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.
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.”