The Intentional Ugliness of Separation

eyeLately, 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.

4 I owe Dr. Bruce Comptom for this insight. For a thorough look at the key passages and their relationship to each other, see this Preserving the Truth conference workshop notes on “Church Discipline and Excommunication.”

[node:bio/aaron-blumer body]

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G. N. Barkman's picture


Grateful thanks for the clarity you have given to this difficult subject. It is obvious that you have given this a great deal of thought. Just reading through your post helped me to crystallize some thoughts, and I will be mulling over some additional questions.

Good beginning on a potentially helpful discussion.

Greg Barkman

G. N. Barkman

Aaron Blumer's picture


Still much to think about. Part of what is driving me is that I seem to see an increasing disconnect between separation rhetoric and reality. People talk about "separating" and "failing to separate" and "compromise in the area of separation" in situations where no biblical separation is even relevant, because the issues involved fit squarely in the Romans 14 category, not the Rom.16 or 1 Cor. 5 categories.
Or where virtually no one actually carries out a separation in the biblical sense (intentional, communicated, ugly distance at minimum).

We have some pointing fingers at NIU and Calvary Seminary and Central Seminary, etc., and alleging that they are failing to practice separation properly--but in most cases the finger-pointers are not practicing biblical separation either. They have distance from, and hostility toward, their separation targets but there has never been any actual working fellowship between them and the targets ended by separating. There is quite often not even the opportunity for cooperation that they have rejected by separating, since the biblical model of the latter involves direct communication and active distance after the communication.

I suppose there can be a sort of de facto separation from obvious, public apostates--with no prior closeness or separation process. But even this is not quite like what we read about in Scripture. And there is never de facto separation from a brother in Scripture. The process is required.

So I guess I'm going after two things here:
a. Claiming to be practicing separation toward a disobedient brother when the biblical conditions have not been met (working relationship or opportunity for one, termination of that relationship after communication and some time)
b. Claiming to be practicing separation toward a brother over matters we are not willing to say are certainly sinful or doctrinally essential to the faith.

Case b. is just practical selectivity based on factors we don't see as biblically certain or weighty enough to warrant condemnation. So I emphatically reject paedo baptism, for example, but I do not separate from paedo baptists. That would involve condemning them as disobedient, breaking off my relationship with them and making sure they know I've done it in order to shame them. This is condemnation. Separation is not mere non-fellowship it is personal condemnation.
Some may believe that they should separate from paedo baptists (and some paedo baptists may believe they should separate from credo baptists), but they have not actually done it unless they have condemned them personally and interactively. (I'm just using views on baptism as an example. This isn't about baptism)

Case a. is condemnation without interaction. Separating from a brother we believe is disobedient without interacting with him is every bit as unbiblical as failing to separate from a disobedient brother at all. The same passages teach the separation and the process.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Bob Hayton's picture

Fantastic point, Aaron. I think you're on to something. Can I raise the question of what benefit there is, all of this being the case, for some to point fingers at others and claim they aren't "separatists"? "Separatist" by whose definition? God's or yours?

This is my beef with many fundamentalists. They have certain taboos and certain traditions about associations and fellowship that they misidentify as Biblical separation. Then they censure everyone else who doesn't practice their traditional "separation" ideas and claim they aren't following the Bible. When in fact, non-fundamentalists are often merely not following a parochial application of the Bible. They may very well apply ugly separation in specific cases. But because they run with those fundamentalists don't run with, and they don't agree with the fundamentalists' definition of what Biblical separation is, they are written off and added to the list of people fundamentalists look down their nose at.

The sad thing is, the Bible gets thrown under the bus in this, sometimes, and fundamentalist tradition takes prime place.

Striving for the unity of the faith, for the glory of God ~ Eph. 4:3, 13; Rom. 15:5-7 I blog at Fundamentally Reformed. Follow me on Twitter.

Aaron Blumer's picture


I think a key component is getting a little more clarity on the Rom14 category vs. the two others. The two others are a) Apostates (Rom 16.17 and, by the end, Matt.18... and many other passages) and b) Disobedient brethren who meet the conditions of 2 Thess (distance but still "brother"... and communication etc. in the process).

But Rom14 is neither of these two. The διαλογισμῶν - something like "conflicting opinions" here ("doubtful things" is probably not quite the meaning but I guess it's sort of "doubtful" if everybody's debating it). Whatever fits properly in the Rom14 category cannot be grounds for true separation. No intentional, punitive distance can fit in Rom14.
You have phrases like

  • "let not him... despise..." Rom14.3
  • "let not him... judge" v.3
  • In Rom14.10 showing contempt is forbidden
  • Rom14.13, judging again forbidden

So what kinds of things are in this Rom.14 category? Well, without getting distracted by the historical particulars (not that they are unimportant but there's a larger point here), the characteristics of the category include these:

  • People strongly disagree (Rom14.1 διακρίσεις - to dispute)
  • People strongly disagree believing their position is morally ("biblically") right and the other is wrong (Not merely correct and incorrect. They do not see these things as spiritually or ethically neutral) This is evident in the context. Otherwise why would they "despise," "judge" and "show contempt"?
  • They are matters that involve the conscience (to the point that doubt eliminates the option for you if you are in doubt. E.g., Rom14:14)
  • They are matters that may cause harm to others in some conditions (Rom14.15... and when those conditions exist, the option/liberty is nullified)

In short, the kinds of things in view in Rom.14 are the very kinds of things people tend to mistake for separation issues. But Paul specifically rejects that option in these cases.
(If I'm right about what separation really is, it's quite possible that the Romans had a hyper-separatism problem)

So we have a category here that involves strong beliefs about serious matters of ministry ethics and Christian living and yet we are supposed to refrain from judging one another and doing other things that sound a lot like the separation texts elsewhere.
But we are also not supposed to back down on our own convictions and practice. Elsewhere I've called this the posture of conscience. Maybe not a very effective term, but it is...

  • Not compromise, but also
  • Not separation

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Todd Wood's picture

The eye did it. It drew me to this article, Aaron. That is exactly the eye I feel when someone tries to pressure me to join in "gospel work" with the 95 bishops here in my city area. And this is also my glare to a "brother" who promotes this.

It is a not pretty picture. The emotions are gut-wrenching.

I am keenly sensitive to the board of NAE when they meet in Salt Lake City in a couple of weeks. And I am keenly sensitive to where they are going to stand on the Gospel of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, if they meet with one of the LDS apostles.

TRJones's picture


It seems to me that disagreement about what issues fall properly under Rom. 14 rather than Rom. 16 is at the heart of much separation over separation.

Todd Jones

Aaron Blumer's picture


What I'm absolutely convinced of is that, in reference toward brethren, we need to let go of our "safety-bias" in favor of separation. It's whole 'nother article, but here's the thinking I often encounter:

- failing to separate when we should is a great error
- separating when we should not is unlikely and pretty safe anyway

But Rom14 means we are botching separation just as seriously when we do it wrongly as when we fail to do it in a situation where we should. There is no "safer course" in the whole business, so we can't relax and omit the work of being sure we're doing the right thing.
(So there is safety-bias + laziness. Kind of like driving in a really bad snowstorm: "Well, I'll stay home just to be safe." Applied to separation, "Well, I'll give him and ugly label and introduce some ugly distance just to be safe." Deplorable.)

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

jimfrank's picture

This writer is following a sad example of the kind of "separation" that you wrote about. An Independent Fundamental Baptist website is attacking a successful California Independent Fundamental Baptist church over the ever-contentious issue of Contemporary Christian music.

My first question about this fight concerns the writer: "Who died and made you king?" He is not a pastor and self-publishes his writings. His arrogant and condescending attitude reminds me of the old saying, "I am against all bishops unless I can be one." He throws incindiary terms such as "apostate" and "Satanic" around to the point where they become meaningless. The one that got me, though, is "I must withold my recommendation of this church," as if anyone is looking for his recommendation.

Concerning the use of the music of Contemporary Christian music writers, this is an almost-eternal battle fought inside the Body of Christ. Luther took the familar melody of a beer hall song and set "A Mighty Fortress" to it. He was roundly criticized for this adaptation, though the Catholics of his day criticized Luther for everything he did. Ira Sankey and Dwight Moody published a highly-successful hymnal of their Revival music, and were criticized for that as well. This self-important Fundamentalist writer is simply employing an old tactic, tried and true throughout the centuries.

It is my personal conviction that the newer (ca. 1981) song "Majesty" should not be used in our church. Why? Because Jack Hayford is a tongue-speaking Four Square Pentecostal? Not so much. I disagree with the theology of "Majesty," especially the statement "Majesty, Kingdom authority, Flows from His throne unto His own." I don't want that theological statement used in our church. That is my opinion and you are free to disagree with it. But other churches in town use "Majesty" in their services. Do I separate from them because they're "teaching Pentecostalism"? Indeed, does the term "Kingdom Authority" indicate that Hayford is an "apostate," and the use of his music makes me an apostate? This Independent Fundamental Baptist writer would probably say, "Yes, you endorse Pentecostalism when you use their music. Jack Hayford has departed from 'the faith once delivered.' Use of his music indicates your apostasy as well." If this is the case, then our church is also "apostate" because Hayford helped develop the hymnal we use for our services.

God save us from such madness! Perhaps even this modest post gives the issue too much prominence. It does, however, illiustrate the growing narrowness of some Fundamentalists. Sadly, the Internet gives these writers a voice.

G. N. Barkman's picture


Thanks for a good post. I agree with everything you said. I have one question. Can you document the statement that Luther used a beer hall tune? I've heard that before, but I've also seen it refuted in a couple of times from pretty reliable sources (which I don't have available at the moment). I'm of the opinion that this is one of those cherished myths that proponents of contemporary Christian music use to bolster their position.

Thanks for sharing this real-life example of "separation" gone awry.

Greg Barkman

G. N. Barkman

Aaron Blumer's picture


We run the risk of this turning into a "music debate thread." But it is relevant because so many see music style as a separation issue. But does it better fit Rom 16/1Cor5/Matt18 (apostasy) or 2 Thess (disob. brother), or Rom14 (brother I disagree with but the disagreement is a matter of conscience)?

About Luther's tune, though... every popular song was a beer hall song at the time. Everybody drank beer and sang. It would be just as accurate to say it was a "walking down the street tune." So it's really difficult to make an analogy from it. Our cultures are not parallel.
But, to relink to the topic, it's pretty hard to get apostasy out of tune selection. And pretty hard to get it to fit 2Thess either. I have very, very strong opinions about what sort of music is suitable for worship. But I do not see those who disagree as apostates!
And as sure as I am of my view, I am not sure enough to call theirs disobdience. And even when I see it as disobedience, I'm not persuaded that it is (except in some extreme cases) weighty enough to warrant biblical separation from them.

So I guess when it comes to sep. from disob. brothers, there are a couple of major factors (and overlapping, at least as I have them here)

  1. Is this something Scripture itself defines as disobedience or something I see as disobedience in my application process?
  2. Even if it's disobedience, is it weighty enough to warrant a 2Thess response or initiate a Matt18 response?

    I think we fundamentalists also often lose sight of the fact that there is a broader category of response to error that Jude calls "contending for the faith." It is possible to contend without separating. I think it's possible--in the case of Rom14 issues--to argue passionately for what you believe is right. The text does not say "back down from your position" nor does it say "be silent about your position" or "offer no criticism." Rather, it says don't despise, don't judge, don't show contempt.

    What if all the energy we've spent hurling buzzwords like "Satanic" and the like were devoted to making a thoughtful for case for our understanding of Scripture instead?
    (How many people have been persuaded to change their views about a passage by being called a nasty name? This isn't brain surgery, folks.)

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

G. N. Barkman's picture


Your posts on the topic of separation are excellent.

I remember reading an article several years aso, perhaps in "Modern Reformation," that Luther's tunes were not popular culture tunes at all. As best I remember, this mistake was caused by someone failing to understand a technical musical term. Something like this, "Luther opbtained his tune from this bar." Bar, in this case, referring to a section of music, not to a tavern. A page of music contains several "bars."

I may be totally wacky about this, but it made a strong impression on me at the time. I only wish I had saved the article, or could remember it better. Thus my question about Luther's tunes. Can anyone document that he really used "barroom" tunes, or is this all a myth?

Greg Barkman

G. N. Barkman

jimfrank's picture

Aaron, your point of making this thread a CCM discussion is understood.

I violated my own "rules for research" and went to the Wikipedia article "A Mighty Fortress is Our God." It lists four possibilities of the origin of the melody. None of them are "beer hall tunes." The first time I heard this legend was in the early '90's from Ed Nalle of Glad, whom I respect as a singer, musician, arranger, and producer. Perhaps I thought, "A man that talented should know what he's talking about." Sorry about that. Quoting my older son, I "sit corrected."

The English teacher in me says the origin of A Mighty Fortress would be a great subject for a research paper. I'll give extra credit, especially if you can debunk the myth of the "gasthaus" origin of the tune Wink

However, if I wanted to be a stinker I COULD make A Mighty Fortress an issue of separation. Most people know the Reformation divided the Western church into the Catholics and the Protestants. There was a third group in the Refomation, the Anabapists, whom historians sometimes call "The Left Wing of the Reformation." The term "Anabaptist" means "rebaptizers." Both the Catholics and the Protestants persecuted the Anabaptists, mainly because both groups were Paedo-Baptists. The Brethren that descended from Alexander Mack followed the Anabaptist tradition, though almost two centuries after the Reformation began (1708). Because of persecution within about thirty years most of the Brethren emigrated to America. Separation is built into the "Brethren DNA." This is why the German Baptists still wear the "Amish" clothing and the Old Order German Baptists still ride in buggies (I'm Grace Brethren, by the way).

James Bliss's picture

I hope this is not the wrong thread, but I hear the term 'Separation' off and on from various people, including various discussions on this site. But I have never been able to get a consistent definition of what 'Separation' is and who is covered. I have seen some touching of this question in this thread, but not a consolidation, and also many opinions. I am just looking for some medium level of clarification, not necessarily a specific pointy by point coverage (which is probably impossible).

My brief understanding of this in this thread is that it is isolated to those who profess to be Christians but are not correctly following true Bible doctrine. But, this leaves a lot to be desired in a definition which can be implemented in the real world.

My questions are (the order is not a hierarchy and the letters are only for later reference in this post):
A) Who is covered?
Cool Is it specific churches?
1) Is it all members of the church?
2) if not, is it just the 'spiritual' leaders (or whatever term you want to use - i.e. Pastor), Deacons, Officers, Teachers?
C) Is it specific members of the church attend?
1) Young members?
2) Long standing members?
3) What is the definition between these?
D) What constitutes 'Separation'?
1) Complete non-association?
2) Only association in specific contexts?
3) Public scoffing of their opinions? Here I am asking the degree of verbal approach to them and others about them and the tone of those discussions.
E) What differences of doctrines justifies separation?
1) Only major doctrines? Is there a measure as to what is major and minor?
2) All doctrines?

The reason I am asking is that I have seen people use 'Separation' as a reason to condemn a person as a whole just because there are minor differences of opinions. I have also seen people indicate that association with members of other churches should be avoided (although this is fairly rare).

But, for me, without a more detailed definition of 'Separation' that exists in this discussion thread, I have seen people use it as a sword against people and drive them from Christ when a different approach may have brought them closer to Christ.

Thanks for any input which the members of this forum can provide. Also, I apologize if I have missed this somewhere, but I have tried to keep my eye out for some more detail that just a discussion of 'Separation' being appropriate without further discussion of its implementation in daily life.

Aaron Blumer's picture


On the Luther tune... I'm not sure about "A Mighty Fortress," specifically, but I think it's pretty well documented that he used popular tunes of the day for a number of hymns. Unfortunately, I can't cite a reference. (I need a Research Assistant Smile ) I think it would be accurate to say that several of these tunes were popular everywhere, including the bars.
But it's another topic, really.

On the intentional ugliness of separation. Someone sent me a link to another post in our archives.. and it's quite relevant. I encourage taking a look. It comes from some FBFI support documents, but is closer to what I'm saying here than I'd expect from that neck of the woods. The FBFI is more diverse perhaps than we "outsiders" sometimes think.

Great questions. I can't go through all of them systematically at the moment, but my view on a few of them:

Who is covered: I think we only have the categories I've mentioned in previous posts in this thread. We've got:
a) apostates (Rom16., Jude, Matt18--if it goes to the end of the process, etc.)
b) disobedient brothers that fit in the 2Thess category.

What it is: it is intentional, punitive distance. That is, it's distance introduced into a formerly close working relationship or present opportunity for a close working relationship.

Why I say so...
It looks to me like there is only one place that the term "separate" is used in the NT negatively in ref. to something we do in relation to other people: 2Cor.6:17.
In the context, the targets are associated with "belial" and "darkness" and "the unclean thing." These are apostates, not disobedient brothers.

So we have one reference to "separate" and several references to "have no company with" and "don't eat with" and "don't bid them godspeed" etc. Most of these are in reference to people who make some kind of claim to being in the faith but have proved by their words and/or actions that they are not.

The only clear exception to this is 2 Thess 3, which I quoted in the article above. There we have intentional, punitive distance in reference to a brother who retains the label "brother." So he is not an apostate. But he is still supposed to "be ashamed." He is sinning egregiously and the goal of separating is to bring him to repentance.

So the phenomenon of "separation" in the NT is always...

  1. Distance where there wasn't any before
  2. Intentional ugliness either in the form of labeling (apostate, etc.), or just the distance itself (in the case of believers)

    From there it kind of forks... It's punitive/censorious (a kind of punishment) in all cases, but in reference to believers, we hope to see repentance. In the case of apostates, less so.
    And in the case of apostates it's not clear to me that communication is all that important. In the case of brothers, interaction with the separation target is a vital part of the process.

    What do we separate over?
    The 2Thess. passage indicates that disobedience in a brother can be grounds. In tension with the that passage, we have Romans 14, which indicates differences we are not to separate over. Applying both of these passages inevitably involves some discernment and exercising judgment. There will always be differences of opinion about what offenses are 2Thess3 territory and what differences are really Rom.14 territory.

    Is it personal or church?
    This is a tough one for me. The disobedient brother passages are all very much about believers' relationships to local churches. How do we apply them outside that context? The answer is far from obvious.
    But in the case of apostates, language in Jude and other places suggests that our relationship with these is very categorical. Personal and church. They're just--I don't know how else to take Jude--bad people.

    I feel like I still have a lot of work to re-do personally on this subject so please understand that I'm offering "how I see it so far" here.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

G. N. Barkman's picture


Thank you for indulging us in the Luther's music excursion. Though not directly on point, music, as you noted, is one of the hot separation issues, and Luther's tunes factor signifcantly in many defenses of CCM. I, for one, would like to be sure of the facts, separating (no pun intended) fact from fiction on this issue. It won't change anyone position, but as seekers of truth, we should all be interested in getting this out in the open, and if untrue, giving it a decent buriel.

However, your original post and subsequent posts are immensely helpful to the subject of separation. I'm glad it's being discussed thoughtfully.

Greg Barkman

G. N. Barkman

James Bliss's picture

Thank you Aaron for your response. What you have stated is very helpful and provides some guidance for the approaches which I have taken and should take regarding 'separation' although I have not called or thought of it in that term. Your discussion regarding the tension and what should be done in varying situations is appreciated, as well as your direction to Biblical instructions.

My approach in many of these situations is one of quiet separation, often followed by prayer asking for guidance of what to do, if anything, and guidance to determine if I am correct in my decision or if I am allowing my personal prejudices or viewpoint (read personal opinion) to potentially result in an action which is not correct in the situation. Obvious disobedience (an individual obviously being an apostate or sinner with no desire for repentance) is easy and I will usually discuss it with the person, and then go to the Pastor for further guidance if it is not resolved. But there are areas where I try to step back and seek guidance prior to saying something to the individual, often resulting in nothing being said. To put part of your reply in my words, some of the decisions are based on an objective Biblical basis while others are based on a subjective decision from Biblical guidance The subjective area is where I am most concerned about from a personal standpoint. I am quite capable of convincing myself that rather than being subjective I have an objective foundation for my decision. For this reason I attempt to lean towards conservative decisions with a narrow definition of what I believe is objective and may err on the side of 'caution' by putting a situation in the subjective category when others would firmly place it in the objective category. I also attempt to seek guidance from the Bible and from my Pastor or others in many of these areas, while attempting to avoid 'shopping' for an opinion which justifies my position.

Again, thank you for your response. It definitely begins to fill a gap between the discussion of separation and the circumstances in which the separation should occur and how it should be handled. Also, for me, it begins to define what actual separation is and provides more clarity on when it is appropriate.

Aaron Blumer's picture


...all the lines were thick, bold and black (on a white background), wouldn't it?
But they aren't.

Thanks for the comments, that's encouraging. One of these days I'd love to try to arrange a little meeting of minds and do a round table on the subject... Bauder, Doran, Minnick, Jordan, Davey, some guys from Faith (Ankeny)... and just pick their brains for a while (Somebody from Maranatha, NIU, BJU would be good, too).

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

AllenS's picture

Is there a case where separation occurs before fellowship/work has taken place?

Aaron Blumer's picture


I think I misread your question at first.

Yes, I think that a present opportunity for working relationship is just as good as pre-existing fellowship.
That is, you can separate from a brother following the biblical process if (a) you've had fellowship for a while or (b) you were about to have it. In both cases, intentional punitive distance is possible. In the first, the fellowship is ended. In the second it's rejected.
But I think--in reference to fellow believers--it's pretty hard to fit the biblical pattern unless there is interaction. So interaction happens for both (a) and (b).

With apostates, it doesn't look to me like any interaction is involved. Of course, somebody has to have figured out that the 'target' is an apostate. But this is often public and obvious. The language of Jude and Rom 16 and other passages suggests the readers already had a pretty good idea who the apostles were talking about. No need for a face to face confrontation.

But the brother passages emphasize a process--usually between the sinning brother and the local church.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

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