The Invisible Line of Division: An Evaluation of Seeking Christ Before Seeking Separation
The Bible is the “God-breathed” revelation to mankind which is certainly the standard for every Christian to treasure and greatly revere. In God’s Word, Paul clearly warns believers to “see to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ” (Colossians 2:8). Evidently, the world will certainly be filled with false teachers, but many argue to when Christians should separate entirely from the accused misleading men and women. Unfortunately, there have been historical examples when Christians have preemptively divided from fellow believers without strong Biblical grounds. According to Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Al Mohler, “first-level theological issues” include “the trinity, the deity and humanity of Jesus Christ, justification by faith, and the authority of the Scriptures.” In other words, if someone opposes the “first-level” doctrines, then they are rightly condemned a heretic and should not even be considered a Christian (Mohler). Unfortunately, Christians can be quick to accuse certain teachers as heretics on less-significant doctrines while permitting false teachers on the stronghold doctrines of the Christian faith such as the Trinity and the authority of the Bible. Additionally, people need to determine the distinguishable differences between “separation” and “division.” A “separation” refers to retreating from the teachings of the unsaved, such as the example of the Radical Reformers and Catholicism (Enns 444). However, a “division” is associated with believers who distinguish themselves from one another by means of different denominations and churches (gotquestions.org). Therefore, it is vital for Christians to determine and separate from heretical teachings, while uniting with fellow believers to advance the Gospel of Christ.
Before incorrectly separating from brothers and sisters in Christ, it is essential to clarify what defines someone as a heretic. Gerry Breshears and Mark Driscoll state in Vintage Church that “heresy is the opposite of orthodoxy” (140). It is also proper to distinguish that heretics are never saved, while false teachers may in fact be saved, but have loosened a stronghold on Scripture as a basis (Huston). A clear picture of heresy is manifested in1 Timothy 6. The Apostle Paul urged Timothy that “if anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing” (1 Timothy 6:3-4). From this exhortation, a sign of evident heresy is to disagree with Christ and His teachings. Paul continues in 1 Timothy 6:5-6 that heretics will also attempt to clash, produce resentment, insult, and cause “constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain.” Furthermore, heretical teaching leads back to the Garden of Eden when the “crafty” serpent falsely interpreted the word of God and led Adam and Eve into sin (Genesis 3:1-5). Likewise, a heretic will often acknowledge the existence of God, but question His authoritative word. On the issue of separation from a heretical teacher, Breshears and Driscoll give four levels of separation: doctrine to “die for, divide for, debate for, and decide for” (158-159). When someone opposes the “die for” level, according to the authors, Christians should rightly condemn the false teacher as a “heretic.” However, pertaining to the “divide for” levels, a Christian should divide if he cannot worship in a “clear conscience” (158). Nevertheless, as fellow members in the body of Christ, Christians should never close contact, hinder building godliness, or “condemn to hell,” but should seek to further unify and edify fellow believers by emphasizing Christ in all manner of living (158). However, because of the distinction between of “division” and “separation,” Christians should never separate from fellow believers but might need to divide as a last resort. Overall, Christians must be aware that heretics are Christ-suppressers and should correctly reject their false teachings, while seeking to further the Gospel by proclaiming Christ.
Genuine Christians would agree that rejection of false teachers is Biblical, but many Christians still injure the body of Christ by separating entirely over non-heretical teachings. The book of Ephesians “emphasizes the truth that all believers are united in Christ because the church is the one body of Christ” (Allen, House, and Radmacher 835). At the time of Paul’s life when writing to the church at Ephesus, the main divisional flaw was the separation of Jews and Gentiles (McDonald 1904). In Ephesians 5-6, Paul explores the topic of unity in these relationships: husbands and wives, children and parents, and slaves with their masters. Therefore, since Christians should work together for the proclamation of the Gospel of Christ, complete “separation” should be only reserved for doctrinal heresy. Paul’s charge in 1 Corinthians 1:10 states, “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.” Of course, there is still tremendous controversy regarding the fellowshipping with Christians who have strong, opposing views to one another. For example, a conservative Baptist believer would have remarkably different opinions compared to a Pentecostal believer. In this case, a “separation” should not occur, but possibly a “division” congregationally due to a “second-level” doctrinal difference (Mohler). However, the most important foundation that believers should draw from is not the denomination, association, or affiliation, but most assuredly the teachings of God’s Word. A person’s denomination, family history, or outward appearance will never save him, only Christ can reconcile God and man (Romans 5:10). The question that Breshears and Driscoll ask about finding a church is if Jesus was the person “everyone wants to please? After all, it is all about Him” (159)! In Romans 14:1, Paul exhorts the believers “not to quarrel over opinions.” Logically, it is fairly evident that Christians will indeed have differences in opinions, but differences should not lead into sin and complete separation from others believers. However, it is extremely vital that Christians attend a church where they will be well shepherded (1 Peter 5:1-4). After all, a church that preaches a false Gospel is not of Christ, but of demons (1 Timothy 4:1). While opinions among Christians will certainly differ, if a teacher starts preaching another Gospel, Christians should rightly condemn him as a heretic and he should be “accursed” (Galatians 1:8). In conclusion, balancing of loving other Christians who differ in certain opinions is a difficult challenge, but God’s Word instructs all believers to complete this task. Nevertheless, when the Gospel of Jesus Christ is altered or removed, responsively a Christian should then separate in order to fellowship under those who will shepherd the body of Christ in a biblical fashion.
Historically, many Christians have separated from one another over significant and largely irrelevant reasons. A great historical example was Martin Luther who was disturbed by the corruption of Catholic theology which contained teachings contrary to justification by faith alone (Enns 444). In disgust, Luther posted his “Ninety-Five Theses” on the door of the church at Wittenberg. Down to its core, the Ninety-Five Theses were statements of disagreement with Catholicism, stressing “sola scriptura- the Scriptures alone are the authority for people- not the church and its councils” (444). Luther’s opposition and rebuking of theological heresy is the type of correction towards false teachers that Paul was speaking of in his epistle to Titus (1:9). The controversial question remains among Christians is whether or not Luther had the right to separate from Catholicism. 2 Corinthians 6:14, while often related to the topic of Christian marriage, in its context is actually a strong argument for not being “unequally yoked with unbelievers” for marriage principles and beyond. Luther and the reformers were not dealing with a majority of Christians; they were dealing with heretics who preached another Gospel (Enns 444). Another historical issue of separation dealt with oppositional reformation groups: “Radical” and “Magisterial” reformers (McBeth 52). Some major differences between the two groups are beliefs in infant and non-infant baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and Separation of Church and State (Enns 453-456). The essential understanding to consider is that the majority of both groups were regenerate Christians. This is an extremely difficult controversy to reconcile, but there are explanatory reasons why the Radicals were justified in “dividing” from the Magisterial reformers. In this particular instance, the Magisterial reformers were implementing “infant baptism” which was never commanded by Christ or the Apostles (453). In other words, the Magisterial reformers were teaching what most would define as “extra-Biblical” doctrine. It seems to be that this scenario involved beliefs that were not, as Al Mohler informs, “first-level” doctrines. Or, as Breshears and Driscoll classified, infant-baptism would be a “divide-for” but not necessarily a “die-for” doctrine (158). While the two reformation groups did split, a division should be a last resort, never intentionally pursued, and should be done in humility, but certainly not a separation. Conclusively, it is apparent that in historical examples there have been correct and incorrect responses to doctrinal teachings. Therefore, when Christians encounter “another Gospel,” they should rebuke the false leaders and separate to proclaim Christ with a fellowshipping group of genuine believers. But when Christians encounter a questionable teaching that is not clear in Scripture, separation from a specific congregation might be beneficial, but the unity that the Apostle Paul pleads for should still be greatly pursued. After all, those who follow the Gospel of Christ are united together in Christ (Ephesians 3:6).
Not only have historical circumstances existed with both correct and incorrect responses, but many modern day examples as well. Common examples of non-heretical controversies include church music, drinking alcoholic beverages, speaking in tongues, Dispensationalism versus Covenant Theology, multiple views of the rapture, Calvinism versus Arminianism, and numerous other issues as well. Before approaching any situation of non-heresy, Christians must first evaluate the situation prayerfully and then be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). However, because many false teachers exist who appear to be Christians and are actually just wolves in sheep’s clothing, Christians should maintain caution by observing the “fruits” of the leader (Matthew 7:16). Additionally, just because someone is a Christian, that does not necessarily mean he will be unsusceptible to false doctrine. For example, Paul wrote two letters to Timothy, obviously a believer, with a major emphasis on maintaining proper doctrine. Nevertheless, when a situation is dealing with a genuine Christian about a disputed, non-heretical interpretation of Scripture, maintaining unity among the brothers and sisters in Christ is essential. For a general example, there is a church in Louisiana “whose roof is green on one side and red on the other. This was done because some members of the church adamantly wanted green and other members adamantly wanted red” (Bronson). Obviously, this church was not fulfilling the Pauline exhortations to be unified, especially over such a mundane issue. A more significant example is the classic ongoing debate of Calvinism versus Arminianism. The important matter is that both groups believe in the Trinitarian God, salvation by faith in Christ, total authority of the Scriptures, Jesus died, rose, and resurrected, heaven and hell are literal places, and that believers will spend eternity with God (Enns 475-500). They both believe in the “first-level” doctrines (Mohler). Therefore, since both groups are Christians, they should seek to preach Christ instead of condemning others as heretics and following their own favorite theologian or pastor (1 Corinthians 1:10-12). Furthermore, in the same passage Paul proposes an intriguing question in 1 Corinthians 1:13 by asking “Is Christ divided?” The words coming from the mouths of Christians should not have emphasis on Calvinism or Arminianism, but on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. There certainly will always be disagreements among Christians in many areas. Even Paul sharply disagreed with Barnabas concerning whether or not to take John Mark on their missionary journey (Acts 15:37-40). However, Paul stated to Timothy later on in his life that John Mark would be “useful” in the ministry (2 Timothy 4:11). Notice that Paul never criticized, disrespected, or caused pain to Barnabas (Beretta). Therefore, Christians should seek the same in disagreements by acknowledging that differences will arise and can be discussed, but that Christ must remain as the center of attention. In postmodern times of today, the world just might view Christianity in a different perspective with more of Christ and less of Christians.
There is much to say about division and unity among Christians, but overall a religion is worthless without Christ being the focal point. When James said in chapter 3 of his epistle that not many “should presume to be teachers,” he was clarifying that being a teacher of God’s Word is an enormous responsibility. Also, Christians should devote themselves to studying the Word for themselves (2 Timothy 2:15). The balancing assignment of being cautious of false teachings while keeping from constant quarreling over “foolish and stupid arguments” is definitely a challenge (2 Timothy 2:23). Therefore, Christians should consider three specific exhortations. First, Christians should be alert that Satan, like a roaring lion, seeks to devour anyone and uses them to accomplish “his will” (2 Timothy 2:26; 1 Peter 5:8). Second, when Christians detect a false teacher, he should be “gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant [him] repentance leading [him] to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 2:25). Additionally, he must be “rebuked sharply” to hopefully become “sound in the faith” (Titus 1:13). Otherwise, the danger exists of having the teacher produce followers of “unbiblical” Christianity. Thirdly, when a dispute arises that involves something other than a “first-level” or “die-for” doctrine, the matter should be consumed in prayer, while maintaining unity and respect of fellow believers (Breshears and Driscoll 158; Mohler). If a division occurs like in the case of Paul and Barnabas, reconciliation should be desired and the proclamation of the Gospel of Christ must remain the focus in all matters of ministry. In conclusion, when dealing with a disputable doctrinal issue, the matter is not finding where the invisible line of division begins, for that places the spotlight on man. Instead, Christians should consider in each circumstance how Christ will be magnified and how God will be glorified while holding the Scriptures close to their hearts.
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