A Theology of Separation

Larry Oats1

In the last issue of the Maranatha Baptist Theological Journal I wrote an article on the Theology of Fellowship. This current article is the flipside of the earlier article. A theology of separation needs to be part of a theology of fellowship. This article will be limited to the New Testament. A study of separation in the Old Testament would be a rich study, for God makes it clear that his holiness requires separation. God removed Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. God removed Noah in an ark, separated from the doomed world. He told Abram to leave his family and country. He instructed the nation of Israel to eliminate all Gentiles in the Promised Land so that the Jews would not be contaminated by the wickedness of those living at that time in what would become their new world. When they chose idolatry over their Lord, God placed them in a foreign land where they were not only required to be a part of a pagan culture, but they were also under the thumb of those pagans, until they were ready to return to their land.

The New Testament also lays out requirements for separation. This article will look at passages that demand separation from unbelievers and from believers alike and seek to apply the New Testament teaching to the current situation. Separation in the church age was evidenced in numerous situations. The Donatist controversy in the early church resulted in the separation of a sizable number of African churches from the proto-Roman Catholic Church. The Anabaptists prior to and during the Reformation practiced both church and personal separation. The Reformers separated from the Church at Rome and from each other. Puritans, unable to purify the Church of England, separated and formed their own Separatist churches. Roger Williams, seeking a pure church in Massachusetts, found himself required to separate from those who failed to obey God’s Word. This article will focus its attention on ecclesiastical separation, the separation of the church as a body, rather than personal separation, which is the separation of an individual from a particular body or the decision of an individual to refrain from participation in a particular practice.

Separation from Unbelievers

The requirement of separation from unsaved individuals is generally accepted by Bible believers. A century ago those who took the name Fundamentalist to demonstrate that they believed that there were certain “fundamentals” of the faith that could not be given up without also giving up biblical Christianity stood against the liberals in the mainline denominations in America. They initially sought to remove the Bible deniers from the denominations and return them to a purer state. Having failed in that, they left the denominations and created conventions, associa¬tions, and fellowships that were home to those who accepted the truths of Scripture. Others gave up on such connections and began independent churches that stood alone. Separation became a watchword for these people. Even when the evangelicals separated from the fundamentalists about a half century ago, the evangelicals practiced a measure of separation. No denomination that was part of the liberal National Council of Churches could join the evangelical National Association of Evangelicals. One of the early leaders of this new evangelicalism, John Ockenga, argued against the separatism of the Fundamentalists. Nevertheless, he separated from the ecumenically oriented United Church of Christ (after the merger of 1957–61) and helped organize the Conservative Congregational Christian Churches.2

Separation from unbelievers is clearly taught in 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:2.

It is common for Christians to apply Paul’s instruction here to marriages and close business associations between believers and unbelievers. Paul taught against marrying outside the faith, and wisdom should be exercised in all business relationships. Yet, in this passage Paul focused on all associations with unbelievers that led to infidelity to Christ, particularly by involvement with pagan rituals and idol worship. Paul wanted the Corinthian believers to separate themselves from these practices.3

Paul instructed the Corinthians not to be heterozugeo (“unequally yoked” which is literally, “harnessed to another of a different kind”). This may be a reference to Deuteronomy 22:10, where the Jews were commanded not to plow with both an ox and a donkey or to Leviticus 19:19 where the same Greek word is used in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament) to prohibit the mating of different kinds of livestock. Elsewhere Paul spoke of a true yokefellow (suzugos, someone who shares the same yoke) as a person who has joined Paul in his ministry (Phil 4:3). “Those who harness themselves together with unbelievers will soon find themselves plowing Satan’s fields. One can only be a true yokefellow (Phil 4:3) with a fellow Christian.”4 In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul realized that eliminating all contact with the world is an impossibility (1 Cor 5:10). The “unequal yoke,” therefore, does not refer to casual contacts with the lost. It has to do with serving together in church and ministry activities. The warning is against compromising the integrity of one’s faith. The idea of the “unequal yoke” implies a relationship which will do damage to the Christian’s testimony.

The Corinthians were not to be yoked with unbelievers, those who do not accept the truth of Scripture. The ἄπιστος (“unbeliever”) is Paul’s opposer, whether saved or lost, although the context would focus this primarily on the unregenerate (see 1 Cor 6:6; 7:12, 13, 14 (2x), 15; 10:27; 14:22 (2x), 23, 24; 2 Cor 4:4). Paul argued against fellowship and in favor of separation from the lost by using a string of similar questions to emphasize the importance of separation.

Paul’s first question is, What fellowship does righteousness have with unrighteous¬ness? Fellowship here is metoche, a “joining together.” The two elements to be kept apart are righteousness and unrighteousness. “The Corinthian Christians were sur¬rounded by pagan values and practices. Just because they have been sealed by the Spirit does not mean that they can be careless about their relationships and associations with the world.”5 The unrighteousness that Paul speaks of is actually “lawless¬ness,” the absence of law or lawful works. Righteous activity cannot join together with unlawful activity.

One reason righteousness and unrighteousness cannot be joined is that there is a difference in how believers and unbelievers think (v 14). What communion does light have with dark¬ness? “Communion” in this verse is κοινωνία – doctrinal agreement and a resultant partnership in ministry. Believers are called out of darkness when they are saved; they should not go back into darkness in order to participate in some kind of ministry.

There is a difference concerning whom believers serve (v 15). What concord does Christ have with Belial? Christ is the head of the forces of righteousness. Belial (a name for Satan) is the head of the forces of evil. “Concord” is the word sumphonesis, from which comes the English “symphony.”6 Paul is writing to those for whom Christ had died. He has emphasized that God had reconciled the world to himself. He spoke of the hardships he had suffered to further the gospel (see 2 Cor 5:14–15, 20; 6:3–10). “Now he wanted them to choose for Christ and follow him but to reject Belial and everything that he represents. In parallel terms, the Corinthians must choose faith instead of unbelief, the Christian life instead of worldly ways.”7

There is also a difference in how believers approach God (v 15). What part does the believer have with the unbeliever? μερίς refers to receiving part of the gain of an operation or business venture. Here Paul emphasizes the distinction between the believer (pistos) and the unbeliever (apistos). The unbeliever is someone who does not accept the faith. When Paul began this section, he used “unbelievers.” Now he uses the singular, moving from a general statement to a more specific personal application.

There is a difference in the worship of believers and unbelievers (v 16). This is the final question that Paul asks and is the only question that focuses on a specific area of separation. What agreement does the temple of God have with idols? Sugkatathesis (“agreement”), used only here in the New Testament, “refers to some kind of consensual affiliation, such as a pact joining persons together in common cause.”8 It is used for an approval “by putting together the votes.”9 Paul had already defined the “temple of God” as the church in 1 Corinthians 3:16-17. Plural pronouns are used here, similar to 1 Corinthians 3:16-17. 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 refers to the individual believer as the temple of the Holy Spirit. Here in 2 Corinthians Paul is drawing a comparison between the church and the pagan temples where the gentile Corinthians practiced their idolatry. Idolatry in Corinth was especially wicked. There is no room for idolatry among the church membership because Christians are the temple of God.

Paul concludes this passage with an argument for the practice of separation (v 17a) with quotations from Exodus 25:8, Exodus 29:45 and Leviticus 26:12. Here Paul begins a string of quotations from the Old Testament. The conclusion is for believers to come out from their presence. The tense indicates Paul wanted them to do it now. Failure to separate in moral holiness causes believers to cease being a valid temple of God.

The purpose of separation is seen in vv 17b–18. God will receive or welcome believers into his company; this is the idea of the temple again. God will be a father to the righteous and the righteous will be children to him.

The conclusion is clear. Believers who seek to be obedient to Scripture are to have no fellowship (no spiritual partnering or associating in worship or service) with unbelievers.

Separation from Believers

Separation from unbelievers is not the only instruction given concerning fellowship and separation. There are also instructions given to separate from believers who engage in specific kinds of actions. In fact, there is more specific instruction concerning separation from believers than from unbelievers.

Separation from Those who Sin Blatantly

Paul gives instructions in 1 Corinthians 5:1–5 that the church is to separate from an immoral church member who is obviously unrepentant. From the language Paul uses, speaking of the wife of the individual’s father, rather than simply referring to her as the individual’s mother, it appears that the church member was having an immoral relationship with his step-mother. The sin was known to the church. Paul accused the church of pride (they were apparently congratulating themselves on their tolerance of diverse life–styles), a lack of mourning (which would indicate a tolerance of gross sin, a sin which even the Romans would not commit), and a failure to do anything about the sin. There are, therefore, two problems in this section: the sin of one individual and the sin of the congregation as a whole.

Paul commanded the church to remove the sinning brother from the membership of the church. The individual Paul was referring to is obviously a member of the church, and Paul apparently assumed that he was a believer. There are numerous interpretations concerning being “delivered to Satan” and the “destruction of the flesh,” but for the sake of this article, none of them makes a difference. The key point to take away from this part of 1 Cor 5 is that the church has an obligation to separate itself from unrepentant sinners whose sins damage the testimony and character of the church.

In the section following this discussion (1 Cor 5:6ff), Paul does not advocate this same kind of separation from unsaved fornicators and a whole list of other kinds of sinners. One implication of Paul’s addition of this section is that here is a list of sinful activities which are cause for church discipline, not just living with one’s stepmother. A second implication is that biblical fellowship and separation does not refer to friendships and interactions with unsaved neighbors, co-workers, family, and friends. Otherwise, Paul could not advocate separation in the first half of this chapter and association with the same kind of people in the last half. Paul clearly describes the biblical doctrine of fellowship; believers cannot be spiritual partners in ministry with someone who lives in willful sin and rebellion against God’s teachings. Similarly, believers can associate with unbelievers who practice these same sins, but they cannot fellowship with them.

2 Thessalonians 3:6-15
In 2 Thessalonians 3:6, Paul commanded his readers in a forceful way to separate. This was not a simple suggestion. This was a command made “in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” to stay away or separate from a brother who is walking disorderly. Paul is clearly speaking of a saved person.

The problem with this brother is not doctrinal. He is walking ataktos (“disorderly”). This refers to walking “in defiance of good order, disorderly . . . apparently without respect for established custom or received instruction.”10 This would mean a lifestyle that does not match up with the requirements of Scripture. Paul repeats this word in verse 11. Paul focuses on the problem of not working to support oneself. “Although the context of the idle is definitely in mind, this encouragement and the instructions that follow (vv. 14–15) could apply to a multitude of situations in the early church and today. What could be more Christ-like than persisting in well-doing even when the beneficiaries of love in action do not deserve or appreciate the sacrifice made on their behalf?”11

The believer’s first requirement in verse 14 is σημειόω, “to take special notice of, mark.”12 The church is to publicly identify the man who refuses to obey God’s Word. Second, the church is not to sunanamignumi, to “mingle, associate with.13 The fellowship of the church is to be removed from such a person. In verse 15, the church is not to regard him as an enemy, for he is a brother in Christ. Nevertheless, the church is to noutheteo, “to counsel about avoidance or cessation of an improper course of conduct, admonish, warn, instruct.14 The church is to warn this type of person concerning his error. The use of plural verbs and the plural “brothers” indicates that this is a corporate instruction, not a commandment given to an individual Christian. This instruction is predicated on the biblical concept of fellowship and separation; the church cannot partner with this kind of person in activities that are founded on the Spirit and seek to result in spiritual benefits.

Separation from Those who Advocate Divisive Doctrine

There are several passages of Scripture which instruct New Testament believers to separate from those who teach and promote false doctrine. This article will look only at two of these passages.

Romans 16:17-18
In Romans 16:17-18, Paul instructed the church in Rome to skopeo (“mark”) and ekklino (“avoid”) those who advocated divisive doctrine. “Mark” means “to pay careful attention to, look (out) for, notice.”15 Paul uses the word in Phil 3:17 to instruct the Philippians to mark those who were following him and imitate them. The term is used here to instruct the Romans to look out for those who cause divisions for the purpose of avoiding them. “Avoid” means “to keep away from, steer clear of.”16

Paul teaches that church members are to “mark” and “avoid” those who create dichostasia “divisions” or “dissen¬sions” and skandalon “stumblingblocks” by means of wrong doctrine. Dissension is listed as one of the works of the flesh in Gal 5:20. “There is an article with divisions (and another with obstacles); it is ‘the well-known divisions’ and not some hypothetical danger of which Paul warns.”17 These individuals were teaching lies to those who had learned the truth. Paul had not yet been to Rome, but the Romans were well aware of the truth. “Thus a departure from the Pauline teaching is a departure from the very tradition vouchsafed to the Romans when they believed. Paul did not believe that he was introducing novel doctrines to the Roman community.”18

There is nothing in the text that clearly declares whether these false teachers were saved or lost. Either way, they were creating factions and strife in the church. Instead of serving the Lord, they taught false doctrine for the sake of their own good. If these individuals were not part of the church at Rome, they were at least individuals known to the church; in that time it would have been difficult for non-Christians to advocate divisive doctrine among the church members. Everyone would have understood that the Roman pagans were not believers and their teachings unbiblical. The false teachers could have been Jewish unbelievers, but there was enough tension between the Jewish community and the church to keep unsaved Jews from teaching in the church. If these false teachers were Judaizers, it would appear that since Paul confronted them in the context of the church at Jerusalem, that the Judaizers at the very least claimed to be believers. Since Paul did not identify who these teachers were, it is best to focus attention on the teaching that the church is to defend itself against false teachers, saved or lost.

1 Timothy 6:3-5
Three times in Paul’s first letter to Timothy he addressed false teachers. In 1 Tim 1:3 he instructed Timothy to com¬mand unnamed individuals to stop teaching false doctrines, particularly regarding myths and genealogies. Paul has apparently created a new verb, heterodidaskalein, literally “to teach a doctrine of a different kind.”19 This word comes into the English as “heterodoxy.” In 6:3 Paul defines “heterodoxy” as that which is contrary to “sound words” (which came from Jesus Christ) and contrary to the doctrine which conforms to godliness. “The standard for truth was the Old Testament, the words of Christ, and the teaching of the apostles. All else was wrong, false, untrue.” 20

Who were these false teachers? In 1:3 Paul used the indefinite pronoun “certain ones.” In 1:19 Paul again referred to “certain ones.” In v 20, however, he named two of the false teachers—Hymenaeus and Alexander. These two men appear then to be the worst representatives or the ring-leaders of this group of false teachers.21 While Paul was not afraid to identify specific individuals in some contexts, in other places he hid identi¬ties. The implication is that in some specific cases it is appropriate to identify false teachers, while in other cases it is best to hide the identities. It would seem to be appropriate to identify leaders of the false teachers; it also seems to be appropriate to identify those who affect the local church the most. It also appears that where there is hope to correct the false teacher, his identity is kept hidden.

What were these men teaching? The first-century myths were not merely fairy tales; they were legends and stories used to promote immoral lifestyles. These stories were used as justification for behavior which was contrary to righteousness. Because these were apparently being accepted in the church at Ephesus, the teachers may have been using Old Testament stories, along with allegories developed out of those stories. The false teachers had “proof texts” for their own ideas, biases, and desires.22 The reference to endless genealogies “refers to histories and prophetic speculations rising out of guesswork and the desire to be different. Such people became the special interpreters of Scripture; they claimed special knowledge.”23 Paul rejected these false teachers and their stories because they promoted controversies within the church rather than God’s work.

The teaching of these false teachers produces envy, disagreement, defamation, conjectures, and continuous arguing, everything that should not take place in a church. The faithful Christian is to withdraw from such a person.24 The word is aphistemi which means “to distance oneself from some pers. or thing.”25

Titus 3:10, 11
Paul did not treat unbelievers and believers in the same way. Unbelievers are ignorant of who God is; they do not know his goodness, power, or holiness. Christians, on the other hand “know God’s goodness, have experienced his grace and love, and are indwelt by his Holy Spirit. Paul recognized that arguing with false teachers pulled a person into their convoluted dialogues, accomplishing nothing. Therefore, he told Titus: Warn a divisive person once, and then warn him a second time.”26 Paul sought to offer an opportunity for the αἱρετικός (“heretic” or divisive person) to repent. The goal of the warning is the repentance of the divisive person. If, however, he does not repent, then the church is to have nothing more to do with him.

Here is a warning for everyone. Those who dabble in false ideas and theological oddities or those who sin and refuse to come to terms with their disobedience follow a dangerous path that leads to self-deception. It happens slowly as a person permits himself self-apportioned leniency, ignoring the warning signs, the rebukes, the sinful habits that engulf him. Through negligence and unbelief, these Christians become self-condemned. By willfully rejecting the truth, they pronounce judgment on themselves.27

There are several other similar passages. The reader is directed to Galatians 1:8, 9; 2 Timothy 3:5; 1 John 4:1-6; 2 John 7-11; and Revelation 2:14.


Ecclesiastical separation is the flipside of fellowship. A refusal to fellowship (in the sense of theological agreement and ministry which flows out of that agreement) reflects the lifestyle, positions, and values of a church and its members. Separation of a church as a body from individuals who are lost, who teach and advocate false doctrine, or who refuse to obey Paul’s teaching is clearly taught. It is a logical conclusion (and this author acknowledges that is logical, not a clearly declared conclusion) that if a church is to separate from one individual who practices one of these sins, then it should separate from a body—church, association, or denomination—that practices or advocates such belief or action.

Separation from churches or denominations which do not hold to orthodox theology is biblical. Luther separated from Rome. Calvin departed from Rome: “It is sufficient for me that it was necessary for us to withdraw from them, in order to approach to Christ.”28 J. Gresham Machen withdrew from the liberal Presbyterian church. Baptists abandoned the Northern Baptist Convention. This kind of separation does not violate the unity of the church, but instead preserves it.

The basis of church unity is doctrine. Unity presupposes a membership with one another in agreement on the basics of Scripture. “The faith that avoids theological argument on behalf of Christianity’s distinctive doctrines is not the faith of the New Testament.” 29

[churchpack_divider style=”solid” margin_top=”20″ margin_bottom=”20″] [1] Dr. Oats is the Dean of Maranatha Baptist Seminary and Professor of Systematic Theology.

[2] Larry Dean Sharp, Carl Henry: Neo-Evangelical Theo­logian (D.Min. thesis, Vanderbilt University, 1972), 21–22.

[3] Richard L. Pratt, Jr., I & II Corinthians, Holman New Testament Commentary 7 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2000), 375.

[4] David E. Garland, 2 Corinthians, The New American Commentary 29 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1999), 331.

[5] Garland, 2 Corinthians, 332.

[6] Sumphonesis is used only here in the New Testament, but a related noun is used in Luke 15:25 and is translated “music.”

[7] Simon J. Kistemaker and William Hendriksen, Exposition of the Second Epistle to the Corinthians, New Testament Commentary 19 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), 230.

[8] Garland, 2 Corinthians, 336.

[9] A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman, 1931), 4: 237.

[10] BDAG, 148.

[11] D. Michael Martin, 1, 2 Thessalonians, The New American Commentary 33 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1995), 285.

[12] BDAG, 921.

[13] BDAG, 965.

[14] BDAG, 679.

[15] BDAG, 931.

[16] BDAG, 304.

[17] Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 539.

[18] Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament 6 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 802.

[19] George W. Knight, The Pastoral Epistles: a Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 72.

[20] Knute Larson, I & II Thessalonians, I & II Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Holman New Testament Commentary 9 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2000), 145.

[21] William Hendriksen and Simon J. Kistemaker, Exposition of the Pastoral Epistles, New Testament Commentary 4 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), 57.

[22] Larson, I & II Thessalonians, I & II Timothy, Titus, Philemon, 145–146.

[23] Ibid.

[24] There is a textual problem with the end of verse 6. The instruction to withdraw is not found in the United Bible Society or the Nestle Aland New Testaments, but is found in the traditional text and the Pierpont and Robinson Majority New Testament.

[25] BAGD, 157.

[26] Larson, I & II Thessalonians, I & II Timothy, Titus, Philemon, 386.

[27] Ibid, 386–387.

[28] Calvin, Institutes, iv.2.5-6.

[29] Gordon Lewis and Bruce A. Demarest, Integrative Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 3: 294.