Sadly, the Christian culture is one that currently and historically has had issues with applying true tenants of scriptural separation to their doctrine and their lives. While this post isn’t a plea for false unity or syncretism (the combination of pagan ideas with the God of Israel), this is to look at the idea of separation and understand it in some key areas namely, how a believer is separate and how a believer is to separate. Many fundamentalist churches will usually have something about separation listed in their Statement of Faith or their Core Beliefs. It isn’t my desire to necessarily address each thing listed in these statements, but to simply acknowledge that they exist, recognizing that some of this will dovetail into our discussion. Below is taken from Lancaster Baptist Church’s website (the anchor church for West Coast Baptist Bible College),
We believe that all the saved should live in such a manner as not to bring reproach upon their Saviour and Lord. God commands His people to separate from all religious apostasy, all worldly and sinful pleasures, practices, and associations; and to refrain from all immodest and immoderate appearances, piercings, and bodily markings. (Romans 12:1-2; 14:13; 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1; 2 Timothy 3:1-5; 1 John 2:15-17; 2 John 9-11; Leviticus 19:28; 1 Corinthians 6:19-20) https://www.lancasterbaptist.org/about
Some of this is very specific while most of it is very vague. It’s vagueness is by design because it gives leadership the ability to add/subtract as necessary to “keep the sheep in line.” (This is similar to the “other duties as assigned by management” clause in a job description – it’s vague on purpose). Many take this issue very seriously and build their whole ministries around various aspects of being separate “from the world.” Again, I may address a few of the items in this statement should they flow into the discussion, but my goal isn’t to necessarily dismantle it.
In Genesis 2:10, we see that the river that flowed out of the garden of Eden parted and became 4 rivers. There was a single source that became 4 sources of water. The picture is that from the garden would the 4 corners of the earth be watered. Genesis 2:10 And a river went out of Eden to water the garden; and from thence it was parted, and became into four heads. The word parted is the Hebrew word for “divide” or “separate”. It caries the idea of creating a difference where there was no difference. Here in Genesis 2, the single river became differentiated into 4 rivers. In Genesis 10, we see the Gentiles were differentiated by their land and their families. In Genesis 13, Abraham tells Lot to separate himself to take the portion of land that he desires. In Deuteronomy 32:8, Moses recalls when God divided the children of Adam and further divided Jacob for His inheritance. The Hebrew word is parad and seems to suggest separation, generically–meaning, it is just the simple act of making a division or distinction. Yet, there is another word that is very close to this idea but carries a more refined connotation and that is the Hebrew word qodesh. This is the word we get, holy, from. To be holy is to be separate, set apart, sanctified, differentiated, sacred, designated, but not generically, rather differentiated in God and for God’s glory or purpose. The first time we see this is in Exodus 3 when Moses approaches God in the burning bush. Exodus 3:5 And he said, Draw not nigh hither: put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground. The ground was not divided, generically, but it was divided or separated from all other ground because of what it contained. It was holy ground–it was distinct from all of the other ground around it. It was the presence of God that made it distinct and God wanted Moses to realize that there was something different about the ground where the presence of the Lord resides. (For fun, check out 2Kings 5 and what Naaman wishes to take back after he is healed).
There are other words for division in the Bible (i.e. God dividing the light from the darkness, or, when Moses divides the Red Sea or when Jacob divides the people and flocks when he feared Esau, etc.) These are all different Hebrew words for division and they all carry their own nuanced meaning. But, suffice it to say, separation is an extremely common theme in the scriptures and what I want to explore is do we have it right? We are prone to project things that make us comfortable upon others, hoping they will conform. Take that tendency into the church, and it isn’t uncommon to establish a set of rules that one must follow in order to achieve “Biblical Separation” in their life. While I would say that, generally, the motives behind this are pure, the execution and the care taken to “enforce” it come short of the glory of God. Some pastors go even as far to judge the salvation of their folks should they slip sufficiently in their separation (as defined, of course, by each pastor). So, as we address this topic, I think we’ll find that the Scriptures take separation very seriously, but perhaps we’ll see that the way separation is understood and indeed lived out is quite different from the flesh-taming checklists we may be more accustomed to.
In 1Peter, we find the oft-quoted verses about being holy because the Lord is holy. And, in our discussion on this subject, we likewise usually venture towards 2Corinthians 6:14 about not being “unequally yoked”. From this a world of separation boundaries are created, but let’s not be in the habit of taking single verses and building a doctrine. Many believers wouldn’t recognize their Bibles if the narratives and context were driving their understanding rather than seasoning their existence with a dash here and a dash there like seasoning. Let’s examine 1Peter a bit more closely and see if we can find that narrative of what being separated, or holy, is all about.
Peter opens the letter to his readers about their salvation being kept through faith despite the tribulations they were facing because the trial of their faith is more precious than gold. Peter says that this very salvation is what the Prophets of old were looking forward to. What they didn’t experience, Peter’s audience is (through Christ). (1Peter 1:1-12). Therefore, in light of the trials they face and in light of the glorious salvation they enjoy, they should allow that to govern their lives as they live and walk through these tribulations. In stead of seeing the trials as a reason to give up or give in, they should be faced with holiness. Keep this in mind – the context here isn’t making a list to daily “Christian chores”, but is a mindset of living to keep one’s faith strong through trials.
1Peter 1:13 Wherefore gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and hope to the end for the grace that is to be brought unto you at the revelation of Jesus Christ; 1:14 As obedient children, not fashioning yourselves according to the former lusts in your ignorance: 1:15 But as he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation; 1:16 Because it is written, Be ye holy; for I am holy.
Peter describes obedience as a mind that is girded – it’s not lying loose, but is prepared. It’s sober and is shielded in hope. The mind of the obedience child is not fashioned after the lusts they pursued in their ignorance (the time before coming to Christ), but houses the revelation of Jesus Christ at its core. This sober, hopeful and well-girded mind is to impact their conversation (their lives/living), all manner of it. Peter says that this is holiness. What separates how you deal with trials and tribulations is your mindset – not one governed by lusts and ignorance, but one secured in Jesus Christ. Peter is quoting from Leviticus 20:7 and it is for a reason. Leviticus is a book about how the priesthood of Israel was to function. The priesthood was to not only image God to the world, but they were to help the people navigate their atonement. The priests were distinct – holy – separate – in their calling, their function and their inheritance. In chapter 2 of 1Peter, he is making the connection that the believers are to be holy because of their function as a royal priesthood unto God. Each believer is to image God – each believer is to help their neighbor navigate their atonement (bring them to Christ/lift up Christ to them). Our holiness, our separation is a life directed and animated by Jesus Christ. This is what makes us holy. This is what makes us separated from our former lives. This is what separates us unto new life. The question should become, then, how is it that I image God? How is it that I become holy as God is holy? Is it by not listening to certain kinds of music? Is it by being at church every time the doors are open? Is it by reading your Bible x times per week? Is this what makes God holy? Peter says to be holy as God is holy – is God holy because He only listens to certain/”acceptable” kinds of music? Is God holy because He reads His Bible x times per week? Is God holy because He doesn’t have any tattoos? The irony is, having a tattoo makes you distinct as much as not having a tattoo does, depending on your setting. Circumcision was very much a tattoo – a cutting in the flesh – to signify distinction/separation because it signified you were part of the covenant with Abraham. (Mabey we’ll talk about Leviticus 19:28‘s “tattoos/piercings” later, but at this point, it should be noted that there is a small phrase in that verse that is important – “for the dead”. That’s the context.)
No, what makes God holy is something completely different. What makes God utterly unique is not because He abstains from the ‘naughty nine’ or the ‘dirty dozen’ (although He does not sin, of course), but it’s because there is something about Him that stands in stark contrast to every other god that exists. All gods are elohim, but no elohim is like Yahweh. In fact, in the Song of Moses in Exodus 15, this very idea is sung: Exodus 15:11 Who is like unto thee, O LORD, among the gods? who is like thee, glorious in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders? This is obviously a rhetorical question with the answer being that there is no god like the LORD (Yahweh). This distinction (holiness) is glorious – it isn’t just that He’s different than all other gods, but that His difference radiates. Where other gods may be difference, their difference is dull but Yahweh’s difference shines in their midst-it’s glorious. Israel had just been delivered from the hands of Pharaoh and they are singing this song about how great Yahweh is. What makes His holiness utterly unique is what He did for Israel. In Exodus 12:12, we see that the plagues God is sending upon Egypt are a showdown between He and the gods of Egypt. He is going to prove how holy He really is and the culmination of this proof is in the deliverance of His people. Note this – God’s holiness is viewed from the standpoint of rescue or redemption. It isn’t just that God did some wonderous things, but the crowing jewel of His wonders as hearing the cry of His people and rescuing them wholly. Peter says to be holy as God is holy. The believer, as the priest of God, has rescue and redemption on his mind. He is reaching out in the spirit of redemption, helping those around him navigate their atonement by administering Jesus Christ to them. In other words, what made God utterly different in the Exodus account wasn’t a selfish brandishing of superior personal decorum, but was the selfless efforts to rescue those who couldn’t help themselves.
This isn’t the only way in which God is holy, however, note this from Exodus 34,
Exodus 34:5 And the LORD descended in the cloud, and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the LORD. 34:6 And the LORD passed by before him, and proclaimed, The LORD, The LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, 34:7 Keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and to the fourth generation.
The LORD stands apart from other gods in His mercy, grace, longsuffering, goodness and truth. God doesn’t overlook sin, but note the contrast here – He visits iniquity to 3 or 4 generations but visits mercy upon THOUSANDS of generations. Many get overly focused on this idea of “generational curses” but miss the point. The author is making a stark contrast to God’s work in extending mercy than His work in not acquitting the guilty. His longsuffering – His patience – He is not easily irritated and as the Prophet writes, He delights in mercy (Micah 7:18 Who is a God like unto thee, that pardoneth iniquity, and passeth by the transgression of the remnant of his heritage? he retaineth not his anger for ever, because he delighteth in mercy.) God is unique, utterly unique, in this way. Peter says to be holy as the Lord is holy. Are we full of mercy, grace and longsuffering? Can our manner of conversation (living) be described as abundant in goodness and truth? Is the ear of our heart tuned to listen for those who cry out? Are our feet quick to bring rescue to the outcast? This is what the priest of the Lord is suppose to be. If God is full of mercy, grace, longsuffering, goodness and truth, then as His imagers, we are to be likewise. In other words, a ‘separated life’ or a ‘holy life’ is a life lived as God – showering mercy, goodness and truth upon those we interact with. In the Statement of Faith entry above on Separation, it says that we should live in a manner which does not bring reproach upon our Savior. I would agree wholeheartedly with this. However, how are we defining this? According to the Statement, reproach is confined to religious apostasy, ALL worldly and sinful pleasures, practices and associations, and to refrain from all immodest and immoderate appearances, piercings and bodily markings. Or, put in a more colloquial way, “cleanliness is next to godliness.” In other words, to the extent your personal appearance is clean is the extent at which you are godly. Your holiness depends on how godly you are. And, again, I agree with that sentiment – that our holiness is predicated upon our godliness – but what we see in scripture is a God who exercises extreme mercy and grace. Nothing could be more “godly” than for His followers to exercise extreme mercy and grace. Nothing could be more godly than for His followers to find occasion to bring rescue to the one in need. While we worry about if our skin has cartoons on it or not, is our neighbor being loved? This is the point – our separation isn’t in how we look to others, but how we live to others. God’s holiness is glorious – it carry’s a look because of what it is, not the other way around. Our holiness would likewise shine because of what it accomplishes not only in our own lives but in the lives of others. Does this mean sin and worldly lusts are nothing to worry about? No, not at all. Does this mean “religious apostasy” isn’t an issue? No, not at all. But, what this means is that if we believe that separation is accomplished by creating a set of boundaries to live in but our heart never bears witness with the things that makes God holy/separate, that we’ve missed the mark – in other words, we’ve sinned. If we are idolizing holiness by ascribing it to checkboxes, then we are actually not separate at all.
Peter, describing believers as the priesthood of God, writes to be holy as God is holy. If your holiness isn’t driving you towards those who need mercy and those who need grace and those who need rescue, then you are being holy, but not as God is holy.
In the next post, I want to look at another aspect of separation and that is when a believer or group of believers is confronted with things that run contrary to the doctrines of Christ. Separation should happen in some instances, but in a great many other instances where separation seems to happen all the time, it shouldn’t.