The church of Christ is composed of all who are savingly united to Him by genuine faith. They are infallibly known only to Himself. They are scattered far and wide, separated from each other by seas and mountains; they are a people of many nations and languages. But, wherever their lot is cast, they hear His voice, and are under His gracious eye. They do not have equal degrees of spiritual light, or measures of grace—but they are all‘accepted in the Beloved’. They are all spiritual worshipers, and joint partakers of grace—and all will hereafter appear together at their Savior’s right hand in glory! In whatever is essential to their salvation, they are all led by the same Spirit, and mind the same things.
But at present they are in an imperfect state. Though they are new creations—they are not freed from the ‘principle of indwelling sin’. Their knowledge is clouded by much remaining ignorance; and their zeal, though right in its aim, is often warped and misguided by the corrupt influence of SELF. They still have many corruptions. They live in a world which furnishes frequent occasions of enticing them. And Satan, their subtle and powerful enemy, is always upon his watch to mislead and ensnare them!
Besides all this—they are born, educated, and effectually called, under a great variety of circumstances. Habits of life, local customs, early relationships with families and friends, and even bodily constitution, have more or less influence in forming their characters, and in giving a bias andturn to their manner of thinking; so that, in matters of a secondary nature—their sentiments may, and often do—differ as much as the features of their faces! A uniformity of judgment among them on these secondary matters, is not to be expected, while the wisest are defective in knowledge, theholiest are defiled with sin, and while the weaknesses of human nature, which are common to them all—are so differently affected by a thousand impressions which arise from their various situations.
I stood at the graveside of a dear, gentle, gracious, and generous saint and looked around at the mourners. I was puzzled by the presence of a group of people who had been absent from the earlier church service.
Then I remembered—my friend had once belonged to a church that practiced “second-degree separation.” These were his former fellow pilgrims. They knew we believed and preached the gospel; but we did not practice the levels of separation they did. For them, separation from our worship was an expression of faithfulness. For me, it left only a taste of sadness.
NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXT
The New Testament does contain teaching on “separation.” Over the centuries, some of the greatest minds have wrestled with how to apply it—Augustine in dealing with the Donatists, Calvin in dealing with radical Anabaptists (in his dauntingly titled Brief Instruction for Arming All the Good Faithful Against the Errors of the Common Sect of the Anabaptists).
The New Testament letters refer to various kinds of separation, always in the recognition that we—and indeed the church—remain simul justus et peccator (at the same time just and sinner). The setting apart of the church (sanctification) is not glorification. Until Christ’s return, there is only a pilgrim church here on the earth, not a perfected one.
The challenges are therefore fairly obvious. Those who effect separation are themselves sinners. So the questions of when, why, and how to separate are of cardinal importance. The New Testament gives us principles; it does not provide us with a single, simple sentence that relieves us of the task of thinking through and wisely applying the Scriptures to each unique situation. Biblical teaching can sometimes be expressed only in compound-complex sentences. In the limited space of this article, we can reflect on only a few aspects of its teaching on separation.