Today's FIEC and E.J. Poole-Connor
(Courtesy of Bible League Quarterly ©2001)
Dr. Peter Masters and Rev. David Fountain
(The following two articles first appeared in the magazine Sword and Trowel. We thank its editor, Peter Masters, for permission to reproduce them here. David Fountain has appended extra material to his article for our magazine, for which we are also most grateful. Mr. Fountain was E.J. Pool-Connor's official biographer, and a former council member of the FIEC and the Bible League - Ed).
Has the FIEC changed its stance?
The Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches and the British Evangelical Council are significant organisations in the ranks of independent churches in Britain. They were founded as vehicles of fellowship for churches that keep decidedly apart from apostasy. Sadly, however, the old clarity and rugged determination to maintain biblical separation is now being undermined by ministers who have turned away from the founding principles. On every hand "old-timers" are expressing dismay at the new attitude of those who want close fellowship ties with evangelicals who remain in their apostate denominations, many of which support ecumenism and recognise Catholics as true Christians (not to mention their accommodation of homosexuals in ministry, and other evils).
Break with founding principles
The Council of the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches recently asked the Rev. Jonathan Stephen of Reading to write a booklet to clarify their position on unity with others. It is entitled - Bible Churches Together - A Plea for True Ecumenism. If this booklet really does reflect the position of the Fellowship, then there has certainly been a break with the founding principles, because Pastor Stephen calls for unity with evangelicals in compromised denominations through the new association named Essentially Evangelical.
To support his plea, the author insists that this association and its mission to unite with denominational evangelicals would have met with the approval of C.H. Spurgeon, E.J. Poole-Connor (the founder of the FIEC) and Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. To borrow the delightful style of Poole-Connor, when we read this claim, "we were astonished. We rubbed our eyes. We even changed our spectacles. Was this the same Poole-Connor we had known and heard and read, or was there another?"
We suffered the same reaction on reading the claim that Dr. Lloyd-Jones would also have favoured fellowship with avidly denominational evangelicals, inextricably associated with rampant liberalism and Catholicism. As for C.H. Spurgeon, did he not write at the time of the Downgrade Controversy - "That I might not stultify my testimony I have cut myself clear of those who err from the faith, and even from those who associate with them."
Mr Stephen is alarmingly mistaken in his "historical revisionism." He greatly misunderstands the deeply held convictions of these spiritual leaders. All three withdrew from compromised denominations. All upheld the absolute necessity of remonstrating with denominational evangelicals to "come out from among them." All condemned any form or level of cooperation with errorists.
Dr. Lloyd-Jones famously crossed swords with Anglicans J.R.W. Stott and J.I. Packer, separating himself from the latter in bringing to a close the Puritan Studies Conference which the latter served as a committee member. The Doctor's Westminster Fraternal was very noticeably reduced in the 1960s because the remonstrations directed towards Anglican attenders became too strong for them to endure, and they stopped attending. (Historical revisionism cannot yet erase these events, for too many of us who were there are still alive.)
Dr Lloyd Jones wanted to see a degree of evangelical unity which few thought feasible, but his vision had firm limits. Organised ties with members of compromised and apostate denominations were beyond those limits. Cordial fellowship at a personal level with "innocent" or "persuadable" denominationalists was clearly different, but organised ties were out of the question.
As far as E.J. Poole-Connor is concerned, his biographer - David Fountain - has provided in the adjoining article a succinct response to Jonathan Stephen's ideas.
The overwhelming majority of Anglican evangelicals are signed up to the views expressed in The Nottingham Statement, namely unity with Rome, and the recognition of Catholic conversion. Dr. Lloyd-Jones rightly said that to deny the exclusive efficacy of the Gospel (evangelically interpreted) is to deny the Gospel.
If it was plainly wrong to remain in apostate denominations in the time of Poole-Connor and Lloyd-Jones, how much more is this true today, when anti-biblical, sinful trends have multiplied within them. If the FIEC (and the BEC) really do endorse the new policy of rapprochement as promoted in the booklet of Jonathan Stephen, then the duty of biblical separation so passionately held and urged by C.H. Spurgeon, Dr. Lloyd-Jones and E.J. Poole-Connor no longer commands their respect. By no stretch of the imagination can these three great preachers be claimed as supporters of Jonathan Stephen's ideas.
Was E J Poole-Connor a Separatist?
Has the FIEC changed its stance in relation to churches in largely liberal denominations, and would the founder, E.J. Poole-Connor, have approved of this? Is any such change of stance biblical?
It is quite clear that the new movement called Essentially Evangelical (endorsed by the FIEC) seeks to bring about fellowship between those who have stayed outside the mainline denominations(e.g. BEC constituent churches) and churches within the mixed denominations that claim to be evangelical.
Jonathan Stephen, in his booklet Bible Churches Together, maintains that the stance of the FIEC has never changed. It is undeniable, however, that Poole-Connor believed that churches should leave the denominations before they could associate with the FIEC. The booklet, Keeping the Faith by T.H. Bendor-Samuel (presenting the basis of the FIEC), makes this position very plain:
"Many men were strongly opposed to liberalism but they saw no need to leave their denominations. 'In it to win it' was the policy of the majority. To call for separation from those who denied the faith was disturbing. People were accustomed to inclusivism. It was most unlikely that the fellowship that was based upon separation and uncompromising evangelicalism would be widely welcome'
"The record of a meeting of the members in these early days shows that ... the need for separation from apostasy was fully recognised."
"... if a church order is followed that leads to toleration of false doctrine and a denial of the Gospel, we are justified in refusing to make one with those that follow it."
Mr Bendor-Samuel's booklet also refers to the fact that though the FIEC would not join the ICCC (the International Council of Christian Churches which practised second-degree separation), Mr Poole-Connor "so strongly supported the ICCC that he maintained his personal membership of a committee that it set up in this country to further its aims."
This point is very relevant because Jonathan Stephen asserts that Mr. Poole-Connor "had no time for second ... degree separation as applied to the association of churches." He further says with reference to second degree separation, "Such thinking would have been anathema to Poole-Connor."
The very opposite is proved by the fact that Mr Poole-Connor not only worked with the national branch of the ICCC in the UK, but he also served on the governing council of the international body. I know this for a fact but, since this plainly contradicts what Jonathan Stephen twice asserts, I decided to get confirmation, and recently spoke to Dr. B.R. Oatey Willis of Toronto, who held office with the ICCC years ago.
He confirmed both that Poole-Connor had been a council member and that the organisation held to second-degree separation. "That was our position," he confidently asserted. He added that he did not think that Poole-Connor could possibly agree with the idea of the FIEC being associated with churches that were still within mixed denominations. It is very surprising that Jonathan Stephen should so confidently assert something that is so obviously wrong about Poole-Connor's views. However, I realise that it is a long time since he died.
I notice from page 30 of Bible Churches Together that the BEC is now theoretically able to welcome into affiliation evangelical churches within mixed denominations. Both the BEC and the FIEC have every right to change their stance, of course, but to assert that the stance of the FIEC has "never changed" appears to me to be quite wrong. On the back page of this booklet the question is put - "Has not the FIEC shifted its stance in the ecumenical debate?" I would say decidedly, "Yes!"
The position of Scripture
In 2 Corinthians 6:14-15, Paul says, "Be not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? ... and what concord hath Christ with Belial?" The Corinthians were not saying in words that there was accord between Christ and Belial, but they were saying it by their actions. It is not words alone that matter, but deeds.
Galatians 2 is a vital part of Scripture in this matter. When Peter would not eat with the Gentiles he was effectively saying something very serious. Paul deduces from his actions that he was really saying, "Christ died in vain." Paul is very strong here. Peter would not have dreamed of saying that Christ died in vain, but his actions were saying it.
Poole-Connor said something similar in his Apostasy of English Nonconformity - "Co-operation with those who hold advanced liberal views tends largely to condone them, for every evangelical so acting is saying, in effect, modernist theology is not as bad as it is painted, for see, I tolerate it."
Dr Lloyd-Jones once addressed a Bible League meeting and made the point that when evangelicals worked side by side with those whom they knew did not take the evangelical view of Scripture doctrine, they were quite unconsciously not treating Scripture as the final authority. They said, in effect, that Christian love and fellowship was more important than right views about the Scriptures.
Lloyd-Jones also spoke about guilt by association with regard to those who had fellowship with men in mixed denominations. He was making an important point when he said, as I clearly remember, concerning men who were in the mixed denominations: "They offer you their right hand but to whom are they giving their left hand?"
If a man offers fellowship to an apostate and also to me, he is making fellowship meaningless. Suppose a man or woman treated someone else in precisely the same way as the one to whom they were married, they would be ruining the relationship. Marriage is unique, so is Christian fellowship. I don't want the fellowship offered me by a man who offers precisely the same thing to a minister of Satan.
If a person is able to sit down at the Lord's Table with the worker of iniquity, I am not prepared to reduce Christian fellowship to something meaningless by sitting down at the Lord's Table with him. He is walking in a disorderly fashion by fellowshipping with the ungodly. He is saying, in effect, "You can deny the faith and still be a child of God." According to 2 Thessalonians 3:14,15, disorderly brethren should be separated from. It is quite clear.
A Unity Within
Jonathan Stephen's booklet presents A Plea for True Ecumenism in opposition to what is clearly a false ecumenism, but the recipe has at its roots the very same false interpretation of John 17 where it is insisted that Christ had in mind visible church unity. To assert that, "visible unity is not the icing on the cake, it is what keeps the cake from falling apart" is staggering!
Turning to this matter positively, may I express what I believe is true ecumenism. A great passage of Scripture on Christian unity is Ephesians 4:1-16. Certainly Paul refers to apostles and prophets, but in practical terms he had in mind the unity of the Christians at Ephesus. True ecumenism is not building a pyramid of churches aiming at visible unity, but it is achieved when Christians within a local congregation exhibit true love one for the other.
Many pastors, church officers and church members believe that what is desperately needed today is true biblical unity within a local congregation. Let me quote from a book I wrote thirty years ago called The Mayflower Pilgrims and their Pastor:
"We hear a great deal about church unity in these days. It is the great issue. Have we forgotten that when the unity of the people of God is spoken of in Scripture it is generally related to the local congregation? What is more costly in human and spiritual terms than to live in peace and harmony in the company of people drawn from all sections of the community? What is more impressive in a world that is growing harder and more selfish all the time than a group of people who only have in common spiritual interests, yet who love and care for one another?"
"What is needed in these days is not larger ecclesiastical units but local congregations that practise what they preach. Truly, the pilgrims were the salt of the earth, and their principles were a light that has powerfully influenced what has become the greatest nation in the history of mankind."
The pilgrims suffered a lot of criticism in those days because they were Separatists. They could well have been described in the way some like them are described in these days, as having a "ghetto mentality." They had no vision for an outward, visible unity but an astonishing vision for the spread of the Gospel throughout the world. They went to the New World primarily to spread the Gospel and their church principles.
John Robinson, the pilgrim pastor, had such a vision that he believed that there would be a mighty harvest: "Religion is not always sown and reaped in one age." He believed that, "Within less than 100 years' there would be "a very plenteous harvest." How mightily that little congregation was used! What faith they had!
Something must be said about the unity they had within their ranks. This must be emphasised because this is the one thing that is lacking in these days. A pastor once said to me, "You have three kinds of churches in these days - churches that have had trouble, churches that are having trouble, and churches that are going to have trouble." We lack role models.
The Separatist congregation at Leyden from which the Mayflower Pilgrims went is, to my knowledge, unequalled in recorded church history. It was said of them by Governor Bradford, looking back, that while they were in Leyden they enjoyed "much sweet and delightful society and spiritual comfort together in the ways of God." He went on to say:
"If at any time any difference did arise, or offences break out, they were ever so met with and nipped in the head betimes, or otherwise so well composed as still love, peace and communion was continued or else the church purged of those that were incurable and incorrigible when, after much patience used, no other means would serve; which seldom comes to pass."
The Leyden church was severely criticised and Bradford again comments:
"I know not but it may be spoken to the honour of God that such was the true piety and humble zeal and fervent love of those people towards God and His ways and the single-heartedness and sincere affection one towards another, that they came as near the primitive pattern of the first churches as any other rank of these later times have done."
"And that which was a crown to them, they lived together in love and peace all their days without any considerable difference or any disturbance that grew thereby but such as was easily healed in love and so they continued until, with mutual consent, they removed to New England."
Pastor John Robinson was outraged at the criticism levelled at his congregation and makes similar remarks:
"I told you that if ever I saw the beauty of Zion and the glory of the Lord filling the Tabernacle it hath been in the manifestation of the diverse graces of God in the church in that heavenly harmony and comely order wherein, by the grace of God, we are set and walk."
He goes on in the same vein, giving a description of the beautiful character of the brethren. An impartial witness bore the same testimony. Edward Winslow from Droitwich met them in 1617 and was so impressed he decided to cast in his lot with them. A great deal more could be said, but space forbids.
A desperate need
What a desperate need there is for congregations where there is true internal biblical unity! This is what is needed. Where is it? It does exist, thankfully, among pastors here and there up and down the country about whom we often know very little because their hearts are in their work. They do not suffer from "establishmentitis." They find their fulfilment in working in the place where God has appointed them. Alas, a lot of their time is spent protecting their flock from the viruses that are everywhere. They are more concerned about the health of their flock than their personal reputation. They look for the day when they will give an account to God for the flock in their care.
In the debate about second-degree separation there has been on the part of some a failure that is fundamental to the very basis of the whole subject. There has not been a clear distinction made between separation that is at a personal level and separation at the church level. It will not do to simply point out that because there has been fellowship at the personal level between those in the FIEC and the mixed denominations, this implies that there has been fellowship at the church level.
Jonathan Stephen quotes Mr. Bendor Samuel's booklet Keeping the Faith to make the point that the FIEC has had fellowship at the personal level: "The FIEC has never been isolationist. We have always sought fellowship with our Evangelical brethren locally. At our united gatherings we have often welcomed speakers from outside our own ranks." This is then followed by the statement a few lines later, "Second-degree separation has never been our policy." What has been left out, however, is absolutely vital. It is the following: "Fellowship at a personal level is not the same as fellowship at the church level." Clearly, the subject Mr. Bendor-Samuel was dealing with was fellowship at the personal level. The second-degree separation he had in mind was at this level, the personal. The context makes it clear.
This does not contradict what has been said earlier, that the FIEC clearly insisted that at the church level separation was essential. Churches had to come out of their denominations before they could be in union with the FIEC. "It was most unlikely that a fellowship that was based upon separation ... would be widely welcomed." The same point is made later: "If a church order is followed that leads to toleration of false doctrine and the denial of the Gospel we are justified in refusing to 'make one' with those who follow it." Mixed denominations clearly tolerated false doctrine, and so the FIEC has refused to "make one" with those who follow that church order. The FIEC has only now "made one" with those who remain in mixed denominations at the church level.
By means of the BEC, and FIEC has had fellowship at the church level with the Free Church of Scotland and the Evangelical Presbyterians of Ulster. It also entered into an association with the Union of Evangelical Churches (a group of some thirty Evangelical Churches mainly in East Anglia). In each case they were denominations that did not tolerate any denial of the faith within their ranks. Until recently, with the emergence of Essentially Evangelical, the FIEC had never had any church fellowship with churches within a mixed body. It has practised second-degree separation at the church level. This is clearly why Mr. Bendor-Samuel made the vital distinction when he wrote, "Fellowship at a personal level is not the same as fellowship at the church level."
In Chapter 7 of his booklet Denomination Confusion and the Way Out, Mr. Poole-Connor made the point, "The Fellowship welcomes Evangelicals from every denomination" (italics mine). Essentially Evangelical is something quite different: it welcomes Evangelicals in every denomination - it does not involve separating from the mixed denominations.
Another important omission from Mr. Bendor-Samuel's book must be referred to. He is quoted as saying, "brethren whose sympathies were with us though they had charge of churches in the denominations." He goes on to refer to "strongly felt feeling that such brethren should belong to us and be recognised." However, this is followed by a vital qualification which is omitted by Jonathan Stephen: "It was decided that they should be welcomed as members if they were not themselves on denominationally accredited ministerial lists. Duplicated ministerial recognition would lead to confusion." These men had to separate from their mixed denominations before they could become personal members. Otherwise, in Mr. Bendor-Samuel's view, it would lead to confusion. He made the same point later: "Associations that cause doctrinal confusion are to be avoided." The point is inescapable. The way out of denominational confusion was to separate at the church level. At the personal level is was something quite different. Second-degree separation was never practised at that level, but it was clearly practised at the church level. If we do not see this distinction and make it clear, we shall misrepresent Poole-Connor and others like him. Dr. Lloyd-Jones adopted precisely the same position. In the case of J.I. Packer, however, it was at the personal, level too, because of his blatant expression of ecumenical thinking and his position in the Puritan Conference.
It is nearly 40 years since Poole-Connor died. It is appropriate to ask, "What would he think of the FIEC now?" I believe he would feel totally out of place and not wish to be identified with it for the following reasons.
Firstly, he believed that the supernatural sign-gifts had ceased, and would be appalled by the fact that so many churches in the FIEC deny this, being virtually charismatic (some totally charismatic).
Secondly, he would be totally opposed to the widespread use of drama in FIEC churches. When he was at the Talbot Tabernacle he wrote an article in the Fellowship Quarterly about "the growing worldliness of the younger Evangelical clergy. Theatricals and Passion Plays are commonplace now in so-called Evangelical parishes." In a pamphlet entitled Take These Things Hence, he made an forceful protest against the introduction of theatricals into the Christian church. He would be horrified at the use of dramatics in one way or another in FIEC churches.
Thirdly, He would find it beyond belief that any FIEC church, especially a prominent one, could be clearly ecumenical. I am not thinking of Westminster Chapel. A great deal could be said about the changes here. There is no longer a sense of shock at what has been going on. There is a sense of shock, however, at what has happened at the Above Bar Church in Southampton, a prominent FIEC church. Poole-Connor would find the following events beyond belief. Pastor Phillips was a close friend of his and the minister who followed him, Leith Samuel, was well known for his Protestant views. He also became the President of the Protestant Truth Society in his latter days. So this makes the well-publicised ecumenical event that took place last summer even more astonishing.
A whole page was given over in the "Daily Echo" (Southampton) for Saturday, 10 June 2000. It advertised "Pentecost 2000 - All Together in One Place," organised by Southampton Evangelical Alliance and "Churches Together" in Southampton. The programme is described in detail in the advertisement. It began with a welcome by the Chairman of the Southampton Evangelical Alliance and included contributions by the main denominations. Among these was the reading of the Creed, led by John Balchin, Senior Minister of Above Bar Church, followed by the Lord's Prayer, led by John O'Shea, Roman Catholic Dean of Southampton.
It was reported on the Monday. A two-page spread had the headline, "Unity Like Never Before." "They stood side by side in a mass celebration of their faith. The Christian community of the region united like never before. At the core of the event was a celebration of the Christian festival, Pentecost. The organiser, the Chairman of the Evangelical Alliance, said, "It's gone exceptionally well. There has been total harmony and co-operation. It really has been great fun." The Above Bar Church brought forward the time of their morning service so church members could share in the event. There is no doubt whatever as to what happened. Comment is superfluous. Poole-Connor himself would be absolutely horrified. It is difficult to know how far FIEC churches compromise in this way. It is clear, however, that the Evangelical Alliance is having a big influence. There is no room for being involved with those who tolerate within their ranks such activities when the exclusiveness of the Gospel is denied by involvement with Rome.