As early as 1953, in the segregated South of my childhood, Billy Graham personally took down the ropes which separated the black and white seating areas at one of his crusades. This step took incredible courage and went against the advice of some of his best friends. I’m grateful he was bold and faithful.
The oft-maligned 19th century revivalist Charles Finney once said, “My duty is to belong to the church, even if the devil should belong to it.” I didn’t know that until a friend, Bob Thompson, pointed it out to me some months ago. Finney was wrong, or so I believe, about more than a few doctrines but he was right about the church and belonging to it regardless of what people thought of it. I’m grateful for his courage and faithfulness on this matter.
But did you also know that the famous evangelist Billy Sunday even went so far as to cooperate with liberal Christians who espoused “higher criticism.” As a result of this belief Sunday accepted an invitation to speak to an assembly of Unitarian clergy. This fact astounds me. I am glad he was so bold and faithful.
While I would do the same as Billy Sunday, if offered that opportunity today, I would not have responded as openly as Billy Sunday did until less than ten years ago. Why? I was persuade that this would be compromise and I feared the consequences if I did compromised. Yes, I have come a long way in my views about how I respond to others in the mission of Christ.
I mentioned in a blog written in early December that I spoke to nearly 350 Moody Bible Institute students along with my friend Fr. Robert Barron, one of the finest preachers of the Christian faith in the Catholic Church. This event, sponsored by students, was downplayed publicly because it appears to have been a first at the school – a Catholic priest and a Protestant mainline minister side-by-side speaking to students about Jesus and theology at the school founded by D. L. Moody. Amazing really. What I did not know in December is that Dwight L. Moody successfully attracted large numbers of Roman Catholics to his evangelistic crusade in Dublin and then steadfastly refused to denounce their doctrinal differences as many urged him to do so at the time. Apparently evangelism was not the same as proselytism for D. L. Moody.
Do you see my direction here? Separatism may be alive and well in some conservative Protestant (and Catholic) circles but it has not always held a vice-grip on the minds and spirits of some of our most conservative preachers. Many Christians have seen beyond the ropes and sought to take them down. The range of issues that required them to take these public actions was broad but it was love and courage that guided them in the Spirit.
While I hope that I will always do what I feel that I should do, regardless of what others do (or did), knowing these historical facts brings me some small measure of comfort. I am not alone in my cooperation with others in the broad conversations and ministry I am seeking with all people everywhere. I will cross any human barrier, spare no effort and make peace with all people everywhere (so much as is possible) for one primary reason – to bring the good news of the kingdom to people as far and as wide as possible in the love of Jesus. If this makes me something, or someone, that people criticize, then I feel I am doing my Lord’s bidding and can handle the opposition in his Spirit.
Think about this – consider the danger of separatism to your soul, to your integrity and even to the mission of Jesus Christ our Lord. The arguments for this practice might seem logically compelling but the practical reality is that this stance is not one that holds up to the scrutiny of the whole message of the Bible nor to the historical facts of Christian experience.