The Biblical doctrine of separation is rooted in the very holiness of God and it is expressed in numerous texts in the Word of God. Peter expressed it in his first epistle, As obedient children, not fashioning yourselves according to the former lusts in your ignorance: but as he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation; because it is written, Be ye holy for I am holy (1 Peter 1:14-16).
It only makes sense that a God who Himself cannot be compromised in His holy character and desires His sons and daughters to fellowship with Him would require that they become more and more like Him. John wrote, That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ. And these things write we unto you, that your joy may be full. This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not the truth (1 John 1:3-6).
The Apostle Paul concluded the great chapter on being unequally yoked together with unbelievers by writing, Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you, and will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty (2 Cor. 6:17-18).
In putting the doctrine of separation in its proper perspective, a few preliminary facts should be noted. First, separation belongs to the believer, not the unbeliever. Sanctification is not a means to salvation. A believer must come to Christ and be justified by grace through faith. It does not help the discussion to disparage separation with scriptural verses that teach salvation by faith and not by works. Second, the doctrine of sanctification (of which separation is a part) is vital for the believer’s spiritual life. There is no power nor Holy Spirit assurance in an unsanctified Christian life. Separation from worldliness is a vital part of sanctification. Third, though a believer is eternally secure in Christ, his eternally secure position in Christ does not negate nor override the possibility of carnality and the loss of reward at the Bema Seat of Christ. The doctrine of separation ought to be of intense interest to any believer who understands that he/she will stand before the Lord and give an account of the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad (2 Cor. 5:10).
The problem of definition and degrees
The purpose of this article is to offer a practical way to apply separation to a believer’s life. I don’t want to be understood, however, as if I’ve made the whole doctrine too simplistic. I believe there are areas of ecclesiastical as well as personal separation (2 Tim. 2:16-21). Good men may disagree as to when a believer ought to leave a church, a movement, or a circle of friends even though there may be unanimous agreement with the fact that it must happen at some point. I believe there are times to separate from nonbelievers (2 Cor. 6:14) and also from believers (2 Thes. 3:6, 14-15). Each man will have to be fully convinced when he has become “unequally yoked” to an unbeliever and also when he must have “no company” with a brother. But the fact is, these concepts are clearly taught in the New Testament Scriptures.
In my lifetime there has been a lot of discussion over whether there is a “secondary” or “second degree” of separation from “every brother that walketh disorderly” (2 Thes. 3:6). I would agree with those who practice separation to this extent but who also object to the unnecessary use of the term “secondary.” When a brother fails to separate himself from unscriptural practices, even from those of another brother, he himself is walking disorderly. The separation is from him as well as from any other disorderliness. “Note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed” (vs 14).
The concept of a threshold
The problem of when and how to separate has been a life-long school of pass and fail. I have, at times, been caustic and rude in my zeal to separate from obvious error and in so being have forfeited any opportunity to “gain my brother.” I have often walked too far with my disorderly brother out of love or respect and have only made the inevitable separation harder, like waiting to pull a bad tooth until the situation has become unbearable. In seeking both to be genuinely humble and biblically right in these difficult situations, I have found a biblical concept that has become more obvious to me as time has gone by.
I call this concept “threshold” separation. This is the simple principle of not crossing the threshold of a room if there is too great a chance that something in that room will be harmful. By shutting the door to the whole room, one may forfeit some things that would have been good, but at the same time eliminate the possibility of harmful things. A little reflection will reveal that we all do or have practiced this at various times in our lives. My children were not allowed to play in the street. A street is actually a great area for children’s play: it’s flat and smooth for little wheels; it is large and almost endless for balls and other projectiles; it even has curbs for boundaries! But a street has an obvious danger to children that overrides all those advantages. It has cars with drivers who are not careful and small children are no match for big cars! A parent’s choice becomes obvious: the street will be off limits to children. The only amazing thing is how we begin to neglect such a sound principle when our children get older.
Some biblical examples
Paul wrote to the Corinthians (not a group of believers given to sanctification), Wherefore, if meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world standeth, lest I make my brother to offend (1 Cor. 8:13). Paul was absolutely willing to close the door to that room if that room contained the possibility of offending a brother. To the Romans he wrote, It is good neither to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor any thing whereby thy brother stumbleth, or is offended, or is made weak (Rom. 14:21).
At the Jerusalem council in Acts 15, the believers decided to place certain actions off-limits to all the churches because of the danger of offense and hindrance to the gospel. That ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication: from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well (Acts 15:29). Fornication was surely prohibited by other biblical statements, but the others may or may not have been in many New Testament contexts. The appeal, however, was to avoid these things completely. The prohibition to idol meat was still being upheld in the Lord’s letters to the seven churches in 95 AD (Rev. 2:14, 20).
In 1 Corinthians 10:27-33 Paul advises believers that if a lost person notifies you that the meat you are eating is idol meat (and the man is proud of it, too!), then quit eating the meat altogether. Use it rather as an opportunity to bring conviction to the lost man once he sees your biblical conviction.
Paul used the threshold principle in refusing to take John Mark on his second missionary journey (Acts 15:36-41). Barnabas was of the opinion that more good than bad could come of Mark’s presence, but Paul would not take the chance of one mistake ruining the whole journey. Therefore he refused to take Mark at all.
Church discipline itself utilizes the concept of threshold separation. The last step that the Lord gave (Matt. 18:17) is to exclude the brother completely and treat him as you would an unsaved man. In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul commands the church to do this with the fornicator. This step, regardless of how severe it may seem, must be taken when other admonitions have failed. They were not to pick and choose how he may intermingle with the church but rather to close the door completely to fellowship.
The biblical admonition to believers not to marry non-believers is an obvious use of this principle. Paul’s clear instruction (1 Cor. 7:39, 2 Cor. 6:14) eliminates any possibility of a believer agreeing to marry a known unbeliever. Only a blanket prohibition could possibly work in this matter.
John’s prohibition to believer’s ever bidding a false prophet “God speed” (2 John 10) is a blanket policy due to the obvious result: you would become a “partaker” (koinonei, a fellowshiper, a sharer) in all of his evil deeds. One cannot take a chance with such fellowship by trying to discern before each declaration.
First, there is the obvious advantage of safety. When that room contains dangerous things, I know I will not be harmed by them if I never enter the room. Second, it avoids failing to discern questionable things. John said “try the spirits” not “try out the spirits.” For young or immature believers this is necessary at least for certain periods of time. Third, we cannot serve two masters. The more we love the one, the more we hate the other. We are commanded NOT to love the world for this very reason. If that room will not bring me closer to God, I don’t want to be in there. Fourth, I brought nothing into this world and I will take nothing out. Godly contentment will not miss whatever else is in that room! I am waiting anxiously to leave this “worldly” existence altogether. Why should leaving some of it now cause me any regret?
Until recently Christians agreed that abstaining from substances that cause us bodily harm is wise. I have never smoked, drunk alcoholic beverages, or used addictive drugs. I can’t imagine a scenario where it would have been any advantage to me as a husband, father or pastor to practice these. Yet smoking and “social” drinking are coming into Christian circles now in a large way. Christian young people do these things “underground” without knowledge of parents or church, and many adults are now flaunting their ability to “live large” for Jesus. Sadly, only time will tell what harm this “room” will bring to the cause of Christ and a whole generation of young people.
Some “places” where I may go may be able to be avoided altogether and some may not. I never go to a “bar” to eat or get a cup of coffee, yet I cannot avoid all stores or restaurants that sell liquor. But my blanket refusal of “bars” still stands. My wife and I have never been in a movie theater together nor with our children. This was an easy decision with an easy line to draw. That doesn’t mean we didn’t watch TV or movies on the TV (though nothing above a G rating was brought home!). The line was drawn at the theater and my family was both protected and made stronger because of it. I have advised it for anyone who loves their children and have forced it upon no one.
We have kept the ministry of our church within the purpose of the gospel and the Scriptures. We do not have social and political entanglements within the church. I believe these are good and noble for Christians to do (as many other things in life), but they are not described, much less prescribed for the local church in the New Testament. This is becoming increasingly difficult for many people to understand in this purpose-driven environment.
The ecumenical movement has placed pressure upon fundamental churches to “tear down the walls” that divide us. Denominational names and other identifications, however, are a good and proper way of guarding our doctrine. Most churches stay within their own denominational circles because it greatly decreases the chance of exposure to contrary doctrine. Sometimes, however, a description such as “fundamentalist” or “conservative” may bring closer communion than our own denominational name.
And so . . . .
“Threshold” separation is a biblical concept with obvious practical advantages. In a day when the boundaries of morals, proprieties, and manners are being eroded, it is wise to have a good stopping place.