Aphorisms for Thinking about Separation: Setting the Stage

Some time ago I had a long talk and walk with an older, godly, academic separatist about the history of separatism. By separatist, I mean someone who separates not only from apostasy but also separates from those who do not separate from apostasy. (I am being vague on the timing and details as the conversation was a friendly courtesy to me.)

About an hour or so into our talk, I played my rhetorical trump card—the original word for Pharisee means separatist. It cut him deep. And for first time we moved from theory to life. I looked into the eyes of a godly, thoughtful man and recognized the truth of what he next said with tears welling up in his eyes, “I am not trying to be a Pharisee; I am just trying to serve Jesus.”

I backpedalled a bit and tried to draw out the sting of my words. We recovered the emotional balance of the conversation and moved on. Yet the Holy Spirit has used the conversation and the moment of deeply hurting a servant of my Lord as a helpful reminder to speak and write carefully on this issue.

My older friend also had a trump card which he never used. He could have called me liberal. Or he could have framed it in biblical idiom and called me a Sadducee. The Pharisees were known for adding to God’s word (Matt. 15:6, Mark 7:13) and “teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Matt. 15:9, ESV). But the Sadducees took away from God’s word. They denied the resurrection, angels, and spirits (Acts 23:8). They did not “know the Scriptures nor the power of God” (Matt. 22:29). Undermining the authority of God and His word, tending towards materialism and rejecting eternal punishment (cf. Josephus, Wars, 2.8.14) is the tendency of modern liberalism, and it was the tendency of the Sadducees.

It’s here that we come to an important theological conclusion. The impulse to add to God’s word as a Pharisee or take away from God’s word as a Sadducee is a historical constant in the regime of sin and death. And so long before the rise of the Pharisees and the Sadducees, God said in Deuteronomy 4:2, “You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the LORD your God that I command you.”

And long before the fundamentalist-modernist crisis, Paul warned us “not to go beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up in favor of one against another” (1 Cor. 4:6) while at the same time warning against denying the Scriptures (1 Cor. 15:12). The impulse to add or take away from Scripture, to be too liberal or too conservative in modern parlance, is constant. We are always in danger of sinning by adding to God’s word or taking away from it.

I am not a separatist like William and John Ashbrook, David Beale, Ernest Pickering, or Mark Sidwell. (I mention them only because I’ve read a selection of their works.) I believe that they are going beyond what is written; they believe that I am taking away from God’s word by not obeying it. Either they’re tending toward being a Pharisee or I am tending towards being a Sadducee. I hope we’re all sober Christians, but one or both of us is listing away from the intention of the Bible.

The difficulty is that there is another group of proclaimed Christians that aren’t just tending away from the purpose of the Bible. They don’t separate at all for a variety of reasons. A refusal to obey God really is compromising liberalism. Yet, there are also separatists who really are Pharisees. They separate out of pride, arrogant ignorance, and self-righteousness. They are schismatic.

There are true Sadducees and Pharisees who claim to be Christians and Jesus says of them,

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves. (Matt. 23:15).

True Pharisees and true Sadducees are going to hell unless they repent.

If being a Pharisee or Sadducee is a deadly sin and a constant impulse of our flesh, then those who separate more rigorously and those who are less separatist need to be speaking to each other. We need to make sure we’ve found a biblical balance between adding and taking away from God’s word and part of the way that we do this is by talking to other Christians. Or as James puts it,

My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins. (James 5:19-20)

As a Christian, I’d like to summon all of you before my heart so that you could believe me when I say, “I am not trying to be a compromising liberal; I am just trying to serve Jesus.” But I can’t prove my motives. All I can do is show how I attempt to obey our Lord Jesus through God’s word. And part of what this requires is obeying God’s commands to separate.

The opportunity that I am asking for is to publicly tease out why I in good conscience don’t attempt to obey Jesus in the same way that stricter separatists do. And what I’ve done to assist in this is create a series of aphorisms* to think about separation. Essentially, I am exposing my theological and hermeneutical conclusions and processes, so that other Christians will not only see my attempts to obey our Lord but also observe the earlier steps leading to the outcome.

And so here is my first aphorism implied through everything above:

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

The person who claims to be a Christian but does not accept Paul’s reminder in 1 Corinthians 5:13 and 2 Corinthians 6:14-18, or that the commands of Deuteronomy 13:5 and Isaiah 52:11 are the rule among Christians, is either not a Bible-believing Christian or has gravely misunderstood God’s word. This is especially the case when we find further commands in 2 John 7-11, Ephesians 5:11, 1 Corinthians 5:6-7, 1 Timothy 6:3-5, 2 Thessalonians 3:6, Romans 16:17, and others.

Rather anti-climactic, no? But there it is. To be an earnest Christian requires that we obey God’s Word on the issue of separating.

Next week’s aphorism may be more interesting. But I will delay discussing aphorism two until then (DV).

* An aphorism is short statement of a principle. The most interesting historical series of aphorisms on the issue of separation can be found in Samuel Coleridge’s, Aids to Reflection. I had originally intended to use the term axiom, but was dissuaded by a mathematically-minded friend that this term would be inaccurate.

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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Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I've long felt that if there can't be more agreement in this area, there should at least be more respectful disagreement. More mutual understanding. I appreciate the attitude here and look forward to what comes next.

I've said before too that I think most of the conflict is over application. I'd like to see that claim specifically supported (by a series of quotations from leaders who disagree on separation, for example.... showing how similarly they see the principles and highlighting where the application diverges). Maybe that's another project (feel like writing a book?).

Application isn't less important though. It's just less certain (usually) and calls for a different relationship to those we disagree with.

swalker's picture

Thanks Aaron. My sense of the conversation between those who are trying to take the Bible seriously is that the stricter and more moderate separatist have been speaking past each other, because they are coming to their applications without exposing the often unconscious habits of mind that create the applications. So my hope is to expose the process on both sides rather focus on specific authors. 

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