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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