The Necessity of Spiritual Wisdom
A Testing Mindset
The Principle of Spiritual Safety
Warnings and Education
A Stricter Basis
Zeal for God’s Word and against Error
Forthright Reproof of Error
The Centrality of the Church
The discipling church is a church that is careful about separation because it is an essential protection against spiritual danger.
The church that will stand until Christ comes will be stricter about separation these days than ever before, because the dangers are greater and the technology has made it easier to connect with the dangers.
Some time ago I received the following question from a reader:
“I have read a lot of your writings about separation. I fully agree that among many Independent Baptist Churches, there is an utter lack of teaching on this subject and that God’s people are being destroyed for lack of knowledge, especially in this area. But there are a couple of related issues that I have seldom, if ever, heard addressed: (1) What does it actually mean to separate? The church across town adapts CCM; do we refuse to participate in anything they do? Do we not attend their revival meetings? We don’t allow their pastor and staff to speak at our church, I assume. Do we treat the people there as lepers and have nothing to do with them? Are we still friendly with their members? (2) When does separation need to occur? How much disagreement is necessary before separation needs to occur?”
Any question on separation that needs to be answered can be answered from the principles of God’s Word. Holy Scripture is able to make God’s people “perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
Following are some practical Bible principles on separation:
The Necessity of Spiritual Wisdom
Separation requires spiritual wisdom.
“Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths” (Pr. 3:5-6).
“Consider what I say; and the Lord give thee understanding in all things” (2 Ti. 2:7).
“If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him” (Jas. 1:5).
The practice of separation is not a matter of following a simple list of dos and don’ts. This is true of separation from the world as well as separation from compromise and false teaching.
There are questions of who to separate from and when to separate and how to separate that can be answered only within the context of each developing situation.
The previous questions fall into this category.
“(1) What does it actually mean to separate? The church across town adapts CCM. Do we refuse to participate in anything they do? Do we not attend their revival meetings? Do we not allow their pastor and staff to speak at our church? Do we treat the people there as lepers and have nothing to do with them? Are we still friendly with their members? (2) When does separation need to occur? How much disagreement is necessary before separation needs to occur?”
Practical spiritual wisdom is required to answer such questions, and God gives this wisdom to those who walk in obedience to His Word. He has promised to direct the paths of the individual who leans not to his understanding but who knowledges Him in all his ways (Pr. 3:5-6). He has promised wisdom to those who ask in faith (Jas. 1:5-7).
A blanket answer cannot be given to such questions. For example, at what stage should we separate from a church that is gradually adapting CCM? This type of thing does not happen overnight. It happens gradually. And the exact point at which to separate is something that the Lord must give wisdom about to those who are involved in that particular situation. Many factors must be weighed in such a decision.
A Testing Mindset
The heart and soul of discipleship and separation is a testing, vigilant mindset. This is the path of spiritual growth and protection.
Consider some Bible passages that instruct God’s people to have this mindset:
Psalm 119:128 - “Therefore I esteem all thy precepts concerning all things to be right; and I hate every false way.”
The Psalmist esteemed all of God’s Word to be right. This is the foundation for a testing mindset. The believer has an absolute standard of truth. Christ said the Scripture is truth (John 17:17). It cannot be broken (Joh. 10:35), meaning it is correct and authoritative in every point. Peter said the Scripture is a light in a dark world that we are to take heed thereto (2 Pe. 1:19).
The Psalmist rejected every false way. If something is contrary to God’s Word, the believer should reject it as false.
The Psalmist hated every false way. The child of God should be passionate about this. The Psalmist’s hatred of false ways was a reflection of his love for God and God’s truth. He was not on the fence. He cast his vote for God’s Word in every matter, and he stood zealously opposed to anything that is contrary to God’s Word. He did not make excuse for error; he hated it. He did not treat error as a small thing.
Isaiah 8:20 - “To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them.”
The Old Testament saints were to test everything by the Scripture that they had. If anything is contrary to God’s Word, it is darkness.
Psalm 1:1-3 - “Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful. But his delight is in the law of the LORD; and in his law doth he meditate day and night. And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper.”
The way of discernment is the way of spiritual protection, blessing, and fruit. Today it is popular to say that careful testing of everything by God’s Word is “Phariseeism” and “legalism.” It is condemned by modern churches, but it is praised by God.
The foundation for testing is a strong knowledge of God’s Word (Ps. 1:2). It is necessary to know God’s Word, but not only to know it, to delight in it. It is necessary to read and study it, but also to meditate therein day and night. This is the description of a child of God who loves God’s Word above honey, above fine gold (Ps. 19:10). He is not only intellectually satisfied with God’s Word; he is delighted with it. He really and truly loves it. Only this type of relationship with God and His Word will protect the individual from error and spiritual danger.
The Psalm 1 man of God measures everything by God’s Word and rejects every counsel and every way that is contrary to God’s Word.
1 Thessalonians 5:21 - “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.”
The believer is to prove all things by God’s Word. There is nothing in this world that should not be proved by God’s Word: doctrine, philosophy, all areas of church practice, and every aspect of the Christian life. “All things” includes music, dress, attitude, entertainment, education, relationships.
The believer is to hold fast only that which is good by the standard of God’s Word.
Hebrews 5:12-14 - “For when for the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again which be the first principles of the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat. For every one that useth milk is unskilful in the word of righteousness: for he is a babe. But strong meat belongeth to them that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.”
A testing mindset begins with skill in God’s Word. The believer can’t test things unless he first knows God’s Word well. Every believer is to be so skillful in God’s Word that he can teach it to others and that he can discern good from evil. Every believer must set out to gain skill in God’s Word, and this is no simple, easy matter. It requires good instruction and hard work and daily commitment and persistence. The Bible is not a small, simple book, and there is no shortcut to learning it well. This passage is one reason why I am convinced that the equivalent of a Bible Institute education is the beginning point to be able to understand the Bible and to study it effectually. The effectual Bible student must have an understanding of the Bible as a whole and how each book and section fits into the whole. He must understand Bible words. He must know Bible theology. He must know Bible history, Bible times, and Bible customs. He must understand principles of Bible interpretation and methods of Bible study. He must know Bible prophecy.
The professing believer who is unskillful in God’s Word is disobedient to God’s command, is unfruitful in the ministry he should be exercising, and is not walking as a disciple of Christ. He is a babe and has not made spiritual progress. He lives perpetually on milk and is totally dependent on a teacher. The author of Hebrews refused to accept this carnal condition as a status quo. He reproved them sharply for their carnality and laziness.
The mature Christian is skillful in God’s Word and constantly uses God’s Word to test everything in life “to discern both good and evil.” This is his worldview, his mindset, his way of life. Studying the Bible is not a mere intellectual exercise. It is a whole life exercise.
By walking in a testing mindset, the believer exercises his spiritual and moral senses and grows stronger.
Acts 17:11 - “These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so.”
The Bereans are called “noble.” The Greek word “eugenes” is translated “nobleman” in Luke 19:12. In God’s eyes, the true nobleman is the person who loves the truth and tests everything by His Word. Such “noblemen” are despised in this present world, but they will rule with Christ in glory in the next.
The Bereans received Paul’s preaching with all readiness of mind. They did not reject things without hearing them. They did not take someone’s word for what Paul taught. They heard him for themselves. The Bible warns, “He that answereth a matter before he heareth it, it is folly and shame unto him” (Pr. 18:13).
They searched the Scriptures daily. This is the authority and wisdom for testing things. They were zealous and persistent. They were willing to work at it day after day. Bible study was not a mere passing interest.
They tested everything by Scripture. They did not believe every word like the fool (Pr. 14:15). They did not test things by their opinions and feelings and traditions and old wives’ tales. Scripture is able to make the man of God “perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works,” which means that nothing else is needed (2 Ti. 3:16-17). There is no need of Catholic tradition or purported authorities such as the Book of Mormon or Science and Health with a Key to the Scriptures (Christian Science) or extra-biblical revelations such as dreams and visions and prophecies. The Bible is the sole authority of faith and practice.
Every Christian must be a Berean. The very foundation for the kind of Christian life that pleases the Lord is an intimate relationship with the Scriptures after the fashion of the noble Bereans. We must test everything by God’s Word.
1 Corinthians 14:29 - “Let the prophets speak two or three, and let the other judge.”
This instruction was given for the time then existing, which was a transitional time. The New Testament canon had not been completed. The apostles were still alive. The apostolic gifts of tongues and prophecies were still operating. Yet 1 Corinthians 14 contains principles for the entire church age. The churches today don’t have prophets as in the first churches, but they do have prophecy in the sense of preachers who “speak unto men to edification, and exhortation, and comfort” (1 Co. 14:3).
When the Word of God is preached, it is to be tested. Preachers are not to be followed blindly and “unquestioningly.” God’s Word is their only authority, and the preacher is under this authority. If he teaches contrary to God’s Word, his teaching should be rejected.
This ministry of testing requires teams of preachers and ministers. Beginning with Christ’s apostles and the establishment of the church at Jerusalem, we see a team ministry in the New Testament churches, with one man as the senior or head pastor. Compare Acts 13:1; 14:23; 15:13-22; 20:4; Php. 1:1. When there is a team of ministers, one man cannot easily lead the flock astray. There is strength and protection. When Paul said, “let the prophets speak two or three, and let the other judge” (1 Co. 14:29), he was referring to the other preachers. When he said, “For ye may all prophesy one by one,” he was referring to preachers, to ministry gifted men, not to every member of the congregation. This is the context.
This ministry requires an educated, spiritual congregation. Every believer is taught to exercise this ministry.
2 Corinthians 10:3-5 - “For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war after the flesh: (For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds;) Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ.”
A testing mindset is an essential part of spiritual warfare and spiritual protection. We live in a dark, fallen world. It is a world that has exalted itself against God. The Christian life is not a playground; it is a battleground. Every believer has a fierce, relentless enemy that “walketh about, seeking whom he may devour (1 Peter 5:8). Those who drift through the Christian life carelessly will not stand. They will be led astray in their thinking.
The chief battleground is the imagination. The devil wants to corrupt the mind with error in order to lead the individual astray from the truth. “Imaginations” is from “logismos,” which is elsewhere translated “thought” (Ro. 2:15). “It refers to all the plans of a wicked world” (Barnes). The world is filled with false philosophy. The enemies of Christ boast in their reasoning power. Their chief authority is human thinking, but man’s best thinking cannot discover ultimate truth and the knowledge of God.
The way of protection is to measure every idea and principle by God’s Word and to cast down every error. Note the repetition of “every.” Biblical testing is a constant, thorough ministry.
The truth is found in the knowledge of God. The main purpose of the Bible is to reveal the true God. The better the believer knows God personally and understands His character and ways and thinking, the better he can protect himself. The fullness of God is known in Jesus Christ and in the gospel of Christ. Everything that is contrary to Christ and His gospel is wrong.
The believer has mighty weapons. They are such things as the infallible Word of God, which is quick and powerful (Heb. 4:12), the indwelling Spirit of God (1 Joh. 2:20), fasting (Mt. 17:21; Es. 4:16), and prayer (Eph. 6:18). Satan’s false imaginations cannot stand against these mighty weapons.
The Bible believer has the power to cast down every wrong imagination. This means he can discern its error and reject it and be protected from it and protect others. The believer has the ability to test every philosophy because God’s Word gives him the wisdom to do so. He can get to the heart of a false philosophy by the power of God’s Word (Ps. 119:99, 104, 130). The apostle Paul took on the exalted imaginations of the Greeks in Athens and refuted them and thereby won some of them to the truth (Acts 17:18-34). The man who led me to Christ did not know anything about the philosophies I had been studying (Hindu, New Age, mind science), but he knew God’s Word well and was able to take God’s Word and destroy these philosophies as I explained them to him. He tore down high things such as reincarnation, universalism, Christ as a guru, allegoricalism, the innate goodness of man, and spiritual enlightenment by following one’s heart.
Casting down error requires training and skill. This is no simple ministry. Every church should train its people for this work by making them effectual Bible students and by teaching them all things that are necessary, such as apologetics and world history. The church’s Bible training must not be mere rote learning so that the people can repeat things back to the teacher. God’s people must be trained to think biblically. They must not just memorize God’s Word and know some doctrine. They must learn how to understand God’s Word and apply it to daily life.
The power to cast down error is of Christ - “mighty through God.” The believer does not have the power to confront sin and error and false gods and false religion and philosophy in his own ability. The power is of Christ. The wisdom is of Christ. The believer must walk in close fellowship with Christ and seek His help. Some have taken it upon themselves to war against error by the power of the flesh (e.g., human reasoning, philosophical argument, the power of personality and intellect), but instead of conquering error they have been conquered by error. I think of a pastor’s son who became an atheist by studying the writings of men like Richard Dawkins, thinking, apparently, that he was strong enough to refute them.
This warfare begins in this present life, but it will be perfected when Christ returns and establishes His kingdom. Then every high place will be torn down and every thought will be brought to the obedience of Christ throughout the world. God’s people currently have the power to bring souls to Christ and to protect themselves and their homes and churches from error, but they don’t have the power to completely destroy Satan’s strongholds. When He comes, Christ will humble the pride of man and tear down every idol (Isa. 2:10-22). He will bind Satan, the god of this world, and cast him into the bottomless pit (Re. 20:1-3) and eventually cast him into the lake of fire (Re. 20:10). Christ’s governors will rule every nation with a rod of iron and bring them into obedience to God’s will.
Philippians 3:17 - “Brethren, be followers together of me, and mark them which walk so as ye have us for an ensample.”
Colossians 2:8 - “Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.”
1 Timothy 4:1 - “Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils.”
1 John 4:1 - “Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world.”
In all such verses we see a testing mindset. The believer is to be aware that there is spiritual danger, false teachers, the potential for deception and spoiling, and he is to test everything by the New Testament Scripture.
Revelation 2:2 - “I know thy works, and thy labour, and thy patience, and how thou canst not bear them which are evil: and thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars.”
Christ praised the church at Ephesus for testing everything by God’s Word. Regardless of the slander of this present age, this is a ministry that well pleases Him.
Note the clear, strong language used to describe false teachers: “evil,” “liars.” This is not the language of “hatred” and “mean-spiritedness.” It is the language of a genuine love for and zeal for the truth.
2 Timothy 3:13 - “But evil men and seducers shall wax worse and worse, deceiving, and being deceived.”
2 Timothy 4:3-4 - “And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables. But watch thou in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, make full proof of thy ministry.”
Matthew 24:4-5 - “And Jesus answered and said unto them, Take heed that no man deceive you. For many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; and shall deceive many.”
These verses describe the progression of the church age as one of increasing apostasy, ending in an explosion of apostasy at the end of the age after the translation of the church.
God’s people need a Christian worldview that encompasses this doctrine of apostasy. They need to understand that the closer we draw to the return of Christ, the greater the spiritual danger and the greater the need for vigilance against danger.
This is the mindset I was given as a new Christian. The man who led me to Christ took me into a Christian bookstore to buy me a Bible and a Strong’s Concordance, and he made the point of warning me to be cautious and discerning. He told me that there are dangers in Christian bookstores because there are many false teachers and that protection requires testing everything with Scripture. I began my Christian life with this mindset.
This is the only mindset that will protect an individual, home, and church today.
This is the foundation of effectual separation.
The separatist church builds up its members so that they can exercise the essential ministry of discernment. The church that does this will not be led astray.
The average Independent Baptist Church is like Highland Park Baptist Church in Chattanooga, Tennessee. It was the second largest church in America in the early 1970s, but it didn’t teach its people to exercise a discernment ministry. The people were not plainly informed of error. They were not educated about such things as Baptist conventionalism, New Evangelicalism, charismaticism, Reformed theology, and the Jesus People Movement with its Christian rock and charismaticism and antinomianism. They were not taught to judge everything by Scripture. Lee Roberson, Highland Park’s pastor for 40 years, said, “Stay out of controversy in the pulpit--stay out of it and stay on the main line. I think that helped me a lot. I tried to avoid personalities and stay on the main line: preaching the gospel, emphasis on winning people to Christ, emphasis on developing the spiritual life, dying to self, the fullness of the Spirit, the second coming--kept on the positive side, kept negatives away from the people” (James Wigton, Lee Roberson--Always about His Father’s Business, pp. 78, 243).
Testing and plain warning was considered “negativism.” Those who tried to test everything by Scripture were considered divisive trouble makers.
As a result, Highland Park quickly went in the way of New Evangelicalism and the contemporary philosophy when new leaders came. The people, including the deacons, were not of a testing mindset and were not properly educated and prepared for what they would face.
Lee Roberson’s philosophy of ministry is very influential among Independent Baptist churches, and there are many good elements. Winning people to Christ, dying to self, the fullness of the Spirit, the second coming are all wonderful and important things. But that isn’t enough. A gardener must deal with weeds and pests. A shepherd must deal with wolves. And a preacher must deal with error, every type of error facing his people.
Consider the following examples of exercising a ministry of vigilance and testing:
“I was just looking at a missionary email of a young man going to China. We support one young family from the local church mission organization he is with. I’ve been impressed by what I had seen of several young people coming from this church. I had read all their doctrinal statements and was content in that regard. I decided to look more closely at the church and more importantly the pastor and leader. I read in the church statement of introduction something that alarmed me. It said, ‘We sing the old hymns, spiritual songs and choruses as well as songs written recently.’ Red flags went up while praying that I wouldn’t be upset. After working my way through to video songs played at the church, lo and behold, here is the young missionary in question singing Don Moens song, ‘Our Heart Our Desire.’ There was also a trio of ladies singing a David Crowder Band song ‘How He Loves.’ They were dressed appropriately and yet singing this stuff. Wow, I’m blown away at how the termites are eating up the house in IFB churches. I cannot support this kind of thing and I have to drill deeper in investigating the beliefs of missionaries that request our time and support. No matter what organization or how good their doctrinal statement, one can’t assume they aren't involved in CCM. The Mission, I mention, is Vision Baptist Mission in Alpharetta, Ga. The pastor is a veteran missionary and they have so much going for them except this huge fly in the ointment. Keep on warning.”
“I'm going through the song leader’s copy of Living Hymns and marking the hymns we will NEVER sing (like the two Gaither ones). I’m using your Directory of CCM artists book to check some hymn writers I am not familiar with, and I’ve googled a few names I didn’t know. The song, ‘Because He Lives,’ is one that I had to make clear to a church member that we wouldn’t sing it and why. He had no problem with it once he understood. He is one that really wants to do right.”
The foundation of effectual biblical separation is a testing mindset.
The Principle of Spiritual Safety
“Be not deceived: evil communications corrupt good manners” (1 Co. 15:33).
Biblical separation is an issue of protection, and it is better to err on the side of safety. It is better to be too strict on separation than not strict enough.
In 2016 a pastor wrote as follows:
“I love you and appreciate your stand. The July O Timothy, which I have just recently read, has been very challenging for me personally. I have made some changes to my associations even in the last couple of months and am sad that it was necessary but grateful that I have removed the influence.”
Certainly when it comes to contemporary music, I strongly suggest that churches err on the side of safety. To use CCM is to build bridges to the very dangerous world of CCM, and those bridges will bring negative influences.
In the free eVideo presentation The Transformational Power of Contemporary Praise Music, we have documented how that CCM influences churches. It does this by its “judge not, loosen up” philosophy, and it does this by its sensual, seductive music, both of which (the philosophy and the music) are very attractive to the flesh. See www.wayoflife.org/free-evideo/index.php
When churches that are opposed to CCM join hands in ministry with churches that are messing around with it, the influence of CCM impacts the people in all of the churches that are associating together.
This is the principle that we follow in our ministry. We refuse to join hands in ministry with churches that are messing around with CCM. We won’t join them for youth activities or Bible conferences or missions conferences.
I will meet with a pastor of a church that is messing around with CCM and eat a meal with him, but I won’t associate with him in ministry. I won’t invite him to preach to our people, and I won’t accept an invitation to preach in his church.
When it comes to associations, we must think of our own people and the effect that our associations will have on them. For example, I was invited to teach at an Independent Baptist Bible college that was a joint project supported by a wide variety of IFB missionaries. Declining that, I was later invited to preach at one of the graduation services at that school. Some teachers used CCM and some didn’t. Some cared about modest dress and others didn’t want to be “strict” or “legalistic” on that issue. One of the teachers was a recent graduate of a rock & roll Southern Baptist college. One of the prominent churches involved in the venture operates a Christian bookstore that sells CCM and charismatic junk. If I were to accept such an invitation I would be sending a message to our own people and to others that this school is OK and the men who operate it are safe, but I don’t believe this. I know some of these men and like them at a personal level and appreciate many things about them, but I believe they are compromisers, and I believe that within one generation their churches (and their children) will be out-and-out New Evangelicals or worse.
I don’t want our people to be influenced by these people insofar as I can help it.
It is a matter of spiritual safety. We want to build walls of separation to protect our people from compromise.
1 Corinthians 15:33 teaches us to draw the line of separation at the safest place.
Warnings and Education
Biblical separation requires clear warnings and proper education.
See Romans 16:17 - “mark them.”
We see this throughout the New Testament. There is a lot of marking of and warning about false teachers.
See 1 Corinthians 15; Galatians; Ephesians 4; Colossians 2; 1 Timothy 4; 2 Timothy 3; 2 Peter 2-3; 1 John 2, 4; 2 John; Jude.
Many churches falsely label warnings as “negativism,” but this is a big part of the New Testament Epistles, and it is a matter of spiritual protection.
The church that will be standing until Christ comes is a church that flies the flag of separation by emphasizing separation in the preaching/teaching ministries.
A Stricter Basis
Biblical separation is much stricter than the separation that is practiced in the vast majority of churches today.
This is true for separation from the world.
“Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and TOUCH NOT the unclean thing; and I will receive you” (2 Corinthians 6:17).
“Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from ALL filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Corinthians 7:1).
“And have NO fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them” (Ephesians 5:11).
“Abstain from ALL appearance of evil” (1 Thessalonians 5:22).
“Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself UNSPOTTED from the world” (James 1:27).
“Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For ALL that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever” (1 John 2:15-17).
This is also true for separation from false teaching and compromise. It is stricter than the separation that is practiced by most churches.
“Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them” (Romans 16:17).
“Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness?” (2 Co. 6:14).
“Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us” (2 Th. 3:6).
“If any man teach otherwise, and consent not to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which is according to godliness; He is proud, knowing nothing, but doting about questions and strifes of words, whereof cometh envy, strife, railings, evil surmisings, Perverse disputings of men of corrupt minds, and destitute of the truth, supposing that gain is godliness: from such withdraw thyself” (1 Ti. 6:3-5).
“I give thee charge in the sight of God, who quickeneth all things, and before Christ Jesus, who before Pontius Pilate witnessed a good confession; That thou keep this commandment without spot, unrebukeable, until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Timothy 6:13-14).
“But shun profane and vain babblings: for they will increase unto more ungodliness. And their word will eat as doth a canker: of whom is Hymenaeus and Philetus; Who concerning the truth have erred, saying that the resurrection is past already; and overthrow the faith of some” (2 Ti. 2:16-18).
“A man that is an heretick after the first and second admonition reject; Knowing that he that is such is subverted, and sinneth, being condemned of himself” (Titus 3:10-11).
“Whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God. He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ, he hath both the Father and the Son. If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed: For he that biddeth him God speed is partaker of his evil deeds” (2 John 1:9-11).
The doctrinal basis of separation is much narrower than commonly taught.
Paul taught Timothy to separate even on the basis of the wrong interpretation of prophecy. The heretics he was warning about taught that “the resurrection is past already.” They were interpreting prophecy allegorically! They were not denying the resurrection; they were spiritualizing it, which is exactly what amillennialists do with prophetic events. Typically, the interpretation of prophecy is not considered a “cardinal” doctrine and is not considered a matter of separation, but Paul’s position was different, and Paul’s position is right.
The modern evangelical philosophy is often stated by the dictum, “In essentials unity; in non-essentials liberty; in all things charity.”
This was the rallying cry of the Moravians, who had a wonderful missionary zeal but retained such Romanist heresies as infant baptism and an ordained priesthood and who promoted Christian unity above the absolute truth of God’s Word.
The “in non-essentials liberty” principle was adopted by the fundamentalist movement of the first half of the 20th century. Fundamentalism focused on a unity built around “the fundamentals of the faith” while downplaying “minor issues.” The pragmatic objective was to create the largest possible united front against theological modernism and for world evangelism.
“Historic fundamentalism has always been characterized by a core of biblical, historic, orthodox doctrines. ... Most fundamentalists would be content with terms like ‘major doctrines’ or ‘cardinal doctrines’ to describe their consensus. ... [T]here are other doctrinal distinctives that some may claim for themselves as fundamentalists. But to make these beliefs articles of fundamentalist faith would cut the movement’s channel more narrowly than history will allow” (Rolland McCune, Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal, Fall 1996).
This has been a hallmark of the Southern Baptist Convention, as well. In describing why he is glad to be a Southern Baptist, Pastor Ben Simpson says, “I’m captivated by the commitment to unity in the essentials and mission of Christ while allowing diversity in the nonessentials and methodology” (“Two Divergent Views from Young Pastors,” Baptist Press, April 14, 2011).
This dictum has been an integral philosophy of New Evangelicalism. Influential evangelical leaders such as Chuck Swindoll promote this philosophy. Swindoll writes:
“There was a time in my life when I had a position that life was so rigid I would fight for every jot and tittle. I mean, I couldn’t list enough things that I’d die for. The older I get, the shorter that list gets” (Grace Awakening, p. 189).
This reminds us that once you buy into the principle of “in non-essentials liberty,” your list of “non-essentials” tends to grow ever longer as your associations broaden.
The Promise Keepers movement promoted this philosophy as a basis of its broad unity. The Promise Keepers Ambassador booklet listed the following as examples of issues that must be ignored for the sake of unity: eternal security, the gifts of the Spirit, baptism, pretribulation or post-tribulation prophecy, sacraments or ordinances.”
Many Independent Baptists are now buying into this heresy.
The Independent Baptist Friends International conferences which have been held annually since 2010, hosted by Clarence Sexton of Crown College, are based on the premise that such things as the Bible text issue, dress, music, Calvinism, modes and candidates of baptism, and separation from the SBC should not hinder associating together for the sake of world evangelism.
Before the 2012 conference, Pastor Sexton said:
“There is AN IRREDUCIBLE BODY OF TRUTH (e.g., who God is, what His Word is, what He says about salvation, the local New Testament church). There are a number of things that are in THIS IRREDUCIBLE BODY OF TRUTH. And I believe that all over the world that God will raise up circles of friends. They have the truth; people need the Lord; and they are going to work together. ... This should happen in every state, on every continent, among every people group” (Sexton, “On the High Road with a High Vision of God,” YouTube.com, April 9, 2012).
Sexton’s “irreducible body of truth” refers to the “essentials.”
Clayton Reed of Southlake Baptist Church, Southlake, Texas, and head of Global Church Planters, in his paper on “Ecclesiastical Separation,” says we should not separate over non-fundamentals. He quotes John Rice in saying that we should work with those who disagree on baptism, tongues, prophecy, election, association with SBC. Reed concludes, “We ought to join every willing, warm-hearted Christian in advancing our Lord’s kingdom while it is day.”
There is no support in Scripture for the “in non-essentials liberty” doctrine. It is a man-made heresy created to further pragmatic objectives (e.g., unity, evangelism).
The Bible principle is the ALL THINGS principle.
Consider the Old Testament law. Its requirement was summarized in Deuteronomy 27:26, which Paul cited as follows:
“Cursed is every one that continueth not in ALL THINGS which are written in the book of the law to do them” (Galatians 3:10).
The Psalmist preached the all things principle.
“Therefore I love thy commandments above gold; yea, above fine gold. Therefore I esteem ALL THY PRECEPTS concerning ALL THINGS to be right; and I hate EVERY FALSE WAY” (Psalms 119:127-128).
Observe that the reason the Psalmist esteemed all of God’s precepts was that he had a passionate relationship with and a high view of God’s Word, loving it above gold.
Observe that the Psalmist did not merely hate those things that were contrary to the “essential” doctrines of God’s Word. He hated every false way.
There is no “non-essential” principle in the New Testament, either.
The Lord Jesus Christ commanded His disciples to teach their converts “to observe ALL THINGS whatsoever I have commanded you” (Mt. 28:20).
The apostle Paul reminded the elders at Ephesus that the reason he was free from the blood of all men was that he had preached THE WHOLE COUNSEL of God (Acts 20:27).
The more plainly and fervently you preach the whole counsel of God, the less likely it will be that you will join hands in ministry with those who hold different doctrines.
In 1 Corinthians 11:2 Paul said to the church at Corinth,
“Now I praise you, brethren, that ye remember me in ALL THINGS, and keep the ordinances, as I delivered them to you.”
This passage deals with hair length and the Lord’s Supper, which are widely considered to be “non-essentials,” yet Paul praised the church for remembering him in ALL things.
In light of this clear Bible teaching, I reject the contemporary philosophy that rebukes those who make an issue of hair length rather than rebuking those who flaunt their “liberty” in this matter. When God’s Word speaks, our liberty ends. When the Word of God says it is a shame for a man to have long hair and when it says that long hair is the woman’s covering and glory, that is the end of the matter and it is our part simply to honor God by obeying His Word.
Paul instructed Timothy to “keep this commandment WITHOUT SPOT, unrebukeable, until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Ti. 6:14). A spot is a small, seemingly insignificant thing.
That particular epistle contains commandments about such things as the woman’s role in ministry (1 Ti. 2:12). This is widely considered a “non-essential” today, but Paul taught Timothy to have an entirely different approach toward such teachings.
I challenge anyone to show me where the Bible instructs the believer to treat some doctrine as “non-essential” for any reason whatsoever.
We know that not all doctrine has the same significance and weight, but none of it is “non-essential.”
Consider the following issues that are widely treated as “non-essentials” --
Modesty is considered a non-essential, but in reality it is a fundamental doctrine, because the Bible has a lot to say about it. (In the book Dressing for the Lord, we exegete 25 key Bible passages on this topic which contain principles that can be applied to any nation or culture.) The Bible has spoken on the issue of modesty, and we will not treat this as a “non-essential.”
Sacred music, another so-called non-essential, is actually a fundamental doctrine. Music is dealt with in two prominent New Testament epistles (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16), and hundreds of other Scriptures deal directly with music. The largest book in the Bible is a song book. Music is one of most powerful forces in modern society. It is at the heart and soul of worldliness and compromise and apostasy today. It is a major element in the building of a one-world church. To treat music as some sort of non-essential is spiritual folly.
Unconformity to the world is a fundamental doctrine. Many Scriptures directly and plainly teach the doctrine of separation from the world (e.g., Romans 12:2; Ephesians 5:11; Titus 2:12; James 1:27; 4:4; 1 John 2:15-17; 5:19; Proverbs 4:14-15).
Worship in spirit and truth is a fundamental doctrine (John 4:23).
Preservation of Scripture is a fundamental doctrine (1 Pe. 1:25).
“Whosoever will” election is a fundamental doctrine (as opposed to “sovereign” election). “Whosoever believeth” is repeated seven times in five New Testament books. The Bible clearly teaches that everyone is invited to be saved and everyone can be saved.
Repentance and proper evangelism practices are fundamental doctrines. (I am convinced that “quick prayerism” is damnable, and I refuse to minister together with those who practice it.)
Baptism is a fundamental doctrine, and the Bible’s teaching on the method of baptism is as clear as its teaching on the purpose of baptism. This is why I declined an invitation a few years ago to preach at a Bible Presbyterian seminary. I cannot treat election or baptism as “non-essentials.”
Pastoral humility is a fundamental doctrine (1 Peter 5:1-3).
Church discipline is a fundamental doctrine (1 Corinthians 5).
Separation from compromising brethren is a fundamental doctrine (e.g., 2 Th. 3:6).
Reproving compromising preachers is a fundamental doctrine (Ga. 2:11-15).
When it comes to spiritual compromise, little is big. The Bible warns that a LITTLE LEAVEN leaveneth the whole lump.
If error is not stopped early, it cannot be stopped at all.
This is why I warn about independent Baptists that are getting soft on separation and are messing around with contemporary worship music and recommending the writings of “conservative” evangelicals.
When I see that a preacher and a church are committed to a path of “small” compromise, that is when I separate.
Again, I would rather err on the side of being too strict than not strict enough.
We need to be stricter about separation, because that is what we are taught in Scripture, and a strict program of separation is a matter of spiritual protection.
Zeal for God’s Word and against Error
Biblical separation requires a zeal for all of God’s Word and a zeal against error.
“Therefore I esteem all thy precepts concerning all things to be right; and I hate every false way” (Psalm 119:128).
“That thou keep this commandment without spot, unrebukeable, until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Timothy 6:14).
The zeal of loving all of God’s Word, even the spots, and hating everything that is contrary to God’s Word is a heart attitude. It is love for God. It is the fruit of the Spirit, who is called the “Spirit of truth” four times (Joh. 14:17; 15:26; 16:13; 1 Joh. 4:6). The fruit of the Spirit is in all goodness and righteousness and truth (Eph. 5:9).
A zeal for truth is missing in New Evangelicalism. While New Evangelicals profess a love of truth, there is little zeal to defend it against error. Typically, the New Evangelical has more zeal against those who warn of error than he does against the error itself.
A genuine zeal for the truth is also missing among an ever-increasing number of Independent Baptists.
A zeal for God’s Word and against error will keep the believer and the church rightly separated. Before I knew much about separation, it was a zeal for truth that produced separation and protected me.
When I first arrived in South Asia as a missionary in 1979, I was invited to preach in various evangelical, ecumenical forums, such as Campus Crusade for Christ and a national church fellowship. At the time, I knew very little about evangelicalism and ecumenism, but I loved every jot and tittle of God’s Word and “hated every false way.” This mindset soon got me in trouble with the ecumenical crowd. For example, I got in trouble for saying that one of their main pastors was unqualified because he had three wives. Eventually, they rejected my ministry and even demanded that I leave the country, so we went our separate ways.
I didn’t yet understand biblical separation. In fact, those experiences were a major part of my education in separation, but a zeal for the truth kept me separated even before I well understood what was happening.
Forthright Reproof of Error
Biblical separation requires forthright reproof of error, and forthright reproof of error will keep you separated.
“Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine” (2 Timothy 4:2).
“And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them” (Ephesians 5:11).
Obedience to God’s Word requires reproof of sin and error. It is not enough to be against something. I must reprove it.
The church must let the flag of truth fly. When I was a hippie, I wanted everyone to know it, and I showed it by my dress and hair. My long hair was a “freak flag.” I didn’t have to say anything.
Likewise, the church must let its flag of separation fly. This is done by forthright preaching that deals plainly with sin and error. It is also done by the display of literature that deals with issues of separation.
Many churches seem to be ashamed of biblical warning and separation. They prefer to hide the more “negative” parts of a biblical ministry for the sake of the visitors. If asked, they say they believe in warning and separation, but they won’t display materials that are “against” things or that name the names of compromisers and false teachers. Visitors will not see anything against such things as rock music, Contemporary Christian Music, Southern Gospel, immodest dress, New Evangelicalism, Christian “psychology,” or compromising Baptist churches.
But it is the church that maintains a ministry of reproof that will stay separated and stay protected.
I think of preacher friends who have been willing to reprove their alma maters. Almost invariably this results in them being blacklisted, but it also keeps them and their people separated from compromise.
On the other hand, compromising preachers know how to narrow their message and tone down and generalize their reproofs so that they can maintain a larger tent of fellowship and ministry.
Some try to use Romans 14 to support the philosophy of “in non-essentials liberty,” but Romans 14 does not say that some Bible doctrine is non-essential. It says that we are to allow one another liberty in matters in which the Bible is silent! The examples that Paul gives to illustrate his teaching are diet and the keeping of holy days. Those are things about which the New Testament faith is silent. There is no doctrine of diet in the New Testament, so it is strictly a matter of Christian liberty.
The only “non-essential doctrine” is a doctrine not taught in Scripture. When we are dealing with such things as diet or holy days, or the order of service, or the time and the day of prayer meetings, or the number of deacons, or to use or not use musical instruments, or to have or not have a Sunday School or formal youth ministry, or the time and frequency of the Lord’s Supper, or to have or not have a bus ministry, or how much to support missionaries, or a thousand other such things, we are dealing with tradition rather than the clear teaching of God’s Word, and each church must make up its own mind in these matters.
These are the types of things that are “non-essentials.”
What doctrine should we be willing to stand for? Jude instructs every believer to “earnestly contend for the faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). Since he did not delineate what part of the faith is to be defended, the obvious meaning is that we should defend whatever aspect of the faith is under attack at a particular time.
The fact is that once an individual adopts the “non-essentials” philosophy, his list of “non-essentials” tends to grow as time passes and as his associations broaden. It is a slippery slope.
Aren’t we supposed to strive for unity? Indeed, but we must interpret this according to the Bible and not according to modern thinking.
We see the basis of true Christian unity in passages such as the following:
“Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that YE ALL SPEAK THE SAME THING, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in THE SAME MIND and in the same judgment” (1 Corinthians 1:10).
“Only let your conversation be as it becometh the gospel of Christ: that whether I come and see you, or else be absent, I may hear of your affairs, that ye stand fast in one spirit, WITH ONE MIND striving together for the faith of the gospel” (Philippians 1:27).
This is genuine Christian unity. It is not unity in diversity. It is not a unity based on shared compromise. It is based on shared truth. It is a unity practiced by those who believe the same thing.
Many will argue that this type of unity would be very narrow, and I agree, but it is what the Bible requires. Anything else is a man-made unity based on human thinking and pragmatism rather than God’s Word.
The Centrality of the Church
It is important to note that the previous verses on unity are found in the context of epistles written to churches: the church at Corinth and the church at Philippi.
It is the church that is the pillar and ground of the truth (1 Ti. 3:15), and in the context this is the “church” that has pastors and deacons (1 Ti. 3:1-14).
One of the major reasons why men have compromised the Bible’s teaching on unity and have broadened the basis of unity is because they aren’t content with the church. They want to build schools and associations and denominations and missions and other structures that operate beyond the bounds of the New Testament church, regardless of how formal or informal.
Within a local church, we can practice biblical Christian unity by having, and indeed enforcing, one mind in doctrine and practice. Our church, for example, has a lengthy statement of faith and covenant, and no one can join who is not likeminded. We enforce this “one mind” position on the authority of God’s Word.
Beyond the church, we can fellowship with, associate with, and minister with other Christians insofar as we share “one mind” in the truth.
If I am content with the local church and am not trying to build something beyond that, I am not tempted nearly so much to compromise the truth for the sake of a “broader unity” and a “bigger tent.”
The conclusion is that we must draw the line of separation at a very strict place, because God requires it.
We deal with this topic more extensively in Bible Separation: Its Doctrine and Practice, available from Way of Life Literature.
The previous material is excerpted from THE DISCIPLING CHURCH: THE CHURCH THAT WILL STAND UNTIL JESUS COMES, 550 pages. Available in print or eBook from www.wayoflife.org.
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