What is “separation”?
From Francis Schaeffer’s book, The Great Evangelical Disaster:
“It is important to notice the principle we are speaking about here and the language we use to express that principle. It is not the principle of separation. It is the practice of the principle of the purity of the visible church. Words are important at this point, because we make attitudes with the words we choose and use year after year. So I repeat: the principle may have to be exhibited in various ways, but that is the principle. The church belongs to those who by the grace of God are faithful to the Scriptures.”
Francis A. Schaeffer, The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer, ed. Francis A. Schaeffer, vol. 4, A Christian’s Worldview of the Church (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1985), 359.
After talking about some other situations, I now want to turn to “separation.” Schaeffer prefers to call it the “practice of the principle of the purity of the church.” Therefore, the topic of this paper is different from Part 2, even though the actions it describes might look very similar at times to Non-Fellowship of Convenience.
The word separation has many nuances. It can be used for everything from a shunning to a broken-down marriage to a damaged acromioclavicular joint (“separated shoulder”). I am using the word in the sense that it describes the reduction of fellowship that must be done in order to preserve the purity of the church. In Part 2, I discussed how we may depart from one another over opinions and convictions; in this paper, I’ll discuss the way we should separate from one another over sin and false teaching.
Separation involves a threshold and a reaction. The threshold is unrepentant sin or unrepentant false teaching. When the threshold is met and we identify the action of a brother as “sin,” the required reaction is to separate from him. That sounds pretty simple, right? Well, let’s look at some Scripture, reviewing a few separation passages. I’ll try to unpack from each of them the threshold and the reaction.
3:10 A man that is an heretic after the first and second admonition reject;
3:11 Knowing that he that is such is subverted, and sinneth, being condemned of himself.
Threshold: He is a heretic after the first and second admonition. After a period of admonition, this person persists in his heresy. Titus was a pastor, so Paul’s words should be taken as directions for how to oversee the church.
Reaction: Reject. Consider this person as unregenerate.
2:15 Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle.
3:6 Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us.
3:14 And if any man obey not our word by this epistle, note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed.
3:15 Yet count him not as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother.
Threshold: He walks “disorderly” (ataktos – “not in step” or “not as one ought to be”) – not after apostolic tradition – not obeying the apostolic orders. There is some disagreement over exactly what “disorderly” is. Though I won’t defend it in this paper, “disorderly” was the practical disobedience of what they had been commanded in the Lord by the apostles.
Reaction: Withdraw – have no intimate company – count not as an enemy, admonish as a brother.
16:17 Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them.
16:18 For they that are such serve not our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly; and by good words and fair speeches deceive the hearts of the simple.
Threshold: Causes divisions and stumbling (contrary to the teaching received).
Reaction: Mark, avoid.
The pattern of separation varies quite a lot, just between these three passages. I suppose that if I included more passages, I could show a little more variation, but this is enough.
There are three different types of behavior that reach threshold:
Titus - holding false doctrines.
2 Thessalonians - disobeying practical commands.
Romans - dividing the flock and laying a stumbling block.
Here also are various types of reactions that we must apply when those thresholds are reached.
Sometimes temporary fellowship is required by the passage. We must give “admonitions” of some quality before we separate. Note that according to the 2 Thessalonians passage, we are to continue to admonish even after we have noted and withdrawn. Certainly, the practical performance of “separating” must allow us to get together in some ways.
And then there are different severities of separation. At various times we avoid, reject, or have no intimate company. Sometimes we treat them as a brother. At other times (see Galatians 1) we let them be accursed.
Separation is clearly commanded. The question is how to make the application in our lives. These are principles. But now we must apply them. Here is part of Phil Johnson’s address, Dead Right: The Failure Of Fundamentalism, (3-3-05)
But what is my duty to a fellow believer, someone who is fundamentally sound in his own doctrine, but who does not practice separation? What about an evangelical Anglican, who preaches the gospel himself, but is a member of a denomination that has ordained practicing homosexuals as bishops? Am I free to associate with him? Am I obliged to break fellowship with him?
If I do break fellowship with him, that’s second-degree separation. Now, it may surprise some of you to hear me say this, but there are times when I think second-degree separation is perfectly appropriate.
So there clearly are times when it is appropriate to refuse to keep company with someone who is a believer—especially if that person is deliberately and incorrigibly disobedient to the clear instruction of Scripture. But notice that we’re explicitly instructed to admonish such a person as a brother. Separation from a brother should never be quick and easy.
What I object to in the way American fundamentalists have practiced separation is this: they are often rash and impulsive in the way they separate from other brethren without any kind of admonishment and without due process. Furthermore, they try to enforce separation to the third, fourth, fifth, and fifteenth degree.
Billy Graham refuses to practice separation from Roman Catholics and liberals. OK, we won’t participate in his crusades. But Al Mohler once participated in a Billy Graham Crusade. Are we therefore obliged to separate from Al Mohler? Now you’re into the third degree of separation. And since we haven’t broken fellowship with Mohler, are fundamentalists required to separate from John MacArthur and everyone who associates with him? See how quickly we get to fourth and fifth degree separation? But that is exactly the way separation works in the modern fundamentalist movement.
Seriously: a fundamentalist pastor friend told me that the main reason he could never attend a Shepherds’ Conference or have anything to do with John MacArthur is because MacArthur hasn’t broken fellowship with Al Mohler, and Mohler has a connection to Billy Graham, and therefore MacArthur is not a truly separated man. How far does this go?
Here is part of a response from David Doran in Stop The Funeral—We’re Not Quite Dead Yet! (3-11-05).
But, the bottom line is that Johnson acknowledged the validity of a core fundamentalist principle regarding separation. This was interesting and encouraging to me. I am prepared to let others apply it differently, so long as the applications don’t eventually reveal that the principle is not sincerely held.
There are some (represented above by Phil Johnson) who are coming to separation without having been steeped in fundamentalist separation practice. Phil admits that separation is indeed a Bible principle. In general, those who pause over traditional fundamentalist separation tend to look at second- or third-degree separation and say, “With enough degrees, I couldn’t fellowship with anyone. Ridiculous. I don’t think that we can take separation that far.” They wish to apply separation in a less knee-jerk manner than the traditional fundamentalists. But how far should they take it?
Dr. Doran sees this point. Note what he says: “I am prepared to let others apply it differently, so long as the applications don’t eventually reveal that the principle is not sincerely held.” When does a person’s application reveal that he does not sincerely hold a principle? That is the million-dollar question. Well – I’m sure answering it won’t earn any money, but no doubt it’s worth a million of something. And I’m gonna take a stab at that million!
To willingly deny a Bible principle is to be in the wrong. To refuse to apply a Bible principle is wrong. If we should be applying a principle, and we do not apply it, we are in the wrong. What Dr. Doran’s statement relies on is that we can know when that occurs in someone else’s life. When can we look at the behavior of others and conclude that they don’t sincerely hold to the principle of separation? Or any Bible principle, for that matter? How much can a person spend on a car before we conclude that he doesn’t sincerely hold the principle of loving God over possessions? How “worldly” can a person’s music get before we conclude that he doesn’t sincerely hold to the principle of loving not the world? How much can a person eat before we conclude that he doesn’t sincerely hold to the principle of avoiding gluttony? How many beggars may a man walk by before we conclude that he doesn’t sincerely hold to giving to the poor?
Of course, we should challenge one another, and we should always be comparing our lives to Bible principles and striving to be Christlike. There is a point at which failure to apply a principle is sin. If I calculate that a principle is not really having the effect that it should have, I should repent of that sin. But at what point can we make these judgments about our brother? The answer is never – we cannot judge the application of a brother as sin.
But I should be more precise. I may be concerned that my brother doesn’t apply the principle as I do. I should be concerned if he doesn’t seem to show evidence of the application of Bible principles. I may tell him that I am worried that the principle does not seem to have very much affect on his life. I may tell him that I am worried that he does not really understood the principle.
I may not tell my brother that he has failed in an application. “I am concerned about you” – YES. “I wonder if you’ve ever considered these passages” – YES. “You certainly don’t apply that as I do” – YES. “A lot of dedicated Christians I know make this application” – YES. “You’re in sin because your application doesn’t restrict you as my application restricts me” – NO.
If you disagree with this, please let me know the timeless method by which you’re going to definitively answer this question each time it comes up: When does a person’s application of X principle reveal that he does not sincerely hold that principle?
Regarding the “Anglican, who preaches the gospel himself, but is a member of a denomination that has ordained practicing homosexuals as bishops,” Phil Johnson says, “If I do break fellowship with him…” This suggests that he believes that he may or may not “separate” at some particular time and manner. If so, then he takes a view that in some ways is similar to mine. That is, the timing and/or nature of separation is a personal application. When applying it, each of us must be convinced of when and how to separate in his own mind. There’s more to be seen in this quote from Phil. But first, I need to discuss the application of separation a bit more.
Separation is just like any other Bible principle we must apply. After we determine that our brother is in sin, we should separate. There are two issues to the practical application of separation:
1. When do we do it? How long is the period of giving admonitions?
- We know that a period of fellowship may precede separation. How long may a person try to influence his brother or denomination before we conclude that he does not hold to separation? I could list a lot of factors:
- Influence - If one has a loud voice, then he may wish to stay longer, since he has opportunity to teach truth and bring light to darkness.
- Audience – If the general population of his denomination is listening and considering the false teaching which they hold, then he may want to avail himself of the opportunity to teach.
- Brotherhood – If one has close friends in the movement or group, he may wish especially to stay for a time and try to shine the light of truth. Paul claims this sort of desire for his Jewish brothers, though it’s uncertain how much fellowship of discussion it led him to have with the Jews.
- Ignorance - We know that sometimes a person holds to false teaching due to ignorance or a different but honest interpretation – not because he refuses the truth. Thus we have a need for teaching. When do we teach the heretic and when do we separate from him? This will especially be the case when the person admits to ignorance and presents himself as teachable.
When should we say that a brother has fellowshiped too long? That is, his period of admonition before separating is so extended that he must not sincerely hold to separation? Never. Well, hardly ever.
2. How do we do it? Once a person “separates,” what does this look like?
- Can we share pulpits on a regular basis?
- Can we share pulpits once?
- Can we meet for Bible study as a group of professionals? (Sometimes co-workers will have a Bible study together, across denominations.)
- Can we have someone over for dinner?
- Can we go to their house for dinner?
- Can we go to coffee with them?
- If I meet them on the street, can I say, “Hi”?
When can we say that the mode of application of separation of a brother is wrong? That is, he has sinned by failing to separate in the right way? Again, never. Well, hardly ever.
I say “hardly ever” to these because there are exceptions.
Exception #1: The Gospel
But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed.
As we said before, so say I now again, If any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed.
When it comes to false teachings that harm the Gospel, we must judge the person’s false teachings as sin. This is different from teachings such as paedo-baptism. If the infant baptizer is clear that the baptism does not save the individual, then his belief does not represent a false gospel. If he holds some doctrine that I disagree with, yet he holds to the true Gospel and he has Biblical plausible support for his doctrine, then I won’t hold that he is in sin. This is not to say that he is right. I believe that the infant baptizer holds incorrect doctrine. But his doctrine doesn’t harm the Gospel so it doesn’t demand separation. Although we find it easier to employ Non-Fellowship at times, separation is not demanded.
However, if he holds to a false doctrine that harms the true Gospel, then I must hold his position to be sin, even if he believes that his teaching is plausible. Thus the threshold for separation is met and separation is required.
Exception #2: Self-Condemnation.
While we can’t point out the failed applications of others, we can challenge them on their application. We say, “Have you not considered that at some point you will need to separate in accordance with the Word?” They may respond in a few different ways:
1- They may acknowledge the principle of separation, but say that they do not feel that they need to apply it at this time.
2- They may, through your encouragement, apply separation to the issue for the first time – thus an area of commonality with you is generated.
3- They may agree that they should have applied it – and indeed they were convicted to do so. But they did not. This is a self-declaration of sin. It should be labeled so.
4- They may deny that the principle exists at all. If they deny that a Biblical doctrine like separation exists altogether then they are denying explicit teachings of the Word.
So I believe that “secondary separation” is a legitimate action. It is nothing more than separating from the unrepentant sin of failing to separate when one should have. The only ones able to judge the time and manner in which that person should have separated are himself and his Lord. (My own thinking in this last category is a bit more complicated. But in the interest of keeping this brief, I’ll leave it that out. If there’s interest, I’ll put it in the discussion.)
Consider the following scenario.
Mr. Bad teaches a false gospel.
- At some time and in some way, I should separate from Mr. Bad.
Mr. Smith is in fellowship with Mr. Bad.
- Should I separate from Mr. Smith? Again, separation is the reduction of fellowship because of sin. So I must first answer whether Mr. Smith is in sin. To do this I must ask Mr Smith.
- If he says that he has considered the matter, that he takes separation seriously, and that he feels confident that this is not yet the time or manner for separation, then I will accept that. I will not call his action sin. Therefore, I will not separate. I can’t. There is no “sin” – at least as far as I can judge. Non-Fellowship of Convenience, however, is still an option – and in this case, it sounds like a good idea. I might tell him that his fellowship with Mr. Bad shows that our ministry goals are so different that it is wisest for me not to have fellowship with him. For more on this type of thinking, see Part 2. The point is that without judging Mr. Smith, I will still sometimes need to depart from him. But that is obedience to wisdom or stewardship – not separation. There is no passage that commands separation that does not also tell us to do it as a response to sin.
- However, consider a different response. What if he says that he has felt for years that at some point he would have to separate? In fact, he decided a few years ago that if things came to a certain point he would have to separate. That point came two years ago. He felt that for financial reasons, he couldn’t leave his organization. He still feels he has caved, although he’s learning to live with the guilt. This is sin. In this case I will, at some time and in some manner, separate from him.
Therefore, I’m really not sure whether I agree with Phil Johnson’s quote. He uses “separation” without indicating whether or not there is censure, which makes his words vague. Regarding the “Anglican, who preaches the gospel himself, but is a member of a denomination that has ordained practicing homosexuals as bishops,” Phil Johnson says, “If I do break fellowship with him…” Before I labeled Phil’s departing action as separation, I would want to do a little homework. I would need to find out if that Anglican’s non-separation is either against his own conscience or if he has failed to consider the principle of separation. If he agrees that the principle of separation does tell him to separate but that he just doesn’t believe that his period of admonition is over, then I would not make the judgment of sin and I would not call Phil’s secondary action “separation.” However, if the Anglican is convinced in his own mind that he should separate, but he just won’t, then he is in sin. This means that Phil should, indeed, “secondarily” separate from him.
Separation can be applied more precisely when viewed in this way. A prerequisite of separation is the ability to say, “That is sin.” This occurs when a brother self-identifies his action as sin, if he is teaching a false gospel, or if he is violating explicit Biblical commands. If he does one of these, then I can say he has sinned. If he is unrepentant, then I should separate from him. The timing and method of separation is then up to my best honest effort at application of the Biblical separation texts.
In all this, I am assuming that the one who is temporarily admonishing is careful not to communicate to others that he agrees with the false gospel of the heretic.
If I cannot call my brother’s action sin, then I may either fellowship or employ Non-Fellowship of Convenience. I am not forced to fellowship simply because “separation” isn’t indicated. At times, because of what I believe is wise, I will Non-Fellowship with a brother. I may do it out of a sense of obedience to Bible principles. Thus I would be convinced that I could not fellowship in that case. Some people would behave just as I do here, but they would call it “separation without censure” or maybe just “separation.” So even though we might do the same thing, we disagree about what we should call our actions. More importantly, we disagree about why we are doing them. The separation passages tell us to respond to sin. If there is no sin, then the separation passages do not command the situation. Therefore, it is misleading to use “separation” to describe this action.
The application of Bible principles is up to the individual and his Lord. If this worries you, just remember that He is able to keep His servants in good standing. He has chosen His Word as the means of accomplishing this – so let us continuously place Bible principles before each other and trust Him to convict us all of what is right.
On a personal note, I have recently had a discussion with an online friend. He is an excellent Christian thinker and writer. In that discussion, he expressed surprise that I wasn’t firm that I would definitely separate over a particular issue. The fact is that the issue we were talking about is sin. Therefore, I agree that the issue is one over which we must separate – at some time and in some way. His challenge was bothersome to me. It was frightening to see that someone who is a SharperIron type would condemn my application of a principle. Is my application so different from his that he (and maybe others at SI) will feel the need to Non-Fellowship with me? We’ll see. I usually try not to care about such things. But this time it was bothersome to me. Not that he shouldn’t have done what he did – he was non-judgmental and I consider his response to be the “wounds of a friend.” That is, he expressed surprise at my view, but not outright condemnation. I suppose that for a pastor who answers the philosophical challenges of his flock on a weekly basis, and whose job depends on his flock not viewing him as a heretic, this fear would be much worse. The fear of man is powerful. Therefore, while I’ll listen to any logical rebuttals of my piece, I will try to ignore the feeling it gives me if you judge me. I’ll try to “be the duck” and let the water of your judgment flow off my back.
If you follow the logic, I believe that all of this flows. The crucial points are the variability of appropriate application of separation and the denial of universal applications.
That idea of denial of universal applications, by the way, should not be viewed as libertarian. If we preach the true Gospel and the majesty and glory of God and if we tremble before the Word of God as we constantly place Bible principles before each other, I don’t believe we’ll find people taking liberties. I believe that true believers will apply principles far more stringently than we could hope to force them by preaching universal applications.