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 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.
Eight hundred feet below the surface of the water, in a cramped nuclear submarine armed with ballistic missiles, my friend and newly minted lieutenant felt like he was faced with an impossible decision. On Sunday morning would he meet and worship with the dozen or so sailors on the boat that professed Christ but belonged to compromised groups (American Baptist, United Methodist, etc.) or quietly pray by himself in his bunk? Would he “be separate” (ESV, 2 Cor. 6:17) or neglect “to meet together” (Heb. 10:25)? Would he “[b]ear one another’s burdens” (Gal. 6:2) or would he “[p]urge the evil person” (1 Cor. 5:13)?
My friend had grown up under the teaching of Axioms of Separation which required separation from disobedient brethren. And disobedient brethren were by definition anyone who did not separate from other disobedient brethren. Thus the conundrum. How does one obey the commands to separate and the commands to be unified?
One option when faced with two seemingly contradictory commands is to attempt to sin the least. So if unity with Christians is “better” than separation from Christians, one might unify or vice versa dependent on which command one believes will create the better outcome.
Yet this strategy has devastating scriptural problems. Sinning less as a necessity cannot be a godly option, because Jesus in “every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15). If sinning less is a temptation of man, Jesus experienced this temptation “yet without sin.” Therefore when faced with two commands that seem contradictory, there must always be a way to obey both commands without sin, “for sin is the transgression of the law” (KJV, 1 John 3:4). There must be a way of escape (1 Cor. 10:13); God promises it and Jesus’ holiness requires it.
By God’s grace, Jesus interacted with the Pharisees on this very issue. They had prioritized separating from disobedient brethren over the other commands of God. So we read in Matthew 9:11-13 (ESV),
And when the Pharisees saw this, 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.
Our Lord’s frustration with the Pharisees was that they did not provide opportunities for reformation and revival in the sinner’s lives. By completely and rigorously separating from the disobedient brethren (the tax collectors and sinners were Jews), they denied them the possibility of mercy through repentance and faith. And they also provided themselves the opportunity for prideful self-righteousness (Luke 18:11).
Jesus obeyed the injunction “be separate” (2 Cor. 6:17; Isa. 52:11) by refusing to join the tax collectors and sinners in their sin. And Jesus separated by preaching against sin, but Jesus also obeyed, Leviticus 19:18, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.” Jesus loved them by spreading “the knowledge of God” (Hosea 6:6; cf. Matt. 9:13 citation).
The Pharisees did not separate for the purpose of reformation among their brothers and sisters, but rather for the purpose of taking vengeance. They separated so that they could say in the Temple, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector (Luke 18:11). The Pharisees absolutized the commands to separate at the expense of God’s command to “love your neighbor as yourself.” But God’s intent for the commands is found by obeying both commands in the same action.
Jesus makes this clear in Matthew 23:23-24,
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!
The problem Jesus has noted is not that they were obeying God’s command to tithe, but rather that they prioritized tithing over other “weightier matters of the law.” The Pharisees were particularly rigorous in obedience to some of God’s commands, but in so doing they began to contradict other commands of God. When their actions became a pattern Jesus states that they were “making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down” (Mark 7:13).
Absolutizing the commands beyond God’s intention leads to “straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel.” So when Christian unity is prioritized over separation the gospel is compromised and holiness is subsumed in licentiousness. This is the way of modern liberalism that prioritizes love over holiness. But when separation is absolutized, the offer of mercy within the gospel is compromised and holiness petrifies into legalism. This is the way of modern rigorist. But both prioritizing unity and prioritizing separation are sins.
The “weightier matters of the law—justice and mercy and faithfulness” teach us how to obey all of God’s commands at the same time. Jesus gives us three examples of his use of “weightier matters of the law.” In Matthew 12:2-7, Jesus
said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? Or have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless? I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.”
Neither David nor Ahimelech (1 Sam. 21:8) sinned in the exchange of the bread of the Presence. It is clear that they were guiltless. The priests were not sinning by profaning the Sabbath in obeying God. The law of the bread of the Presence was never meant to weaken the future king of Israel as he fled from the demon oppressed king of Israel. The 4th Commandment was designed to assist people worshiping God and to allow Jesus’ disciples to eat on the Sabbath. Or as Jesus asked rhetorically, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to destroy it?” (Luke 6:9). And so Jesus violates a first-sight reading of the 4th Commandment’s “you shall not do any work” with the words “My Father is working until now, and I am working” (John 5:17).
We see the balancing of the “weightier matters of the law” throughout Jesus’ ministry. Jesus violates a first-sight reading of the ceremonial law by touching lepers and not declaring himself unclean (Matt. 8:3; Lev. 15:7). Nor does Jesus declare himself unclean when touched by a menstruating woman (Luke 8:45; Lev. 15:19). Obviously, the intent of the ceremonial law allowed Jesus to make the unclean clean without himself being tainted.
Since the Bible does not allow us to prioritize separation over mercy or unity over holiness and the model of Jesus and Paul (cf. Aphorism 3) requires that we separate by proclamation as we extend the opportunity for reformation and revival, we thus have again returned to the issue of wisdom. How do we know if we have correctly balanced the “weightier maters of the law?” Wisdom. The way that we apply God’s commands comes down to wisdom.
I opened this article with my friend on the submarine trying to think through if he should worship with the professed Christians on his boat. The intent of both the commands “separate” and “meet together” is love God with all your being and love your neighbor as yourself. So, taught Moses (Deut. 11:13; Levi. 19:34), Hosea (Hosea 6:6), Jesus (Matt. 22:37-40), Paul (Rom. 13:9; 1 Cor. 16:22), John (1 John 4:20-21), and James (2:8) in various ways throughout their writings.
My friend decided to love God and his neighbor as himself by joining the sailors in worship. The specific context of the situation, the character and faith of the sailors, and the singularity of their united faith made this appear the wisest choice. And in so doing he “went out of their midst and [was] separate from” the unbelievers (2 Cor. 6:17) and he met together with fellow Christians.
In a different context, say on an aircraft carrier with a godly Anglican chaplain and a profane Baptist chaplain, holding separate services, he would have to separate and meet together in a different way. The rules of application are not axioms of tradition, but rather the rule of wisdom as guided by specific commands and God’s intention that He be loved with all our being and that we love our neighbor as ourselves in the specific context.
Having established that all of God’s commands can be obeyed without contradiction, we now need to move on to a consideration of the issue of Christ’s return and the commands to separate.
Aphorism 5: No one knows when Jesus is coming back or how long it will be before Jesus comes back, and so application of separation passages cannot be dependent on how close or far the return of Christ is.
Following the discussion on the end times, we will consider how patterns of application expose whether or not we are truly obeying God.
Aphorism 6: Our patterns of application of separation need to include people to the left and the right on the group boundary markers—our “friends” and those who make us uncomfortable. Grace on believers who are like us or provide advantages to us but no or little grace on believers who are different is a sin (James 2:1; Luke 6:3-32).
Aphorism 7: Our patterns of application of separation must include the grace we allow the godly of the past.
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.