A recent open letter from a college president explaining the reason for inviting speakers previously unwelcome at the school has set off a firestorm of controversy. My only connection with the school is through friendships. At the outset I confess my agreement with the direction the school is taking. I would gladly share the pulpit with the men invited to speak. I would simply like to see a biblical basis for these changes and recognition that past practices, however sincere and well-meaning, went beyond Scripture. In reflecting on my own spiritual journey, I frankly admit that I no longer practice ecclesiastical separation as I did in the past. I have changed my position over the years and believe it is in light of a better understanding of God’s Word. I really believe God changed my position but don’t want to blame Him for any of my imbalances. I have been wrong about some things in the past, am wrong today even if I don’t see it, and will be wrong on some things in the future.
Ecclesiastical separation from apostasy and from disobedient believers has been one of the hallmarks of fundamentalism. What would a fundamentalist conference be without at least one major session exhorting the faithful, usually loudly, to practice biblical separation? To further define or clarify their understanding of separation, many fundamentalists adopt other descriptive labels as badges of their declared faithfulness to Scripture such as “militant” or “separatist.” At times this leads to one-upmanship with determination to be a separatist among the separatists with some standing alone with Elijah because they alone are faithful.
Increasingly we find newly established institutions of higher learning or prominent churches laying claim to the mantle of historic fundamentalism. This often contributes to further division and groundless separation from brothers in Christ. Worse, the antics and reactions of many fundamentalists to any appearance of compromise contributes to the evident demise of fundamentalism and makes it unpalatable to a scripturally informed younger generation of men who refuse isolationism-in-the-name-of-separation.
As a biblical concern, separation must be comprehended and expounded although we may too quickly attach “biblical” to our understanding of separation. Viewing “separatist” as an in-house term, I readily understand why some would want to be called “separatist” or “militant.” Yet I fail to appreciate the emphasis given to such unwieldy and linguistically-charged terms. I further confess that if I were to describe myself or want to be described by others, “separatist” would not be near the top of the adjective list. Now, I do believe in and seek to practice biblical separation, although I might be too separated for some and not nearly separated enough for many. Alas, such is the nature of separation when it goes beyond Scripture.
The use of Amos
Anyone familiar with the defense of biblical separation has heard the prophet Amos invoked to support the requirement of agreement in order to walk together. “Can two walk together, except they be agreed?” (KJV, Amos 3:3). Who can argue with that limpid question? But I do not know if I have ever heard an exposition of this verse in its context.
What I have heard and do hear is a call for separation from brothers in Christ based on a lack of agreement in some area not even remotely connected with the prophet’s concerns. Of course Biblical separation does not stand or fall on the misunderstanding of one text. There is abundant New Testament support for separation from unbelief (2 Cor. 6:14) and from divisive and disobedient Christians (Rom. 16:17; 2 Thess. 3:6, 14). However Amos 3:3 has been abused to reinforce an idea of separation which cannot be supported by the text of Scripture. The argument often runs along these lines: “You and I disagree and therefore we cannot walk together. We might agree on a host of biblical questions, including the fundamentals of the faith, but we disagree on music styles, Bible versions, standards of modesty, church polity, the best God-honoring colleges and universities, which conferences are safe to attend, and the application of real or imagined degrees of separation.”
A priori to this line of reasoning is the idea that, in essence, one of the two has reached the “right” position and agreement is required in order to walk together (i.e., fellowship). In that light, Amos 3:3 raises a number of questions about the interpretive integrity of its use to support questionable applications of presumed biblical separation. A full exposition of this text goes beyond my purpose, and I would welcome the input of those more proficient than I in Old Testament studies.
First, what is the context? Amos 3:3, like all Scripture, was given for our profit. However, the use of this 8th century BC question as a valid support for 21st century biblical separation should be viewed with suspicion when the context is ignored and with our present situation being so far removed from the author’s original intent. Amos addresses the people of God and primarily the Northern Kingdom of Israel with a call in verse 1: “Hear this word that the Lord has spoken against you.” Verse 2 demonstrates that God had chosen Israel for His special purposes and that Israel was deserving of judgment due to its departure from the living God. The seven questions found in verses 3-8 set forth a cause and effect relationship which evidences the divine right for God to judge His people. We must exercise great exegetical care to not simply tack the Word of God on to our preconceived notions of separation.
Second, is the translation correct? As noted above, the KJV appears to lend itself to the application that there can be no walking together without agreement. When this verse is divorced from its context and read from a separatist perspective, one can easily understand how the verse might be applied in this way. However, we should consider some other translations. The ESV translates this verse, “Do two walk together, unless they have agreed to meet?” The NASB translates, “Do two men walk together unless they have made an appointment?” Here the emphasis shifts from pre-walk agreement in order to walk together (KJV) to agreement to meet in order to walk together.
Third, what is the meaning of “agree”? The root of the Hebrew word for “agree” here means “to appoint.” In its Niphal form it “may also designate making an appointment.”1 Keil-Delitzsch notes the following: “nō’ad, to betake one’s self to a place, to meet together at an appointed place or an appointed time; not merely to agree together.”2 When we force our 21st century definition of “agreement” into the text, we do a disservice to the inspired Word.
Fourth, who are the two? The fourth and final question deals with the validity of using Amos 3:3 to support current notions of biblical separation in light of the aforementioned. One might ask, “Who are the ‘two’ in question?” Does this refer to Jehovah and Israel, to an individual Israelite and idols, to Israel and false gods, to the prophets and the Spirit who inspires them, to God and Amos or to God and man generally? Whatever the correct identification may be—which I’ll leave for the exegetes—the emphasis is not on being in agreement in order to walk together, but meeting or agreeing to meet in order to walk together. If someone already has his mind made up on “agreement” separation, then Amos 3:3 fits nicely, but the verse does not support biblical separation.
If Amos supports anything remotely connected to present-day relationships, it would be the necessity of agreeing to meet with a brother in order to walk with him or at least meet with the brother to determine if walking together will be possible after the meeting. We do not have to agree in order to walk together, even though as Christians we will agree on many things and certainly on the authority of Scripture to take us further in our understanding of God’s truth.
We need to be in agreement with God or moving in that direction without imagining that we have arrived at a point where we can demand agreement from others with us. We may not agree on some things that are peripheral to maintaining and manifesting the biblical unity that exists in Christ. We may disagree in areas of application of biblical principles. We may choose to invite or not to invite a brother to speak in our church, to accept or not to accept an invitation to speak elsewhere, to collaborate or not to collaborate based on other considerations outside the purview of this essay. Yet we must understand that a disagreeing brother should not automatically be equated with a disobedient brother. It is far too facile to label disagreement as disobedience. A brother’s disagreement may be real, but it may be with you or me and not with God and His Word. And if someone thinks that anyone who disagrees with him disagrees with God, then clearly ignorance is exceeded only by arrogance.
Can we agree to disagree and yet agree to walk together in some measure in the work of God and in the enjoyment of brotherly fellowship or at least rejoice at what God is doing in the lives and ministries of others without becoming their critics? One true measure of our understanding of biblical separation may not be how quickly and how often and from how many we will separate, but with how many we will agree to walk together in true obedience and genuine fellowship in spite of our disagreements. Demand agreement and you will find yourself exceedingly lonely and defensive. Seek obedience and fellowship in biblical unity and your circle of faithful co-laborers in the gospel may increase.
1 R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer, Bruce K. Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, vol.1 (Chicago: Moody Press, 1980), 388.
2 C.F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, vol. 10 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), 260.