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Aphorism 8: All applications must include the sure knowledge that we can’t separate perfectly because we are still sinners living in the regime of sin and death. Thus part of the grace we extend to others must include the possibility that we ourselves are too narrow or too loose.
In seminary, a friend of mine from the Midwest told me that his father, who was a fundamentalist pastor, received a letter from a brother in Christ practicing strict separation. The letter informed him that he was being separated from. It was polite and earnest, established the chain of separation between the author and the recipient, and closed pleading that he separate from the closest of the offending parties. The only odd thing about the letter was that my friend’s father had no idea who the author was. They had never met.
My memory of the conversation is that the fellow writing the letter was practicing 5th degree separation, but the memory is hazy, so perhaps it was only 3rd or 4th. But if we were to imagine a chain of 5th degree separation, it would look something like this: the Roman Catholic Church (1st), J. I. Packer who signed Evangelicals and Catholics Together (2nd), prominent evangelical pastor who disagrees with Packer but does not separate from him (3rd), me who also disagrees with Packer, but who will not separate from him or my former pastor who is a friend of Packer’s (4th), anyone who remains in fellowship with me (5th).
It should be apparent that if this list spreads out to include all the signers of Evangelicals and Catholics Together, all the friends of the signers who don’t separate, all the friends of the friends, and their friends, we would soon be fellowshipping with everyone who fits into our hat. And we can do the same thing with associating with Billy Graham, Jack Hyles, Fuller Seminary, the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and so forth.
In general rigorist separatists avoid the term second degree or for that matter third, fourth, and fifth degree separation. The preferred language is separating unto holiness: thus we read statements like this quotation found in Mark Sidwell’s The Dividing Line:
Separation does not really admit of degrees. It is directed to the other person because of his deviation from Scripture in whatever ways he may express them. If he runs with the wrong crowd, separation at this point is from him and not from the crowd he runs with. (Rolland McCune, Ecclesiastical Separation, 5-6, found on page 6 of Sidwell)
This sort of language sounds defensible, but allow me to challenge it a bit. Is it defensible to say there are no degrees in our separation from deviations from Scripture?
Consider the implications of this explicit command in 1 Corinthians 5:11 (ESV):
But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one.
Jesus defines the guilt of sexual immorality this way in Mathew 5:28—“But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” The Apostle Paul defines greed as “covetousness, which is idolatry” (Col. 3:5).
So then when we come to whom we associate with, are we going to separate based on Jesus and Paul’s standards for greediness, and sexual immorality, and idolatry? Or are we going to use some other standard? And who exactly do we know that we can fellowship with under Jesus and Paul’s standards for greediness and sexual immorality if there are no degrees?
If we don’t have degrees of allowed deviation from the biblical standard, can we even fellowship with ourselves? Under the standard of, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (KJV, Matt. 5:48), we are all damned to isolation, separated both from God and the people of God.
Further a willingness to repent when confronted doesn’t forgo the necessity of degrees. A godly young man in the congregation who struggles with lust but not fornication is allowed to continue in fellowship with the church even though he stumbles the next week. We do the same with coveting, but we don’t allow multiple repentances with bank robbing or more exotic forms of fornication without separation. We are forced by the sinful human condition to allow degrees of sanctification and therefore degrees of wickedness within our congregations and fellowships. And what is allowed and quashed is often conditioned by local issues.
If the standard of perfection is not our Lord’s standard, what is? Shall our standard be the more or less idiosyncratic practice of a strong personality? So we will we be the people who separate like John R. Rice (1895-1980)? Bob Jones’ (1883-1968) practice of separation prior to 1958 or the shift that occurred in response to Graham? Or shall we separate like Roger Williams (ca. 1603-1684) and A. W. Pink (1886-1952), who both ended life unable to find a church pure enough to include anyone but himself and his spouse? These men understood themselves as obeying God on the issue of separation.
Obviously, our model must be the Lord Jesus Christ who was known as “a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Matt. 11:19). According to Jesus’ own standards all of his Twelve Apostles, including Judas, practiced sexual immorality, idolatry, coveting, theft, and so forth. Jesus taught this clearly in the Sermon on the Mount, but he didn’t separate from them. And Jesus was separated unto holiness. Jesus was perfectly separated. And yet Christ was “a friend of tax collectors and sinners.”
We’ve been focusing on deviations from the moral norms of Scripture, but Jesus was also perfectly separated on the issue of doctrine. Our Lord Jesus in his human nature had a perfect knowledge of theology. And because Jesus’ theology was perfect this requires that he actively fellowshipped with those with imperfect theology. Many of his followers continued to believe untrue things about him and the Bible. The Apostle Peter was still sinfully separating from the Gentiles as late as Acts 10, causing Jesus to correct his doctrine from heaven (10:15).
We also need to note that Paul allows for degrees of doctrinal deviation in his churches. He explicitly states, “Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. Only let us hold true to what we have attained” (Phil. 3:15-16). While Paul’s understanding of theology was not identical to the Lord’s, he himself allowed for disagreement and maturing among his converts as long as they did not reject the gospel.
So what is the standard for fellowship and separation? On the one side we know with certainty on the issue of apostasy and disbelief. But on the issue of how much drunkenness to allow (1 Cor. 11:21), how much sexual immorality (Matt. 5:28), how much greed, even how much murder (Matt. 5:21-22; James 4:2), or how much doctrinal error to allow, it’s an issue of context and wisdom.
Wisdom about unrevealed things, for instance how to apply general commands of Scripture, allows for a diversity of outcomes. This is seen not only in church history, but in God’s word. Apollos and Paul disagreed about how to personally obey Jesus’ command “to make disciples” (Matt. 28:19) in 1 Corinthians 16:12. And they agreed to disagree and moved on while continuing to fellowship and cooperate together.
What both experience and the Bible should make clear is that different godly men and women will often make different decisions in reading the contemporary context and on what is wise. The godly Gurnall (cf. Aphorism 7) disagreed with the equally godly John Owen about the Act of Uniformity of 1662. Bob Jones, Sr., Martin Lloyd-Jones, and Francis Schaeffer disagreed about the best strategy to pursue with Billy Graham. All three to a greater or lesser degree separated from Graham, either in their teaching or explicitly, but the methods were different.
There is a second issue that must be pursued and that is how Jesus himself separated unto holiness. Our Lord separated himself from those who rejected the gospel by taking the symbol of baptism for the repentance of sin. In so doing he united himself publicly and symbolically to sinners. Holiness in Jesus’ estimation included the title friend of sinners even though he himself knew no sin.
Jesus’ separation involved fellowshipping with and worshiping with people who were explicitly disbelieving (John 5:46-47) and misunderstanding (Acts 13:26) portions of God’s word, and he did so not only in the Temple, as commanded by the law, but also in the synagogues. When Jesus entered into a synagogue he was required to obey Isaiah 51:2, as repeated for the church by Paul in 2 Corinthians 6:17, “Therefore go out from their midst, and be separate from them.” Jesus in Matthew 12 (cf. vs. 2, 9, 14), and throughout the gospels, worshiped with people that he describes in Matthew 23:15 as children of hell. Jesus separated from sinners by his obedience to the Law, by his preaching, while uniting with sinners in worship.
Prior to the gospel era, the visible people of God were the genetic offspring of Abraham that had not openly apostatized by profession or gross misconduct (Num. 15:30). As far as we can tell from the Gospels, Jesus only separated from the people of God by preaching against their error. Separating to holiness for Jesus meant even commanding that his followers remain in fellowship with the Pharisees: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do” (Matt 23:2-3). It is important to note that there is no explicit command to attend synagogue worship in the Old Testament.
In the post-resurrection era, the visible people of God are those who maintain the profession of faith in the gospel (Gal. 1:8) and have not fallen into gross misconduct. And further there is an explicit command to attend church (Heb. 10:25) or the synagogue as James calls it in the Greek of James 2:2.
At Corinth, the only sins that Paul immediately required separation from was apostasy (1 Cor. 16:21) and incest (1 Cor. 5:5). On the other sins listed in 1 Corinthians 5:11, as well as rejecting the general resurrection (1 Cor. 15:12) and visiting prostitutes (1 Cor. 6:16), he takes no action besides creating a timeline for repentance and proclamation.
Local churches are to have professed Christians and a variety of people with different levels of sanctification. Christian fellowships and associations must include the same, because associations are made up of the very same people as found in the churches.
The model given to us in the New Testament on the issue of separation, as in all other issues, is found in 1 Corinthians 11:1, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” As we strive to separate unto holiness, we must recognize, first that Jesus is our model; second, we aren’t even able to separate as righteously as Christ. We know that Paul could not separate perfectly, because he himself was still a sinner (Phil. 3:12). Paul’s instruction is perfect, but to understand his commands we must observe both his actions within the church and our Lord’s.
It is clear that both Paul and Jesus separate from apostasy. But when it comes to the issue of how much doctrinal deviation or what constitutes gross immorality sufficient for separation, we must use our best wisdom, because that’s what we see Paul doing. And if we claim anything beyond wisdom, we are then adding to God’s word and in danger of being cursed (Rev. 22:18).
At the same time, if we do not separate from apostasy, and if we make no effort to separate from gross doctrinal deviation or immorality by wisdom, we are then taking away from God’s Word and in danger of being cursed (Rev. 22:19).
Simply put, there are no axioms of separation. We have the commands, Christ and Paul’s model, the Spirit of God, the counsel of the godly, but at the end of the day we must act trusting in God’s grace. And we must say for ourselves and others with Paul, “It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand” (Rom. 14:4).
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.