There are not many subjects that are as emotionally charged as the subject of biblical separation. There is no end of books, conferences, sermons, blogs and vlogs that seek to declare how we should think about the subject. Because of this I have questioned myself whether or not I should even attempt to put something out that I know will be ridiculed. My desire is not to load my proverbal gun and fire back at those with whom I disagree. My desire is to help the Lord’s people take a very careful look at this subject, and to allow the Bible to speak. What I am going to do for the next few blog post is to take the passages where the Bible (particularly the New Testament) instructs us as believing people to disassociate or to separate from an individual or groups of people and unpack them for our understanding.
Why is this so important?
Before we dive into our first passage, I want to lean into all of us about the importances of giving careful consideration to this subject. I once heard a preacher say, “You never can be too separated”. Now lets think about that statement, Is that true? Could there potentially be a separation that is unscriptural? On the other hand what if I said, ” You need to strive for unity at all cost” would that be a true statement? could there potentially be a unity that is unscriptural? The truth is, these types of unqualified statements, that do no present a clarifying context, are dangerous. If the preacher I mentioned earlier meant “you can never be too separated from sin” or to state it positively “you can never be too holy or christlike” that would be a true statement, but if he meant, “you can never be too separated from people” or “you can never be too separated ecclesiastically” this would not be true. The reason for this, of course, is the Bible gives clear commands for the Body of Christ to unite. But it must be stated that even in the Body of Christ this unity does not go unqualified. To state that you need to strive for unity at all cost would be equally dangerous if not clarified. The Holy Spirit, through the apostle Paul, calls all believers to “walk worthy of the calling with which you were called… endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” Unity is a scriptural absolute and we must strive for it tenaciously! However, there are exceptions to this call to unite which we will get to as we unpack this subject of biblical separation.
Here are the main passages in the NT that address our separation from individuals or groups of people.
- 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1
- 1 Corinthians 5:9-13
- Romans 16:17
- 2 Thessalonians 3:6
- 1 Timothy 6:3-5
- Titus 3:9-10
- 2 John 1:9-11
Now there are many other passages that call believers to separate from worldliness and sin such as Romans 12:2, Ephesians 5:11, 1 Peter 2:11, but these are not directly instructing us to separate from individuals or groups of people. So we will confine ourselves to these main passages and ask the Lord to give us clarity on this very controversial subject of separation.
In this post, I am going to cover the first passage listed – 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1. This passage is most known for the phrase “Come out from among them and be separated, says the Lord.” It is clear from this statement that the Lord desires his people to separate from a particular group of people (Come out from among them). Earlier in the passage you have five rhetorical question (2 Corinthians 6:14-16) that are designed to present an obvious negative answer. Here is the first question “What fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness?” The obvious answer is there is not any fellowship between righteousness and lawlessness – none whatsoever! The four questions that follow continue down the same vein, with the same negative answer. Now here is where we need to pay very close attention. I want to raise the following question: to whom is the word them in verse 17 referring?
I have heard many sermons on this passage, particularly in my college days, in which the preacher sternly called us to take serious the Lord directive to separate, and I would add they are right to do so. This passage does call us to a type of separation. But then they would typical make a hermeneutical error that in my estimation has caused harm to this text.
Let’s see if you can pin-point the error yourself. I heard a pastor use this text to instruct young college students that they should not fellowship and cooperate with Southern Baptists. The preacher would rant about his disapproval of the SBC for a few minutes and then he would yell “Come out! Come out! Come out from among them and be separate!” He concluded the sermon saying, “If you are anything other than an Independent Fundamental Baptist you are disobeying this passage and the Lord.”
A few years ago I read a book called “Touch Not the Unclean Thing: The Text Issue and Separation”. The book’s title should have caught your attention because it is a quotation from our text – 2 Corinthians 6:17. The book propounds the superiority of the Textus Receptus over Westcott and Hort, also known as the Critical Text. The author would go further to say that the CT is corrupted and we need to separate from it – “Touch not the unclean thing”. The unclean thing in his book is applied to the corrupted text.
Are these appropriate applications for this passage?
Now my purpose is not to get into a big text issue debate. The examples given in order to raise these questions: did the author rightly use 2 Corinthians 6:17? Is that passage instructing us to separate from a particular Greek text or people who adhere to that particular text? Going back to the earlier example, does this text instruct us to separate from Southern Baptists? or any other evangelical denomination for that matter?
The answer to all those questions is No. Absolutely not. No matter where you stand on the text issue or how you view the SBC, this text is not design to address those subjects. How do I know that? Look at verse 14 – don’t miss it!
Do not be unequally yoked together with UNBELIEVERS.
The error that often happen with this passage is ignoring the specific crowd the Lord is calling us to separate from. This is not a passage calling us to separate from other believers. This is not a passage that is instructing us not to touch a certain Greek text. Therefore to use this text to call college students to separate from a differing evangelical denomination, or to commit to a certain Greek text position is to be unfaithful to cut straight the Word of God. This passage is instructing us not to have a close intimate partnership with unbelievers – period. In the next article, I will cover more of what this separation entails because even our Lord fellowshipped and ate with sinners. To use this passage for ones own agenda is wrong. I say this to myself as well, but we preachers particularly have no right to take a passage and say something it does not say. Do you take the charge of 2 Timothy 4:1-2 seriously? Now I do want to clarify by saying there are other passages that deal with separating from an unrepentant believer, and those who walk disorderly. We will cover these in the coming weeks. The point I’m trying to make is this: we need to be tenacious about rightly and precisely dividing the Word of God. We will never come to the unity of faith (Ephesians 4:13) until we stop arguing our opinions and we let the Bible speak.