Text: 1 John 1:1-7; 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1
As we continue in our series of messages on the beliefs of our church, we now come to the doctrine of Biblical separation. To many people, this doctrine is rather negative and divisive. They think that if we practise biblical separation, we have no love. But it is taught clearly in the Bible, and hence we cannot choose to ignore it. This doctrine needs to be understood and applied correctly, otherwise what we may end up practicing is unbiblical isolation rather than biblical separation. There are at least three principles we need to understand about this doctrine. Firstly…
1. God’s Truth is the only Basis for Christian Fellowship.
To understand this principle, let us look at 1 John 1:1-3 – “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life; (For the life was manifested, and we have seen it, and bear witness, and shew unto you that eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us;) That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ.”
I want you to observe that the word ‘fellowship’ occurs twice here. And it occurs two more times in the rest of this chapter. It comes from the Greek word ‘koinonia’ which conveys the idea of a close mutual partnership. Koinonia is much more than mere friendship or family kinship. We relate to our non-Christian friends on a social level, and there is an additional emotional level when we relate to family members who are close to us. But to fellow Christians we can relate on a spiritual level as well, a level where there is oneness of heart, mind and spirit. And this is a deeper and more meaningful level of relationship that we can enjoy.
True Christian fellowship is a precious spiritual union that can only be enjoyed by born again Christians. Our common spiritual birth links us together with a very unique bond through our Lord Jesus. As Paul tells us, “There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; One Lord, one faith, one baptism, One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.” (Ephesians 4:4-6). Because of the fellowship we share a Christians, we can worship God together and unite our hearts together to praise Him in song. Because of our Christian fellowship, we can help each other to grow into spiritual maturity. And because of our Christian fellowship, we can serve God together and join hands together in any spiritual work, like corporate praying and evangelism.
With this understanding of what fellowship is, let us look again at 1 John 1:3 – “That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us.” We now direct our focus to the phrase, ‘that which we have seen and heard’. The word ‘we’ here refers to John and all his fellow apostles. They were the direct eyewitnesses of the life, work and teaching of Jesus Christ. And hence, the apostles became the authorized means by which God revealed His truth in written form. Here, John tells his readers that this truth was declared to them so that they may have fellowship (koinonia) with him and the rest of the apostles.
John wrote this epistle at a time when there were false teachers in the church who denied the truth which God had revealed through the apostles. These false teachers claimed that God could not possibly have created the world, because God is spirit and cannot have any dealings with the world of matter which is inherently evil. They claimed that the world was created by an emanation that came out of God.
Some of them believed that Jesus could not possibly have been God, because God can never take on a material body. Others said that Jesus was God or one of the emanations of God, but He did not really take on a real physical body. They said that He just appeared to have a body. But it was just an illusion. Then according to church history, there was one false teacher named Cerinthus who taught that God came and took over the body of a man named Jesus at his baptism, and then left his body just before he was crucified. All these false teachings had one common feature – they all implied that acts committed by the body do not affect one’s spiritual life, and so it did not matter if believers continued to live in sin.
As these false teachings spread within the Church and gained some followers, many believers became confused about whom they should believe and continue to fellowship with. John wrote this epistle to clear their confusion by teaching them how to know who they can have fellowship with.
He wrote that the only basis for Christian fellowship is God’s truth. We can have fellowship with one another only on the basis of this revealed truth which is God’s written Word, the Bible. Therefore, without this revealed truth there is no basis at all for Christian fellowship. This is the all-important principle that we must apply whenever we practice biblical separation.
This principle can be easily applied to our relationships with non-Christians. Fellowship with them is impossible since they have yet to accept the truth which God has revealed and come to the saving knowledge of Christ for salvation. And so, we must keep persuading them to accept the truth. Until they do this, there is no basis at all for any fellowship with them. Can we associate with them on a purely social level? Yes, we certainly can, as long as all the social activities that we engage with them are not worldly or sinful. Our Lord Jesus had meals together with the publicans and sinners (Matthew 9:11). Can we then relate to them on a spiritual level? The answer is NO, we cannot, because full acceptance of God’s truth is the only basis for fellowship. Hence, biblical separation limits our relationship with non-Christian friends.
But biblical separation may at times limit our relationship even with Christian friends. Let me explain. Since Christianity started 2,000 years ago and spread all over the world, many Christian groups have emerged. Today there are over 30,000 groups in the world that are called Christian. Some groups have adhered to the truth faithfully, but some have deviated far from it. Some of these have deviated from the truth by adding new doctrines to it. Others have deviated from the truth by removing essential doctrines from it. This phenomenon may be called ‘truth decay.’ Any church that has deviated from the truth either by adding to it or by subtracting from it can no longer be regarded as churches we can have fellowship with. They may bear some similarities to us, but they are different from us.
This is the reason why Life Church has not participated in interchurch mass evangelism campaigns. In 17-19 May this year there was a three-day campaign at the National stadium that was attended by more than 125,000 people. Altogether 227 churches and marketplace groups in Singapore put all their differences aside and united for the salvation of souls. The participants included megachurches, charismatic churches and conservative churches. Perhaps we may not have problems joining hands with the more conservative Bible-believing churches among them if they are the only ones conducting this campaign. But when these churches join hands together with churches that have deviated away from the truth, then we have to stay out.
And since 1948 many churches have even joined hands with other religions. That was the year when the World Council of Churches was born. Today it has a membership of 350 churches and denominations of every shade of doctrine. Those churches and denominations represent more than half a billion Christians around the world. In a conference held in Athens in 2005 the Council issued the following statement:“As Christians we seek to build a new relationship with other religious traditions because we believe it to be intrinsic to the gospel message and inherent to our mission as co-workers with God in healing the world. Therefore the mystery of God’s relationship to all God’s people, and the many ways in which peoples have responded to this mystery, invite us to explore more fully the reality of other religious traditions and our own identity as Christians in a religiously plural world.” If you look at this statement carefully you will see that it promotes the false idea that followers of other religions are God’s people and have a relationship with God. Thus, the World Council of Churches organises dialogues with Sikhs and conferences with Buddhists. It also sends greetings to Hindus and to Muslim sisters and brothers regularly.
At an International peace conference of Muslims and Christians in Egypt in 2017, the WCC General Secretary declared, “We believe in one God that has created one humanity to live together with its diversity and differences.” How different this is from what Jesus said: “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no man cometh unto the Father but by Me.” (John 14:6) Why has all this has happened? It is all because churches have put aside their differences in order to seek after unity. But by doing this they have compromised the truth, which is the only basis for Christian unity.
How do we respond when we receive invitations to join them? We practise biblical separation, which means that we do not join them in their worship or in their prayer meetings. It means that we do not co-labour with them in reaching out to the lost. However, this does not mean that we should avoid having any contact with them altogether. While we cannot relate to them on a spiritual level, we may still relate to them as individuals on a social level – as friends with other common interests, such as food, exercise or sports.
But if we are truly concerned for them as friends we would not want them to continue in their deviant beliefs. We would surely pray that they will come to know and obey the truth. And we would even try to help them to do this. What God requires of us in our relationship with friends from churches that have deviated from the truth is to help them to understand the truth patiently and lovingly, hoping that they will one day obey the truth and come out from their church.
And when they have done that, then we can enjoy having fellowship with them. Then we can relate to them not only on a social level, but on a spiritual level as well, since they are now truly likeminded brothers and sisters in Christ. Thus we have seen that biblical separation limits our relationship with friends from churches that have deviated from the truth to a purely social relationship. We can relate to them on a spiritual level only when they have come out of the churches with deviant beliefs.
Perhaps at this point some of us may wonder how seriously should we take this practice of separation? Are there passages of Scripture that clearly teach us to practise biblical separation? Yes, there are many.
One of them is found in 2 Corinthians 6:14-18 – “Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness? And what concord hath Christ with Belial? or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel? And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols? for ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you, And will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be My sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty.” In this passage we will see two more principles about biblical separation. The first is…
2. God’s Command is to be Separate from Unbelievers.
A command must always be taken seriously. Once it is given, obedience is necessary. Paul was not merely giving advice or his personal opinion when he wrote: “Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers… come out from among them, and be ye separate.” These are meant to be understood as commands to discontinue an action. This command to be separate from unbelievers was especially relevant to the Corinthian believers because Corinth was a very prominent sinful city. There was a wide variety of pagan people, idolatry and rampant immorality in this city. This influenced the Corinthian church tremendously, and it was one reason why Paul had to deal with so many problems in the epistles he wrote to them.
This command to be separate is actually not new. The Lord had given it to His people long before Paul wrote to the Corinthians. Verses 17-18 of this passage are actually quoted from Isaiah 52:11 – “Depart ye, depart ye, go ye out from thence, touch no unclean thing; go ye out of the midst of her; be ye clean, that bear the vessels of the LORD.” The point is that God had always wanted His people to be separate. The Corinthians were no exception, and neither are we.
A similar command is given to us in 1 John 2:15,16 – “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world.” Here, we are told not just to be separate from unbelievers, but also from the world, which is largely the product of unbelievers.The world here refers to the system of sin, pride, ambition, pleasure and power that man has built up under Satan. It would include the ungodly, hedonistic attitudes and values which prevail all around us, and which influence the lives of the young as well and the old.
To love the things of the world, and do things that identify us with it will jeopardise our love for God, our spiritual growth and our Christian testimony. One of the great challenges that we all face as Christians, is how to handle the values that are increasingly being forced upon us by the world. The world’s values are radically different from Christian values, and we see them reflected abundantly in the media. Everywhere we go, we are urged to pursue things such as prosperity, popularity, prestige, pleasure and power. These are the things that the world considers to be worth all our time and effort.
And sometimes the influence is so strong that we find ourselves under tremendous pressure to conform (and this has even influenced some churches to adopt worldly practices, e.g. promoting the Prosperity Gospel in their pulpits, and using worldly forms of entertainment in their worship). So what should we do in order to obey God’s command? We must recognise the ungodly character of the world, and decide not to strive to gain its approval or fair treatment from it. Doing this may cause us to suffer inconvenience and disadvantage, as it puts us at odds with the world.
However God’s command to be separate from the world does not mean that we should isolate ourselves totally from society. That’s an extreme application of biblical separation. Jesus said that we are to be the “salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13). As we had seen in the message that was preached two weeks ago, Jesus has also commissioned us to go into all the world and preach the Gospel so that unbelievers may come to believe in Him and be saved (Mark 16:15). Please remember this: We are to be in the world, but not of the world.
Perhaps you may ask: Why has God given us such a command? Why is it so important to Him that His people should be separate from unbelievers and from the world? The reason is found in 1 Corinthians 7:1 – “…let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.” This brings us to the third and most important principle about biblical separation…
3. God’s Holiness is the Reason for Being Separate.
The ultimate reason for being separate is actually found in God Himself. Holiness is the very essence of God’s nature. Holiness makes Him strongly opposed to all sin, unbelief, falsehood and rebellion. The Lord utterly abhors all unholy things and He , demonstrates His divine wrath on them. If we are God’s children, we should have the same attitude that God has to all these things. From v. 16, we learn that we are the Temple of the living God – “…for ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.” Thus, we have the great privilege of having Him dwell in us.
In v.18 we find the wonderful privilege of relating to God as children relating to their father. God says, “…and I will receive you, And will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be My sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty.” The implication of having this close relationship with God is very clear, as 7:1 tells us that we must “…cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.”
This is what John the apostle meant when he wrote in 1 John 1:5,6 – “This then is the message which we have heard of Him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth.” Here John used light as a metaphor for holiness. Just as light cannot be mixed with darkness, holiness cannot be mixed with unholy relationships.
So let us understand this principle well: God’s holiness is the main reason why we need to practise biblical separation. Our Holy God has graciously given us the wonderful privilege to fellowship with Him as His dear children. But this privilege now imposes limits on our relationship with the world, with its people and with its beliefs and practices. We must be willing to forego some of our close relationships, because the Lord whom we have fellowship with is holy.
One relationship that will be affected by this, is our relationship with disobedient brethren. This is clearly given in 2 Thessalonians 3:6,14,15 – “Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us…. And if any man obey not our word by this epistle, note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed. Yet count him not as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother.”
This answers the question: What should you do when a fellow brother in Christ disobeys God’s Word deliberately? For example, you have a Christian friend who is living openly in sin, or adopting a worldly lifestyle, or disrupting the unity of the church by his conduct or teaching. Would it be right to do nothing for him? No. We should try to get him to repent. And until he repents of his disobedient behaviour, having unrestricted fellowship with him would only encourage more disobedience.
However, this separation is not a total rejection which allows no place for repentance. Allowance should be made if the disobedience is due to ignorance, or to an error of judgment, or to a momentary weakness. Apply the steps given in Matthew 18:15-17 and if the brother repents when he is confronted, then there is no need to separate from him. Allowance should also be made for those who are still young in the faith who may not fully understand the teachings of the Bible. We should also be careful not to make quick judgments that are based on unproven rumours, and not take any action out of a vindictive spirit, or frustration.
In this sermon, I have explained why we believe in Biblical separation from unbelief, from deviant beliefs, from the world, and from disobedient brethren. But it is not easy to put this into practise. And if you want any clarifications or have any questions to ask on this topic, please write to email@example.com.
At the beginning of this sermon I had mentioned that many people think that there is no love in practicing biblical separation. Actually the opposite is true: Biblical separation is a matter of love: A love for God that rejects the world system, a love for the church that does not allow any deviant teaching to lead God’s people astray, and a love for the disobedient brother to encourage him to do what is right. We have seen that such separation is not an option but a command, based on the holiness of the Lord whom we are to love with all our heart, soul, mind and strength.
But all too often, we do not love God as we ought. We fail to be concerned about things we should be most concerned about. John chapter 2 records what Jesus did when He came to the Temple and saw the money-changers and animal-sellers doing business in God’s House: He drove all of them out because He was consumed with a holy zeal for God’s House. What about us? How much do we love God and His House? Can that love be described as a zeal that consumes us? Does it matter to us if some danger comes along and threatens the purity of the Church? Unless we have a true and genuine love for the Church, which Christ has purchased with His own life-blood, we would not be bothered at all to take the needful steps to maintain its purity.
But if we really love Christ and His church, then we must apply the principle of biblical separation whenever it is necessary for us to do so. May the Lord give us all the love and courage we need to apply this principle well for His glory.