Can We Separate From Brethren?
by Rick Shrader
Separation is a topic that will not go away. It will be discussed by believers until God separates us all from the world at the rapture. Since Baptists have been called Baptists, and along with several other independent groups, we have been dissenters. In London we visit Bunhill Fields, “the dissenter’s graveyard.” Here you find the markers of those who dissented from the Church of England and were therefore not allowed to be buried in church yards. Among those are John Bunyan, John Gill, John Rippon, John Owen, Isaac Watts, and even Susanna Wesley. Spurgeon could have been buried there if it had still been open for interment in his day. Isaac Watts called Bunhill Fields “sacred dust.”
There are some who never see a need to separate from anything. To them, separation is only in your head, i.e., a believer never needs physically to leave a situation, he only needs to separate the good and bad in his mind and then think properly about it. Others would admit that there is a time when a believer must separate himself from unbelievers, especially when outright immorality, heresy, or apostasy is taking place. Even the most ardent evangelical who disdains fundamentalists’ actions over separation, probably would not himself be forced into feigning agreement with such things. However, the discussion among evangelicals continues as to how and how far believers can walk with unbelief. Is it a bounded set, a centered set, or something in between? Is it enough to be merely looking toward the center of our faith, or does one have to actually be within the faith?1 And so the discussion continues.
Most fundamentalists (and I would like to think, therefore, most Baptists throughout history) quibble little over separating from apostasy. It is a “given” in our circles. But separating from a brother in Christ is another thing. Some would say that the Bible never asks the believer to separate from another believer. To many, this is just incompatible with Christian love and is to become judgmental. The inclusion of descriptions and labels such as “secondary separation” has not helped a lot. While these can be helpful when all agree on their meanings, seldom do we see such agreement.
My own trek in fundamental groups and schools on both sides of this issue has brought me to a place where I see that separating from a brother is necessary and biblical in proper circumstances. The clear statements of 2 Thes. 3:6 & 14 make this mandatory to me. “Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us” (3:6). “And if any man obey not our word by this epistle, note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed. Yet count him not as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother” (3:14-15).
I don’t think these verses can be limited to the precise problem in Thessalonica (of quitting one’s job to wait for the rapture). Paul repeatedly says that the reason for separating was the brother’s refusal to obey the Word (epistle, commandments), an action that repeats itself in many ways. Neither is the action to be limited to the discipline of a local church member (though included) but to any of the false teachers that had spread the error concerning the coming of the Lord. From such these brothers and sisters are to “withdraw” (vs. 6), and “have no company with” (vs. 14), which literally means “do not mix with.” Other passages fit this scenario as well (Rom. 16:17; 2 Tim. 2:16-22; 1 Cor. 5:1-5).
The basis of separation
The basis for separation is the holiness of God. Ernest Pickering wrote, “Separation, both personal and ecclesiastical, is grounded in the nature of God. God is the great separatist. He is absolutely separated from all evil and error. Do His people err in emulating Him?”2 God says, “For thus saith the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is holy; I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit” (Isa. 57:15). Verses could be easily multiplied that speak of God’s apartness from a sinful world due to His holiness including broken fellowship with His own children because of their rebellious spirit.
God’s holiness is His controlling attribute. Many shy away from separation because they think it is incompatible with God’s love. Holiness, however, is always the large circle and love a smaller circle within the larger. We do not have holiness in love, but love in holiness. A.H. Strong wrote, “That which lays down the norm or standard for love must be the superior of love. When we forget that ‘righteousness and justice are the foundation of His throne’ (Psa. 97:2), we lose one of the chief landmarks of Christian doctrine and involve ourselves in a mist of error.”3 If God Himself can separate from, and punish sinners while still being a God of love, surely we can speak the truth in love. It is His holiness that demands that He separate Himself from sin, though He remains a God of love, mercy, and grace.
We believers are good at using phrases such as “well, I just believe that . . . (fill in the blank).” Somehow we think if we believe something hard enough, or sincerely enough, it just has to be true. What does it matter what we think when it comes to God’s holiness? As much as we may not like separating from sin in a brother, we must because God does.
The requirement of separation
The simple proposition is that if God must separate Himself from sin so must we. Though God never disowns His children, He does discipline, chastise, punish, and withdraw blessings from them when they walk disorderly. The only standard for this can be the Word of God. It cannot be subjective with us according to the way we feel, but must be based on the unchangeable standard of His Word. Peter quotes Leviticus when he writes, “Because it is written, Be ye holy; for I am holy” (1 Pet. 1:16).
A further requirement for separation will be conflict. This goes with the territory of separation because nothing in this fallen world: men, demons, the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, the pride of life, wants to be reprimanded. Paul required Timothy to “endure hardness, as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. No man that warreth entangleth himself with the affairs of this life; that he may please him who hath chosen him to be a soldier” (2 Tim. 2:3-4). The Corinthians had a hard time coming out from among the sins of Corinth because they could not “enlarge” their hearts toward the things of God. They were “straitened” by their own “bowels” or emotional attachments to the world (2 Cor. 6:11-18). A believer who says he loves God but won’t “lower himself” to fight for God, doesn’t have a strong love for God.
The pursuit of holiness, which is fellowship with God, must be the highest priority of our lives. Nothing must stand in the way of that fellowship. Jesus Himself said that even our own family must not come between us and Him (Lk. 14:26). If we disobey God’s Word by saying “amen” to those who walk disorderly (even brothers), our own fellowship with God is impaired. There are those times when separating from a friend, a local church member, or a national figure, is an uncomfortable thing to do. But that is when we must put our walk with God ahead of our walk with other people.
The areas of separation
The areas of separation (as well as the levels of separation) have been enumerated by many separatists. First, The believer must separate from known heresy. The book of 2 John was written for this reason. “Whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God. He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ, he hath both the Father and the Son. 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 Jn. 9-11). To “bid him God speed” is to say “amen” to what he is doing. This makes one “partaker” (from koinonia) or fellowshipper in all of his deeds.
Second, we must separate from apostasy, those who claimed to be Christian but left the faith because they were not of the faith. The harlot ecumenical church of Revelation 17 and 18 is already growing today. John heard the angel command, “come out of her, my people, that ye be not partakers of her sins, and that ye receive not of her plagues” (Rev. 18:4). This ecclesiastical area of separation is one that has fallen on hard times. Our inter-connected world makes it easy to communicate but harder to separate.
Third, we must separate from alliances that are unholy or unscriptural in obvious ways. This is clearly taught in the 2 Corinthians 6 passage. “Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness? And what concord hath Christ with Belial? Or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel: and what agreement hath the temple of God with idols?” (2 Cor. 6:14-16). This is not speaking only of marrying an unbeliever nor only about idolatry. The applications from this passage ought to be easy to see. This is the reason for not participating in those city-wide campaigns that include unbelievers or liberals. I believe it is a reason to not participate in concerts where there is no difference between Christian music and the world’s music. Separatists could not agree with the ECT document or the Manhattan Declaration because in signing those, they would be allying themselves with the other names on the list.
Fourth, we must separate from those who will not separate themselves. This is the reason for the biblical instruction to separate from a brother. The believers in Thessalonica were following false doctrine and therefore the other believers were to separate from those brothers. In effect, all local church members have separated themselves from other believers when they have set doctrinal and practical standards for membership. There are many who cannot join that church because they are not living in a way the people in the local church feel scripturely they must believe and practice. Church discipline is a form of this principle also.
Jehoshaphat is an Old Testament example of one who, though listed as a good king of Judah, failed to separate from the backslidden northern kingdom. Rolland McCune concluded a survey of him by writing, “Imbued with good intentions, Jehoshaphat’s policy of inclusivism became one of prolonged entanglement that undid his positive contributions after his death, a legacy he never intended to leave.”4 That is a tragedy that has happened to too many believers. C.H. Spurgeon, knew he had to leave the old Baptist Union in England, an organization with a good history that went back a hundred years. But when the Union began admitting known liberals, Spurgeon chose to separate from his minister friends and his own brother saying, “Fellowship with known and vital error is participation in sin.”5
The levels of separation
A believer must pay attention to the various levels of his involvement. The first level is his own personal or individual life. A believer cannot let sin dwell in his life because it will break his own fellowship with his Lord. Again, Paul admonished the Corinthians in this manner, “Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy [judge]; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are” (1 Cor. 3:16-17). This often demands that we not participate in what another individual does. It should be noted, however, that we may also maintain communication with a sinning brother on an individual level which we couldn’t do on a higher level. The danger here is that, out of personal friendship, we may acquiesce to his sin by privately saying “amen” in a way we wouldn’t corporately.
A second level of separation is our local church membership. As has been stated, this creates a certain separation by its very nature. We should join a church that has stated their doctrine and practice with which we are in agreement. This is honest both for the church and the individual. Church discipline, of course, is separation from a sinning brother or sister. This is done corporately by the whole church always, of course, with the hope of regaining the brother or sister.
A third level of separation is the inter-church level. Local churches need to fellowship with other local churches in order to maintain certain ministries. Missions cannot be done by a single church. It takes a fellowship of churches to do this. Bible colleges and seminaries, youth camps, city-wide meetings, and such things need the cooperation of a number of like-minded local churches. Yet the local churches, though they may stretch their comfortable zone in ways that do not violate their convictions, cannot participate in things that are an affront to their very existence. How many youth pastors have had to spend a year overcoming the damage that was done by one week at youth camp? It is always right to not go down that path in the first place.
A fourth level of separation has to do with national or world-wide association with known error. Again, in our day of easy communication and travel, the individual (or the local church) can find himself involved in unscriptural things very quickly and easily. We are constantly asked to sign petitions and documents online which probably involve all kinds of people and groups. On the other hand, we have the advantage of easily hearing and reading of situations from which we should separate. My Google reader allows me to see what national figures believe long before I am even asked to participate with them in some ministry. I have an obligation as a pastor to warn and shield God’s people from entangling alliances that would violate biblical principles of separation. It is a difficult task, because it is so easy to use materials, recommend books, invite instructors, and a host of other venues, which represent a compromising ministry. But this is the day in which we live and we must be as vigilant as possible.
And so . . .
Space does not allow us to speak to every objection to the doctrine of separation. Some will always wrestle with whether it is loving or judgmental. When, however, we realize that separation is not our idea but God’s, we have only to be disciples following our loving Master in His example.
We should purge sin from our midst where this is possible, but when it is not, we must separate. We must walk away from situations where there is no hope of correction. We ought not to cross the threshold of many “rooms” where it is best for us not to enter, even though the majority of things in the room may be fine. As someone said, 97% of rat poisoning is good old-fashioned corn meal. It’s the 3% arsenic that will kill you! We should never condone sin by saying “amen” to what is ungodly. We should never set anything above God’s blessing on us and our fellowship with Him.
1. See The Spectrum of Evangelicalism, a 2011 Zondervan Counterpoints book which sets forth four points of view including the fundamentalist point of view.
2. Ernest Pickering, Biblical Separation (Schaumburg: RBP, 2008) 196.
3. A.H. Strong, Systematic Theology (Old Tappan: Fleming H. Revell, 1970) 272.
4. Rolland McCune, Promise Unfulfilled (Greenville: Ambassador International, 2004) 141.
5. Quoted by McCune on p. 151, and many others.