Monday, April 19, 2010

A Perspective on Separation and Church Discipline

Lately I've been absorbed with writing and touching up my doctrinal statement in preparation for ordination. Thus, no blogging. While you might have been interested in some subjects, others, such as supralapsarianism, may have bored you just a touch.

I'm currently working through a section on church discipline and separation. I ran across the following perspective and I'm really curious to know your feedback. Is it good, but incomplete? Absolutely right? Wrong? You are welcome and encouraged to post any perspective that you have if you would kindly tell me Scripturally why you think that. That is, unless you don't want me using your name as my defense of your view when it comes to my ordination! :)

The Unity of the Church—Jesus wants his church to be unified (John 10:16; 17:21-23). This unity is possible because Jesus baptizes believers from vastly different backgrounds into the same body and the same Spirit (1 Cor 12:12-14). “Those who cause divisions” must be avoided (Rom 16:17). Those who practice separation where there should be unity should be confronted (Gal 2:11-14). Separation should be practiced in the case of an unbelieving false teacher (Gal 1:8-9; 2 John 9-11). If someone is living in sin and refuses to repent upon confrontation (Matt 18:15-17), he should be warned as a brother (2 Thess 3:6, 14-15). Persistent stubbornness in sin exposes him or her as an unbeliever (1 John 2:19). Based on this understanding of church discipline and purity, the church is never to separate from other believers.

Happy reviewing!


  1. In Matt 18:15-17 It starts with the word "brother" and ends with "let him be as an heathen man..." Is the word brother referring to a fellow believer?

  2. Andrew, your last statement ran right over 2 Thess. 3. This is a person that we deal with as a brother, but we also "do not associate with him." That's pretty clear support for non-association with a fellow Christian.

    Let's put this in real life terms. I think Rick Warren is a Christian. I think he's going to heaven. I respect some things about his personal life, such as the fact that he gives away most of his income. But I also think Piper blew it by having him in. For me, Piper should be admonishing Warren as a brother and "not associating with him" (direct quote from 3:14). And no, even if Warren continues in his present direction for the rest of his life, I won't conclude that he is an unbeliever. I'll consider him a disobedient brother.

    Maybe some of this got misused and distorted in the past. But we do have to stop and ask ourselves some exegetical questions. 2 Thess. 3 is there to guide us in these situations, and I really think you're missing something exegetically significant.

    Joel Arnold

  3. I agree with Joel's comments. Perhaps one of the big issues is that we redefine what it means to admonish one as a brother? We take "non-separation" to mean that as long as a brother claims a few basic truths we can't say anything to him about why we believe he is wrong on the issue. Is that not just modern tolerance in Christian terms? I too believe unity is extremely important and surely there is no excuse to tear down anyone - we are to love them as ourselves. But if we are too scared to admonish someone as a brother about anything other than a very select group of issues, we have already failed to follow 2 Thess. 3.

  4. Very interesting discussion! I think one of the first things that needs to be established (and maybe I've missed it by virtue of not attending seminary) is the definition of "separation" (biblically, that is). In other words, is separation defined as "having nothing to do with?" Or is it "treating as though you were dealing with a lost person,” or is it something else entirely? My first two definitions are very different, but sometimes I think that the current Fundamentalist movement uses them interchangeably. So I really think that should be established so that everyone is on the same page in unity. :) My vote goes for the “treat as though lost,” which is far different than “have nothing to do with.”

    You may say, why is that important? Well, it helps to address the issue of the II Thessalonians 3 passage. I’m of the opinion that the Thessalonians passage has little or nothing to do with biblical separation, but again, it depends on how you would define “separation.” Here is my reasoning:

    1) As Maya already pointed out, Matthew 18 begins with “brother” and ends with “heathen man.” In this Thessalonians passage, there is no such change. The entire time the reference is to “brother.” We know that there cannot be inconsistencies in Scripture, only inconsistencies in our understanding.

    2) The commands to this erring brother of the Thessalonians is always from the authors: vs. 12 “*we* [Paul, Sylvanus, and Timothy] command and encourage….” Nowhere does it state that anyone in Thessolonica (sp?) should be rebuking or commanding repentance of said brothers. Again, not in keeping with the Matthew 18 passage. Also interesting is the use of the word “encourage.” Do you truly “encourage” someone who is to be [biblically] separated from?

    3)The issue noted here is not a spiritual one. It appears that this has to do with being a “mooch.” There were some brothers who were content not to work and to simply live off of everyone else, possibly some of the “pastors” there. One can almost infer from the passage that these brothers considered themselves important enough to merit such favor with their other brothers. Of course, that is debatable, but still a possibility (especially considering #2 above that they were rebuked by an apostle, not their fellow brothers).

    4) Paul simply says “keep away from them,” or “have nothing to do with them.” Interesting again: in the Matthew 18 passage, we are told to treat church disciplined brothers as “a tax collector.” Christ often surrounded himself with publicans, sinners, tax collectors. This is not in keeping with “keep away from them and have nothing to do with them.”

    Therefore, I don’t believe the passage is truly referring to a church discipline situation, though it does make a clear case for avoiding brothers (the case made for such avoidance is for gluttony/laziness and not the typical reasons for separation such as dress, music, etc.). How many mooches do you know with whom you associate? :)

    Sorry for the lengthy post. Thought I’d throw that out there for criticism and food for thought!

  5. An aside about Rick Warren: I don't know enough about him to "separate" from him (never read his books or heard him speak), however, I don't believe that he is a candidate for church discipline. He is not an "erring brother," but I would rather [potentially] condsider him to be an apostate teacher. Teachers are consistently held to a higher standard throughout Scripture, and if he has deviated from the Gospel, for that I would consider him lost, but further, his *teaching* to be avoided at all costs (Galatians 1:8-9). However, since he is a teacher, I consider this to be different than "church discipline" and the "separation" we use for brothers within a church family. Reading back through this, not sure if it makes sense, but someone will let me know if it doesn't. :~P

  6. Here's a helpful, but balanced discussion of Warren's issues:

    There has definitely been a terminological confusion about "separation"—perhaps to the point that we should come up with new terms. Maybe we could say:

    "repudiation and rebuke"—the world and false teachers
    "rebuke and discipline"—apostate believers (Matt. 18; 1 Cor. 5)
    "admonishment and non-association"—disobedient believers (1 Thess 3)

    However, I sometimes think that opponents of this concept mix the three to build something of a straw man. No, you don't have to treat Rick Warren like an unbeliever, refuse to commend him in any way, and hate him with every fiber of your being. People need to just read the passage. "Admonish him as a brother" but "do not associate with him." This from the text, quoted from the verse.

    I would likewise suggest that bracketing this passage to lazy people alone is exegetically dubious. Again, read the passage. Verses 10-12 talk about lazy people. Verse 13 instructs people to do good. Verse 14 generalizes it to anyone not obeying the letter's instructions. It's just bad exegetical practice to narrow it to a small category of people, all because of a separate command two verses earlier. In application, it essentially nullifies the verse by making it irrelevant. All of the exegetical indicators point to a general reference. We don't do this with other passages. Why here? Furthermore, if we nullify this passage, what biblical basis do we have for dealing with Piper-Warren situations? Am I just supposed to invite everybody who believes the gospel and go for all kinds of nice, fuzzy unity? Clark Pinnock? N.T. Wright?

    One final problem with how this idea has been handled in the past. It isn't a matter of pulling a trigger and "separating" or not. This is a complex response that falls on a continuum. I "non-associate" with someone more or less based on how "disobedient" they are. The more they vary from "the instructions in this epistle," the more time I spend admonishing and "non-associating." The closer they come back to the truth, the closer my relationship can be.

    The goal in the entire process is to let the truth sound out without a mixed message. The truth is, if Piper had a joint conference with every leader who is a true Christian, it would communicate a very mixed message to the world and believers. (i.e. that Open Theism and the New Perspective on Paul are okay.) So we guard the truth by paying attention to what our relationships communicate. Yes, indeed, it really is all about the gospel.

  7. Joel,

    Thanks for the comments! I agree with you about being careful with the exegesis. However, my goal is to be just as careful not to eisegete based on my culture and tradition! I did not intend to create a straw man with the use of the term “separation,” although I think that many within Fundamentalist circles have created their own straw man by mixing the definitions!

    I can see what you’re saying about not isolating it to “lazy people.” But, in my opinion, verses 6-12 still refer to more of a “physical” or “cultural” issue than a spiritual one. Paul’s stated goal for these people is that they “work quietly and earn their own living.” And again, he does not “rebuke” these brothers, but rather commands and encourages them to do so. Paul is basically telling the Thessalonians not to be an enabler. Of course, this is simply my opinion and I realize that other will disagree.

    In re-reading the passage, I believe that verses 13-15 do not negate the verses before them, but rather point out a different problem: one of disobedience to authority. In verses 6-12, Paul points out that the idle should know better than to mooch since they had Paul’s example (and he was entitled to it!), as well as now his command to work for their own food. Paul then says that if anyone basically ignores what he just said, instead of simply “avoiding” (verse 6), you should now “have nothing to do with” (verse 14) so that “he may be ashamed!” He even sets this interpretation up with verse 4 by saying that he knows that everyone is doing and will continue to do the things that he commands.

    So we have come full circle! :~) I agree with you that there is a part of this passage that says that you should have nothing to do with certain erring brothers in Christ, but not because of small things, but rather disobedience to clear Biblical teaching (Paul’s example and direct commands were disobeyed). I think the key is “not [to] regard him as an enemy, but warn him [through your actions and non-association] so that he may be ashamed.” I believe this only applies to people you know personally. I’m not sure how our actions and non-association with Rick Warren will cause him to be ashamed. But again, I think that teachers are a different form of separation.

    When encountering a situation such as the one in II Thessalonians 3, one must determine (bearing in mind love and unity) whether or not the error is directly opposed to clear scriptural teaching, not personal conviction or practice. While I do believe that we must be very careful to guard ourselves against evil, I think that we should be extremely cautious about “separating” from brothers, and making sure that there is a clear [Scriptural] reason for such actions, based upon the commands in I Corinthians 13 and II Thessalonians 3:5.

  8. That's great. I substantially agree with what you're mentioning here. I can definitely appreciate the qualifications you brought to bear. I agree that this kind of separation is essentially personal. So does Joel Arnold need to separate from Rick Warren? He doesn't care that I exist! :-) But I think Piper should have thought about this principle. To bring it to my world, I think this would mean I don't have a joint evangelism effort with Redemption World Outreach (local progressive church with some questionable methods and weak message).

    Sorry if I implied that you were one of the people building a straw man. I didn't mean that, and should have clarified better.

    Fundamentalists over-extended themselves and lost sight of the exegetical basis for separation. Evangelicals forgot about it altogether. I think we can do a better job of protecting the clarity of the gospel if we honestly, carefully get back to texts and interpret them fairly—like what you have been doing here.

    Thanks for the thoughts.

  9. Thanks for all the comments and discussion. I'd like to add a few comments and observations.

    1. Just a reminder that I did not author the block quote regarding separation that we are discussing. However, I am also sure that the author was not intending to trample 2 Th 3.

    2. The main passages that I have been trying to reconcile in regards to this discussion are: Mt 18, 1 Cor 5, 2 Cor 2, and 2 Th 3. There are a bazillion passages on the unity of the body and love between believers. There are also several passages on the danger of false teachers and the need to clearly identify and avoid them. However, are there any other passages on biblical separation from believers?

    3. Joel, I like your definitions differing between circumstances ("rebuke and discipline"—apostate believers [Matt. 18; 1 Cor. 5] "admonishment and non-association"—disobedient believers [1 Thess 3]). However, would you mind explaining the difference that you see in the offenses between Mt/1 Cor and 1 Thess 3? The immorality in 1 Cor is serious, but v 11 say that we should give greedy people, revilers, drunks, and cheaters the same treatement if they profess to be believers. In that regards, the greedy people and cheaters don't seem to be that far removed from the 2 Th crowd of lazy mooches.

    4. I agree that I would probably not have Rick Warren be my pulpit supply for me someday when I'm not feeling well or need a day off. However, he doesn't seem to fall under false teacher (with the intention of destroying the flock) or under the persistently disobedient brother categories listed in 1 Cor 5. So, I'm wondering if there is room for something called practicality rather than calling it seperation. This may be the same thing as dis-association. I think very naturally that the closer we are to someone, the more we have to be in agreement. Marriage requires fairly close agreement on almost every issue. Being a member of the same church requires a little less. Going to the same institution requires even less, perhaps none at all except that you feel that institution has something to offer you. So, in the Rick Warren case study, does it fall under a biblical category or a practical one?

    5. The end result of a failed Mt 18 process seems to be treating someone as a heathen or publican, both VERY negative connotations to the Jewish audience. This seems to be largely parallel to Paul's commands in 1 Cor 5 to not keep company with the man in immorality and hand him over to Satan. The similarity carries over to 2 Thes 3 where the church was not supposed to keep company with the lazy bums. In fact, it seems that much more interaction is allowed with wicked unbelievers (1 Cor 5:10) than is permitted with professing believers committing the same sins. So in a sense we are supposed to treat them more severely than unbelievers. The goal is still restoration (2 Cor 2 and 2 Thess 3) but the danger provided by a professing believer living in sin is heightened. I believe he poses a great blot on the public testimony of Christ's church and the hypocrisy threatens to lead immature believers away from Christ. To permit a professing believer to live in sin in your immediate context of living also can send the message to others that this behavior is permissible in the body.
    6 . So, could it be that all the passages are talking about dealing with professing believers within your local assembly? Mt 18 gives the procedure? I Cor 5 gives an example and categories to discipline over? 2 Cor 2 gives us the happy ending and the reminder of the purpose of discipline? And 2 Thes 3 adds an additional biblical category for discipline and reminds us of our disposition during discipline (2 Th 3:15; also Gal 6:1)?

    Let me know what you think!

  10. Maya, sorry to miss your question. The first portion of Matthew 18 is talking about entrance into and relations in the kindgom of heaven. The end of the confrontation process is also telling the offense to the church. Therefore I think it is safe to say that "brother" is referring to another believer, or at least a professing one. His repentance/restoration would be the best sign in this case that he is a believer.

  11. If you were to separate from unbelievers you wouldn't have much of a ministry at all! One of the two letters to Corinth (actually there are at least 3 lol, but that's another topic) tells us to separate from people who SAY they're believers but ACT as unbelievers. Of course we should remember there is more than one way to practice biblical separation. It's not a one fits all; this means we must use discretion and common sense. :)

    If you look up some of the passages he has in () you'll probably find that they do not all support what he is saying. "Persistent stubbornness in sin exposes him or her as an unbeliever (1 John 2:19)." Looking at 1 John 2:19 I have to ask . . . what version of the Bible is he reading from??? LOL

  12. Interesting quotation from Wayne Grudem:

    "Consistent with this New Testament emphasis on the unity of believers is the fact that the direct commands to separate from other people are always commands to separate from unbelievers, not from Christians with whom one disagrees" (Grudem, Systematic Theology, p. 877).

  13. Just a thought since I am studying Eph 4 right now. I am working through how unity and purity must be correlated.
    There are many passages that emphasize unity; there are also many passages that emphasize purity (though not all these passages directly touch upon separation from another believer the implication is there since some passages do touch upon that issue in relation to other genuine believers).

    From Eph 4 and the broader context of the book (God's glory in the church) this is how I would correlate it:

    Motivated by your Calling in Christ/Salvation
    Based upon your Worthy Walk/Purity
    with the
    Goal being God’s glory in the church
    Result in the Unity of the church

    Therefore, unity never trumps purity; it is actually based upon it. However, purity is not what actually motivates - it is your calling in Christ. Neither is unity the real goal - it is the glory of God in the church.

    Just some thoughts I am formulating and thought it might add to the discussion.