(Please, consider reading all of the preceding articles before delving into this one. While I’ve tried to make them each stand alone, they are linked together.)
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.
The argument I am pursuing is that Jesus and Paul were separatist. (I’ve attempted to cover this in greater detail in the previous article.) Jesus and Paul must be separatists because they are obeying many of the same commands that we are. Further, Jesus and Paul give us a model to both follow and to understand God’s intent in giving these commands. Paul and Jesus’ model is the rule for Christians, because Paul commands us, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1).
We’ve already noted that Jesus entered into theological dialogue with the doctrinally compromised teachers at the Temple (Luke 2:46), that he was known for dining with Jews who were morally compromised either politically with the Romans (i.e. tax collectors) or were sinners (Luke 7:34). It must be noted that both tax collectors and the more general category of sinners were members of the nation of Israel and therefore necessarily under the law. Jesus dined with the Pharisees and interacted with the Sadducees. Further, Jesus supported attendance at the synagogues and submission to the scribes and Pharisees who taught there (Matt. 23:2).
The New Testament parallel to all these groups—tax collectors, sinners, scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees—is backsliding church members, churches, and even denominations. And Jesus describes the Sadducees as those who knew “neither the Scriptures nor the power of God” (Mark 12:24) and the Pharisees and scribes as children of hell (Matt. 23:15).
So how did Jesus obey Isaiah 52:11a, “Depart, depart, go out from there; touch no unclean thing; go out from the midst of her”—a command Paul repeats to the church in Corinth? Or, “Purge the evil person from among you” found six times in Deuteronomy (17:7: 19:19; 21:21; 22:21, 24; 24:27), and repeated by Paul in 2 Corinthians 6:16?
Jesus’ primary means of separation was through proclamation. He worked both to proclaim himself as the fulfillment of the Old Testament (Matt. 5:17), but also to correct the false teaching of his day on various issues.
Much of Jesus’ preaching ministry correcting the sinful doctrine of his day. The reason for this is that rejecting or misapprehending the Old Testament made it impossible to accept him as the Messiah. Or as Abraham describes it in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead” (Luke 16:31).
Thus we find Jesus defending salvation by faith alone by correcting the Pharisees’ faith plus works formula (Luke 18:14). He preached against the easy divorce practice of the day (Matt. 19), and overturned the traditional interpretations and applications of the false teachers (Mark 7:11-13).
Most importantly Jesus argues against rigorously separating from disorderly and sinful Jews without the opportunity to extend mercy through repentance. So we read in Matthew 9:11-12, “And when the Pharisees saw [Jesus fellowshipping with sinners], they said to his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
At the same time, Jesus also establishes two timelines for repentance: the first is death or the second coming (Matt. 25:30). If those who are professed Jews do not repent of their sins and have faith, they will die and go to hell. So the Pharisee who trusted in his self-righteousness went away from the Temple without justification (Luke 18:14), while the tax collector was saved. The Pharisee remaining in his sin on death would join the rich man in Hades (Luke 16:23-24).
But there is second timeline. Jesus, in agreement with John the Baptist, preaches about a coming cutting off of the corporate nation of Israel if they do not repent. John is the most explicit, “Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Luke 3:8-9).
Our Lord Jesus adds to John’s doctrine: “They will fall by the edge of the sword and be led captive among all nations, and Jerusalem will be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled” (Luke 21:24).
If the nation of Israel does not repent and believe “what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass” (Acts 26:22), then a terrible judgment would come upon the nation of Israel. And as history teaches us, Jesus’ prophecy of the destruction of the nation occurred in 70 A.D. and ushered in the “times of the Gentiles.” We also need to note that the cutting off included the expectation and hope of future repentance.
The way that Jesus separated himself from sinners was by proclamation of the truth, warning of the individual consequences, and proclaiming the coming corporate cutting off. And Jesus extended this patient warning from his preaching ministry in the early 30s to 70 A.D. Jesus gave the nation of Israel nearly 40 years to reform and repent and then the axe came.
Though we do not have as explicit a timeline in the letters to the seven churches in Revelation, we have an almost identical pattern. Jesus extends the opportunity to repent (Rev. 2:5) and informs them of a coming corporate judgment (2:22).
In Paul’s context at Corinth, we find him following a similar model to Jesus but with different emphasis.
Paul clearly lays out some of the sins from which Christians are to separate from among those who profess Christ—sexual immorality, greed, idolatry, reviling, drunkenness (1 Cor. 5:11). Yet he only calls for church discipline on the grossest form of sexual immorality, incest, within the church (1 Cor. 5:5). And, he demands that the other forms of sexual immorality—prostitution (6:15), refusal of conjugal rights (7:5)—immediately cease. He does the same for greed expressed through lawsuits (6:1), idolatry (10:14), reviling (1:10; 4:6), drunkenness at the Lord’s Supper (11:21-22; 15:34). But Paul does not demand the separation of church discipline for these sins, but rather calls for repentance. Further, Paul strongly critiques the teaching within the church on prophecy, speaking in tongues, gender roles, and the denial of the resurrection (15:12). But the only sins that Paul requires immediate separation from is incest and those who do not love Jesus (16:22), and Paul continues in financial and ministry cooperation with the church of Corinth.
When we move to 2 Corinthians, it becomes clear that some degree of repentance from these sins has begun (7:15-16). Yet at the same time we read in 12:21 that some or possibly many of the church members “have not repented of the impurity, sexual immorality, and sensuality.” And so Paul will come a third time and he “will not spare them” (13:2) and use his apostolic authority in a severe way (v. 10). It is difficult for us to establish a firm timeline, but Paul’s patience with the Corinthians lasts perhaps a year or two.
Both Jesus and Paul separate from professed believers who have fallen into doctrinal error and sin by proclamation, but continued in worship, fellowship, and financial cooperation (Matt. 17:26) with disorderly believers and professed believers; they both extend the opportunity for repentance, and they establish a timeline and even bench marks for repentance. They warn of the personal consequences of not repenting (2 Cor. 13:5-6), but they act with great patience always looking for and hoping for repentance and reformation. In both the first and second letter, Paul continues in financial partnership with the church.
Jesus’ patience with the nation of Israel was based on divine revelation, yet Paul does not appear to be responding to revelation on the timing of separating from both the individuals at Corinth or declaring the church apostate. Paul language is too tentative for revelation in 2 Corinthians 12:20, “For I fear that perhaps when I come I may find you not as I wish, and that you may find me not as you wish—that perhaps…” and then in 13:5, “unless indeed you fail to meet the test.”
It is then apparent that Paul’s decisions for prioritizing the incestuous relationship over the other sins and the amount of time allowed for reformation and repentance was based on wisdom. Paul’s best wisdom was to demand church discipline for the sin that was “not tolerated even among pagans” (1 Cor. 5:1) and to strive for reformation until he was forced to “use of the authority that the Lord had given.”
The record of Acts shows that the Apostle Paul was also willing to worship with Jewish believers that explicitly rejected the deity of Christ and his gospel (Acts 21:26; cf. Acts 22:22). And that he did so after writing the letters to the Corinthians explicitly citing Old Testament passages as normative for the church. It is also apparent that this was the practice of the majority of Christians in Jerusalem (cf. Acts 21:18-25).
I need to be rather clear here: Paul’s behavior serves as a model for us, yet the Jewish Christians use of the Temple prior to 70 A.D. was a unique issue in salvation history. After the destruction of the Temple, John refers to the synagogues’ of Satan (Rev. 2:9; 3:9)—language not found in the earlier epistles. Paul openly anathematizes anyone who does not love Jesus (1 Cor. 16:22), and modern Christian are not to worship with those who openly disavow Christ or his gospel as the official practice of their congregations.
My purpose here is for us to recognize Jesus and the Apostle Paul’s patterns of application of the commands to separate and to attempt to imitate them in as much as our context is similar to theirs. God’s intent in the commands to separate is not found in the letter or in our traditions of application, but rather in the whole council of God. Separation is fundamentally about wise application.
The next series of aphorisms will attempt to lay out how we can discern God’s intent in the commands and provide a test to analyze our patterns of application as being wise.
So Lord willing next week will discuss 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 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.