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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