This is continues last week’s installment of the ACCC’s The Bible Doctrine of Separation: A White Paper of the American Council of Christian Churches. Please go to our store page for ordering information to order a hard copy.
The Scriptural Content of the Bible Doctrine of Separation
What specifically does the Bible demand from a believer when it teaches the doctrine of ecclesiastical separation? The answers to that question fall into two separate categories of responsibilities: (1) ecclesiastical separation from false teachers; and (2) ecclesiastical separation from disobedient brothers.
Ecclesiastical Separation from False Teachers
The last section mentioned Paul’s general emphasis on the need for separation when it comes to perfecting holiness in the fear of the Lord according to 2 Cor. 6:14-7:1. He comes back to this theme in chapter 11, where he expresses grave concern over a specific danger he calls false apostles (2 Cor. 11:13). In Ephesus Paul described these religious leaders as grievous wolves (Acts 20:29), and in the book of Philippians, he calls them dogs and the concision or mutilation (Phil. 3:2). An impassioned Paul commands that men like these among the Galatian churches be accursed (Gal. 1:8-9). Clearly, the Pauline doctrine of ecclesiastical separation from false teachers is not an academic concern calling for casual dialogue, but rather it is a militant disdain for a satanic influence very destructive to the people of God (2 Cor. 11:14-15). We do not believe this doctrine well enough until we feel this Pauline passion for it. This passion must be a part of a pastor’s jealous love for the people of God (2 Cor. 11:2).
Much discussion has surfaced recently among fundamentalists regarding how it is that people of God recognize a false teacher when they see one. This is an important question, because Paul makes clear that false apostles disguise themselves as true apostles in much the same way that Satan disguises himself as an angel of light (2 Cor. 11:13-15). It is the persistent goal of unorthodox heretics to wear the mantle of orthodox Christianity (v. 12). They are wolves in sheep’s clothing (Matt. 7:15). So how do we distinguish a false Christian leader from a true one?
Some have emphasized the gospel as the touchstone of orthodoxy.5 One author used this emphasis in a recent defense of fundamentalism, “The thing that is held in common by all Christians—the thing that constitutes the church as one church—is the gospel itself.” None would deny the importance of the gospel to this question, but the gospel is only one-third of the concerns raised by the apostle Paul in Corinth: “For if he that cometh preacheth another Jesus, whom we have not preached, or if ye receive another spirit, which ye have not received, or another gospel, which ye have not accepted, ye might well bear with him” (2 Cor. 11:4).
So where many fundamentalists today are focused on a single category of theology, soteriology, the apostle Paul was focused on at least three: Christology, revelation, and soteriology. Consequently, the gospel-centric approach to ecclesiastical separation is an inadequate summary of the Bible doctrine. Paul’s categories were first those of his Lord, who had exposed the false teaching of the Pharisees and scribes of His own day. Christ condemned them for rejecting the truth about Himself, hetero-Christology (Matt. 22:41-46); He condemned them for making God’s Word void with their traditions, hetero-revelation (Matt. 15:9); and He condemned them for teaching a gospel that sent people to hell, hetero-soteriology (Matt. 23:13-15).
Those who have made the gospel the center of attention often articulate the importance of the other two categories of theology to the gospel.6 Yet the indirectness of this approach has one practical consequence that seems to be especially problematic today (though others, like the importance of scriptural inerrancy or the historicity of the early chapters of Genesis, could be mentioned), namely, the lack of discernment it seems to promote among fundamentalists when it comes to separation from the Charismatic movement.
The apostle Paul treats “another spirit” in the Corinthian context as though it were a danger equal to “another Jesus” and “another gospel.” Not all who claim the heritage of fundamentalism do the same today. Some who promote miraculous sign gifts are popular leaders in what are labeled “gospel” causes, organizations, and movements that have been attractive to fundamentalist brothers. Are we forgetting our Lord’s admonition, “For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall show great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect” (Matt. 24:24)?7
The Bible doctrine of separation teaches that religious leaders who promote false doctrines about Christ, false doctrines about revelation, and false doctrines about the simple gospel are false apostles from whom we must separate.
Ecclesiastical Separation from Disobedient Brothers
Unity and sanctity are the rules of Christian experience within the boundaries of the orthodoxy mentioned above (Eph. 2:21). Jesus made two requests of the Father in His high-priestly prayer for His people: (1) unity (John 17:11), and (2) sanctity (v. 17). Just as the marriage relationship simultaneously constitutes the most profound commitment to unity and to separation known to a couple, so also the relationship believers enjoy in union with Christ constitutes a profound reality of unity dependent upon a faithful commitment to separation. Union with Christ and His people is an act of consecration. Where the commitment to separation fails, the force of unity weakens.
Two forms of this breakdown are mentioned in the New Testament, one involving an otherwise orthodox church member whose immorality fails to live up to his profession of saving faith (Matt. 18:15-20, 1 Cor. 5:9-13, 2 Thess. 3:6), and another involving an otherwise orthodox church leader whose teachings or disobedience create divisions within the body of Christ (Acts 20:30, Rom. 16:17-18, 2 John 11). It is important not to confuse these challenges, for they call for somewhat different responses, but it is also important to appreciate what they have in common. In both cases a failed commitment to the sanctity or purity of the church damages its unity.8
Concern for the purity of the church expresses itself in two distinct ways, depending upon which challenge mentioned above threatens the testimony of Christ. In the first case, the immoral church member, local church discipline is the correct response. This church decision first admonishes in a brotherly way in order to encourage restoration (2 Thess. 3:15). Ultimately, in cases where repentance never comes, the so-called brother’s profession must be disbelieved and the immoral man must be expelled from membership and treated like other unbelievers (Matt. 18:17). This is an important responsibility related to the purity of the church, but it is not what this article refers to when it calls for ecclesiastical separation from disobedient brothers.
Instead, the responsibility in view here bears greater resemblance to the responsibilities of faithful church leaders in response to false teachers. Just like a pastor must guard the flock of God from grievous wolves attacking from without, so also must he watch for perverse betrayals rising up from within (Acts 20:29-30). These betrayals come in the form of good words and fair speeches that cause division through disobedience (Rom. 16:17-19), and the officially sanctioned disobedience is often an act of association in violation of the Bible’s command to separate from false teachers (2 John 7-11).
John tells us that those who bid false teachers Godspeed are partakers in their evil deeds (v. 11). This means that it is possible to deny the doctrine of Christ by giving Christian recognition to someone who denies the doctrine of Christ. This is new evangelicalism, and it is a spirit of disobedience that has divided the body of Christ for generations, just as it divided Jehoshaphat and Micaiah in the days of the king’s compromise with Ahab (2 Chron. 19:2). As with false teachers, those who participate in the evil deeds of false teachers through their ministry associations must be people we mark and avoid in view of the division they have caused. The prophet Haggai was correct when he warned that uncleanness spreads through association in a way that cleanness cannot (Hag. 2:10-14).
From the beginning of the new evangelical vs. fundamentalist controversy, the new evangelical has objected to the practicality of this responsibility by labeling the practice secondary or tertiary separation.9 The question is often asked, “Do you separate from the one who fellowships with the one who fellowships with the one who fellowships with the apostate?” Clearly, this question has little to do with the letter or spirit of the Bible doctrine of separation. Instead, what the doctrine calls for in the heart of the man of God is a Pauline passion for the protection of God’s people from false teachers and a willingness to feel the same way about otherwise orthodox men who lack that passion when they become partakers in those evil deeds. Paul had an answer from his heart to the question, “What are your separatist convictions and how do they regulate your ministry?” This is the question we must ask ourselves and others, and we must be satisfied only with an answer from the heart that faithfully articulates a commitment to ecclesiastical separation from false teachers and ecclesiastical separation from brothers with disobedient ministry associations.
Separation and Personal Holiness
It is the nature of young children to imitate their parents. As the children of a holy God, believers are called to lives that imitate the holiness intrinsic to our Heavenly Father’s nature (1 Pet. 1:14-17). As the beneficiaries of His saving grace, we are called out of darkness into His marvelous light, and then we are called to walk in that light as He is in the light (1 John 1:7). The world is not our home, and we must guard our lives, families, and churches from its dangerous spiritual influence (1 John 2:15-17).
Imitating the holiness of our Father, walking in His light, and resisting the influence of the world require standards of personal holiness in the life of the believer that involve separatist convictions. Because the believer’s thought life is an important part of personal holiness, standards of separation in regard to entertainment choices are necessary (Ps. 1:2; Phil. 4:8). Choices of music, television viewing, entertainment venues, holiday celebrations, and recreational food and drink should reflect the believer’s constant delight in the principles of God’s law and his commitment to a thought-life that meditates on what is pure, lovely, of good report, virtuous, praiseworthy, and temperate.
Because the way the believer communicates to others is an important part of personal holiness, godly standards that regulate the messages he conveys to others are necessary (Eph. 4:29). The courtesy of the believer’s speech, the modesty of the his dress, the length of his hair, his cleanliness and orderliness, and the appropriateness of his appearance for a given occasion must all speak a message that gives grace to those who hear and see these parts of his life.
Finally, because the believer is called to nurture the covenantal relationships of family, church, and citizenship as a part of personal holiness, he must be careful about his associations. Paul counseled Corinthian believers to eat no meat they knew to be sacrificed to idols because they were a brotherhood of believers who were called to flee idolatry and care for one another’s conscience (1 Cor. 8:13, 10:14, 28). The problem with the meat in this context was one of associations—it was identified with idolatry. The believer’s use of social media, the place he sends his kids to school, his involvement in political parties, his membership in societies, and his selection of his closest friends must be regulated by a desire to strengthen God-ordained covenantal relationships, not weaken them. These are the ties that bind us as families, as churches, and as dutiful productive citizens. In whatever the believer does, he must disassociate from anything that would fail to bring glory to God or be unbecoming of the gospel of Christ (1 Cor. 10:31; Phil. 1:27).
5Kevin T. Bauder, et al., eds., Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), p. 23.
6Ibid., p. 31. The author addresses his concerns over Biblical authority as it relates to Roman Catholicism while relating this problem to that religion’s false gospel.
7For a fuller treatment of this topic, see Appendix II for the 2012 ACCC resolution titled, “Resolution on the Theological Danger of Non-cessationism.”
8Note that some fundamentalists have advocated choosing the unity of the church over the purity of the church as “the primary motive of fundamentalism” (Bauder et al., p. 21). This proposal, however, fails to appreciate the nature of the relationship between purity and unity. Unity depends upon purity. Therefore, purity comes before unity as primary in the responsibility of fundamentalism. David Beale explains, “While Fundamentalism has always embraced and defended the cardinal doctrines of traditional Christianity, the movement has been characterized by an emphasis on the doctrine and practice of holiness, a full-orbed holiness that includes both personal and ecclesiastical aspects.” In Pursuit of Purity: American Fundamentalism Since 1850 (Greenville, SC: Unusual Publications, 1986), p. 6.
9William Ashbrook says in response to this line of reasoning, “This ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ separation line is just another semantic invention of the New Neutralism. Paul put no such tags on his words when he said: ‘Touch not the unclean thing,’ 2 Cor. 6:17, and John evidently had not heard of such distinctions when he wrote 2 John 9-11 . . . note carefully his concluding words: ‘For he that biddeth him God speed is partaker of his evil deeds.’ Now there is an old axiom in mathematics which says that things equal to the same thing are equal to each other” (p. 27).