Should Christian Churches Practice Separation?

In a previous post, I gave the doctrinal position of the GARBC (General Association of Regular Baptist Churches) regarding separation and asked for your feedback.  As a reminder, here is what the doctrinal statement of the GARBC states concerning this issue:

XVI. Separation
We believe in obedience to the Biblical commands to separate ourselves unto God from worldliness and ecclesiastical apostasy. 2 Corinthians 6:14–7:1; 1 Thessalonians 1:9, 10; 1 Timothy 6:3-5; Romans 16:17; 2 John 9-11.

As it is stated above, this position seems biblical.  I would probably reword it a bit to emphasize the meaning of the texts that are referenced a little better, but I can live with this wording (and I have been living with it).  If we did examine the texts individually, we would find that they all teach us the same thing: Christians should separate themselves from unbelievers and those who teach heresy (false doctrine).

Unfortunately, this is not how the doctrine of separation has been understood or practiced within the GARBC and many other fundamental Baptist churches.  It has been used to justify separating from any other individual or group who does not agree with EVERYTHING that we believe to be true, whether the issue is of primary importance or not.  Let me give you an example.

A Regular Baptist church that I am familiar with decided to get involved in a program designed to house the homeless.  One night per week this church would take in a group of people and house them in their facility.  On other nights of the week these people would be housed by other churches.  Well, once this church found out that there were other churches involved that were a little different, they backed out of the program.  Their reason?  Separation.  They did not think it was biblical for them to partner with other churches that were different.  The other churches were standard Protestant churches!  These were not cults!  If you read the doctrinal statements of these churches, you would have a difficult time identifying their differences.

Here is the logic:  We cannot help a person in need on Wednesday because someone we disagree with doctrinally helped the person on Tuesday.  I do not get it.  Does this seem wrong to anyone else?

Another example comes from the July/August edition of the Baptist Bulletin (a publication of the GARBC).  In the publication, John Greening, the GARBC national representative, wrote concerning a Gospel Coalitionconference he attended.  In the article, Greening mentioned some of the strengths he saw in the Gospel Coalition (of course none of the strengths mentioned are not already present in the GARBC, according to Greening).  However, he also mentioned some of the reasons that the GARBC could never have fellowship with the Gospel Coalition.  One of the reasons that he cites is the fact that many of the leaders within the movement are Reformed in their theology.  Really?  Since when is Reformed theology heretical?  If we are using the biblical doctrine of separation to justify our lack of fellowship, tell me why Reformed doctrine is heretical!  The biblical command is to separate from unbelievers and those who teach false doctrine.  Here is the doctrinal statement that ALL members of the Gospel Coalition must agree to:

  • The Tri-une God We believe in one God, eternally existing in three equally divine Persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, who know, love, and glorify one another. This one true and living God is infinitely perfect both in his love and in his holiness. He is the Creator of all things, visible and invisible, and is therefore worthy to receive all glory and adoration. Immortal and eternal, he perfectly and exhaustively knows the end from the beginning, sustains and sovereignly rules over all things, and providentially brings about his eternal good purposes to redeem a people for himself and restore his fallen creation, to the praise of his glorious grace.
  • Revelation God has graciously disclosed his existence and power in the created order, and has supremely revealed himself to fallen human beings in the person of his Son, the incarnate Word. Moreover, this God is a speaking God who by his Spirit has graciously disclosed himself in human words: we believe that God has inspired the words preserved in the Scriptures, the sixty-six books of the Old and New Testaments, which are both record and means of his saving work in the world. These writings alone constitute the verbally inspired Word of God, which is utterly authoritative and without error in the original writings, complete in its revelation of his will for salvation, sufficient for all that God requires us to believe and do, and final in its authority over every domain of knowledge to which it speaks. We confess that both our finitude and our sinfulness preclude the possibility of knowing God’s truth exhaustively, but we affirm that, enlightened by the Spirit of God, we can know God’s revealed truth truly. The Bible is to be believed, as God’s instruction, in all that it teaches; obeyed, as God’s command, in all that it requires; and trusted, as God’s pledge, in all that it promises. As God’s people hear, believe, and do the Word, they are equipped as disciples of Christ and witnesses to the gospel.
  • Creation of Humanity We believe that God created human beings, male and female, in his own image. Adam and Eve belonged to the created order that God himself declared to be very good, serving as God’s agents to care for, manage, and govern creation, living in holy and devoted fellowship with their Maker. Men and women, equally made in the image of God, enjoy equal access to God by faith in Christ Jesus and are both called to move beyond passive self-indulgence to significant private and public engagement in family, church, and civic life. Adam and Eve were made to complement each other in a one-flesh union that establishes the only normative pattern of sexual relations for men and women, such that marriage ultimately serves as a type of the union between Christ and his church. In God’s wise purposes, men and women are not simply interchangeable, but rather they complement each other in mutually enriching ways. God ordains that they assume distinctive roles which reflect the loving relationship between Christ and the church, the husband exercising headship in a way that displays the caring, sacrificial love of Christ, and the wife submitting to her husband in a way that models the love of the church for her Lord. In the ministry of the church, both men and women are encouraged to serve Christ and to be developed to their full potential in the manifold ministries of the people of God. The distinctive leadership role within the church given to qualified men is grounded in creation, fall, and redemption and must not be sidelined by appeals to cultural developments.
  • The Fall We believe that Adam, made in the image of God, distorted that image and forfeited his original blessedness—for himself and all his progeny—by falling into sin through Satan’s temptation. As a result, all human beings are alienated from God, corrupted in every aspect of their being (e.g., physically, mentally, volitionally, emotionally, spiritually) and condemned finally and irrevocably to death—apart from God’s own gracious intervention. The supreme need of all human beings is to be reconciled to the God under whose just and holy wrath we stand; the only hope of all human beings is the undeserved love of this same God, who alone can rescue us and restore us to himself.
  • The Plan of God We believe that from all eternity God determined in grace to save a great multitude of guilty sinners from every tribe and language and people and nation, and to this end foreknew them and chose them. We believe that God justifies and sanctifies those who by grace have faith in Jesus, and that he will one day glorify them—all to the praise of his glorious grace. In love God commands and implores all people to repent and believe, having set his saving love on those he has chosen and having ordained Christ to be their Redeemer.
  • The Gospel We believe that the gospel is the good news of Jesus Christ—God’s very wisdom. Utter folly to the world, even though it is the power of God to those who are being saved, this good news is christological, centering on the cross and resurrection: the gospel is not proclaimed if Christ is not proclaimed, and the authentic Christ has not been proclaimed if his death and resurrection are not central (the message is “Christ died for our sins . . . [and] was raised”). This good news is biblical (his death and resurrection are according to the Scriptures), theological and salvific (Christ died for our sins, to reconcile us to God), historical (if the saving events did not happen, our faith is worthless, we are still in our sins, and we are to be pitied more than all others), apostolic (the message was entrusted to and transmitted by the apostles, who were witnesses of these saving events), and intensely personal (where it is received, believed, and held firmly, individual persons are saved).
  • The Redemption of Christ We believe that, moved by love and in obedience to his Father, the eternal Son became human: the Word became flesh, fully God and fully human being, one Person in two natures. The man Jesus, the promised Messiah of Israel, was conceived through the miraculous agency of the Holy Spirit, and was born of the virgin Mary. He perfectly obeyed his heavenly Father, lived a sinless life, performed miraculous signs, was crucified under Pontius Pilate, arose bodily from the dead on the third day, and ascended into heaven. As the mediatorial King, he is seated at the right hand of God the Father, exercising in heaven and on earth all of God’s sovereignty, and is our High Priest and righteous Advocate. We believe that by his incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension, Jesus Christ acted as our representative and substitute. He did this so that in him we might become the righteousness of God: on the cross he canceled sin, propitiated God, and, by bearing the full penalty of our sins, reconciled to God all those who believe. By his resurrection Christ Jesus was vindicated by his Father, broke the power of death and defeated Satan who once had power over it, and brought everlasting life to all his people; by his ascension he has been forever exalted as Lord and has prepared a place for us to be with him. We believe that salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name given under heaven by which we must be saved. Because God chose the lowly things of this world, the despised things, the things that are not, to nullify the things that are, no human being can ever boast before him—Christ Jesus has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness, and redemption.
  • The Justification of Sinners We believe that Christ, by his obedience and death, fully discharged the debt of all those who are justified. By his sacrifice, he bore in our stead the punishment due us for our sins, making a proper, real, and full satisfaction to God’s justice on our behalf. By his perfect obedience he satisfied the just demands of God on our behalf, since by faith alone that perfect obedience is credited to all who trust in Christ alone for their acceptance with God. Inasmuch as Christ was given by the Father for us, and his obedience and punishment were accepted in place of our own, freely and not for anything in us, this justification is solely of free grace, in order that both the exact justice and the rich grace of God might be glorified in the justification of sinners. We believe that a zeal for personal and public obedience flows from this free justification.
  • The Power of the Holy Spirit We believe that this salvation, attested in all Scripture and secured by Jesus Christ, is applied to his people by the Holy Spirit. Sent by the Father and the Son, the Holy Spirit glorifies the Lord Jesus Christ, and, as the “other” Paraclete, is present with and in believers. He convicts the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment, and by his powerful and mysterious work regenerates spiritually dead sinners, awakening them to repentance and faith, baptizing them into union with the Lord Jesus, such that they are justified before God by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone. By the Spirit’s agency, believers are renewed, sanctified, and adopted into God’s family; they participate in the divine nature and receive his sovereignly distributed gifts. The Holy Spirit is himself the down payment of the promised inheritance, and in this age indwells, guides, instructs, equips, revives, and empowers believers for Christ-like living and service.
  • The Kingdom of God We believe that those who have been saved by the grace of God through union with Christ by faith and through regeneration by the Holy Spirit enter the kingdom of God and delight in the blessings of the new covenant: the forgiveness of sins, the inward transformation that awakens a desire to glorify, trust, and obey God, and the prospect of the glory yet to be revealed. Good works constitute indispensable evidence of saving grace. Living as salt in a world that is decaying and light in a world that is dark, believers should neither withdraw into seclusion from the world, nor become indistinguishable from it: rather, we are to do good to the city, for all the glory and honor of the nations is to be offered up to the living God. Recognizing whose created order this is, and because we are citizens of God’s kingdom, we are to love our neighbors as ourselves, doing good to all, especially to those who belong to the household of God. The kingdom of God, already present but not fully realized, is the exercise of God’s sovereignty in the world toward the eventual redemption of all creation. The kingdom of God is an invasive power that plunders Satan’s dark kingdom and regenerates and renovates through repentance and faith the lives of individuals rescued from that kingdom. It therefore inevitably establishes a new community of human life together under God.
  • God’s New People We believe that God’s new covenant people have already come to the heavenly Jerusalem; they are already seated with Christ in the heavenlies. This universal church is manifest in local churches of which Christ is the only Head; thus each “local church” is, in fact, the church, the household of God, the assembly of the living God, and the pillar and foundation of the truth. The church is the body of Christ, the apple of his eye, graven on his hands, and he has pledged himself to her forever. The church is distinguished by her gospel message, her sacred ordinances, her discipline, her great mission, and, above all, by her love for God, and by her members’ love for one another and for the world. Crucially, this gospel we cherish has both personal and corporate dimensions, neither of which may properly be overlooked. Christ Jesus is our peace: he has not only brought about peace with God, but also peace between alienated peoples. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both Jew and Gentile to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. The church serves as a sign of God’s future new world when its members live for the service of one another and their neighbors, rather than for self-focus. The church is the corporate dwelling place of God’s Spirit, and the continuing witness to God in the world.
  • Baptism and the Lord’s Supper We believe that baptism and the Lord’s Supper are ordained by the Lord Jesus himself. The former is connected with entrance into the new covenant community, the latter with ongoing covenant renewal. Together they are simultaneously God’s pledge to us, divinely ordained means of grace, our public vows of submission to the once crucified and now resurrected Christ, and anticipations of his return and of the consummation of all things.
  • The Restoration of All Things We believe in the personal, glorious, and bodily return of our Lord Jesus Christ with his holy angels, when he will exercise his role as final Judge, and his kingdom will be consummated. We believe in the bodily resurrection of both the just and the unjust—the unjust to judgment and eternal conscious punishment in hell, as our Lord himself taught, and the just to eternal blessedness in the presence of him who sits on the throne and of the Lamb, in the new heaven and the new earth, the home of righteousness. On that day the church will be presented faultless before God by the obedience, suffering and triumph of Christ, all sin purged and its wretched effects forever banished. God will be all in all and his people will be enthralled by the immediacy of his ineffable holiness, and everything will be to the praise of his glorious grace.
  • This is the true Christian faith.  There is no heresy here to be found.  Are you familiar with the Gospel Coalition?  Maybe you would recognize some of the individuals who are a part of it:  D. A. Carson, Albert Mohler, Alistair Begg, John Piper, Mark Driscoll, Erwin Lutzer, and many more.

    Yes, there is a time to separate from others who have departed from the true Christian faith.  However, this does not mean we separate from those who are still a part of the true Church, even when they may have differences of conviction in secondary issues like church government, end times, and/or baptism.

    Alongside our doctrine of separation, it may be wise for the GARBC to include a statement on unity that is also prevalent in the New Testament.  We are called to stand as a unified Church in John 10:16; 17:21, 23; 1 Corinthians 1:2, 10, 13; 10:17; 12:12-26; Philippians 2:2; Ephesians 4:3-13, and Romans 16:17-18.

    Leave your comments regarding this issue.  I would love to hear your thoughts.  What is true biblical separation?

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    6 Responses to Should Christian Churches Practice Separation?

    1. Pingback: Biblical Separation: When have we gone too far? « Theologically Speaking

    2. Richard L. Lindberg says:

      Your point about a statement on unity is wise, but I have doubts that it will happen. In my experience with the GARBC, two things I think work against it. First, what you wrote about the church and the homeless ministry is typical in their view of separation, especially secondary separation. That is a distinctive of the GARBC. Second, given the historical roots of the association coming out of the modernist controversy, unity has not been a concern of the association. Third, Baptist individualism works against unity. Baptist churches are self-contained and only cooperate for fellowship and witness.

    3. Tim Farley says:

      Thanks again for your comments, Richard. I agree that there is not likely to be any statement on unity. I do think such a statement may help us to remember that biblical separation is supposed to be in extreme circumstances, not the norm. The issue of secondary separation is probably where my biggest hangup lies with the doctrine. How far do you take it? How do you do it consistently? We often call for our churches to separate from other groups because those groups associate with a liberal group or some sort of false teaching. However, we do not practice the same thing in our churches (at least not consistently). If an individual in our churches is good friends with a member of a cult, we do not separate from that person – at least I have never seen it done. Should we if we are consistent in secondary separation?

      I agree that the GARBC came out of the modernist controversy and much of the doctrine that we cling to is a result of our fight against liberalism. The problem is we are now using the same doctrine to separate ourselves from those who hold to fundamental beliefs. Reformed theology is not the same as liberalism. Besides, we also separate ourselves from those who are dispensational just like us. We do this primarily because they do not hold the same view of separation as we do.

      I am not advocating that we hold joint worship services. There is good reason that we would not do that since we do have differences in what we believe. But we can work together in many ways and show the love and unity towards one another that we are supposed to have. At least, that’s what I think.

    4. Ben A says:

      You know I’ve been working with this stuff lately. It’s been one of my passions since I was a young Christian and I first began to learn about the “evil denominations” on Sunday morning. Methodists were evil. Lutherans were evil. Catholics were literally the anti-Christ. Oh brother.

      We have to find a way to unify the church. I think that joint worship service is very valuable. We used to do it at another church of mine. We’d *occasionally* get a few groups together to worship together. It was an awe-inspiring moment.

      But you’re right in that joint worship isn’t all there is. My church recently helped (along with 50 other churches in the area) to rebuild a homeless shelter. It was amazing work with a dramatic impact. I just heard recently that they are able to support 400% more people than before. That’s the work of God with his Church.

      I believe that in the end, we’ll all be together at the same church. And I think it’s the work of redemption to start that process here and now. There’s millions of Christians who want unity. And they’re beginning to get older. I think some things will begin to change with the church. I see more unity happening.

    5. Ecclesiastical separation is an important topic to work through; to aid in this endeavor, I’ve compiled a list of resources here: http://cbumgardner.wordpress.com/resources-on-ecclesiastical-separation/ . Enjoy!

    6. Tim Farley says:

      Chuck:

      Thank you for the link to your resource list. I read through your thesis findings and agree with your findings regarding ecclesiastical separation..

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