Aphorism 6: Our patterns of application of separation need to include people to the left and the right on the group boundary markers—our “friends” and those who make us uncomfortable. Grace on believers who are like us or provide advantages to us but no or little grace on believers who are different is a sin (James 2:1; Luke 6:32-33).
Seven years ago, I became the pastor of a church that had a history of practicing second-degree separation. My exposure to the defense of such doctrine and the organizations enforcing it had been rather limited. And so I began reading, watching, and asking questions. Many of the conversations that I’ve had were decidedly cordial—some less so.
Allow me to share how one conversation about separatism with a representatives of a mission board went:
Shane: I’ve noticed that your doctrinal statement requires that you not cooperate with neo-evangelicals.
Mission Board Representative: That’s right, we’re separatist.
Shane: I see that. My training in seminary didn’t include a lot on separatism. Perhaps, you could help me understand what a neo-evangelical is, because I am concerned that I may be a neo-evangelical and for you to accept money from my church would mean you’re violating your doctrinal statement.
MBR: Aah. Yes, well, “neo-evangelical” is a historical term that’s not really well defined. And our mission board is thinking through exactly what it means, because it’s unfamiliar to the younger generation.
Shane: I see. My understanding is that “neo-evangelical” is often traced to men like Carl F. H. Henry (1913-2003).
MBR: Yes that’s right. Henry was a neo-evangelical.
Shane: So, since Carl Henry and I were both members of the same church when he died, does that make me a neo-evangelical?
MBR: Seriously? Well, not really. What a neo-evangelical is has changed.
Shane: Okay. Well, perhaps, if I named some living folks you could tell me if they were neo-evangelicals. So, Billy Graham?
MBR: Yes, certainly Billy Graham.
Shan: Dr. Mohler?
MBR: Where did you say you went to seminary?
Shane: Southern, where Dr. Mohler is the president.
MBR: As I said, we’re still working on how best to define that term.
What I hope is obvious is that at least with this mission board second-degree separation meant something like “we separate from those who don’t give us cash.” And, as far as I can tell, to hold to such is a sin.
Our Lord Jesus warns in Luke 6:32-33:
If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.
The flesh tends to be more ready to “do good to those who do good to you.” But Jesus points out that this is the standard of sinners and not His followers. The flesh finds it easy to love those who love them back and to do good to those who benefit us. But Christ’s followers are to be those who do good to those who provide us no benefit. Our Lord goes on to remind us in Luke 6:37-38 we must have one standard of judgment for the application of mercy (cf. v. 36) and justice.
Like it or not, we feel more comfortable when others’ practices match our general practices. Communication is simpler among those who are similar to us. We intuitively trust those who run in our circles, graduate from our schools, and follow our practice. And we are all more willing to accept benefits rather than detriments from others.
By “practice,” I mean different actions and symbols that are essentially indifferent in themselves in particular contexts. So Jonathan Edwards preached wearing what would now be considered an effeminate powdered wig. Chrysostom wore a toga when preaching, Wesley sometimes a robe. My experience in rural China in 1991 showed that pastors wore long fingernails and open-toed, high-heeled sandals. Each of these in our context would lead to confusion, but in themselves and in their contexts are acceptable.
Practices that do not disobey the intent of the Scriptures are indifferent, and to separate on the grounds of indifferent practice or boundary markers is a sin. We can’t separate because other Christians have different non-sinful traditions. We must also notice that Jesus condemns requiring a higher standard of those who reject our boundary markers.
Boundary markers are doctrines and practices that create boundaries between groups and establish grounds for easy communication and group identity. Boundary markers tell us who is in and who is out of the group. Boundary markers between Christians and non-Christians are things like belief in the deity of Jesus Christ, the virgin birth, inspiration of Scripture, and the other fundamentals of clinging to the “faith which was once delivered unto the saints” (Jude 3). These beliefs create boundaries between Christians and non-Christians. To be a Christian, in the biblical sense, is to maintain this boundary.
Some boundary markers exist between both non-Christians and Christians and are biblical, for instance sexual purity (1 Cor. 5:1). Not all Christians obey God’s law in this area. The boundaries created by God’s word need to be maintained with wisdom and grace by all Christians as a form separation.
Two other kinds of boundary markers
Yet there are two other kinds of boundary markers that we must consider. The first is contra-biblical. Paul provides us an example of this in 1 Corinthians. In Corinth the grounds of fellowship and group identity among Christians were working out as a party spirit based on following particular leaders (1 Cor. 1:12) rather than on being Christians. We also see this attempted on the issue of biological heritage (2 Cor. 11:22) and wealth (James 2:3). Erecting and enforcing boundary markers that are contra-biblical is a sin. Paul tells us that at the heart of contra-biblical boundary markers is to “go beyond what is written,” because to do such leads us to “be puffed up in favor of one against another” (1 Cor. 4:6).
There are indifferent boundary markers described in Scripture as well. These remain indifferent as long as they are not used for sin. So we read in Act 6 that there were both Hellenistic Jews and Hebrews in the church of Jerusalem. The Hellenist were Jews that spoke Greek and generally led a Hellenized lifestyle and had an affinity with Diaspora Jews. The Hebrews were Jews who lived in the Palestinian manner and spoke Aramaic or Hebrew.
It’s not a sin for a Greek speaker to find it easier to speak to a fellow Hellenist than a Hebrew, nor for the Hebrews to find it easier to speak Aramaic in homes with a Palestinian order. But these boundary markers can lead to sin: “a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution” (Acts 6:1).
Further, it’s no sin to be rich. But it is a sin “if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, ‘You sit here in a good place,’ while you say to the poor man, ‘You stand over there,’ or, ‘Sit down at my feet’ ” (James 2:3-4). James’ question makes the point: “have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?”
James and Paul both tell us the issue is not differences in the church. Christians may have different convictions regarding practice (Rom. 14:5), to a degree different convictions regarding doctrine (Phil. 3:15), and have different levels of wealth, giftings, preferences, language backgrounds and so forth. But we cannot make sinful “distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts.” Our boundary markers must remain indifferent or be biblical, but they cannot be contra-biblical. Because this is a great wickedness.
And it is here that we come to our boundary markers on separation. Part of the way we can discern if we are sinfully loving those who benefit us above Christians who provide us little benefit is based on our patterns of application. When we only have mercy on our friends—those that have our indifferent boundary markers—we are sinning. And when we are quick to separate from those with different and innocent boundary markers we are sinning. Christians are not allowed to hold to two standards of judgment in their bag (Deut. 25:13; Luke 6:38).
So a community of Christians that rigorously separates from those who provide them no benefits, but allows gross doctrinal deviation among their in-group is sinning. For instance allowing forms of racism as acceptable (a traditional boundary marker) but separating from those who are too friendly with modernism (a progressive marker) as sin. Rigorously separating from an evangelist who cooperates with Catholics but maintaining relationships with an evangelist full of doctrinal error, immorality, and gross pragmatism but who holds to our boundary markers is a sin.
And again, I want to emphasize that both modernist and traditionalist fall into this pattern of sin: the Sadducee and Pharisee impulse is a part of our flesh. Thus when the Presbyterian Church in the USA defrocked J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937), their pattern of separation was to behave as if the gospel was better preserved by taking way from God’s Word, or by consistent Sadduceeism. And this behavior is threatened with a curse (Rev. 22:18).
Yet we must notice the opposite conduct is wrong as well. A pattern of application that tends to support people who add to God’s Word (Pharisees/rigorist/traditionalist) while separating from those who take away from God’s Word (Sadducees/latitudinarian/modernist) is also a sin. To behave as if the gospel is better preserved by adding to God’s Word also has the potential of drawing a curse (Rev. 22:18).
Perhaps, the clearest test of our heart is how we speak, preach, and pray when tragedy strikes those who are not a part of our in group. When a nightmare scenario strikes a moderate evangelical’s family, how do we preach about and pray for him? When an arch-Pharisee is forced to step down because of accusations of impropriety, what do we hope or what level of evidence do we require prior to condemnation? What level do we require for our friends?
Notice I’ve avoided the use of the terms “liberal” and “conservative;” there was a time when to be a conservative was to remain in the Roman Catholic Church and to be liberal was to separate from them. There was a day when liberals stood against the Ku Klux Klan and the conservatives looked the other way.
By an accident of history and English usage the word liberal has come to be identified as a system of doctrine that rejects or minimizes the truth claims of the Bible. I agree strongly with J. Gershen Machen’s conclusions in Christianity and Liberalism—Liberalism isn’t Christianity. But we also need to note that some traditional boundary markers aren’t Christianity either. Conservatism can be just as damning as Liberalism.
Safety is never found in our extra-biblical practice and markers but in Christ and fidelity to His word. We must separate from unrepentant apostasy when it is found among our friends and outsiders. And we must also have the same standard of justice and mercy. The patience and hope we have for our friends must be the same as we have with Christians and professed Christians outside our camp. To do anything else is to begin to either add or take away from God’s word.
Next week’s aphorism continues to work through the issue of our patterns of application.
Aphorism 7: Our patterns of application of separation must include the grace we allow the godly of the past.
Shane Walker became the pastor of Andover Baptist Church, Linthicum, MD in June of 2007. Raised in Iowa, Shane graduated from the University of Iowa in 1996. He holds a Master of Divinity degree from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He and his wife, Kimberly, have four children: Hannah, Malee, James, and John.