Separation and Separatism

Tom Wilson, Levin, New Zealand

Before he was martyred Lucian of Antyxth was asked where he came from. He replied, 'I am a Christian'. He was then asked what his business was and who his family were, to which he again answered, 'I am a Christian'.

Discussing this fourth-century confrontation L. E. Maxwell says, 'To St. Lucian, Christ was all, whether of country, of occupation, or of family. How revolutionary is the cross! It revolutionizes all our relationships, toward God, toward ourselves, toward others, toward all. Once the cross lays hold upon the Christian, he realizes how completely unhinged he has become from the whole of this present world. The old life, the old world, the old ways and relationships-all are past'.

That is true separation, a practical expression of 2 Corinthians 5. 17: 'If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature (creation): old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new'.

What has become known as the Brethren movement came into being to promote unity among believers on the basis of God's word alone. Sectarian barriers and preconceptions were swept aside. Would that it had remained that way! Unfortunately two extremes were soon to emerge: those who held that the assemblies of the Lord's people were just one more denomination among hundreds in Christendom, and 'Exclusives' who thought that God meant them to separate themselves even from other believers because they did not altogether think as they did.

This dichotomy caused the churches to be torn asunder; the issue became conformity versus separatism. Writings like J. N. Darry's Separation from Evil-God's Principle of Unity, were used to strengthen the exclusive case. Even quite small issues became grounds for separation.

In fact neither of these extremes represents the scriptural position; one is virtual conformity to the world's religious ideas, the other is separatism (or schism).

Few of us would deny the principles of Darby's tract. We must be separate from evil if we would be truly united as the people of God. That evil may be secular or religious. But to use the premise as grounds for separation among believers on matters which are sometimes relatively trivial is surely more than even Darby envisaged. The separation of the godly as taught in scripture, however, is quite another matter.

The Doctrine of Separation

Separation is the human side of sanctification which concerns the believer's position as set apart from the world, condition as holy in the world, and glorification as translated from the world at a time still future. The new creation takes away unbelief and corruption and replaces it with faith and holiness.

The doctrine of separation tells us that the sanctified believer, in the sight of God, no longer of the world and set apart as holy before Him, cannot find satisfaction or fulfilment in the things of a world that crucified the Lord of glory. In fact they are abhorrent to those whom God has redeemed, whom God has made His own, Gal. 6. 14, 15, and who now can never be separated from Him, Rom. 8. 35-39.

The Teaching of Paul

2 Corinthians 6. 14-18 is a key New Testament passage about separation. Verse 14 for example, 'Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers'.

This agricultural metaphor has reference to the Old Testament, e.g., Deut. 22. 10 (cf. Lev. 19. 19). The principle applied to racial and marital relations, Deut. 7. 1-3. The Corinthian believers would think back on Paul's previous teaching on litigation, 1 Cor. 6. 1-20. They would remember his previous references to religious associations, idolaters, 1 Cor. 10. 14, and false teachers, 2 Cor. 11. 2-4, 13-15.

Yet Paul did not put an embargo on all contact with unbelievers (separatism), 1 Cor. 5. 10; 7. 12-16; 10. 27. Separation, he said, referred to close relationships, 1 Cor. 5. 9, 13b.

He used a number of rhetorical questions embodying contrasts to emphasize the principle: righteousness with unrighteousness, tight with darkness, Christ with Belial (an Old Testament word for 'worthless person' transliterated into the Greek to mean 'lawless person' and used to designate Satan), believer with unbeliever (a.v. 'infidel') and the worship of God with idolatry, vv.l4b-16a. He said there could be no association between any of these. They all seem to have a religious connotation and it is clear that this aspect was uppermost in the apostle's mind.

Previously Paul had made the point that believers were not to be unequally yoked together with professing Christians who were teaching false doctrine. He seemed to regard them as unbelievers, 11. 13, 15. (See also 1 Corinthians 5. 11 where the phrase 'called a brother' is identical to our idiom 'so-called brother'.)

His teaching was finally substantiated by a number of Old Testament references: Exod. 29. 45; Lev. 26. 12; Jer. 31. 33; Isa. 52. 11; and possibly Ezek. 20. 41.

Clearly, then, Paul believed and taught that believers were to be separate from associations which would tend towards compromise and although the content appears to have an ecclesiastical bearing he did not have other believers in mind.

Old Testament Examples

The Old Testament passages referred to by Paul show that God's separated people were stable because God in the midst of them was their strength, v. 16b. This would cause them to dissociate themselves from what was offensive to Him, v. 17, a discipline which led into a deeper fellowship than any they had left behind, v. 18.

There are many Old Testament instances which show how important separation from the ungodly was regarded to be. As they grew cold in heart however the Jews often started to think and behave as the nations did around them. Lack of separation has always been an indicator of the spiritual condition of those who profess to be the Lord's people. When Ezra heard that his people were doing according to the abominations of those around them he was so distressed that he tore at his hair, tunic and cloak. We are told that the godly among them trembled before the Lord, Ezra 9. 1-4. When confronted with their sin the others repented, 9. 5-10.12.

But consider the sad case of Jehoshaphat, a truly godly king who 'walked in the first ways of his father David' (before his sin against Uriah), 2 Chron. 17. 3. This was the man who had sent out teachers to bring God's word to the people, 17. 9, laid hold of God in times of national crises, 20. 12, and had been greatly blessed by the Lord, v. 17. Yet in the matter of separation he failed. He sided with Ahab against the Syrians for which he was rebuked by the Lord through Jehu, 19. 2, 3. Worse, he repeated this sin in later life and was rebuked through Eliezer, 20. 35-37.

But we of our generation cannot stand in judgment on Jehoshaphat. Are there not many who are uniting with the people of the world, ecclesiastical and secular? Is this not in defiance of the injunction: 'Come out from among them, and be ye separate . . . and touch not the unclean thing?' Are there not those who are unequally yoked in home, business and religious life?

Striking a Balance

How are we then, without compromising, to establish a balance between the extremes of our day? We are called to be apart from the philosophies, behaviour and religion of this world because these are in defiance of the mind and will of God. He clearly teaches us not to have close associations with unbelievers. Yet we are still to be His witnesses in the world and in reference to other believers, to endeavour to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond ('uniting bond', Newbekky) of peace, Eph. 4. 3.

The bible does however teach separation from believers in cases of gross, wilful sin, 2 Thess. 3. 6, and from these who come amongst us and teach false doctrine, Tit. 3. 10.

What about believers who do not meet as we do, many of whom are in denominations? This is a vexed question. We wish to embrace them wholeheartedly as those who are one in Christ with us. Yet we cannot participate in 'inter-church' activities which would compromise New Testament principles. The right balance is not easily discerned and causes much heart-searching before the Lord.

In the judgment of this writer, it would be wrong for us to cut ourselves off from informal contact with other born again believers because they do not meet with us or have the same convictions, and appear to be walking in obedience to the light they have from the Lord.

Yet we cannot with a good conscience involve our local church with denominational groups for reasons of church principle and doctrine. Furthermore, many outside groups are a mixture of believers and unbelievers.

What of united evangelistic activities? Is it right to involve assemblies in these along with believers from denominations? Again, in my judgement it is better not to. Certainly we will want to pray that souls will be saved through the preaching of the gospel even although we ourselves are not directly involved. But in interdenominational efforts where would the converts be placed? Would we happily see those whom Christ has delivered become involved in the bondage of human organisation? If so, what price our principles? We know that the Lord is no man's debtor and that He will bless those who proclaim the gospel from whatever background they come. But our desire must be that all who receive the gospel may go on to enjoy the full embodiment of truth as it has been revealed to us in New Testament church gathering.

Separation from other groups of believers on such grounds must not be confused with separatism. Indeed, our reluctance to associate with outside groups is based on the desire to maintain the unity of believers and is therefore not schismatic. Our fervent desire is that all born again believers would join with us.

Summing up, we understand scriptural separation to be from the world and from those who are willfully disobedient to the Lord and His word. Separatism, on the other hand, is schism from other believers and a refusal to believe that He can bless outside the immediate local company or other identical groups. That is not the New Testament position, cf. Mark 9. 38-41.

Yet there are practical reasons why believers in New Testament churches are best to concentrate their energies and service within the local church and in fellowship with others likeminded.

Separation is to Christ, from the world. The separated believer, like Lucian, has one allegiance, to Christ alone. The old life is behind, the new is within and before us. Christ is all, and in all, Col. 3. 11. We are in process of growing up into Him in all things, Eph. 4. 15. That is separation in positive terms and a far cry from negative separatism which can only breed division among the Lord's people.