It’s No New Doctrine: Surveying the History of Biblical Separation

feature-article.gifThose who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Believers should take this well-worn admonition to heart as they view from religious history the overall downward trend to eventually deviate from God’s truth. Based on lessons from the past, believers ought to be saddened, but not surprised, when God’s Word calls them or their churches to separate from what is impure. Historical honesty requires us to recognize that wholesale religious compromise with unbelief is not new to our generation. Likewise, responding to religious compromise with biblical separation is something God’s obedient people have always practiced.

People have negative reactions toward the doctrine of biblical separation because they have not been taught it from God’s Word or shown how it has been practiced throughout church history. Some even believe that biblical separation is some new doctrine imported into the Bible by uneducated men with a chip on their shoulder. Others feel that biblical separation from disobedient brethren is unloving. Still others consider biblical separation to be based upon novel interpretations of the Bible, having had no early historical precedent of its practice in the church. None of these opinions are accurate.

Biblical Separation is Not New
A general survey of the history of God’s people reveals the notion that biblical separation is a new doctrine to be far from reality. There have always been biblical separatists who have willingly come apart from disobedience and error for the sake of purity of life, heart, and doctrine. I will go even further and say that because God’s people have separated from religious error we still have churches to go to that teach God’s truth. As a matter of fact, as long as there have been false gods and disobedience in the world, there has been the need to practice biblical separation. And as long as there have been faithful, obedient Christians, there have always been biblical separatists who chose to please God rather than remain yoked with error.

Biblical Separation has a Long History of Practice among God’s People
In this article, I will present a brief survey of the biblical separatist movement among God’s people in order to demonstrate that there is firm precedent of its belief and practice in both the biblical record and church history. I will start with the inspired record of the Old and New Testaments and then move on to examples of biblical separation throughout church history.

Biblical Separation in Old Testament Times
A surface examination of Judges, Kings, and the prophets reveals a much-repeated theme: God is set apart from impurity, and He expects His people to be exclusively and loyally set apart to Him. God’s people were never to join in service, alliances, or worship with idolatrous nations, regardless of the circumstances. God’s people were to be completely separated from idolatrous nations and fully consecrated (positively separated) unto the Lord. By way of a negative example, King Jehoshaphat of Judah, as godly as he was, foolishly disobeyed the Lord by entering into a political alliance with apostate King Ahab of Israel (see 1 Kings 22 where Jehoshaphat almost gets himself killed because of his lack of biblical separation). This historical narrative was written to teach God’s people that disobeying His command to separate from apostasy, even for a “good” cause, leads to nothing but grief.

Further, one of God’s main indictments against Israel’s spiritual leaders was their lack of teaching biblical separation: “they have put no difference between the holy and profane, neither have they shewed difference between the unclean and the clean…and I am profaned among them” (Ezekiel 22:26). Even the first of the Ten Commandments teaches separation by its requirement to worship God exclusively. A God-fearing Israelite separated from false religion (even among other Israelites) and consecrated himself fully to obedience and loyal love to God.

Biblical Separation in New Testament Times
Almost every New Testament book warns against the dangers of false teaching, and such warnings involve the necessity of separation. Specific warnings to come apart from false teachers are often repeated in Christ’s messages as He taught His disciples (See Matthew 7:15–23; 15:1–20). Second John warns us about false teachers who would try to gain both an audience with and help from God’s people. The Apostle of Love tells one such well-meaning woman not to support false teachers – separate from them completely and refuse to give them any help whatsoever to avoid participating in their work (see 2 John 7–11). Concerning the treatment of believers living in disobedience to apostolic teaching, Paul writes, “if any man obey not our word by this epistle, note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed” (2 Thessalonians 3:14). Obedient believers in the early church separated from false teaching, false teachers, and disobedient believers for the sake of the purity of the testimony of Christ.

Biblical Separation Following the Early Church Age
Immediately following the early church era, false teachers of all sorts continued to subtly gain entrance into the church, bringing their destructive heresies with them. In response to these false teachers, there arose within the church apologists (defenders of the Christian faith) and polemists (attackers of false doctrines). These men taught the necessity of separating from what was unbiblical and clinging to biblical orthodoxy. Later, various controversies about the nature of Christ’s person arose. Groups of church leaders (known as church councils) met together to reaffirm the truth about Christ, thus separating from those teachers who were false. Unfortunately, gradual compromise of biblical truth led the church into the darkness of the medieval Catholic Church. Yet even in the midst of such darkness, believers in France such as the Petrobrusians and Waldenses separated themselves, out of love for the Gospel of grace, from the corrupt Roman Catholic Church, even at the cost of their lives.

Biblical Separation in the Protestant Reformation
The Protestant Reformation was a spiritual movement in the 1500s when Christ’s power operating through His rediscovered Word saved large numbers of people out of superstitious and legalistic religion. These new believers loyally obeyed God’s Word by separating from their former religious affiliation – the doctrinally and morally corrupt Roman Catholic Church. Yet when the Reformers rediscovered the fundamental doctrines of the faith, they also had to rediscover how to maintain the purity of those same doctrines. Thus, the Reformation itself was a separatist movement opposed to joining with corrupt religion so that a clear-cut testimony for Gospel truth could be maintained.
Martin Luther’s careful study of the Bible, his visit to Rome that gave him a firsthand view of Catholicism’s corruption, and subsequent theological battles eventually led to a separation from this abhorrent religious machine. When Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli was converted while serving as a Catholic vicar and chaplain in 1519, his efforts to reform the church also resulted in a separation from Rome. This resulted in surrendering his papal pension in 1520.

It also became necessary for the Swiss Brethren (or Anabaptist) movement to separate from their Christian brother, Ulrich Zwingli, when he delayed in getting rid of the mass in Zurich and refused to change his unbiblical practice of infant baptism.

During the English Reformation, there arose a movement called Puritanism that sought to purify errors in the Church of England. When this failed, some Puritans (known as the Separatists) came apart both doctrinally and organizationally from the Church of England. Eventually, many of these separatist Puritans (also called Pilgrims) fled to America in search of religious freedom, eventually becoming the forerunners of modern Baptist, Independent, and Bible churches.

If the Reformation, the greatest outpouring of new life from the Holy Spirit since Pentecost, was anything, it was a return to obeying God’s Word. Likewise, the Protestant Reformation can accurately be called one of the greatest biblical separatist movements of all times. God’s people left the morally and doctrinally corrupt Roman Catholic Church to form churches separated unto God’s truth.

Biblical Separation and Charles Haddon Spurgeon in the 1800s
C. H. Spurgeon was part of the Baptist Union in England, a fellowship of independent churches. After learning of some liberal pastors in this fellowship, Spurgeon sought to warn his fellow pastors of the dangers of watering down biblical doctrine for the lesser prize of unity. Spurgeon understood that if false teachers were allowed to continue in fellowship with genuine Bible believers, it would be the liberals who would ultimately come out on top. Yet few heeded Spurgeon’s biblical warnings. This was known as the Downgrade Controversy.

When Bible-believing pastors refused to separate from liberals in the Baptist Union, Spurgeon was forced to separate from them, since they themselves were now complicit with error. In his day Spurgeon was hated for his separatist stand, but history has vindicated Spurgeon’s decision to stand almost alone and separate from clear compromise. If you visit London today, you can still worship the Lord in a faithful, separatist Bible-teaching church known as the Metropolitan Tabernacle – Spurgeon’s former church. What about the churches today in England that refused to separate from apostasy? They are now teaching the same false doctrines which they refused to separate from back in the 1800s.

Biblical Separation in the Modernist-Fundamentalist Controversy
of the early 1900s
When liberals began to hijack Bible-believing denominations in the early twentieth century, God’s people in these denominations had to separate from these apostates in order to preserve the truth of the Gospel for future generations. It was the biblical fundamentalists who were the ones who obeyed God’s command to separate from error and liberalism. For example, it was during this time that men like J. Gresham Machen separated from Princeton Seminary and founded Westminster Presbyterian Seminary (which, sadly, is now full of compromise). It was during this era that evangelist Bob Jones founded Bob Jones University as a separatist educational institution. Historically, in the last century, it has been the movement known as biblical separatist fundamentalism that has sought to obey God’s purity-producing command to separate from false Gospels and disobedient brethren.

Is Biblical Separation a New Belief or Practice?
We have seen that both the Old and New Testaments teach and model biblical separation for us to follow. Further, we have taken note that each period of church history vindicates the necessity and application of biblical separation in our own struggle against false doctrine, false teachers, and even disobedient brethren. One who argues that biblical separation is a modern invention or recent novelty is ignorant of the biblical record, as well as blind to its regular and necessary practice in church history. Biblical separation may not have always been popular or mainstream, but it has always been practiced by faithful followers of God’s Word.

I close with the words of Dr. Kirsopp Lake, a modernist professor from Harvard University and an avowed liberal. Even as he slights fundamentalists as “uneducated,” he does not deny our biblical position: “It is a mistake often made by educated persons who happen to have but little knowledge of historical theology to suppose that fundamentalism is a new and strange norm of thought. It is nothing of the kind; it is the partial and uneducated survival of a theology which was once universally held by all Christians. How many were there, for instance, in Christian churches in the 18th century who doubted the infallible inspiration of Scripture? A few, perhaps, but very few. No, the fundamentalist may be wrong; I think he is. But it is we who have departed from the tradition, not he, and I am sorry for the fate of anyone who tries to argue with a fundamentalist on the basis of authority. The Bible and the corpus theologicum [the body of biblical truth] of the Church is on the fundamentalist side.”

December 2006

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