From Voice, Mar/Apr 2014. Used by permission.
Would you rather deal with woodpeckers or termites? The woodpecker’s color and noise demand your attention. You know he is there. But in contrast, by the time you notice termites, it’s already too late: your house is crumbling around you.
Yes, I would definitely rather have woodpeckers.
The Bible identifies some woodpeckers but gives them the name of “apostate.” This is an unbeliever who makes a lot of theological noise that is easily identified as false doctrine. You can’t miss him. You know he is there. But while the apostate can harm the church, the bigger threat is a heretic. Like a termite, he works within the church to bring division. He often goes unnoticed until it’s too late.
Before we go much further, we need to define those two biblical words. That is the key to understanding this issue.
Apostasy is a word that literally means a “standing away from, a defection.” In classical Greek it was used regarding soldiers revolting against their commanding officer. In other words, they did not accept his authority or command. The word is used twice in the New Testament. First in Acts 21:21 where Paul is accused of leading Jews away from Moses. The second use is in 2 Thessalonians 2:3 which refers to a condition of revolt against God before the Second Coming. There are illustrations of apostasy in Ezekiel 28:11-19 as Satan revolted against God. Also 1 Timothy 1:19-20 and 2 Peter 2:20-21 deal with the issue. Therefore, when we speak of apostasy we are referring to an individual who has deliberately rebelled against God’s authority and truth.
Heresy is a word that means “to make a choice, a schismatic.” A classic illustration of this was found in the Corinthian church where they had divided up into different groups. In that instance it was a personality issue, but heresy can also relate to doctrinal differences (2 Peter 2:1). A heretic is someone who works from within a church to divide it over some issue.
It seems to me that the biggest danger to the church is not the outright liberal apostate who attacks the cardinal doctrines of the faith. The biggest danger to the church is the heretic who subtly nibbles around the edges and quietly destroys from within. That means our greatest vigilance should be focused on termites, not woodpeckers. It’s a simple matter to identify the apostates, but the greater challenge is finding the termites.
These verses ring strange in our ears because we do not see things as God sees them. Our lack of understanding does not erase them from Scripture. We can perhaps understand some of God’s reasons for believers separating from other believers:
- To maintain church purity
- To restore the erring brother by showing him the seriousness of heresy
- To maintain a clear testimony of truth in a world of theological confusion
- To prevent apostasy from prevailing (termites attract woodpeckers)
Separation is not a recent doctrine originated by a few militant Fundamentalists in 1930. It has been practiced throughout church history. C. H. Spurgeon is one example. In 1887 he withdrew from The Baptist Union in England because of false doctrine being propagated by fellow believers. This prince of preachers understood the need to keep the church pure even though it cost him dearly.
Spurgeon preached a message at the Metropolitan Tabernacle on Sunday morning, June 14, 1868 entitled “Daniel’s Undaunted Courage” in which he stated:
That argument I have heard hundreds of times when people have been urged to come out of false positions and do the right. But what have you and I to do with maintaining our influence and position at the expense of truth? It is never right to do a little wrong to obtain the greatest possible good. Your duty is to do right, consequences are with God, and, after all, it never can be, in the long run, a good thing either for you or for others to do wrong.1
Spurgeon later wrote, “Fellowship with known and vital error is participation in sin.”2
Francis Schaeffer was possibly the greatest apologist and Christian philosopher of the Twentieth Century. He founded L’Abri Fellowship in Switzerland, wrote twenty-three books and produced several films that dealt with the subject of Christianity and secular culture. His last book was entitled The Great Evangelical Disaster. In the preface of that book he wrote, “I would say that the statement which I am making in the pages of this book is perhaps the most important statement I have ever written.”3 He summarized in these words:
Truth carries with it confrontation. Truth demands confrontation; loving confrontation but confrontation nevertheless. If our reflex action is always accommodation regardless of the centrality of the truth involved, there is something wrong.4
The doctrine of ecclesiastical separation is one of the distinctives of IFCA International. Yet, the implementation of this truth is often perceived as harsh. One of the challenges of implementing this doctrine is to keep from becoming mean and caustic in our separation. The temptation is to become self-righteous and demeaning. In our attempt to “contend for the faith” we become contentious. This is a doctrine that must be practiced with a tear in our eye and a knot in our stomach. But we must identify the termites.
2 Charles H. Spurgeon, “A Fragment Upon the Down Grade,” The Sword and the Trowel (November 1887).
3 Francis Schaeffer, The Great Evangelical Disaster Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1984), p.13.
4 Schaeffer, The Great Evangelical Disaster, p.64. The article is adapted from chapter one of Paul’s book. [amazon 1483909336]
Paul Seger is General Director of Biblical Ministries Worldwide of Atlanta and President of the Board of Directors of IFCA International. Paul grew up on the mission field of Nigeria, later graduated from Appalachian Bible College and Faith Baptist Bible College then planted churches in South Africa for seventeen years. He blogs at paulseger.com.