Archive for October, 2009

Not Getting Ticked about Personality Tics

I’ve mentioned a few times that I enjoy reading the Powerline blog. (In fact, I am wondering if I should ask for advertising fees.) As I’ve also mentioned before, I don’t agree with everything the men write or with some of the subjects they choose to address. I do, though, appreciate the even-handedness with which they tackle most things. They very seldom, it seems to me, try to score cheap, easy points, but base their critiques on a careful reading and thoughtful analysis. I find it often provides good examples of critical thinking.

I found this post by Paul Mirengoff to be an example of what I mean. In an earlier post he had referred to a new book about the Bush administration written by a former staffer. That post allowed the author of the book to explain why he wrote it and what he hoped to accomplish. In the post I’ve linked to, Mirengoff explains why his review of the book is somewhat mixed. He appreciates the aspect of the book which focuses on conservative principles, but is less impressed by the book’s delving into the personal idiosyncrasies of various politicians and staffers. Mr. Mirengoff makes a point that I think is worth considering in relation to the foibles of fundamentalists (past and present):

Like any movement, the American conservative movement is populated by people who are less than perfect. Some of its leaders and representatives will be strong on policy and not so good on retail politics, or the other way around. Some will have personality tics. For that matter, some will be more pragmatic than others. There’s nothing that should be disillusioning about any of this.

In sum, I would have been happier to read more about conduct that arguably betrayed conservative principles and less about idiosyncratic behavior.

That pretty much sums up what I’ve thought about the too common tendency to focus on the distracting elements of past or present personalities. For Biblicists, the reality of depravity ought to make us even more inclined to recognize that human flaws abound and that a flawed messenger does not necessarily invalidate the message.

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The Line between Gospel Faithfulness and Unfaithfulness II

I expressed the view, in yesterday’s post, that the label “secondary separation” is in some ways understandable, yet unhelpful. I tried to explain the part of it that seems understandable, so now let me take a crack at the unhelpful part of the equation.

The most serious way it was unhelpful is that it allowed the impression that this issue was not as important as separation from false teachers. In other words, the use of primary-secondary language could be interpreted as establishing a priority structure, but that really was not the point. Primary, in this context, did not mean of “first importance” and thus result in a meaning for secondary something like “of lesser importance.” One of the points of the earlier post was to show that it was secondary in the sense that it came as a consequence of something which preceded it (refusing to obey clear biblical commands). Primary addressed the application of the separation commands to the false teachers, and secondary addressed the implications regarding believers who disregarded those commands.

My contention is that since the gospel is at stake, both are important and necessary. It is serious, deadly business any time that the purity and clarity of the gospel are being compromised. I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but this was the watershed issue between the fundamentalists and the new evangelicals. To grant Christian recognition and fellowship to those who deny fundamentals of the faith betrays the gospel by making it seem unnecessary for one’s salvation. So, planning an evangelistic crusade, for example, which holds men up as legitimate spiritual leaders who deny the deity of Jesus Christ does two things at once: (1) it turns the crusade planners into partners in the evil deeds of the false teacher and (2) it communicates to all who see that you don’t have to believe that Jesus is God to be a Christian. Only man-centered pragmatism would attempt to justify this kind of compromise.

The most common way that the secondary separation tag was unhelpful is that it was too easily susceptible to misunderstanding and misrepresentation. What I’ve written to this point has attempted to address the misunderstanding side of it, but let me add that any label that is so easily misunderstood is of very limited value. It seems hard to toss it out completely because of its common use, but the better part of wisdom might be to jettison it. Along with depending less on labels, we should be more specific in our questions about this matter. Instead of “do you believe in secondary separation” we should probably ask “do you believe that granting Christian recognition and fellowship to those who deny essential doctrines is an act of disobedience that warrants separation from those who do so?” Cumbersome, but clarifying.

The term secondary separation also seemed like easy pickings for those who wanted to caricature it. The main caricature was to claim that secondary separation always leads to tertiary separation and beyond. When someone really wanted to mock it, the idea of degrees was injected—first degree, second degree, third degree, etc. In The Fundamentalist Phenomenon (Dobson, Hindson, and Falwell, p. 129) it gets described as a separation-isolation cycle that runs from first degree to fourth degree. Consider their explanation of the degrees: first degree—compromising brother; second degree—friendly with a compromising brother; third degree—friendly with a friend of a compromising brother; fourth degree—friendly with a friendly friend of a compromising brother. Hopefully you can see why I’ve chosen the term caricature to describe this.

Now, let me concede that some have practiced a distorted kind of separation that operates by this kind of connect-a-dot association game. I know because I’ve been the object of it—anybody remember the “leaven in fundamentalism” video put out by PCC? Against this caricature, though, we need remember that a sinful application does not invalidate a biblical principle. Also, sinful applications can’t legitimately claim to be biblical. Perhaps an analogy would help. If someone beats his child under the guise of corporal punishment: (1) it would be wrong to abandon corporal punishment because of this person’s sinfulness; and (2) it would be wrong to even describe such beatings as corporal punishment. So, the fact that some people have claimed “secondary separation” as the basis for sinfully schismatic behavior does not invalidate the concept of separating from those who refuse to obey clear biblical truth about separating from false teachers. In fact, we should not allow them to claim that term at all.

I believe that the real issue that must be the center of our concern and the contemporary conversation is the demand that gospel fidelity places on us. Genuine Christian fellowship is limited to those who have a credible testimony of faith in the gospel. You cannot extend Christian recognition and fellowship to those who are outside of the gospel without dishonoring God by distorting the very message of the gospel. Either there is only One Way to the Father or there are multiple ways. If you, by word or action, communicate that there are multiple ways, then you have betrayed the gospel and faithful believers and churches should refuse to participate in your disobedience.

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One less nit to pick

Cyberspace being what it is, a question has been raised about my use of “final salvation” in this post. To save you time, here’s what I wrote: Gospel preaching offers the promise of final salvation through Him (Acts 13:38-39; cf. 1 Ths 1:10 “to wait for His Son from heaven…who rescues us from the wrath to come”). The text which I quote explains what I mean by final salvation—it is being rescued from the wrath to come. There is wrath coming and we will be saved from that wrath by Jesus Christ. This is offered through the gospel.

The biblical truth about our salvation is that it has past, present, and future aspects. In our day, we most often use the past tense when we speak of salvation, and that is completely appropriate since the Bible does too (e.g., Eph 2:5 “by grace you have been saved”). Though less frequent, the Bible also describes what God is presently doing as saving us (e.g., 1 Cor 1:18 “to us who are being saved it is the power of God”). There is a future aspect to our salvation as well. Consider what Paul writes in Romans 5:9, “Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him.” In the very next verse, Paul writes, “having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life” (v. 10). This future, final aspect of our salvation is promised to us in the gospel.

The fact some of our salvation is still future is why Paul could write these words to the Romans, “for now salvation is nearer to us than when we believed” (13:11). Here’s what Charles Ryrie has to say about Romans 13:11 in his study Bible notes, “The future culmination of our salvation at the return of the Lord is nearer every day” (p. 1810). Final salvation is simply a way to refer to the completion of what God has begun in us (Phil 1:6). As I was taught years ago, eternal security means that believers “are kept unto final salvation, not temporarily or just for a while.” The fact that this language was not recognizable is really pretty scary, but I am trying not to get into a fight, so I’ll just leave it at that.

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In case you thought this was just an academic discussion…

If you want to see an example of someone who understands where the battle line is and has clearly taken a stand on the wrong side of it, watch this. Don’t just lock in on the specific issue (homosexuality), but listen to the rationale that she uses. The line between belief and unbelief can hardly be drawn any clearer, and there is no middle ground on which to stand.



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The Line between Gospel Faithfulness and Unfaithfulness

The clarity with which the Bible speaks of our responsibility to mark and maintain the boundary line between belief and unbelief is what leads to the second plank of biblical separatism: For the sake of the clarity of the gospel, believers and churches must separate from those who compromise the faith by granting Christian recognition and fellowship to those who have denied essential doctrines of the faith (Rom 16:17; Phil 3:17-19; cf. 2 Thess 3:6-15). This aspect of separation has sometimes been labeled “secondary” or “second degree” separation. In some ways this is understandable, yet unhelpful.

It is understandable for at least two reasons. Most obvious is the fact that the liberal and the non-separatist need to be distinguished from each other, so talk of separation tried to distinguish between them. It simply isn’t right to speak of a brother in Christ as if he denies essential doctrine, but it also isn’t right to ignore his willful disobedience to clear biblical commands. Though it didn’t work well, some tried to distinguish between the two by speaking of two kinds of separation (primary and secondary). Primary related to unbelievers and secondary related to believers.

The more significant reason, from my perspective, is that this aspect of separation really is a consequence of disobedience to the clear biblical teaching about separating from false teachers and teaching. It might be called secondary in that it is triggered by the failure to obey Scripture. If the biblical teaching were applied, there would not be any need to separate like this. Separation from those who extend Christian recognition and fellowship to those who have denied essential doctrines of the faith is secondary only in the sense that it follows as a consequence of disobedience.

One way to look at it would be as lines of defense against deadly theological error. Scripture establishes the first line of defense in texts like Romans 16:17-19 and 2 John 9-11. As we’ve seen in earlier posts, we are clearly told to turn away from false teachers and not to extend Christian fellowship to them. What must happen if this primary line of defense is compromised by the disobedience of professing believers? A second line of defense must be built in order to contain the infection (or, using biblical language, to stop the leaven from spreading, cf. Gal 5:9). This secondary line of defense is a necessary consequence of the breakdown on the first line.

Some may question whether it is a necessary consequence or not, but I’d contend that the ramification of 2 John 11 makes it so. Note John’s words, “the one who gives him a greeting participates in his evil deeds.” This text makes it clear that fellowship in evil deeds is at stake in this matter. Disobeying God’s command on this point makes you a partner in the evil of false teachers. In reality, then, what we are dealing with here is still the boundary between belief and unbelief. One who disobeys 2 John 9-11 is, by that disobedience, attempting move the boundary line. He is accepting as a Christian one who cannot credibly claim to be so, and such an act has the effect of blurring the line between believers and unbelievers. It compromises the clarity of the gospel.

If there is a legitimate distinction between primary and secondary, then, it is at the level of application. The primary application of these separation texts is toward those who deny essential doctrines of the faith. The secondary application would be regarding those believers who refuse to obey what these texts teach. Same texts, but their significance depends on one’s relationship to them. The same issue is at stake in both—not granting Christian recognition and fellowship to those who deny essential doctrines of the faith.

Or, to put it a different way, the central issue is what it means to be a Christian and that question has significance in relation to both theological liberals and those who accept them as Christian brothers. When a genuine Christian brother welcomes into Christian fellowship someone who teaches false doctrine, that genuine Christian brother, according to John, has become a partner in the false teaching. Standing against the false teaching means standing against this partnership with it. The truth and seriousness of the issue at stake necessarily demands this additional application. I’ll let Spurgeon put the finishing touches on this post, “It is our solemn conviction that where there can be no real spiritual communion there should be no pretence of fellowship. Fellowship with known and vital error is participation in sin” (as cited in The Forgotten Spurgeon, p. 144).

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The Line between Belief and Unbelief II

The first commitment of biblical separatism aims to guard the purity of the gospel by maintaining the line between belief and unbelief. We must be careful to avoid two opposite responses to the question of what should provoke separation. On one hand are those who seem to think that no theological position actually represents an abandonment of the faith which should provoke a breach among professing Christians. On the other hand are those who seem to believe that orthodoxy hangs on every doctrinal issue. The position I’ve been advocating is that there are doctrines that comprise the essence of Christianity and these are the doctrines which must be protected to the extent that we must separate from those who deny them.

Biblical basis for practicing separation like this is found in the explicit teaching of texts like Romans 16:17-19 and 2 John 9-11. The circumstance in both cases involves people would ostensibly claim to be Christians, otherwise there would seem to be little reason for the instruction. That’s what makes false teachers so dangerous—they come dressed in camouflage. Although the description in Romans 16:18 is shocking for us when applied to professing Christians, that’s the point. Among the professed followers of Jesus Christ are some who are not His followers at all, but really are slaves of their own appetites. That, by the way, means we need to test motives by the doctrine, not doctrine by the motives. Our day has this almost completely backward. If someone seems to have good motives, we tolerate all manner of horrible doctrine. Paul says the real test is doctrinal and that departure from apostolic doctrine reveals self-centered motives.

These teachers were causing “dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching” the Romans had learned. Because of that, Paul was very clear about how the local congregation should respond to them—keep your eye on them and stay away from them! There is no doubt that some people err by becoming super sniffers who smell doctrinal trouble where none truly exists, but I doubt that this is greatest danger among professing Christians. A far greater threat facing the church is the tendency to assume the best well after someone’s recasting of the apostolic doctrine is so contorted that it can no longer credibly claim to be apostolic at all. One wonders if any doctrine is so off base that it can’t find a place to rest inside the evangelical tent.

Paul is equally clear that we cannot extend Christian fellowship to such false teachers. Telling us to “turn away from them” is directly opposite of his instruction to “accept one another, just as Christ also accepted us to the glory of God” (15:7). There is to be no welcome in the congregation or by the congregation of those who have turned away from apostolic teaching and who are teaching things which lead toward apostasy (“hindrances”).

The issue confronting John’s readers was a denial of Christological doctrine. The basic points of John’s instruction are: (1) that such teachers are not truly God’s people (v. 9 “have not God”); (2) that the believers are not to extend Christian fellowship and greeting to such false teachers (v. 10 “do not receive him into your house, and do not give him a greeting”); and (3) disobeying this command makes one a participant in the false teachers evil deeds (v. 11 “participates in his evil deeds”). While some may disagree, I take house here to refer to the meeting place of the local assembly and that the point of this exhortation is to warn “against the dangers of entertaining heretics and their views in such a way as to strengthen and develop their erroneous position, and so compromise the truth” (Smalley, “1, 2, 3 John” WBC, p. 334).

More definitely could be said and more biblical proof offered, but how much more really needs to be said and how much more proof needs to be offered? The amount of verses that support biblical separatism isn’t the issue. It is the clarity of verses like these that matter. God’s will for his people is to mark off the line between belief and unbelief, never compromising that line by extending Christian recognition and fellowship to those who have denied the essentials of the faith.

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The Line between Belief and Unbelief

In the last post in this series, I listed three statements that I consider to be the irreducible minimum of separatist commitment. By describing them that way, it should be clear that there is more to the separatist position than this, but it doesn’t seem, to me, that one can reasonably claim to be a separatist if you deny any of these statements. The first two statements are closely related, with the second growing out of the first, and the third addresses a separate, but important aspect of separation that is rooted in the gospel. The very idea of reducing biblical separatism to a few brief summary statements has drawbacks, no doubt. In the face of a changing ecclesiastical landscape, though, it seems more profitable to focus attention on the belief and practice rather than an outdated label system.

The first statement attempts to mark the boundary line between belief and unbelief—“For the sake of the purity of the gospel, believers and churches must separate from those who deny essential doctrines of the faith (Jude 3; 2 John 9-11; Rom 16:17).” I’ve already attempted to show the connection in my thinking between the gospel and the faith once delivered to the saints. We’re talking about a body of biblical truth which includes not only the message which must be believed in order to be saved, but includes those doctrines which cannot be denied without tearing the very fabric of genuine Christianity.

The phrase “essential doctrines” is a less than perfect way to express the point, but it seems that quibbles are made about any attempt to distinguish the core of Christianity from the totality of its teachings. The most obvious objection is that identifying “essentials” suggests there are “non-essentials.” That’s why I’ve tried to avoid this terminology in the past, but eventually adopted it simply because there isn’t any better way to state what I consider to be a significant point.

The problem is that the word essential is sometimes used as simply meaning important, and, thus, non-essential would mean unimportant. But that’s not what the word essential means in the statement above (or normally when people use it in contexts like this). If something is essential it relates to or constitutes the essence of something. As the dictionary states, “essential implies belonging to the very nature of a thing and therefore being incapable of removal without destroying the thing itself or its character.” So, to speak of the “essential doctrines of the faith” is to talk about those doctrines which cannot be removed without destroying the faith itself or its character.

The issue is not important versus unimportant doctrines. It is about the doctrines which form the essence of Christianity—if you remove them then you no longer have the Christian faith. I hold very firm convictions about what I believe the Bible teaches regarding the return of Jesus Christ. These matters are very important to me because I believe they are important doctrines. A person can be wrong on the details of these matters, though, and not have removed something that destroys the faith or its character. If a person denies that Jesus Christ is coming again, that does cut to the essential doctrines of the faith (cf. 1 Ths 1:10), but being wrong about the timing of Christ’s return does not.

We are talking about the fault line between gospel churches and false churches, not about the relative importance of our more narrow doctrinal distinctives. Every truth in Scripture is important, but not every truth in Scripture belongs to the essential nature of the Christian faith.

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Something lighter…

I’ve tried to think of some theological or ecclesiastical commentary into which to weave this video clip, but I’ve come up empty. Let’s just chalk this up to the fact that having four sons keeps you “youthful” in what you find funny. I have to appreciate the guy’s determination to finish the demonstration, though.

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Separation for the Sake of the Gospel

The case that I am trying to make for gospel-driven separation is based on the Apostle Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 15:3 that the gospel is of “first importance.” The gospel reveals God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ and there is no higher priority than God’s glory (2 Cor 4:6). God’s grace spreading to more and more people “causes the giving of thanks to the glory of God” (2 Cor 4:15), so even the good that comes from the gospel leads back to God’s glory; therefore, preserving, protecting, and proclaiming the glorious gospel is a matter of vital importance to God’s people, particularly those charged with shepherding local assemblies.

At this point in this series, I am simply going to state what I believe is the irreducible minimum of separatist commitments. Each of these is stated so as to explicitly make the connection to the gospel.

  1. For the sake of the purity of the gospel, believers and churches must separate from those who deny essential doctrines of the faith (Jude 3; 2 John 9-11; Rom 16:17).
  2. For the sake of the clarity of the gospel, believers and churches must separate from those who compromise the faith by granting Christian recognition and fellowship to those who have denied essential doctrines of the faith (Rom 16:17; Phil 3:17-19; cf. 2 Thess 3:6-15).
  3. For the sake of the credibility of the gospel, believers and churches must strive to reflect God’s holiness and to live differently than those who have not experienced the saving grace of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:15-16; Eph 4:17-19).

As the Lord gives opportunity, I will unpack each of these statements and attempt to explain what I understand of their significance to local church life and ministry. Any attempt to synthesize biblical teaching into a summary like this will have its shortcomings. All I am attempting to do is to communicate how I have tried to understand the Scriptures and make application to the contemporary question of ecclesiastical separation. My intent is not to impose my understanding on everybody else, but to express how we have decided to handle these matters. I simply offer it, and the explanations, for your consideration.

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The Gospel and Separation III

I’ve been setting forth the case that the gospel must control our understanding and practice of separation. The gospel should not be understood, though, merely as three or four statements about Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. Paul’s point in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 was not an exhaustive statement of gospel content, but to provide a summary of the message in order to lay the foundation for addressing the doctrinal problem over the resurrection at Corinth. The gospel is the faith which was once delivered to the saints (Jude 3).

The gospel is a message with essential content—things which must be accepted and cannot be denied. It claims this authority because it was given to us by the apostles and is recorded for us in the Scriptures. The gospel cannot be understood properly unless it is set in the context of man’s alienation from the true and living God who created us. If you study the evangelistic preaching in Acts and examine the way that Romans unpacks the gospel, it becomes very clear that contemporary gospel presentations are woefully shallow.

That’s what we’ve covered so far, so let’s look again with 1 Corinthians 15:1-5, and other supporting texts, to sharpen our thinking regarding the biblical gospel. In regarding to the essential content of the gospel, we must be very clear that…

The Center of the Gospel is Jesus Christ, “Christ died…was raised” (cf. Phil 1:12, 15, 16-18).

This may seem like a given, but we must not pass by it too quickly. The modern tendency to design gospel presentations around what Jesus will do for you and what you must do to receive these benefits is seriously out of step with the NT. The center of the message was the person and work of Jesus Christ. Look at the language that is used for communicating the gospel: “proclaiming Christ to them” (Acts 8:5); “he preached Jesus to him” (Acts 8:35); “immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues” (Acts 9:20); “preaching the Lord Jesus” (Acts 11:20); “solemnly testifying to the Jews that Jesus was the Christ” (Acts 18:5); “to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2); and “we preach…Christ Jesus as Lord” (2 Cor 4:5). To preach the gospel is to preach Christ. Preaching Christ is preaching the gospel.

Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of the OT promises (Acts 13:32). Those promises include details of His life, death, and resurrection (1 Cor 15:3-5). Preaching the gospel also means announcing His exaltation, Lordship, and coming Kingdom (Acts 2:36; 2 Cor 4:5; Acts 8:12; cf. 14:22). The preaching of the gospel includes warnings about coming judgment by Jesus Christ (Rom 2:16 “on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Jesus Christ;” Acts 10:42 “He ordered us to preach…that this is the One who has been appointed by God as the Judge of the living and the dead;” 17:31). Gospel preaching offers the promise of final salvation through Him (Acts 13:38-39; cf. 1 Ths 1:10 “to wait for His Son from heaven…who rescues us from the wrath to come”).

Any doctrinal threat to the person and work of Jesus Christ cuts at the heart of biblical Christianity. Because it attacks a fundamental of the faith, the gospel is at stake. Paul warned about people who might preach “another Jesus” than the one that Paul had preached (2 Cor 11:4). The only Jesus who saves is the one revealed to us in the Scriptures. Any so-called gospel that rejects or distorts what the Scriptures teach about Jesus Christ is no gospel at all.

It is a Message with Eternal Consequences, “by which also you are saved”

The seriousness of getting the gospel right is seen in the first few words of 1 Corinthians 15: 2, “by which also you are saved.” Though some disagree, I take this as referring to final salvation (vs. sanctification) for the following reasons: (1) the context addresses final salvation, e.g., “you are still in your sins” (v. 17) and “have perished” (v. 18); and (2) this is consistent with other NT passages which call for an enduring faith, cf. Col 1:23 “if indeed you continue in the faith” and Heb 10:39 “we are not of those who shrink back to destruction, but of those who have faith to the preserving of the soul.” Genuine saving faith is an enduring faith. If it is real, it lasts because it is the work of God in the soul (cf. Phil 1:6).

Paul’s point here is that to deny or turn away from any essential element of the gospel is to reveal that your faith was really vain or empty (v. 2b “unless you believed in vain”). It was a defective faith. The particular point of departure in this text is the resurrection (cf. v. 12). This means there is no “gospel lite”—either you have the biblical gospel in its fullness or you don’t have the gospel at all. God graciously gives us warnings like this so that we do not become careless about the gospel.

This is why the gospel isn’t simply an evangelistic issue—it is the center of the church as well:

  • A congregation is formed by the gospel (2 Ths 2:14).
  • The ordinances picture the gospel and serve as constant reminders of the gospel and what it has accomplished (Rom 6:3-7; 1 Cor 11:23-26).
  • Our fellowship is supposed to be a display of the gospel (John 13:34-35).
  • Our praise recounts and rejoices in the gospel (Rev 5:9-10, 12).
  • Our preaching and teaching is the exposition of the meaning and implications of the gospel (Acts 20:24, 32).
  • Our giving is a confession of the gospel (2 Cor 9:13).
  • Our separation, internal and external, is a defense of the gospel (1 Cor 5:11-13; 2 Cor 6:14-7:1).

Keeping the gospel at the center of the church is the means by which God will preserve His people and bring them to glory. Guarding the gospel, then, through the proper application of what the Bible teaches about separation is crucial to health of the church and the advance of the mission of Jesus Christ.

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