Distinctiveness of the Church

The Distinctiveness of the Church


Separation is both an ignored and an abused teaching. On the one hand, the notion of the church separating itself from pagan society or from heresy is little spoken of in our day of pragmatism and a market-driven church. To the church growth zealot, few concepts are more odious than separation. Consequently, difficult Bible directives are routinely ignored or explained away. On the other hand, there are those who seem always ready for an ecclesiastical fight. In fact, some don’t seem to be happy unless they have something to be against. Unfortunately, this militant outlook sometimes is characteristic of staunch separatists. Indeed, there are those who are so driven by a supposed biblical separation that they have difficulty finding anyone with whom to fellowship.

This brief essay is an attempt to let the Scripture speak regarding what was called the “doctrine of separation” by many fundamentalists in a largely bygone era. It is also a call for biblical balance, perhaps a naïve one.1

Believers Are a Unique People

Salvation is a life-changing event. God grabs us, drags us unto himself, welds us to Christ and his cross, commissions the Holy Spirit to dwell within us and then declares that “…if any man is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come” (2 Cor. 5:17).2 It is rather mind-boggling. It has certain effects; something has happened and something is expected to happen.
In light of this radical redemption, believers are clearly obliged to be different from the pagan world in which they live. Over and over, Scripture almost shouts this to us: “..because it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’ 3 “This is pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father, to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (Jas. 1:27). “. . . instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously, and godly in the present age . . .” (Tit. 2:12).

Sadly, almost any survey of contemporary Christianity shows that the average person claiming to be a born-again Christian lives exactly like his or her average secular neighbor. Yet, God’s requirements have not changed.

Our World

Anyone who doubts the utter wickedness of almost any culture on the globe has been living on a deserted island for the last several decades. Common goodness and morality are rare finds. Nearly every day, our moral equilibrium is bombarded by merely taking a ride down the city streets, or strolling through the mall, or browsing the magazine rack, or surfing the net, or, it seems, just breathing! Indescribable perversion and badness are everywhere. However, we should not be shocked or surprised. In fact, we should anticipate such pervasive wickedness. The Bible prepares us for this eventuality in harsh and graphic terms:

Paul's word to Timothy - "But realize this, that in the last days difficult times will come. For men will
be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to
parents, ungrateful, unholy, unloving, irreconcilable, malicious gossips,
without self-control, brutal, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, conceited,
lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God; holding to a form of godliness,
although they have denied its power . . . (2 Tim. 3:1-5)

Peter's declaration - ". ..and especially those who indulge the flesh in its corrupt desires and despise authority. Daring, self- willed, they do not tremble when they revile angelic majesties, whereas angels who are greater in might and power do not bring a reviling judgment against them before the Lord. But these, like unreasoninganimals, born as creatures of instinct to be captured and killed, reviling where they have no knowledge, will in the destruction of those creatures also be destroyed, suffering wrong as the wages of doing wrong. They count it a pleasure to revel in the daytime. They are stains and blemishes, reveling in their deceptions, as they carouse with you, having eyes full of adultery and that never cease from sin, enticing unstable souls, having a heart trained in greed, accursed children; forsaking the right way they havegone astray, having followed the way of Balaam, the son of Beor, who loved the wages of unrighteousness. . . (2 Pet. 2:10-15)

Yes, we live in a wicked world.

The Believer’s Duty to the World

It has been said that we are to be in the world but not of it. This is a sticky proposition. There is certainly no escaping culture—we live in it daily. Indeed, each of us contributes to the shaping our culture. So what are we to do?

It is easy to curse culture; there is no shortage of critical voices. But the Lord demands that we transform culture. He spoke to his followers in no uncertain terms and his commission was clear: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:19-20). His well known sermon makes it clear that he expects his followers to illumine the darkened world:

You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how will it be made salty again? It is good for nothing anymore, except to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do men light a lamp, and put it under the peck-measure, but on the lampstand; and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven. (Matt. 5:13-16)

This is of one piece with Paul’s exhortation to be like Christ: “. . .that you may prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may have cause to glory because I did not run in vain nor toil in vain” (Phil. 2:15-16).

It is also easy to conform to culture. Sadly, statistics show that most believers do a great job of conforming. But living Christianly requires that we be distinct from culture. Radical, albeit unpopular, measures are demanded in light of our societal cesspool. Paul has specific despicable conduct in mind (Eph. 5:3-6) when he directs his readers to take appropriate action. It is impossible to tone down the terms he uses:

Therefore do not be partakers with [summe,tocoj ‘sharing with’] them; for you were formerly darkness, but now you are Light in the Lord; walk as children of Light (for the fruit of the Light consists in all goodness and righteousness and truth), trying to learn what is pleasing to the Lord. And do not participate in [sugkoinwne,w ’participate in with, be connected with’] the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but instead even expose them [evle,gcw ’bring to light, expose, set forth or convict, convince, point out’]; for it is disgraceful even to speak of the things which are done by them in secret (Eph. 5:7-11, emphasis mine).

After describing the character and conduct of wicked men, Paul demands drastic action: “. . . avoid [’turn away from, avoid’] such men as these” (2 Tim. 3:5b). Paul is so convinced of the need for believers to be distinct from the world that he boldly lays out serious restrictions for them. You can almost hear a rising crescendo of passion as he describes the inappropriateness of close relations with unbelievers:

Do not be bound together with unbelievers; for what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness? Or what harmony has Christ with Belial, or what has a believer in common with an unbeliever? Or what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; just as God said, "I will dwell in them and walk among them; And I will be their God, and they shall be My people. Therefore, come out from their midst and be separate [’set apart, take away, separate, exclude’],” 4 says the Lord."And do not touch what is unclean; And I will welcome you. And I will be a father to you, And you shall be sons and daughters to Me," says the Lord Almighty. Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves fromall defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God. (2Cor. 6:14-7:1).

The Presence of False Teachers

The New Testament states that false teachers and teaching will exist both inside and outside the church. Historical events and contemporary evidence confirm this prediction. New Testament writers warned believers and their leaders to be on guard for this circumstance. Paul’s farewell address to the Ephesian church leaders included a plea for them to watch over the flock diligently in light of false teachers who would arise in the church:

Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be on the alert, remembering that night and day for a period of three years I did not cease to admonish each one with tears(Acts 20:28-31).

Peter saw the church infested with false teachers as well:

“But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing swift destruction upon themselves” (2 Pet. 2:1).

Paul alerted the church at Corinth:

But what I am doing, I will continue to do, that I may cut off opportunity from those who desire an opportunity to be regarded just as we are in the matter about which they are boasting. For such men are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. Therefore it is not surprising if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness; whose end shall be according to their deeds
(2 Cor.11:12-15).

John dramatically speaks about coming “antichrists” in his first epistle:

Children, it is the last hour; and just as you heard that antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have arisen; from this we know that it is the last hour. They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, in order that it might be shown that they all are not of us (1John 2:18-19).

And then there is Paul’s tragic warning to young Timothy:

“But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, by means of the hypocrisy of liars seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron…(1Tim. 4:1-2). Other passages paint an equally bleak yet real picture of ongoing counterfeit activity that the church dare not ignore. (See Matt. 7:15-16; Matt. 24:11,24; Acts 13:6; 2 Cor. 11:14,26; Gal. 2:4.)

The Believer’s Duty in Light of False Teachers

Cooperation, dialogue, tolerance, collaboration; colleague, associate, or partner are hardly terms and concepts found in the Bible to describe the church’s relationship with false teachers. In fact, God’s directives to His people are rather thorny. False teaching is a serious departure from fidelity to God, thus He demands extreme measures:

“Now I urge you, brethren, keep your eye on those who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you learned, and turn away from them. For such men are slaves, not of our Lord Christ but of their own appetites; and by their smooth and flattering speech they deceive the hearts of the unsuspecting” (Rom. 16:17-18).

Who were these people? It is probably impossible to identify them absolutely. These false teachers were promoting some kind of devious teaching that was contrary to the basics of the faith that led to divisions in the church. Paul uses imperatives to describe our twofold response to them. First pay close attention to them. And second, move in a different line (’turn away’) from them. Matthew Henry says it quite strongly: “Shun all necessary communion and communication with them, lest you be leavened and infected by them.” 5

Paul admonished the Galatian believers to hold fast to the gospel no matter what else came their way:

“But even though we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed” (Gal. 1:8-9).

Being “accursed” (‘something dedicated to the deity, a votive gift’) means to be devoted to God’s honor, but to one’s own ruin, or thus to be devoted for evil. 6 It is unlikely that Paul was advocating the destruction of heretics; hence, this passage may speak to attitude rather than action. However, in light of Paul’s conclusion that any false teacher—even an angel—was to be accursed, it is hard to reconcile friendly dialogue or partnership with false teachers. We should not be surprised, then, that Paul even pointed out false teachers by name: “. . .and their talk will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, men who have gone astray from the truth saying that the resurrection has already taken place, and thus they upset the faith of some” (2 Tim. 2:17-18; see also Gal. 2:11-12). Several other passages use strong language as well; see, for example, 1 Tim. 6:3-5, Tit. 1:10-13, and 2 John 9-11.

Hence, it is appropriate that a church decline to engage in cooperative ministries with those who are false teachers. Such collaboration is inconsistent with the clear dictates found in the New Testament, further puts at risk the distinctiveness of Christ’s church, and renders divine truth murky. Indeed, the church is obligated to identify and expose false teachings.

The Degree of Separation

It is plain that individual believers have a biblical obligation to personally make distinctions regarding with whom to enter into close associations. It is not enjoyable on a personal level, but the application of Bible principle calls for separating personally from false teachers, as well as from individuals whose lifestyles fly in the face of Scripture.

Given the unique nature of the church as the special object of God’s love, and given the various directives given to specific churches, it is also appropriate to conclude that the corporate church must ecclesiastically separate along the same lines as individual Christians. In other words, the Scripture is clear when it comes to the church’s relationship with false teachers: she must expose them and separate from them.

But what is to be the church’s relationship with genuine believers who refuse to separate from false teachers? Should she separate from them as well? This notion is often referred to as secondary separation. In other words, primary separation involves directly severing relationships with false teachers, whereas secondary separation is the next level down: indirectly severing relationships with false teachers by also severing relationships with those who cooperate with false teachers. Does this concept have New Testament support?

Advocates of second degree separation often point to Titus 3:10-11: “Reject a factious man after a first and second warning, knowing that such a man is perverted and is sinning, being self-condemned.” The reference in v 10 is probably to the unconverted Jewish errorists of Titus 1:10-16, whose teaching of adherence to non-biblical laws stirred up strife and confusion among the believers. Paul was giving directions regarding what to do about these persons: they were to be rejected, that is, they were to be refused the opportunity to raise their questions or stir up trouble. The term is paraite,omai ’1. Ask for, request, intercede for; or 2. Decline—a. refuse b. avoid c. beg.’ Was this to be accomplished through church discipline (if they were part of the church, even though unconverted), ignoring them in public discussions, publicly calling them out, or what? We are not told; however, private—and perhaps public—admonition had already taken place.

Further, this person is called a “factious” man. The transliterated term is “heretic” (‘factious, causing divisions, schismatic’; see KJV). The emphasis of the term is “one who makes a choice which pleases him, independent of other considerations.” 6 The result is that his choice, when insisted upon, results in divisions.
Thus, this is a discussion about the church and its dealings with factious persons who probably were not believers even though they may have been part of the church. It is not an argument for separating from brothers who refuse to separate from unbelievers and false teachers.

Another passage frequently discussed is 2 Thessalonians 3:6: “Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep aloof from every brother who leads an unruly life and not according to the tradition which you received from us.” Paul is talking about practical living in anticipation of Jesus’ second coming. Believers should be marked by industrious work; they should not be idle, undisciplined, or lazy. In light of the fact that some believers unfortunately exhibit these appalling traits, the conscientious Christian should separate himself from (’keep away, stand aloof or avoid, try to avoid’) such brothers. This discussion is not about false teaching or false teachers; thus, this is not an argument for secondary separation. It is a censure of believers whose life of laziness reflected a lack of understanding of the Christian work ethic. The language is strong; these brothers were to be shunned (“do not associate with him,” v 14). The only other use of this term is in 1 Corinthians 5: 9-11, regarding the immoral person who was to be excommunicated from the church.

In vain, appeals are made to other passages as well by those looking for support for ecclesiastical secondary separation (see Matt.18:15-17, the process of church discipline; 1 Cor.5, an example of church discipline; and Rom.16:17-18, a reference to unknown false teachers. In regard to the Romans passage, see remarks above.) Thus, in my view, support for the so-called doctrine of secondary separation comes from church tradition and misapplication of certain Scriptures rather than from sound exegesis and application.

Final Thoughts

The doctrine of separation is clearly taught in the Bible. We must not equivocate on this sometimes unpleasant teaching any more than we do on the distasteful doctrine of church discipline. However, even though the church must break fellowship with false teachers, there is no Scriptural warrant to shun other brothers in Christ who do not persistently do so.

Applying the teaching of separation is shaped in a large part by one’s definition of “false teachings.” Consequently, we might speak artificially of level “A” separation: severing relationships with those who deny truths that historically have been considered core issues in the minds of most orthodox Christians. (We might think of the virgin birth and deity of Christ, the substitutionary atonement of Christ, or the bodily resurrection of Christ.) We would also speak of level “B” separation: severing relationships with those who hold to doctrines deemed to be unbiblical or perhaps liberal. (We might think of contemporary use of certain gifts and manifestations of the Spirit, social application of the gospel, or the use of secular psychology.) Generally, level “B” is not a biblical requirement and, thus, it is unwarranted; yet, it may be appropriate to consider whether cooperation is wise in some instances.

All this is very unnerving for those who prefer clear lines. When all is said and done, we are still left with the fact that what is false teaching, unbiblical, or liberal to me may be acceptable to other brothers. What is a major essential truth to you may be optional to me. The dilemma still exists. For instance, I have encountered individuals who consider me a heretic because I embrace the doctrines of grace. Others have called me liberal because of my choice of Bible translations, and, thus, have chosen not to fellowship with me. Some really get exercised over my lack of dogmatism regarding certain points of eschatology, and, thus, no longer speak well of me. So, I am convinced that we must be careful about passing judgment on those who happen to draw the line of separation at a different level than do we simply because they define “false teaching” differently. Practicing biblical separation in a consistent manner is difficult. Thus, patience, compassion, and humility must prevail.

Because of the fluidity of this matter, it seems that we should expect a variety of practices in this matter of separation. Unfortunately, some brothers refuse to separate from false teachers at all; others heed the biblical requirement. Among those who practice separation, some will simply admonish brothers who don’t separate to the same degree as they do. Others choose to beak fellowship with these brothers because they don’t draw the line of separation at the same place. Still others simply don’t cooperate when false teachers are included in joint endeavors without addressing the cooperation of other brothers.

Some churches simply choose not cooperate when false teaching or teachers are involved, even if other evangelical ministries are also involved. This seems to meet the requirement of Scripture. Thus, for instance, we did not sponsor the Graham crusades; we have not participated in community-wide joint religious services; we did not identify with the “Moral Majority”; we have not promoted “Right to Life” events. However, we did not castigate evangelical churches that chose to participate in these endeavors, nor did we cease our fellowship with them. In some instances, we encouraged certain sister churches to reconsider their cooperation with what we deemed to be false teachers. At the end of the day, we encouraged our individual members to make their own choices based on an informed conscience.



1Unless noted otherwise, definitions of New Testament terms are taken from Arndt and Gingrich, A Critical English Lexicon of the New Testament.

2 Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from the New American Standard-Updated Edition: (California: Foundation, 1999).

3 Peter is here quoting the OT requirement for God’s people: “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy” (Lev 19:2). See also Lev 11:44ff, Lev 20:7.

4 See interesting use in Gal 2:12, where the same word is translated “aloof.”

5“Romans.” Bible Works 700 Module Software, Vol VI. Matthew Henry Commentary. CD-ROM.

6 R.C. Trench, Synonyms of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000) 15.

7 Kent, The Pastoral Epistles (Chicago: Moody Press, 1966) 245 (and several lexicons for derivation from airew ‘to choose’).

© Copyright. Joseph Flatt. 2014. All rights reserved. May be used for educational purposes without written permission but with a citation to this source.