I stood at the graveside of a dear, gentle, gracious, and generous saint and looked around at the mourners. I was puzzled by the presence of a group of people who had been absent from the earlier church service.
Then I remembered--my friend had once belonged to a church that practiced “second-degree separation.” These were his former fellow pilgrims. They knew we believed and preached the gospel; but we did not practice the levels of separation they did. For them, separation from our worship was an expression of faithfulness. For me, it left only a taste of sadness.
New Testament Context
The New Testament does contain teaching on “separation.” Over the centuries, some of the greatest minds have wrestled with how to apply it—Augustine in dealing with the Donatists, Calvin in dealing with radical Anabaptists (in his dauntingly titled Brief Instruction for Arming All the Good Faithful Against the Errors of the Common Sect of the Anabaptists).
The New Testament letters refer to various kinds of separation, always in the recognition that we—and indeed the church—remain simul justus et peccator (at the same time just and sinner). The setting apart of the church (sanctification) is not glorification. Until Christ’s return, there is only a pilgrim church here on the earth, not a perfected one.
The challenges are therefore fairly obvious. Those who effect separation are themselves sinners. So the questions of when, why, and how to separate are of cardinal importance. The New Testament gives us principles; it does not provide us with a single, simple sentence that relieves us of the task of thinking through and wisely applying the Scriptures to each unique situation. Biblical teaching can sometimes be expressed only in compound-complex sentences. In the limited space of this article, we can reflect on only a few aspects of its teaching on separation.
Principles of Separation
Here, then, are several biblical principles that should govern our thinking:
First, there is a separation of the church within the world. The principle by which we live is not “how can I avoid contact with the world so as to be separate from it?” Rather, it is “how can I live in the world yet be free from its influence and by my life actually expose its contagion?” (Eph. 5:11). As the light of the world, we shine in its darkness; as the salt of the earth, we preserve only if we are present in it. Separation here means that we are not to be unequally yoked with unbelievers (2 Cor. 6:14). We must never compromise our distinctiveness for the sake of mutual activity. (Yet there is also a complex sentence here, for a Christian “unequally yoked” in marriage should not throw o that yoke under this pretext; see 1 Corinthians 7:12.)
Paul’s teaching in this context is crystal clear, yet perhaps sufficiently surprising to require a second reading: “I wrote to you not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world” (1 Cor. 5:9-10, emphasis added).
Christians are not world-avoiders but world witnesses. We are called to be separate within the world.
Second, there is a separation out of the church of false teachers, denying them spheres of influence. Second John 7-11 counsels believers to beware of anyone who teaches a false view of Christ. We are to separate them from any assistance and support. John has in view itinerant teachers who by definition needed welcome and hospitality to further their “ministry.” Notice, again, that this is balanced intriguingly by John’s warning against the false separation exercised by Diotrephes, who “refuses to welcome the brothers, and also stops those who want to and puts them out of the church” (3 John 9-10). Separation here involves the preservation of the church, but not our separation from it or our domination over it.
Third, there is a separation from the church of those who pollute or threaten to destroy it. Evident sin in the believer must be met by ongoing efforts to effect repentance (Matt. 18:15-18). Personal admonition is first; if that fails, admonition in the presence of one or two others; if that fails, admonition by the church. And only when there is obstinate resistance throughout these three stages is a member to be regarded as “a Gentile and a tax collector.”
Only where there is flagrant, public sin that brings public shame on the congregation are these steps collapsed into one (as apparently in 1 Cor. 5:1-5). Even then, the goal of the actions is always restoration (1 Cor. 5:5; Gal. 6:1). The purpose of surgical amputation is to save, not to destroy. Again, we find a complex statement: when major spiritual surgery is necessary, the patient must be protected from the infection of despair (2 Cor. 2:5-11). When tough action is required, it is to be done by men who are Jesus-like, characterized by meekness and gentleness (2 Cor. 10:1; Gal. 6:1).
The New Testament also provides us with some important further directives and qualifications:
First, separation is a last resort, not a first action. Indeed, an appetite for separating disqualifies rather than qualifies us from leadership in the church. Leaders are “not quarrelsome” in this sense (1 Tim. 3:3), for the spirit of strife and dissension that characterizes a separatist appetite turns out to be a work of the flesh, not a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:20).
Second, separation is an inappropriate response toward those whose faith is “weak.” To believe that true Christians must observe Jewish holy days is contrary to the gospel. To apply this generally would have devastating effects on both the church and world evangelism. Yet, this kind of failure is not a reason for separation. Paul counsels the “strong” to welcome the weak (Rom. 14:1-15:7), not simply tolerate them. Notice, too, that the “weak” here are those who think of themselves as having a “strong conscience.” Those who act in a genuine but inadequately instructed faith stand or fall to Christ as Master, not to us. Yet, none of this implies that it is pastorally responsible to leave the weak in their weakened condition.
Finally, the New Testament provides wisdom principles to apply to varied circumstances, not an exhaustive list of situations that each has its own mandated action. For example, Paul nowhere counsels Christians to leave a church. Second Corinthians 6:16-18, often appealed to in this context, refers to the Christian church separating itself from the world, not to believers separating themselves from a church.
Is there, then, a place and a time for Christians to separate “the church” from themselves?
There may come a time when Christ removes a church’s lampstand (Rev. 2:5). Then the issue is not that of separation from the true but imperfect church, which would be an act of schism. It is, rather, the (Reformation) principle of the separation from the false church (even if there are true churches within its communion, as Calvin famously noted in Institutes 4.2.12).
The question, then, is how do we know when a professing church is a false church? Here we can surely take Calvin’s answer as a wise starting place.
First, a professing church is a false church when the Word of God in all its fullness can no longer be ministered. Of course, for Calvin, the ministry of the Word stretched all the way from the daily sermons from pulpit, to the lecture room, to the Sunday afternoon catechism class for children, to the Wednesday day of prayer, to the Thursday afternoon meetings of the consistory, and to the Friday congregations—the gatherings for the pastors’ edification and (if need be) mutual criticism.
A professing church is also a false church when the sacraments of Christ can no longer be rightly administered. (Calvin coupled with this the discipline of the church—even barring access to the Lord’s Table with his own body if needed.)
Clearly, these two elements (Word and sacraments) have a third element—church discipline—inherently present. Calvin was not thinking merely of orthodox preaching and using the right forms for baptism and the Supper. He envisaged the Word of God advancing out of the pulpit and into the ordering of the life of the whole church and its members. A community in which an individual can preach the Bible is not what the New Testament understands as a church. Word and sacrament rightly administered have to do with congregational dynamics, not simply formal statistics.
Here, as the story of the Reformed church makes clear, individuals may deal with the same issue, apply the same principles, yet reach conclusions at different speeds, be convinced by different considerations, and indeed have different reasons for their responses as they seek to interpret God’s providences in the light of His Word. Our ability to perfectly bring Scripture to bear on our own situation is limited. Our ability to bring Scripture to bear on others’ situations is often even more limited. If we lose our grip on that principle, we will find ourselves slowly moving into a very limited and limiting fellowship of God’s people.
Here, perhaps, is the most difficult compound-complex sentence of all. It was in this kind of context that Calvin urged open separation, even while he maintained contact with closet believers who had not yet done so.
The principle of separation has been abused, but it remains a biblical principle. There is a biblical separation that applies at the personal, the fellowship, and the ecclesiastical level. Overstep here and we do damage to the unity of the church. But fail here and as individuals and fellowships we will become like jellyfish with no central nervous system. Instead of swimming against the tide, we will simply float with it and eventually be thrown onto the shore, there to remain until another tide sweeps us out to sea.