Are Separatists Divisive?

feature-article.gifA charge often leveled at separatists is that they are divisive. They split groups, leave churches, separate from organizations, and go off and form their own “splinter groups.” Aren’t Christians supposed to love one another? Shouldn’t they all be united? Didn’t Jesus pray that all those who believed in him would be as one?

The Unity of the Church
Jesus did pray that his Body, the Church, would demonstrate the same kind of unity that he has with his Father (John 17:21). In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul relates the unity of the Body to the baptism of the Holy Spirit: the Body is one because each individual was placed in the Body by the same Holy Spirit (1 Cor 12:13). Indeed, the universal church, the Body of Christ, demonstrates an organic unity. In other words, each member is intricately connected by allegiance to the same Lord, the same saving faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ, and the same baptism by the Holy Spirit (Eph 4:4–6). We share in common our faith in and obedience to the Lord Jesus Christ (1 John 1:3).

The New Testament also commands the unity of local churches, the individual manifestations of Christ’s Body (1 Cor 1:10). In each assembly, members are to live in harmony (Rom 12:16; 15:5; 2 Cor 13:11; 1 Pet 3:8), pursuing peace and edification in everything they do (Rom 14:19; Col 3:12–15). The local church, as a subset of the Body of Christ in a specific location, is responsible to maintain a practical unity. Making decisions, handling problems, and ministering together are to be done in a unified way (Phil 1:27; 2:1–4; 4:1–2). However, that practical unity is always to be based on the organic unity found in submitting to and obeying Jesus Christ as Lord. There simply is no practical unity apart from that organic unity.

Answering the Charge
What then of these separatists? Are they guilty of divisiveness? Is separation wrong because it destroys the unity of Christ’s body? Romans 16:17–18 answers this charge. Paul, closing his epic doctrinal tome, says, “Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned and avoid them. For they that are such serve not our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly; and by good words and fair speeches deceive the hearts of the simple.”

In these two verses, Paul gives two commands and then supplies two supporting reasons for those commands.

The First Command: Mark Those Who Deviate from New Testament Doctrine
First, he commands us to mark the proponents of any doctrine or practice that deviates from New Testament teaching. This demands that we be alert to false teaching. How does one recognize false teaching? The standard Paul gives is apostolic doctrine: false teaching is anything “contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned.” Consider that this command comes at the end of the epistle of Romans, in which Paul expounds on the doctrine of justification and its effect on the believer’s life.

Those who do not meet this standard in teaching or practice should be duly noted. This “marking” could take the form of a denunciation of a church member under discipline, a public critique of a published author, or a warning regarding a prominent teacher. This kind of careful watchfulness is the specific responsibility of a local church’s leadership (Acts 20:28–31).

The Second Command: Separate from the Marked Ones
Second, Scripture commands us to part company with those who espouse and propound such false teaching. The last part of verse seventeen says, “avoid them.” Any fellowship (sharing or partnership) with those who have parted with New Testament teaching must be broken off. Because these people have failed to obey and proclaim the truth of the Word of God, those who desire to obey must offer no fellowship to them (2 John 10–11).
What does this separation look like? Clearly, it is not rudeness, unkindness, or malicious hatred (2 Tim 2:24). Rather, it is a refusal to engage in spiritual ministry with those who are knowingly and deliberately in disobedience to God’s Word (2 Cor 6:14–15). This separation does not forbid communication of any kind with this person, because 2 Thessalonians 3:15 commands the confrontation of an offending brother when possible. However, his refusal to submit to the Scripture has opened a gap between himself and those who desire to obey Scripture, and we do not have the right to close that gap. Because a false teacher has departed from the teaching of the New Testament, he must be avoided.

Is this separation divisiveness? Quite the contrary. In fact, Paul labels those who depart from New Testament doctrine as the ones who cause divisions. It is not the ones who separate from these disobedient people who are divisive, but the ones who have swerved from the doctrinal standard. This biblical separation makes the distinction between obedience and disobedience apparent (cf. 1 Cor 11:19).

Having commanded the readers to mark and separate from those who separate from biblical teaching and practice, Paul gives two supporting reasons.

The First Reason: The Danger of False Allegiance
God commands believers to mark and avoid disobedience because those who refuse to obey true doctrine are not truly serving Christ but their own desires. One cannot serve Christ and yet disobey his Word. As Jesus himself said, “No servant can serve two masters” (Luke 16:13). One does not truly love Christ when he refuses to obey him. Jesus told his followers, “If ye love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15).

Those who refuse to obey God’s clear commands demonstrate that their love for God is second to their love for themselves. Although they may point to Scripture that speaks of the need for unity, God’s desire is that his children be united in obedience to the truth of his Word.

The Second Reason: The Danger of Deception
Second, God commands believers to mark and avoid those who are disobedient because they will deceive others into following their position. One danger of refusing to separate from those who do not adhere to New Testament doctrine is that others may be deceived as well. This marking and avoiding must be public in order to prevent others from being deceived. If a false teacher is not marked and avoided, the shepherds who must give account for that flock have failed their duty (Titus 1:9–11; 2 Tim 2:24–26; Acts 20:28–31).

While separatists have been called divisive for decades, the Bible is clear: those who depart from the teaching of Scripture are divisive and must be avoided. The divisive man is not the one who separates from false doctrine, but the one who separates from the truth.

Historical Examples of Divisiveness
Though separatists have often been branded as divisive, a quick review of history shows the exact opposite to be true. At the end of the nineteenth century, theological liberalism or modernism made its way to America. This movement, based on German rationalism, denied anything that could not be physically observed. Since the Bible records supernatural events such as miracles, creation, and the virgin birth of Christ, liberalism postulated that the Bible was not the inerrant Word of God but simply a collection of fables and folklore.

As liberalism invaded first schools and seminaries, and then through its graduates, churches and whole denominations, those who truly believed the Bible became alarmed. In the days leading up to the First World War, godly men tried valiantly to stave off the advance of unbelief in their denominations and conventions, but were almost completely unsuccessful. In most cases, believing pastors or church bodies were eventually forced to leave the fellowship they previously enjoyed and found new groups. They lost their church buildings, their camps, their denominations, and the names of their organizations. The leaders of these groups who wanted to honor God and remain true to his Word lost their positions in influential denominations, forfeited pensions, and were required to pay back student loans.

Unbelief, like a giant parasite, completely devoured almost all of the major organizations and institutions that had once been true to God and his Word. It forced out the ones who built them. The separatists had not changed their position; they still held to the truth of God’s Word. Those who deviated from scriptural teaching forced them to separate to maintain doctrinal purity.

The story does not stop there, however. In the late 1940s and into the 1950s, many fundamentalists became dissatisfied with their image as cantankerous and divisive. Desiring a more scholarly reputation, these men desired to maintain a conservative theology while repudiating the doctrine of ecclesiastical separation. They discarded separation and called themselves the “new evangelicals.” In so doing, they deliberately overlooked the fact that separation is just as much a part of New Testament teaching as any other doctrine.

Seeking fellowship and theological dialogue with the liberals from whom the previous generation of separatists had separated just a few decades earlier, the new evangelicals also gladly parted ways with the separatist fundamentalists. Again, those who desired to be fully obedient to the Word of God were forced to break fellowship with these who had jettisoned the clear teaching of the Bible. Were the separatists divisive? Or was it those who broke with the teaching and practice of God’s Word?

In Conclusion
The Bible does not condemn the separatist as divisive. Quite the contrary, it labels those who depart from obedience to the written Word of God as divisive, not those who separate from disobedience to maintain purity. Since true unity can only be found in agreement with God’s Word, no unity can be found with those who choose to disobey God’s Word.

March 2007

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