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
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:
- Personal Christian fellowship between individual believers
- Local church fellowship
- Inter-church fellowship
- 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):
- Is the position shift permanent or transient?
- Is the shift a major change in direction or a fleeing moment of experimentation?
- 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:
- Is the Christian brother aiding or abetting apostates by continued organizational or cooperative alignment with them?
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
- An explicit teaching from Scripture
- 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.
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.