Agreeing To Walk Together: What Does Amos 3:3 Really Say About Biblical Separation?

Tags: 

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.

Four questions

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.

Notes

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.

[node:bio/steve-davis body]

Thank You

Steve,

Thanks for a clear perspective and for your explanation and application of Amos 3:3. Being less than a scholar, I am by no means able to highly exegete all the passages used to teach the "doctrines" of separation both to our generation and by our generation now. However, as a young pastor (years ago), it became necessary for me to attempt it in order to achieve and maintain a clear conscience as a leader. It was a watershed experience that left me a fundamentalist by conviction but my view of separation and its practice was redefined. It would be a profitable exercise to see others not only respond to your comments here on Amos 3:3 but give scholarly exegesis on other passages historically used in fundamentalism as the basis and ground of the teaching of 2nd degree separation. Thank you for doing so with this passage.

In your article, I most appreciate your comments under your fourth point, "who are the two?" Doubtless, the misuse of biblical separation has been the primary cause of the dissolution and subsequent rejection of separation in most and, sometimes all forms, by many younger men in the ministry.

Thanks,
Bill

Bill Phillips

Thanks, Steve, for an

Thanks, Steve, for an excellent article. In my own wrestlings with the Biblical doctrine of separation, I have noticed a couple of items which have helped my thinking, though I cannot say that I have yet arrived at a complete theology of separation.

1) The NT says more about Christian unity than separation. Until we are willing to give these texts at least equal emphasis and study, I doubt that our views of separation will be correct. Biblical balance is always difficult to achieve, and it is easy to go too far in what started out to be a good direction.
2) Most of the NT texts relating to separation are, in context, dealing with various forms of local church discipline. We must beging by understanding and applying these texts in that situation before we can hope to apply them correctly in a broader context.

This is to me, a challenging subject. It is obvious that the doctrine has been misunderstood and abused by some. It is obvious that it has been misunderstood and ignored by others. It is an important doctrine, and we need to work diligently to understand it aright.

G. N. Barkman

Unity - try it

G. N. Barkman wrote:

The NT says more about Christian unity than separation.

Like I tell people tongue-in-cheek. I will separate if biblically required but like to try unity first. I must say that I now enjoy greater fellowship within the wider body of Christ than I did in my "I am right and so are you if you agree with me" days.

Steve

Great Article...Good Questions

Thanks for the great article, and the wonderful thought-provoking questions.

Serving the Savior, Pastor Wes Helfenbein 2 Cor. 5:17

Lack of concrete reference . . . .

Dr. Davis, I read your article and want to say, "Amen!" Then, I realize perhaps I am not reading it exactly the way you intended. You name no names and I think that I understand but Fundamentalists have a way of appropriating one's arguments for their own use. For example, you wrote:

Quote:
Increasingly we find newly established institutions of higher learning or prominent churches laying claim to the mantle of historic fundamentalism. [emphasis added ] 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.
Now, one could take this to mean those uppity guys at Central, Detroit, Calvary, etc who have laid "claim to the mantle of historic fundamentalism." Their position is justified by the cry, "We are historic Fundamentalism." Then, I notice that you refer to "newly established institutions of higher learning or prominent churches", which must obviously refer to Crown, Ambassador, West Coast, etc. If I'm mistaken, please correct me.

Now, where do the problems lie? You say that part of the problem lies in the loss of our "scripturally informed younger generation of men who refuse isolationism-in-the-name-of-separation." Well, that's very interesting. Please note that the "newly established institutions of higher learning or prominent churches" are not losing their young people. These are growing ministries whereas their critics are generally declining in enrollment.

Furthermore, these new schools do in fact represent the Fundamentalism that I've known in my sixty years of life whereas the older schools claiming historic Fundamentalism are changing to accommodate the youth culture. Draw your own conclusions.

There is nothing new under the sun according to the Preacher. I heard these same arguments when I was a young person in the SBC during their drift into compromise. It seems that whereas at one time we were overwhelmed by sermons and articles trumpeting separation but now we are deluged by articles nay saying or diluting separation.

Naming names

RPittman wrote:
Dr. Davis, I read your article and want to say, "Amen!" Then, I realize perhaps I am not reading it exactly the way you intended. You name no names and I think that I understand but Fundamentalists have a way of appropriating one's arguments for their own use.
.....
It seems that whereas at one time we were overwhelmed by sermons and articles trumpeting separation but now we are deluged by articles nay saying or diluting separation.

Glad you say "Amen" even with some hesitation upon further reading. Naming names at this point would distract from what I'm asking people to consider. It's no defense of the "uppity guys at Central, Detroit, Calvary" or dismissal of the others although I might find myself closer ideologically to the "uppity" guys in some ways. But I'm not sure they would all say "Amen" to what I've written and I am not beholden to them.

I have no interest in claiming or conferring the mantle of historic fundamentalism. I prefer to go further back, to the Scriptures and two thousand years of church history rather than to a recent historical period. What you call diluting separation might after all be a call to biblical separation which if truly practiced would say something that needs to be said to the world about Christians. The last sixty years of Fundamentalism as you’ve known it matter much less than what the Bible really teaches.

Steve

Meaning of Amos 3:3

The first colon in v. 3 is easily translated as "Do two go together"? The last colon, however, is somewhat enigmatic as the versions reflect. The niphal could refer to an appointed place or to meet by appointment (cf. parallel in Job 2:11) meaning "Do two walk together, unless they have agreed to meet?" The semantics in the niphal use of "ya'ad" (Hebrew font does not function on SI) do not imply a passive meeting but one that is reciprocal. The two parties could be just about anyone since Amos has not identified whom he is referring to. He is givng a wisdom saying--people travel together because they have planned it that way (Anderson and Freeman, p. 394). Amos' point in v. 3 is simply to provide an introduction to a series of illustrations to follow. The examples flow out of the principle that he gives in v. 3, viz., "that two such items belong together if they are in essential harmony with each other" (ibid., p. 388). The application to the discussion of separation seems appropriate, though the caveats offered by Dr. Davis must be considered carefully and thoughtfully.

Pastor Mike Harding

Where did literal meaning go?

I do find it interesting that some people who wave the banner for literal interpretation launch into totally unnecessary metaphorical reading at this verse. The series of questions in Amos 3 are rhetorical. They appeal to clear-cut, everyday events in order to elicit the response, "of course not." Trying to read a doctrinal principle into them sabotages their rhetorical purpose.

So, I suggest that meaning of Amos 3:3 in context is, "Do people travel together unless they made some plans to do so? Of course not. Nor does God bring judgment on Israel without telling his prophets. I'm the prophet, and I'm telling you."

If someone really does think it pertains to separation, I want to know the ecclesiological interpretation of Amos 3:4.

My Blog: http://dearreaderblog.com

Cor meum tibi offero Domine prompte et sincere. ~ John Calvin

Amos uses an independent

Amos uses an independent wisdom saying (not a metaphor) (v. 3) to provide an introduction to a series of illustrations in verses 4--6. The wisdom saying stands on its own; wisdom literature constitutes general truths vis a vis legal guarantees. I am quite certain that Anderson and Freeman have good hermeneutical skills. The prophet applies it to things that are in close association with each other such as a lion's roar and its prey, an ensnared bird and its baited trap, announcing trumpet of warning and imminent attack. The illustrations point to the imminent and certain judgment of Israel.

Pastor Mike Harding

Essential Harmony

Mike Harding wrote:
The examples flow out of the principle that he gives in v. 3, viz., "that two such items belong together if they are in essential harmony with each other" (ibid., p. 388). The application to the discussion of separation seems appropriate, though the caveats offered by Dr. Davis must be considered carefully and thoughtfully.

I'm not convinced (yet) that this passage's application has much to offer in the discussion of separation. If it does, for the sake of argument, then "essential harmony" would need to be defined. What's funny, in a strange way, is that men with whom I think I am in essential harmony don't think I'm enough in harmony with them. Of course maybe they will walk with me but won't work with me :-).

When we first began ministry in a closed country I met with a national pastor to see if we could provide training. I didn't use the words "essential harmony" but did use "significant compatibility." I had a pretty short list - fundamentals of the faith. Both of us believed more than that and differed in some areas. But it was enough to walk and work together.

Steve, My point is that the

Steve,

My point is that the wisdom saying invoked by Amos is interpreted correctly by non-separatists such as Anderson and Freedman as a general principle in v. 3, viz., "that two such items belong together if they are in essential harmony with each other" (p. 388). That is a general truth that is recognizable by most people. One can hardly build a full-orbed doctrine of separation out of it, and I would not attempt it. Nevertheless, based on the significance or substance of disagreement and/or agreement, alliances are made not only in religious venues, but secular venues as well. Paul says, "What agreement hath . . . " I believe Kevin Bauder laid out a good case on how a believer handles various levels of disagreement. Your point that disagreement is not necessarily disobedience is well-stated.

Pastor Mike Harding

Separation and unity--two sides of the same coin . . . .

Steve Davis wrote:
RPittman wrote:
Dr. Davis, I read your article and want to say, "Amen!" Then, I realize perhaps I am not reading it exactly the way you intended. You name no names and I think that I understand but Fundamentalists have a way of appropriating one's arguments for their own use.
.....
It seems that whereas at one time we were overwhelmed by sermons and articles trumpeting separation but now we are deluged by articles nay saying or diluting separation.

Glad you say "Amen" even with some hesitation upon further reading. Naming names at this point would distract from what I'm asking people to consider. It's no defense of the "uppity guys at Central, Detroit, Calvary" or dismissal of the others although I might find myself closer ideologically to the "uppity" guys in some ways. But I'm not sure they would all say "Amen" to what I've written and I am not beholden to them.

I have no interest in claiming or conferring the mantle of historic fundamentalism. I prefer to go further back, to the Scriptures and two thousand years of church history rather than to a recent historical period. What you call diluting separation might after all be a call to biblical separation which if truly practiced would say something that needs to be said to the world about Christians. The last sixty years of Fundamentalism as you’ve known it matter much less than what the Bible really teaches.

Steve

Then, perhaps we ought to be talking about unity. Yet, I see where separation is a means of unity. Universal unity, obviously, is an unattainable goal. Time, language, culture, beliefs, location, etc. all separate us. Unity, as the Bible speaks of it, is in the context of a close knit association sharing some commonality. If there is dissension or bickering, then it is better to divide than to fuss. Unity is achieved within the context of two smaller groups. What is lacking in the Gospels is where Christ obviously did not seek to bring all his followers into a unified body (consider Mark 9:33-41). Upon closer inspection, we see Christ's emphasis upon unity was more within the group rather than uniting diverse groups. IMHO, it is better to divide than to fight.

As for "what the Bible really teaches." we should already know. The problem is that this teaching is transmitted through a cultural paradigm known as Fundamentalism and that paradigm is now changing with the culture. This does not mean that "what the Bible really teaches" has changed but it means that we are reading it through different spectacles so our interpretation of "what the Bible really teaches" has changed. Our cultural concepts of unity and separation are how we understand the Biblical teaching.

The desire to return to primitive Christianity or "what the Bible really teaches" has been a perennial quest for as long as memory. Yet, we'e never seemed to have arrived at the destination.

Mike Harding wrote: My point

Mike Harding wrote:
My point is that the wisdom saying invoked by Amos is interpreted correctly by non-separatists such as Anderson and Freedman as a general principle in v. 3, viz., "that two such items belong together if they are in essential harmony with each other" (p. 388). That is a general truth that is recognizable by most people. One can hardly build a full-orbed doctrine of separation out of it, and I would not attempt it. Nevertheless, based on the significance or substance of disagreement and/or agreement, alliances are made not only in religious venues, but secular venues as well. Paul says, "What agreement hath . . . " I believe Kevin Bauder laid out a good case on how a believer handles various levels of disagreement. Your point that disagreement is not necessarily disobedience is well-stated.

Thanks for your comments, my friend. I like much of what Kevin has written and look forward to the audio from your conference in January.

Perennial Quest

RPittman wrote:
The desire to return to primitive Christianity or "what the Bible really teaches" has been a perennial quest for as long as memory. Yet, we'e never seemed to have arrived at the destination.

It is a never-ending quest. We may never arrive this side of eternity but every age with its challenges should drive us back to Scripture - semper reformanda!

Maybe we should talk about unity as least as much as we do about separation. We should be "eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" (Eph. 4:3) based on the one body, one Spirit, one hope, etc. Are we as eager to maintain unity as we are to separate? If so, we will exercise great care in our practice of separation.

eager to separate?

Steve Davis wrote:
Are we as eager to maintain unity as we are to separate? If so, we will exercise great care in our practice of separation.

Yes, separation is such fun! I wake up every day looking for someone to separate from!

Really, separation is agony. It is rarely entered into with delight and joy. It is long avoided, often too long avoided. Maybe there are some who are eager to separate, but I don't think there are many.

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Eager to Separate

Don Johnson wrote:
Yes, separation is such fun! I wake up every day looking for someone to separate from!

Really, separation is agony. It is rarely entered into with delight and joy. It is long avoided, often too long avoided. Maybe there are some who are eager to separate, but I don't think there are many.

You need to stop waking up with that attitude, Don! Seriously, your point is well taken. I should've inserted "quick" on the separation part. I don't know how often it is "too long avoided." That hasn’t been my experience. It shouldn't be avoided at all costs but should require long deliberation. I accept that you experience agony when you feel you must separate. I don't see much of that either.


▴ Top of page

Help keep SI’s server humming. A few bucks makes a difference.