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.

  • Nathan Brackenridge

    Great reminder! Discerning each situation and relationship can be difficult, but important. I have friends who felt the need to “secondary separate” from public figures in the church dew to their association with other pastors. Although I don’t agree with the theology or methods of these pastors, I don’t think that because one pastor invites another pastor (of whom we don’t completely with) means that the first pastor is no longer Christian or that his preaching ministry no longer encourages the body.

    Thanks for this article. I will make it a conscious effort to evaluate each relationship with prayer and discernment based on fundamental issues that unite us as protestant believers.

    In Christ, by grace

    • David Murray

      Thanks Nathan. It’s one of the hardest areas to get right in the Christian life.

  • Philip Larson

    Thank you, David. This is excellent. Taking the Bible as seriously as we must also implies Christian charity, as you are showing.

  • Ryan Elliott

    Thanks, David. This was refreshingly balanced. Given that this issue of separation is often an individual conscience matter and a case by case matter, we have to be careful not to create formulas for others to follow, but seek the Lord’s mind. I like your balanced emphasis in the statement: “It’s a sin to separate from those whom God would have us united with.” That’s the other side of the coin that separatists often fail to follow.

    • David Murray

      Yes, we’ve got to see both sides of the coin at the same time!

  • Pingback: Browse Worthy (9/14/2012) | Gentle Reformation

  • Meghan

    This is good. I hope this turns into a series. I’d like to see more Scriptural examples of Jesus being ecumenical without compromising.

  • Robert M Walker


    Anyway to discuss this offline? In regard to the scene in Scotland your article is timely. Forward Together meet today, and if their continued response is as vacuous as the recent letter they sent out to supporters it will show a retreat from biblical principle and surrender to compromise with apostasy.

    I have deliberately refrained from public comment. I left the CofS in 1995 for the OPC, over the inseparable issues of woman’s ordination and homosexuality. Even then there was a refusal to deal with either issue on the part of CofS evangelicals.

    Now in the Free Church, I fear there will be too “nice” a response when the CofS men again nail their colours to the fence! We will hear of principal-led disagreement, rejecting their error but maintaining fellowship with them etc. I feel the biblical response should be to say to my former associates in the CofS, “If you choose to fellowship with open apostates and moral degenerates then we will choose not to associate with you at any formal level.” I know that some are organising for a separation; I fear that few will actually act.

    The problem for me in the Free Church is that as a former (19 years) CofS minister people might dismiss my attitude as sour grapes. I also have to be honest – I was emotionally and spiritually shattered by my years of fighting in the CofS. I don’t have the physical health or energy to become active again in this battle. I do hope that the FCS and the FCS(C), or someone else, will produce a detailed, reasoned, and biblical responses to the current CofS situation. Shallow thinking will not win the arguments against those who appeal to a false and superficial misinterpretation of Scripture and a woolly emotionalism about attachment to the mother church. (Sounds like Rome all over again…)

    Many thanks David for your excellent blog. I read it every week and really appreciate your wide and varied study on our behalf, especially your “robbing the Egyptians” of the business, educational and management world and bringing their insights to a biblical touchstone. All truth is God’s truth, and we can at times bury our head in the sand to genuine insights from non-Christian sources. I like your biblically informed balance.

    Every blessing

    Robert M Walker
    Bishopbriggs FCS

    • David Murray

      Robert, I think I remember your letters to the Glasgow Herald when I was living there. It is indeed so painful to see the decline of Scotland – so far so fast.

      I’m afraid that I share your pessimism about the prospects of bold principled action from inside the CofS and in relationships with her. And I can certainly sympathise with the disabling impact of the battle on your health.

      Very much appreciate your kind words about the blog!

  • David Murray (Isle of Lewis)

    Very well written and interesting blog.

    You’re absolutely right about the importance of this topic. I wish it was more discussed really. It’s absolutely crucial to get our doctrine of Church Unity right. As you know well, there are villages in Scotland that have up to 3 or 4 congregations who are only separate because of their doctrine of unity (although I don’t believe for a second that it is by genuine conviction for all of them).

    More open discussion on this topic would be very beneficial for our churches. People don’t really think about it at all. Many when asked will say, in essentials unity and is non essentials liberty. And when you press them as to what they regard as essentials, they will in effect say the doctrine of Salvation. More though than that is required.

    • David Murray (Isle of Lewis)


      • David Murray

        Thanks for your input, David. Yes, we need to get down to specifics more. However, sometimes, esp in Scotland, attempts to unite can leave us more divided than ever! We so much need the Holy Spirit to work.


  • Robert

    Would you be interested in doing an adaptation of this for our new online magazine? It is a subject I believe would be greatly appreciated by more discussion and spiritual light.

    • David Murray

      Robert, it depends how much adaptation would be required. I’ve not got much white space in my calendar over the next month or so.

  • Robert

    Our plan is to release the first online edition in the new year. However it would be good to have things done by December.

    The piece is well written and would fit as a magazine article well. I feel that the point of separation and union is vague. I think it was John Murray’s opinion in his day to fellowship on basis of reformed theology. Your points at the beginning are good. I can’t help thinking they become less critical towards the end.

    It’s also an interest to challenge us on what factors on where we should worship. Is that something you can add? I think Jesus was above many issues surrounding fellowship. Maybe I’m wrong there. But this article is thought provoking and it would be great to inform the church moreand increase discussion. I believe the goal of the church is union and not separation.

    • David Murray

      I’m going to have to pass on this for the time being Robert.

  • Timothy A. Williams

    Dr. Murray: I have read this a couple of times because of the grave importance of this matter, as both ancient and modern times have demonstrated. There are many points with which I agree. However, I wouldn’t mind a clarification on a couple of matters. From my standpoint, there seems to be a double standard assumed that may be subjectively applied to those whom God ‘has given’ greater ministry and those whom God has not. Would that make it OK for Billy Graham to have done what he has done, seeing that he had an international ministry and could influence others? On what biblical basis can you this supported? Who has the wisdom to know when this standard can be applied? Thank you for your consideration of these questions, I look forward to your reply. TAW

    • David Murray

      The Billy Graham question is easy. No.

      The other questions are difficult to work out in practice. The existence of weaker brothers implies that some are stronger. Does 2 Kings 5:18 have any bearing? Has to be done within context of close accountability.

  • Frank

    Brother Murray, having read this article I must agree with many of the priniples set forth. If, however, it is true that the separatist risks not communicating the gospel, (hiding the gospel) then how do you explain the ministry of a C.H. Spurgeon, who not only was a separatist but even a secondary separatist. His ministry was large and was anything but “bridge-building.” I’m sorry but I cannot buy this idea that separatists (reasonable) risk not communicating the gospel when I don’t find that principle anywhere in scripture and have not seen it played out by any of the separatists that I personally know. (or know thru Sermon Audio)
    Neither do I see separatists as being inconsistant with eating and drinking with sinners. Jesus did not cooperate in ministry with the Pharisees or the unconverted that he ate and drank with or preached to. And the synagogues that our Lord and the apostle Paul preached in, proved to be anything but ecumenical when we consider how they reacted to their preaching. I would’nt call it very ecumenical to go into a synagogue (or a church for that matter) and contend with or correct the teachers of that place.(as Jesus did) I would simply love to take the pulpit at a Crystal Cathedral and preach the closed ended exclusivity of Christ and the biblical Gospel as being the one true way to the Father thereby debunking Robert Schuller’s open-ended gospel, though I would probably be treated the way Jesus and Paul were once I was done. His and Paul’s teaching, in or out of the synagogue left no room for any implied ecclesiastical or ministerial associations.
    Yes Jesus ate and drank with sinners. But he was also separate from sinners. Heb. 7:26

    • Riley

      Spurgeon was part of a Baptist Union which included a number of Arminian preachers. He only separated over the authority of Scripture.