Separation from Professing Brethren- Notes toward an Understanding

The following notes were presented by Dr. Kevin Bauder, president of Cental Baptist Theological Seminary of Plymouth, MN, at a workshop at the 2006 National Leadership Convention at Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary, Lansdale, Pennsylvania. They were originally published at SharperIron on March 8, 2006.

I. Definitions.

A. Professing Brother.

    1. By “professing brother” I mean an individual who professes to believe the true gospel. We cannot judge the heart directly.

    2. “Professing the true gospel” means more than naming the name of Christ. It does not include cultists, theological liberals, sacerdotalists, or other individuals who profess a false gospel while claiming to be Christians.

B. Fellowship.

    1. Fellowship is that which is held in common.

    a. Minimally, the boundary of Christian fellowship is drawn by the gospel. No Christian fellowship is possible where the gospel is not held in common.

    b. Maximally, the center or apex of Christian fellowship includes the whole counsel of God. Mutatis mutandis, the closest fellowship will occur where Christians hold the entire Faith in common.

2. Objective and subjective fellowship.

    a. Objective fellowship is determined by what Christians actually hold in common (at least the gospel, often more). Objective fellowship will be limited when we do not hold all of the same things in common.

    b. Subjective fellowship involves our actual experience of commonality. Subjective fellowship may be limited by a number of factors such as geographical proximity, temporal proximity, purpose in ministry, and language. It will also be limited by the boundaries of objective fellowship.

    c. Cooperation and collaboration is a special instance of subjective fellowship.

C. Separation.

    1. There are two possible approaches to the definition of separation when it occurs between brethren.

    a. Approach One: separation occurs whenever subjective fellowship is truncated or impaired, particularly when the impairment arises because of a limitation in objective fellowship.

    b. Approach Two: separation involves more than merely limited fellowship; it also includes an element of censure or rebuke.

2. We cannot choose between these definitions on the basis of word studies. To do so confuses words with things.

    a. The presence of the word will lead us to introduce evidence that is not relevant (e.g., God is a God of separation because He separated the light from the darkeness).

    b. The absence of the word will lead us to neglect evidence in which the concept is present or implied though the word is not used.

3. My approach.

    a. The choice of definitions is somewhat stipulative.

    b. In all instances when subjective fellowship is limited by disagreements about the faith (limited objective fellowship), some element of censure is at least implied.

    c. Therefore, I believe the most fruitful understanding will arise by using the first definition, i.e., that brethren are separated whenever they do not experience (subjective) fellowship. Acts 15:36-41 seems to warrant this use of the term.

II. Biblical Evidence

Overview of the Direct Biblical Data

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Passage Circumstance Required Action
Matthew 18:15-17 Unresolved personal trespass (1) Personal appeal
(2) Witnesses
(3) Church
(4) Treat as heathen and publican
Acts 15:36-41 Sharp conflict over procedure No requirement. Permissible to go separate ways
Romans 16:17 Divisions and offenses contrary to received teaching (1) Mark them
(2) Avoid them
1 Corinth!
ians 5:1-13
(1) Place outside of the church
(2) Don’t eat with
Galatians 2:11-14 Conduct that belies the gospel Withstand (resist, oppose, set one’s self against) to his face
Galatians 6:1 Overtaken in a fault (1) Restore
(2) With meekness
(3) Remember your own fallibility
Ephesians 5:1-11 Fornication
Foolish Talking
(1) Not named among you
(2) Don’t become partakers with those who do these
(3) Don’t fellowship with
(4) Reprove
2 Thessalonians 3:6 /td>
Walks disorderly or abandons apostolic tradition
Withdraw from
2 Thessalonians 3:14-15 Disobedience to apostolic commands (including above?) (1) Note
(2) Have no company
(3) Warn as brother
1 Timothy 1:19-20 False teaching Deliver to Satan
1 Timothy 6:3-5 False teaching Withdraw yourself
2 Timothy 2:16-18 Profane and vain babblings Shun
Titus 3:9-11 Factiousness (1) Warn twice
(2) Reject

    A. All other things being equal, Christians should aim for the maximum of subjective fellowship. This appears to be the thought behind Eph. 4:1-3. We should never conduct ourselves in such a way as deliberately to undermine subjective fellowship.

    B. Other things are not always equal, however. Specifically, subjective fellowship may be limited when obedience to Christ is at stake. We are never right to abandon any aspect of the faith in order to preserve the appearance of fellowship where fellowship does not exist.

    C. Our goal should always be the restoration of the erring brother, and we should pursue this goal with meekness (Gal. 6:1). In some cases of disagreement, however, the brother may also be trying to restore us.

    D. We should check our own motivations. Separation from a brother ought never to be motivated by jealousy, bitterness, or territorialism. These are attitudes that deserve to be separated from (Titus 3:9-11)!

    E. Separation may involve a range of attitudes. Scripture seems to require different reactions to different levels of offense and disagreement. Our response should match the circumstance.

III. “The Matrix” (A Theory of Separation).

Judgments about separation among brethren do not usually involve a clear-cut choice between yes and no, do and don’t. Typically, several factors will need to be considered. At least three kinds of issues play into making decisions about fellowship and separation. These factors impinge upon one another in a matrix.

    A. What level of fellowship is being considered?

    Making fellowship an all-or-nothing matter is a serious mistake. This mistake is committed by some fundamentalists and by some evangelicals. If evangelicals perceive that any level of fellowship is warranted, they often assume that every level of fellowship is obligatory. If fundamentalists perceive that any level of fellowship is impossible, they often conclude that total separation is obligatory. These are equal and opposite errors.

    1. Personal fellowship: one-on-one, coffee-cup fellowship. Rejoicing in the unsearchable riches.

    2. Personal instruction, ranging from a kind personal encouragement to a formal discipleship relationship. This entails a whole range of possible levels of relationship.

    3. Itinerant preaching and teaching: the occasion may permit a significant number of differences as long as those differences don’t enter into the occasion of instruction. For example, a Presbyterian might have a Baptist in his pulpit, but not to preach on church order.

    4. Targeted collaboration: laboring together in order to accomplish specified goals. The qualifications for fellowship will obviously be determined by the nature of the goals. A collaboration to advance pretribulationism cannot include Covenant Theologians, while a collaboration to defend infant baptism cannot include Baptists.

    5. Church membership involves a covenanted relationship that entails a significant commitment. The mutual obligations of that relationship make this a fairly high level of fellowship.

    6. Church leadership is even more restrictive than church membership. Not everyone who is qualified to be a member is necessarily qualified to be a leader. This level of fellowship entails the highest level of obligation and accountability.

B. What manner of difference exists between two brethren? What level of error is involved? [Nota Bene: I owe certain of these categories to David Jones of Covenant Theological Seminary]. The following represent points along a sliding scale, not static positions. Sometimes the difference between two points will lie in how a difference is articulated. Incidentally, we do experience significant differences over which differences belong in each category.

    1. No error: both parties are agreed upon the truth.

    2. Tolerable differences: only one party can be correct, but the differences are so incidental as to create little tension either practically or doctrinally. Examples: the standards argument over the identity of the Sons of God in Genesis 6; academic debates over the best Greek text or English translation.

    3. Isolated error: here the error is serious enough to imply a significant strain upon either doctrine or practice, but not necessarily serious enough to skew badly the entire system of theology and practice. Examples: the debates over Lordship Salvation, Calvinism, Dispensationalism, Pedobaptism.

    4. Systemic error: here the error is serious enough that it badly disrupts the entire system of theology or creates urgent differences in practice. Examples: the debates over Lordship Salvation, Calvinism, Dispensationalism, Pedobaptism (depending upon how these debates are articulated). The debate over Cessationism usually occurs at this level. So does the debate over separation from apostates, which involves an assessment of the importance of the gospel itself. The insistence on doctrinal grounds that a particular Greek or Hebrew textual tradition or English translation is the only pure Word of God belongs at this level.

    5. Catastrophic error or heresy: the error is so grave that the gospel itself is explicitly or implicitly threatened or denied. Examples: Open Theism, New Perspective, Inclusivism, Sacerdotalism, biblical errancy.

C. What is the attitude of a brother toward whatever differences are held?

    1. How openly does a brother hold to what I think is an error?

    2. How closely identified is my brother with that error, and to what extent is he able to separate himself from it in ministry?

    3. Is my brother willing to lay aside the difference (and am I) for the sake of a particular level of fellowship?

    4. In which direction is my brother moving? Is he accepting more and more of the error, or is he questioning it?

Rightly done, issues of fellowship and separation among brethren take account of all three dimensions in the above matrix. This means that many decisions about fellowship and separation are not simple. They are complex, and at some points they involve judgment calls. Brethren may rightly differ in those judgments, especially since each person’s level of knowledge and personal circumstances will differ. In brief, we need to be willing to allow one another a bit of leeway in making these decisions.

IV. A Test Case.

This is a real-life relationship. How would the above principles apply in this situation?

    A. Issues that Unite.
    1. Geographical proximity; personal respect and friendship.

    2. Commitment to strongly expository, doctrinal (but applicational) preaching.

    3. Commitment to shared understanding of the importance of religious affections.

    4. Militant opposition of evangelical feminism and Open Theism.

    5. Commitment to a strongly theocentric ministry.

    6. Commitment to a high level of personal integrity.

B. The Issues that Divide.

    1. Covenant Theology v Dispensationalism; rejection of pretribulationism.

    2. Limited Atonement v Universal Provision of Salvation.

    3. Organizational involvement with Open Theists v organizational separation from Open Theists.

    4. Third-Wave continuationism (Grudem’s view on prophecy) v cessationism.

    5. Admission of pedobaptized v insistence upon credobaptized

C. The question: at what level(s) is fellowship possible, and at what level(s) would it be required? At what level(s) does separation become advisable or even necessary?

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