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Separation: Some Distinctions

September 17, 2012

I was going to put this article off for later after covering a few other aspects of separation, but some recent comments and questions have prompted me to go ahead and address this particular issue. Several important distinctions exist in the application of separation that we need to keep in mind. While it would be easiest to simply answer every matter with a blanket do or don’t separate, the Bible does not give us that liberty. In fact, the Bible itself clearly distinguishes different approaches to separation. To help think through the proper approach to separation,  I want to make six observations.

First, and most importantly, when we talk about separating over doctrine, the New Testament places the emphasis on separating from the teachers of false doctrine. Except in the case of unrepentant sin (Matthew 18:15-17 and 2 Thessalonians 3:14), every other command to separate from an individual is in the context of those who are teaching false doctrine (Romans 16:17; Titus 3:10 and Galatians 1:7-9) or are promoting wicked lifestyles (Philippians 3:17-19; 1 Timothy 6:3-5 and Revelation 2:20). This is a very important distinction. We do not necessarily separate from all those who accept a false doctrine, but we must separate ourselves from those who are teaching and preaching contrary to the doctrines of the gospel or the doctrines of godliness.
Second, not every separation is a complete removal all contact. In the case of teaching doctrine that specifically denies the gospel, we are instructed in 2 John to not even offer hospitality. That separation is a total separation, which refuses any contact on even the most basic level with the one who strives to promote his apostasy. In the case of unrepentant sin that has resulted in church discipline, 2 Thessalonians 3 instructs us to limit our contact with the erring brother. Not completely cutting him off from all conversation and cordiality, but instead engaging him as a brother in Christ so that we may admonish him to return to obedience.  When there is separation, it needs to be practiced for the protection of the gospel, the purity of the church and the persuasion of the unrepentant. This purpose helps us then maintain a right approach towards a person after there has been a decision to separate.
Third, the refusal to allow official cooperation- as in refusing church membership, church cooperative efforts or opening the pulpit- is not always the same as identifying a person or ministry as apostate, heretical or unrepentant. At times we have grossly misstated our separations. A pernicious heretic needs to be separated from and clearly identified as a distributor of dangerous and divisive doctrines. However, one who preaches the gospel but differs in another area of doctrine should not be treated as if he is an apostate. If public warnings need to be given, they should be phrased in such a way that believers are enabled to discern that the doctrinal error is not a gospel error. Nor should believers read into every limitation of fellowship or cooperation as a denial of the salvation of those being separated from. Refusing church cooperation or membership is not the same as identifying someone as a distorter of the gospel.
I have three more points on this, which I’ll mention next week. These first three I hope will serve as a quick grid from which to continue working through specific applications of separation in your own life and ministries.

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