There are several false starts that we can make in the matter of separation. There is no doubt that God has called us to a position of separation. The question is how and in what way? There are several false responses that have been devised by man.
The first response is asceticism.
There are those who have said that Christians are not of this world and so they must get away from the world completely. Those who advocated this are called ascetics and they became hermits, went to monasteries, caves, deserts, and the wilderness. They said they had to get away from man and pleasures in order to be separate unto God. That however was a complete distortion of Scripture because we are commanded to go into all the world and preach the gospel. Scripture has told us to witness to, live before, and seek to reach men for Christ. After ascetics arrived out in the deserts and caves they discovered they brought the world with them because the sinful impulses exhibited in the world were also in them. Satan appealed to their pride, self, and false motives even when they were alone, and the world manifested itself in them. Wherever we go we take the sinful impulses exhibited in the world with us. Asceticism is not the answer.
The second response of men has been a negative legalism. This is the idea of prohibiting certain practices not designated in the Word of God. The thought is that if we give up these certain practices, worldliness will be gone and separation will be achieved. The only trouble is that legalism merely creates a vacuum. Matthew 12 speaks about the man who by his own effort cast out certain things (most of us would be surprised what people can do by their own effort). But this man was empty and open to be possessed by worse things. People (empty sinners) can cast out certain practices, only to discover that along come other practices and sins, such as gossip and hatred and maliciousness, which enter and take over. Legalism will never answer anything, whether it is negative or positive. Getting rid of things may make an outward show, but it will leave the life empty and void and disillusioned.
The third response is compromise. This is the attitude that we must not only befriend the world, we must unite with it, fraternize with the enemies of God. Someone has called this infiltration but God never told you or me to infiltrate. We must be distinct from the world. Compromise says we must try to make Christianity appealing to the world by making it like the world, but the result will be that the world takes over. This is capitulation to the world.
The OT command for separation
Separation is pictured in many ways in the Old Testament. If Eve had separated herself from Satan when he first went to her and projected doubts in her mind, everything would have been different. It is because Eve (and then Adam) refused to separate themselves from the lies of Satan that they fell into sin. The account of Noah and the Flood is a record of separation from an ungodly world. Abraham was called out of one land away from a pagan people to another land where God would establish him and all of his people after him. That is separation. Then centuries later Moses received the Law of God which very clearly established the differences between Israel and the pagan nations, differences which were to be clear and unwavering. Yet the nation often failed to maintain those standards, instead choosing to compromise with the nations of their world.
There is a clear illustration of sin and compromise in the Old Testament that is important to note. It is the case of Jehoshaphat and Ahab. Jehoshaphat was the godly king of Judah and Ahab was the ungodly king of Israel. These two, who had nothing in common, made a military agreement as allies. Ahab and his wife Jezebel were worshipers of Baal, Ashteroth and other false gods. Jehoshaphat was a godly man, a worshiper of Jehovah, and one of the best kings of Israel, yet he went down and made that alliance with Ahab, saying, “We’re going to join together in mutual enterprise.” When they did so, it was all to Jehoshaphat’s loss. Finally we hear Jehu in 2 Chronicles 19 saying to King Jehoshaphat, “Should you help the wicked, and love those who hate the Lord? Therefore, there is wrath upon you from the Lord.” That is God’s indictment on the compromise of Jehoshaphat.
With the Old Testament as background, the chief New Testament passage of Scripture on the subject of separation is 2 Corinthians 6:14: “Be not unequally yoked together with unbelievers.” It derives its meaning from Deuteronomy 22:10, which says, “You shall not plow with an ox and an ass together.” An ox and an ass are two different types of beasts completely. The ox is a big, ponderous animal that moves very slowly with tremendous strength; a donkey is an animal that weighs perhaps a third as much as an ox and moves quicker, not at all like an ox. They are different in temperament, weight and movement. To harness them so that they plow together would be an impossible situation. They have nothing in common.
God used an illustration of something which cannot mix or work together and applied it in Deuteronomy 7:1-11 with such statements concerning Israel and the people of the land as this: “You shall make no covenant with them [those seven nations that are wicked, rotten and corrupt—you will make no covenant with them] neither shall you make marriages with them…they will turn away your son from following me.” We must mark that in our thinking. What will unholy alliances and compromise do? They will destroy our children. We say it’s nice to get together with the world, be like the world, adopt the practices of the world. Yes, but in the compromise we will destroy our children. That is what God said to the nation Israel. And that is what is said to us in 2 Corinthians 6:14. We may say we’ll get away with it and do our own thing and be our own boss, but what about our children? They are the ones who will suffer; they are the ones who will adopt those compromising ways. God said to the nation Israel and to the Corinthians, “you are a holy people unto the Lord thy God…be not unequally yoked together with unbelievers.”