An Age-Old Conflict in the Church
By Divine design, the local church is the pillar and ground of the truth (I Tim.3:15). The pillar in a temple provided solid support for the entire structure, and the ground provided support (a small foundation) for the pillar. Thus, in Paul’s metaphor, the church is to hold up and support the truth. The church is the not the source of truth, God is. The church is to uphold God’s truth by boldly and faithfully proclaiming it and by defending it against the attacks of the enemy. One cannot read the epistles without being struck by the fact that that each of the writers frequently and consistently made truth and doctrine a major emphasis.
Consider the importance of truth to the church. The church is built upon the foundation of truth (Matt.16:18; Eph.2:20-21). Without truth, the church would be without its foundation. Spiritually, it would collapse because it would have nothing to hold it up. It would have no message. It would have no nourishment. It would have no reason for being apart from truth. While in one sense, the church is to uphold and hold forth the truth (Phil.2:15-16; I Tim.3:15), in another sense, the church is upheld by the truth (Eph.2:20-21).
The word truth appears in the epistles seventy seven times. The term doctrine(s) appears an additional twenty nine times. The theme itself also appears many other times using different terminology. Some epistles were written to a church as a treatise for a particular doctrine. Such was the case with Romans and the doctrine of justification by faith. Other epistles were written to defend a doctrine, such as Galatians defending the doctrine of justification by faith against the attacks of the Judaiziers. The terms truth and doctrine appear in Paul’s two epistles to Timothy twenty three times! In those letters, Paul deeply drills the importance of truth into Timothy’s mind and heart. The sheer frequency with which it is mentioned indicates the importance of truth to the church in God’s estimation. These epistles were written to instruct church leaders concerning the order, leadership, ministry, and message of the church. In each of the epistles, teaching the truth is a major theme. The writers, under the direction of the Holy Spirit, wanted to impress the importance of truth upon everyone who reads God’s instruction manual for the churches.
During His earthly ministry, the Lord Jesus spent much time teaching and preaching to His disciples that they might be well fed spiritually. As the Good Shepherd, He fed His sheep well. The Lord later made it clear to His disciples that He wanted them to follow His example. He told Peter to “feed my sheep” (John 21:16). This obviously referred to feeding the sheep sound doctrine from the Word of God. Peter understood this and repeated the instruction to the elders. They too were told to “feed the flock of God which is among you” (I Pet.5:2). Paul challenged the elders from Ephesus with the same admonition. He told them to “feed the church of God” (Acts 20:28b). This was exactly what the early church concerned itself with too. And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine (Acts 2:42). Note that the early church continued in the apostles’ doctrine. Doctrinal teaching was the steady, continual diet of the early church. It is no wonder that when persecution struck, they went everywhere preaching the Word (Acts 8:3-4). The sheep were well fed and mature. Thus, persecution did not cause them to wither, but caused them to go forth with boldness and confidence in the Living God!
Unfortunately, churches today do not seem to see the need for a continual diet of sound doctrine. Our generation seems to have little stomach for solid doctrinal meat, and would prefer to be entertained to death. Yet, in spite of the apparent lack of appetite for a healthy diet of doctrine, God’s plan has not changed. God has appointed shepherds to feed God’s Word to the flock of God. The shepherd who is “nourished up in the words of faith and of good doctrine” and warns the sheep concerning those who depart from “the faith” is called a good minister or a good shepherd (I Tim.4:1,6). The good shepherd/pastor is one who continues steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and faithfully preaches the Word even when those in the flock claiming to be sheep will “no longer endure sound doctrine” (II Tim.4:2-3). Feeding the sheep is the responsibility of the pastor and elders, regardless of whether the sheep demonstrate an appetite for it or not. Ezekiel was told to “Go, get thee unto the house of Israel, and speak with my words unto them” (Ezek.3:4). God told the prophet that the people would not listen and would even be hostile toward him and his message. Nevertheless, he was to preach God’s Word regardless of the response (vs.5-7). God’s method has always been the same: give the people the message they NEED to hear, not the message they WANT to hear. The words of Jesus, Peter, and Paul still stand today: feed the sheep!
It is important to feed God’s flock’s today. It is by means of the Word of God that the sheep grow spiritually (I Pet.2:2). Healthy sheep will demonstrate a hearty appetite for the Word, desiring the sincere milk of the word as a newborn babe desires milk. Consistent teaching of the Word will result in mature sheep ready to serve and glorify God by their good works. “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works” (II Tim. 3:15-17). It is also by means of a steady diet of sound doctrine that the sheep are “saved” (delivered) from the deception of false teachers (I Tim.4:15-16).
The sheep of God’s flock also need a well balanced diet from the Word. Paul was careful to declare “all the counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). This means every doctrine in the Word is important and must be taught – even those truths that are not popular, such as separation, church discipline, and the controversial issues of the day. The good minister of Jesus Christ preaches ALL of God’s Word. He has no right to pick and choose which doctrines to teach and which to avoid. Spurgeon admonished his students in the following manner. “Bring in all the features of truth in due proportion, for every part of Scripture is profitable, and you are not only to preach the truth, but the whole truth. Do not insist perpetually upon one truth alone. A nose is an important feature in the human countenance, but to paint a man’s nose alone is not a satisfactory method of taking his likeness: a doctrine may be very important but an exaggerated estimate of it may be fatal to an harmonious and complete ministry.”(1)
Nor is it the responsibility of the shepherd to preach only the positive doctrines from the Word. The trend today is not only to shave down the amount of doctrine fed to the sheep (sermonettes), but also to be selective in which foods to feed. Hence, there is a great emphasis on being “positive” and avoiding the negative issues in the Word. “The fundamentalist has been sharply criticized by the new evangelicals for engaging in excessive negative preaching.”(2) In a popular church growth book, Rick Warren wrote, “We start positive and end positive.”(3) One has to wonder how much of the Bible must be neglected by those who choose to accentuate only the positive doctrines. This emphasis on the “positive” is nothing new. It has been a hallmark of false teachers. For example, God sent Ezekiel to preach a message that was quite unpopular and negative. He was told to declare that the Babylonians were going to invade Jerusalem and carry many Jews away as captives (Ezek.5:12-17). That was not what the people wanted to hear! The false teachers chose to use a more positive approach. They chose to preach an upbeat, positive message designed to please the people. Contrary to the Word of the Lord, they boldly and defiantly proclaimed that all would be well! The false prophets seduced the people with their sweet words. They preached “peace; and there was no peace” (Ezek.13:10).
Preaching that is all positive is unbalanced and cannot possibly be an accurate reflection of the written Word of God. The Bible contains many unpopular, negative issues, yet all Scripture is profitable. We are to preach the Word in its entirety, not a selective or abridged form. We are to preach the blessings and the cursings. The best way to do so is to expound God’s Word verse by verse, chapter by chapter (Isa.28:10). In that way, the sheep are not hearing the biased preferences and hobbyhorses of the undershepherd. Instead, the sheep will be hearing the Word of the Chief Shepherd, line upon line, precept upon precept. The emphasis will then be by God’s design and the result will be a balanced diet. To some, the Bible is too negative. It might be suggested that they consult the Author to debate that issue. The good minister preaches the Word as God gave it.
One danger with “positive preaching” today is that it can be perfectly orthodox, and yet completely unbalanced. It is possible to preach positive sermons fifty-two Sundays a year, and have each sermon be Biblically accurate, doctrinally sound, and uplifting. The sheep are hearing nothing but the truth and assume all is well. The problem lies not so much in what they hear, but in what they are NOT hearing! If all they hear are the positive notes, they are missing out on large portions of truth which are essential for spiritual growth and discernment (Phil.1:9-11; II Tim.3:16-17). They are not being fed “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27), and consequently, may be totally unaware of the inherent spiritual danger of their ignorance. The food they receive is good food, but not a balanced diet. Carrots are good for you, but if one eats nothing but carrots, his body will suffer. An unbalanced diet in the physical realm can be disastrous to one’s overall health, but it is even more vital in the spiritual realm! For the sheep to be built up by the Word (Acts 20:32), they must be hearing the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27). Everyone likes to hear about God’s love and His great salvation, but other “negative” issues may be more needful on occasion (Jude 3). Positive preaching may fill the seats, but with what?
It should come as no surprise to discover in the pastoral epistles (letters written to instruct church leaders concerning the real needs of the flock) an overwhelming emphasis on truth and doctrine. For the good of the flock, God has instructed church leaders to make that emphasis felt in the local assembly. The leaders were to see to it that no other doctrine be taught in the assembly (I Tim.1:3). They were to warn the flock about those who depart from the faith (I Tim.4:1). The minister was to be nourished in sound doctrine himself (I Tim.4:6). He was to give attendance to doctrine (I Tim.4:13), take heed to the doctrine (4:16), labor in the Word (5:17), withdraw from those who do not consent to the doctrine which is according to godliness (6:3-5), to fight the good fight of “the faith” (6:12), and to keep (guard) that truth which is committed to his trust (I Tim. 6:21; II Tim.1:14). The church leaders were to hold fast the form of sound words (II Tim.1:13), commit the truth to other faithful men (2:2), study and rightly divide the word of truth (2:15), continue in the truth they had learned (3:14), preach the Word (4:2), exhort with doctrine (4:2), and ultimately, keep the faith (4:7). They were also to be able to recognize and to warn of false teachers and false teachings (I Tim.4:6; 6:3-5; II Tim.2:18,25; 3:7-8; 4:3-4; Titus 1:9-14). God has made HIS emphasis clear for the church. He wants His sheep to be fed doctrine. They are not to be fed psychology, poetry, humor, stories, or drama. The preacher is to preach the WORD, and to preach all of it. When the saints gather together on the Lord’s day, the emphasis ought to be on teaching and exhortation based on sound doctrine.
Both preaching sound doctrine (positive) and warning against false doctrine (negative) are obviously important to God. Jesus’ ministry was conducted this way (Matt.23:1-39). Paul preached the whole counsel of God. He said, “by the space of three years I ceased not to warn every one night and day for three years” (Acts 20:31). How many in our shallow, worldly age would have a stomach for a warning ministry (negative by its very nature) that continued night and day for three years? Like children who prefer to fill up on candy, modern churchgoers prefer to load up on fluff. The Chief Shepherd knows what the sheep really need. When the saints gather together, the Lord’s command still stands: Feed my sheep! Preach the Word. Because of this relentless emphasis on the Bible, some have accused Fundamentalists of worshipping a Book. “Bibliolatry is the formidable word that they cast at us. But we worship no book. We do worship God who sent the Book, and it is no true worship of God that slights the book He gave.”(4)
If churches refuse to emphasize doctrine and teaching, there is a heavy price to pay. Serious consequences are unavoidable. The Bible warns us that men will not endure sound doctrine (II Tim.4:3-4). In fallen human nature, the inclination already exists to resist the teaching of sound doctrine. Combating that inclination requires constant vigilance from the pulpit. We know that that time is coming men will turn their ears away from the truth, and Paul’s prediction willbe fulfilled. The faithful preacher will continue to “preach the Word” and will “exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine” (II Tim.4:2) regardless of the response. Failure to do so only aids the enemy and hastens the day of total Biblical illiteracy in the churches! As a result of a failure to emphasize doctrine, believers will not mature according to God’s purpose (Eph.4:12-16). The church will not develop into the stature of Christ. Christlike character will not be formed in the church (Gal.4:19) and thus Christ will not accurately be manifested to the world. God’s judgment will be upon the churches which neglect the truth they claim to uphold (I Pet.4:17; Rev.2-3). If doctrine is de-emphasized today, the next generation will be Biblically ignorant babes, and easy prey for the adversary (I Pet.5:8-9). The New Testament epistles highlight the utter necessity of defending, upholding, teaching, and boldly proclaiming doctrine and truth. A failure to do so spells total disaster for the churches.
Closely associated with the emphasis on doctrinal purity is an emphasis on moral purity in the New Testament. Doctrine always affects practice. God’s concern for a pure church includes a holy lifestyle on the part of each member of the Body of Christ. In the same way that false doctrine must not be tolerated in the churches, so too, immorality and sin must not be tolerated. False doctrine corrupts the church doctrinally and is likened to leaven (Matt.16:11-12) because of its ability to spread corruption (I Cor.15:33). When sin is tolerated in the local church, it too has a corrupting effect. Paul rebuked the Corinthian church for their arrogant broadmindedness that tolerated sin in the church (I Cor.5:2). By not judging sin in the Body, they permitted the leavening effects of sin to permeate and spread throughout the Body (I Cor.5:6-7). For the moral purity of the Body, immorality must be judged (vs.3-5) and purged out (vs.7, 13). Sin (which has not been repented of and forsaken) must not be tolerated in the Body of Christ.
Early on in church history, God made this point clear. Ananias and Saphira lied to the Holy Spirit, and deceived the believers (Acts 5:1-11). God demonstrated His anger by taking their lives. As a result, “great fear came upon all the church” (Acts 5:11). Sin was purged out of the Body in dramatic fashion. A healthy fear of God will promote moral purity in His Body (cf. Deut.13:10-11; 17:12-13). Regardless of the particular form it may take (lying, stealing, gossiping, pride, an unforgiving spirit, backbiting, anger, adultery, murder, prejudice, etc.), sin has a corrupting effect on the Body of Christ. Sin hinders God’s purpose of manifesting the holy character of His Son through the Body. For that reason, the New Testament epistles condemn every form of immorality and teach the believer how to be pure. The entire subject of sanctification is a testimony to the fact that God desires a pure church with pure members. When an individual believer or a local church refuses to deal with sin, God Himself may intervene with severe chastening even unto death (I Cor.5:5; 11:30; Acts 5:1-10; etc.). God demands moral purity in the local church, and it is no small issue with Him.
While modern culture has gradually abandoned the concept of purity, that evil trend must not be permitted in the churches. Our society has chosen to call evil good and good evil (Isa.5:20; Mal.2:17). That which was considered gross immorality in generations past is now legitimized and even glamorized by popular culture. Regardless of the moral slide prevalent in our society, the churches are not to be conformed to this world (Rom.12:2). “Pure religion” will keep the believer and the church “unspotted from the world” (James 1:27). Sin is still sin in God’s Book, and must not be tolerated in His Body. Purity is important to God. The believer is to keep himself pure (I Tim.5:22). He is to be pure in mind (II Pet.3:1; Phil.4:8), conscience (I Tim.3:9), heart (I Tim.1:5; I Pet.1:22), and body (I Thess.4:4-7). The church is the Bride of Christ, and will be presented to Him as a “glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish.” She shall be robed in fine linen, clean and white (Rev.19:7-8).
Doctrinal and moral purity are as fundamental to the Body of Christ as strength and health are to the physical body. They are foundation stones to the church of Jesus Christ (Eph.2:20-21).
Another foundational truth relating to the Body of Christ is unity. The apostle Paul, the one to whom the mystery of the church was revealed, speaks often of this unity. The body is ONE (Eph.2:16; 4:4; I Cor.10:17; 12:12,13; Col.3:15). During the days of the early church, heretical Judaizers nearly split the church into two – a Jewish church and a Gentile church. This outraged the apostle Paul because not only did the Judaizers attempt to introduce false doctrine concerning salvation (Acts 15:1), but their error also would have distorted the very nature of the church – Jew and Gentile believers received into the Body of Christ as equals (Eph.3:6)! Whether Jew or Greek, bond or free, male or female, all are ONE in the Body of Christ (Gal.3:28). The Bible speaks not a word of any sort of legitimate division among believers. Without a trace of ambiguity, the Scriptures state that “there is one body” (Eph.4:4).
In Acts 4:32, Luke writes that the believers in the newly formed church “were of one heart and of one soul.” This was so because they were filled with the Spirit and were all members of one Body, designed by God to function together in harmony. There were many members but one body and one faith (Eph.4:3-6). In the New Testament, the “churches of Christ” could speak with one united voice (Rom.16:16). Throughout the epistles, believers are exhorted to be of the same mind (I Cor.13:11; Rom.12:16; 15:6; Phil. 2:2). The exhortations became necessary because unity and harmony are foreign to the fallen mind and heart of man. Right from the beginning of the church, the tendency for men to make divisions was evident, and was addressed throughout the epistles.
In the New Testament mention is made of many individual local churches. However, that which separated these churches was not doctrine but geography! They were separated by distance, but were identical in their doctrine and even in their form of church government. The apostles never imposed one set of rules for a church in one city, while imposing a different or contradictory set of rules or standards for a church in another city. What confusion would have arisen! The commands, doctrinal truths, and instruction found in the epistle to the Romans is equally valid and applicable to the church in Colosse or in any of the churches in Galatia. There is one body and one faith. Denominational division is never legitimized in the Scriptures, as it is clearly a deviation from God’s original design of one Body. Christ’s purpose was to form “one flock and one Shepherd” (John 10:16). New believers in the early church did not have to pick and choose which denomination to join. They simply joined fellowship with “the believers” in the city in which they lived. Today a new believer faces a baffling array of sects and denominations. Alfred P. Gibbs noted that “one cannot help but be impressed with the simplicity that existed in those days as compared with the complexity that obtains in these days!”(5) The existence of denominational division should not be viewed as a refining of theological thought, but rather a corruption of it. God created one Body. Men have deviated from God’s original blueprint.
Almost immediately after the formation of the church, Satan was busy in his attempts to divide and destroy the unity in Christ’s Body. He was successful in causing division between individual believers (Phil.4:2; II Tim.4:14; III John 9-10; etc.). He was also successful in corrupting the churches by introducing doctrinal corruption, resulting in further sectarian division. Paul warned the Ephesian elders that after his departure grievous wolves would enter the assembly, speak perverse things, and seek to divide the church by drawing away “disciples after them” (Acts 20:29-30). This greatly grieved Paul, for he recognized how such division would destroy the unity of the Body, and thus hinder the manifestation of Christ to the community. Christ is not divided (I Cor.1:13)! Paul rebuked the Corinthians sharply for the divisions arising among them (I Cor.1:10-13). Paul also told Titus to reject any man who sought to introduce false doctrine or immoral practices and thus create division in the Body (Titus 3:10). Vine defines a heretic in Titus 3:10 as one with “an opinion, especially a self-willed opinion, which is substituted for submission to the power of truth, and leads to division and the formation of sects.”(6) Satan has been quite successful in causing division within the local church and among the various churches of Christ.
Unity in the Body of Christ is not the responsibility of the believers. The Body is one because God created one Body (I Cor.12:12-13). By virtue of Spirit baptism which unites every true believer of this age into one Body, there already IS a unity “of the Spirit” (Eph.4:3). Real unity has already been accomplished by God. Thus, there is no room in Christ’s body for any division based on race, social status, culture, gender, or nationality (Gal.3:28; Rev.5:9). The responsibility of the believers is not to create a unity, but to keep the unity of the Spirit (which already exists) in the bond of peace (Eph.4:3). Chafer wrote, “Nowhere are the children of God appointed to the impossible task of making a union, though this task is too often undertaken in good will by those who have not learned to recognize the sacred bond within the one body, which bond has been secured by Christ.”(7)
Tension Created Between the Desire for Purity and Unity
Both purity and unity should characterize the Body of Christ. This is what the New Testament says and it is what the early church practiced. Unity and purity are also God’s will for the churches of Christ. For that reason, the devil and his world system have relentlessly attacked both since the birth of the church. As a result, from man’s perspective, the church’s purity has been soiled and polluted over the years. The Bride of Christ does not appear to be robed in fine linen, clean and white. The world sees all the spots and wrinkles on her (Eph.5:27). There has been an ongoing battle for purity, both moral and doctrinal. The battle for purity began in the apostolic times and continues to today.
In their efforts to maintain the moral purity of the Body of Christ, believers are exhorted to “purge out therefore the old leaven” (I Cor.5:7). The saints are exhorted to “put away… that wicked person” (I Cor.5:13). A believer (or one who is called a brother – I Cor.5:11) who lives in sin is to be rejected from the fellowship of the saints. The reason for this separation is a desire for a pure church, lest the whole lump be leavened (I Cor.5:6-7). The goal of separation is to keep the Body free from “the leaven of malice and wickedness” (vs.8). Believers are commanded to reject the fellowship of those who walk in darkness (Eph.5:11; II Thess.3:6). One of the major purposes behind the doctrine of separation is the purity of church. When sin or immorality is tolerated, it has a corrupting effect on the whole church. “Evil communications corrupt good manners” (I Cor.15:33). “A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump” (I Cor.5:6). Christ loves His Bride and wants her to be presented to Him as a chaste virgin (II Cor.11:2). The desire for a pure church requires that the principles of separation be applied and obeyed. When those involved in sin and immorality are rejected from the fellowship of the saints, the church is cleansed. As difficult as church discipline is to practice, it is vital if one seeks for a pure church.
Closely associated with the moral purity of the church is its doctrinal purity. In striving to maintain the doctrinal purity of the church, separation must be practiced. Heretics must be rejected (Titus 3:10). Those who cause doctrinal division are to be avoided (Rom.16:17). Those who bring false doctrines concerning the Person and work of the Lord Jesus are to be rejected (II John 9-10). The saints who seek a pure church are to come out from and be separate from apostates (II Cor.6:14-17). The believer is to turn away from those who have only a form of godliness (II Tim.3:3-5). The reason for this separation is that tolerating false doctrine will ruin the purity of the church. False doctrines will “increase unto more ungodliness, and their word will eat as doth a canker” (II Tim.2:16-17a). Like immorality, false doctrine is a leaven which, if left unchecked, will corrupt the whole assembly of believers (Matt.16:11-12). Out of love for His Bride and her purity, Christ has commanded His Body to practice separation and reject those who “teach otherwise, and consent not to wholesome words… and to the doctrine which is according to godliness” (I Tim.6:3). Whether it be moral or doctrinal error, those involved must be rejected from the assembly of the saints for the good of the Body.
Thus, maintaining the purity of the church (by practicing the Biblical principles of separation) seems to conflict with maintaining the unity of the church. There seems to be a built in antagonism between the two and this apparent antagonism has been a hot spot in the good fight since the early years of the church. Must we choose one or the other? Must we compromise purity in our efforts to maintain unity? Must we abandon all hopes of unity in pursuing the purity of the church? Is it really an either/or situation?
Since the church is God’s plan for this age, it is no surprise that Satan seeks to divide and conquer the work of God. First he tried to destroy the church from without, through horrible persecution. He could kill the believers, burn their buildings and their Bibles in one day, but that does not destroy the churches of Christ worldwide. Rather, it only fans the flames and results in more churches spreading farther and faster (Acts 8:1-4; 11:19-20). The blood of the saints is the seed of the church. Historically, persecution has not served to weaken, but to strengthen the churches. It tends to separate the wheat from the tares. Those who are not born again are not going to suffer or die for a faith they don’t really believe, or for a Savior they do not trust! Persecution has always resulted in purifying the church by removing the dross, the chaff, and the superficial professors who have aligned themselves with the church for its benefits, but whose hearts have never been aligned with the Savior! The church is greatly strengthened when such chaff is removed and when it is no longer a mixed multitude. A pure church is a strong church. Persecution may cause some saints to suffer and even to die, but those who remain are greatly moved, challenged, motivated, and stirred up to higher levels of devotion and dedication by such godly examples of total commitment in suffering saints. As an attempt to destroy the church, persecution is an utter failure.
Satan’s second and far more effective method is to destroy the church from within, by means of a gradual introduction of unholy doctrine and unholy people into the churches. This method takes much longer (perhaps a generation or two) but it is far more effective and does much more damage over all. If Satan can flood the membership rolls with unsaved people, it becomes an impure, mixed multitude, and soon the whole is leavened. If he can flood the minds of the people with false doctrine or worldly philosophies, he can permanently extinguish that testimony of that local church.
It is almost as if the enemy is unable harm the church with conventional weapons, (attacking from without) and is forced to use germ warfare – by introducing disease into the Body of Christ. The disease is contaminated doctrine and moral impurity. If not resisted, this kind of disease will corrupt the body from within and will accomplish our adversary’s goal of extinguishing the witness of Christ in a particular location.
Germ or biological warfare is extremely difficult to deal with. Conventional weapons may do a lot of damage, but at least radar can pick them up. You knowwhen a bomb goes off! You know when you have been shot or wounded. This is not the case with germ warfare. You may have been hit and infected to a deadly degree, and not even know it at first, until the sores begin to break out on the surface. Such is the case with Satan’s attack on the purity of the church. II Pet. 2:1 states that false teachers bring in deadly doctrines “privily” – unnoticed! Jude 4 states that they “crept in unawares.” This Satanic method is a stealth attack using germ warfare. Church bodies are infected with worldly philosophies and practices, and no one recognizes the danger until it is too late.
God’s method of dealing with this kind of stealth attack against the church is separation from all forms of impurity, whether they be doctrinal or moral issues. When it comes to purity in the Body of Christ, God has a zero tolerance policy. When it comes to protecting your physical body, we all want to practice zero tolerance with germs and disease! It makes such perfect sense to keep all of those deadly germs separate from your physical body. Why then do so many believers object so to practicing this principle of separation in the spiritual realm?
In a very real sense, the battle that the church has been facing for the last 2000 years has to do with the practice of the doctrine of separation – a conflict which, in a sense, is a kind of spiritual germ warfare waged by Satan and his ministers against the Body of Christ. Godly men and women have been battling for centuries to keep the testimony of Jesus Christ pure. If the devil can corrupt its doctrine or its morals, he can destroy the usefulness of a local church permanently. This battle for the truth will not end until the Lord returns.
The concept of separation is God’s divinely inspired method of dealing with impurity in the church (Rom.16:17; II Cor.6:14; Titus 3:10). Leaven must be purged out. It becomes a matter of obedience to the Word. Some in the evangelical world today are of the opinion that the doctrine of separation is a relatively new phenomenon, which arose during the days of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy in the early 1900’s. This is not so! There has been an ongoing conflictfor the purity of the church since the day it was born. The writers of the New Testament had to fight against intrusion of ascetism, gnosticism, Judaizers and legalism, variant views of the resurrection, and countless other forms of doctrinal impurity. Right from the very start, the devil has made innumerable attempts to corrupt the doctrine of the churches and to contaminate the Body of Christ. The particular doctrines and issues which for which men have fought, vary from place to place and from year to year, but the conflict has never really changed much. In every age, there are those who depart from the faith, and while the precise point of departure may vary, God’s method of dealing with such departure remains unchanged. “Avoid them which causes divisions and offenses contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned, and AVOID them” (Rom.16:17). The conflict we are engaged in today is EXACTLY the same as saints have faced throughout the church age. The precise issues vary, but the battle for a pure church is the same, and God’s method is the same. “Come out from among them and be ye separate.”
However, by following God’s method of separation in pursuit of purity the churches have become divided. The pursuit of purity in the church seems to lead to division. Bishop Cyprian of Carthage wrote a dissertation entitled, “The Unity of the Catholic Church” in 250 A.D. His emphasis was on the UNITY of the church. He felt that that unity must revolve around submission to the human leadership. He argued strongly against any kind of division in the church. This later developed into the official Roman Catholic view. In regards to the separatist movements which were beginning, he wrote the following: “God is one, and Christ is one and the church is one… one in faith and one people cemented together by harmony in the strong unity of the Body. Nothing that is separated from the parent stock can ever live or breathe apart; all hope of salvation is lost.”(8) In order to discourage separatists in their fight for a pure church, they claimed that there could be no salvation apart from the Mother Church, Rome. He also accused the separatists of a lack of love. “Unity and love go together … but what unity is maintained, what love practiced, or even imagined, by one who, mad with the frenzy of discord, splits the church?”(9) He accuses the separatist of being unloving and causing the division. Thus, what began to emerge in those days were two different views of the church. One sought for purity in the church, and when necessary, was willing to practice separation to achieve that purity. The other sought for unity and love, and was willing to sacrifice purity in their pursuit of unity and love.
This has been the battle the church has faced for many centuries. It did NOT begin in the 1920’s with the fundamentalist and modernist controversy. That was merely one example of an ongoing battle throughout the ages, a battle for truth, fighting the good fight of the faith (I Tim.6:12). The issues that bring it to the forefront may change from generation to generation, but the battle is the same. It revolves around this issue: do we want unity at the expense of truth and purity, OR do we want a pure church at the expense of unity? The catholic church in Cyprian’s day (250 A.D.) wanted unity. The separatists always strove for a pure church. This same tension and conflict exists between the Fundamentalist and their opponents in the twenty first century.
The Bible is quite clear on this issue. God demands both and both are attainable when the Scriptures are followed. God expects church leaders to be discerning and to fight for the purity of the church. As a leader in Ephesus, Timothy was told to “charge some that they teach no other doctrine” (I Tim.1:3). Timothy was to withdraw from any man who would teach contrary doctrines (I Tim.6:3-5). Church leaders were expected to reject the fellowship of any involved in immorality too (I Cor.5:1-7). Thus while the pursuit of purity (practicing separation) may result in division from man’s perspective, it actually aids real unity in the Body. True unity must revolve around Christ, who is the Truth. Those who walk in darkness cannot have any real unity with those in the light. However, those who walk in the light and love the truth already have a unity of the Spirit in one Body with others of like precious faith.
The church that rejects the fellowship of the unfruitful works of darkness (Eph.5:11) may lose numbers from their ranks, but the loss in number is to their great spiritual advantage. The departure of such does cause a division, but it is akin to the dross being removed from the gold, or the chaff being removed from the wheat. It enhances the strength, vitality, purity, and yes, even the real, spiritual unity of the Body. “Cast out the scorner, and contention shall go out; yea, strife and reproach shall cease” (Prov.22:10). As paradoxical as it may sound, division (casting out the scorner) results in unity (strife and reproach cease) for the godly remnant. It is possible to pursue purity in the church and enjoy unity around that truth. In fact true unity is ONLY enjoyed when purity is maintained. Any unity that does not rally around truth and purity is a man-made, superficial, organizational unity and is doomed to failure. “Behold how good and pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity” that centers on truth. It is like a precious ointment (Ps.133:1-2).
The fundamental church that practices the Biblical principle of separation and rejects the fellowship of the unfruitful works of darkness will be labeled unloving and divisive. In reality, just the opposite is true. Who is guilty of causing division, the fundamentalist who stands for the truth as commanded by God (Eph.6:13-14) or the liberal or new evangelical who departs from the truth (I Tim.4:1)? A division has occurred, but in all honesty, the blame must be placed upon the shoulders of the one who departs from the faith. By practicing separation, the fundamentalist is simply refusing to drift away from his position of purity (either moral or doctrinal) as others drift all around him. God’s faithful remnant on earth will never be able to stem the tide of drifting and apostasy, but they do not have to follow. We are commanded to stand, having our loins girt about with truth (Eph.6:14). As Martin Luther said to the apostates of his day, “Here I stand, I can do no other.” Dwelling in the light requires taking a separated stand away from all forms of darkness.
Is the separatist really unloving and divisive? Hardly! By practicing separation and rejecting impurity in the church, he demonstrates obedience to God, which is an expression of genuine love for the Lord (John 14:23). By practicing separation from impurity in the church, he demonstrates not a divisive spirit, but a spirit of unity with the Lord and those who love the Lord. They stand united – for Christ and against error. The party which steps away from the light and into the darkness is the divisive one. He has separated himself from the God who is Light and from the fellowship of those who walk in the light. He also demonstrates a lack of love for God and for God’s people. It is quite amazing how the liberal and the new evangelical have been able to attach this “unloving and divisive” label to the fundamentalist and make it stick, when just the opposite is true. The charge has been made consistently for so many years that even some fundamentalists have now begun to believe it. In reality, it is the liberal and the new evangelical who demonstrate a lack of love for God, His Word, and His people by departing from the faith. The label of “unloving and divisive” clearly belongs to those who drift away from the position of moral and/or doctrinal purity. When the prophet asked Jehoshaphat the rhetorical question, “Shouldest thou help the ungodly, and love them that hate the LORD?” (II Chron.19:2) he expected an answer in the negative. The new evangelical and the liberal seem to think that the church should demonstrate love by embracing every foul bird in Christendom, even those whose actions demonstrate that they hate the Lord. The fundamentalist believes that true love is demonstrated first and foremost by allegiance and obedience to the Lord and His truth. Allegiance to His Word demands that heretics be rejected (Titus 3:10) and that the godly separate from the ungodly (II Cor.6:14-17; Rom.16:17).
Practicing separation is always painful. Somehow the liberal mindset has associated this pain with a lack of love. However, if a man’s leg is riddled with gangrene, for the good of the person, the leg must be amputated. Nobody likes the idea of an operation that separates the leg from the rest of the body and causes such pain and suffering, but it is the right thing to do. Is it loving to avoid the pain by ignoring the problem and allowing the whole body to become infected and thus die? Hardly! Love must be tough at times for the Body of Christ to function smoothly. For the good of the Body (to restrain the spread of corruption), churches must practice separation (II Tim.2:16-17). As painful as it may be, it is the loving thing to do, for love seeks that which is spiritually best.
In obedience to the Head, the fundamentalist must obey the commands to separate from moral and doctrinal impurity. In doing so, he demonstrates that his fellowship with Christ the Head is more important than fellowship with wayward believers (II Thess.3:6,14). He demonstrates that his love for Christ is more important than any earthly relationship or fellowship (Matt.10:27). As the process of separation is applied, the church is purified. The end result is a genuine unity of those of like precious faith (II Pet.1:1) – a unity that is built around Christ and His Word. God’s Word emphasizes the importance of BOTH purity and unity, and they are BOTH attainable.
The godly remnant has always been a minority on earth, and as the corruption of the age progresses (II Tim.3:1-13), there will always be a temptation on the part of some to DO something to reverse this minority position. The temptation throughout church history has been to forsake purity for the sake of unity, and thus become bigger organizationally. The faithful assembly of believers will recognize that there can be no unity with those who depart from the faith. “Can two walk together except they be agreed?” (Amos 3:3). There cannot possibly be any true unity apart from agreement. The godly remnant will choose to unite only with those who love the Lord and walk in the light of His Word. They will be labeled as hate-mongers, unloving, bigots, and divisive, but will receive a “Well done thou good and faithful servant” from the Lord. Regardless of the pressure that the liberal or the new evangelical puts on a local church to “conform” and to follow them in their drift toward apostasy, the words of Paul remain unchanged. “Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand” (Ephesians 6:13). True unity and purity are found only among those who take their stand for God.
It is possible for a local church to experience both purity and unity and to enjoy sweet fellowship, but only with others of like precious faith. The local church must maintain its purity by loving the truth and rejecting the unfruitful works of darkness. Faithfully and obediently practicing the doctrine of separation will reduce (by a considerable degree!) the number of individuals, churches, and organizations with whom fellowship is possible, but there will always be others who refuse to bow the knee to Baal (I Kings 19:18). Where there is agreement, we and and should walk together (Amos 3:3). That kind of unity (based on doctrinal and moral purity) is truly “good and pleasant” and is like “the precious ointment upon the head” (Psalm 133:1-2).
1 C.H. Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students, p.75
2 Robert P. Lightner, Neoevangelicalism Today, p.58
3 Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Church, p.271
4 R. A. Torrey, ed., The Fundamentals, chapter by Howard Crosby, pp.461-462
5 Alfred P. Gibbs, Introduction to a Study of Church Truth, Uplook Magazine web page
6 W.E. Vine, An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, p.547
7 Lewis Sperry Chafer, The Epistle to the Ephesians, p.106
8 Ernest Pickering, Biblical Separation, p.14
9 Ibid. 1C.H. Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students, p.75