Lately, some fresh thinking has been going on in the area of biblical separation (especially “ecclesiastical separation”). A much-needed rethinking has begun, and I, for one, am glad to see it.
The rethinking comes with some hazards, though. One is that we’ll only think far enough to unravel some bad ideas and practices of the past then sort of leave the yarn all over the family room floor for some future generation to make into something. Of course, there’s also the danger that, having discovered a flaw or two in the scarf, we’ll unravel well past the flaws and undo the good with the bad—and never quite put it back.
But enough knitting analogies.
One of the matters we need to think further about is what exactly we mean by the term “separation.” To some separatists, separation happens any time we decline to get involved with another leader or another ministry. A few apparently believe this is the case regardless of the reason for not cooperating. Separation is simply the absence of active fellowship.
I argue here that biblical separation is a much weightier act, a punitive and censorious one. Its face is not a petulant sneer but is also not an ambivalent smile given to a neighbor who happens to prefer the other side of the street. The face of biblical separation is a pained and grieving one, even while it is angry and frowning in deep disapproval.
In short, biblical separation is an intentionally ugly posture—beautiful, in the sense that all contending for holiness is beautiful, but ugly in that it’s not at all “nice.” It’s love that doesn’t look a bit like love to the casual (or prejudging) observer.
I’m not arguing here that we need to be uglier about separation. Rather, I’m arguing that biblical separation is inherently ugly and if what we’re doing isn’t ugly, it isn’t really separation. Furthermore, the more punitive we understand separation to be, the more rigorous we must be in determining how and when to exercise it. To change metaphors, we might thoughtlessly shoot a friend with a squirt gun, but we’d better be awfully confident about where we point the howizter.1
Some reasons why
What follows assumes that we ought to go to Scripture and define “separation” according to where we observe distance being intentionally introduced into relationships. I also mostly assume (but somewhat indirectly support) that where relationships among professing believers are concerned, the starting point is a working closeness—or opportunity for that kind of closeness—which the separation terminates or rejects.2
1. Separation assigns ugly labels.
The ugly labels of separation are not epithets like “neo” or “pseudo,” or even “compromising.” Labels like “division-causing, doctrine-distorting, belly-serving liars” would be closer to the mark.
Now I urge you, brethren, note those who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine which you learned, and avoid them. 18 For those who are such do not serve our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly, and by smooth words and flattering speech deceive the hearts of the simple. (Rom. 16:17-18)
The weightiest label, though, is the easiest one to miss. Paul describes these people as having rejected “the doctrine which you learned.” The apostle does not say here “some” of the doctrine, but simply “the doctrine.” They were men who had rejected the faith. Paul doesn’t suggest anywhere that they were fellow Christians.
But the apostle would not need to warn the Romans—and us—about the local atheists’ club. The targets here were rejectors of the faith who, nonetheless, made some sort of claim to it (compare 1 Cor. 5:9-10). Paul instructs us to note them—identify them by careful examination—then reject their claim to the faith. We are to label them false Christians. A perfectly good word is “apostates.”3
Other passages reveal a similar pattern. The sequence in Matthew 18:15-18 ends tragically with the man who was called a “brother” (v.15) being called “a heathen and a tax collector” (v.18). In Jude 12, Jude refers to the false Christians as spilades (stains or spots) and “twice dead,” among other ugly things. He states emphatically that they are headed for Hell like their more ancient predecessors (v.7).
In these passages, separation involves declaring that one who claims, or has claimed, to be a brother is in fact a fraud. This separation does not even resemble passively refraining from cooperation or amiably declining a speaking engagement “because people might think we’re endorsing your views” on some sensitive issue, or “people might think we approve of your practice” in some area of concern.
Whatever that kind of non-fellowship is, it’s not what’s happening in Romans 16, Matthew 18 or Jude. So should we call it “separation”?
2. Separation introduces ugly distance.
An interesting case of separation occurs in 2 Thessalonians 3:14-15.
And if anyone does not obey our word in this epistle, note that person and do not keep company with him, that he may be ashamed. 15 Yet do not count him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother.
Here we have interrupted closeness among believers without an ugly labeling of the offender as an apostate. The text rejects the idea of viewing him in the same way we view those spoken of in Romans 16, Jude and even Matthew 18 (by the end of that process).
Interestingly, the 2 Thessalonians scenario reveals that some time may pass in which the brother is disobedient, but we do not reject him in the sense of Matthew 18:18 or “deliver” him “to Satan” like the sinning ones in the church at Corinth (1 Cor. 5:5).4 Though the distance described in the Thessalonian case resembles that of 1 Corinthians 5:11 (“not to keep company with … not even to eat”), the latter probably refers to conditions at the conclusion of the disciplinary process.
The Thessalonian case has huge implications for our practice of separation. For one, it means that we do not relate to disobedient brethren like flipping a light switch. That is, we do not look at some action he has taken and immediately “separate” by declaring him to be an apostate, or compromiser, or Wiccan, or something.
Nonetheless, 2 Thessalonians teaches us that in at least one situation, a brother who is still viewed as a brother is not fit to hang out with, much less partner with in ministry. “Do not keep company with him.” It’s unlikely that Paul meant to say the Thessalonian offense (refusing to work) is the only one that requires this ugly distance. But let’s table that debate for now. Scripture clearly describes a case where intentional distance is maintained for some period of time in relation to a fellow believer.
And let’s not overlook the ugliness of that distance. This is not a case of “Well, Frank and I disagree about playing chess on Sundays so I guess I won’t invite him to our chess tournament next Sunday.” It’s certainly not a case of “I’ve never really gotten around to inviting Pastor Jones to preach at my church” or “No, our church has never cooperated with First Baptist, 900 miles to our southwest.”
More to the point, the Thessalonian scenario is not a case of “Well, I have convictions about the appropriateness of the music Dr. Bill uses, so I think I’ll decline his request to do a music seminar at our church.” And, finally, it’s not a matter of “I can’t really go speak at Tom’s church because people might think I endorse his relationship with the SBC.”
None of these are the equivalent of the Thessalonian separation because we are not declaring that a brother has certainly sinned and must repent, nor have we communicated to him and others that we are keeping our distance in order “that he may be ashamed.”
Implications for our use of terms
There are difficulties involved in applying the 2 Thessalonians and 1 Corinthians separation processes outside the context of an individual believer’s relationship to a local church. All the same, it’s doubtful that we can find any biblical warrant for referring to passive or quiet non-cooperation as “separation.”
Believers can and should choose not to appear on the same platforms or join in projects with other believers or ministries for many reasons. These range from distance and timing to differences in emphasis, to differences in doctrine and practice. But if the differences in doctrine and practice are not ones we believe constitute apostasy or defiance of clear biblical teaching, our non-cooperation is not (and should not be) punitive and ugly.
Whatever we want to call that kind of non-fellowship, I propose that we not call it separation.
1 For the metaphorically challenged—I’m not talking about any actual violence here.
2 In other words, where there is no working together or opportunity to work together, separation cannot occur. There is no closeness to end by introducing distance.
3 From apostosia, LXX Josh. 22:22, 2 Chron. 29:19. See also 2 Thess. 2:3.