Unable to See the Forest For the Trees

by Mike Ratliff

And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written,

“‘This people honors me with their lips,

but their heart is far from me;

in vain do they worship me,

teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’

You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.” (Mark 7:6-8 ESV)

About six or seven years ago before my old church was taken over with its current PDC madness, it became a haven for several families and single adults from a Fundamental Baptist church in our area that had forced them to leave. They were disciplined and expelled from membership because they refused to sever relationships with others in their families who the leadership in that church determined “were in sin.” I became close to several of the couples and taught them in my Bible Study class and what I discovered was that they were actually starved for the Word of God. They were not being fed the truth regularly as they should have been, but, instead, were fed the commandments of men. 

On the other hand, there were a few who came from that church with whom I always seemed to be in a sort of turmoil. These fellows did not like the fact that I taught from a Bible that was not the King James. I used the New King James sometimes. Other times I used the English Standard Version. Other times I used the New American Standard. Sometimes, I used them all in the same lesson along with quotes from the KJV, but what really got them going was when I used Greek and Hebrew to prove my points instead of going to the KJV.

Before I go any further here I want all to understand where I stand on the Doctrine of Unity and Separation. If you have not read that post, please click the link and read it. That doctrine clearly states how we are to handle professing Christians who are obviously not doctrinally sound. We do so Biblically, not emotionally, not vengefully, and not hatefully. Yes, we name them and warn the Body of Christ if these people do not repent. Yes, we do not fellowship with them nor go into ministry with them. However, there are some in the radical, fundamentalist camp who would want to hang one of us on a tree if we even visited the website of Saddleback Valley Baptist Church. With all the turmoil roiling around John Piper and his relationship with Rick Warren, I was very surprised one day to receive an email from someone accusing me of compromising because on my old website that I had not updated in over three years, there were still links there back to John Piper’s Desiring God ministry web site. My response? Internally I wanted to scream, “So What!” However, what I did was graciously tell the person that that website was out of date and I really did not have the time to keep it up to date, but at the first opportunity I would go check it out.

When John MacArthur visited Liberty University not long ago, I received many warning emails about that. I did not even go to check them out. I just waited until I heard from GTY that he had preached at Chapel there to the student body. Is Ergun Caner still there? I’m not sure, but even so, what has that to do with John MacArthur preaching at Chapel to the students?

I did not like it when Michael Horton participated in that “conversation” at Saddleback Valley Church last year. However, I did listen to the entire “conversation.” I was bored to tears. What a waste of time except when Dr. Horton did interject some real Christian things in there that were so different than the Dominionism or emergent or PDC junk that everyone else was talking about. I got several questioning emails at that time about that. My questions back to those who sent them was this, “Did Dr. Horton compromise? Did he say anything that would lead anyone to believe that he was now in league with Rick Warren and the PDC paradigm? There was nothing in that that would suggest anything like that.

However, the worst thing that came out of it was the picture taken with Dr. Horton and Rick Warren with the statue of John Calvin between them. Whatever the circumstances behind that, I believe that it was not a wise decision on Dr. Horton’s part to do that. However, does this mean that he violated the Doctrine of Unity and Separation? If you go through that very carefully, then you must say that he did not.

Right now within the discernment camp, there is a lot of unwise things going on. The foundation for that is what some refer to as radical fundamentalist separation. It requires secondary separation from anyone that is even accused of being guilty of apostasy or heresy. The rule is guilt by association. Let’s say that I know a well known Christian leader. We are friends and I have a link to his site on my blog and he links to me. However, he is also a friend with someone in the Acts 29 network, but that friendship is not one that crosses doctrinal issues. Instead, my friend uses that relationship to get information about what is going on in that camp. Someone in the radical fundamentalist separation group finds out about that relationship and calls out my friend. He resists them and I defend him. Now I am looked at as if I am guilty of compromise because I have a relationship with someone they suspect. However, the real problem is that they are applying unbiblical rules of separation here and it is revealed in method and the intensity of hate that comes down on all who resist them.

I remember when I first started this blog and started working with Ken at CRN. There was a group of people at a site called CRN.info that dedicated themselves to shutting us down. Some of them are still trying to do so. Ken and I talked about this earlier today and he said that the emergent movement actually sprung up as a protest against the Baptist Fundamentalist/KJV Onlyism movement. What they were resisting (legalism) was wrong, but how they went about resisting it (the emergent movement) was wrong too. In any case, the rage and ugly attacks and outright underhanded methods these guys used against Ken and some of us at times, I think, showed that their hearts were not with God at all. Now, think of the ugliness in the attacks that come from these seek and destroy missions of the guilt by association group. I have had to block several of their emails recently because they use the same tactics that those CRN.info boys used. That is sad and very telling.

I remember back then trying to get both sides to understand that I was neither a Fundamentalist nor Emergent. I was simply one tied to the Word of God as His Truth with Christ as Lord. I am His slave and He is Head of the Church. How dare anyone go against that, but that is what man does through man-made religiosity in all its forms. When I am in battle form and I turn to a fellow warrior for prayer support and all I get is emotion or despair, et cetera then I know that many of those I thought were suited up in the full armor of God for battle are actually only practicing their man-made religiosity in the power of their flesh and I had better not depend on them at all. Lately, I have encountered that quite a bit and it has been rather eye opening.

My brethren, God is Sovereign. When are we going to stop pointing accusing fingers at each other about who said what about who and instead, obey what God says to do? Should we be discerning? Absolutely! Should we practice the doctrine of Unity and Separation? Absolutely! In doing so, instead of attacking one another, why not spend that time and energy in some time before the throne of grace in confession and repentance?

Soli Deo Gloria!

18 thoughts on “Unable to See the Forest For the Trees

  1. Two points came to mind reading your post; I’ve had the same ones in the past when reading online forums regarding issues like what you describe.

    First, clarity in definitions is always important, but it’s critical when discussions can become (or already have grown) heated. In this case, I think what’s bound up in the word “friend” can color how one reads what you’ve written.

    You mentioned a hypothetical friendship that doesn’t “[cross] doctrinal issues.” I’d wager many who’d urge a greater degree of separation would find that a contradictory statement; for them, real friendship doesn’t allow for such a possibility (per Jas 4:4, 2 Jn 9-11, and related passages). It’s not my intent to argue their point, only to illustrate that even “friend” can have different scopes, and that can confuse the issue and bring frustration to the discussion on every side.

    Second, I think sometimes the specter of secondary separation is raised to dodge the need to examine all our associations carefully, and at times, to avoid the appearance of endorsing something questionable. This care is more important for teachers, especially those with a high public profile; I know GTY had a policy (they may still have it) on “secondary separation” that treated the need for it on a case-by-case basis. That seems prudent to me.

    You write that Dr. Horton taking the picture with Dr. Warren was unwise; I’d agree. But most who’ve trumpeted the “guilt by association” charge in that case haven’t granted even that much. They not only see nothing wrong with anything he did, they belittle the concerns of anyone who does, and I find that troubling. Yes, guilt by association can be a logical fallacy, and when it is, falling into it is a mistake in discernment. But neglecting 1) to see that one’s actions can seem to (or worse, be used to) endorse questionable or false teachings and 2) acting accordingly is also a mistake in discernment which runs counter to Jas 3:1.

    The rub is what “acting accordingly” means; I think it is *another* discernment issue. In many situations, it is an issue of conscience whether separation is the best course, or whether participating is reasonable so long as one is careful (even to the point of bluntness) to ensure clarity in promoting the truth and pointing out the false.


  2. Dear Mike,
    “If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have LOVE, I am nothing.” 1 Corinthians 13:2

    “ABOVE ALL, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins.” 1 Peter 4:8

    Do we really LOVE. To love like Christ. He loved us while we were yet sinners (Romans 5:8). Do we love others like this?

    Can we not watch and pray for our Savior for One Hour?

    “And He came and found them sleeping, and said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep watch for one, hour?” “Keep watching and praying that you may not come into temptation; the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Mark 14:37-38

    May God be so gracious to us as to allow us the honor of watching and praying for Him.
    In sweet submission to the Savior, charisse


  3. Thanks for your well-reasoned comment Jason.

    My example was indeed hypothetical, but based on real instances that I have dealt with since I began this ministry. I have good friends who have helped me a great deal who are good servants of God, but there are others that you and I both know who have a problem with their theology or something they said in a book they wrote or who their friends are or whatever. Do you see how crazy this gets????

    The issue of friends not crossing doctrinal issues that you say is not possible…. Well my younger brother and I are not alike in theology at all. We disagree in many areas and in many cases I consider some of his beliefs to be heretical. Does that mean I no longer love him and that I treat him as a stranger, et cetera? No, I pray for him and we talk and I continue to reason with him all the time in an attempt to get him to come back into the light. I doubt if I am the only one in ministry in this boat…I will never stop praying for him nor will I turn away from him. Does this make me guilty somehow of participating in his heresy? Anyone who would accuse me of that is no better than those Baptist Fundamentlist who I referenced in the first paragraph of this post.

    I agree with GTY’s policy completely. This post came about because of total frustration with certain people accusing me and a few others of something that we had no control over that was all about this idiotic guilt by association stuff that has gone completely out of control. If you read the first paragraph in my post then you know that what those dear brothers and sisters were going through by being cast out of their church by legalistic jerks simply because they refused to be separated from OTHERS in their own families who that church considered to ‘be in sin’ was something none of us should go through. When I was dealing with that with them I kept looking for the forgiveness via the grace of God in it and found it only in these dear souls back toward their oppressors. I found none in those pharisees.

    Soli Deo Gloria


  4. Great article (as usual), Mike.

    I am seeing more and more arguments spring up within the body of Christ – many times, over what I understand to be secondary issues. Even worse, I see guys like Steve Furtick and other emergent leaders using disputes in the body to call into question any type of discernment exhibited by the true body of Christ and accuse as us being judgmental.


  5. I love that you wrote this post, it’s been something I find myself thinking about a lot lately, and you’re putting your finger on something that is so crucical for us to understand if we’re going to be “wise as serpents but innocent as doves…”

    The whole “guilt by association” thing, it’s such a fine line… To be perfectly honest, I do think there have been several instances of people in the “discernment camp” who seemed to jump on certain relationships as though that in itself was tantamount to believing the same false teachings…

    But you mentioned the “Emergent/fundamentalist debate”, and I believe that really does have so much to do with all the confusion… Ever since these various teachers who fall under this “emergent” umbrella (which is itself a difficult thing to define) have been vague and self-questioning in their theology from the beginning (which is what “postmodernism is all about after all…) it puts those who are trying to discern what this new “movement” really is in a rather difficult spot… Often times, you’re dealing with internal theological leanings that are never outwardly acknowledged or admitted, the emergents will retain evangelical language and put their own spin on it, and so begins this game of trying to figure out what direction a certain teacher is really heading in, and so on… So in many circumstances you find yourself looking for “clues” to help give you an idea of where someone really stands, and the matter of which other people/ministries that teacher chooses to associate with often times speaks volumes…

    But then of course there is the whole backlash to that, and it seems we are certainly in the middle of that “chapter” right now. The weirdest part though is that the more people trying to exercise discernment make these tenuous accusations based solely on their association with another person, the more this actually plays right into the hands of the Emergents…

    The situation you described with your brother, Mike, is the sort of thing I’ve heard many times from guys within the Emergent camp, who will eagerly tell you that none of us agree on absolutely everything, and so they argue it’s ridiculous to sever relationships with anyone because you disagree over doctrine… It’s one of those manipulative moves that actually has a lot of teeth to it, because so many within the Church have experienced some form of un-Christ-like division in their lives.

    Ecumenicalism seems to feed on this… This is why we who are serious about exposing the false teachings that are now everywhere within the mainstream church must be exceedingly cautious not to fall into this trap.


  6. Markus, exactly. These secondary issues are like quicksand or a swarm of hornets that just overwhelm us and keep us from true discernment. As we get bogged down in all of that we create a circus atmosphere and guys like Furtick just take advantage of it. I think we need a lot more wisdom and to be shown here and perhaps a lot of the shrillness needs to go away. Thanks for the great comment brother.


  7. Amen Daniel! I agree brother. My brother and I are at a place were we now agree to disagree. I have seen progress though. There was a time when I couldn’t talk to him about it at all. I have not budged. I have not compromised at all. The issues are still Doctrinal and What God’s Word says as opposed to what those he follows have experienced. So…this forces me into a more Christ dependency of prayer in order to deal with it all since I cannot. Perhaps God is using it to grow me. In any case, thanks for the great comment brother.


  8. Just to clarify, I wasn’t saying that friendship across doctrinal lines was not possible, but only that people who believe in a biblical call for greater separation would say so.

    I appreciate the struggle you describe in dealing with your brother, and I agree that there are lessons to be learned there. But I wonder if it’s analogous to the situations that concern people urging greater caution (or even greater separation). Two things make me hesitant to apply it in that way.

    First, your relationship with your brother is not the same thing as a friend (even a “dear friend”), and that affects what options are available as God-honoring behaviors toward him. In similar fashion, if a Christian is married to someone who’s got heretical beliefs, I wouldn’t expect them to separate from their spouse.

    Second, I don’t know your brother, so I’m guessing he doesn’t have a high public profile in a ministry that teaches (according to your description of him) some heretical beliefs. That changes the level of accountability that’s in play. I think it’s reasonable and Scriptural to deal differently with a false teacher, a wolf, than we would with an erring member of the flock that we know and care about. If I’m right about that, the obvious corollary is that when someone does *not* treat those two types of people differently, it is not wrong to raise some questions.

    I’m not denying people fall into the guilt by association fallacy; I’ve seen it happen with good, well-meaning people. And I know there will be differences between men of good conscience on when separation is the wisest course.

    I understand your frustration in what’s happened recently, but I caution that it would be simplistic at best to imply that the root issues were guilt-by-association accusations. Doing so seems very close to embracing some critiques that were, IMO, significantly *less* logically sound and substantive than what they were responding to. I won’t say more on that because I don’t want to hijack your post; the data is available for anyone to judge for themselves.

    My goal in talking about these things is clarity; I look around and I see the heat from the recent blow-up driving people away so the don’t see any light from a discussion that *should be had* (your Unity and Separation post is a valuable contribution to that). What’s worse, casualties (relationships, reputation, and tenderness of heart) are spread all over a hill that *wasn’t even the one* people thought they were fighting on! That’s tragic.

    I think unity in the body can withstand informed disagreement (that’s often part of the soil of spiritual maturity), but it can’t survive discord born in ignorance.


  9. Thanks Jason. Actually, my brother is quite well known in some Christian circles, but since you have not heard of him that means that you have never been part of that “segment” of the visible church that I too shun. In any case, he used to be a disciple of Carlton Pearson, but that was over 25 years ago and he has moved a long way away from that stuff since then. He published a book during that period that he sold at the “youth revivals” he did all over the country through his own ministry. God is good and has been answering prayer in moving he and his wife into circumstances in their lives where they now realize how spiritually bankrupt that stuff is when you get to reality. God does work it out so that what He really says is different from what people say they have experienced and when these truths eventually bear out accompanying what we have been praying for, even though painful for them, well this is exactly what we are seeing in their lives. Please pray for God to heal and cleanse and bring repentance to those lives.

    I am with you brother when it comes to dealing with unrepentant wolves and false teachers. Yes, let’s apply discernment and the doctrine of Unity and Separation. No argument from me. However, when doing research I must be given the latitude to approach and visit, et cetera with certain people that are “suspect.” How else can we truly get an inside view in some cases? What is published is not always the full truth. I know from a very good source that this latest blowup was the result of several over-reactions by some to this very thing by others simply trying to do this very sort of discernment work. The hysterical, over reaction by some ruins it for the rest of us in some cases.

    In Christ

    Mike Ratliff


  10. Mike,
    I have written a few responses to your posts and I agree with you on most things and disagree with you on a few things (because I am Wesleyan-Arminian in my theology). I enjoy reading your articles because they speak what is true. Thank you for your faithfulness to the LORD and may He continue to bless you.


  11. Here is where I stand on separation. I agree with the standard of your “Doctrine of Unity and Separation”. And here is how it plays out;
    I can’t fathom why anyone would consider a Rob Bell a Christian. If one teaches false doctrine, subverts every divine and Holy attribute of our Savior, as I believe his history shows, I believe he is an unbeliever, as I question his conversion in the first place. So as the bible says, I pray and treat him as that, an unbeliever. John Piper has questionable judgment, upholds false teachers as “orthodox”, is wrong on Genesis. Is he a Christian? Yes, I see no evidence he is not. At worst he is sinning in his representation of some parts of God’s word and needs to be prayed for as a brother who needs to be brought back into the fold. Mike Horton? At worst was caught up in a photo op by a false teacher. His words at that false teachers temple showed he was not a false teacher or supporter. Is he a Christian? Yes, by all means. At worst he needs encouragement to be careful, with the love and respect he deserves. Does Mike use ESV, is he a Christian? Yes, of course. Else if I say not, then I set myself up as a judge, since the bible no where says he cannot do so.
    The point is we have to make right judgments based on the Holy word and not our feelings. I won’t go to Pyromaniacs to read Turk, but does that make Phillips and Johnson also wrong and not worthy of reading? No, but it’s a choice. We have liberty, not to be stolen by judaizers, and that liberty needs to be recognized by others in the body.


  12. I just thought of this, as I was reading the post and comments….

    I haven’t heard of any of the people that were the root cause for concern in this “guilt by association” conundrum speak up and encourage the discernment ministries to forgive each other and beg for for them to seek unity.

    They seem to be more than content to let their brothers and sisters in the discernment ministries rip each others throats out. I wonder why?

    Then again, since I don’t monitor all of the “Druckerites”, perhaps I am missing an observable instance? However, I highly doubt it.


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