Recent kerfuffle over a Christian university changing its philosophy and practice of music has led to much discussion over whether disagreements over music and worship philosophy warrant separation between believers. Here’s my attempt at an answer.
I do not view separation as some kind of binary “on/off switch.” In other words, my answer to this question will involve evaluating specific people/churches and situations, not an automatic “separation” if so-and-so uses a particular song. Neither do I separate/cooperate based on whether one is in a particular “camp” or “circle.” Separation involves more nuanced thought and evaluation in my opinion.1
Of course, when it comes to those who deny truths essential to the gospel, separation in terms of Christian fellowship becomes more binary. But when a situation involves someone with whom I share agreement over the gospel, whether or not I will cooperate with him is based on numerous criteria, including what exactly the particular cooperation will involve.
Essentially, I view separation as withholding or limiting cooperation from a particular person or church in a particular situation for a particular reason. In other words, I might cooperate with someone in one situation and not in another. It all depends upon the relationship between the disagreement in question and the situation requiring cooperation. For example, I might be able to stand side-by-side with a conservative Presbyterian in order to preach the gospel, but I (as a Baptist) would not be able to plant a church with him given our disagreement regarding church polity and baptism, among other things.
So a very simple answer to the question would be that no, music philosophy is not a separation issue of the same kind of level as heterodoxy or flagrant, known sin.
But if we extend the definition of “separation” to include limiting cooperation over lesser issues, then the question becomes, Is music/worship philosophy a significant enough issue to warrant the limiting of cooperation?
We’re talking very practical situations here, like, will I encourage people to go to that church’s ministry conference, will I recommend a particular college or seminary, or will I link arms with that person or ministry?
I would argue that music/worship philosophy may limit cooperation in some circumstances because of the deeper philosophies of culture that lie beneath music/worship practice.
The difference between what I’ll call a Conservative philosophy of culture and a Progressive philosophy can be seen in the Fundamentalist/New Evangelical divide of the mid-Twentieth century.
Some will insist that a Fundamentalist was simply one who believes in the fundamentals of the faith. However, what is evident historically is that the divide between Fundamentalism and a New Evangelicalism was never over doctrine. As late as 1982, Harold Ockenga stated that when it came to doctrine he wished to always be classified as a Fundamentalist.
Others will add that a Fundamentalist is one who will separate from those who deny the fundamentals. While this is certainly true, and has come to be the hot issue of disagreement, separation itself is the not the primary issue of difference between Fundamentalism and today’s Evangelicalism. For example, several prominent modern Evangelicals do practice a form of separation. Whether or not they separate from what Kevin Bauder calls “indifferentists” is another matter, but they do seem to separate in some sense from those who deny the gospel.2
But the issue of separation was not the primary reason for the Fundamentalist/New Evangelical divide. Actually, separation was a secondary issue for the early New Evangelicals. It was a symptom of a greater agenda, and that agenda involved their philosophy of culture.
The primary reason New Evangelicals split from Fundamentalists was their desire to engage their culture. Fundamentalists had been known to separate from the world, and the New Evangelicals saw that posture as extreme. They wanted to engage the world, and they had to get rid of separation to do so. In the words of Rolland McCune, they wanted “to make the truth-claims of Christianity intellectually respectable and to penetrate the culture for Christ.”3
It is in this agenda that the Christian progressive philosophy of culture rises to prominence. Whether it was a particular philosophy of culture that birthed their agenda, or an agenda that influenced their philosophy of culture is perhaps unclear, but the links between the agenda and the philosophy are unmistakable. The New Evangelicals, unlike their Fundamentalists brothers,4 saw culture as neutral — something to be assimilated into the Church in order to engage the world with the gospel. Relevance was key to gospel propagation. An emphasis on the doctrine of common grace gave them justification for their philosophy.
Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.
Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.
Instead of viewing “the world” as significantly influencing the culture around them, New Evangelicals limited “worldliness” to only those vices explicitly condemned in Scripture. Therefore, culture around them was no longer critiqued with careful discernment; it was now welcomed with open arms as the best means to reach the world. Murray argues that this is a serious problem for Evangelicals:
Apostasy generally arises in the church just because this danger ceases to be observed. The consequence is that spiritual warfare gives way to spiritual pacifism, and, in the same spirit, the church devises ways to present the gospel which will neutralize any offense. The antithesis between regenerate and unregenerate is passed over and it is supposed that the interests and ambitions of the unconverted can somehow be harnessed to win their approval for Christ. Then when this approach achieves ‘results’ — as it will — no more justification is thought to be needed. The rule of Scripture has given place to pragmatism.5
This agenda can be still clearly seen in many Evangelical churches today. Murray notes,
That this has happened on a large scale in the later-twentieth century is to be seen in the way in which the interests and priorities of contemporary culture have come to be mirrored in the churches. The antipathy to authority and to discipline; the cry for entertainment by the visual image rather than by the words of Scripture; the appeal of the spectacular; the rise of feminism; the readiness to identify power with numbers; the unwillingness to make ‘beliefs’ a matter of controversy — all these features so evident in the world’s agenda are now also to be found in the Christian scene. Instead of churches revolutionizing the culture the reverse has happened. Churches have been converted to the world.6
I would also argue that this agenda and this philosophy of culture will inevitably lead to doctrinal compromise. One cannot assimilate the world without being influenced by the world. That this has happened in Evangelicalism is without question. One of first doctrines to go was inerrancy, followed soon by justification by faith alone in Christ alone (evidenced by statements by New Evangelicalism’s poster-boy, Billy Graham and the New Perspective on Paul) and the omniscience of God (evidenced by Open Theism).
Now what is certain is that many conservative Evangelicals today would not necessarily agree with the agenda of the early New Evangelicals, nor do they adopt the pragmatic assimilation of the world that the Mega-church Movement promotes. Many conservative Evangelicals are recovering and defending the doctrines mentioned above, are beginning to practice separation over cardinal doctrines, and even preach on holiness and separation from the world. However, and this is the key point, the underlying philosophy of culture remains the same. Culture is still viewed, for the most part, as generally neutral.
Furthermore, while conservative Evangelicals are recovering the doctrinal orthodoxy that they lost, many seem to be unwilling to jettison what worldliness they have already assimilated (since their philosophy of culture does not see it as worldliness), and this is where the issue of music fits. Contemporary Christian Music as we know it rose out of the progressive cultural philosophy of New Evangelicalism, because they viewed pop culture as essentially neutral, and their agenda called for cultural assimilation in order to reach the culture.7 Conservative Evangelicalism has inherited the same philosophy and the same music. Paradoxically, many Evangelicals are Conservative theologically while Progressive culturally.
Conservative Fundamentalism,8 on the other hand, has historically looked at the culture around it with an eye of suspicion. Not all culture is seen as necessarily evil, but the Conservative default is to distrust it. Conservatives have always been concerned to separate themselves from the world, and this includes pop culture.
Because of this philosophy, Conservative Fundamentalism has preserved doctrinal orthodoxy. This does not mean that error has not crept into the belief systems of many Fundamentalists. But by and large, important doctrines including the deity of Christ, the verbal inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture, the exhaustive foreknowledge of God, and justification by faith alone are maintained by Fundamentalists.9 This cannot be said for the grandchildren of New Evangelicalism.
Ironically, some conservative Evangelicals are recognizing this philosophy of culture as a strength of Fundamentalism. Consider, for instance, a blog post by Rick Phillips, an Evangelical pastor in Greenville, SC. He is explaining his reasons for sending his children to Bob Jones Academy (a Fundamentalist institution), even though he may disagree with some of their standards and doctrine:
The fundamentalists get the idea of antithesis. . . .10 I find in general that the fundamentalists get the idea that the Bible really is the Word of God and that our only salvation is in the blood of Christ. There is no talk about postmodern hermeneutics among the fundamentalists. They believe the Bible is the Word of God because it says so, and so do I. They believe that men, women, and children are sinners who must believe in the cross in order to be saved. There is no talk of alternative theories of the atonement with them. They understand that the church must stand out against the world, that holiness is our calling, and that Christians are to witness to the lost. Amen, amen, and amen. They get the Christian antithesis, that light has shined in the darkness and that we are to walk in the light and shine the light into the darkness.
Frankly, because of the big idea of antithesis, I am more comfortable with the fundamentalists than I am with the broad evangelicals. More and more, broad evangelicals do not get the idea of antithesis, and for this reason even when they have a pretty good formal doctrinal statement, they seldom really stand up for it. In Psalm 1 terms, the broad evangelicals are to willing to “walk in the counsel of the ungodly”. Broad evangelicals want to be successful; fundamentalists want to be faithful.11
The “big idea of antithesis” is code for the Conservative philosophy of culture. It is a certain posture that assumes the world is in opposition to God, thus protecting biblical orthodoxy and orthopraxy from subtle attacks. Consider also comments by John Piper:
What I want to say about Fundamentalism is that its great gift to the church is precisely the backbone to resist compromise and to make standing for truth and principle a means of love rather than an alternative to it. I am helped by the call for biblical separation, because almost no evangelicals even think about the doctrine.12
Now, two quick points about the Conservative philosophy of culture with respect to those who call themselves “Fundamentalists.” First, it is my belief that the early Fundamentalists applied this philosophy of culture a little bit too late. Or to put it another way, they did not recognize the sinfulness of culture around them until it got so bad they could not help but notice. Early on (even before the Fundamentalist/Modernist controversy) churches assimilated forms of pop culture that seemed to be harmless (mostly Victorian sentimentalism). Later when pop culture slipped even further, Fundamentalists thankfully resisted. However, some Fundamental churches today are still using those same out-dated pop musical forms that do not really fit the weight of biblical truth. In this way, some Fundamentalists, too, seem to be unwilling to jettison what they have inherited, even if it is not demonstrably good.
Second, unfortunately Fundamentalism’s strong stance on separation from the world and strong militancy in defense of orthodoxy have often resulted in extremes. In the area of separation from the world, some Fundamentalists have attempted to prove that their extra-biblical standards are the word of God. That they set these standards for themselves in order to protect from worldliness is admirable, but to preach the standards as Gospel is deplorable. Instead, they should present the standards for what they are — boundaries to protect from worldliness.13
Furthermore, in the area of militancy in defense of orthodoxy, some Fundamentalists have defended the truth in an ungodly manner. This, too, is inexcusable. Both of these extremes must be carefully avoided by anyone convinced of a separatist philosophy.
But really, it is not “Fundamentalism” that is my concern here. As I said above, separation, or withholding cooperation, has little to do with whether or not a person or ministry calls themselves “Fundamentalist.” Actually, there are many who call themselves “Fundamentalists” who are not Conservative in their philosophy of culture. The question we are considering is whether or not a person or ministry with a Conservative philosophy of culture may have to limit cooperation with a person or ministry that holds to a more Progressive philosophy.
I would argue that even if two churches share exactly the same doctrinal convictions, their underlying philosophies of culture inherently affect their ability to cooperate. Why? Because one’s view of culture significantly affects the ways in which his doctrine is handled.
For instance, two churches may agree concerning the doctrine of God, but how they view culture will affect how that God is worshiped. Two churches may agree on the gospel, but how they view culture is going to affect how they present the gospel. Two churches may agree on polity, but how they view culture will affect how they plant churches. And this is just as true for the educational institutions we recommend.
Culture (or music) is not the most important thing. But culture is the dish in which precious cuisine is placed. So culture matters just like you would be concerned if some prime rib were served on a dirty paper plate.
Culture is the dish in which the gospel is served to the world. The gospel is the most important thing, but the dish matters.
One’s philosophy of culture effects everything, because culture effects everything. Culture is the tangible expression of worldview, and some worldviews are incompatible with biblical doctrine. Therefore, differences in philosophy of culture will limit ability to cooperate in some circumstances. In the same way, agreement over a philosophy of culture will often make cooperation possible even when there are other minor differences of doctrine. Ironically, this is what Rick Phillips seems to realize by sending his children to BJA.
One additional point of consideration here. Significant doctrinal differences are certainly more serious than differences of cultural philosophy. But I would argue that differences of philosophy of culture are more dangerous because they are more subtle. Allow me to explain. If someone in my congregation is exposed to an argument for infant baptism or the continuation of sign gifts, I can fairly easily point him to exegetical and theological reasons I do not hold to such doctrines. But if someone in my congregation is exposed to sacred music that is fleshly, it is much more difficult to demonstrate why that music is fleshly because expression of abstract emotion (that’s what music is) is difficult to articulate.
It is for this reason that I view differences in philosophy of culture as more limiting to cooperation than differences in seconary doctrines within the realm of orthodoxy. This perspective is no longer limited to Evangelicalism — there are plenty of Fundamental churches that I could not cooperate with since we do not share this philosophy. But one’s philosophy of culture is important because culture affects everything, especially the gospel.
Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is on faculty at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He has written two books, dozens of articles, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and two children.