Degrees of Separation
by David Murray
One of the most difficult challenges to address in the Christian life is our relationships with other Christians. It’s like walking a tightrope with heavy weights on each end of our pole. On the one side is the biblical command to unite with professing Christians, while on the other is the biblical demand to separate—at times—from professing Christians.
“Unite!” and “Divide!” Complicated and challenging, isn’t it? Wouldn’t it be so much easier if we could just choose one or the other? Some do. They decide to separate from everyone who does not agree with them on everything, producing sinful schism and division in the body of Christ. Others decide there is virtually nothing that justifies separation from anyone and unite in unholy alliance with anyone who says he is a Christian, no matter what he believes.
But both of these are unbiblical extremes that throw us off balance, tipping us into dangerous and damaging sin. Although we might prefer a simpler life, God calls us to walk this precarious tightrope carrying both weights on the ends of our pole.
DEFAULT TO UNITY
Having said that, the balance of Scripture suggests that the heavier weight is on the side of unity rather than division. That makes sense because one of sin’s great consequences has been to divide people from God and people from people. Our innate, sinful default is separation. That’s why there are so many verses in the Bible that are weighted toward strengthening love and unity between Christians. God calls us to make unity our starting point, our instinct, our default. We look for reasons to trust and unite before reasons to distrust and divide.
As we do, we will make different decisions about the nature of our relationships with other Christians. And it’s not just our relationships with individual Christians to consider. We also have to decide how to relate to individual churches, denominations, or associations of churches (for example, the Presbyterian Church in America, Southern Baptist Convention, and so on), as well as Christian ministries such as Ligonier, The Gospel Coalition, and others.
CRITERIA FOR SEPARATION
So, we begin with biblical balance, weighted somewhat toward unity, and then we start coming into contact with Christians, churches, and ministries about which we must make relationship decisions. Before we look at the different kinds of relationships and associations that may result from this, we need some criteria to help us decide which way to go.
There are four areas to consider when deciding the nature of a relationship with other Christians. The most important area is doctrine. As Christian unity is unity in the truth, we must ask what this Christian or church believes.
However, even before that, we have to ask, what doctrines are fundamental and nonnegotiable? Do we insist on complete agreement on every single truth before we have any kind of association with any Christian or church? If so, one will end up uniting only with oneself.
That’s why we need a sliding scale of biblical truths and principles that will determine to what degree we unite or separate. At the top of that scale, we might put the inerrancy of Scripture, the Trinity, the deity of Christ, justification by faith alone, Jesus as the only way to God, and other primary truths. Without the basic foundation that such truths provide, there can be no spiritual relationship of any kind.
Then, as we go down the list, we will come to issues like baptism, the role of women, eschatology, and others that, while important, might not warrant total separation. Obviously, the further down the list we can go with someone, the greater the degree of Christian unity and the closer our relationship can be.
Apart from doctrine, another area we will want to look at is practice. Regardless of what the church or person says they believe, what do they actually do?
A third area of concern is the church’s or Christian’s relationships with others. We’ll look at this further under “secondary separation” below, but it might be that a person’s or group’s relationships with others who deny cardinal truths and doctrines may cause us to decide not to fellowship with that person or group.
Fourth, church discipline also affects whether and how to relate to someone. If a person has sinned and is under the discipline of his church, we will have to decide how best we can support that discipline by our relationship with the offender.
SEVEN DIFFERENT RELATIONSHIPS AND ASSOCIATIONS
With these criteria in mind, here are the main categories of relationships we might have with other Christians.
SPIRITUAL UNITY: This is the essential union that every Christian has with God and with other Christians through the Spirit of Christ. There may be much visible and vocal disagreement and division among Christians, but there is an invisible and unbreakable spiritual union that connects every believer in the spiritual body of Christ.
ECUMENISM: The Greek word oikoumenē means “the whole inhabited world,” and it originally referred to the Roman Empire. The church took over this word and used it to describe the visible worldwide unity among Christian churches. That’s why some of the early church councils produced ecumenical creeds, reflecting the visible unity in the truth throughout the worldwide church.
More recently, the Roman Catholic church has promoted ecumenism as a way of bringing Christians and churches back into the Roman Catholic Church, usually at the expense of the truth.
However, just because the word has been perverted and abused does not make it a bad word. Every Christian and every church has the duty to seek and promote true ecumenicity—visible unity in the truth. When done well, it is a persuasive witness to the nature and power of the gospel.
ASSOCIATION: Despite valiant attempts to promote biblical ecumenism, sometimes the differences between churches are too great to produce ecclesiastical union. But even when churches decide not to unite, they can still enjoy some level of relationship, often called association. This can vary from accepting one another’s ministers, working together on joint projects, financial support, and even simple recognition and correspondence.
However, great care is usually required to navigate this, as there is always the danger of ignoring fundamental disagreement on the nature of the gospel when we unite to work on less-important issues. In a formal association, all should agree on the major truths, and disagreements should be limited to less-vital areas of doctrine.
ENDORSEMENT: But what if there is not enough common ground to unite or even associate formally? Does that mean the only option left is separation? No, it’s possible to endorse some aspects of a church or person’s witness without agreeing with them in everything. Perhaps a pastor from a church writes an excellent book on justification, but we disagree with his view on the millennium. We can endorse the book while being careful not to give blanket approval to everything else.
FRIENDSHIP: Even if there can be no formal, visible union or association on the institutional or organizational level, that does not mean there can be no unity at all on a personal level. On the contrary, informal Christian relationships and friendships can be a powerful reminder of our underlying unity and the practical love we have for one another.
SEPARATION: Sadly, the doctrinal and practical disagreements between churches and Christians are sometimes so serious and substantial that there is really no option but to separate on both an institutional and personal level. We cannot unite, we cannot associate, we cannot endorse, and we cannot even remain friends.
For example, if a church or Christian denies justification by faith alone or the exclusive claims of Christ, these heresies go to the heart of the Christian faith and cannot be played down. In such instances, we may and must separate completely. This kind of separation, though, should be a last resort, and it should be reserved for the most serious of cases. Usually it will also be necessary to publicly explain the reasons for separation and even to issue warnings about the matter.
SECONDARY SEPARATION: In 1963, Billy Graham asked D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones if he would chair the first Worldwide Congress on Evangelism. Lloyd-Jones said he would gladly do it if Graham stopped including liberals and Roman Catholics on his crusade platform and staff. They talked for three hours, but when Graham refused to agree to this, Lloyd-Jones said he could not oer any support or endorse Graham’s campaigns. Lloyd-Jones had a high regard for Billy Graham but separated from him formally because of his associations with others.
That’s secondary separation, and again, it should be limited to denial of primary biblical truths, or else we will end up in a church of one, isolated and completely alone.
The nature of our relationships with others is one of the most challenging areas in our Christian life and witness. We need to be prayerfully searching the Scriptures to remain sensitive to the Spirit of truth if we want to safely traverse this high wire of holiness.