Editor’s Note: This article accompanies FBFI Resolution 09-03 and is reprinted with permission from the May/June issue of FrontLine magazine.
Is There A Difference?
Pastor Robert Corso is facing a hard decision. Another Bible-believing pastor in his town has asked him to participate in a joint youth outreach emphasis. The difficulty is that Pastor Corso has some significant differences with the other church in terms of ministry philosophy and the practice of youth ministry. Although he does not wish to throw stones, he does not feel comfortable participating in the event. Pastor Corso is sure that some of his church members believe that he should publicly separate from the other church. Other members would see nothing wrong with participating, given that the gospel is more important than a church’s “parochial interests.”
Although there are times when a church must unequivocally separate itself from individuals and ministries, many times a pastor is faced with a situation like the one above. He does not believe that he has clear enough Scriptural warrant to publicly declare another ministry or minister to be “in sin,” but he does not think it prudent to involve himself too closely with that ministry or a particular project. The question is whether he has the leeway to limit his participation without officially separating from the other ministry. Are there such things as prudential limits on association that are different in nature from Biblical separation?
Theological Basis for Prudential Limits on Association
There are many issues about which we can and should be dogmatic because the Bible speaks plainly concerning them. There are other issues that we disagree on due to personal preference. Candor requires us to admit, however, that there are also disagreements that are neither clearly matters of right or wrong nor clearly matters of personal preference or opinion. These may involve ministry philosophy, theological systems, prudence, and personal or group standards.
There are many examples that fall within this third area. A believer may decide not to participate with fellow believers in certain amusements or other activities because he does not think they are wise or God-honoring. Christian parents may place restrictions on their children that are not placed on other children in their church. Church leaders may feel the need to caution their members against the potential dangers associated with a certain Christian movement, however well-meaning it may be. For those responsible for the care of others, whether parents or pastors, such practices make common sense. The question remains, however, whether they are Biblically justifiable. Two principles commonly called Baptist distinctives 1 form the basis for personal and ecclesiastical liberty in this area.
The principle of soul-liberty and the importance of conscience
Soul liberty is the belief that the individual believer’s conscience is not bound in matters of faith by the opinions or dictates of others. Soul liberty is sometimes misunderstood to mean that a Christian has the freedom of conscience to believe whatever he or she wants to believe without consequence. This is not the case. Where the Scriptures are clear, all believers must submit. Neither does soul liberty mean that believers are not to be subject to the rule of legitimate authorities in practical matters. It does mean, however, that a Christian’s conscience is answerable to the Word of God, not the dictates of men. 2
One implication of soul liberty is the fact that we owe respect to one another when we disagree. One responsibility that comes with soul liberty is that believers must seek to live according to their convictions. 3 Paul makes this point very clear in his discussion of dietary restrictions and special holy days (Rom. 14). Since the Old Testament dietary restrictions no longer applied to the believer, the brother who retained compunctions about such things was “weak” in the faith in that he lacked a mature understanding of New Testament theology. Nevertheless, in the case where the brother is incorrect in his assessment, Paul insists that he not be pressured into violating his conscience, because to do so would be sin. 4 If conscience is so important even when it is not fully informed, how much more should it be respected when based upon an arguably valid ethical or prudential concern? 5
Related to the concept of soul liberty is the Baptist distinctive that a local church is a voluntary association of regenerated persons. Although a believer has a spiritual obligation to join himself to a local assembly, he is not assigned to one as in a parish system. He, therefore, has the liberty to make this choice based on his conscience and the degree of accord between the ministry in question and his sincere Biblical convictions.
What is true of individual Christians is also true, in varying degrees, of those who are in authority over others. Parents, pastors, and Christian school administrators have an obligation not simply to enforce explicit Biblical commands but also to practice Biblical wisdom when it comes to those under their charge. This authority varies according to the relationship between the persons involved. Pastors are not parents of their members. Neither do they have the right to bind the consciences of those under their authority apart from clear Biblical precept. Nevertheless their shepherding responsibility does give them authority in the church. 6
The principle of the autonomy of the local church
A central feature of congregational polity as practiced by Baptists and others is the independence of the local church. The local assembly retains the right and responsibility to manage its own affairs free from the control of any other ecclesiastical body. Local churches may cooperate in various ways to advance the Kingdom. However, each church is free to participate or not as it understands its responsibility to the Lord. 7 Churches must decide what missionaries to support, what activities to become involved in, and what colleges to recommend to their young people. In some cases these decisions are mandated by Bible precept. In other cases they are matters of prudence. In such cases the church can and should make distinctions based on its understanding of Scripture and its sense of its mission and convictions.
The Fundamental Difference between Separation and Limited Participation
This article is neither a defense nor a comprehensive explanation of the doctrine of separation from a professing believer. Nevertheless, one must observe some basic tenets of the Bible’s teaching on that subject to distinguish it from prudential limits on association.
Several Bible passages form the foundation for the practice of separation from a fellow believer. This article will assume a basic familiarity with the passage and will also assume without argument that the texts genuinely teach the requirement to separate from a fellow believer in appropriate circumstances. 8 The passages in question are Matthew 18:15-20, 1 Corinthians 5, 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15, and Titus 3:8-11. These passages embody several central principles concerning separation from a disobedient Christian—principles which stand in stark contrast with the concept of limited participation.
Separation demands a clear Scriptural justification
The first pertinent characteristic of these passages is that they all require a clear Biblical basis for separation. In each case there is clear, Biblically-defined wrongdoing on the part of the offender. In Matthew 18 Christ says that if a brother sins we are obliged to go to him privately to try to resolve the matter. The process of taking one or two witnesses, bringing the matter before the church, and finally expelling the offending brother also implies that the sinfulness of the brother’s action is not in doubt. In 1 Corinthians 5:11 Paul commands the church not to keep company with a professing Christian who is “a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner.” The behaviors listed here are violations of clear Biblical norms for Christian living. Second Thessalonians 3:6 commands us to withdraw ourselves from every brother who “walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received” from Paul. It also mandates that we refuse to keep company with those who do not live in accordance with Paul’s word in the epistle (v. 14).
Another important passage in this regard is Titus 3:8-11, in which Paul instructs Titus to constantly affirm teaching that promotes good works on the part of the believers. By contrast he is to avoid “foolish questions, and genealogies, and contentions, and strivings about the law.” In this context Titus is further to reject a “heretick” after warning him once or twice. In this context, the term “heretic” appears to refer to someone who contentiously causes divisions over pet doctrines and interpretations. 9 For present purposes, whatever the particular problem, Paul affirms that the basis for withdrawing from such a person is our knowledge that he “is subverted” and is sinning (vv. 11-14).
These passages, as well as the overall teaching of the authority and sufficiency of Scripture, mean that we may separate from a brother only if he is doing wrong as determined by the application of clear Biblical statements or principles. Mere disagreement, however sincere, as to the wisdom of a course of action or practice does not justify separation. On the other hand, Christians and churches alike regularly decide for reasons of prudence or conscience to avoid participating in certain activities, supporting certain ministries, or promoting certain emphases. Similarly one may be very uneasy with the direction of another believer or ministry. Many times one cannot say with certainty that such concerns can meet the standard of proof required for Biblical separation. 10
Separation is obligatory
If there are Scriptural grounds for it, then separation is not optional. In each of these passages, the instructions to the believer are given in the form of imperatives. To fail to separate in such cases is itself disobedience to the Word of God. There appear to be variations in the process. In the case of an individual dealing with a sinning brother, he must go to him before proceeding to further steps of discipline, because the passage emphasizes the desire for restoration. In the case of a leader confronted with a contentious, divisive member, he should warn him once or twice before rejecting him. If a professing believer is living openly contrary to the commands of Scripture and Christian purity, then the church is to withdraw fellowship from him and put him out. In all cases, however, the responsibility to separate in appropriate cases is not left to preference or opinion. Separation from a Christian brother in case of clear, willful, and persistent disobedience is not optional; it is mandatory.
By contrast the decision to participate or not to participate in something that makes me uncomfortable is an individual decision. Two brothers or two churches might come to different conclusions about the matter.
Separation aims to bring the wrongdoer to repentance
Given that a brother or sister is in clear violation of God’s Word, the most loving thing that we can do is to work for his or her restoration. Restoration in such cases demands repentance. Therefore, both our words and our actions must communicate, however kindly, “You are in sin, and you must repent.” There is no room to “agree to disagree” or simply to avoid talking about an unpleasant situation. Restoration is at the center of Christ’s instructions in Matthew 18 (“thou hast gained thy brother”). Paul also makes it clear that the result of the withdrawal of fellowship is that the erring brother should “be ashamed” (2 Thess. 3:14) and presumably repent. In 2 Corinthians 2:1-11, Paul instructs the church regarding restoring a repentant brother who had been disciplined by the congregation.
By contrast, in cases that are not Biblically definite one might find a brother’s course of action unwise and admonish him to that effect. Nevertheless, such cases do not warrant an insistence that the brother repent. One might say or think, “I think you are going down a wrong road, and I cannot in good conscience go with you. Nevertheless, we all have to give an account to the Lord Jesus, and I pray that He will guide you in His will.”
Separation is public
In at least some cases, the process of discipline begins in private, and the circle of exposure expands only insofar as necessary to bring about the desired repentance. Nevertheless, if the brother is stubborn, then the command is to tell it to the church, with expulsion as the next step. Once the matter has come to the point of separation, the entire congregation knows about. It is, at least as far as the Christian community is concerned, a public matter. A response that allows brethren to simply part ways while keeping the reason for the breach personal is inconsistent with the purposes of separation—the restoration of the believer through group admonition and the protection of the public testimony of the assembly.
Separation involves significant disassociation
Although there may be some variation in the degree to which we avoid a person from whom we separate, it is clear that the break that we must make is very significant. It involves treating him “as an heathen man and a publican” (Matt. 18:17); “put[ting] away” the person (1 Cor. 5:13); not eating with him (1 Cor. 5:11); rejecting him (Titus 3:10); and refusing to keep company with him (2 Thess. 3:6).
By contrast, the decision not to participate in an activity or not to join an association, for example, is limited in scope. It does not prevent personal fellowship or mutual encouragement. Neither does it necessarily imply that believers or ministries who disagree about certain things cannot participate together in other areas. One is certainly not entitled in these cases to treat the brother with whom one disagrees as an unbeliever or even to insist he is disobedient. In fact, one may need to take pains to indicate that, while there is a strong disagreement, there is still mutual esteem as fellow servants of Jesus Christ.
The above distinctions show that the kind of limited participation being discussed in this article is not simply different in degree, but it is also different in kind from Biblical separation. Separation from a disobedient brother must be based on clear Biblical commands or principles, is mandatory, is public, is significant, and is designed to bring about repentance. On the other hand, nonparticipation arises from personal convictions or conscience, is based on prudence, may be limited in scope and public exposure, and often allows the disagreement to remain.
Examples of Nonparticipation
Two examples, one Biblical, and one historical, help illustrate the principles being discussed. Luke records that Paul and Barnabas had a serious falling out over John Mark. Although there are various views on who was right in the underlying dispute, I believe that both Barnabas and Paul had a point. John Mark should have been accorded a chance at rehabilitation in the missionary task. Later on, Paul states that John Mark had become useful to him in the ministry—this not to mention John Mark’s authorship of the second Gospel. On the other hand, the journey that Paul had planned probably was too demanding for the young man. What would have happened to John Mark if he had abandoned the work a second time? Moreover, the Lord led Paul to Timothy, a man perfectly suited to be his protégé. In any case, Paul and Barnabas’s pointed disagreement as to ministry philosophy and practice led them to go in separate directions. Although it does not serve the Spirit’s purpose for Luke to settle the disagreement, the result was the advancement of the gospel through the formation of two mission teams in place of one.
Church history also supplies an example in the case of Adoniram Judson. Commissioned as a Congregational missionary, Judson came to the Baptist position on believer’s baptism while studying the Scriptures on his sea voyage to the field. Being a man of integrity, he wrote the Congregational mission board to offer his resignation and sought the sponsorship of the Baptist agency. Judson was no “hyper-separatist”; however, he understood that his Congregationalist supporters had sent him out as a Congregational missionary and had the right to expect that he would in that capacity plant Congregational churches.
Dangers Associated with Limited Participation
There are several dangers involving the misapplication of the principles that we have discussed. The first two come from blurring the line between separation and prudential limits on participation. First, in an attempt to avoid difficult or awkward situations a pastor might decide just to avoid interacting with a sister ministry, when in reality loving confrontation and, if necessary, separation are Biblically mandated. A church might think and affirm that it is practicing Biblical separation when in reality it is simply avoiding the other ministry and not fulfilling its Scriptural duties. A second danger is separating from a brother or ministry without clear Scriptural warrant. Although there may be latitude to limit participation with another ministry due to a good-faith disagreement or matters of wisdom, publicly separating in such cases would be schismatic.
Other dangers arise from a failure to discern correctly when one should limit participation. Parents can be overly protective on the one hand or negligent on the other in regulating the associations of their children. Individuals can be either overly rigid in personal practices at the expense of fellowship with other believers, or they can fail in their responsibility by always going along with the group. Finally, churches, through their leaders, can sometimes be overly scrupulous or nervous about associations while at other times ignoring their responsibility to maintain in good faith their doctrines and practices. In the end, as in other areas of practical theology, decisions must be arrived at through the application of Biblical principles and spiritual discernment.
 With regard to the use of the term convictions in this article, unless the context indicates otherwise the term has the general sense of something of which one is convinced, a sincere belief. Convictions may vary in importance and may be held with different levels of certainty. They are not necessarily something for which one is willing to die. Nevertheless, a conviction is different from a preference, which by definition has no greater moral authority than the will or desires of the one who holds it. As used here, a conviction is the result of a sincere desire and effort on the part of the one holding it to determine what is right, whether or not others come to the same conclusion. Therefore, convictions have moral force for the one who holds them.
 The brother who exercises his liberty should not look down on the one who has a compunction about it, and the brother who refrains should not judge as an evildoer his brother who does not share his compunction (Rom. 14:23).
 For example, Paul gave several circumstances in which a believer should refrain from eating meat offered to idols. It is certainly wrong if it somehow involves the believer in pagan worship (1 Cor. 10:18-22). Similarly one should refrain if it would lead a brother into idolatry (1 Cor. 8).
 Millard Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1985), 1078-79; Kevin T. Bauder, “Baptist Church Cooperation—Part I” “In the Nick of Time, Church History,” SharperIron. http://www.sharperiron.org/2008/05/20/baptist-church-cooperation (not currently available).
 See Fred Moritz, Be Ye Holy: A Call to Christian Separation (Greenville, SC: BJU Press, 1994), 71-87; Mark Sidwell, The Dividing Line: Understanding and Applying Biblical Separation (Greenville, SC, Bob Jones University Press, 1998), 55-68; Ernest Pickering, Biblical Separation: The Struggle for a Pure Church (Schaumburg, Ill.: Regular Baptist Press, 1979), 217-24.
 This fact does not imply, however, that these decisions are arbitrary or based on mere personal preference. Rather they rest upon one’s understanding and application of Biblical principle and the exercise of God-given wisdom. By way of analogy, a criminal defendant must be found guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt,” whereas a civil lawsuit over the same alleged wrongdoing need only be “proven by a preponderance of the evidence.”
Dr. David Shumate (JD Harvard, PhD BJU) taught in the school of religion at BJU for eight years. He currently serves as general director of MGM International (formerly Mexican Gospel Mission) in Phoenix, Arizona. He and his wife, Linda, have six children.