In 2014 the American Council of Christian Churches published The Bible Doctrine of Separation: A White Paper of the American Council of Christian Churches. A “white paper” seeks to give clear information about a specific matter for correct understanding. It is our hope that this publication will accordingly help you with regard to the doctrine of separation. Over the next four weeks this white paper will be posted here. If you would like a hard copy please go to our store page for ordering information.
The Bible Doctrine of Separation
“What are your separatist convictions, and how do they regulate your ministry?” Have you thought about that question? Many in ministry today have not. This condition of the church, of course, is part of the legacy of New Evangelicalism, which repudiated the Bible doctrine of separation generations ago. Harold Ockenga’s news release of December 8, 1957 was very clear: “The New Evangelicalism has changed its strategy from one of separation to one of infiltration.”1 It is not surprising that many raised in the legacy of that movement have little understanding today of the Bible doctrine of separation.
This history notwithstanding, whether our generation of fundamentalists will continue to pass on to the generations that follow us a clear articulation of our separatist convictions and of the ways those convictions regulate our ministries remains an open question. Troubling anecdotal evidence at times indicates that the answer may be that we will not. Perhaps now more than ever, fundamentalists need to renew their appreciation for the theological importance, scriptural content, and principled application of the Bible doctrine of separation.
The Theological Importance of the Doctrine of Separation
The theological importance of the doctrine of separation stood at the center of the controversy between new evangelicalism and its fundamentalist heritage. New evangelicals argued that this doctrine was biblical but peripheral. George Marsden explains, “New evangelical reformers thus did not repudiate all separatism. On the other hand, they did reject making separatism a high principle. This was a fine distinction, however, exceedingly difficult to maintain consistently.”2
All Bible doctrines are equally authoritative because they are equally inspired (2 Tim. 3:16), but the Bible indicates that they are not all equal in terms of appropriate emphasis. The Bible emphasizes some doctrines more than others, and this emphasis is positively correlated with both the doctrine’s perspicuity and its consequence. This greater emphasis, perspicuity, and consequence characterize a category of doctrines that the Lord Jesus called, “the weightier matters of the Law,” doctrines like judgment, mercy, and faith (Matt. 23:23). Doctrines like these are the great theological themes of Scripture, and the size difference of the frequency, clarity, and consequence they possess in the written revelation when compared to doctrines of lesser weight parallels the size difference between a camel and a gnat (v. 24).
Therefore, understanding the theological importance of the Bible doctrine of separation requires correctly discerning whether this doctrine is a camel or a gnat, whether it has more to do with categories like judgment, mercy, and faith or with categories similar to the need to tithe spices under the theocracy of Israel. Two considerations indicate that the Bible doctrine of separation is one of the great camels of God’s revelation: (1) separation stands at the center of major theological themes: the holiness of God’s nature, the sanctification miracle of God’s work of salvation, and the pilgrimage of the believer in a hostile world; and (2) a common consequence of the neglect of separation over time is often the denial of the faith, because separation is a watershed doctrine between truth and error.
Our Holy God’s Expectation for His People
Separation is part of the holy God of the Bible’s expectation for His people. For this reason, only a holy sacrifice could atone for their sins. When describing the holiness of Christ, which qualified Him to be a blameless sacrifice for our sins, the author of Hebrews mentions separation as a critical component of this holiness: “For such an high priest became us, who is holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, and made higher than the heavens” (Heb. 7:26). Had Christ not been separate from sinners in an important sense, He would have lacked the holiness that qualified Him to be a blameless sacrifice.
The Old Testament foreshadowed this requirement of God’s holy nature in the separatist practices of its ceremonial law. This law required the Nazirite to separate from certain objects and practices (Num. 6:18), the Levites to remain distinct from the rest of Israel (Num. 8:14-19), Israelite families to eat clean food rather than unclean food (Lev. 20:22-26), the expulsion of lepers from the camp (Lev. 13:45-46), and many other separatist practices, which were designed to put a ceremonial difference between the clean and the unclean, in order to teach God’s people that He is holy and that holiness requires separation from common things that can corrupt and spoil holiness.
The apostle Paul relies on similar Old Testament separatist themes in the era of the New Testament local church in order to argue for the importance of separation to perfecting holiness in the fear of the Lord (2 Cor. 6:14-7:1). He treats them as contrasts of biblical theology, such as righteousness vs. lawlessness (Ps. 45:7, LXX), light vs. darkness (Gen. 1:4), Messiah vs. Belial (2 Sam. 23:16), and God’s temple vs. idols (Jer. 7:8-11). New Testament believers must present their bodies as a living sacrifice and affirm as they do so that only a holy sacrifice is acceptable to God. This holiness requires nonconformity to this world (Rom. 12:2). New Testament believers want to be nonconformist separatists, because they want to be holy, and they want to be holy, because our God is holy (1 Pet. 1:13-16).
Salvation Out of Darkness, Into His Light
Second, separation is part of what happens to the sinner who is called “out of darkness, into His marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9). As the objects of God’s saving grace, believers are not only washed and justified, but also sanctified in the name of the Lord Jesus and in the Spirit of our God (1 Cor. 6:11). This union with Christ makes us part of the Bride of the Lamb (Rev. 21:2), and so the nature of our salvation through the atonement of Christ is analogous to marriage. Marriage is simultaneously the greatest act of union and the greatest commitment to separation known to man. What makes marriage a profound union is the commitment each spouse makes to separate from all others. Our English word consecration captures this idea especially well in the Old Testament ritual surrounding the firstborn of Israel (Exod. 13:2). This indicates that consecration is equally important for the relationship between today’s church of the firstborn ones and their God (Heb. 12:23).
The Believer’s Pilgrimage in This World
Third, separation defines the nature of a believer’s pilgrimage in this world. He finds himself a foreigner in a strange land, having obtained citizenship in a kingdom that is not yet of this world (John 18:36, Rev. 11:15, Heb. 11:13, 1 Pet. 2:11). Although we still dwell in the world, we do so as wheat among tares (Matt. 13:24-30, 36-43), as salt with a distinctive taste (Matt. 5:13), and as light that cannot be hidden or camouflaged (Matt. 5:16).
As the domain of Satan, that aspect of the world that stands in rebellion against its Creator is a hostile and dangerous place for the Christian (1 John 5:18-19; Eph. 2:2-3). It tempts him with its idolatry, and he must respond with self-sacrifice (Matt. 4:8-10, 16:24-26); it confuses him with its philosophy, and he must respond with faith in God’s truth (1 Cor. 3:18-21, Col. 2:8); it appeals to the enemies within, pride and lust, and he must love God rather than it (1 John 2:15-17).
The Scriptures command the Christian to separate from the world with a variety of expressions. We must overcome the world (1 John 5:4), speak out against the world (John 7:7), keep clean from its stains (Jam. 1:27), escape it never to return (2 Pet. 2:20-22), die to it (Gal. 6:14), and never conform ourselves to its shapes (Rom. 12:2).
Separation is a Watershed Doctrine
A final consideration indicative of the theological importance of the Bible doctrine of separation concerns its consequential nature as a watershed doctrine. The American Council of Christian Churches articulated this truth in a recent resolution entitled, “Resolution on the Doctrine of Separation and the Spectrum of Evangelicalism.” Here is part of what we said:
“A metaphor for the theological significance of a doctrine over the passing of time, a watershed doctrine is one that marks the line at which inevitable theological deterioration begins once it is crossed by a theological position. The importance of correctly marking the watershed for understanding what has happened to American evangelicalism was pointed out by Francis Schaeffer, a man not remembered today as a fundamentalist separatist, in his aptly titled volume, The Great Evangelical Disaster. While Schaeffer lamented the surrender of biblical inerrancy in that volume, he was closest to correctly discerning the true watershed issue when he wrote, ‘evangelicalism is not consistently evangelical unless there is a line drawn between those who take a full view of Scripture and those who do not.’3
“It is the courageous and faithful application of the convictions of biblical ecclesiastical separation that draws this line. In Schaeffer’s example, failure to draw the line precedes failure to take a full view of Scripture, so it is the failure to draw the line that marks the true watershed point at which inevitable deterioration begins.
“The apostle John explains why this is true: ‘If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed: for he that biddeth him God speed is partaker of his evil deeds’ (2 John 10-11). What John calls bidding God speed, Schaeffer called failure to draw the line. To fail to draw the line is to become a partaker in the evil theological position orthodoxy opposes. In the context of 2 John, it is to deny the doctrine of Christ by association rather than by message. Consequently, the inspired apostle charges both the false teacher and the bidder of Godspeed with participation in the evil deed, denial of the doctrine of Christ. As a result, John’s readers must now bid Godspeed to neither in order to be faithful to his command.”4
Relegating the camel of separation to gnat-like status is a mistake of momentous consequence. Although some today see it as merely an outdated style of ministry, the Bible doctrine of separation carries the weight of weightier matters of the law, like God’s holiness, our sanctification, and our pilgrimage through a hostile world. To neglect this important doctrine is to be on the wrong side of an important theological watershed. Over time, the faith is surrendered where the Bible doctrine of separation is neglected.
1William Ashbrook, The New Neutralism (Columbus, OH: Calvary Bible Church, 1970), p. 4. Dr. Harold Ockenga was the pastor of Park Street Church in Boston, the first president of Fuller Theological Seminary, and the first president of the National Association of Evangelicals. Church historians remember him as the “Father of New Evangelicalism,” and the one who coined the term in his 1947 inaugural address at Fuller Seminary. Faced with political pressure from his own Presbyterian denomination, Ockenga made clear in that address that “we do not believe and we repudiate the ‘comeoutism’ movement.” Critical of the separatism of his former friend, Carl McIntire, the founder of the ACCC, Ockenga said, “Now there are those who exist in the world simply it seems to attack others, and to derogate others, and to drag them down, and to besmirch them. Our men will have no time for that kind of negativism.” See George M. Marsden, Reforming Fundamentalism: Fuller Seminary and the New Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), pp. 64-65.
2Marsden, p. 7. The observations of Marsden notwithstanding, new evangelical leaders did repudiate forcibly Biblical separatism early in their movement.
3Francis A. Schaeffer, The Great Evangelical Disaster (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1984), p. 51 (emphasis original). In that volume Schaeffer laments the surrender of Biblical inerrancy from within the camp of new evangelicalism, which occasioned Harold Lindsell’s book, The Battle for the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976). Harold Ockenga wrote the foreword to that publication, where he remembered the movement he founded as “a ringing call for a repudiation of separatism and the summons to social involvement” before admitting, “because no individual carried the banner for the new evangelicalism and no one developed a theology or a definitive position, many younger evangelicals joined the movement and claimed the name, but did not confess the doctrinal position of orthodoxy” (pp. 11-12). Schaeffer’s work was the first of what has become a proliferation of laments over the legacy of new evangelicalism from within the movement. David Wells, a professor of theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, founded by Billy Graham and Harold Ockenga, typifies this sad lament: “Today, evangelicalism reverberates with worldliness. . . .it is robbing the church of its ability to take its bearings from God, who is centrally holy.” David F. Wells, God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), p. 55. See Appendix I for a detailed review of this book.
4ACCC resolutions are available here.