“Come ye out from among them and be ye separate.”
2 Cor 6:17
I first encountered the ‘doctrine’ of separation, or non-fellowship as it is also known, during my early attempts to join a local church. Such was its hold in one I attended that the church leaders there not only refused to socialise with their non-Christian colleagues outside of work, they would also not even eat with them whilst in work. If they were having a sandwich in their office, for example, and an unbelieving colleague walked in, they would stop eating until either that person left again or they had found somewhere else to eat in private. Another encounter with it came some years later during an educational trip to the Holy Land with a group of reformed church leaders from various denominations. During our time there, I was more than a little surprised to discover that some of those present were not willing to share in communion with the rest of us because of their belief that they should keep themselves ‘separate’.
These are rather extreme examples, I grant you, but many churches have some version of this separation doctrine in place. Some have it very explicitly in their doctrinal statements. Some have it in what is communicated verbally in their teaching. Some have it very subtly in what is acknowledged as acceptable within their congregational life and culture. Wherever it emerges, its basic tenet is that ‘true’ believers should have nothing to do with those who are, and that which is, ‘of the world.’ The justification for this is taken from various biblical texts such as James 4:4 which says ‘don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God,’ Amos 3:3 which says ‘Can two walk together except they be in agreement?’ or Ephesians 5:11, which says, ‘Have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness..’ At first sight, these verses may seem to support something like this idea but they only do so until we look at them in context and set them in their proper setting within the New Testament. When we do that, we discover that like many other erroneous teachings that creep into the church, the idea of separation as expressed above has the appearance of Christianity but is entirely at odds with its vital essence.
Fortunately, it is not a new problem and the Apostle Paul addresses it very adequately in I Corinthians chapter 5. When Paul first wrote to the church in Corinth (I and II Corinthians were not his only or his first letters to the church there) it is clear that this kind of ‘separation’ from the world is actually what the believers there thought Paul was calling them to. What they thought Paul had said was that they were to keep entirely away from all those in their community who were sexually immoral, or greedy and swindlers, or those who were idolaters. In other words, they were to do what the doctrine of separation calls us to. But then, in I Corinthians 5:9-12, Paul responds to their interpretation and makes it clear that they are entirely and absolutely mistaken! This is what Paul says:
9 I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— 10 not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. 11 But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with any who claim to be fellow believers but are sexually immoral or greedy, idolaters or slanderers, drunkards or swindlers. With such persons do not even eat. 12 What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside?
Do you see the vital difference? The only sexually immoral people, the only greedy and swindling people, the only idolaters we are to separate from in our lives are Christian ones! It’s only with those inside the church that we are to judge or remove ourselves from. Those who are on the outside and who are immoral, or greedy and swindling, or idolaters, or whatever else they may be, with these people we are absolutely to associate. These are the people Jesus has died for. To withdraw from and seek to have nothing to do with them is to withdraw from and have nothing to do with the very mission God has called us to. How strange and sad it is that this passage in which Paul categorically says that Christians should not withdraw from the world should be used to advocate that very thing. And yet, that is what frequently happens. Imagine if Jesus had done this? Imagine if Jesus had refused to eat or socialise with sinners? Imagine if He had stayed well away from the sort of people whose lives were utterly out of step with God’s word? Imagine if He had never gone anywhere, nor done anything, that might have led to people thinking he was giving credence to the sinful behaviour of others? The Gospel records would have been entirely different and so would the Gospel itself.
In I Corinthians 5:11, and in the other passages quoted by those who hold this understanding, the separation we are called to from the world is one of heart and of holiness. It is never a blanket separation in terms of geography, involvement or friendship. Of course there are some contexts and some relationships in which it would be unwise for us to participate but this is a far cry from saying that we must entirely remove ourselves from the world. We are not to be of the world in which we live but we are very much to be in it! We are never to allow anything in the world to corrupt our primary love for God but we are absolutely to love and serve and do all we can to reach the people who are in the world. How can salt make any impact on meat without being in contact with it? How can light make any difference to darkness unless it shines where it is? Of course we must befriend those who are far from God. Of course we must join sports clubs and community groups and bring our influence there. Of course we must get involved in our society is every way we can so that as many as possible, in as many places as possible, can have the opportunity to know the love of God in Christ Jesus his Son! It may be a harder way to live out our faith, of course. It may be a riskier path than just staying safely and solely within the fellowship of God’s people. But this is our calling in Christ and we must not shirk from the privilege or responsibility of this calling to be God’s witnesses to the ends of the earth.
Separation is a doctrine of the Pharisees. It is they alone in the New Testament who advocated associating only with the righteous and having nothing to do with the world – and we are not to be like them. Our calling is to follow our master Jesus. Yes, to be utterly set apart for God but, also, to be very much the friends of sinners and to take the good news of God’s kingdom not only to the healthy but also to the sick wherever they may be found. Separationism has led a great many of us in the Christian church to settle for avoidance, if not self-righteous judgement, of those outside of our communities instead of doing all we can to love and reach them. It has led a great many of our churches to live isolated and bunkered existences and thus to never realise the missional potential God has placed within them. To rediscover the Gospel of Jesus we must remove this damaging yeast from our midst and we must recover our calling to be witnesses who do not withdraw from the world but who go into every last part of it in Jesus’ name.
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