Home > Brandenburg, Truth > Separation and Ranking Doctrines

Separation and Ranking Doctrines

February 18, 2009

Most conservative Bible teachers and preachers agree that the Bible teaches separation, that we must separate even from other believers for violations of doctrine and practice.   Yet, does Scripture teach that some teachings in the Bible are worth separating over and some are not?  Does God’s Word say anywhere that certain doctrine and practice are not issues of separation but others are?  You hear this stated again and again by men as if it is what the Bible teaches.  Here the Neo-fundamentalist comments:

Basically, we will have to establish some form of a hierarchy of issues that are separation offenses. It may be helpful to throw out those commands or principles that are “unclear,” but then we all will have a slightly different take on which ones are clear, or perhaps we should act based upon those areas where all true believers should be in agreement?

Andy Milliken, on behalf of the Christian Research Institute, contends:

There are five core doctrines that we do separate over if they are not being taught or demonstrated.

Someone at Cogitate Theology writes about this in pretty typical fashion:

We all need to understand that there are different levels of commitment when we talk about theology. Some things are more important than others. For instance, many folks will bitterly argue over things that aren’t central to Christianity (Eschatology, for example). While there is a place for debate in public discourse over such items, they are not worth division and making enemies over.

Pat Brown writes:

A Christian body has to decide the number of ‘essential’ truths that are worth dividing over and which issues are secondary and not worth dividing over.

If we want to find out about how God wants us to separate, then we look at what the Scripture itself says about separation.  When we see what it says, then we do what it says.  We shouldn’t find out that it says something different than what we are practicing and then adjust our interpretation of the Bible to fit our present practice.  We should adjust our practice to fit what God’s Word says.  I believe that when we look at what the Bible does say about separation, that it doesn’t give any impression that we separate only over essentials.

The Bible about Separating

You will find separation in every New Testament book.  What do the primary separation passages say about what we separate over?    Jesus taught that church members should separate from one of their own based upon any unrepentant trespass (Mt 18:15-17).   It is no jump in logic to assume that believers are to separate from those of another church who would participate without repentance in the same trespass as the one had in their own body.

Of course, perversion of the gospel is a basis of separation.   In Galatians 1:6-9 Paul said that anyone that would corrupt the gospel should be accursed.  That passage doesn’t say anything about separation but separation is surely inferred.  A place with similar teaching is 2 John 9-10 where John uses the imperative mode to command believers not to fellowship with those who teach false doctrine about the Lord Jesus Christ.   A Christian should not allow one of these into his house nor even give him any kind of verbal encouragement.

In 1 Corinthians 5:9-11, Paul admonished the Corinthian church not to company with someone called a brother who is a fornicator, covetous, idolater, railer, drunkard, extortioner, and one who is involved in other such sinful activities.  This text assumes the same loss of company with any that practice them in or outside one’s own body.

In 2 Thessalonians 3:6, 14-15, Paul commands the church at Thessalonica to withdraw from or break fellowship with every brother that walks disorderly, deviating from what he had taught them, disobedient to his epistle to them, and to have no company with him for the purpose of shaming him.

Without repentance, if a man within the church were to continue being factious, causing division over the doctrine, practice, and leadership of the church, he is to be put out of the church (Titus 3:10-11).  This man is the heretic of the New Testament, the one who won’t fit into the church, but instigates division in the church against the unity of the Spirit.

Paul instructs Timothy that he and any other believer should withdraw themselves from those who will not consent to the Words of the Lord, describing it as purging oneself from corruption (1 Timothy 3:3-5).  This object of separation will not give his assent to something taught in scripture.

In Romans 16:17, the Apostle Paul adds to this teaching, giving more instruction as to what separation entails.  He begs the Roman church to scope out men who would cause dissension and stumbling over anything that he had taught them and to avoid those men.

In none of the above texts are certain non-essentials singled out as non-separating.  The separation passages include any false doctrine or practice as worthy of separation.

The Bible about Not Separating

Paul deals with not separating in Romans 14.  In the first verse, he writes:

Him that is weak in the faith receive ye, but not to doubtful disputations.

That first sentence makes a big difference in how we understand Romans 14.  First we determine who is weak in faith.  Evangelicals and now many fundamentalists have hijacked the identity of the weak in v. 1 by misusing the example that Paul uses in vv. 2-3.

For one believeth that he may eat all things: another, who is weak, eateth herbs. Let not him that eateth despise him that eateth not; and let not him which eateth not judge him that eateth: for God hath received him.

In Paul’s example the weak person has more scruples than the strong person.  The strong person eats anything.  The weak person eats only vegetables.  He won’t eat meat, maybe because of still following Old Testament dietary restrictions or because he once ate meat offered unto idols, so he’s overreacting to that.

Paul commands the Romans to receive the “weak in the faith.”  It doesn’t say “weak in faith” but “weak in the faith.”  “The faith” is the body of truth as found in Scripture.  ” The faith” is biblical beliefs.  The weak doesn’t know the Bible well enough as of yet, so that he would know what is scriptural and what is not.  Because he is still weak in his understanding of the truth, he may still be either adding to it or taking away from it.   In Paul’s example, he adds to it, but that doesn’t mean that he also might not take away from it.  Both the adders and the taker-awayers are weak in the faith.

Romans 14 deals with non-scriptural issues.  In an area that someone takes a position that is non-scriptural, don’t fight with him over it.  That’s the point of the last part of v. 1, “not to doubtful disputations.”  It means, “without arguing with him over it.”  Don’t get bent all out of shape when someone takes an extra-scriptural position that does not violate scripture.  Just get along with him.  Receive him.

So we get some instruction about separation in Romans 14.  We are not to separate over non-scriptural issues.  Some practices are preferences, ones that we hold dear and that have helped us individually or as  a church, but preferences.  We aren’t to divide over things that are beyond the scope of scripture and yet still not sinful.

Who Determines What Scripture Says?

The meaning of Scripture is clear enough that a child can know it (2 Timothy 3:15).  Some of it is hard to be understood (2 Peter 3:16), but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be understood.  This is where the unity of the Spirit comes in.   God has the church to judge spiritual matters in the age in which we live (1 Corinthians 6:1-5).  It is the pillar and ground of the truth (1 Timothy 3:15).

A church agrees on what Scripture teaches.  Christ walks in the midst of the church and He will use agreement between them, one mind, to know what the Bible teaches (Matthew 18:18).  The “spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets” (1 Corinthians 14:32).  When a man is preaching, those in the church are judging.  They despise not prophesyings (1 Thess 5:20), but they also “prove all things; hold fast that which is good” (1 Thess 5:21).  In doing so, the church abstains from every kind of evil (1 Thess 5:22), not just essential evil but every evil—evil doctrine (heterodoxy), evil practice (heteropraxy), and evil affections (heteropathy).

The “unity of the Spirit” is kept in the “one body” around the “one faith” (Eph 4:3-4).  Unity comes because there is “one Spirit” (Eph 4:4).  The same Holy Spirit Who moved upon holy men of God in inspiration of Scripture also illuminates the meaning of Scripture (2 Pet 1:20-21; 1 Cor 2:13).  The members of the body come together as one through one Spirit (1 Cor 12; Rom 12).  The church is the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 3:16).  Paul said that the church at Corinth was the temple of the Spirit of God, Who indwells them (“ye”—plural).  Since everybody in the church has the same Spirit, He will be telling each of them the same thing with an emphasis here on the most spiritually mature in the church.  The latter are less likely to be quenching the Spirit.

It isn’t one man who is the pillar and ground of the truth.  It isn’t a caste of scholars.  It is the church.   The church separates based upon the faith that has been given it.  It practices separation towards the unrepentant within it and without it for purposes of glorifying God, purifying the church, preserving sound doctrine and practice, and instructing saints out of love.

What Does the Separation Look Like?

Churches are different to the degree that each follows Christ with obedience (Revelation 2 and 3).  Even though unity in a church is the persistent goal, even in the church men will believe and practice differently.  Each church member won’t even stay the same in his belief and practice.  He is to add to his faith (2 Pet 1).  He is to grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord (2 Pet 3).  The individual believer will struggle to do good (Rom 7:21).  Even when he would do good, he does not do good.  He disciplines himself and other members discipline him.  The church communes at the table for unity, examining itself again and again.

During this progress in sanctification, conforming to the image of the Son, church members are to be patient with one another, strengthening and supporting (1 Thessalonians 5:14-15).   Pastors preach the Word with all longsuffering (2 Tim 4:2).  We restore the sinning with meekness, considering ourselves and our own temptations (Gal 6:1-2).  None of this means that we put up with the violation of so-called “non-essentials.”  It means that Christians will be weak in the faith and will struggle to grow.  They will get stronger—little children, young  and then old men (1 John 2).  We are patient with everyone, allowing them time.  Even the Jezebel at Thyatira (Rev. 2:20), Jesus gave “space to repent.”  Paul warned at Ephesus night and day.  All of this is a messy process that doesn’t look clean-cut.

Does this mean that we have essentials and non-essentials?  No.  It means that we give men time to learn and grow.  If we expect that of our own church, then certainly we should allow it for other churches with whom we will fellowship.  The standard, as I see it, in Scripture is:  “Are they willing to learn?”  Or:  “Will they be humble and willing to listen, not divisive?”

This standard, I believe, comes out of the warning against those who would cause dissension and a stumbling for others (Rom 16:17).  These are the same people or at least attitudes in 1 Timothy 6—“proud, knowing nothing, but doting about questions and strifes of words, whereof cometh envy, strife, railings, evil surmisings, perverse disputings. . .”  These are those we withdraw from.  The teaching of the church can’t be sidetracked by scorners.  Proverbs 22:10 says, “Cast out the scorner, and contention shall go out; yea, strife and reproach shall cease.”   You can’t work with someone who scorns.  There is too much at stake.  One of these little ones might be offended.  Jesus said it would be better to tie a mammoth rock around your neck (a millstone) and jump into deep water than to cause one of them to stumble.

“Heresy” is teaching that goes against what the church is teaching (Titus 3:10-11).  The Holy Spirit through the church tests the orthodoxy.  If someone wants to cause division away from the practice, teaching, affections, and worship of the church, he must be rejected.  He’s a problem.  The whole church is bigger than he is, so he should fit in to it.  Jesus said that to those even in the minority in the churches of Asia (Rev 2, 3).  He told them to revive what was remaining and hold fast.  Our first responsibility is to try to help.  When an individual will not hear or no one will listen anymore, then we separate.

A church that is against divorce doesn’t present a problem for our church’s belief of no-divorce and no-remarriage.  A church that doesn’t listen to teaching on it or encourages divorce will cause people to stumble.  Our church has to make that decision.  We believe that pants on women is an abomination to God.   It takes some a while to learn that even in our own church.  As long as they aren’t causing division, we give them time.   Other men don’t have the same conviction.  Neither did I for the first eight to ten years of our ministry until I preached a series through Deuteronomy.  It took me that long.  Others will have different beliefs and practices than me, but I won’t separate from them immediately (what I call “cutting them off”), because we all need time to learn and grow.  Since the church is the pillar and ground of the truth, each church makes its own decision.  Only a church has the machinery—Lord’s Supper, Pastors, Discipline—to maintain that unity Christ prayed for in John 17.

The codification of doctrine and practice in associations and denominations today makes the matter of separation clearer in those instances.  The churches in these conventions and fellowship may openly oppose a doctrine or practice our church believes.  They give notice that they aren’t budging on a particular point. Fellowship will likely never begin with those churches.  Separation is maintained for the stated scriptural purposes, love being prominent among them.

None of what I’ve said here means that certain teachings are essentials and non-essentials.  It does mean that we will have to show discernment about what will be a problem for our church and whether we are dealing with a scorner or not.  In 1 Thessalonians 5:14, Paul gave different ways of dealing with different people.  The weak and feebleminded you strengthen and support, but you warn the unruly.  The unruly get a different treatment.  We approach other churches and other pastors the same way.

The Advantage of this Teaching on Separation and Ranking Doctrines

This teaching on separation and ranking doctrines relies on scripture for the position.  It doesn’t invent a new doctrine of essentials and non-essentials in order to maintain a fake unity.  It cares about every teaching of Christ like Jesus Himself does.  It values every doctrine and practice of the Bible.  It looks for unity.  It separates for the right purpose.  It respects the truth.

  1. February 18, 2009 at 9:02 am

    Based on the limited amount of information given in Revelation 3, would you fellowship with the church at Laodecia, or would you separate from them?

  2. February 18, 2009 at 9:51 am


    I would separate from Laodecia, because there is enough information there to know that. For the other six churches, I would likely have already separated from Sardis and Thyatira, even though Jesus was still dealing with them, and perhaps even Pergamos. Ephesus wouldn’t be as obvious. While Jesus is still working with churches, we might be separated from them, because the time for what we could do to help is over.

    We do have factors that enter in today that are different than the first century—the existence of denominations, for example, that have codified their differences with us in a set way. Certain parachurch institutions and associations and boards have stated their own unfriendliness to certain doctrines our church believes.

    I think that my post does answer what you’re asking, if you think about it. I don’t mean that in a condescending way.

  3. February 18, 2009 at 11:55 am

    I think the post suggested how you would answer the question, but I wanted to be sure I was following correctly. That does bring up a second question: Why don’t the letters to the other churches instruct them on the necessity of such separation?

    This may sound like snark, but it seriously isn’t meant to be. I’m curious to see how your position applies in practice in an inter-church setting. I know the commandments regarding separation from individuals, and I think I understand how you are applying them to churches. But it seems like Revelation 2 and 3 would be a prime place for specific instruction in this area, yet it isn’t included.

  4. February 18, 2009 at 2:03 pm

    Still working my way through this article. I truly appreciate the list of passages dealing with separation. Wanted to point out this:

    The meaning of Scripture is clear enough that a child can know it (2 Timothy 3:15). Some of it is hard to be understood (2 Timothy 3:15), but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be understood.

    The second reference used should be 2 Peter 3:16. Just wanted to clear up any confusion people might have if they looked up the wrong reference.

  5. February 18, 2009 at 2:15 pm

    Hi again Watchman.

    I believe one reason that they don’t suggest anything about separation because at that time there wasn’t anywhere else to go. I believe that Jesus deals with churches like this. He wrote these letters to these churches to deal with them. And he threatened them. I think he still does it today, but perhaps because of the state of the church at that time among other reasons, He did more at the 96AD time period. Notice, however, that Jesus Himself does not have interminable patience with them before He does something with finality upon them. We can’t do what Jesus would do in those instances, but we can separate. Last, I believe Jesus expects to take the separation texts and apply them to each situation. We can do that. They have a different purpose for us than what those letters did for those seven churches.

    Thanks for asking.

  6. February 18, 2009 at 2:15 pm


    I took care of my error. Thanks.

  7. Anvil
    February 18, 2009 at 3:36 pm

    A couple (alright, a few) questions.

    1. How does the church (as a unit) decide what doctrine is correct? If the pastor gets up and preaches an interpretation, and some of the listeners disagree, and they speak to the pastor, but there is an impasse, what is the next step? Obviously, they wouldn’t want to cause strife, but there would have to be a way to address this. If the congregation is simply accepting what is preached, and is not attempting to have any voice in whether or not that teaching follows scripture correctly, then the church is not, in fact, the pillar and ground of the truth. It is incorrectly expecting one man to take that job. Or let’s say it’s a matter of separation with someone who, in the opinion of the church has gone astray on a doctrine, but is not a member. Is a vote taken or other group determination made for every case like this?

    2. What kind of time is time enough for deciding separation must occur? Those who are strong in their convictions and beliefs could take a long time (if it ever happens) to be convinced. You mentioned in one case that you held a different position for 8 or 10 years before you changed it. Should men who disagreed with you during that time have been separated with you? If you have a disagreement with someone on a particular doctrine after a discussion, and you realize that both of you are at an impasse (one might say “we’ll have to agree to disagree”), does that mean that time is up and separation is now required? Would you take this to the church and ask it as a whole to decide with whom you should be in fellowship?

    3. It’s still a bit nebulous to me when and how any member can or should decide that a church has “lost its candlestick” and must be separated from. If the church itself is going downhill, it no longer can be trusted to be the pillar and ground of truth, but what level of disagreement/discernment does it take to know the right time? Even with a firm conviction and peace in the heart about making a separation from a church, it can be hard to know if what you are doing is right when the pastor and other spiritual leaders are telling you just the opposite. Further, if this were to be done over every single teaching on which any member might disagree, you could end up with a bunch of churches with one member rather than one church with many members. But if one waits until there is a large amount of disagreement before separating he is in a practical sense ranking doctrine. How much discomfort over differences with a single teaching should be accepted and suppressed to join with and submit to the teachings of a particular local church as a whole?

    I realize these questions are more practice-oriented, but if the theory can’t work in practice, it can certainly be an indication that that theory is not correctly representing the scriptural position.

  8. February 18, 2009 at 3:59 pm

    You wrote: “I believe one reason that they don’t suggest anything about separation because at that time there wasn’t anywhere else to go.:”

    I’m not asking about members separating from the church, I’m asking about what I understood you to be discussing–churches separating from each other. If the proper response to Laodecia is separation, it would help Philadelphia (and/or modern day believers) to have that spelled out.

    Could it be argued that the principle is so clear that it doesn’t need stating? But if that’s the case, then what about Pergamos (per your example above)? And finally, what about people who have broken with Ephesus but not Pergamos? Where do you stand on them?

  9. February 18, 2009 at 4:21 pm

    Excellent article. I appreciate the distinction you make between those who deliberately hold to false doctrine and those who perhaps have not grown or matured spiritually in that area (but are humble and open to the Scriptures).

    I like how God works, reemphasizing things in our lives. I am currently reading Cloud’s book entitled What Is The Emerging Church. I hadn’t picked it up for several weeks, then started digging in again last night. Then I went to bed. The very next part that I was at today deals with exactly what you cover here (from a slightly different perspective).

    Cloud makes the distinction that there are those who ask questions and are willing to look to the Bible for the answer, and those who just ask foolish questions to stir up strife (heretics) or cast doubt on the Bible.

    Page 100: “A heretic is not a person who is merely ignorant of sound doctrine. A true believer can be ignorant of sound doctrine, but the evidence that he is not a heretic will be seen when he responds to sound doctrine and rejects the error.”

  10. February 18, 2009 at 4:23 pm


    It’s Wednesday night and I just posted at What Is Truth, so I can’t comment to such a lengthy post right now, but in practice it has worked at our church. We aren’t exactly in the Bible belt here. I don’t think anyone would disagree if I said it was the most godless place in the US, where we’re at here.

    I think other men read this and say, “Yah, that’s what I believe.” I wouldn’t mind hearing from you too. Chime in, in other words.

  11. February 18, 2009 at 4:28 pm

    Thanks Jerry, you must have posted your comment just before I finished mine. I like having that too, where someone else has the same scriptural conclusion and we haven’t even read each other. Just the Word.

  12. Joshua
    February 18, 2009 at 8:06 pm

    Yeah, that is pretty much what I’ve come to believe. Three newly discovered doctrines (for me) have shocked me in my exodus from the Baptist Union to the IB’s. The first is the preservation of Scripture, the second is the fallacy of the universal church, and the third is the doctrine of separation. Mr Brandenburg convinced me of the second, and here he is helping me to understand exactly how the last doctrine should be practiced. Many thanks.

  13. February 18, 2009 at 10:46 pm


    I saw you up there, but too late to write earlier. I don’t think you should read a lack of teaching on separation into Revelation 2 & 3. It is an interesting thought, I believe. Jesus does instruct us somewhat in this matter as to what to do by what He says that He will do if they don’t repent, etc. I have a hard time answering the rest of your questions, because of their hypothetical nature. He doesn’t instruct in separation there, perhaps because it is elsewhere taught.


    Thanks for the testimony. I’m thankful for the Word of God. Praise Him.


    I’ll come back to interact with your comment tomorrow. Thanks for your patience.

  14. reglerjoe
    February 19, 2009 at 9:11 am

    I’m starting to lose my place in the comment thread, so give me the smack-down if I’m getting redundant.

    What you’re saying, Kent, is that:

    1. The Bible never identifies essential versus non-essential doctrine.
    2. That separation/unity is only practiced in the context of the local church, that extra-ecclesiastical (is that a word?) activities, such as conferences, seminars, etc., are a “fake” unity because the participants couldn’t cooperate in a local church context (i.e., Mohler, MacArthur, and Duncan couldn’t all take communion together)…that inter-denominational conferences are really nothing more than sentimental cohesion.
    3. The church’s statement of faith is it’s guide to separation/unity. It separates/unites over what its standard for membership is.
    4. Church members are received into fellowship as long as they agree to follow the statement of faith; if there is some disagreement between a member and his church’s SOF, then he can remain in fellowship with his local church as long as he doesn’t become divisive (i.e., you can have a post-trib church member as long as he doesn’t become contentious over his views in your pre-trib church).

    Is this a correct summary? Assuming it is, then let me ask a coupla questions to see how this plays out in a practical way:

    1. You wouldn’t support a missionary who doesn’t agree to your SOF 100% because, in his mission church, he could be teaching something that would be considered divisive if it was taught in your church. Is this accurate?
    2. Would you have a guest preacher in your church, even if he was not 100% in agreement with your church’s SOF as long as he didn’t preach something divisive?

  15. February 19, 2009 at 10:34 am

    Thanks Joe. You pretty much get it and you actually added some things that are good arguments. Dever himself says that Duncan couldn’t be in his church, but they are in fellowship? What is fellowship then? We’re rather dumbing it down to a level not right with God. And God is the point, not fake unity.

    1. Yes. This is the biggest deal for us in fellowship with other churches, missionary cooperation.
    2. Yes. He would need to be close, but we don’t expect everyone to be right where we’re at, because everyone is growing.

  16. Denise (Kuha) Graziano
    February 19, 2009 at 1:20 pm

    I am very happy to see this thread, and am printing it out so that I can read it more thoroughly in my spare time. In the past month, I’ve reached out to a number of other missionaries and our home church in regards to this very subject. Both my husband and I are challenged by what we find ourselves confronted with regards to issues concerning separation on the mission field, and so your unique presentation of what the Bible says is very timely and helpful.

    To the praise of His glory,
    Denise G.

  17. February 19, 2009 at 4:17 pm

    Brother Kent,

    I think you ought to definitively explain what you believe Biblical “fellowship” is before anyone can really understand what you are talking about in separation. I think many people get very confused about these issues, especially in differentiating between personal and ecclesiastical separation.

    I would not consider attending a seminar or even an interdenominational meeting of some kind as Biblical “fellowship.” I am not cooperating in any kind of ministry through this medium.

    Since I am fairly well known among IFB, I have to carefully consider whether my attendance may be construed as some kind (or any kind) of endorsement of or concession towards those participating, but I would not consider attendance as “fellowship” from a Biblical definition of the term.

    I got into a discussion about this with someone the other day. He thought I was talking about not having a cup of coffee or playing a game of pick-up basketball with someone I was in disagreement with theologically. I think you should clarify that is not would you are talking about in separation (breaking “fellowship”); of course unless that IS what you are talking about.

  18. February 19, 2009 at 5:35 pm


    Thanks for the note. I’m glad it helped. I’m happy to have been able to get it all in one place.


    I think you’re right. Good criticism. Defining fellowship would be helpful. Maybe in the next post, I’ll explore that among other things. I appreciate the thoughts.

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