Forgetting the Doctrine of Separation?

From Voice, Mar/Apr 2014. Used by permission.

This is a call to purity and balance. It represents that truth of God’s Word which has fallen upon the rocks of neglect in today’s American Church. It represents teaching from the Bible which seems so terribly out of harmony with our American culture. It almost seems pugnacious, no matter how graciously it may be stated.

This is about the doctrine of separation, biblical holiness in life and relationships.

I have watched with growing dismay as so many in the American evangelical church have cheerfully descended into theological illiteracy lacking any sense of doctrinal discernment which is based on the careful study and application of the Scriptures. And the “problem is that even the mildest assertion of Christian truth today sounds like a thunderclap because the well-polished civility of our religious talk has kept us from hearing much of this kind of thing.”1

In my conversations with younger Christian leaders, many of them raised in our own churches, they instinctively recoil at my mention of the doctrine of separation. Oh, they seem to understand that there are incorrect, even false, teachings. But they resist attributing incorrect or false teachings to actual teachers who are incorrect or false. That seems too close to a personal attack. It is so unkind. That is something which characterizes the previous generation. So our younger friends at first balk at the discussion, and then get silent and remain steadfastly unconvinced. They just aren’t buying it.

I can somewhat sympathize. When I became a Christian in 1972, I felt similar emotions when I listened to older Christian leaders talk about the doctrine of separation. I thought many of those veterans of the Modernist—Fundamentalist battles seemed ungracious, angry and mean-spirited. I agreed with their theology but disagreed with their attitude. I also thought that this doctrine received lopsided attention from the men in our theological camp (the branch of American Christianity which I unashamedly embrace). Back then, many of my contemporaries thought the same…and as a consequence the careful teaching of the doctrine of separation was largely ignored by my peers who believed it but didn’t teach it and this doctrine began its long descent into church-life-irrelevance.

Today, after having served nearly fifteen years in this ministry position, I am concerned that the doctrine of separation is being relegated to the dustbin of American church history. And in its place it seems the tolerant spirit of our day has become the most coveted of all character qualities, even by many in our churches. That may be culturally desirable, but is it biblical?

We need to restate the case for separatism to today’s generation. We need to restate the case to the people of our own Fellowship, even though the very birth of IFCA International in 1930 (as “Independent Fundamental Churches of America”) came about as a response to the theological liberalism of that day. I believe in recent years this doctrine has been neglected, ignored, or badly practiced (with a spirit of carelessness on one extreme and an unChristlike attitude on the other extreme).

The doctrine of separation must be presented as hermeneutically transparent, exegetically rigorous, logically coherent, ecclesiologically consistent and in a reasonable, non-parochial way that is practicable. Is that possible? That’s what the current issue of VOICE attempts.

The call to purity

This is clear. God calls the follower of Jesus Christ to purity. We are called as individuals to holiness (1 Thessalonians 4:7; 2 Timothy 1:9). We are to be holy as He is holy (Leviticus 19:2; 1 Peter 1:16). We are to present our bodies to Him in the pursuit of holiness (Romans 12:1). Our old man was crucified that we should no longer be slaves to sin (Romans 6:47). The new man is created in holiness (Ephesians 4:24). “Let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Corinthians 7:1).

The call to purity is the acknowledgment that God has called believers out of the world in order to maintain a personal and corporate purity in the midst of this world. Separation from sin is implied in the very word church: the Greek word ekklesia (“church”) means “a called-out assembly.”

The call to purity also is extended to the local church. In Christ’s letter to the church of Pergamos, He warned against tolerating those who taught false doctrine (Revelation 2:14-15). The elders of New Testament churches are commanded and warned by God to guard and protect the church from all manner of evil and wickedness. Acts 20:27-31 lays this responsibility before us. “For I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God. Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be on the alert, remember that night and day for a period of three years I did not cease to admonish each one with tears.”

Personal separation relates to the individual Christian’s call to purity. Ecclesiastical separation relates to churches and groups and the relationships between groups; it is not about individuals. Though ecclesiastical separation obviously affects the lives of individuals, the term ecclesiastical by its very definition is a term referring to churches, not individuals. And the following general guidelines are presented for careful consideration regarding the position of the local church with reference to biblical separation.

Concerning church government and organization

  • Make sure that membership is granted only to those who are truly members of the body of Christ (Acts 2:41-47).
  • Select for office and places of leadership only those who are spiritually mature and conform to the biblical standard of leadership (Acts 6:3-7; 1 Timothy 3:1-13; Titus 1:5-9).

Concerning disorderly and sinning brethren

  • Seek to restore them in a spirit of love and meekness (Galatians 6:1, 2).
  • Lovingly discipline members who refuse to repent (1 Corinthians 5:1; 1 Timothy 5:19, 20; Matthew 18:15-17; 2 Thessalonians 3:1-6).

Concerning Doctrine and the Gospel

  • Guard the gospel as a sacred trust (1 Timothy 1:1-11; 6:20; Galatians 1:1-9).
  • Refuse to allow unbelievers to have ministry of any kind in the local church (2 John 9-11; 1 John 4:1-6).
  • Refuse to allow any who bring in false doctrine to have ministry in the local church (Romans 16:17, 18; Titus 3:911; 2 John 9, 10).
  • Warn and speak out against false doctrine and false teachers (Philippians 3:1-3; Acts 20:27-31; 1 Timothy 4:1-16; 2 Timothy 3:1-17).
  • Preach and teach sound doctrine continually (2 Timothy 3:16-17, 4:1-5).

Concerning cooperation with other churches and organizations

  • Refuse to work in cooperation with churches or organizations that teach and promote doctrine which are contrary to the doctrine of the Word of God (Romans 16:17, 18; 2 John 9-11).
  • Send forth only those missionaries who are known and adhere whole heartedly to the doctrinal convictions of your local church (Acts 13:1-3).

Kevin Bauder has carefully examined that crucial passage in 2 John (a passage which is cited three times above).2 Bauder’s comments are instructive:

We must not underestimate the importance of separatism. John’s second epistle addresses the matter directly. In verse 7, John mentions that many deceivers have gone into the world. These individuals deny a fundamental doctrine, i.e., the incarnation. Because of their denial, they are deceivers and antichrists.

In verse 8, John cautions believers to be careful. He intimates that a believer might lose some reward that could otherwise have been enjoyed. This is a matter that should give Christians pause. What sort of activity might keep them from receiving a full reward?

Rather than answering this question immediately, John returns to his indictment against false teachers in verse 9. John insists that whoever departs from correct teaching about Christ does not have God. In other words, such people are not to be recognized as believers at all.

Verse 10 anticipates a situation in which a false teacher approaches a believer in order to propagate false doctrine. John’s requirements are quite strict: believers must not receive this false teacher into their houses, nor must they bid the false teacher chairein.

Whether the “house” is an actual dwelling or a house church is beside the point at the moment. The idea is that believers are not to open themselves to false teachers who come with the goal of propagating their doctrines.

The term chairein was simply the standard Greek greeting during the New Testament era. It was widely employed in secular Greek and has no particular theological overtones. What John is doing is forbidding believers from even extending a civil greeting to apostates who are attempting to teach their false doctrines.

If John’s instruction seems harsh, it is. It constitutes a violation of basic civility. To obey John at this point runs counter to upbringing, custom, and entrenched habit.

Why is it so important to avoid even a civil greeting? John answers this question in verse 11. Whoever so much as bids the apostate chairein becomes a partner in the evil that the false teacher does. Even the slight encouragement of a civil greeting joins the believer in fellowship with the apostate and gains the believer a share in the damage that the apostate wreaks.

The situation that John describes is just the reverse of the one that Paul mentions in Philippians 4:10-19. There, the Philippian believers had sent a gift that encouraged Paul. He rejoiced in the gift, because by giving it the Philippians had secured a share in the blessings of Paul’s ministry (v. 17).

To encourage a servant of Christ is to gain a share in the good that he does. To encourage an enemy of Christ (even with so much as a civil greeting) is to gain a share in the evil that he does. In the context of 2 John, such sharing in evil is precisely how a believer can lose reward.

Separation is not itself a fundamental of the faith, and non-separatists are not necessarily denying the gospel. Nevertheless, the failure to practice separation may well gain them a share in the evil that false teachers do. To align oneself with the enemies of Christ is never virtuous. Though not a denial of the gospel, it is a betrayal.3

As Charles Spurgeon wrote about his own struggle with doctrinal error and compromise in the Nineteenth Century English Baptist Union in The Sword and Trowel.

Complicity with error will take from the best of men the power to enter any successful protest against it.4

It is our solemn conviction that where there can be no real spiritual communion, there should be no pretense of fellowship. Fellowship with known and vital error is participation in sin.5

In our own days of doctrinal carelessness and toleration here in the twenty-first century American church, the doctrine of biblical separation is mocked by many, ignored by most. But it is clearly taught throughout Scripture. Believers of all ages have received the same call to purity.

The call to balance

This is clear. The call to balance is given alongside of the call to purity. The doctrine of biblical separation does not require Christians to avoid all contact with unbelievers. Like the Lord Jesus, we should befriend the sinner without partaking of the sin (Luke 7:34). Paul expressed a balanced view:

I wrote you in my last letter not to associate with immoral people; I did not at all mean with the immoral people of the world… for then you would have to go out of the world (1 Corinthians 5:9-10).

In other words, we are in the world, but not of it (John 17:11, 14-15).

The call to balance also means that we should exercise biblical separation with a humble, gracious spirit in such a way as to strengthen the body of Christ. After instructing Timothy to protect the church from false teaching (1 Timothy 1:3), in the same context Paul wrote: “the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Timothy 1:5). Truth and love, in balance. We see the same kind of balance in Paul’s second letter to Timothy. After very strong words regarding the false teaching of Hymenaeus and Philetus (2 Timothy 2:16-21), Paul instructed Timothy to pursue love and peace (2:22), to refuse to be quarrelsome (2:23-24), and to teach and correct with patient gentleness (2:24-25). That is balance!

Another sense of balance is needed when dealing with true brothers and sisters who genuinely know Jesus Christ as Savior but hold differing theological convictions. If you are a Dispensationalist, can you enjoy a cup of coffee or pray with a Charismatic or a Covenant theologian? Can you live in the same town and maintain relationships on a personal level with Christians from other theological traditions? Balance dictates that the wise Christian can enjoy personal interactions with other Christians, even at times learn from them and at times join with them in certain specific activities. But discernment dictates that our doctrinal convictions remain settled.6

There is another element that needs to be balanced. Partnerships and networks and collaborative efforts are vital (even God ordained) and must be established among believers and local churches. We mustn’t use the negative aspect of the doctrine of separation to prevent the expression of the positive establishment of partnerships whenever possible. This has been a theme in IFCA International for over two decades. Interdependence, not isolation, has been a rallying cry. We drafted a number of strategic statements and goals and plans to seek interdependence. A number of VOICE articles have been written on this subject. Regional conferences and international conventions have had as their themes unified cooperation and interdependence. We have established in our recent history that we are serious about seeking partnerships where we are able. And we must continue to do so, because it is biblical to seek partnerships where we can. We should not use the negative aspect of the doctrine of separation to prevent the expression of the positive establishment of partnerships whenever possible. That is another balance to maintain.

Conclusion

It seems balance is so often absent from the church today. Extremes are all too common. Defensive, aggressive, mean spirited provincialism is found on one extreme. And an undiscerning hyper-tolerance is found on the other extreme. We are called to purity and balance, a truth which seems largely forgotten in today’s American Church. This is why IFCA International has identified one of the Vital Signs of Healthy Churches as “Sensitive Separation: A church that is committed to biblical separation and church discipline exercised with a humble, gracious spirit and applied in such a way as to strengthen the body of Christ.”7

Believers cannot escape the biblical mandate that we must discern the difference between the holy and the unholy relationship, the wise and unwise partnership. We are to be discerning and separated from sin while at the same time loving one another. We are to keep the call to purity in proper biblical balance.

Let us fellowship where we can. Let us separate where we must. Let us love no matter what.8

And this balance is never easily achieved. But it is a goal worth our every effort, for the Lord’s glory and the sake of the gospel and the good of the Church.

Notes

1 David Wells, No Place for the Truth (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1993), p. 10.

2 Kevin T. Bauder, “Now, About Those Differences, Part 21: How Important Is Separation?” from his blog In the Nick of Time (first posted on Friday, 12 November 2010). Bauder’s article cited here is but one in a long series of blog articles which he posted on the subject—and they are some of the best things you can read on the doctrine of ecclesiastical separation. Also read Bauder’s excellent contributions in Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism (edited by Andrew David Naselli and Collin Hansen, Zondervan, 2011). Bauder maintains that Fundamentalists are distinguished from other evangelicals primarily by their understanding of primary and secondary separation. I agree with him in that assessment and in just about everything else he has written on this subject.

3 Bauder’s extended quote ends here from “Now, About Those Differences, Part 21: How Important Is Separation?”

4 Charles H. Spurgeon, “Notes,” The Sword and the Trowel (October 1888)

5 Charles H. Spurgeon, “A Fragment Upon the Down Grade,” The Sword and the Trowel (November 1887).

6 The frequently misunderstood question of how to relate to other Christians in other contexts is why I have found Dick Gregory’s concept of The Pyramid of Responsibilities so useful. See his article later in this issue of VOICE and purchase his book which was co-authored with his son Richard W. Gregory: On the Level: Discovering the Levels of Biblical Relationships Among Believers (IFCA Press, 2005) available for purchase at Amazon.com.

7 The full document “Vital Signs for Healthy IFCA International Churches” is available at www.ifca.org. Sensitive Separation is one of IFCA International’s twenty-one vital signs of church health.

8 Adapted from Kevin T. Bauder, “Now, About Those Differences, Part 24: Fellowship and the Evangelical Spectrum,” from his blog In the Nick of Time (first posted on Friday, 17 December 2010). He actually wrote it this way: “Let us separate where we must. Let us fellowship where we can. Let us love one another withal.” I took the liberty to rearrange the order and change one word.

Les Lofquist Bio


Les Lofquist earned his BA at Grace College, and his MDiv at Grace Theological Seminary. Over his years of ministry, he has served as a missionary church planter, Bible college instructor, youth pastor and senior pastor. He has served as Executive Director of IFCA since 1999. He and his wife Miriam have been blessed with several children and grandchildren.

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