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.
Have you considered that something as good and honorable as the truth could be dangerous? That’s the truth, actually. You see, Paul teaches us in Romans that indignation, wrath, tribulation, and anguish come upon every soul that disobeys the truth.
But unto them that are contentious, and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, indignation and wrath, tribulation and anguish, upon every soul of man that doeth evil, of the Jew first, and also of the Gentile; (Romans 2:8-9)
These are the consequences of disobeying the truth. Here again, the definite article designates truth as an all encompassing whole. It makes us acknowledge that we should strive to obey all the truth. And it makes the rhetorical question, “Which truths can be disobeyed?” quite powerful.
If it’s dangerous to disobey the truth, we should want to know and obey all truth. There’s no middle ground with the truth. Obey it and be blessed, disobey and have anguish.
Folks, I had to deal with some unplanned school activities for several hours yesterday. Hence, my tardiness and brevity. But consider today the relationship between the Word of God and the Truth. Jesus said along the way in His high priestly prayer, “Thy word is truth.” When He did that, he stated an equivalence between them. I believe that ranking doctrine is related to ranking Scripture. If we can or have to determine which scriptures are more important, i.e. really truth, then we feel that we can or have to determine which doctrines are also more important. Is seems that one’s belief about preservation affects his view of doctrine. Which only makes sense (or maybe it’s circular). He doesn’t think preservation is a primary doctrine. Maybe that is a root problem!
Maybe some of you can develop these thoughts in the comments…
If you are in touch with contemporary theology, then you know the emphasis today in theological circles on ranking doctrines. In case you don’t understand, let me explain. Evangelical teachers say that some doctrine and practice is worth separating or fighting over and some is not. They rank certain doctrines as primary or essential and others as secondary or non-essential. Ironically, there’s a lot of conflict among them about which doctrines are important and which ones are not. For instance, is mode of baptism worth separating over?
Who Is Talking About This?
I said that people are talking about it. Who?
Nick Duke, pastor of Campus Church at the The University of Canterbury in Christchurch, NZ, wrote a three part series outlining his thoughts on the ranking of doctrines (beginning here).
The GARBC published a pamphlet written by a pastor, David Nettleton, which was against the dividing of doctrine into essentials and non-essentials.
Miles J. Stanford writes that the separation of doctrine into these types of categories was a characteristic of new evangelicalism: “Concession has been the course of Neo-evangelicalism. Its interdenominational [and nondenominational] approach has caused it to divide the Bible into essentials, and non-essentials.”
Oh, and then me. I finished a series at my blog specifically on this subject (part one, two, three, four, five, and then here) [One young blogger commented]. My position, of course, contrasts with Johnson, MacArthur, Bauder, and Mohler. Kevin Bauder might call me an “everythingist,”or at least a modified everythingist, which he would look at with disrepute.
Overview of the Discussion
One side says that Scripture ranks doctrines according to importance and that this provides a basis for separation. Most of the truth rankers agree that the gospel is the one doctrine over which we are to separate as Christians. Everything else is tertiary or non-essential. A major phrase I’ve heard on this position is: Essentials unity, non-essentials liberty, all things charity. They say that some doctrines are more important than others—those are primary or fundamental—and those are the ones that are worth separating from another person or institution. This is the means by which we maintain unity between believers. In order to get along, we have to reduce the teachings or issues over which we will separate to a manageable number.
My position is that every doctrine in Scripture is essential. We don’t have one example in Scripture of something God said being dispensable. The non-essential doctrines are those that are non-scriptural. Non-biblical issues are not a basis of separation. Anything that God did say in His Word is primary and fundamental. We aren’t taught in the Bible anywhere this essential and non-essential, primary and secondary or tertiary doctrine. We are not given liberty in the Bible to disobey God or to believe differently than what Scripture says.
Phil Johnson gives five scriptural reasons in his online series on this subject, but he admits:
It seems to me that the distinction between primary and secondary doctrines is implicit rather than explicit in Scripture.
He says the teaching is implicit. And yet, it is a major teaching for evangelicals and many fundamentalists. These are the same men who often chafe at dogma arrived from implications. And this is major dogma with them. In my five part series linked above, I cover several of his arguments by implication.
I’ve found in person that the main arguments for the essential/non-essential teaching are experiential. The typical attack is rhetorical, something like this: “So you’re saying that baptism is as important as salvation in Scripture?” Or, “So you think that Jephthah’s daughter and the sons of god in Genesis 6 are as important as the doctrine of justification?” If you say yes to either of these questions, then they say something like: “That’s just crazy!” Or, “You gotta be kiddin me (laughter)!” The indifferentist crosses his arms with smug satisfaction. With those questions, he has just won this debate. If you won’t separate over every teaching of Scripture, then you may as well fellowship with everyone no matter what their beliefs.
Once I started looking into this issue again in preparation for this series, I read some that saw it like I did. Leland M. Haines, albeit a Mennonite, here writes an article that I believe reflects a biblical view. He concludes: “In Biblical issues, unity. In non-Biblical issues, liberty. In all things, love.”
As we look at Scripture, do we see God take the same attitude as us about all of his teachings? Do we take the same attitude when the restaurant missed our special order? “I said no onions on my Whopper!” Our position should reflect the will of God as revealed in His Word. We don’t have liberty to cobble together a new doctrine based upon our struggles to get along with one another.
You will find men discuss this topic in history. Herman Witsius, 17th century Puritan, discusses it from pp. 16-33 in his Sacred Dissertations: On What Is Commonly Called the Apostles Creed. He barely refers to Scripture to make His point, but this issue was being discussed. John MacArthur’s three part series (linked above) essentially uses the outline of Witsius from these pages, except MacArthur attaches verses to what Witsius wrote. This article says that Wesley took some type of this essential/non-essential position. Francis Turretin in his Institutes of Elenctic Theology, in volume 1 deals with what is fundamental and non-fundamental under his fourteenth question, which is “Are some theological topics fundamental, others not; and how can they be mutually distinguished?” Turretin uses 1 Corinthians 3:11-15 and Philippians 3:15 as his basis and that’s it. You will be hard-pressed to find any kind of ranking of doctrines in those two texts. Tell-tale is Turretin’s opinion of the Lutheran view of doctrinal taxonomy: “the more strict Lutherans who extend fundamentals more widely than is just.” In this we see the peril of taking scripture and reducing it to what we think is important—people who have a longer list of important doctrines than us are considered “too strict.”
Spurgeon, on the other hand, with his vast library and encyclopedic knowledge of theology did not approve of dividing doctrines into essentials and non-essentials. He talked about this on many different occasions and showed a severe dislike for this practice. Alexander Young wrote against this doctrinal division in 1852, James Carlile in 1823, and J. S. Thompson in 1890. In 1887 Thomas Armitage in The History of the Baptists wrote (p. 680): “But their folly is more apparent still when we find them drawing a distinction between essential and non-essential Christian doctrines.” In 1878 The True Covenanter did an article against the division of doctrine as such.
The Bible is historical and I believe that ranking doctrines did start in Bible times. We read about it in Scripture. It began with the unconverted religious leaders of Jesus’ day—the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the scribes. It was normal for them to reduce the commands of God to a number they could keep on their own. They wanted to involve Jesus in this practice when they asked Him in Matthew 22:36, “Master, which is the great commandment in the law?” Like Jesus would do many times, He played along with this little game when He answered, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.” Of course Jesus wasn’t saying that ranking God’s commands was acceptable. He knew that all of the other commandments could be wrapped up into this one. He also recognized that this was one that the religious leaders were violating.
The religious leaders in Israel didn’t have a supernatural religion. In their sinful flesh, they were powerless to keep the many commands that God had given. This weighed upon them a heavy burden. Since they couldn’t keep them all, they chose to minimize them to a manageable number. They even started reducing the number to just the one really important one. That’s what we see happening today with ranking doctrines as well. We choose what we think is important and then we fellowship based on that smaller number of divine instructions based on our own convenience. Then we call it unity.
Why a New Popularity?
Ranking doctrines occurs for two reasons: a perversion of the nature of the church and a misunderstanding of the doctrine of unity. The latter is related to the former. Since men think that the church is all believers, they assume they must unify with all believers based on what the Bible teaches about unity. They have found that there is no way that they can get along with everyone else if every teaching of Scripture is the basis of fellowship. There is too much doctrinal disagreement, so they choose to get along based upon what they call the “essentials.” If someone violates one of the essentials, then they have a reason for separation. Until then, they’ve got to maintain a unity that is based upon a few doctrines or just one.
This practice has been around for years in Roman Catholicism. Men may not have believed Roman Catholic doctrine, but the belief in Catholicism itself trumped all other doctrines. Remaining in the Catholic “Church” was necessary for eternal life. Excommunication from the denomination meant condemnation. Roman Catholicism was held together by a few basic teachings that all Catholics agreed upon in order to stay together and to remain in the church.
I believe the new popularity of ranking doctrines comes mainly as a response to the mainstream culture. We live in a new era of tolerance. Not getting along is not acceptable and those most at fault are the ones with the higher and more plenteous standards. The church has mirrored that trend. It doesn’t look good squabbling over doctrinal differences. The new unifying doctrine is unity itself.
Another factor is the world’s view of success. To be successful you need to be in a large group. It brings credibility and safety. When you are outside of the group, you lose the comfort of social status. God said that it wasn’t good that man was alone. God created us with the desire for relationships. Like anything good that He created, the ruination of the curse twists it into something perverse. You won’t be considered a success unless you have a lot of friends. The new facebook craze is testimony to the seduction of popularity. The only criteria for friendship is the click on one internet link. You’re now friends…because you want to be. Doctrine and practice doesn’t have to mess that up at all. It’s nice to feel wanted.
Monetary factors exist. You can’t sell books without a more universal acceptance. You won’t have the pool of speaking invitations unless those opportunities are kept open. You might not get a job at a parachurch organization that is more broad than what you are. Being narrow is the deal-breaker. If you have your own conference, you won’t have people coming if you are so narrow that few will feel comfortable. The threat of shunning exists. The way to alleviate that is to have very little worthy of ejection from the group. If they come, they’ll help pay for your conference.
If you are dispensational and premillennial like I am, then you believe a one world church is in the future. How is that going to happen? Religious people will forego their doctrines and scruples to get together based on one common belief. I would expect a trend toward that as we get closer to the end. It’s Satanic influence headed toward what we see prophecied in Revelation. Before the all out unity in the tribulation period, the world will be rid of all those that have been causing division—the people that believe and practice the Bible.
But Does Ranking Doctrines Please God?
When you rank doctrines, you are going to let a few teachings go like so many loose tomatoes in the back of a pick-up truck. The God of the Bible doesn’t approve of any disobedience of Him. In essence, God is left out of this discussion. It centers on man. Ironically, ranking doctrines doesn’t love God. God is loved by keeping His commandments, words, and sayings (John 14:15, 21, 23). We have doctrinal and practical light and then doctrinal and practical darkness with no shades of grey in between. If everything that He says is true, then all of it is important. All of it needs to be followed. We don’t have liberty to sin (Romans 6:1). Faith keeps God’s Word and faith pleases Him.
There are many places in the Bible that address the subject of truth. Of course, all the Bible itself is true in one way or another. It either speaks the truth or gives the true account of something that is untrue. Christ also spoke the truth and about the truth often. He said, Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.
One of the most well known times that Christ spoke the truth about the Truth is in John 14:6 where he said, I am the way, the truth, and the life, no man cometh unto the Father but by me. In this text, several attributes of the truth are seen.
1. The truth can be known.
2. The truth is external.
3. The truth is unchanging.
4. The truth is eternal.
5. The truth is absolute.
Whenever anyone claims that something IS true, he is assuming that EVERYTHING else is not true. If someone believes Christ, then he believes the truth. If he denies Christ, then he denies the truth. Even if he only does not admit Christ is the truth, then he does not admit to the truth. The point I’m making is that there is only ONE truth, and everything is either true or it’s not. There is no space between truth and error.
Now, when people categorize the truth, they make us think that there are degrees of truth. This is dangerous. It gives us the feeling that there are some things that God does not care about. And that is not true. God is true, even if every man is a liar. Admittedly, the impact of my errors may differ according to what I am in error about, but the fact of the error still stands. If I am in error, I am believing a lie.
As the month progresses, you will read our three perspectives on the truth. We may differ, and if so, then one or even all of us are wrong, but we must remember and respect a person who is honestly seeking the truth and seeking to align his life and practice with it.