Second-Degree Separation, promoted by various “Discernment Ministries,” is influencing many Christians on social media these days. In theory, I believe such sites can serve a helpful purpose of exposing heresy and false teaching that is infiltrating the Christian community. Despite the insistence that public heresy needs to be handled by the process of Matthew 18, the Apostles in the first century were frequent in addressing public heresy in a public manner. Matthew 18 applies exclusively to a situation when someone personally sins against you personally (which is never the case in false teaching happening on a national level).
The reality is, however, that many of these “ministries” are short on real facts and thrive on controversy, seemingly, for the sake of getting clicks and shares.
Unfortunately, they often make the mistake Jesus warned us of by pulling out “wheat” who they consider to be “weeds.” (See Matthew 13:24-30.) In fairness, a Bible teacher needs to be evaluated on his overall ministry and life rather than one small snapshot. The truth is, we are all human and make mistakes. If we were to apply the methods of discernment bloggers to Biblical characters, we would reject Peter as a lost cause for initially distancing himself from the Gentiles whenever the Judaizers showed up. (See Galatians 2:11-14.)
Now granted, that was an error, and the Apostle Paul rightly rebuked him for it. But we need to learn how to “discern” the difference between a mistake and a heresy. Heresy is when someone is in error related to a core or primary doctrine. Peter had not denied the deity of Christ. He was just being a hypocrite. Christians (even Christian leaders) will make mistakes in their understanding and judgment. That is not necessarily a reason to tar and feather them for life. When rebuked, it appears that Peter probably corrected his error, and the Church rolled on.
The Doctrine of Separation
The “Doctrine of Separation” is a concept that is found in Scripture, although not named such. It is the idea that, under certain circumstances, Christians need to distance themselves from certain people (physically at times, but certainly in terms of close fellowship and endorsement).
Amos 3:3 – “Can two walk together except they be agreed?”
Ephesians 5:11 – “Have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them.”
Separation from Non-Christians
This can relate to the idea of “separation from the world.”
Second 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? 15And what concord hath Christ with Belial? or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel? 16And 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. 17Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you, 18And will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty.”
So clearly, the Bible speaks about how Christian are to be distinct from unbelievers and are not to partner or “yoke” together with them in a binding relational context (like marriage or business partnership for example).
Equally clear, however, the Bible does not teach Christians to avoid all non-Christians. How then could we fulfill our mandate to love our neighbor (Romans 13:10) or to share the gospel (Romans 15:20) if we only isolate our relationships to interaction with Christians. We are told that we should have a good reputation with outsiders (1 Timothy 3:7), and we can’t do that if we never interface with them.
Separation from Christians: Excommunication and “Shunning”
Fornication, Coveting, Idolatry, Railing, Drunkenness and Extortion
First Corinthians 5:9-13 – “I wrote unto you in an epistle not to company with fornicators: 10Yet not altogether with the fornicators of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or with idolaters; for then must ye needs go out of the world. 11 But now I have written unto you not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one no not to eat. 12For what have I to do to judge them also that are without? do not ye judge them that are within? 13But them that are without God judgeth. Therefore put away from among yourselves that wicked person.”
Paul understood that we’d have to live on a different planet if we tried to avoid sinful behavior practiced by non-Christians. But he insists that people who claim to be Christian should act like Christians, and those who refuse to act like Christians shouldn’t be welcomed into our churches (and/or they should be put out if they don’t repent). The context of 1 Corinthians 5 is a man who had to be put out of the church, with the hope that he would repent and eventually be restored into fellowship.
Reasons for Separation
We are told in other places that there are conditions whereby a Christian must not fellowship closely with another Christian.
Second Thessalonians 3:6 — “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.”
Unrepentant Moral Sin
There is a process of discipline that is prescribed in the Bible for a professing Christian who is in habitual sin. He is to be confronted on a tiered basis, and then:
Matthew 18:17 – “And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.”
Disobedience to the Word
Second Thessalonians 3:14 — “Take note of anyone who does not obey the instructions we have given in this letter. Do not associate with him, so that he may be ashamed.”
Preaching a False Gospel
Galatians 1:6-8 – “I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel: 7Which is not another; but there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ. 8But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed. 9As we said before, so say I now again, If any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed.”
A Divisive and Needlessly Offensive Person
Romans 16:17 — “Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offenses contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them.”
Separation from Christians Who Aren’t Exactly Like Us
I have a friend who is an Independent Fundamental Baptist pastor. He told me he is friends with a local Southern Baptist Pastor who he believe is genuinely saved, even though they don’t agree on Bible translation or on how much starch needs to be in your suit (I made that up…but I think it’s an issue). When the SBC pastor was out of town, he asked the IFB pastor to fill in for him. He did, and all went well. But months later my friend felt a need to apologize to his congregation for doing so, because, in his words, “It sent the wrong message to my flock.”
I was stunned. “Sent what message? That those folks might be saved? That they may love Jesus just as much as your church does? That you might spend all eternity together in Heaven? That you ought to love them as brothers and sisters in Christ? Exactly what message do you think it sent?!”
I really don’t understand that mentality.
Obviously, it’s true in nature that “birds of a feather flock together.” We all naturally feel more comfortable around people who think and act exactly as we do. It would be hard for me to attend a church exclusively full of young hipsters because if I tried to be hip, I’d probably throw my hip out! But, just because I’m not attending their church, it doesn’t mean I should treat them with contempt or assume they are any less godly than I am, simply because they sport cool hairdos and drink lattes, and I don’t. (I don’t sport ANY hairdo…but that’s beside the point!)
I have many Christian friends who do not believe or live exactly the same way that I do. Some of my other friends may wish I would separate with them over doctrinal differences, but I will not, unless they are Core Doctrines. We may not start a church or ministry together, but we can still be friends.
Immaturity is another issue. I’m not inclined to follow popular leaders who I deem to be spiritually immature (a student becomes like his teacher – Luke 6:40), but I also need to avoid condemning someone who is immature and sometimes unwise. Remember that John Mark eventually became useful to the Apostle Paul, even though they parted ways for a while and didn’t continue to do ministry together.
Clearly, the Bible teaches the importance of Christians separating themselves away from others under certain conditions.
What gets trickier, is the concept promoted in many Fundamentalist circles (which incidentally is the religious affiliation of most “discernment bloggers”), of second-degree separation.
This is the view that we should not merely separate ourselves from sinful people, or those in doctrinal error, but also from anyone who associates with such people. Again there is a difference between being close friends with someone who teaches a false gospel (denying the core doctrines of the faith), and being friends with a person who is wrong on a lower-level doctrine (one that does not impact our salvation).
Primary (Core) and Lower-Level Doctrines
Some of the issues on which true Christians disagree are issues such as:
Method of baptism (sprinkling/pouring vs. immersion), Cessationism vs. Continuationism (are all the gifts of the Spirit in effect today), Egalitarianism vs. Complementarianism (roles of men and women in the home and church), Old Earth / Young Earth Creationism, Eschatology (end-times views), Bible translations, worship styles, etc.
None of those issues are core doctrines that impact whether someone is saved. They are important (don’t get me wrong!)! Someone is right, and someone is wrong in almost all those discussions. I am NOT saying those doctrines don’t matter to us in our Christian walk. They do! But they will not save you. Faith in Christ alone will save you. So, you can be saved, and be wrong on many of these issues.
Distinguishing the Difference
Because we all feel strongly about these doctrines, it is hard for us to just “agree to disagree.” On one level, I don’t believe we need to do that. I believe we can discuss and even debate these doctrines…vigorously. But we need to do so with love, recognizing that this man or woman with whom we disagree is our brother or sister in Christ. He or she is NOT a heretic and should not be treated like one. That egregious denotation belongs to someone who denies the Virgin Birth, the Deity of Christ, the Resurrection, etc. (doctrines that DO impact our very salvation).
We should treat heretics quite differently from brothers and sisters (who are wrong on a point or two).
Contending for the Faith, or Just Being Contentious?
A favorite passage of many of these discernment bloggers is:
Philippians 1:27-28 – “Only let your conversation be as it becometh the gospel of Christ: that whether I come and see you, or else be absent, I may hear of your affairs, that ye stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel; 28And in nothing terrified by your adversaries: which is to them an evident token of perdition, but to you of salvation, and that of God.”
We are called to “strive for the faith of the gospel,” but Paul also warns us:
Second Timothy 2:23-26 – “But foolish and unlearned questions avoid, knowing that they do gender strifes. 24And the servant of the Lord must not strive; but be gentle unto all men, apt to teach, patient, 25In meekness instructing those that oppose themselves; if God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth; 26And that they may recover themselves out of the snare of the devil, who are taken captive by him at his will.”
What is the difference here? I think it can be as simple as asking, “Is it a Gospel issue?” If it is, we need to call out those promoting a false faith as being heretics. If it isn’t a salvation issue, we gently seek to present the truth, with the hope that those who are in error will see their mistake and realign with the truth.
Examples of Second-Degree Separation:
This week I was told by a Christian woman that she would have nothing to do with a certain Christian woman author (who is a Complementarian, believing women shouldn’t be pastors), because she had once spoken at the same conference with a different Christian author who is an Egalitarian (who believes that women can be pastors – although she isn’t one herself). I’m pretty sure the two authors aren’t even friends, but they did speak at the same women’s conference.
I was once told by a reader that they would never have anything to do with me because I had an article published in a Christian magazine that also ran an article (in the same issue) from a man the reader considered to be a “heretic.” The other man (an older Southern Baptist gentleman…that I never met), said, “We should be still in prayer and Bible reading and contemplate and meditate on the Word.” The reader insisted to me, on the basis of that statement alone that the man must be caught up in a contemporary mystical fad called, “Contemplative Prayer” (a movement that incorporates Eastern New Age practices into spiritual disciplines), since he used those words. This reader considered Contemplative Prayer to be a heresy, and therefore the older man (who had probably never even heard of that fad), must also be a heretic since he used buzzwords associated with it. Since the magazine published the “heretic,” the reader was canceling her subscription, and she wanted me to know that she would warn people against my “ministry” as well.
One young-earth creation (YEC) ministry (Ministry A) refused to carry the products of another (YEC) Christian author/speaker (Ministry B) (whose products they like and agree with), simply because that author carries a book by a third (YEC) (Ministry C), who disagrees with Ministry A on a scientific theory about how the earth shifts under the ground. Ministry B’s materials don’t have anything to do with that topic, and that is CLEARLY NOT a salvation (or even doctrinal!) issue, but it’s enough for Ministry A to not work with Ministry B, even though they agree on everything in his product line.
Straining Gnats and Swallowing Camels
These petty separations harm sound Christian leaders and ministries when they are maligned, or when Christians refuse to support them or even fellowship with them over the slightest nuances of doctrinal disagreement.
When they do this, “discernment ministries” (churches and individuals), ARE committing the sin of being divisive. We are warned in Romans 16:17 that we are to directly avoid (first-degree separation) people who do this. I think that means, we should stop reading their blogs and sharing their posts on social media!
I truly believe much of this mentality is based in spiritual pride. Rather than having a heart that longs to see healing and reconciliation, many people want to tear down, cast out and shun. That isn’t the heart of Christ. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m all for contending for sound doctrine! Both the Core Doctrines AND the Lower-Level doctrines need to be addressed. I have had many spirited discussions with my brethren over issues on which we don’t agree. But I always seek to leave that conversation with a desire to understand them better and love them more deeply.
I know I don’t always walk this out perfectly and I’m sure people will find examples of me being a hypocrite on these issues. But if we don’t watch it, we risk being like the Galatians church:
Galatians 5:14-15 – “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 15But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.”
If we carry the mindset of second-degree separation far enough, we will get to where we can’t support a Christian bookstore because they carry a book that isn’t doctrinally pure. Or we can’t attend a church because they sing songs (even if the songs are good) from a worship band whose church is in error. Or we won’t attend a good conference because one of the twenty speakers believe differently than we do about speaking in tongues. It’s ridiculous…and unscriptural.
Ephesians 4:2-6 – “With all lowliness and meekness, with long-suffering, forbearing one another in love; 3Endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4There is one body, and one Spirit, even as you are called in one hope of your calling; 5One Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.”
Truth is vital. I’m all about truth. But truth without love is like a resounding gong, or a clanging symbol (see 1 Corinthians 13:1). We shouldn’t abandon truth for the sake of Christian unity, but we should always strive for Christian unity because the truth of the Bible tells us to.
Over the years, I have always been impressed when someone comes to me directly with a concern about something I have said, or something they’ve been told that I teach. Oftentimes, they have received bad information, or sometimes we can discuss the matter and find that we are truly on the same page after all. It was a mere misunderstanding. Going to direct to the person or ministry with whom you have questions is not only Biblical, it is wise. That is not always practical or feasible, and sometimes what is being taught publicly is abundantly clear from hearing an entire sermon or reading a complete book. But our posture should always be to believe the best (1 Corinthians 13:7), and to seek unity and restoration from error to truth.
Ephesians 4:13-16 – “Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ: 14That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive; 15But speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ: 16From whom the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love.”