Not Separating What God Has Joined Together - Aphorisms for Thinking about Separation

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 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


What I can appreciate here: certainly there is often a tension between the biblical call to unity and love vs. the call to separate. And certainly it can be difficult sometimes to determine what course of action would be obedient in a particular situation.

But the argument here suffers from confusion of categories:

  • The Pharisees are not believers (Matt. 21:25, 32; Matt. 23:15; John 8:44)
  • The Pharisees are "brothers" in an ethnic sense, but not in a spiritual sense (The diference matters. See 1Cor.5:9-13)
  • (Continuing from previous posts) Temple worship among ethnic Israelites is not parallel to (a) local churches responding to disobedient brethren or (b) believers in general responding to apostates.

The result is that while some of the main premises (the aphorisms) are true, the application that appears here really doesn't follow from them.

It's true that there is no need to choose which commands to obey at the cost of obeying others. It's also true that we're called to love and unity and separation at the same time. But rightly understood, these mandates work together just fine.

  • The NT calls to discipline sinning brothers clearly have a dual purpose of preserving the purity of the church and also urging the brother toward repentance (compare, 1Tim. 1:20, 1Cor 5:4-5, 2Thess. 3:14-15 and the famous Matt. 18 sequence). Hence, they are separating and loving at the same time. Since they enhance unity in obedience and truth, they are also unifying at the same time. 
  • The NT calls to separate from apostates (Gal. 1:8, 2John 1:10-11 for example) are not particularly loving toward the apostates but neither are they unloving. There is nothing loving about granting Christian recognition to teachers who in fact deny the faith. And while separation in this form is arguably not especially loving toward the apostates, it is certainly loving toward the saints (Acts 20:29-30).

Refusing to participate in sin and preaching against sin do not exhaust the NT teaching on separation, and obeying these passages fully does not require any sacrifice of love or genuine unity. 

(It's important to distinguish between ostensible unity and actual unity (e.g, Eph. 4.13). If a Christian, a Muslim, a Buddhist and an Atheist hold hands and sing Kumbaya, many get the warm fuzzies and gush about unity, but this is not the sort of unity the NT has in mind. Similarly, a disobedient brother who has been taken to the end the entire separation process is to be treated as unbeliever: any unity with him at that point is a fantasy. Matt. 18:17, 1Cor. 5:13)

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

swalker's picture

Aaron: Thank you for your thoughtful engagement and for taking the time to comment. I am greatly blessed by your thoughts and work as an editor. 

The Pharisees are not believers . . .

My understanding is that some of the Pharisees were saved. One of the arguments that I made early in the series is that consistent Pharisicalism (adding to God’s word) and consistent Sadducism (taking away from God’s word) would make one an unbeliever. At the same time, there were people like Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus who were believers. Joseph is noted as a disciple (John 19:38) and Nicodemus appears to be as well (John 3:2; 7:50; 19:39). So, while I agree that many of the Pharisees were not saved, I would assume that some were a part of those “who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:38).

My Christian walk includes a brief foray into Open Theism in the early 90’s which is a form of Sadducism, and I struggle to crucify my inner Pharisee every day. The tendency doesn’t damn me, but unrepentant consistency would (Rev. 22:18).

(Continuing from previous posts) Temple worship among ethnic Israelites is not parallel to (a) local churches responding to disobedient brethren or (b) believers in general responding to apostates.

While I agree there is no strict parallel between the Temple and today, I think it’s important to keep Jesus and Paul’s example in mind. There does seem to be application in some contexts for instance in Muslim majority countries, the Communist prison camps of Russia and now North Korea, the Nazi persecution of the Jews and prison camps. In these situations I would be extremely careful about judging a godly Protestant meeting with and communing with say Copts or Russian Orthodox, because of Jesus and Paul’s example. 

The NT calls to separate from apostates (Gal. 1:8, 2John 1:10-11 for example) are not particularly loving toward the apostates but neither are they unloving. There is nothing loving about granting Christian recognition to teachers who in fact deny the faith. And while separation in this form is arguably not especially loving toward the apostates, it is certainly loving toward the saints. . .

I think it is loving to separate in a godly way. Perhaps, I could clarify with a general comment on Luke 14:26: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.”

I understand this text to mean that the way I love my father, mother, wife, and children is that I do not allow them to take the place of Jesus Christ in my life. To “hate” them in this passage means to order my love for them around my love for God. If they do not love God, they will experience my love of God as hate. If however I were to reverse the order and structure my love of God around loving my family, I would then be a hater of God (Rom. 1:30) even though my non-believing family would experience it as love.

Or to put in a more dramatic fashion, I think the police would be loving me if they killed me because in a fit of madness I was attempting to murder someone.

So, I believe telling my Roman Catholic neighbors that I will not take the Lord’s Supper with them is loving as long as my purpose is to use the gospel to build up rather than tear down (2 Cor. 13:10). Some of my RC neighbors have experienced this as confusing or hateful and others have been sympathetic.  

My point is that I think the commands to separate are loving. But we are sinning in obeying them if we add to God’s word, take away from God’s word, or attempt to destroy rather than build up with the gospel. 


In Christ,


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