Separation - Split or Lump? (Part 1 of 4)

Since we are commanded to separate, it is important for all believers to know what that means. If your church is associated with the GARBC, then this should be especially important to you now. Therefore, I want to encourage you to think through a couple aspects of separation.

What is Separation? I want to ask what type of situation fits within the doctrine of separation.
Specifically, I want to look at one type of situation which has recently been taught as part of “separation.”
- Paul and Barnabas disagreed over whether John Mark should be given a second chance to go on a missionary journey. “Contention was so sharp between them, that they departed asunder one from the other: and so Barnabas took Mark, and sailed unto Cyprus; And Paul chose Silas, and departed.” Acts 15:39-40. Some call this “separation.” After all, they deliberately departed company. I would not call it separation because nothing in the text indicates that either party was involved in sin or false teaching. So this is my question: Should we think of a situation like that as “separation”?

Separation is somewhat difficult to study and implement. In fact, it takes some effort just to define it. Dr. Kevin Bauder spoke on this subject at the National Leadership Conference. Prior to the SharperIron crash, we read remarks from some who were present for that address, and we read Dr. Bauder’s notes. Part of those notes dealt with defining separation and included the following:

We cannot [define separation] 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 darkness).
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.

— From Dr. Bauder’s Notes on Separation. (hopefully will be re-posted at some point.)

This leaves us with the question of which Bible passages contribute to our understanding of this doctrine. What Biblical concepts are parts of “separation”? Should we include a great variety of things, lumping them all together? Should Acts 15:39-40 be included? Or should we be more selective?

In this paper, I’ll use the terms “lumping” and “splitting.” I’m using these terms as they would be used in taxonomy.

Lump verb - transitive senses
1 : to group indiscriminately
(from Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary)

in taxonomy - classify plants or animals in relatively inclusive groups, disregarding minor variations.
(from Dictionary, Version 1.0.1, Copyright © 2005 Apple Computer, Inc.)

By “lumping,” I mean putting things into one category, sometimes even things which do not belong in the same category. The alternative is “splitting,” which is the placement of different things in different categories. Again, I’m not really asking if the Paul-Barnabas situation was commanded. That would require speculation about the situation in Acts. I’m asking if we can be confident that it is reasonable to lump the Paul-Barnabas situation into the category known to us as “Biblical separation.” Just to be clear, when I say, “split,” I am not talking about splits between brothers. I’m talking about splits between one action and another. These occur when we think of our actions in different categories.

To what extent should we “split” in our terminology? What things should we include in our definition of “separation”? Dr. Bauder raised this same issue in his notes:

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.

— From Dr. Bauder’s Notes on Separation.

To rephrase, Dr. Bauder has described two approaches:
1. (Lumping - more things are included in “separation.”) Separation = any loss of fellowship. ALL situations in which fellowship does not occur would be “lumped” together into the category and called “separation,” regardless of whether sin or censure is involved. Examples include church discipline, withdrawal from false teachers, Paul & Barnabas (who departed in Acts 15:39-40), and Dr. Bauder & Paul (who are divided by time and language).

2. (Splitting - less things are included in “separation.”) Separation = deliberate breaking of fellowship which occurs as a response to sin (or false teaching). Just like “Lumping,” this approach includes church discipline and withdrawal from false teachers. The other examples, however - Paul-Barnabas and Dr. Bauder-Paul - are not encompassed by the doctrine of separation and are “split” off. They must be considered differently from separation.

Dr. Bauder is not alone in his approach. Dr. Paul Hartog has written similarly:

Most discussions of separation do not consider a third element, however. One might label this element the “separation for” perspective that emphasizes the virtue of prudence. … The question arises, what is the wisest and most prudent allocation of these limited resources? For which causes, activities, and ministries are we to expend out time and money?…

For example, every church has a finite missionary budget. What type of missionaries should a congregation support?… It would seem that this church would prudently support missionaries in other locations that closely resemble its own theology and perspectives. Such a focus “separates” (sets apart) and appropriates finite resources for the sake of wise investment.

The wise youth leader builds upon a discernment resulting in a separation from sin and error and a holiness resulting in a separation to God. He then “separates” his limited resources for the best options defined by prudence. He must sift all alternatives through the sieve of his precisely developed philosophy of youth ministry.

— From “Economic Wisdom as an Analogy to Prudence of Separation, Part I,” Faith Pulpit, September, 2005, Dr. Paul Hartog

Dr. Hartog says that this element of separation “emphasizes the virtue of prudence.” Indeed, the basis of his examples are “the sake of wise investment” and “defined by prudence.” He gives two examples of this “element of separation.” The first example is the way a church spends it’s missions money. The second is the way a youth pastor spends his youth group’s time. He discerns which activities he takes the time and effort to do.

We are commanded to be wise. We are commanded to be good stewards. When viewed as Dr. Hartog does, all these commands become issues of “separation.” As we spend our money wisely, he says that we are “separating” our money. As we spend our time wisely, we are “separating” our time for certain things / people / ministries. Are these issues ones of “separation” or of “wisdom”? Can any act of implementing wisdom with regard to resources be re-categorized as “separation”?

There is a danger here. We might forget that this type of separation doesn’t involve censure of sin or false teaching. If we do this, we may continue the separation, but in our minds revert back to the most common definition - and wind up believing that we have “separated from” sin. In fact, Dr. Hartog warns of this danger in his paper.

Much harm can be done when our publicly stated reasons for a choice do not coincide with the true rationale guiding the decision. In some specific cases, we may not honestly assert, “Scripture condemns any fellowship with you.” But we may genuinely respond, “We believe that this would not be a wise use of our resources.”


This warning is good and, in fact, necessary. It acknowledges that, whatever you call it (“separation” or not), what Dr. Hartog calls the “third element of separation” is not a reaction to sin or false teaching. Remember also that Dr. Bauder said that the Paul-Barnabas departure did not involve censure and was not required.

So we have a category (or sub-category) of non-fellowship decisions that are not commanded and are not caused by sin or false teaching.
And we have a category (or sub-category) of non-fellowship decisions that are commanded and are caused by sin or false teaching.

Note that when I say, “not commanded” above, I do not mean that there is no Biblical command. I simply mean that they are not commanded by passages which we normally think of as dealing with separation.

In order to illustrate the two approaches, here are two Venn diagrams.

In the first, the pink circle indicates all the things that we are commanded to do. The yellow circle indicates “separation” as defined by the lumpers. With this approach, “separation” includes both censure (Sep-C) and non-censure (Sep-N). Separation with censure contains the examples of Church Discipline (CD) and Withdrawal from False Teachers (WFT). Separation with no censure(Sep-N) contains the examples of Paul-Barnabas (P-B) and Paul-Kevin Bauder (P-KB). P-B is outside of “Commanded” simply because the Word does not state that they were commanded to depart. It simply informs us that they departed.

In the second diagram, the pink circle remains “Things commanded.” But the “Separation” yellow circle is smaller and is completely within the “Commands” circle. Note that in this approach, all Separation includes censure. “Separation with no censure” is replaced with Non Fellowship of Convenience (NFC) and Non-Fellowship of Impossibility (NFI). NFC is partially excluded from “Things Commanded.” But sometimes such choices might be considered by a believer to be commanded by application of some Bible principle (e.g., wisdom). Therefore, I’ve added a spot for Convictions (Conv). If a believer is convicted that he should not fellowship, then he might want to call it more than simply Non-Fellowship of Convenience. I’ll discuss this more in the next paper, Separation Part 2, where I’ll define NFC, and discuss situations. For the purposes of this paper, the reader should note that there is no evidence that either Paul or Barnabas felt that the other was in sin. There is no evidence that either felt that the other was in sin of holding to false doctrine. So again, P-B is outside of “Commanded.”
I’ve also added another category called Non-Fellowship of Impossibility (NFI). We can’t fellowship with believers from other time periods or with believers who are out of state. It really doesn’t matter why we cannot. We are not commanded to avoid these fellowships. Even if we were so commanded, it wouldn’t matter - disobedience would be impossible. I’m not going to mention this type again. (I should note that I suspect that Dr. Bauder was not serious when he mentioned this as “separation.” He apparently followed it up by saying that it wasn’t the type that we wrestle with.)

The similarities between the approaches should be noted. In fact, the main difference between them is in terminology.
- The four examples are arranged the same with regard to commandment. Dr. Bauder’s notes specifically said that the division between Paul and Barnabas was not commanded. This is true with both approaches.
- The two approaches also treat the four examples the same with regard to censure. In the cases of Paul-Barnabas and Paul-Dr. Bauder, neither approach would say that the division is due to sin.

I have so far argued that the distinction between the approaches is minor. In fact, the difference between these approaches is in how clearly the actions are labeled. The obedient believer might behave in the same manner with either system. But the lumper will have to be very careful in how he thinks about each aspect of his behavior.

Both approaches call for withdrawal from sin and false teaching.
Both approaches label that withdrawal “separation.”
Both approaches call for wisdom. (The “splitting” approach does not use the term “separation” for what is actually “wisdom.”)

Now I want to lay out support for my approach.
1. Normal language assumes that separation is from sin.
The inclusion of wisdom with regard to non-censure decisions under the category of “separation” is not normal.

Separation will be discussed under three divisions: separation from the world, separation from false teachers, and separation from disobedient brethren. It is important to keep in mind that these categories often overlap and cannot always be strictly compartmentalized. False teaching occurs both in the church and in the world. Sinful practices of the unsaved sometimes enter the church.

- “Biblical Separation,” by The Bob Jones University Bible Faculty, © Bob Jones University, 1980.

Here, separation is defined as pertaining to issues in dealing with the world, false teaching, and disobedient brothers. This does not include issues concerning the wise allocation of time and resources among believing, truth-teaching, obedient brothers with various ministries.

2. “It” is commanded - but only if we’ve defined “it” correctly.
Most discussions of separation include a statement that separation is commanded.
All discussions which lead to “secondary separation” include it.
The same BJU article:

Separation is not optional but absolutely necessary when circumstances demand it. Christians must observe this separation in obedience to the Word of God. The Bible contains many Old Testament examples as well as New Testament warnings and commands concerning separation which the Christian cannot ignore without being disobedient to God and His revealed Word.

- BJU – ibid

If we are to lump Paul-Barnabas type situations with “separation” then statements like that must end. We can no longer make broad statements that separation is commanded, because it isn’t always commanded. We must apply those statements only to that portion of “separation” which is commanded. The type of non-fellowship that Paul and Barnabas experienced was not. Therefore we must be careful not to say that type is commanded - that would be adding to the Word of God.
So, yes, we should say, “Separation is commanded.” But only if we are willing to define separation so that it includes only commanded types of separation.

This is a list taken from Dr. Bauder’s notes. Bible references are listed along with the “circumstance” in which “separation” action occurs. Note that Acts 15:39-40 is the only reference which does not involve some trespass, sin, fault, or censure.

Matthew 18:15-17 Unresolved personal trespass
Acts 15:36-41 Sharp conflict over procedure
Romans 16:17 Divisions and offenses contrary to received teaching
1 Corinthians 5:1-13 Fornication - Covetousness - Idolatry - Raillery (KJV calls him a “railer”; ESV uses “reviler”) - Drunkenness - Extortion
Galatians 2:11-14 Conduct that belies the gospel
Galatians 6:1 Overtaken in a fault
Ephesians 5:1-11 Fornication- Uncleanness - Covetousness - Filthiness - Foolish Talking - Jesting
2 Thessalonians 3:6 Walks disorderly or abandons apostolic tradition
2 Thessalonians 3:14-15 Disobedience to apostolic commands (including above?)
1 Timothy 1:19-20 False teaching
1 Timothy 6:3-5 False teaching
2 Timothy 2:16-18 Profane and vain babblings
Titus 3:9-11 Factiousness

On the same table, Dr. Bauder listed “Required Actions.” Acts 15:39-40 was the only one in which no action was required.

We must either:
1 - Limit “separation” to the actions that separation passages command - and all those passages describe situations which involve censure (thus Paul-Barnabas is not “separation.”)
2 - Limit our statement to “separation is sometimes commanded.” This must be done painstakingly and perpetually.

The second of those causes confusion. I’ve seen this confusion on SharperIron and elsewhere. It comes in the form of statements like, “In some non-censure situations, I must separate.”
Why, though? Why “must” you separate at those times? Everyone seems to agree that “separation” is not required in a non-censure situation. The answer tends to be that separation is a command - not an option. There’s the confusion. The “commanded” and “required” attribute of separation becomes wrongly distributed to sub-categories of “separation” to which it does not belong.
If a person answers “Why ‘must’ you separate?” by saying that wisdom demands an action, then they are obeying wisdom passages - not separation passages.

Lumping all types of “departing” into “separation” is dangerous. It clouds our thinking and causes us to consider our actions wrongly. We might act believing we are obeying the Lord when in reality we are obeying our own confusion. “Separation” as a term should be reserved for our actions which are obedient responses to Scriptures that require non-fellowship as a response to sin or false teaching.

So back to my question: Should we think of a situation like Paul and Barnabas as “separation”? My answer is: “No - because it does not include the aspect of censure.”

And another question: Is NFC important or not? Yes - it is important. I’m not trying to say it isn’t. I’m simply trying to clarify how it is different from separation. I’ll define NFC more in part 2.
There is one last thing that I want to do in this paper. That is to ask the “lumpers” why they DO want to include the Paul-Barnabas situation in their view of separation. So, if you believe it is important to include Paul-Barnabas in “Separation,” I would like to understand why you want to lump this in.

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