Separation: A Christian Perspective (Part 1)

by Rick Shrader

The Bible teaches a doctrine of separation.  Biblical separation is not a mere occurrence as politeness or rudeness.  Separation is something that is commanded by God in the Scripture and something that was lived out by prophets, patriarchs, and apostles, as well as the Son of God Himself.  To be “holy” as God is holy, or to be “sanctified,” means to be set apart unto God.  It is only then that He can be a Father to us and we can be sons and daughters to Him (2 Cor. 6:18).

The apostle Paul brings forward Israel’s requirement to be a separated people into the church when he quotes Isaiah 52:11 as an absolute requirement for the believers in Corinth (2 Cor. 6:17-18).  He does the same when he quotes God’s command to Abraham in Gen. 21:10 in order to instruct the Galatian church to “Cast out the bond-woman and her son” (Gal. 4:30), meaning, obviously, to separate themselves from the false doctrine of legalism.

It has always been a struggle for the church to grasp how she can practice separation as Israel did being a theocracy, a national entity, and yet be the church which is not a theocracy nor a nationalized entity.  The church cannot retreat to a mountain top or a commune, but must somehow be in the world while not being of the world.  Paul was still teaching this principle to the Corinthians in the midst of their church discipline when he wrote, “I wrote unto you in an epistle not to company with fornicators: yet not altogether with the fornicators of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or with idolaters; for then must ye needs go out of the world.  But now I have written unto you not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such a one, no, not to eat” (1 Cor. 5:9-11).

Vance Havner said it this way, “The Christian has been saved out of the world.  He is in the world but not of it and he is sent into the world to win others out of the world, which is his business in this world.  He must keep separated from its defilements, yet he must be in the midst of it for the salt must be mixed with whatever it is to purify.”1 However, salt can only purify when it is unlike meat.  Light can only illuminate when it is unlike darkness.  But this “unlikeness” has become distasteful to many Christians and separation has become the nadir of popular Christianity.  More than that, separatists have been made to be the enemy of God’s grace rather than the biblical result of that grace (see Tit. 2:11-12).  Ernest Pickering responded to this when he wrote, “This is one of the laments made by anti-separatists—that the doctrine of separation, premised as it is upon the ideal of a pure church, lends itself to repeated separations.  This is true in a sense, because every generation must fight its own battles and the war is never won.  The culprit, however, is not the prickly fundamentalist who cannot live at peace with his brethren, but rather the never-ending maliciousness of Satan.”2

In this first article, I want to lay out what I believe to be the biblical basis for separation.  This basis is seen intertwined in the very nature of no less than six other important Christian doctrines.  In the second article, I want to apply the doctrine of separation to seven areas of the Christian life.  This will begin with personal separation and work its way outward in concentric circles to family, local church, universal church, professing church, the nation, and the world.  Here, we begin with the over-arching doctrine of God’s holiness and proceed on to the future reward and high calling of all believers, heaven itself.

The separate nature of God’s holiness

“Wherefore gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and hope to the end for the grace that is to be brought unto you at the revelation of Jesus Christ; 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 Pet. 1:13-17).

God is unchanged by the sinfulness of this world.  It is only by His grace that He is longsuffering and willing to restore sinners to Himself before He destroys the whole fallen world with fire.  In eternity He will not have compromised His holiness in any way.  The only way for any part of His creation to abide with Him eternally is to become as He is—holy.  J.N. Darby said, “Separation from evil is the necessary first principle of communion with Him.  Separation from evil is His principle of unity. . . Wherever the body declines the putting away of evil, it becomes in its unity a denier of God’s character of holiness, and then separation from the evil is the path of the saint.”3

The degrading nature of man’s sin

“This I say therefore, and testify in the Lord, that ye henceforth walk not as other Gentiles walk, in the vanity of their mind, Having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart: Who being past feeling have given themselves over unto lasciviousness, to work all uncleanness with greediness” (Eph. 4:17-19).

J. Gresham Machen wrote, “Everything in the Bible is concerned with the fact of sin; the relationship in which man as man stood to God has been broken by transgression, and only when that barrier is removed is there sonship worthy of the name.”4 The whole world has gone “in the way of Cain” (Jude 11).   Do we understand the offense our sin is to God?  Fallen man is a mere shell of his former glory when Adam was the king of Eden.  Now a flaming cherub separates man from the tree of life, and only death can repair the breach.  Fallen man has no moral connection with God even though he remains a creature in His likeness.  He is “in Adam” (1 Cor. 15:22), and must be in Christ if he is to be accepted at all.  “Whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God” (Jas. 4:4).

The radical nature of our redemption

Redemption is of Jesus Christ, “who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30), and not of ourselves!  “Forasmuch as ye know that ye were not redeemed with corruptible things, as silver and gold, from your vain conversation . . . But with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot” (1 Pet. 1:18-19).  It took the blood of the holy and righteous Son of God to purchase us from the slave-market of sin.  And when that happened, we were radically changed: positionally in an instant and relationally in a progression.  We are not only a new creature, but a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, and a holy nation that we should show forth the praises of Him who called us out of darkness into His marvelous light (1 Pet. 2:9).

It would be a biblical contradiction for the new creature in Christ to remain like the world.  Charles Ryrie wrote, “Separation from the world, or nonconformity, is being unfashionable, and this is a necessary characteristic of the dedicated life.”5 William Newell, writing of Abraham’s pilgrim faith, said, “But now, also in Abraham, the principle of strangerhood is first seen: Abraham is called out; for the world had left God.  So God’s people are to leave it today.”6

The progressive nature of our sanctification

“For this is the will of God, even your sanctification, that ye should abstain from fornication” (1 Thes. 4:3).  Though we are positionally in Christ, and that secures our eternal salvation, we must not neglect, as many do, the on-going nature of this sanctification process.  Only on purpose could one miss the biblical admonitions to grow in grace and to progress in holiness while in this life.  So Peter says, “Dearly beloved, I beseech you as strangers and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul” (1 Pet. 2:11).

This progressive nature of a growing holiness brings with it an antipathy from the world.  The more we grow into the likeness of Christ, the more the world becomes unsympathetic to our life-style.  This is what the weak Christian does not like and seeks to avoid, yet the only way to avoid it is to avoid holiness.  “Yea, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution” (2 Tim. 3:12).  “And because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold” (Matt. 24:12).  Jesus said, “These things have I spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace.  In the world ye shall have tribulation” (Jn. 16:33).  The problem of too many today is that they want peace in the world and so they find tribulation in Christ.  Spurgeon said, “You cannot grow in grace to any high degree while you are conformed to the world.  The life of separation may be a path of sorrow, but it is the highway of safety, and though the separated life may cost you many pangs, and make every day a battle, yet it is a happy life after all.”7

The urgent nature of our evangelism

Perhaps the most tragic result of a lack of separation is a lack of power for evangelism.  The love of the world is powerful enough to convince the weak Christian that worldliness is actually better for evangelism.  The offense of the cross becomes an offense to the believer rather than to the world.  This is the very crux of the matter.  Jesus said, “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me” (Jn. 12:32).  When will we learn that men must come to Christ by way of the cross?  It is the weary path of the penitent that opens to the bright sunshine of grace.  Jesus said, “They that are whole have no need of the physician, but they that are sick: I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Mk. 2:17).  We have become so busy making the gospel palatable to the world that we are now trying to call the righteous to repentance.  If Jesus could not do it, neither can we.

It is that separation, that apartness from the world, that God uses to draw sinners.  John was on his way to Patmos when he wrote, “They are of the world:  therefore speak they of the world, and the world heareth them.  We are of God: he that knoweth God heareth us.  Hereby know we the spirit of truth, and the spirit of error” (1 Jn. 4:5-6).

The forward nature of our calling

C.I. Scofield wrote, “The church is everywhere said to be heavenly in calling and destiny, and exhorted as pilgrim and stranger to walk in holy separation from the world which hated Christ and will hate the faithful disciple of Christ; her one mission, the preaching of a crucified Christ to a lost world.”8 We are the called of God and that calling calls us all the way home as a father who stands at the door and calls his children home for supper. This calling pulls us outward and upward the further we walk in life.  The outward man may be perishing, but the inward man is renewed day by day.   Holiness becomes us the more we become like Him. “Who hath saved us, and called us with a holy calling” (2 Tim. 1:9); “For God hath not called us unto uncleanness, but unto holiness” (1 Thes. 4:7).

It is in this way that we live in the world and yet become more separated from it.  As we do, we become more and more effective in the cause of Christ.  Oswald Chambers helps us see, then, how separation from the world has a powerful effect in the world, “The things that used to be ends in view have not only ceased to be ends, they have ceased to have any interest for us at all; they have become tasteless.  This is the way God enables us to be fundamentally dead to the things of the world while we live amongst them.”9 Soon we will live and reign with the King of Righteousness and we will wear a crown of righteousness if we are among those who love His appearing.  If we have this hope in us, we will purify ourselves as He, whom we are about to see, is pure.

1. Vance Havner, All The Days (Old Tappan:  Revell, 1976) 181.
2. Ernest Pickering, Biblical Separation (Schaumburg:  RBP, 1979) 190.
3. By Pickering, p. 116.
4. J. Gresham Machen, What Is Faith? (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s, 1979) 85.
5. Charles Ryrie, Balancing The Christian Life (Chicago:  Moody, 1994) 83.
6. William Newell, Hebrews (Chicago:  Moody, 1947) 380.
7. Charles Spurgeon, Morning and Evening (Grand Rapids:  Zondervan, 1948) 107.
8. C.I. Scofield, Addresses on Prophecy (Greenville:  The Gospel Hour, nd) 25.
9. Oswald Chambers, The Moral Foundations of Life (Grand Rapids:  Discovery House, 1998) 168.