September 19, 2012

What REALLY Matters Most: Functional Distinctives

In recent articles we have been considering a number of disconcerting issues with Northland International University (NIU).  Pastor Don Johnson made significant contributions to this issue from his personal blog an oxgoad, eh and with Questions for Matt Olson & NIU at the FBFI’s Proclaim & Defend blog. We began this new series What REALLY Matters Most and then Monday with WRMM: Where the Lines are Drawn to discuss the shifting sands and new trajectory of the former Northland Baptist Bible College. Dr. Matt Olson has been reacting, in article form, from his personal blog. Very little in precise terms has been forthcoming in answer to the questions many people have regarding the changes at NIU. We do, however, have some items to consider from Dr. Olson’s What Matter Most series part four, Functional Distinctives.

In the first of his What Matters Most series Dr. Matt Olson wrote, “I have found Al Mohler’s ‘Theological Triage’ very helpful as I process my own thoughts.”  In this, the fourth in his series, Matt Olson is applying Mohler’s triage.
If everything we believe is important, but not equally so, it might even be a good idea to develop at least a two-tier doctrinal statement:

  1. A statement of faith that would clearly delineate an orthodox position. 
  2. A statement of functional distinctives that would give necessary clarity and guidance for the healthy operation of a church or organization.
Both of these doctrinal statements should include what is necessary, but not more than what is necessary.
First, that excerpt indicates to me that the current Articles of Faith and Handbook doctrinal statements will be edited or eliminated very soon. That means more of what made the former NBBC a distinctively Baptist, fundamental and separatist college is going to be erased from its present state.

Second, I am not comfortable with isolating or compartmentalizing the doctrines of the Bible. As such, some will assign rank to doctrines according to levels of importance and thus create various “levels of fellowship” based upon their personal interpretation and understanding of the importance of the various doctrines we differ on. The end result is a package deal that seems reasonable; there is an appearance of equanimity, but really very little by way of what the Bible actually says. This is how Dr. Kevin Bauder could post a 24 part Now, About Those Differences series (with barely a difference noted) apart from any serious attention to Bible passages and yet be praised for an erudite understanding.

It is interesting that Dr. Olson writes that “The church . . . . will need to decide upon the functional distincitives . . .” and uses the future tense.  While church planters and church plants wrestle through the work of defining doctrinal and functional distinctive, it is expected that seasoned pastors and college presidents would annunciate their convictions and uphold the doctrinal standards and functional distinctives passed along to them by their board, their constituencies and their predecessors.  A leader in the forefront needs to be standing on a foundation not seeking to find his place and state where he has landed. It seems that Dr. Olson is a work in progress rather than being a work product.

The functional distinctives of NIU have been widely known and published since its founding.  Those who can read and have had associations with the leadership of NIU were quite convinced by the practice and the philosophy of the leadership that it was a Baptist school that stood against new-evangelicalism, CCM and the charismatic movement.  All of NIU’s positional statements say this!  Yet, in practice, they have been planting churches that are not Baptist, inviting promoters of new-evangelical fellowship and CCM music and now subtly endorsing and cooperating with Charismatics by allowing staff members to join CJ Mahaney’s SGM churches while the president sends social-media high-fives to NIU graduates who understand the “main thing.
What they are doing in practice at NIU is speaking so loudly that one cannot hear what they are saying!
Under those circumstances parents who send their son/daughter to NIU have no assurance of what kind of young person they are going to get back.  Will he/she comeback a tongues speaking Charismatic?  Will he/she come home with a Covenant/Reformed view of the church? Will he/she come home having embraced the Rock-n-Roll sounds of CCM?  Will he/she come back to you from NIU a compromising New Evangelical? 

Because NIU president Matt Olson is not upholding Northland’s doctrinal standards and/or functional distinctives all of these are definite possibilities.  Parents need to be aware of and prepared for any or all of those outcomes for their son or daughter if they send them to NIU.


Related Reading:
Is NIU Unchanged?

Dr. Les Ollila used to say, Our Children Learn Not Only What We Teach Them, but by What We Tolerate


  1. Good morning Lou,

    You wrote..."isolating or compartmentalizing the doctrines of the Bible. As such, some will assign rank to doctrines according to levels of importance and thus create various “levels of fellowship” based upon their personal interpretation and understanding of the importance of the various doctrines we differ on."

    We are hearing this ranking of Bible doctrine more and more. The wresting of scripture to support a presupposition against separation is abounding in many. They quote Jesus in Matt. 23 about the "weightier matters" and then use that as a proof text to then rank Bible doctrine into separatable doctrine, which I guess to the evangelical is only the Gospel(usually a reformed Gospel), and to the new fundamentalist is only the Gospel plus 5 doctrines chosen by fallible men. The problem is that Jesus was speaking to unregenerate Jews who clinged to the Law as their righteousness and Jesus pointed out they were leaving out the weightier aspects of the Law. PTL, Christ fulfilled ALL the Law! As believers we are free from the Law of Moses Jesus was dealing with, but we live under the Law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus!(Rom. 8:2) Besides, even if Jesus were speaking to believers in Matt. 23, He went on to say that NONE of the law is to be left undone. Nowhere, do the NT church doctrinal epistles tell us we can rank God-inspired revelation for the NT believer and church, and decide in our own human wisdom which is a separatable doctrine and which is a "2nd tier, dotted-line" non-separatable doctrine. So, where do we find those lines?

    In II Thess. 3:6-15, Paul gave the NT guidelines for separatable doctrines. "withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us(apostolic teaching)."..."if any man obey not our word by this epistle, note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed." NT Christianity is a whole lot more than the Gospel,and a whole lot more than five chosen doctrines, it is the WHOLE NT of Apostolic God-inspired truth.

    And Brother Olson, that includes apostolic doctrine concerning tongues, music, eschatology, modes of baptism,etc! NBBC used to believe AND practice that conviction!

  2. Thanks Lou and Bro. Rogers. To add a bit to Bro. Rogers thoughts on the doctrine of separation, in Romans 16:17 and in Thessalonians cited the key words are "doctrine", "tradition", and "word by this epistle". These form the basis of separation. When others have doctrine contrary to what we have learned we are to mark and avoid them. When a brother walks disorderly and not walking after the traditions received we withdraw ourselves. When a brother obeys not the "word of our epistle" we are to have no company with that man. Rather straight forward, clear, unambiguous language to which we are to be obedient.
    It is interesting that the bulk of separation passages deal with the whole body of teaching and not just one or a set of doctrines. This is not to negate the importance of the Gospel, for God makes it clear in Galatians that any other Gospel is false and those that bear a false gospel are anathema. But the Gospel is, as it were the foundation, the beginning, the door, the entranceway, into the fuller body of God's teaching that is found in our Bibles. Without the new birth, without the Author, the Holy Spirit, residing within guiding us into all truth, the Bible is a closed book. The unregenerate does not comprehend its depth, its richness (I Cor. 2:12-14).
    As more of an aside than anything, I do find it interesting those that bring up "The fundamentals of the faith" and then refer back to their being five. Really? Anyone who will take the time to read of Fundamentalism's history will see that there is no set number of "fundamentals." The presbyterians ennumerated five "fundamentals" in 1910 (it is also to be noted that while the presbyterians listed five they also stated that there were other Bible truths just as important). For the Niagara Bible Conference (1878) there were fourteen ennumerated. It would do us well to read or reread of our history. If we don't know our past which is the basis for our present, we won't know where we are going.

    1. Pastor E.

      I appreciate your further emphasis on NT doctrine growing out of the Gospel, not just being lesser doctrines. And I also agree that the lines of separation are apostolic and doctrinal in nature.

      I mentioned the 5 fundamentals, because IMO, that is the position declared by pretty much every fundamentalist I know or have read in the last 50 years. They emphasize 5 fundamentals as equal to NT Christianity and the basis for separation. This is what gives Olson and Doran and Jordan cover for their compromise. Example:

      “The twentieth century began with a tumultuous conservative uproar over the infiltration of numerous denominations by liberalism. The severity of the situation demanded immediate action. Heretical teachings were captivating and corrupting entire churches, schools and related organizations within multiplied denominations. Therefore, a coalition of interdenominational brethren, following a number of conferences, united around the five 'fundamentals' of the faith. They were:
      1. The inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture 2. The deity of Jesus Christ 3. The virgin birth of Christ 4. The substitutionary, atoning work of Christ on the cross 5. The physical resurrection and the personal bodily return of Christ to the earth.
      The adherents to these five 'fundamental' truths were naturally labeled 'fundamentalists.' Those opposing them were called 'liberals....The men joining together around these five points were from varied and diversified religious backgrounds. Thus, this amalgamation of 'first generation fundamentalists' included Presbyterians, Baptists, Reformers, Reformed Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists, Anglicans, Congregationalists, and Wesleyan Holiness brothers. The astounding thing about the members of this interdenominational movement was their love for one another.” - (Dr. Jack Van Impe, Heart Disease in Christ's Body, pp. 127-128).

      Whether it's 5 or 14 or 50, we should not be ranking doctrine and Biblical revelation. IMO, I believe wholeheartedly we need to be Biblicists,(which is the first true Baptist distinctive)committed to ALL of NT doctrine, and avoid the reductionism of ANY NT doctrine from Biblical Christianity. Everything God inspired is fundamental to NT Christianity, although certainly not to the Gospel or the new birth. The NT inspired and preseved text is my past, the basis for my present, and my course for the future, not a conference or a series of articles or the movement that came out of it.

  3. I do not agree with Olson getting close to Mahaney's way of thinking. I say that up front because I am not providing cover for him.

    I am pretty sure that all of us at some level give more importance to some doctrines over others. I doubt everyone in any church agree on 100% of everything. That very fact would prove that we order some things as essential to fellowship doesn't it? Does everyone have to agree on what it means to be a "husband of one wife" in order to be in the same church? What about head coverings in 1 Cor 11?

    Also, if so many pastors are worried about where to send their kids to Bible college, why not skip that unbiblical step and teach them at church? Why outsource what God commanded the church to do?

    Finally, where has Olson said anything about shifting to reformed/covenantalism, speaking in tongues, embracing CCM, or becoming New Evangelical?

    Joe King

    1. Joe:

      I appreciate most of your input. I am not going to start an off-topic here, but let me make a comment about this portion of your full comment. "Also, if so many pastors are worried about where to send their kids to Bible college, why not skip that unbiblical step and teach them at church? Why outsource what God commanded the church to do?"

      I disagree with claiming that a Bible College is somehow unbiblical. But, if you take that position then I suspect you might also have to claim that Mission boards, Christian radio and TV stations, Sunday Schools and bus ministries are unbiblical. You can't find them in the Bible, can you?

      Furthermore, on the Bible College issue I really encourage you to reconsider your statement in light of Acts 19:8-10.

      "And he [Paul] went into the synagogue, and spake boldly for the space of three months, disputing and persuading the things concerning the kingdom of God. But when divers were hardened, and believed not, but spake evil of that way before the multitude, he departed from them, and separated the disciples, disputing daily in the school of one Tyrannus. And this continued by the space of two years; so that all they which dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks."

      The school (Bible College?) of Tyrannus. In that day you might find yourself telling the apostle Paul that for two years he was acting against the Scriptures for teaching at the school.

      With that I am taking the last word on that particular subject.

      Kind regards,


  4. To Pastor Rogers, appreciate your articulation further on this thought. I do wish to clear a minor point. As I referenced "the five fundamentals" I was not pointing directly at you but at the broader sphere where they are hauled out. I apologize if it needled you, that was not my intent. I should have stated clearer my more general thought on who's using the "five fundamentals" term.

    1. Pastor Ernsberger,

      No offence taken, and again I appreciate your thoughts regarding apostolic doctrine as basis for separation. Fundamentalism as a movement has from the beginning been somewhat theologically and doctrinally ambiguous,(as my quote demonstrated) but it seems for some time now most see it as simply defining a liberal by the fact that they don't believe these 5 doctrines, as opposed to defining true NT Christianity.

      NIU and Olson might be considered by some to still be fundamentalists, but they definitely are not distinctively separatist Baptists. As previously mentioned, Biblicism is the main Baptist distinctive, out of which all other convictions grow. Reformers look to their creeds, Catholics look to their tradition and decrees, Pentecostals and Charismatics look to emotion and visions and continuing revelation, but only Baptists base their faith and practice solely on the completed inerrant Bible, including Biblical separation from compromising brothers, who are not walking in accordance to that doctrine in faith or practice. Matt Olson may be a Christian fundamentalist in that sense, but he is no longer a fundamental Baptist in practice. There is a difference, and pastors and parents and alumni should take note of it.

  5. ". . . I am not comfortable with isolating or compartmentalizing the doctrines of the Bible."

    Lou, I am both surprised by and in (some) agreement with this statement. First, I am surprised because you are a fundamentalist, the movement of which has always been defined by a minimal (at least vis a vis confessionlism) doctrinal statement.

    However, I agree, largely because I have (or am gaining) a high appreciation for confessionalism and think fundamentalist churches could learn a lot from it.

    The key word in my last paragraph being "churches," one of which NIU is not (unless they have a campus church I don't know about).

    I don't know that we should expect Bible Colleges of non-confessional circles to hew to as strict a doctrinal list as we would a church, or for that matter maintain the kind of separatism a church ought to maintain. The Bible College is, in my opinion, a weird animal, that ought to be selected on same basis one would use if sending kids to a public college- the overall quality of education there and the usefullness of that degree in one's chosen field. Apostates on college staff is onething. Oblique fellowship with Charismatics-Lite is another.

    1. David:

      I am on the road in Michigan, writing from a hotel room at 2:30am. This will necessarily be brief.

      "I don't know that we should expect Bible Colleges of non-confessional circles to hew to as strict a doctrinal list as we would a church, or for that matter maintain the kind of separatism a church ought to maintain."

      NIU, as as has been widely and frequently shown, has specific statements (a strict doctrinal list) in its Articles of Faith and Handbooks. Portions clearly demand students and staff reject and oppose the modern Charismatic Movement. Matt Olson does not even act in fidelity to those statements. He does the opposite! He has accepted and gives credibility to the Charismatic movement.


  6. Lou,

    I understand the existence of their documents. But they are free to change them at any time. At least some of the time, change in practice
    precedes change in policy.

    I further understand Northland likes to say they're not really changing. It seems pragmatic from this vantage point, but it's only a big deal to those who feel like they need to "conserve" Northland.

  7. It's a big deal for those who expect honesty and transparency, neither of which has been coming from NIU's administration.


  8. Dave I disagree with your statement about this whole thing being deal to who need to conserve NIU. Personally, I don't believe we can conserve NIU. It's gone. There is no endorsing NIU from me to my young people or anyone interested in furthering any part of their education. It is a big deal because, as I have mentioned in other related articles, my church family has ties with NIU that go back well over 10 years with 3 graduatues one of which was employed at NIU after graduation and one student who has one more year to go before graduating. He has been out since 2008 and is in disbelief at what has transpired since he was last on campus. It matters because here was a Baptist Bible college that we entrusted our people to in order to train them for their God called service. While they could be Baptist without the name, yet Dr. Olson's latest articles note that even baptism has been relegated to the scrap pile of teachings that the institution is willing to abandon for this new direction. Sure, the mode of baptism is not a fundamental of the faith, but with that said, for a Baptist institution that Northland was it is a fundamental distinction of being Baptist. And I would state rather emphatically, that believer's baptism is one of the more clearly stated teachings in the Bible. The only way infants even enter into the picture is by inference. There is no specific, clear verse that provides for anyone but a believer to be baptized. NIU certainly has lost it's Baptist distinction.

  9. Brian,

    As I understand it, you are a pastor of a Baptist Church. Properly used, your pulpit can be a greater influence in the lives of your young people (I say young people because we are talking about college/universites/etc) than any little Baptist College could ever dream of being. Christianity does not need the Bible College. It is the church that is the pillar and ground of the truth; devoted, studious, loving, faithful pastors are indispensable. Feed His sheep, and trust Him.