Unity and Separation

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We are living in an age which is characterized by a rule called “tolerance.” Tolerance not only disregards the “Law of Christ,” but the first commandment and the golden rule as well. People think that they can find unity in toleration. There is little enjoyable and constructive fellowship where participants just tolerate each other!

The church should be different. One of the biggest problems in the Christian church today is a false understanding of the biblical teachings on separation and unity. The New Testament teaches both.

Many Christians can readily quote scripture to support their position on unity and separation while simultaneously beating on other Christians who also quote scripture to support their differing positions. Unbelievers laugh in derision.

There is certainly such a thing as "biblical separation," but some Christians apparently believe that they are infallible and must avoid all association with anyone who isn't. Not a few take separation to the next levels and refuse to fellowship with anyone who fellowships with someone who fellowships with…  The end result is absolute seclusion and isolation driven by a fear of getting "tainted."

God's norm for all of us is absolute perfection.  No exceptions are permitted. If you can't agree with that statement, I invite you to show me an exception from the Bible. If you agree with me, then you must also admit that there is either no biblical fellowship of believers, or the fellowship of believers exists between fallible and imperfect Christians.

Having established this fact, it must now be concluded that certain guidelines are required in order to know where to draw the line of separation. We must also ask ourselves if unity between any two persons is at all possible, and if so, on what basis?

The New Testament names "churches" according to their geographical location. "Church" is the common translation of the Greek "ekklesia," which is a "select gathering for a specific purpose." There was no religious connotation connected to the word in New Testament times. The mob that the silversmith Demetrius gathered in the coliseum of Ephesus (Acts 19:23-41) was also an "ekklesia." Before Pentecost, 120 followers of Christ were gathered for prayer in the upper room. At Pentecost, 3,000 were baptized and added to the "ekklesia." The epistles were written to various churches ("ekklesia") addressing specific and general spiritual needs.

To most people in western society today, "church" refers to a building where people of a specific religious persuasion meet or it may refer to a denomination. None of that existed in New Testament times.

Now turn to Revelation 2 and 3. The Lord delivers messages to seven real historic churches, but they can also represent Christian churches today. He finds fault with five of the seven churches and commends all but one of them. What amazes me is the fact that Jesus identifies with each church! Laodicea makes him want to vomit, but he pleads for the people to repent and seek to restore fellowship with him. 

God cannot tolerate or overlook sin of any kind but division among believers is also sin.  The Bible tells us what to do about sin, unbelief, false teachings and disunity.  At the same time, we are not to forsake the gathering of ourselves together with other Christians. Many Christians like to insert the word "like-minded" but the Bible doesn't give us that option. Like-minded Christians do not exist here on earth. Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus (Philippians 2:5). Paul didn't write that we already have the mind of Jesus, but that we need to strive for this condition. And we strive continually and collectively.

One of the most frequently quoted verses on separation is Ephesians 5:11. And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them. The word fellowship used here is a combination of two Greek words, sugkoinoneo and mai. Koinonia is usually translated "fellowship" but the combination of these words means "absolutely no participation or identification with." The ESV translates the verse as follows: Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.

As believers, we have fellowship with God who is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth (1 Jn.1:5,6). Be ye holy,- for I am holy (I Pet.1:15,16). We must separate ourselves from darkness. Let everyone who names the name of Christ depart from iniquity. II Timothy 2:19.  Matthew 7:23 says,  And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity. (Also Luke 13:27). Matthew 23:28 Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity. Matthew 13:41:  The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity. Romans 16:17: Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned,-and avoid them.

In doing some research on this subject, I ran across a number of websites that dealt extensively with "biblical separation." I could agree with many of the statements made, but missed even remotely indicated reasons or rules for Christian fellowship. I got the feeling that most of these websites were strong on separation but weak on fellowship. The only unity and fellowship that seems to exist within these organizations seems to be in the matter of separation!

Jesus said to his disciples, A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another (John 13:34-35). Jesus had much to say about both fellowship and separation, but we are recognized by our love and fellowship of the brethren and not by our separation from them. Most admonishments to separation have to do with works and beliefs and not perpetrators.

Just because we are redeemed by the blood of Christ, does not make us infallible. We do wrong, make false statements, and form wrong opinions. Comparing ourselves with other believers in order to judge them and justify separating ourselves from them is unscriptural. In Mark 9:33ff, Jesus reprimanded his disciples for arguing among themselves about who was the greatest. After that incident, John spoke up and said,  Master, we saw one casting out devils in thy name, and he followeth not us: and we forbade him, because he followeth not us. The Lord's final words on the matter are, Have salt in yourselves, and have peace one with another.

The Bible teaches us that it is important to stick together and fellowship with each other in spite of differences. There are two methods of separation. Either the evil is removed from us, or we remove ourselves from the evil. It is important to note that the Bible does NOT always tell us where to draw the line. As in the parable of the wheat and tares (Matthew 13), the good and the bad sometimes remain together until the Lord sorts it out in the harvest.

Another aspect which we must consider is the fact that no man is ever completely perfected here on earth. A new convert may need months of Bible study and teaching to recognize falsehoods that he or she previously thought to be truth. But even after living in close fellowship with biblical Christians and enjoying excellent Bible teaching for decades, something may still be falsely understood.

Many Christians make the mistake of concentrating too much on the influence of people they disagree with and give too little consideration to the power of Jesus Christ to change these individuals.

There have always been heated debates between Christians over the issue of fellowship and separation. We are to seek fellowship with fellow believers yet separate ourselves from evil doers. If we take this matter to the extreme, however, the church becomes non-existent. There is no perfect Christian and therefore no perfect church.

At some point in their careers, every pastor, missionary and evangelist becomes a false teacher. The very first sermon I preached in German was heresy! I preached on the feeding of the five thousand and used a wrong verb form. Instead of saying that Jesus "fed" the 5,000, I said that he "devoured" them! Then I added that only the men were counted. Christ may have "devoured" an equal number of women and children too. Only after a church member asked if Jesus had the women and children for dessert, did I recognize my mistake and recant.

I have heard many excellent teachers in Bible college, at conferences, on TV, over radio and the internet. If I hear them often enough, I can usually find some point on which I disagree. 

When we arrived in Austria, 90% of the population was Roman Catholic but only a small number of these attended Mass with any regularity. All evangelical churches together made up less than a tenth of one percent of the population. When members had a dispute or difference with a fellow believer, looking for another church was not an option. Many large cities of 5,000-10,000 had no evangelical church.

Back in the seventies, we worked with youth in the industrial city of Linz, Austria. The drug culture was coming on strong but authorities were slow to recognize that it was a serious problem. We had a core group of believing youth in the church who actively helped in evangelistic outreach. We went into the streets and parks with our youth, witnessing, singing gospel songs and inviting kids to youth meetings. The Catacomb Tearoom was opened in 1972 and we counted over 40 decisions for Christ in the first year! Several drug addicts accepted Christ and were freed from their addictions. These were exciting times for us.
 
We visited supporting churches on a short furlough in 1973 and shared a slide presentation of what God was doing and how lives were being changed. The pastor of one church called us aside and said that his church would have to drop its support of our ministry.  Some of the male youth in our pictures had long hair. I explained that many young people who came to the center were unsaved. He said that no male with long hair would be permitted in their youth meetings. That same church had "Solomon's Head of Christ" printed on its offering envelopes and there was an almost life-size painting of Jesus, the Good Shepherd holding a lamb on the back wall of the sanctuary. Jesus had long hair in both pictures!

Another pastor asked if we used only the King James Bible in our ministry. I said that the KJV was in English and we used a German translation. He then asked if we received support from any church or individual who belonged to the World Council of Churches or the National Association of Evangelicals. I said that one supporting couple belonged to a United Methodist Church and gave through their church. That was all he needed to drop us from his church's mission roster.

Ralph V Harvey