By Pastor Glenn Pease
Harry Emerson Fosdick has much thinking that is not acceptable to the evangelical Christian, but he also has many valuable insights that make his writings of real worth. One of his ideas is that a man should not be judged so much by the position he is in, as by the direction in which he is moving. He uses the stock market as an illustration. To judge the value of a figure quoted on a certain stock, it is not enough just to have the figure of its present position, but one must know whether it has reached that figure on the way up or the way down. It is not where it is, but the direction in which it is going, that tells the value of the stock.
So it is with people. It is not enough just to know where they are. You must also know which way they are headed, and whether it be up or down. Some start very high by natural endowment or fortunate circumstances, and then head downward, while others start at the bottom and struggle upward, and at some point says Fosdick, they will pass, and be considered equal, but not so, for one is drifting down while the other is climbing up. It is not their position, but their direction that determines the value of their position.
This is true, not just for judging for secular success, but it fits the spiritual life as well. The Apostle John is using it as a standard by which to judge the antichrists of his day. In verse 19 John says that they have been made manifest by the direction in which they have gone. They were visibly with us at one time, and could have been judged as equals, for they were in the same church and same fellowship. Now, however, they have gone out from us, and this departure shows us they were really not of us, even when they were with us. Their position fooled us for a while, but once we saw the direction in which they were going, we knew they were not of us.
It is significant to note that the antichrists were not outsiders, but were those who were within, but who then went out of the church. This makes sense, for false doctrines seldom have their origins outside the church, for those outside have no interest in doctrine. The heretics down through the centuries were men who were deeply interested in theology, and considered themselves Christians. So it is today with the radical theologians who question orthodox theology. So it was with the Gnostics in John's day. They were not anti-God by any means, but they were convinced they had the real truth about God, and they were deeply religious. Their departure from the true church, and from the deity of Christ revealed that they were really never a part of the body of Christ.
What makes this of interest is that John is admitting that the Apostolic Church was not infallible by a long shot. Just like churches today, the membership roles then were filled with those who were not truly saved. Whenever you hear some saint complaining because non-Christians get into the membership of the church, you can remind them that Judas got in on the ground level when Christ began to build the church, and that the church of the first century was also filled with false Christians. That has been the case in every age.
It is ignorance of history that causes Christians to look upon the past as golden, and see only rust in the present age. The church is in bad shape in many ways, but is far stronger now than it has been in other periods. The sooner we quit groaning in self pity and recognize we face only the same problems the church has always faced, the sooner we will get moving along the road of fulfilling our task. John says that there was a great apostasy in the church of his day. John doesn't sink into pessimism, but simply says that it teaches us that all who are with us are not necessarily of us. Every church since has had to recognize this, that just as Christians can be in the world but not of it, so the world can be in the church but not of it.
When the unsaved within in the church get organized, as they did in John's day, then you usually have a split. This is not to say that all splits are a matter of saved and unsaved factions, for this is not so. This would be giving Christians a credit they do not deserve, for they have often been foolish and unchristian, and have been tools of the devil in causing divisions. In John's case, however, he judges those who have gone out as being antichrists, and he can do so, for he is an Apostle, and knows that the true church is built on the foundation of the Lordship of Christ, which they reject.
He knows that anyone who would forsake the group that holds to Christ's deity must be unsaved. By the same standard we can judge persons today. Those who do not accept Christ as Lord are made manifest as antichrists.
This passage has been used in false ways. The Catholic church made much of it when Luther went out of the Catholic church. He was branded as antichrist. Any group can take this passage and brand any who depart from them as antichrists, if the main concept of the passage is ignored. It is only in this context as departure from the body of Christ, which holds Christ as Lord, that fulfills the type of apostasy of which John is writing. We cannot judge any person to be an apostate until we can say they have denied the Son. When person have done so they can be labeled as antichrists. B. H. Carroll said, "When you see a star fall you can know it is not a star." So when you see a deserter of the faith, you can know he was not a true disciple of the faith.
We see from this verse that there are two sides to the concept of separation. In itself it is not a virtue to be a separatist, for it is as much the method of antichrist as it is of the true church. The multitude of false cults are the product of separation. The truth is irksome to the unsaved, so they depart and start their own religion where they can do and believe as they please. It makes all the difference in the world what you are separating from. If it is from the world and false doctrine, then you follow Christ, but if it is from the truth and God's people, you follow antichrist. John says, when you can see a person going the wrong direction, you can judge him to be an apostate.
The New Testament pictures the church as a living organism, and believers are members of it. They are hands, feet, eyes and ears etc. Every true believer is a living part of the body, and if he is not, he is not of the body. John Cotton, the old Puritan commentator wrote concerning these apostates: "A glass eye maybe an ornament to the body, and a wooden leg may support the body, yet they are not true members. So much may be ornaments and supports of the church, but yet not true members. Though they cleave to the body, yet they are not joined by nerves and sinews, nor anointed by the head. Just as not all Israel was true Israel, so not all the church is the true church.
It also shows a very close unity of true Christians in this period. The implication of this verse is that only unbelievers would ever leave the church. No true Christian would forsake the body of Christ. This text should have prevented many of the separations that have occurred in history. John Cotton comments on this matter in a way we need to consider. He wrote, "It may be just to separate when a church is heretical, yet that alone is not a sufficient ground. The church at Corinth denied the resurrection of the dead, yet Paul calls them saints; so the Pharisees charged that none should profess Christ, and taught false doctrine, yet Christ charges His disciples to obey them because they sit in Moses' chair. Therefore error, even fundamental error, is not always a just cause."
Many Christians built their separatist ideas on political, sociological, and systematic theological foundations, and not on Scripture. Man made differences become a matter of idolatry when they are used to divide Christians. Unless it can be established that a group or man has denied the deity of Christ, it is a Christian obligation to work out any differences in the spirit of Christ, and not be separated. If Christian would have always done so, there would never have been so much disunity among Christians. Christians need to stay in places of leadership in all organizations to maintain a Christian influence, rather than separate and leave the group to become totally secular, or even anti-Christian. R.E.O. White writes to evangelical Christians concerning their relationship to the ecumenical movement and points out all of the dangers and risks involved, but adds, "Nevertheless, evangelicals must remember that to stand aloof from a movement for fear of what that movement might do, when standing aloof may make more likely the thing you fear, involved some responsibility for the thing you foresaw but did nothing to prevent."
If Billy Graham was a separatist, he would not be Billy Graham, and the Gospel he preaches would remain unheard by millions. Graham has the attitude of John, and says if men do not like the truth they will leave us, and thereby prove they are not of us. In other words, let the devil retreat, but let not the church forsake territory it has already won. John was doing all he could to keep the church stable and centered on the solid rock of Christ. The influence of false doctrine was everywhere, but John did not advise retreat, but like Paul and other New Testament authors, he encouraged Christians to stand fast for the truth. If any separation is to take place, let it be the satanic separation of those who cannot tolerate the deity of Christ.