Ecclesiastical Separation

feature-article.gifFor over a century Christians have wrangled over the issue of ecclesiastical separation, debating whether it is biblical, helpful, or even needed. We frequently hear “Why can’t we just get along? After all, we’re all really on the same team, right?” Questions like these have a ring of spirituality and can influence pastors, Christians, churches, and Christian organizations. Is ecclesiastical separation biblical? If so, why do so many reject it?

Imagine a bank or financial institution that knowingly employs a famous member of the mafia— would you deposit your paycheck there? Picture this scene: Joe approaches a bank official’s desk to open an account, hard-earned cash in hand. He is greeted by a distinctly Sicilian accent: “Joe, my friend, how goes it? I’m Charles Luciano; my friends call me ‘Lucky.’ What can I do for you? Need me to take that cash off your hands?” If you were in line behind “Joe,” you would probably find a different bank!

Jesus Christ entrusts local churches with the deposit of truth (2 Tim 3:15; Jude 3) and they are responsible to guard that deposit (1 Tim 6:20). How should a church respond when it becomes clear that someone within its ranks or outside relationships is really a member of the religious “mafia?”

The Bank and the Mafia’s Weapon
A church is an assembly of Christian believers. The thing that sets the church apart from all other human societies and associations is that it is to be made up of regenerated (born-again) individuals. Regeneration is the work of the Holy Spirit through the Word of God (2 Thess 2:13–14). These “saints” unite with each other around shared doctrinal beliefs and commitments. They seek to glorify God by preaching the gospel to the lost (Acts 6:7) and building one another up in the Word (Eph 4:11–16). They are to be characterized by holiness—the same fundamental attribute by which their God is known (Isa 6:1–7; 1 Pet 1:15–16). Think of God’s people as the “bank” entrusted with declaring and defending the deposit of God’s truth (1 Tim 3:15).

God’s holy people are in a life-long battle with spiritual forces of wickedness (Eph 6:12) which actively seek to lead people astray through demonically inspired doctrines (2 Cor 11:13–15; 1 Tim 4:1). Such satanic teachings use Christian terms but they are definitely anti-Christian. This is apostasy, the deliberate repudiation and abandonment of biblical truth. Satan injects the cancer of apostasy into the body of Christ in order to corrupt and destroy the truth Christ has entrusted to them (2 Tim 2:17). Think of apostasy as the “spiritual mafia’s” weapon of choice to rob the riches of biblical truth from the “bank” (2 Cor 11:3–4).

If Satan attempts to attack a church or Christian organization with apostasy, what should it do?

Fight
Christ clearly detailed how God’s people should respond to apostasy. When the deviation is identified, God’s people must first militantly resist it. This is the expected response of a people characterized by holiness. To be holy is to be actively opposed to everything unholy; when it comes to evil, there is no neutral or demilitarized zone. Error must be repudiated and truth must be clearly expressed— this is what it means to “contend for the faith” (Jude 3). As God’s people make God’s truth clearly known it protects itself from contamination. Sound doctrine is essential for sound living. God’s people must warn of both error and those who spread it (Eph 5:11). The command to “fight the good fight of faith” (1 Tim 1:18; 6:12) does not refer to the victorious Christian life— it means conflict with an opponent. Error must be identified and names named.

Remove
Should unbelief somehow gain entrance, a church or Christian organization must then rebuke and purge the apostasy. Both the apostasy and the apostate must be rebuked. Rebellious talkers and deceivers must be refuted, silenced, and sharply rebuked (Titus 1:9–13). If there is no repentance, the offender must be purged out (Matt 18:15–17). This action is also rooted in God’s holiness and his people’s imitation of such purity. False teaching defiles congregations and removing such leaven keeps them pure morally and doctrinally (1 Cor 5:7, 13). If apostasy is not rebuked and purged it will be tolerated, welcomed, condoned, and eventually imitated.

Separate
What is the church or Christian organization to do if its efforts at resisting apostasy and cleaning itself of such are unsuccessful? The third response is to separate from the unbelief and establish a pure testimony, which is ecclesiastical separation. As God is holy, so must his people and his church be holy. Churches infected or involved in unholy associations will be defiled. The responsibility of a church to separate on an organizational level from those who walk contrary to the Word of God is rooted in the theological necessity of imitating God’s holiness. God cannot look favorably on evil without responding to it (Hab 1:13) and his people should have the same response.

This command to separate on the organizational (ecclesiastical) level is clearly seen in four passages. In 2 Corinthians 6:14–7:1 believers are not to be “yoked together” in a compromising partnership or alliance. Christ’s yoke cannot be shared with those who deny him. When the church separates itself from all entangling alliances, it identifies with a holy God who is separate from all that is evil, resulting in unhindered fellowship (6:17–18) and the approval and blessing of God.

A second text is 2 John 9–11. Christians should refuse to admit or aid false teachers. They should not aid and abet the very thing that would destroy the church. A third text is Romans 16:17–19. Apostates are identified by their conduct and false teaching. Christians are to “keep away” from them— be separate— so they will be pure, reflecting and imitating God’s holiness. A final text is Galatians 1:8–9. Local churches are made up of individuals who welcomed the gospel message. Christ’s body is not a mixed multitude of believers and unbelievers. One can only enter that body through the pure gospel message. Thus the church must be separate from any alliance that contaminates the gospel.

“But Lucky’s Really a Nice Guy!”
Let’s go back to Joe’s bank and “Lucky” Luciano, the genteel and friendly bank officer. After what you saw, you decide to entrust your money to a different financial institution down the street. You’re happy to hear they are staffed by trusted workers, but learn that they are partners with— guess who— Joe’s Sicilian-accented friend! While this new bank isn’t directly controlled by the mafia, it definitely has ties to it; would you feel safe trusting your money there?

A similar situation exists in Christian circles because of the unwillingness to be completely separate from apostasy and unbelief. It seems incredible that such should be the case, given the precious deposit of truth believers are entrusted with, but it is the prevalent practice today. Why? There are many reasons why Christians and Christian organizations repudiate ecclesiastical separation, but none of them have a real, solid Scriptural basis. Instead, they are based on feelings, emotions, and an if-it-works-it-must-be-okay philosophy.

Examples and Conclusions
Identifying current-day apostasy isn’t hard to do. Apostasy is rampant in the Roman Catholic Church and liberal Protestantism. Even in segments of evangelicalism deviant theology can be found, such as T. J. Jakes’ denial of the Trinity.

Examples of current day compromise and/or disobedience are not hard to identify. Consider J. I. Packer, who has written some good things but also encourages association with Catholicism! John Piper and John MacArthur are evangelicals who have also written some good things, but their disobedience in walking with doctrinally deviant men or cooperating with those who eschew ecclesiastical separation should cause every believer to recognize their compromise and be wary of their influence.

Local churches and their pastors must be careful about which ministries they support and the relationship they maintain. Fellowships, associations, schools, and mission boards need to clearly identify themselves as committed to imitating God’s holiness in this area through the speakers they utilize and connections they establish. This doctrine must be taught and inculcated in messages, classes, and publications. Faculty, administration, missionaries, pastors, and church members must be knowledgeable of these issues and committed to practicing it.

Ecclesiastical separation— the determination to make a definite break in relationship and refuse to work together with those who deny, disobey, and dilute the Scriptures— must be practiced in order to protect the precious deposit Christ has entrusted to us. It should never be the reason a church or Christian organization exists; however, it is essential to the objective all things— the glory of God. Churches and Christian organizations should not exist for ecclesiastical separation, but they cannot be faithful and continue without it.

April/May 2007

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