“It is unfortunate,” said A. J. Balfour, “considering that enthusiasm moves the world, that so few enthusiasts can be trusted to speak the truth.” Another British prime minister, George Canning, made similar pessimistic comment on things not always being what they seem, when in New Morality (sic—and 150 years ago) he spoke of someone who “finds with keen discriminating sight, black’s not so black—nor white so very white.” The ability to recognize and cope with grays might be considered one of the marks of maturity.

Peculiarly appealing, nonetheless, is the challenge of a clear-cut issue. In our youth many of us responded sympathetically to words such as those of Miss V. H. Friedlaender: “When we are grown, we know it is for us to rend the flowery lies from worlds foul with hypocrisy; to perish, stoned and blinded in the desert, that men unborn may see.” Few of us have not at some time gone further, and felt that if only we could fix the circumstances of our own martyrdom, there would be no sacrifice we would not be prepared to make for our faith.

Love of spectacular activity is not, of course, exclusive to the Christian. Long before the days and dreams of Walter Mitty, Naaman showed he had anticipated something very different when he was referred humiliatingly for his cure to the Jordan. Yet the words of the Syrian’s servants have lost none of their ringing relevance down through the centuries to our own age of headline-hitting demonstrations. “If the prophet had bid thee do some great thing, wouldest thou not have done it?”

In working out his purposes, God may call and deal with his people in ways that surprise us. (There is something basically misleading about singing “It Is No Secret What God Can Do.”) God guides some along paths that we cannot understand, and that we may even dislike intensely. One man is called to pacifist protest against the evil of war, another to witness for Christ in an army camp. Here as always it is dangerous to try acting as another’s conscience.

Yet in Britain at the present time, that is precisely what is happening in the renewed discussion among evangelicals about separation. Some are prescribing for their fellows a course of action in terms of “This is the way—walk ye into it”—or, more accurately, “That is not the way—come ye out from it.” Evidently inseparable from a frightening dogmatism, the appeal is not new. What is new is an appallingly bad argument that condemns as “guilty by association” those evangelicals who continue to exercise their ministry within a denomination involved in what is referred to disparagingly as “the ecumenical movement.” (Why depreciate a reputable expression like this one, when what is really meant is the World Council of Churches and allied industries?)

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While we honor the man who follows God-given conscience in breaking much-loved church links, we might honor him rather less if in doing so he impugned the motives of his colleagues with no clear call to secession. There is no virtue in secession in itself (why is it somehow thought there is?). Some pastors are called, not to sacrificial secession, but to sacrificial continuance in situations calling for steady preaching of the evangel amid heretics and apostates, publicans and sinners. That such pastors could adduce good biblical warrant for doing so shows how “guilt by association” is a thoroughly irresponsible charge.

Those who uphold such a charge (and it has weighty support in England) must inevitably, if they are consistent, cope with the sort of question the seventeenth century knew all too well. Is it lawful, for example, to have fellowship with those who have fellowship with Church of England clergy? How many degrees removed from “association” must you be before you are accounted “innocent”? Just as pertinent, who will do the accounting? The whole solemn and agonizing case for secession must not be brought into disrepute through faulty advocacy.

Moves towards separation are usually grounded in a desire to defend the faith by exalting the Word of God and glorifying the Christ of the Scriptures. The aim itself is laudable; our misgivings are directed at some of the conclusions and attitudes that emanate from it. The language of separation is necessarily dogmatic, tempting to a censoriousness wherein the unity of the Spirit is easily quenched. True believers are separated from one another. Concerned for the safety and purity of its movement, separation demands the erection of thicker and higher hedges for self-protection. The absurd lengths to which Taylorism has gone in recent years, leading to questions in Britain’s Parliament, is stark illustration of this tendency. Man-made appendages to the Gospel become all-important, constituting a test for fellowship. Burdens grievous to bear are set on other men’s backs by those who ironically are given to violent denunciation of authoritarian Rome.

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Throughout the world we find the same thing: the evangelical scene continually bedeviled by minor skirmishes that break out on the periphery of the battle, engaging the time and attention of those whose proper place is in the thick of the fight to be fought for the souls of men. The energies of some of our ablest colleagues are all too swiftly diverted to areas of arid controversy and uncivil war against fellow Christians. A recent 300-page book was based on a rebuff allegedly received by its American writer at the Berlin World Congress on Evangelism.

One of the tragedies of Covenanting Scotland was that half a century of godly and learned men produced nothing still read today except Rutherford’s Letters. The “little fair man who showed the loveliness of Christ” showed also a strain of healthy self-criticism not always apparent in his contemporaries. In his dying testimony he freely admits that the Covenanters had weak points, and laments that sometimes they had concentrated on church government to the detriment of the spiritual. “Afterwards,” he remarks, “… in our Assemblies we were more bent to set up a state opposite to a state, than concerned with the meekness and gentleness of Christ.”

The political and ecclesiastical circumstances of the Covenanters were somewhat different from those confronting British evangelicals today, but the principle remains unchanged. The important thing surely is that Jesus Christ be preached in every way to those who do not know him.

The same Samuel Rutherford saw straight to the heart of the matter when he wrote to the Earl of Cassillis in 1637: “Your honourable ancestors, with the hazard of their lives, brought Christ to our hands, and it shall be cruelty to posterity if ye lose Him to them.” Whatever our religious affiliations, and whether we have a call to secede or to remain within our own churches, this is still a word for today.

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