The biblical doctrine of separation is difficult to discuss. I’ve read, listened to, and participated in quite a few exchanges over the years. More often than not, no movement toward consensus, or even increase in clarity, seemed to result. It’s not unusual for a discussion on the topic to end with—apparently—less mutual understanding than existed at the start, despite the fact that everybody involved seems to genuinely desire to know, live, and teach what the Scriptures require of us. (By the way, long before Internet, this sort of back and forth was going on in magazines, newsletters and pamphlets. It just moved slower in those days.)
So why is the topic so messy?
I don’t fully understand why clarity about separation is so elusive. I do continue to believe, though, that there is ultimately no reason why the various perspectives on the subject can’t be clearly distinguished from one another in accurate and mutually-accepted terms. In other words, though we’re unlikely to ever see complete agreement between conservative evangelicals, 20th century-style movement-fundamentalists, and all the miscellaneous-other among us, it really is possible to reach a point where the differences among us are clear, well understood, and debated mostly on-point—to the benefit of all who seek to know and obey the truth.
Not only is a better debate about separation possible; it’s worth the effort to pursue. For one thing, the doctrine and practice of separation has been a prominent feature (some would say the distinguishing feature) of fundamentalist identity in the 20th and early 21st centuries. But the doctrine has importance beyond questions of movements and identities. We’re talking about the purity of the church and the unity (and disunity) of believers. To say the topic is non-trivial is an understatement. After all,
There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (ESV, Eph. 4:4-6)
In addition to these reasons to strive for a more fruitful dialog about separation, there appears (from where I sit) to be a major shift in perspective and practice of separation going on. For a couple of generations now, fundamentalists have been rising to leadership who are seriously questioning—or mostly, I think, completely ignoring—the separation concepts they grew up with. Those of the 20th-century movement persuasion (if not other groups as well) ought to be pretty concerned about how to halt that shift.
That may be impossible in any case, but if there is a way to do it, some kind of fresh articulation will be a necessary component. Where there is little interest in dialog, there should at least be interest in increased clarity, consistency, and winsomeness.
Toward doing better
As with any messy, emotionally charged controversy, we can move toward the sort of debate that actually helps truth-seekers grow in understanding if we take some steps to consciously lift the debate to that level. Among the many ways to do that, three (not rigidly-sequential) steps stand out.
1. Identify the points of agreement
The classical rhetors have a few things to teach us moderns (and post-moderns) about debate. Aristotle talked about stasis, using a series of questions to bring your own stand (stasis is basically Greek for “stand”) or position. The idea was that an effective rhetor (we call them communicators now) would need to know with precision what it is he hopes to persuade others to believe and do. Part of that process involved understanding what his opponents’ stand was and taking the points of agreement off the table. Why waste your time defending what is already agreed? People will only read or listen to you for so long. Make it count. Focus on the real points of disagreement by first identifying the points of agreement, acknowleding them, then dismissing them.
For Christians this step has a whole additional layer (or perhaps root) of meaning and importance. We’re debating with fellow bond-slaves of Jesus Christ, fellow pardoned sinners in the process of redemption. And we’re command to seek peace and mutual benefit (Rom. 14:19, 1 Pet. 3:11).
When it comes to the separation debate, incalculable energy and time has been wasted vehemently insisting on what almost nobody denies. For example, virtually nobody holds that there should never be any limits on fellowship and cooperation under any circumstances with anyone who claims to be a Christian. In other words, everybody believes in some kind of separation from disobedient brothers. Most of the debate has to do with the grounds of separation, the nature of the separation act itself, the process to follow, the ultimate end of the process.
2. Identify the problems hindering debate.
The quantity of ways to derail a debate seems infinite sometimes. Some of the most common in the separation debate are these:
- Lack of clear definitions of terms (e.g., personal separation, ecclesiastical separation, secondary separation, second-degree separation), resulting in frequent equivocation, or just confusion. (By the way, to have a fruitful debate it is not necessary to agree on what definitions are “correct” or “incorrect,” only on how each party involved uses the terms, what they intend by them. The goal is to understand what each believes to be right and true.)
- Overuse of accusation, resulting in defensiveness and counter-accusation. (For example, whatever accusations might establish about who is or is not guilty of “compromise,” etc., nothing in that activity increases understanding of what Scripture itself teaches. It’s application. Important, but secondary to clarity about what needs to be applied.)
- The already-mentioned defense of points that are not really in dispute (and it’s ugly step-son, the straw-man fallacy).
- Lack of clear application scenarios.
This is really also a problem of definition. Much of the discourse in defense of separation is so vague, believers have little idea what obedience to the doctrine ought to look like in their local church, in their involvement in parachurch organizations, in their personal lives.
I’ve often felt that if you took two brothers who are differing hotly about separation and tossed a couple of scenarios at them privately and asked “How would we obey Scripture in these situations?” they’d arrive at exactly the same conclusions. One might call it “ecclesiastical separation,” or “secondary” or something; one might call it “discipline” or something else, but they’d actually agree that it’s what Scripture calls us to do.
By the same token, I’ve been involved in more than one highly frustrating exchange in which the more I pressed for clarity and concreteness, the more my interlocutor altered his definitions or retreated into generalities. (I’m never sure what to make of that. Do they actually not want to be understood? Do they not understand their own position?)
3. Identify the problems central to the debate.
After working at steps one and two a bit, step three starts to accomplish itself by process of elimination. Still, conscious energy aimed in this direction can greatly further the other steps as well.
When it comes to the biblical doctrine of separation, my experience—which has included a pretty good sampling, I think—suggests that among conservative evangelicals, fundamentalists, post-fundamentalists and everybody else who cares all about being obedient in this area, the central problems are mainly these:
- What kinds of beliefs and practices are grounds for separation from other apparently-genuine believers and ministries?
- How do we even go about deciding what kinds of beliefs and practices are grounds for separation?
- What forms should this “separation” take?
- What process should we follow in various situations?
- More specifically, what sort of interaction with those being separated from does the NT require; who should do the interacting; what should be the attitude of those doing the interacting; how much should be public; and how do various responses along the way affect the process?
- Again, how do we even go about deriving the answers to these questions?
I, for one, would love to see a series of public interactions (preferably live and in person) among sober-minded, clear-thinking, even-tempered, gracious, and humble leaders who differ on matters of separation—with the goal not of reaching consensus, but of achieving mutual clarity about what is in dispute and what reasons each has for his own stand on the subject.
Maybe we can do more than “agree to disagree.” Maybe we can agree that we are disagreeing accurately and fairly.
Aaron Blumer, SharperIron’s second publisher, is a Michigan native and graduate of Bob Jones University (Greenville, SC) and Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). He and his family live in a small town in western Wisconsin, not far from where he pastored Grace Baptist Church for thirteen years. He is employed in customer service for UnitedHealth Group and teaches high school rhetoric (and sometimes logic and government) at Baldwin Christian School.