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Separation is a perennially tricky topic in the Christian church. After all, the Bible has much to say about loving neighbors and enemies, teaching that seems to stand at odds with the notion of separating from someone. Furthermore, at the end of a century marked by ethnic conflict and the myriad bloody testimonies to the terrifying results of one group deciding that another group simply does not belong, there are strong cultural forces that militate against notions of separatism. However, lest the reader think I mention these two points just for descriptive purposes, I would add that they are actually important notions to bear in mind as we think about separation. These things show that separation is not something to be undertaken lightly.
The notion of separation has a long and controversial history in the Christian church. There are those for whom the severing of ties with others who profess the name of Christ is impossible to justify under any circumstances, but there are also those who seem to take a peculiar delight in separating from anyone who deviates one jot or tittle from their own beliefs and practices.
In the current church climate, the issue of separation is set to become more significant, not less. One hundred years ago, as the liberal-fundamentalist controversy was reaching its peak, the issues were relatively straightforward: there were those who affirmed supernatural Christianity and there were those who denied it. Now, the situation is far more complicated, as disagreements on ethical issues have moved to the fore of discussion even among those who might otherwise assert supernaturalism.
How is the Christian to approach the issue of separation in the current heated and complicated context? It is difficult to give a one-size-fits-all list of guidelines in a short article, but here are some of the basic principles that must be addressed in thinking about biblical separation.
First, while much modern discussion has tended to focus on doctrinal deviation as the basis for separation, we must remember that the Bible teaches that practical immorality is also a basis. First Corinthians 5 makes this abundantly clear: a person committed to a path of sexual immorality has no place in the Christian fellowship and is to be expelled from it.
Second, while the idea of separation can sound to us like something oppressive or pharisaical, we should realize that those who are theologically or morally deviant are the true agents of separatism. In Romans 16:7, Paul talks about those who are divisive because they have deviated from the true doctrine, and he urges the believers in Rome to keep away from them. Notice the order: the deviants have divided themselves from the people of God by their actions; we might perhaps describe the faithful believers’ reaction to be that of simply acting in such a way that the existing divisiveness of the unfaithful is made manifest.
Third, we need to make a distinction between different degrees of fellowship and separation proper. I write as a Presbyterian. I cannot serve as a pastor or elder in a Baptist church. Nor can a Baptist serve as an officer in my church. Yet, I can enjoy fellowship with many Baptist friends in numerous settings, some more formal and some less. I have close friends in ministry who are Baptists. I have shared conference platforms with Baptist speakers. I have had Baptist friends preach at my church. In short, while I am not able to enjoy full, institutional fellowship with Baptist friends, I am not separated from them as if we held to completely different systems of belief.
This brings us to the major point on which separation has to be predicated: the difference between belief and unbelief. This embraces both moral and theological sides of the equations, and it also involves both the individual Christian and the church as a whole. The most famous statement of this occurs in 2 Corinthians 6: “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers” (v. 14).
This passage is perhaps most frequently quoted in conversations about dating and marriage as a basis for arguing that Christians should not marry non-Christians. Certainly that is one valid application of the passage, but the text itself is not speaking directly of marriage. Rather, it is laying out a far more general principle. Elsewhere in Paul’s writings, it is clear that he knows that Christians have to operate within the world; thus, a sectarian or cult-like withdrawal from any contact with society outside of the church is not an option. Thus, Paul is not here saying that it is sinful for Christians to buy their food at a supermarket run by non-Christians or to be partners in a commercial venture with non-Christians. Nor is he saying that the church cannot, for example, hire non-Christian contractors to do building work or plumbing.
What he is doing is making the point that in spiritual (and therefore church) matters, there is to be no positive working relationship between the church and the world, between those who believe the gospel and those who do not. Thus, to return to my example of my Baptist friends: I have no problem in allowing a Christian brother who is also a Baptist preacher to preach at my church on occasion. But I would not allow someone who denies some cardinal element of the faith to do the same—even if that person held office in a Presbyterian church. Paul’s teaching is quite clear: there can be no relationship of equality between one who believes the gospel and one who denies it.
Of course, in an era when so many of the ethical principles that Christians hold dear are under attack in the wider civic sphere, the question of separation can often take on a broader context and more immediate urgency. What about abortion, for example? Or gay marriage? These ethical issues are ones that unite conservatives in many religious traditions—Protestant, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Jewish, and Muslim. What do Paul’s injunctions to separation mean in this context? Can I, as a Protestant Christian, attend a pro-life rally where these other groups are also present? Would it be legitimate for me even to share a platform with representative leaders from such traditions?
Here, I believe it is useful to make a distinction between the individual Christian as a Christian in church and the individual Christian as a Christian in society. When I attend church, I am making a specific statement of religious commitment. In that context, I believe Paul’s strictures apply. I could not have a Muslim in my pulpit because that would grant Islam legitimacy in a context where the purpose of gathering is specifically to hear the gospel. Now, as a Christian in society, while I do not check my beliefs at the door as I leave church on Sunday, I am aware that I may find myself joining in common cause in the civil sphere with people with whom I disagree profoundly on spiritual matters. Thus, for example, I might attend a pro-life rally, not because I believe such a rally is a religious gathering but because I believe that it is important for all members of civil society who share pro-life convictions to act together in order to influence society. Crucially, my presence at such a rally is making no statement about the gospel but only about the ethics of certain social policies. The same would apply in the areas of marriage and of sexual ethics. If, however, such a gathering were advertised in a way that a strong religious significance was imputed to the gathering and in a manner that relativized vital gospel distinctives, I should not be involved because that would cross the line to being unequally yoked with unbelievers in a spiritual context.
One final context in which the separation issue is set to become more pressing for many is that of denominational allegiance. All Christians should desire to avoid unnecessary separation. Sadly, the history of Protestantism has all too often been the history of casual separations, indicating how low visible church unity often is on the list of our priorities. Yet we live in a time when the collapse of orthodoxy in many of the larger denominations creates a serious challenge to everyday believers. While we do not want to leave our churches the first time a church leader says something erroneous or even blasphemous, when do we say that enough is enough and thus decide that Paul’s mandate about unequal yoking applies?
Every situation is different, but here is my rule of thumb: when a church degenerates to the point where it is no longer possible to maintain the basics of the Christian gospel through the standard processes that the church has established for applying its confession, it is time to leave. Thus, when a church leader denies the resurrection, one should not leave straight away; but when all legal processes within the church have been exhausted and the church leader is still allowed to preach such heresy, it is time to go. Separation is hard and it is profoundly countercultural. But it is a biblical mandate that we must follow in certain circumstances.