Aphorisms for Thinking about Separation: Command, Intent and Application

Please, consider reading the preceding article before delving into this one. While I’ve tried to make each stand alone, they are linked together.

Aphorism 1: The debate among Bible believing Christians about separation is fundamentally about the how to apply the passages in the Bible commanding separation.

Aphorism 2: All applications of the commands of Scripture are based on a particular context outside the Bible. Therefore unless the context is identical to what was intended by the Bible, an application cannot be as normative as Scripture itself.

Allow me to share an explicit command of Scripture, repeated five times in the New Testament which is patently ignored at least in literal obedience by almost all churches in the United States: “Greet one another with the kiss of love” (ESV, 1 Peter 5:14; cf. 1 Thess. 5:26, 2 Cor. 13:12, 1 Cor. 16:20, Rom. 16:16).

I hope you obey this command of Scripture by greeting all Christians in a culturally appropriate way. But my guess is that your church does not practice a literal kiss of love but replaces it with a handshake, shoulder squeeze, or hug. We look through the culturally decided symbolism of a kiss and replace it with our culture’s symbolic synonym of a warm greeting.

Obedience to the command is then based on our cultural context. The trans-contextual aspect is that we must greet all Christians in a friendly way. We must obey the command or we are sinning.

Command and intent

Most of the time we overlook the complexity of the Western church’s interpretation and application of “Greet one another with the kiss of love.” It’s not a hot issue, but any meditation on our non-literal conformity to this clear biblical command should tell us that we often unconsciously recognize the differences in the command, the intention of the command, and the application of the command.

The intention of “greet one another with the kiss of love” is that Christians will warmly greet each other. But if obeying the command itself leads to licentiousness or confusion, then the intention of the command must be obeyed above the literal wording of the command.

Our Lord Jesus teaches us this explicitly on the issue of the 4th Commandment—“the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work” (Exod. 20:10). The Pharisees had built up a pattern of application that forbade Jesus from healing on the Sabbath. And so Jesus confronts them by asking, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” (Mark 3:4).

Jesus’ diagnostic question considers God’s intention within the Sabbath law. Was the 4th Commandment intended to harm or cause unnecessary suffering for God’s people? Was obedience to cause good or evil? Jesus argues that the purpose of the command was to do good. Jesus then explicitly contravenes the literal meaning of the command “you shall not do any work” with the words, “My Father is working until now, and I am working” (John 5:17). Jesus is of course obeying the intent of the command by resting from a particular category of work to honor God, but He is working in the sense of doing good on the Sabbath.

Thus when we come to a command, it is not enough to merely ask if we are obeying the words of the command. The modern Western church, in general, does not obey the words of “Greet one another with the kiss of love,” but it does obey the intent of the command.

Intent and application

The issue of both the intent of the command and the application of the command can be observed in more basic commands like, “You shall not murder.” What determines whether an act is a murder? Numbers 35:16-24 gives some of the scriptural conditions for murder and includes motive, pre-meditation, and the situation. The Bible itself clearly teaches that the command “you shall not murder” is to be applied with consideration of the intent of the command, the motive, and the specific situation. The application of a command is then dependent on the intent of the command, the motives of those obeying and disobeying, and the specific situation.

But there is a further element that must be noted. Part of the universal context of all human beings is finitude, fallibility, freedom, and fallenness. Humanity is forced by our existence to trust in God’s grace and give grace to others, because of our limited perspective in the application of God’s command and our own sinful natures. Sometimes the issue is incredibly clear, but sometimes it’s less clear, and sometimes we must simply trust in the grace of God.

Elusive clarity

There will always be unclear areas based on individual conscience even with the issue of murder: What treatments should be used for pregnant mothers with advanced cancer? How much responsibility does an individual Christian soldier take for the possibility of “collateral damage” to civilians in warfare as a pilot, sniper, or drone operator? What formula decides if a police officer who shoots and kills a bystander because he missed a criminal is a murderer? How high a standard of evidence is needed by the state to use the death penalty? Where exactly is the line between negligence and a mistake in medical treatment that leads to death?

Thinking through how to obey a command or recognizing when others have disobeyed thus requires biblical wisdom. We see an example of such wisdom in the relationship of Apollos and Paul. They had a disagreement over how Apollos should obey the great commission in Corinth. In particular, how he should “make disciples” and teach “them all that [Jesus] had commanded.” (If you’re not comfortable with the great commission being in play in 1 Corinthians 16, supply the second great command, Matt. 22:39.) And so Paul strongly urged the application that Apollos would immediately visit Corinth, and Apollos said, “No.” He disagreed with the Apostle Paul’s application, and so we read in 1 Corinthians 16:12, “I strongly urged him to visit you with the other brothers, but it was not at all his will to come now.”

If Paul had elevated his wisdom to the authority of Scripture by commanding Apollos to go to Corinth, he would have been sinning just like the Pharisees. The Pharisees, according to our Lord Jesus, taught “ ‘as doctrines the commandments of men.’ [They] leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men” (Mark 7:7-8). The Pharisees elevated their applications to the level of law. But when Paul doesn’t have a specific word from God on the application of a command of Scripture, he leaves it up to the individual conscience (c.f., Rom. 14:23).

Yet this doesn’t make Paul a moral relativist who allows anything. Paul is abundantly clear about how and when to obey the command, “repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). God, “now commands all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30). Everyone is expected to immediately obey this command and to obey in the exact same way. There are no cultural accommodations (1 Cor. 9:18-23). There is only one gospel and only one way to obey the gospel command—repent and believe.

The obvious reason for this is that the intent of the command “repent and believe the gospel” is universal and it is to be obeyed by “all people everywhere” in the exact same way. The motives for not repenting and believing are always the same. And “all people everywhere” desperately need to obey the gospel.

If you disagree will Paul about the gospel, it’s not an issue of conscience or application. We find no extending of a gracious opportunity for greater spiritual growth (Phil. 3:15) to those who reject the gospel. Rather Paul damns all who would preach a different gospel, including himself, “If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed” (Gal 1:9, cf. v. 8). And if someone preaches that salvation requires one to repent, believe and be circumcised—Paul wishes for severe consequences (Gal. 5:12).

Different kinds of commands

The Bible, then, has different sorts of commands. “Repent and believe the gospel” is applied to all men everywhere exactly the same way. Paul and Apollos cannot disagree on the application of this command or the context. But there are other sorts of commands—for instance the great commission—where Paul and Apollos can disagree about application and the context.

This leaves several things to be considered on the issue of separation, and even on God’s commands in general. The most important of these is, What is God’s intention in giving us the commands to separate? Next week, (DV) I will attempt to discover this by analyzing Paul and Jesus’ obedience and application to the commands to separate.

In anticipation of possible questions, the next two aphorisms to be considered are these:

Aphorism 3: Applications of the commands of separation must take into account Jesus and Paul’s application of these same commands as recorded in the Gospels, Acts, and the epistles.

Aphorism 4: None of the commands of Scripture contradict the other commands when rightly understood, and to be correctly applied and interpreted all of the commands of Scripture must work together.

Shane Walker Bio

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.

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