One of the hardest balances to get right in the Christian life is to decide how ecumenical or how separatist we will be; how much will we unite with Christians who are different from us in some areas, and how much will we separate from them?
There are two relatively easy options: unite with everyone that calls themselves a Christian or separate from everyone who is not exactly like us. Neither option is biblical.
The biblical way is much more intellectually and spiritually demanding. In the Bible, God provides us with commands and examples of both unity and separation and calls us to exercise rigorous and prayerful discernment about what route to take on each occasion.
I want to explore this difficult area by looking at our different “bottom lines,” the different responses that will result, the different roles God calls us into, and the different sins at the different extremes.
Different bottom lines
In all our associations, we all have to ask, and keep asking, ourselves: “What issues are non-negotiables? What biblical principle is sufficiently important to separate over? What is the minimum agreement in truth and practice before we begin to unite with others?”
Here are some examples of issues that will determine not only whether we will unite or separate, and also the degree to which we will unite or separate.
- Denial of the infallibility of Scripture
- Denial of the Trinity or of the deity of Christ
- Denial of justification by faith
- Denial of Christ as the only way of salvation
- Denial of virgin birth, resurrection, miracles, etc.
- Denial of biblical view of marriage and gender roles
- Denial of historical Adam
- Denial of six-day creation
- Women in pastoral leadership roles
- Ecumenical activity with Roman Catholics
- Belief in continuing apostolic office and gifts
- Worship style: over-liturgical or over-contemporary
- Standards of holiness or worldliness
- Evangelistic methods (altar call, entertainment evangelism, etc).
- Mode and subjects of baptism
- Modern Bible versions
I hope a list like this makes it clear that not all areas of disagreement are equally serious. Some will draw the line high on this list, others will draw it lower down. And some will want to re-order it altogether, or shorten it…or lengthen it!
And in serious matters, some may want to go further than this by practicing “secondary separation.” What’s that? Well, imagine two pastors (A & B) who agree on all these issues. However Pastor B has some association with Pastor C who denies six-day creation. Pastor A then decides to separate from Pastor B because of Pastor A’s contact with Pastor C. That’s secondary separation and tends to get extremely complicated.
Different levels of association or separation
When we come across a Christian or a Christian minister who differs from us in any significant area, we may have to take a decision about how united or how separated we will be. Again, there are a number of options here between the two extremes of “We’re all one in Christ,” and, “There’s no one like me!” Here’s a range of possible responses to disagreements with another pastor:
- Stay in the same denomination or federation
- Separate denominations but occasionally invite him to your pulpit
- You don’t invite him to your pulpit, but you will accept an occasional invitation to preach in his pulpit
- Join in united action on some moral and theological issues
- Wiling to join in a local pastoral fraternal or fellowship
- Listen to their sermons and read their books
- Qualified recommendation of their ministry
- Acknowledge their Christianity but have no contact or involvement
- Criticize and condemn their error publicly
- Warn people to have nothing to do with such theological or ethical heretics
Again, the decision requires prayerful discernment, and will have a lot to do with the issue of disagreement. It’s foolish to treat every disagreement as equally deserving of total separation and vocal condemnation.
Different roles for different people
It’s probably God’s plan that some churches and ministers have a more separatist role in his Kingdom, and others have a more ecumenical and bridge-building role. We probably need one another as a constant check on one another’s sinful tendencies.
That’s also true on an individual level. While we may have one role in the church, it’s possible that others will have a different role. For example, someone with a high level of spiritual maturity will be better equipped to build bridges with others who are different, without the risk a novice might have of being carried away into compromise. And while we may appeal to people about their associations, we must also accept that in some cases it’s a matter of individual conscience. We must not automatically assume that association means approval.
Neither should we assume that association means cowardly compromise. It’s very easy to condemn people from a distance whom we’ve never met. It’s much harder and braver for a person to lovingly confront error face-to-face. It’s also much more likely to work.
God has also given some Christian leaders a much wider platform – national or even international. They have been given the opportunity to influence other pastors and churches for good. What may be appropriate and even a God-given duty for them, may not be appropriate or wise for others on a local level. Different times and different contexts may also be factors that influence our decisions.
Different sins at the extremes
It’s a sin to separate from those whom God would have us united with. It’s a sin to unite with those whom God would have us separate from. The extreme separatist risks sinning by condemning those whom God would not condemn; the extreme ecumenist risks sinning by uniting with those whom God does not unite with. The ecumenist risks compromising the Gospel by confusing it or being quiet about it; the separatist risks hiding the Gospel by not communicating it, for “how shall they hear without a preacher?” But both also risk the sin of pride; the separatist is proud of his separating, the ecumenist is proud of his “loving.” And even those in the middle are often proud of their “balance!”
What would Jesus do?
I know this question has got a lot of bad press, but it’s still a valid question to ask. When I look at the life of Jesus I see neither an ecumenist nor a separatist but an ecumenical separatist. He lived a life of perfect balance as he considered each issue and gave it sufficient weight, as he considered the different relationships he sustained to different people and institutions, and as he lived out his God-given role of building bridges between God and man, Jew and Gentile.
The ecumenist cannot claim Jesus for their side because he pronounced woes on the Pharisees and cleansed the temple with a whip. But the separatist cannot claim Jesus either, because he associated with sinners, dined with a Pharisee, and even preached in the Christ-denying, soon to be Christ-crucifying, synagogues of his day.
Many of us would love a simpler Jesus, so that we can live simpler lives, and have simpler decisions and relationships. However Jesus calls us to follow His example by prayerfully judging each person and situation with the help of the Holy Spirit, and by walking the path He calls us to walk, even if we are sometimes condemned by ecumenists on one side and by separatists on the other.
We would prefer to please God and men. But if we have to make a choice, the choice is clear.