The Separation of the Church
The Separation of the Church is the Fulfillment of Worldwide Blessing
In the first two articles, I explored how God used the separation of Abraham and the nation of Israel as a part of His plan to restore worldwide blessing. Now I want to turn to the separation of the church as the fulfillment of God’s plan for worldwide blessing. The holy seed of Abraham, the truly separate Israelite came to create a truly separate Israel – a new nation established by His life, death, and resurrection. This nation was revolutionary as it broke out from under the shadow of the Roman Empire, an upside down kingdom that turned the world upside down. God’s plan to restore worldwide blessing through a separated people came to fruition in the apostolic church. The message of a new nation being drawn together by the crucified King had global implications.
The Apostolic Vision
The apostolic vision of a separated church isn’t an attempt to establish walls but rather to restore blessing to the world. In 2 Corinthians 6:17, Paul quotes Isaiah 52:11, “Therefore go out from their midst, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch no unclean thing…”. The context of this quotation provides a fascinating backdrop to the passage. Isaiah 52 describes a future day of salvation. The prophet speaks of good news that will result in singing and rejoicing among His people. Then in the verse immediately preceding Paul’s quote, Isaiah says this, “The LORD has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all nations, and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God. Depart, depart, go out from there; touch no unclean thing; go out from the midst of her; purify yourselves, you who bear the vessels of the LORD.” By quoting this passage, it seems Paul is saying that because Christians possess this precious message of salvation, they must separate themselves from the fallen world. When they do this, the marvelous power of God will be displayed to the nations. As Paul says earlier in 2 Corinthians, “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” What is the treasure? The message of the gospel. The power of God is revealed to the nations as Christians leave their sinful lives behind, separate themselves, and worship their King.
The Consequences of Not Separating
The Corinthian church is the model of what happens when a church refuses to be separate from the world. According to the Holman Concise Bible Commentary,
“If Paul were to write a letter to the average church today, he probably would rewrite much of 1 Corinthians. The Corinthians’ world was much like our modern world. The people had the same thirst for intellectualism, the same permissiveness toward moral standards, and certainly the same fascination for the spectacular. The church resembled our churches—extremely proud, affluent, and fiercely eager for acceptance by the world.”
In other words, the Corinthians cared more about fitting into the world than being separated unto God. The result was not pretty: there were divisions, undisciplined sexual sin, men justifying sleeping with prostitutes, disputes over eating meat offered to idols. The Lord’s Supper was being abused, spiritual gifts were being exploited for selfish gain, and false teaching was being spread about the resurrection. The Corinthians allowed the culture to marginalize the purity of the gospel. As Finny Kurruvilla helpfully points out, “Cultural conformity was the primary problem of the church in Corinth.” Avoiding the separating call of the gospel remains a plague in the church today.
The Apostle Paul understood the serious nature of the Corinthians’ lack of separation. He knew how this story played out in Israel’s history. The Israelites were repeatedly led away from God by the pagan nations around them, which had a devastating impact on the Israelites’ ability to bless the nations. Therefore, Paul refused to let the Corinthians compromise the dividing nature of the gospel.
The Blessing of Separation
If my argument concerning Isaiah 52:10-11 is accurate, then the Great Commission should be read like this: go out and be separate and as you go tell the nations to follow you into the kingdom of God. The apostles knew that “this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” A church that longs to see the return of the King must long to be separated unto God.
A Few Objections
It is common to assert that a stark contrast between the church and the world is for fundamentalists and legalists. The critique goes something like this, “a strong emphasis on separation is a means of isolation and abdicating responsibility to society.” Regrettably, this has often been the case for those who emphasize nonconformity. But this is not the biblical vision for separation from the world; the biblical vision is paradoxically identification and separation. The church must be separate from the world so that it can effectively mediate blessing to the world.
Furthermore, some conclude emphasizing separation from the world is “making a mountain out of a molehill.” However, separation is not a secondary issue in Scripture but is integral to the fabric of the gospel narrative. In the words of J.C. Wenger, “The conception of the people of God as being separate from the world and as belonging exclusively to the Almighty is found throughout the Bible.” This isn’t a peripheral doctrine but is woven through the Old and New Covenant.
The King’s Call
Although the church I grew up in didn’t practice biblical separation from the world, I’ve seen a growing trend among my generation to scoff at the “old-fashioned” concept of worldliness. Many churches gut the word of any tangible meaning. In the 1980’s, James Davison Hunter noticed this trend in the Evangelical world:
Many of the distinctions separating Christian conduct from “wordly conduct” have been challenged if not altogether undermined. Even the words worldly and worldliness have, within a generation, lost most of their traditional meaning.
The Anabaptist context has followed a slightly different path, but many of our churches are locked in a battle between worldliness and legalism. Yet, vacillating between legalism and worldliness doesn’t solve anything. My heart is that this generation of Anabaptists can avoid both errors and lay hold of the biblical vision for separation from the world. God’s mission to restore worldwide blessing isn’t completed. Jesus is calling the church to uniquely display His presence in their lives. He is calling the church out of the nations and, as we go, we must call the nations into the kingdom of God. Will we hear the King’s call?
|Timothy Miller currently lives near Sarasota, Florida with his wife Sarah and son Malachi. He enjoys spending time with his family, hunting, woodworking, reading, sports, and traveling. Timothy is passionate about the Bible, truth, and understanding history. His greatest desire is to more intimately know Christ.|
- Matthew 5-7
- Romans 5
- Dockery, D. S. (1998). The Pauline Letters. In D. S. Dockery (Ed.), Holman concise Bible commentary (p. 559). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
- 1 Cor. 3
- 1 Cor. 5
- 1 Cor. 6
- 1 Cor. 8
- 1 Cor. 11
- 1 Cor. 12-14
- 1 Cor. 15
- Kuruvilla, Finny. King Jesus Claims His Church: a Kingdom Vision for the People of God (p. 98). Anchor-Cross Publishing, 2013.
- Matt. 24:14
- Wenger, J. C. Separated Unto God: A Plea for Christian Simplicity of Life and for a Scriptural Nonconformity to the World (vii). Sword and Trumpet, 2001.
- Hunter, James Davison. Evangelicalism: The Coming Generation (p. 63. University of Chicago Press, 1987