The teaching of separation from doctrines and practices that cause spiritual and moral defilement has been de-emphasized in recent decades in the Christian testimony. Where at one time more care was taken in the denominations of Christendom to exclude individuals and influences that were seen as endangering doctrinal or moral integrity, most churches now exercise very little carefulness in their fellowship (communion), and often accept all comers on their own responsibility to the Lord’s Supper. While the standards of separation or exclusion were often legalistically established and enforced in past centuries, regrettably so, there remain some Christians who are concerned that this liberalizing trend is not a move toward a more scriptural principle and practice of fellowship.
It is really rather remarkable how little time or emphasis even the abstract teaching of separation to God is receiving in modern evangelical Christianity, in light of the prominent thread of types and teaching on the subject running right from the dividing of light from darkness in Genesis 1, on through to God’s final and permanent work of separation at the end of the Revelation. Whether in Noah, or in Abraham, or in national Israel, or whether in the church or assembly (Greek: ecclesia, literally called out), God in His sovereign grace has always seen fit to bless and preserve the objects of His electing love by separating them morally from “the present evil world” (Galatians 1:4). To “sanctify” in the Bible is to “set apart” for a purpose, and God’s work of sanctifying souls is for His own purposes and glory, and for the blessing of His saints both as individuals and collectively.
It should be noted that there are very many dear believers in Christ who take to heart and seek to practice for themselves as individuals the exhortation in Ephesian 5:11, to “have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness”. Many also are exercised in their consciences by Paul’s word in his second letter to the Corinthians: “Come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you, and will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be My sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty” (6:17-18). What a touching promise of the special enjoyment and nearness that can be ours as individual “sons and daughters” of the Father! It is made possible in our souls by cooperating with His sanctifying work in us through separation from what is dishonoring to Him.
Scriptural separation ought first of all to be held as a principle and put to practice for the honor of Christ. Secondly, it is for our own preservation from moral and spiritual defilement, so that we can better enjoy our spiritual blessing in nearness and fellowship with “Him who sanctifies and those who are sanctified” (Hebrews 2:11). There is another consideration for sanctified souls in their desire to please the Lord Jesus: we ought to carefully avoid the tendency to practice the kind of separation that is prideful or legalistic. Religious flesh always takes what is right and godly and appropriates it for its own aggrandizement, but “the flesh profits nothing”.
These points apply to individual Christians, of course, but the collective exercise of godly separation is perhaps more challenging and fraught with social and organizational considerations. Should all be welcome to come into a meeting of the assembly and partake of the Supper on their own cognizance or responsibility, giving no account of their manner of life or doctrine? How much ought family considerations or friendships enter into the liberalizing of fellowship at what many still call “the Lord’s table”?¹ How much responsibility do Christians have for others with whom they have fellowship, and how much accountability to others are we bound to acknowledge in our communion, our sharing in the “one loaf”¹ and in the “Lord’s cup”?
The Bible contains much teaching on separation, and here are a few of many texts that shed light on the subject. These can keep us from becoming either careless or unbalanced in principle and practice if we allow the Spirit to keep the claims of Christ before us as preeminent.
- John 1:4-5 – “The light appears in darkness, and the darkness apprehended it not.” The Light came into the world, but darkness remains for now, and the two principles will forever be separated, having no point of association with each other, no fellowship together. “What communion hath light with darkness?” (II Corinthians 6:14)
- John 17:13-19 – “Sanctify them through Thy truth; Thy word is truth.” Christ’s desire is to have His people set apart from the world, for Himself.
- II John 7-11 – Here we find false doctrine as to person of Christ, and strict separation from it must be maintained. Examples of such error: Denial of the trinity of the Godhead; denial of the deity of Christ; denial of His full humanity (body, soul, and spirit); teaching that Jesus could have sinned. Mormonism, Gnosticism, and the Jehovah’s Witness cult all hold some of these evil teachings.
- Galatians 5:9 – “A little leaven leavens the whole lump”. The leaven of doctrinal error as to Christ’s work must be put away, to separate us from its defiling effect. Examples of that type of false doctrine: Judaistic principles in Christendom; righteousness by works; salvation and security conditional upon our faithfulness; keeping God’s law in order to be justified. Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and most of Protestantism hold defective or legalistic teaching on the atonement of Christ and the justification of the sinner.
- I Corinthians 5:1-13 – “Purge out the old leaven . . . Remove the wicked person from amongst yourselves.” Moral evil must be put away and separated from by the assembly collectively, in order to maintain purity and to be preserved for the honor of “Christ our passover” sacrificed for us. Examples: Murder, theft, drunkenness, abusiveness, fornication (sexual immorality which includes adultery, sexual relations outside of the marriage bond of one woman and one man, and all LGBT activity and accommodation). Sadly, sexual immorality in its various forms is losing the stigma of sinfulness in much of Evangelicalism, including the megachurch phenomenon and the seeker-friendly Church Growth movement.
- I Timothy 5:21-22 – “Lay hands quickly on no man, nor partake in others’ sins. Keep thyself pure.” Having fellowship or identifying with someone hastily without proper care may result in a moral participation in that person’s sin. Proper care should also be taken in the church when people come in who are not known to the local gathering and want to partake of the Lord’s Supper. Communion at the Lord’s Table calls for Christ-honoring separation and a consciousness that one is having close fellowship with all who partake (I Corinthians 10:16-21).
- Titus 3:10-11 – “An heretical man (a divisive person) after a first and second admonition have done with.” Heretics work to divide saints where they ought to go on together, so they must be separated from to preserve “the unity of the Spirit” (Eph. 4:3).
- I Cor. 15:33-34 – “Be not deceived: evil communications corrupt good manners.” (KJV) “Bad company ruins good morals.” (ESV) This is written in the context of plain teaching against false doctrine.
Some Christians may shrink from the teaching of separation in the “house of God” because of the legalism or pride they perceive in those who practice separation. It is true that there has been much unspiritual imbalance relating to separation in church history, and this is to be regretted and avoided. Here are a few texts that can help believers avoid prideful or legalistic view of separation. By examining I Corinthians 1:10-13 and Acts 20:30, we come to understand that following leaders of parties or schools of thought results in unscriptural separation into denominations. In Jude 19, we read that separating due to pride and ungodly motives is very wrong. As to allowance for the exercise of individual conscience in contact with the world, in I Corinthians 10:27 we find there is liberty for a Christian to visit with or eat with an unbeliever (“if you be disposed to go”), which is of course a different scenario from avoiding interaction with a so-called “brother” on a sinful course, as in I Corinthians 5:9-13. In this latter passage, we find an example of the balance and perspective that Paul brings to bear on the matter of separation in the world. We ought to distinguish between situations and relationships that differ.
In summary, the Christian with a godly desire to honor Christ and be preserved in his Christian testimony² may take courage in Paul’s exhortation to Timothy, given as “vessels” to dishonor were already appearing in the great house of Christendom: “If therefore one shall have purified himself from these, in separating himself from them, he shall be a vessel to honour, sanctified, serviceable to the Master, prepared for every good work. But youthful lusts flee, and pursue righteousness, faith, love, peace, with those that call upon the Lord out of a pure heart.”³ Individual Christian faithfulness in separation from defilement is God’s prerequisite for the enjoyment of happy fellowship with saints, and for maintaining (if in weakness) a corporate testimony that honors the One whose house we are — the Lord Jesus Christ.
“Behold, I have set before thee an open door, and no man can shut it: for thou hast a little strength, and hast kept My word, and hast not denied My name” (Revelation 3:8). These words of Jesus to the weak assembly testimony in Philadelphia ought to encourage our hearts to go on in faithfulness to Him.
¹ I Corinthians 10:16-21, Darby translation
² I Thessalonians 5:21-23
³ II Timothy 2:16-22, Darby translation