The Line between the Church and the World II

If you’ve been following along over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been attempting to make the case for gospel-driven separation. Separation is necessary at those points where the gospel is at stake. As I see it, defense of the gospel demands that we draw three lines very clearly: (1) between belief and unbelief; (2) between gospel faithfulness and unfaithfulness; and (3) between the church and the world. If we disregard the first line, then the purity of the gospel will be lost. If we ignore the second line, then the clarity of our gospel message will be lost because we extend Christian fellowship to those who are outside of the gospel. If we are not careful with the third line, then the credibility of the gospel is damaged by those who claim to be saved without showing any credible signs of genuine conversion.

It’s the third line that was introduced in the last post and that is the subject of this post. The NT is clear about the transforming power of the gospel. Those who have experienced the new birth are changed because of it (2 Cor 5:17). The difference between those who are born again and those who are not is so clear that the Apostle John could write, “No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God. By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother” (1 John 3:9-10). To deny this distinction is to deny the power of the gospel and open the door of the church to those who have no saving relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

It is clear from what the Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians that the local assembly must give careful attention on this point as it relates to the issue of membership. In 1 Corinthians 5:9-13, Paul confronts the congregation about its misunderstanding of separation and its toleration of sin within the church. They had taken the mistaken position that they should not associate with lost people who were practicing sin, but Paul refutes that on the basis that believers would then “have to go out of the world” (v. 10). Instead, his concern was that they not “associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler—not even to eat with such a one” (v. 11). Of special interest here is Paul’s designation of this person as a “so-called brother.” The person in question is someone who professes to be a Christian, but whose unrepentant sin contradicts that claim (cf. 1 John 3:9-10). In fact, the contradiction is so profound that fellowship must be withheld so as to not create confusion about gospel issues like the new birth and the nature of the church.

That the nature of the church is at stake is confirmed by the language Paul uses in vv. 12-13. Those who are the “people of this world” (v. 10) are called “outsiders” in v. 12. The “so-called brother” is viewed as being “within the church” (v. 12) and therefore should be removed (v. 13). This insider vs. outsider language also is used in Colossians 4:5, 1 Thessalonians 4:12, and 1 Timothy 3:7. These texts all mark off the local church as community which is distinct from the world around it—believers are insiders while non-believers are outsiders.

A definite boundary line is established between the church and the world, and the call for church discipline in this passage means that the boundary line must be maintained. In terms of our larger subject, anytime the distinction between the saved/church and lost/world is removed, it is a gospel issue. For the sake of the gospel, then, churches must not extend fellowship to those churches which deny, whether in belief or practice, the transforming power of the gospel and the truly distinctive nature of the church.

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