Secondary Separation: Should Christian Brethren Ever Separate? (Part 2)

Read Part 1.

Is there such thing as “secondary separation?”

There is a remarkable consensus that the phrase “secondary separation” is unbiblical. Moritz maintains the grounds of any separation are principles based upon the holiness of God (72). McCune likewise repudiates the concept of “degrees” of separation (147). Charles Woodbridge was particularly offended by the term; he called any distinction of degrees of separation a “deadly menace.” To him, separation extended to any relationship in which disobedience to God is involved (10).

The Bible knows nothing whatever about “degrees” of separation from evil! The Christian is to remove himself as far as it is humanly possible from all forms of evil, whether they be peripheral, pivotal or relatively ancillary. To hate evil means to hate it in all its forms—its ancestry, its immediate presence and its progeny! (11)

What is a disobedient brother?

This is the very heart of the matter, isn’t it? Woodbridge declared, “churches or schools which have become “theologically unclean” must be separated from! (2 Cor. 6:17). Well, what is the definition of a disobedient brother? McCune, following Mark Sidwell (1998, 56) has perhaps the best definition:

A professing Christian who deliberately refuses to change some aspect of his conduct to the clear teaching of Scripture is a disobedient brother. (McCune 148. McCune quotes a larger portion of Sidwell here.)

McLachlan (132-133) echoes this point, noting we can differ over matters of preference, but not divide. Issues must not be superficial. “If there is no clear cut, ‘Thus saith the Lord,’ we shouldn’t judge and neither should we separate (Rom. 14:10-13).” Fred Moritz has produced perhaps the most compact, yet comprehensive analysis of this matter from Scripture. All Christians should examine the texts below for themselves to reach their own conclusions. Moritz’s broad categories of disobedient brethren appear below.

1. The Sinning Brother—Matthew 18:15-17 (74-75):

The grounds for any separation is sin, not some trite issue. Christ does not differentiate between classes of sin. Separation is a last resort, and only then when reconciliation has failed. Moritz also cites Galatians 5:19-21, specifically separation from brethren who indulge in doctrinal or moral heresy (81).

2. The Immoral & Unequally Yoked Brother—1 Corinthians 5:1-11 (75-77):

Paul instructed the Corinthian church to separate from Christian brethren engaged in specific classes of sin (1 Cor. 5:10). “[T]his passage commands separation from a disobedient brother on both theological and moral grounds” (76-77).

The principle of separation from Christian brethren is precisely the same as it is with unbelievers. “Should a fellow Christian insist on remaining unequally yoked in such a way, the local church or believer must separate from him” (77). Sin is the threshold, and God’s holiness the principle, of separation from brethren. “The local church is to be holy in doctrine and lifestyle” (77).

3. The Lazy and Disobedient Brother—2 Thessalonians 3:6-15 (77-80):

The “tradition received” from Paul included the body of faith, specifically the entire contents of 1 Thessalonians, of which “work” is only one issue (79). Moritz appeals to the example of 1 Corinthians 5, where Paul uses the pressing issue of sexual immorality to expand the application of separation to all manner of sins.

The disobedient brother’s lifestyle reflects poorly on the holiness of God (80). “This passage clearly teaches separation from brethren in Christ who are openly and willfully disobedient to the written, revealed Word of God and is not limited in its application to the lazy brother only” (79). McLachlan agrees: “The passage does not restrict us to such a narrow or limited application. The particular event in this chapter may be indolence in view of Christ’s coming, but the general principle is disobedience to the whole of the Christian message as revealed in Scripture” (135-136).

McLachlan is quick to emphasize that reconciliation is the goal of this separation. It is disgraceful in flavor (2 Thess. 3:6, 14). Christians must withdraw from a disobedient brother, but never with a spirit of superiority. “This kind of shaming is designed to humble him, disgrace him, and hopefully alert him to the catastrophic consequences of refusal to pay heed to the Word of God…. So while the immediate flavor is disgraceful the ultimate objective is beneficial” (135).

The separation is gentle in its spirit. Christians must be relentless in defense of the Word, but never heartless. “There are always those who are overly zealous to point out the faults of others and who seem to relish drastic responses” (135).

4. The Divisive Brother—Titus 3:9-11 (Moritz, 80):

This includes separation from brethren who promote division. Moritz explained that the Greek behind the KJV translation “heretick” in Titus 3:10 refers to a self-willed opinion which is substituted for submission to the power of the truth. “Paul identifies the divisive man who, after the pattern of Acts 20:30 and 3 John 9, seeks for prominence in order to gain a following.” A heretic promotes a peculiar doctrine and is divisive in doing it. William Mounce (2000) referred to this divisive doctrine as “vacuous” (453).

Parameters of fellowship

Moritz remarked,

All ecclesiastical separation in the NT is on the local church level. It involves the church not working with unbelievers (2 John 8, 9) or separating from professing believers in sin (1 Cor. 5). It must extend to personal fellowship between professing believers and application on the inter-church and interdenominational levels” (Interview)

In this context, the grounds for biblical separation are no different than the grounds for church discipline against a brother or sister in Christ. This point is simply crucial. If a separatist would hesitate to implement church discipline against a brother, then he has no biblical warrant to separate from that brother. In this vein, Ernest Pickering’s concept of different “levels” of fellowship is simply excellent, and a great help to any separatist (218). They are:

  1. Personal Christian fellowship between individual believers
  2. Local church fellowship
  3. Inter-church fellowship
  4. Interdenominational fellowship

We each engage in these types of fellowship regularly, but there are obvious limits to cooperative fellowship depending who we’re talking to. “It is impossible to have harmonious, working fellowship with all believers at all of these levels. Doctrinal considerations govern certain types of fellowship” (219). There are different levels of fellowship all honest Christians recognize. One could enjoy a cup of coffee with a Reformed pastor, yet might not be able to have this Reformed brother preach on Sunday morning in his church. Just because a Christian implements common-sense restrictions on different levels of fellowship does not necessarily mean he is “separating” from a brother. Selective fellowship does not equal separation.

Recall McCune’s definition of a “disobedient brother,” which is critical at this juncture: “A professing Christian who deliberately refuses to change some aspect of his conduct to the clear teaching of Scripture is a disobedient brother” (143). To this point, McLachlan asks us to consider whether a brother’s deviation is an isolated event or a continual pattern. “All of us, I think, would prefer to be judged by the ebb and flow of our lives and ministries rather than by the eddies, which seem at times to move against the main current” (133).

McLachlan poses numerous questions for the separatist to consider (133):

  1. Is the position shift permanent or transient?
  2. Is the shift a major change in direction or a fleeing moment of experimentation?
  3. Is it an appeal for a new and unbiblical theology, or merely an attempt at discovering a new and functional methodology, which might on the surface appear unconventional but is not unnecessarily unbiblical?

Separation is a necessary complement to evangelism. Christians are commanded to be holy (Lev. 19:2, 1 Pet. 1:16) in order to show Christ to a lost world. It is this concern which informs Scriptural principles of separation from brethren.

If the purity of the bride of Christ is not at stake, then we shall have to discipline ourselves against judgmental or pharisaical attitudes and actions toward our brothers with whom we disagree. On the other hand, if a specific behavioral pattern or belief system has the potential to defile the bride, then we shall have to love our brother enough to confront him Biblically…so that Christ’s cause does not suffer loss before the watching world. (McLachlan, 133)

A subjective sinkhole?

Critics frequently charge so-called “secondary separation” with being little more than a subjective sinkhole. Moritz is quite correct to dismiss this as a smokescreen. Pickering’s words are particularly relevant here:

First of all, it is very clear that no direct scriptural teaching will cover every problem we face. As in so many areas of Christian thought and life, we must determine our practice by the application of doctrines, principles and emphases that are found in the Bible. The exercise of personal judgment, in the light of known divine truths, is required. It is this element of separatism which non-separatists often attack…. Yes, it is dangerous in the sense that not all will come up with the right answers and make the right judgments. Some will go to extremes. Nevertheless, it is a privilege given by God to each believer – the right of private judgment and soul liberty in things divine. (222-223)

There is indeed an element of subjectivism at work. How could there not be? However, it is not nearly the sinkhole critics like John Rice claim it is. The chart below may assist brethren in making some practical applications in this regard (Oats):

The Bottom Line

Edward Hiscox (1893), in his enduring work on Baptist polity, had this to say:

Nothing can be considered a just and reasonable cause for the withdrawal of fellowship, and exclusion of the Church, except it be clearly forbidden in, or manifestly contrary to, the Scriptures, and what would have prevented the reception of the individual into the Church had it existed at the time and been persisted in. (180)

Hiscox’s was writing about ecclesiastical separation in the context of local church discipline, but his words are perfectly applicable here. A faithful, biblical separatist considering separation from a Christian brother must subject an issue to the following litmus tests:

  1. Is the Christian brother aiding or abetting apostates by continued organizational or cooperative alignment with them?
  2. Is there a Scripturally defensible claim of doctrinal or ethical compromise in the life or ministry of the Christian brother? Let the honest separatist consider whether the issue at hand is:
    An explicit teaching from Scripture
    An implicit teaching from Scripture
    A principle from Scripture, or
    A mere personal preference from Scripture
  3. Will this Christian brother deliberately not change his conduct to conform to the clear teaching of Scripture?

If the separatist cannot answer in the affirmative to these questions, he must not separate. He may disagree strongly, but we cannot in good conscience label a Christian brother “disobedient” if we cannot find Scriptural fault with his actions.

Separation complements evangelism; it is done to glorify God and obey His command to imitate His holiness in our lives (Eph. 5:1, 1 Pet. 1:14-16). The faithful Christian must prayerfully consider whether separation is truly warranted if the issue is not an explicit or implicit teaching of Scripture. Christians will inevitably differ on application of certain issues; some may even shift positions upon reflection. It is never easy to re-evaluate heretofore sacred “flash point” issues, particularly in light of Scripture. It occasionally goes against ingrained expectations. A fundamentalist, however, cannot forsake this responsibility and remain a biblical separatist.

Works Cited

Hiscox, Edward. Principles and Practices for Baptist Churches. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1893. Reprinted with no date.

Marsden George M. Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991.

McCune, Rolland. Promise Unfulfilled: The Failed Strategy of Modern Evangelicalism. Greenville: Ambassador International, 2004.

McLachlan, Douglas. Reclaiming Authentic Fundamentalism. Independence: AACS, 1993.

Moritz, Fred. Be Ye Holy: The Call to Christian Separation. Greenville: BJU, 1994.

___. Personal interview. 15 May 2013.

Mounce, William D. “Pastoral Epistles,” vol. 46, Word Biblical Commentary, ed. Bruce M. Metzger. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2000.

Oats, Larry. American Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism. Watertown: Maranatha Baptist Seminary, 2012. Unpublished class notes.

Pickering, Ernest. Biblical Separation: The Struggle for a Pure Church. Schaumberg: Regular Baptist Press, 1979.

Rice, John R. Come Out or Stay In? Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1974.

Woodbridge, Charles. Biblical Separation. Halifax, Canada: People’s Gospel Hour, 1971. Electronic version.

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There are 11 Comments

Aaron Blumer's picture


I understand the objections here to the term "secondary separation." The problem is that we all recognize separating from a Christian brother or sister is complex and follows a different process than separation from an open apostate or obvious false prophet.

So a handy term for that kind of separation seems warranted.

Secondly, you have the specific controversy over whether "failure to separate" is grounds for separation... and "secondary separation" (or second degree separation) has often been the term those who answer "no" use to describe those who answer "yes."

Again, a mutually understood and accepted term would be helpful in the debate on that question.

I have no great affection for "secondary" or "second degree," but some agreed upon language would be great.

Years ago, I wrote a paper on separation and decided to organize it around the question of "open ended" or "limited." (i.e. open ended separatism vs. limited separatism). My aim was to argue against a separatism that does not recognize proper limits on what is grounds for separation. I was also trying to sidestep the term "secondary"/"second degree" as the term many use to mean something like "Separate from anyone who fails to separate from someone who should have separated from someone who didn't separate from an apostate's third cousin twice removed."

(I'll have to see if I can find that document and see if it any longer has any value... or is in decent enough shape to be worth fixing up... and see if it might be helpful)

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.

Anne Sokol's picture

i have never really been interested in discussing separation. However, I'm reading a biography of Anthony Norris Groves (ANG: Saint and Pioneer); he lived in the 1800s.

I have been thinking of this and other threads here while reading this book, and re-reading his portions on separation. I'll quote some of it here for you because

because it's interesting, and a perspective we almost never hear, and he probably emphasizes parts of the Scripture that we do not emphasize. So I'm still mulling this over and will probably incorporate some of his understandings of Scripture into my own life, if I can attain unto it.

After one of their happy prayer-meetings, already mentioned, it was asked by one of the party, “Are there no principles in the Word of God which would unite all believers in worship, whatever might be their various views or attainments in the divine life?” Mr. Groves replied, “Yes, there are: we are evidently called to know nothing among our fellow-Christians, but this one fact: Do they belong to Christ? Has Christ received them? then may we receive them, to the glory of God.” To what happy results would these simple truths lead, among God’s people. Even where they did not overthrow any mere human systems, they would help forward fellowship and intercourse among all Christians.


In 1828 Groves wrote: My full persuasion is, that, inasmuch as anyone glories either in being of the Church of England, Scotland, Baptist, Independent, Wesleyan, [should we insert "fundamentalist"?], etc., his glory is his shame, and that it is antichristian; for, as the Apostle said, were any of them crucified for you? The legitimate ground of glorying is that we are among the ransomed of the Lord, by His grace, either in ourselves or others. As bodies, I know none of the sects and parties that wound and disfigure the body of Christ; as individuals, I desire to love all that love Him. Oh! when will the day come, when the love of Christ will have more power to unite than our foolish regulations have to divide the family of God?


And in 1845 he wrote: One point only is fixed on my mind; to receive all, as Christ receives them, to the glory of God the Father. More than twenty years this point has been deepening in my mind; and all I hear and see makes it more precious... I see no other way but committing all judgment to the Son, to whom the Father hath committed it.

The New Testament is witness that wide differences of judgment existed and were tolerated in the first churches. Paul makes no suggestion of excommunicating those at Corinth who were asserting the annihilation of the dead, searchingly and severely as he dealt with the teaching itself (1 Corinthians 15); nor did the fact of such false teaching in that assembly lessen his intention to go there. They were a church of God in spite of this doctrine (1 Corinthians 11: 34; 2 Corinthians 13: 1). It was gross moral sin that demanded excommunication (1 Corinthians 5). Unity of judgment was, indeed, the ideal (1 Corinthians 1: 10), but large and lasting forbearance was a duty (Romans 14), for whom God has received His people may not reject (Romans 14: 3).


Two lines were possible: to abstain from all intercourse with them in those associations, that is, neither to go to their buildings nor to share in their witness or service; or, to show fellowship with what was of God and according to His Word, and abstain only from what was of man. The evidence is unimpeachable that at first the latter was the course acknowledged to be godly.

We were free, within the limits of the truth, to share with them in part, though we could not in all, their services. . . . Was not the principle we laid down as to separation from all existing bodies at the outset, this: that we felt ourselves bound to separate from all individuals and systems, so far as they required us to do what our consciences would not allow, or restrained us from doing what our consciences required, and no further? And were we not as free to join and act with any individual, or body of individuals, as they were free not to require us to do what our consciences did not allow, or prevent our doing what they did? and in this freedom did we not feel brethren should not force liberty on those who were bound, nor withhold freedom from those who were free? Did we not feel constrained to follow the apostolic rule of not judging other men’s consciences, as to liberty, by our own; remembering it is written, “Let not him that eateth despise him that eateth not; and let not him which eateth not, judge him that eateth; seeing that God hath received” both the one and the other?

Now it is one of these two grounds; their preventing me from, or demanding from me, other than the Lord demands, that divides me in a measure from every system; as my own proper duty to God, rather than as witnessing against their evils. As any system is in its provision narrower or wider than the truth, I either stop short, or go beyond its provisions, but I would infinitely rather bear with all their evils, than separate from their good. These were the then principles of our separation and intercommunion.





TylerR's picture


You are correct to stress unity in the local church. However, there do come times when the purity of the local church must be defended. This may come in the form of a disobedient member of some other ecclesiastical affiliation.

Hopefully, this little study of mine goes some way towards establishing Biblical grounds for separation. It must not be done lightly, and there must be clear, willful disobedience to a clear teaching of Scripture.

Separation is undertaken, far too often, on un-Biblical grounds. You may not see it this way, but I do believe in unity. I just do not believe there is Scriptural warrant for tolerating sin within the local church - unity does not trump sin.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Anne Sokol's picture

TylerR wrote:

Separation is undertaken, far too often, on un-Biblical grounds. You may not see it this way, but I do believe in unity. I just do not believe there is Scriptural warrant for tolerating sin within the local church - unity does not trump sin.

we do "excommunicate" (the word in russian) those saying they are believers who persist in socially-unacceptable sin and are unrepentant of it.

but is that the 'separation' that is being discussed here?

not to talk about the topic we're not supposed to talk about for a while, but I see that this "separation" thing is going on with the NIU deal, and I think that what ANG is saying speaks to that.

TylerR's picture


This is the entire point! Separation is excommunication, or, as you put it:

we do "excommunicate" (the word in russian) those saying they are believers who persist in socially-unacceptable sin and are unrepentant of it.

I see no warrant in the New Testament, (which governs our church polity), for a middle ground. A fellow Christian is either an individual (or some organization) which is Scripturally "disobedient," or he isn't.

This is a direct challenge to those who wish to "separate" from NIU. Such a person must be able to Scripturally prove willful disobedience to Scripture if this charge is to stick.

Disagreeing with NIU is fine - I very strongly disagree with them! We can limit fellowship or choose to not fellowship. We can say we strongly disagree with their stand and tell people why. We can do all these things. We cannot call them "disobedient brethren," however, unless we're prepared to back it up Scripturally.  I shall wait to see where they shake out doctrinally before making such a pronouncement.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Anne Sokol's picture

TylerR wrote:

Disagreeing with NIU is fine - I very strongly disagree with them! We can limit fellowship or choose to not fellowship. We can say we strongly disagree with their stand and tell people why. We can do all these things.

is this really the christlike and charitable thing to do? is doing this loving unity?

I will tell you one example i wrestle with. i'm a bju baby, grad, and lifetime alumni association member. but i am very upset (disturbed? revolted? shocked?) by how they have handled s`xual abuse stuff. I have considered never going there again (i have loads of friends there that I love and visit when we are in the US). I have considered withdrawing my alumni association membership. ....

but is that really loving unity and having a charitable spirit? as much as I loathe what I know .... I don't have to violate my conscience by participating in it (per ANG quotes above) and I am not their judge, Christ is and he is working there addressing these issues. I don't have to do it.

so ... i think loving unity is a lot more than just not separating. it's giving me a lot to think about.

josh p's picture

Tyler, this was a good article and I believe it is an accurate summary of Biblical separation.


JD Miller's picture

Tyler, thank you for taking the time to research and write on this subject.  Your last 2 articles have been a real encouragement.  I fear that there is a tendency to over steer on the separation issue.  Because some have neglected it, it may be tempting to separate too much.  Because some have separated where they should not have, it is tempting to ignore or minimize separation.  Thank you for the clarity and balance you have brought to the discussion. 


Mike Harding's picture



I don't know what you know and from whom you know it.  BJU has contracted with GRACE to research whatever allegations may be floating around out there.  I am sure over their 80-plus year history dealing with thousands of counseling situations that they have dealt with nearly every conceivable situation imaginable.  If you want to separate from them, fine with me.  But your latest comment appears to be the very opposite thing you are advocating.  I dare say that every Christian college has counseled with these situations in a less than perfect manner.  Whatever mistakes BJU may have made in the past, I know that they are working diligently to correct them, your loving comments not withstanding.

Pastor Mike Harding

Anne Sokol's picture

I will pm you with my specific questions Wink

but this is what i'm talking about as far as what we perceive as "separation." The shocked, disappointed part of me wants to cut off contact, but the love-of-Christ-and-unity part says that this would not be the christlike action. not even to slander them. not even to tell other not to send their kids  there. Would that we could all have this huge fear of doing this to Christ's body.

Joshua Caucutt's picture

Anne Sokol wrote:

I will pm you with my specific questions Wink

but this is what i'm talking about as far as what we perceive as "separation." The shocked, disappointed part of me wants to cut off contact, but the love-of-Christ-and-unity part says that this would not be the christlike action. not even to slander them. not even to tell other not to send their kids  there. Would that we could all have this huge fear of doing this to Christ's body.


You get to the crux of the matter in your last sentence. The issue is that BJU and NIU are not Christ's body. That makes all of this separation stuff a great deal easier to navigate. 

formerly known as Coach C

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