SEPARATION IS A SUBJECT on which extremes amounting almost to insanity exist. Some seem bent on breaking down all distinctions between God’s people and the world. Others spend their lives building walls of separation that only serve to hinder the spread of the Gospel and the growth of the believer. For an individual, and for an assembly, to maintain a balanced position on this matter is of the highest importance.
Before we consider these extremes in detail it will be as well to remind ourselves that separation is of two sorts:
Moral separation is separation from an unscriptural moral order. Ecclesiastical separation is separation from an unscriptural religious system.. WhentheCorinthianswere enjoined to ‘come out from among them’ and be separate, both these forms of separation were in view, for the unsaved of the city were given to idolatry and immorality. It does not follow, of course, that this is always so. Indeed the adherents of a religious system about which we could not feel happy, may well be believers of high character with whom we can enjoy a great deal of personal fellowship.
The Bible jealously guards the difference between the believer and the unbeliever. Believers are regarded as ‘set apart’. New Testament churches did not accept the unsaved into their fellowship in the hope that they would learn to be Christians from the example of others. But this was done later on, and is done today. We have to be careful to resist any such lowering of the standard of reception. A very few years will change a church into a religious and social club once the unsaved are admitted.
The immediate danger, however, is from what arc called ‘inter-church relations’. Often these can only be established and maintained if we are prepared to soft-pedal the truth. There is commonly a tacit understanding in such cases that there shall be no mention of ‘baptism’, ‘the breaking of bread’, ‘human ordination’ and so on. But what right have we to agree not to mention certain subjects? The plain commission is: ‘baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you’. No plea of expediency can reduce our responsibility here. If association with a particular group of believers can only be carried on if we submit to be muzzled, then the only possible pathway is that of separation. At the same time we must never cut ourselves off from believers who are in associations where we ourselves could not be happy. As individual saints we should love them. Paul was thrilled when he heard of the love which the Colossians had ‘to all the saints’. Robert Chapman has left us an example in this respect. Living in days when the spirit of sectarianism was rife, he refused to allow ecclesiastical difference to dim his love for all Christians. As a result, many were led to re-consider their position and to embrace New Testament Church principles, who under different treatment would merely have been driven back to tie defence of an unscriptural stronghold. He was much criticized by Bigots with a capital ‘B but the love he showed was pleasing to his Master.
Sectarianism is in our blood. So perverse is nature that a man who comes out from all sects may find himself founding a sect. Now the sect that is formed on the pretext of coming out from sectarianism will be the worst sect ever known.
We say that we will take no names except those common to all believers. But what if we take such a general name and begin to limit its application to ourselves? All believers are disciples. The Bible knows no special group known technically as ‘disciples’. All believers are brethren. The Bible knows no special group known technically as ‘brethren’.
Even men such as J. N. Darby fell early into the trap of accepting a technical term to describe those who met as they did. One realizes the convenience of being able to indicate by a single word those who seek to return to New Testament Church life. The alternative is sometimes an awkward circumlocution. But we must never forget that to limit the word ‘brethren’ to a certain circle of saints is not in accordance with scriptural practice. There can be little doubt that over the years the glib use of this term has built up in many minds the conception of a closed sect – the very antithesis of the concep¬tion of fellowship which sent a refreshing breeze of love through the dour and dusty halls of early nineteenth century religion.
All too easily we fall into the habit of dividing believers into ‘Us’ and ‘Not Us’. When the writer was still in denominational circles, but was deeply exercised about assembly questions, he put this to the test. He asked friends who met in New Testament simplicity the following question: ‘You say you do not belong to a sect. Very well, suppose you go to live in a town and there you come across some believers who meet exactly as you do, and hold the truth substantially as you hold it, but they are not known as “The Brethren" and none of “your people" have ever heard of them, would you, after careful enquiry, meet with them?’ The way we answer this question reveals whether we are sectarian in outlook, whatever we may claim to be.
Moral separation must not be overlooked in our concern for ecclesiastical separation. Some believers who are in wrong ecclesiastical associations have much to teach us in this respect. The holiness of their lives may even be a rebuke to us.
Sometimes moral separation is regarded as a code of life and a set of sanctions obtaining in the local assembly. In this case the believer who accepts the local ‘norm’ of conduct gets through on easy terms. He does not, for example, go to the cinema or theatre (no need to, nowadays!); he does not smoke, or get drunk, or swear. Fair enough! But is he therefore a holy man, a morally separated man? This acceptance of the broad standards of the local group does not necessarily denote any spirituality at all. Every psychologist knows that it is a characteristic of human societies.
Moral separation is in the realm of the spirit. It is not the mere acceptance of a few rules. It is the ‘fruit of the Spirit’, not the product of a stern legalistic style of preaching. Moral separation is the love of Christ, for the more we love Him, the less we can love the world.