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Why I Struggle with “Subjective Separation”

What is subjective separation, and what is biblical separation? I believe in one and reject the other. Let’s break it down. Biblical separation is discerning and emphasizes what the Bible clearly says. Subjective separation is undiscerning, and creates issues where the Bible is silent or where God gives space for conscience.

In this post, I’m going to assume you believe that Christians are called to grow in practical holiness (forsaking sin); and that Christians are called to protect the pure doctrine of God’s word. (See note 1 in the postscript.)

Yet, how should we handle matters of conscience and areas of subjectivity? What about believers that differ from us in areas where God’s Word allows for margin? (There are many such practical areas.) No, God does not give me carte blanche permission to separate from another faithful Christian “for whatever reason I want to.” In fact, He expressly forbids such subjective censure over differing opinions or preferences. (Romans 14 is of particular importance in such matters—see note 2 in the postscript)

Jesus, Himself, directly addressed this subjective castigation with his disciples:

“And John answered and said, Master, we saw one casting out devils in thy name; and we forbad him, because he followeth not with us. And Jesus said unto him, Forbid him not: for he that is not against us is for us.” (Luke 9:49-50)

Jesus’ response here is so forceful, so gracious, and so final—I’m shocked that it doesn’t shake us more deeply and prohibit us from condemning or slandering other faithful Christians over preferential matters.

This is the essence of my struggle with subjective separation. I don’t see instruction in the Word of God that supports the splintering of believers over “doubtful disputations.” I don’t see Scripture that gives me authority to condemn and “set at nought” another of Jesus’ followers (who is following his conscience) simply because of a slightly differing method, or over a matter with which I am unfamiliar.

Today, vastly splintered segments of Christianity are splintering even more, but the “reasons” for splintering don’t add up to substantive biblical matters or clear, flagrant sinful matters. The reasons are purely subjective, personal, preferential, and often miniscule and marginal. Sometimes the reasons are purely institutional—”I’m of Paul; I’m of Apollos.” (1 Corinthians 3 calls this “carnal.”)

Why do some Christians obsess over matters which the Bible does not? Where has our discernment gone? What has happened to our discretion and spirit of cooperation and encouragement?

Are we not “laborers together with God?” (1 Corinthians 3:9) At best, are we not commanded to “forbid him not” and not to “set at nought” those who are faithfully preaching and teaching God’s truth? Are we really the enemy of those who, in accordance with their own conscience, live distinct lives and declare the gospel to the culture in which they minister? Are we not given clear biblical directives to allow margin, grace, patience, and deference in subjective matters of conscience?

Biblical separation is not the same as subjective separation. Subjective separation is destructive to gospel ministry because it sets brother against brother in opinion-driven debates (doubtful disputes) and pointless contentions.

Paul’s instruction to Titus speaks to this: “But avoid foolish questions, and genealogies, and contentions, and strivings about the law; for they are unprofitable and vain. A man that is an heretick after the first and second admonition reject.”  (Titus 3:9-10)

It’s simple—avoid foolish questions and behavioral debates that vary from culture to culture (like Jewish to Greek), and stand for truth and against heresy. Avoid dividing over unprofitable debates. Be courageous to reject doctrinal heresy. How can God be any clearer?

What are the differences between biblical and subjective separation?

—Subjective separation = Separate from him to me.

—Biblical separation = Separate from sin/error to God.

 

—Subjective separation = How do I feel about you?

—Biblical separation = What does God clearly say about truth?

 

—Subjective separation = You should follow my conscience.

—Biblical separation = You should follow your conscience.

 

—Subjective separation = You answer to me.

—Biblical separation = You answer to God.

 

—Subjective separation = I’m the standard.

—Biblical separation = Jesus is the standard.

 

—Subjective separation = If you are “like me” I accept you.

—Biblical separation = If Jesus accepts you, I accept you.

 

My struggle with subjective separation is simply that it is subjective. Its boundaries are movable and often make sense only to the one who built the fences—and to those who are his constituents/group/fellowship/culture/region/etc. In other words, often inside the local bubble, the subjectivity is cemented and fixed; and the group views their preference as objective—like “not eating meat” made sense to a first century Jew, but was completely foreign to a newly saved Gentile believer.

Outsiders of a particular region/culture/church/group/fellowship can see the subjectivity with greater clarity because they are not emotionally or relationally attached to it. Sadly, too often, truth-loving, faithful Christians who do not identify with the particular preference of another’s culture, are “set at nought” or worse—slandered and attacked by other faithful Christians. (See note 3 on the postscript regarding 2 Cor. 6:17)

I experience this occasionally. The most critical, hurtful, and slanderous people toward Emmanuel’s gospel efforts in New England, ironically and surprisingly, are not cultists or secularists. (And they are not happy that the gospel is alive and well in New England.) But surprisingly, the most demonstrably hurtful and openly slanderous voices have been other Christians, and especially Christian leaders. This is perplexing to me—especially how often the nature of it is flatly untrue or intentionally distorted, and how few actually reach out to simply ask.

A wise pastor and leader gave me tremendous advice five years ago, handed down to him from Lester Roloff. To quote Dr. Roloff: “Don’t ever let the opinions of other men hold your ministry hostage.” When I asked what Dr. Roloff meant, this pastor said, “You will be led by God to do things differently in New England than they have previously been done. That’s ok. Follow God’s leading and don’t let the criticism of men hold you hostage from obeying God’s direction for your ministry.” I appreciated this great advice, and more so, I appreciated the belief and confidence that he knew there was no way I was going to compromise biblical truth.

For that reason, the slander doesn’t consume my time or emotional energy. But it does surprise me. On some level, it burdens me that, as Christian leaders, we can be carnal or comparative. This insecure and politically driven behavior drives away both unbelievers and our own children.

As the world is melting down around us and millions of people remain without the gospel—how can we have time, margin, energy, and desire to critique and slander other faithful Christians? How can we project to the lost world a contentious gospel? This behavior is mystifying to me, especially as we see Bible-believing groups splintering, fracturing, and dividing to become smaller and smaller—over increasingly nonsensical issues. “But if ye bite and devour one another, take heed that ye be not consumed one of another.” (Galatians 5:15)

Seeing subjective separation unfold among those of strong doctrine is sad and disheartening to many who desire to strive together for the faith of the gospel. (Philippians 1:27)

Subjective separation is political. It is never really about doctrine. It is never really about matters of biblical consequence. It is usually about constituency. It is about putting another down to lift up myself. It is about marginalizing another to increase myself. It is about dividing already small circles into smaller circles—accentuating exceedingly subtle differences in order to increase control or influence within “my sphere.” It is about making myself the standard by which all others are measured.

I invite you to be a discerning, grounded, Bible-embracing Christian—embrace biblical separation, but reject subjective separation. Know what the Bible teaches, and stand for it. But know what the Bible does not teach, and refuse to force extra-biblical issues upon God’s Word and upon God’s people. Intellectual honesty should be a hallmark of biblical Christianity.

Refuse to allow your heart or attitude to be skewed toward other faithful, biblically-grounded believers. Refuse to lie, slander, or presume upon a church or Christian in matters of conscience or over methods that are simply new to your paradigm, preference, or experience.

Subjective separation is killing the heart of Christian ministry for many. Today’s church families and Christian leaders, more than ever, need to see Christians who are grounded, strong, well-versed theologically; but also, discerning, gracious, and “striving together” personally toward other Bible-believing Christians.

May God give us a dramatic decline in subjective separation and a massive ground swell of biblical distinction and gospel advancement in an increasingly secular and pagan American culture.

 

————————————————————

Post-Script Notes:

Note 1: Flagrant sinful practice is referenced in 2 Thessalonians 3:6-7 as walking “disorderly.” Jude 3-4 challenges us to “contend for the faith” and references those who turn God’s grace into lasciviousness. Galatians 1:7 references those who “pervert” the gospel of Jesus Christ. Many examples could be cited.

Note 2: Romans 14 instructs us to: Not be drawn into doubtful (subjective) disputes (v. 1). Recognize that our differing cultures will produce differing preferences (v. 2). Not despise or judge those who draw lines of conscience differently (v. 3). Allow a Christian brother the margin and grace to answer to God (v. 4). Not require other Christians to answer to me (v. 4). Allow others to be “fully persuaded” in preferences different from ours (v. 5). Recognize that subjectivity exists in areas of ministry and Christian living (v. 5). Accept that men can do things differently and be accepted by God (v. 6). Accept that God accepts those whose conscience differs from mine (v. 6). Recognize that each of God’s servants answers to Him (v. 7-8). Refuse to judge or compare or measure others using self as the standard (v. 10). Refuse to “set at nought” (despise, dismiss, resent, contemn) a faithful Christian brother (v. 10). Allow each man to live out his conscience before God, his true Lord (v. 10). Allow God to be Judge and myself a co-laborer and Christian friend (v. 10)

Note 3: Often 2 Corinthians 6:17—which deals specifically with idolatry and pagan worship—is also misused in subjective interpretation and adapted to support personal preferences or contrived issues. In essence, divorced from context, this verse can be made to say “whatever I want it to say.”

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16 Comments

  • Would “Subjective” separation also be considered “secondary” separation?

    • Michael—that’s a GREAT question. I would say they are different, but perhaps related in some ways. Historically, at least to me, secondary separation was defined as separating from a Christian of like-faith for their associations with others who compromise. There is definitely, at least as I have seen it implemented, a great degree of subjectivity to the idea of “who” to separate from because of their associations and “why?” Everybody would draw those lines differently, no doubt.

  • Hey Cary. Thanks for taking the time to write something that takes time to write. It’s encouraging. It’s insightful. It’s biblically (and contextually) accurate. It will help those of us who continue to search for ways to be set free from those who have been “teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.” (Mark 7:7) It’s so important for younger pastors to learn how to walk a congregation through the unlearning process, biblically and graciously. Unlearning is so much harder than learning. Your post will help some to keep moving forward. Thanks again.

    Chris

    • Thanks Chris! I’m grateful for your kindness. The spirit of the article is really more of a confession of a struggle, than a proposition of solutions. I don’t have the solution, I just know I struggle with the subjectivity of much it. I guess the essence of the struggle is when someone promotes a personal decision/preference as you say above—doctrine. There will always be subjectivity to our unique ministry styles, schedules, methods, etc. — there always has been. The more churches and regions I travel to, the more I’m amazed at the diversity that already exists in strong churches, by God’s design. There is great diversity and uniqueness. None of us are exactly alike, and the more subjective our approach to separation, the more splintered we will become. If I draw my lines tight enough, I could separate from everybody—including myself! To get anything done in terms of laboring together for the gospel, we certainly can’t isolate ourselves to those extremes. I pray in the next generation there will be doctrinal continuity but Spirit-led grace amidst great diversity of personality, etc.

  • Thank you so much for this Bro. Schmidt (sorry ahead of time if my comment seems all over the place, just my thoughts)
    Seeing the dissension is disheartening. My husband has said time and time again, “What others do is not our burden. We have enough to worry about within our own church. . A quick snip it of a photo does not always tell the whole story about anyone or any church.” I also believe the trouble is on both sides. (Let me make this clear, there shouldn’t be any sides, just laborers together with God, we’ve have always felt this way and have always been shocked when there’s a shamming towards any one person or their church) There are those who reject others for their style of worship, presentation of church etc. Because its not “old paths” enough. Then there are those who reject others for their suits & skirts calling them pharisee’s because of their dress. On that topic, we actually heard one Pastor preach for 45 minutes to his church about the wearing of suits and skirts to church, almost shaming those for choosing to dress that way….. we were dumbfounded. (This goes for BOTH sides) Shouldn’t the pulpit be used for something more eternal. Its almost as if both sides are digging their feet in and yelling across trying to stand their ground and get their point across shamming the other. “your too contemporary”, “your to conservative”. Good grief. I really believe all of this has distracted many from their main job, getting the gospel to the lost! and I’m sure Satan’s just loving it. My husband and I may not agree with every single thing 100% that ANY church does, EVER. But what we do agree on is that what we do at our church, must line up with what God wants my husband to do and how He wants my husband to lead. This next statement is sad but true……my husband and I are both first generation Christians, we believe and feel that before salvation we had more freedom and less condemnation from those around us or in our circles than we do now within the body of Christ. I know that’s not how God wants it or ever intended it to be. We are 100% free in Christ, and we chose to live in that freedom and do so, and LOVE it. (We’re kinda stubborn like that) Its those around us who seem to constantly try to hamper that freedom, trying desperately to place us in bonds that Christ died for and doesn’t want us in. Over the years we’ve seen more grace from our unsaved family as they’ve tried to wrap their heads around our “change” in Christ, than from our church family as we have tried to live the way God was leading us too. The standards and convictions we have and that we live, are truly from God, we can honestly say that, and we are free in those decisions. Whether we’re conservative enough or old paths enough, we’re Christians first and ought to live in such a way! Sharing the gospel, encouraging, loving the brethren, ministering to all we can, even to those who, in our circles, who differ from us. Thanks again!

  • Well said, although it makes me nervous. :) If we could all agree on just exactly what constitutes “marginal” and “miniscule” we would be all set! [sigh] That won’t happen this side of glory.

  • Very helpful article Brother Cary. Appreciate it a lot. Sometimes people may have different methods of reaching people with the gospel. But this is why we have individual soul liberty. As long as our liberties don’t cause others to sin, then praise GOD people are getting saved. I have recently heard of an unknown preacher years ago who said that if we independent baptist churches don’t quit using standards of separation as biblical doctrine substitutes then we will be the laughing stock of all of the religions. Boy he was right. Thankfully men like yourself and others are reaching out.

  • Thank you for the article. I can tell you as a “millennial” this is the biggest concern among my peers with the IFB movement. We want to hold true to the doctrines of the gospel, but we are driven away by the subjective separation taught to us from an early age. The problem is man is only human bound to sin. If you are following him instead of God when that man fails so do you.

  • Thank you for taking the time to write all of your posts! I look forward to reading them, as they are always full of substance and come from the right spirit! Thank you for your discernment and courage to write on this hot button subject. Thank you for putting yourself out there to be vulnerable to backlash in a true effort to encourage other believers! I pray God will continue to give you the wisdom and ability to continue to write and influence the next generation for the cause of Christ!

  • Thanks for this post. Loved being with you recently and seeing all that God is doing there! We’re so thankful for you and your family!

    Also as a “millennial” (thanks, Amanda), I’m not a big fan of broad-brushing any side of these issues. It seems we’ve spent plenty of time and energy stereotyping one ministry or movement while not allowing them the courtesy of a phone call or a coffee to understand as you described. That being said, I don’t believe everyone who separates on subjective issues is on a power trip or control frenzy. Many younger people (like myself) grew up in a culture that was often defined by strong biblical AND subjective separation. Likewise, I believe many still do separate on subjective matters out of a sincere desire to please and honor God.

    Additionally, I think we could say that every Christian and every Pastor to some extent adheres to standards of subjective separation as they follow their conscience and the Holy Spirit in leading their flocks. Perhaps your point has more to do with the way people impose their subjective separation standards on others.

    Either way, perhaps we shouldn’t dichotomize the issue into “good (biblical)” and “bad (subjective)” terms since we ALL adhere, to some extent, to both biblical and subjective standards of separation. Maybe we need to just be clear on what is non-negotiable and what is purely preference but still perfectly in line with the good efforts of holiness and “walking circumspectly.”

    There’s something more to be said about Romans 14 than to just avoid “doubtful disputations.” The command was for the weak to judge not AND for the strong to despise not. Ultimately, every man lives by faith and tries not to violate his conscience. So perhaps that passage is more about having to learn to navigate the whole spectrum of believers with grace, compassion, and a greater commitment to the furtherance of the Gospel.

    • John,

      Great thoughts and you have touched on one of the very nerves I was trying to address.

      Perhaps I failed to properly define what I even mean by “separation.” I’m talking about a hard, full rejection of a faithful Christian that would include a public attack, marking, withdrawal, private gossip/slander/setting at nought (in ways that are dishonoring to God and comparative) etc.

      I am definitely not speaking about a simple decision to not cooperate with someone or to create some relational distance for whatever variety of non-essential reasons or philosophical differences. I’m referencing the need to castigate publicly another Christian who is only marginally different from me. I’m also referencing politically driven separation—not sincere, personal separation—but that which is motivated by malice, money, etc. For instance, I can give you examples of men who threaten other men with statements like, “If you want to preach at our conference, you must separate from that brother.” I can give you examples of life-time friendships that have been walked away from simply because of extrinsic pressures from politically motivated associations.

      I have a ton of very good friends who are different than me. They do things I would not do personally and in ministry. I do things they would not do personally and in ministry. I hate to make it all linear (left, right, center) because that over-simplifies it, and unavoidably makes me the “center of perfect balance.” But my point is, if it were linear, I have friends who would be to both sides of me in practice. We agree wholly on essential doctrine and on the gospel and things that eternally matter. We couldn’t care less about the minuscule ways in which we are different. We certainly would not feel the need to castigate each other over those minuscule differences. We are friends. We are co-laborers. We are striving together. We don’t need to compete or divide. We grant each other grace to be and do what God leads in our specific context/culture/region/etc.

      Your well put point further establishes to subjectivity to many of our Christian decisions. My article was not to say we shouldn’t all exercise our conscience in making these decisions, it was to establish the idea that someone living out their conscience (in either a MORE or LESS conservative way than me) does not grant me the right to reject and attack them. I’m not trying to reject the subjectivity of it all, but the responses that would be unbiblical. You are right in that there is subjectivity to all of our decisions on personal and practical Christian living.

      The hardest thing is what you mention about being clear on the non-negotiables. This is the essence of the problem. Those who castigate and attack with the greatest degree of vehemence would define their preferences and personal standards as non-negotiable. It’s almost impossible to reason with them or to invite them to be gracious, as they are so convinced and determined to reject others. They too should be granted grace. I simply wanted to emphasize the points God was making in scripture in Romans 14, James 5, and other places… how we respond to another Christian’s decisions in gray areas should be gracious, not vicious.

      Finally, Romans 14 actually gives instructions that neither Christian is to despise the other. It’s also interesting to note who exactly the “weak” and the “strong” are in this passage… he’s not talking about a concrete spiritual strength/weakness as much as a weakness in a given area… a conscience that is more subject to a particular temptation… which means, in some areas all of us are “weak” and in some areas all of us are “strong.” We should not attack someone who is weak in an area for setting up boundaries to protect them against their weakness. We should not attack someone who’s conscience is strong in an area for not having the same boundaries.

      Your last sentence most aptly captures the heart of what I was trying to say… I quote you… “So perhaps that passage is more about having to learn to navigate the whole spectrum of believers with grace, compassion, and a greater commitment to the furtherance of the Gospel.” Yes, yes, and yes! This is the only reason I wrote the article.

      Thanks again for your great insight and faithfulness!

  • Not sure I can agree with this paragraph below that you wrote. While there certainly will be a few fringe who are out for power and control…I would characterize a vast majority of these people you are referring to as genuine and truly seeking to do what God leads them to do. I certainly hear your case you are building here but words such as political, constituency, putting down others to build up ones self, purposefully dividing into small circles, seeking control or influence. These comments are highly flammable in my opinion and puts one in a difficult position of judging the heart of a man. I just don’t believe a majority of these critics are not genuine as apposed to manipulative and control hungry as you refer to them.

    “Subjective separation is political. It is never really about doctrine. It is never really about matters of biblical consequence. It is usually about constituency. It is about putting another down to lift up myself. It is about marginalizing another to increase myself. It is about dividing already small circles into smaller circles—accentuating exceedingly subtle differences in order to increase control or influence within “my sphere.” It is about making myself the standard by which all others are measured.”

    • Rick,

      Thanks for your post and I want to clarify, as I need to distinguish between what I meant and how it was received. First, perhaps I failed to properly define what I even mean by “separation.” I’m talking about a hard, full rejection of a faithful Christian that would include a public attack, marking, withdrawal, private gossip/slander/setting at nought (in ways that are dishonoring to God and comparative) etc.’

      I’m not referencing the simple, honest, heart-felt decisions that we all must make about how to practice our Christian lives in sincerity. Every Christian must make those, and I’m not attempting to impose bad motives on that, or to judge a man’s heart.

      I was specifically referencing slanderous, dishonest, politically motivated, etc. kinds of attacks that are built on the separation argument—in particular those which are wrongfully motivated and hurtfully carried out. You are right, I cannot judge someone’s heart, I can only evaluate how someone responds to another brother. When the response is rage, rejection, and slander based upon marginal and personal preferences, it sure betrays a problem, whether a heart motive or otherwise.

      Honestly, I am not trying to be flammable, as much as trying to point out the need for grace and for a less flammable approach to how we treat those who are different than us in personal or practical applications of scriptural principles. I wasn’t referencing those who are not hurtful and who are sincere in their living of their own Christian lives and leading of their own churches. Actually my point is that we should extend grace amongst ourselves, as to some extent we are all in that same boat.

      I am definitely not speaking about a simple decision to not cooperate with someone or to create some relational distance for whatever variety of non-essential reasons or philosophical differences. I’m referencing the need to castigate publicly another Christian who is only marginally different from me. I’m also referencing politically driven separation—not sincere, personal separation—but that which is motivated by malice, money, etc. For instance, I can give you examples of men who threaten other men with statements like, “If you want to preach at our conference, you must separate from that brother.” I can give you examples of life-time friendships that have been walked away from simply because of extrinsic pressures from politically motivated associations.

      I have a ton of very good friends who are different than me. They do things I would not do personally and in ministry. I do things they would not do personally and in ministry. I hate to make it all linear (left, right, center) because that over-simplifies it, and unavoidably makes me the “center of perfect balance.” But my point is, if it were linear, I have friends who would be to both sides of me in practice. We agree wholly on essential doctrine and on the gospel and things that eternally matter. We couldn’t care less about the minuscule ways in which we are different. We certainly would not feel the need to castigate each other over those minuscule differences. We are friends. We are co-laborers. We are striving together. We don’t need to compete or divide. We grant each other grace to be and do what God leads in our specific context/culture/region/etc.

      I sure hope this clarifies what I was driving at and resolves the idea that I was presuming upon a sincere Christian’s motives. Our standards and preferences can be, ought to be, usually ARE sincere. My sincerity does not give me the right to slander or “set at nought” another faithful Christian. I was simply trying to articulate the points made in Romans 14, James 5, and other places about how we should treat each other in matters of deference and preference.

      Thanks so much for your insight!

      Cary

  • Thanks Bro. Schmidt for your article! This seems to be something that many are grappling with, and I appreciate you taking the time to define terms and make the subject a little more concrete. We could all use a little more grace, and a lot more of Christ’s perspective on those issues!

    It’s been great to see what God is doing in New England. Sarah and I enjoy listening to your messages periodically. Thanks for your ministry!

  • We linked to your article here


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