and interested in missions) shaped the school’s doctrine of the church: the function of the church is to evangelize the world. The church is to be an aggregate of saved individuals gathered together to evangelize others. The secondary task is to build each other up in the faith—the social aspect of the gospel.[84] Fuller rejected the dispensational and free church theology of the fundamentalists. In 1965, Donald McGavran joined Fuller, moving his Institute for Church Growth there and forming the new School of World Missions and Institute for Church Growth. He argued that the problem with mis­sions among the fundamentalists was their emphasis on the “gathered church” ideal and the concurrent belief that only “well-qualified and well-tested believers” could join the church. This was, of course, a special emphasis of the fundamentalists and dispensa­tionalists. McGavran argued that missionaries should disciple whole peoples by abandoning the old religion, identifying with Christ, and claiming the Bible as their authority, and the church as their institution.[85]

Carnell expressed his willingness to accept the unregenerate into a church (actually a denomination in this case), when he asked:

Does the church become apostate when it has modernists in its agencies and among its officially supported missionaries? The older Presbyterians knew enough about Reformed ecclesiology to answer this in the negative. Unfaithful ministers do not render the church apostate.[86]

Billy Graham believed that, “The basic and primary purpose of the church is to proclaim Christ to the lost. . . .  The mission of the church is to throw the life line to the perishing sinners everywhere.” The final purpose was to provide a means for the widest expression of humanitarianism.[87]

There is a tremendous spirit of cooperation among evangelicals when the proclamation of the gospel is at stake. “The spirit of evangelicalism . . . is more amiable. We consider it important to maintain fellowship with other Christians, even if they are mistaken on certain issues, especially if they can join us in advancing the gospel.”[88] This involves their definition of regenera­tion. Fundamen­talists have a narrow view of who is genuinely born again. Evangelicals have taken a much broader view. As early as 1961, Billy Graham stated, “I still have some per­sonal prob­lems in this matter of infant baptism, but all of my children, with the exception of the youngest, were baptized as infants. . . .  I do believe that something happens at the baptism of an infant.”[89]

This problem is broad­ening. The issue of redefining regen­er­ation became especial­ly noticeable in Evangelicals and Catholics Together:

We affirm together that we are justified by grace through faith because of Jesus Christ. . . .  All who accept Christ as Lord and Savior are brothers and sisters in Christ. Evangelicals and Catholics are brothers and sisters in Christ.

As is evident in the two thousand year history of the church, and in our contemporary experience, there are different ways of being Christian. . . .  Those converted—whether understood as having received the new birth for the first time or as having experienced the reawakening of the new birth originally bestowed in the sacrament of baptism—must be given full freedom and respect as they discern and decide the community in which they will live their new life in Christ.

The declaration generated much debate, and some of the signers had to defend their decisions and more careful­ly delineate their positions. J. I. Packer declared:

Do we recognize that good evangelical Protestants and good Roman Catholics—good, I mean, in terms of their own church’s stated ideal of spiritual life—are Christians together? We ought to recognize this, for it is true. . . .  [G]ood Protestants and Catholics are, and know them­selves to be, united in the one body of Christ. . . .  God’s family here on earth should seek to look like one family by acting as one family. . . .  Where there is fellowship in faith, fellowship in service should follow. . . .  To be sure, ECT is only a beginning.[90]

Jim Bramlett, Assistant to the President, Campus Crusade for Christ International, explained in a form letter that Bill Bright “very firmly believes he was led by God’s Spirit to sign the agreement . . . and [that the agreement] in no way compro­mises the gospel and Word of God.” Bramlett also indi­cated the govern­ing principle in Bright’s life: “Since Campus Crusade was born 43 years ago, Dr. Bright has evaluated every­thing he does by one measure — whether it helps to fulfill the Great Commission, the life calling to which he is has [sic] remained totally focused, without wavering.” Attached to the letter was a short document entitled, “Why I Decided to Become a Signatory on the Document, ‘Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium’” by Bright.

I am well aware of the sharp doctrinal differences with many points of Roman Catholic theology. . . .  [T]here was no compromise on these matters. . . .  A main reason Protestants believe as they do about Catholics is . . . the official Catholic doctrine of salvation which includes the necessity for human works to be added to the finished work of Christ. While I strongly disagree with this doctrine, I do not believe such an erroneous view, in itself, disqualifies one from the salvation promised those who “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ” as the Son of God.

[O]ur discipleship should be demonstrated by that one overriding biblical test: our love . . . love without compromising our biblical convictions.[91]

The primary purpose of evangelicalism is to evange­lize. The movement too frequently places this first, to the point that evangelism is more important than purity and more important than obedience to God.[92] Yet some have so modified the concept of salvation that at least among some there will be precious few left in the world who need to be evange­lized. The goal of evangelicalism, however, is not merely the salvation of the lost. Repeatedly, the call of evangelicalism is for a “Christian culture,” a “new society,” and a “new social order.” This is a direct outgrowth of an optimistic Covenant view of history. Dispensationalism is pessimistic when it comes to the ability of mankind to create this “new society.” Instead, the dispensationalist looks to the coming of Christ for his hope.

Israel and the Church

One of Carnell’s arguments against separation is that the separatist “forgets that the nature of the church, like the nature of anything else in the theological encyclopedia, is decided by the testimony of Christ and the apostles, not by the testimony of separatists. The evidence is plain, and no amount of piety can change a line of it: Christ and the apostles did not decide the nature of the church by the presence or absence of heretics in the church.” He then moved to the temple and its sacrifices. His identification of Israel and the church enabled him to identify the temple and its services with the church and its services. Jesus did not leave the temple to form a new one; hence a believer should not leave his church and form a new one.[93]

He then quoted from Calvin:

Cyprian has excellently remarked: “Although tares, or impure vessels, are found in the church, yet this is not a reason why we should withdraw from it. It only behooves us to labor that we may be the wheat, and to use our utmost endeavors and exertions, that we may be vessels of gold or of silver. But to break in pieces the vessels of earth belongs to the Lord alone, to whom a rod of iron is also given. Nor let any one arrogate to himself what is exclusively the province of the Son of God, by pretending to fan the floor, clear away the chaff, and separate all the tares by the judgment of man. This is proud obstinacy and sacrilegious presumption, origi­nating in a corrupt frenzy.”[94]

A theological argument for unity in the church includes “the oneness of ancient Israel.”[95] This is not merely a parallel drawn between unity in the Old Testament and unity in the New Testament. Erickson states, “Various New Testament images make it clear that the church, as the successor to Israel, is to follow her lead in manifesting unity.”[96]


Fundamentalism began as an amalgamation of dispensationalists and non-dispensationalists, determined to stop the onslaught of liberal theology. When the liberal enemy was no longer a threat, the number and influence of non-dispensationalist separatists declined significantly. Fundamentalism today is primarily a dispensational movement, because dispensa­tionalism alone maintains the proper view of the church, its future, its relationship to Israel, and its purity. Should fundamentalism give up its dispensa­tionalism, it stands in danger of moving quickly away from its roots and abandoning its historic adherence to Biblical separatism.

[1] Dr. Oats is the Dean of Maranatha Baptist Seminary and professor of Systematic Theology.

[2] Timothy George and David S. Dockery, Baptist Theolog­ians (Nashville: Broadman, 1990), 13.

[3] Kirsopp Lake, The Religion of Yesterday and Tomorrow (Boston: Houghton, 1926), 61.

[4] Carroll Edwin Harrington, The Fundamentalist Movement in America, 1870–1920 (Ph.D. Dissertation, University of California, 1959), 1.

[5] This battle was primarily a northern one. Foy Valentine, former head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Christian Life Commission, stated, “We are not evangelicals. That’s a Yankee word. They want to claim us because we are big and successful and growing every year. . . . We don’t share their politics or their fussy fundamentalism, and we don’t want to get involved in their theological witch-hunts.” “Born Again!” Newsweek (25 October 1976), 76.

[6] Norman F. Furniss, The Fundamentalist Controversy, 1918–1931 (New Haven: Yale, 1954), 50–51.

[7] In the early days of the Conservative Baptist Association, many of the churches in the CBA also belonged to the apostate Northern Baptist Conven­tion.

[8]Nancy Ammerman, “North American Protestant Fundamen­talism” in Fundamentalisms Observed, ed. Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1991), 7. Carl F. H. Henry agrees. “In the 1930s we were all fundamen­talists. . . . The term ‘evangelical’ became a significant option when the NAE was organized. . . . In the context of the debate with modernism, fundamentalism was an appropriate alternative; in other contexts [of the debate within the fundamentalist movement], the term evan­gelical was preferable.” George Marsden, Reforming Fundamen­talism: Fuller Seminary and the New Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 10. There were “evangelical” groups in England and Europe, but the triumph of modernism in those groups had been so great in the early twentieth century, that no one in the United States desired to be called “evangelical.”

[9] Ammerman, “Protestant Fundamentalism,” 8.

[10] Sydney Ahlstrom, Religious History of the American People (New Haven: Yale, 1972), 812–813.

[11] Ammerman, “Protestant Fundamentalism,” 37.

[12] Harold J. Ockenga, “Foreward,” in Harold Lindsell, The Battle for the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), 11. Emphasis mine. Lindsell’s book is about bibliology, not ecclesiology. Ockenga notes, however, that the move away from belief in an inerrant Scripture was a later development and not part of the original new evangelicalism. New evangelicalism departed from the ecclesiology of fundamentalism. Ockenga had previously declared: “The evangelical and the fundamentalist could sign the same creed,” but “an evangelical must be distinguished from a funda­men­talist in areas of intellectual and ecclesi­astical attitude.” Harold J. Ockenga, “Resurgent Evangelical Leadership,” Christianity Today 4 (10 October 1960): 12–13.

[13] For instance, George Dollar, fundamentalist historian, declared, “[A] new and powerful movement began in the 1940’s. It was carefully defined in the 1950’s and then became a national menace in the 1960’s, even spilling over onto the mission field. . . . The movement has a permissive attitude on personal and ecclesiastical separation . . . and a new toleration of the ecu­meni­cal movement.” George Dollar, A History of Fundamentalism in America (Greenville, S.C.: Bob Jones University Press, 1973), 192.

[14] Carl F. H. Henry, Confessions of a Theologian (Waco: Word, 1986), 118.

[15] Marsden, Reforming Fundamentalism, 46.

[16] Ibid., 64.

[17] Letter from Edward John Carnell to Harold J. Ockenga, probably in late 1956, quoted in Rudolph Nelson, The Making and Unmaking of an Evangelical Mind (New York: Cambridge, 1977), 104.

[18] Billy Graham, “My Answer,” Sword of the Lord (August 26, 1960), 1.

[19] See Walter E. Ellis, “Social and Religious Factors in the Fundamentalist-Modernist Schisms among Baptists in North America, 1895–1934” (Ph.D. diss., University of Pittsburgh, 1974); Everett L. Perry, “The Role of Socio-Economic Factors in the Rise and Development of American Fundamentalism” (Ph. D. diss., University of Chicago, 1959); and Donald G. Tinder, “Fundamentalist Baptists in the Northern and Western United States” (Ph.D. diss., Yale University, 1969).

[20] The educational approach was attempted by Hugh Hartshorne and Milton C. Froyd, Theological Education in the Northern Baptist Convention: A Survey (Philadelphia: Judson Press, 1945). A review of The Fundamentals will reveal a well-educated fundamentalism, although there was a later decline in fundamentalist education.

[21] Ockenga and McIntire had very similar backgrounds; “stay-inner” Wilbur M. Smith and “come-outer” J. Gresham Machen were both from similar wealthy backgrounds.

[22] Most of the fundamen­talists were premillennialists; the Scofield Reference Bible was their common Bible. Scofield described the visible church as “that visible body of professed believers called, collectively, ‘the Church.’ . . . The predicted future of the visible Church is apostasy (Lk. 18. 8; 2 Tim 3. 1–8).” C. I. Scofield, Scofield Reference Bible (new York: Oxford, 1945), 1276.

[23] Ernest Sandeen, “Toward a Historical Interpretation of the Origins of Fundamentalism,” Church History (March 1967): 69.

[24] Carl McIntire, The Testimony of Separation (Collingswood, N.J.: Christian Beacon Press, 1944), 101. See also Carl McIntire, Servants of Apostasy (Collingswood, N.J.: Christian Beacon Press, 1955), 257–58.

[25] Scofield, for instance, spoke of “ecclesiastical Babylon which is apostate Christendom, headed up under the Papacy.” Scofield Reference Bible, 1346. Bob Jones, Jr., believed the “Roman Catholic Church is described in the seventeenth chapter of the book of The Revelation, where she is depicted as the ‘great whore.’” Robert Campbell, Spectrum of Protestant Beliefs (Milwaukee: Bruce, 1968), 89. Fundamentalists of that time were convinced the World Council would lead Protestant Christianity back to the fold of the Roman Church.

[26] Timothy Weber, Living in the Shadow of the Second Coming: American Premillennialism, 1875–1925 (New York: Oxford, 1979), 58.

[27] Richard Quebedeaux, The Young Evangelicals (New York: Harper and Row, 1974), 38.

[28] Darrell L. Bock, “Charting Dispensationalism,” Christianity Today (12 September 1994), 26.

[29] Walter Elwell, “Dispensationalists of the Third Kind,” Christianity Today (12 September 1994), 28.

[30] Ernest Sandeen, “Toward a Historical Interpretation”; “Fundamentalism and American Identity,” Annals of the American Academy of Social and Political Sciences 387 (January 1970): 64–66; and The Roots of Fundamentalism: British and American Millenarianism, 1800–1930 (Chicago: Univer­sity of Chicago Press, 1970).

[31] This thesis was effectively challenged by Randall Palmer and John D. Woodbridge, “The Princetonians’ Viewpoint of Biblical Authority: An Evaluation of the Ernest Sandeen Proposal,” in Scripture and Truth, ed. D. A. Carson and John D. Woodbridge (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983), 251–286.

[32] Sandeen, “Toward a Historical Interpretation,” 77.

[33] Sandeen, The Roots of Fundamentalism, xii.

[34] Sandeen, The Roots of Fundamentalism, 190–91.

[35] Sandeen, “Toward a Historical Interpretation,” 69.

[36] Sandeen, The Roots of Fundamentalism, 268.

[37] George Marsden, “Defining Fundamentalism,” Christian Scholar’s Review 1 (Winter 1971): 141–151. Sandeen’s response was, “Defining Fundamentalism: A Reply to Professor Marsden,” Christian Scholar’s Review 1 (Spring 1971): 227–233.

[38] George Marsden, “The New School Heritage and Presbyterian Fundamentalism,” Westminster Theological Journal 32 (1970): 129–147. This is an analysis of Presbyterian funda­mentalism, based on the aspects of New School Presbyterianism: dispensational eschatology, revivalism, indepen­dent agencies, and strict moral codes.

[39] George Marsden, “The New School Heritage, 10.

[40] Joel A. Carpenter, Revive Us Again: The Reawakening of American Fundamentalism (New York: Oxford, 1997), 249.

[41] Harold J. Ockenga, The Church in God (Westwood: Revell, 1956), 326–27.

[42] Harold John Ockenga, Everyone That Believeth: Expository Addresses on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1942), 170.

[43] Ockenga, The Church in God, 99–100.

[44] Carl F. H. Henry, “Dare We Renew the Modernist-Fundamentalist Controversy? Part II. The Fundamentalist Reduction,” Christianity Today 1 (24 June 1957): 24.

[45] Carl F. H. Henry, “Dare We Renew the Modernist-Fundamentalist Controversy? Part IV. The Evangelical Responsibility,” Christianity Today 1 (22 July 1957): 24.

[46] Carl F. H. Henry, ed., Basic Christian Doctrines: Contem­porary Evangelical Thought (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1962).

[47] James I. Packer, “The Nature of the Church,” in Basic Christian Doctrines: Contemporary Evangelical Thought, ed. Carl F. H. Henry (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1962), 242.

[48] Gal 3:29; cf. Rom 4:11–18; Gal 6:16. Packer, “The Nature of the Church,” 242.

[49] Packer, “The Nature of the Church,” 242.

[50] Packer also believed baptism “represents primarily union with Christ in His death and resurrection, which is the sole way of entry into the church.” Ibid., 244.

[51] 2 Cor 5:17; Eph 2:1ff; Rom 8:9–14. Ibid.

[52] Edward John Carnell, The Case for Orthodox Theology (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1959), 21. This book was written in response to a request to help produce a trilogy of books expounding the conservative, liberal and neo-orthodox theological positions. His problem was, “could he conscientiously write the case book without probing orthodoxy’s weaknesses? And if he probed the multiple weaknesses subsumed under the label fundamentalism, could he do so without unleashing the Furies? The answer to both questions was no.” Nelson, The Making and Unmaking of an Evangelical Mind, 107.

[53] Carnell, Case for Orthodox Theology, 115.

[54] Carnell, Case for Orthodox Theology, 21.

[55] Edward John Carnell, “The Government of the Church,” in Basic Christian Doctrines, ed. Carl F. H. Henry (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1962), 249.

[56] Carnell, The Case for Orthodox Theology, 66.

[57] Ronald Nash, The New Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1963), 88–91.

[58] See George Marsden, The Evangelical Mind and the New School Presbyterian Experience (New Haven: Yale University, 1970) and Marsden, “The New School Heritage,” 129–147.

[59] Carl McIntire, “Premillennialism,” Christian Beacon 1 (1 October 1936): 4.

[60] Carnell, Case for Orthodox Theology, 117.

[61] Such as a strictly literal hermeneutic, a precise scheme for dividing history into epochs or dispensations, and a pretribulational rapture.

[62] Scofield, Scofield Reference Bible, 1021.

[63] Scofield, Scofield Reference Bible, 1304.

[64] C. I. Scofield, The Scofield Bible Correspondence Course (Chicago: Moody Bible Institute, 1907), 3: 420–22.

[65] Scofield, Correspondence Course, 3: 427.

[66] Scofield, Reference Bible, 1257.

[67] Scofield, Correspondence Course, 3: 430–31.

[68] Scofield, Correspondence Course, 3: 432.

[69] Scofield, Reference Bible, 1276.

[70] C. I. Scofield, Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth (No city: No Publisher, No date), 17.

[71] Carpenter, Revive Us Again, 40.

[72] Carpenter, Revive Us Again, 38.

[73] Carnell, Case for Orthodox Theology, 64.

[74] Harold John Ockenga, “From Fundamentalism,” 43.

[75] Carl F. H. Henry, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Funda­men­talism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1947), 57.

[76] Henry, Uneasy Conscience, 52.

[77] George Ladd, Crucial Questions Concerning the Kingdom of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952).

[78] Millard Erickson, The New Evangelical Theology (Westwood: Revell, 1968), 126.

[79] Henry, Uneasy Conscience, 53.

[80] Carnell, The Case for Orthodox Theology, 122.

[81] Carnell, The Case for Orthodox Theology, 136–37.

[82] Carnell, The Case for Orthodox Theology, 49, 58, 68.

[83] Millard Erickson, Christian Theology 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 1072–73.

[84] Marsden, Reforming Fundamentalism, 84–85.

[85] Marsden, Reforming Fundamentalism, 241.

[86] Carnell, Case for Orthodox Theology, 115.

[87] Billy Graham, Peace with God (Waco: Word, 1953), 178–82.

[88] J. Randall Peterson, “Evangelicalism: A Movement’s Direction,” Evangelical Newsletter (20 December 1985): 4.

[89] Wilfred Bockelman, “A Lutheran Looks at Billy Graham,” Lutheran Standard (10 October 1961).

[90] J. I. Packer, “Why I Signed It,” Christianity Today (12 December 1994), 34–37.

[91] Bill Bright, “Why I Decided to Become a Signatory on the Document, ‘Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium.” An unpublished paper.

[92] We must be careful not to allow evangelism, as important as it is, to become the primary doctrine of fundamentalism either. This writer well remembers a nationally known chapel speaker who years ago declared that soulwinning will cure what ails you, that there is no spiritual problem that cannot be solved by going soulwinning. The grace of God in winning the lost has not eliminated the holiness of God in demanding a pure people.

[93] Carnell, Case for Orthodox Theology, 136.

[94] Calvin, Institutes, 4. i. 19.

[95] Erickson, Christian Theology, 1137.

[96] Ibid., 1138