The requirement of longsuffering and patience with our brothers and sisters in the Lord is a clear teaching of the Word of God (Gal. 5:22; Eph. 4:2; 1 Tim. 6:11), and it has distinct implications for the local (and wider) church. One of the great temptations of godly (and for that matter, carnal) believers is to abandon the local church in the first instance of disagreement or at the first sign of trouble. If, for example, the church leadership makes a decision a member disagrees with, he is poised for a mad dash out the back door. Similarly, if he gets into a fervent disagreement with a fellow member, he is inclined to transfer his membership (until, of course, he confronts similar problems in the new congregation).
This is not the Biblical pattern of addressing sins and difficulties within the church. In the Old Testament era, Israel, God's covenant people, frequently and drastically apostatized. Nonetheless, not once did God's prophets whom He raised up to decry this apostasy recommend that the remnant or few faithful believers abandon the community of Israel and its rites: sacrifices, feasts, festivals, and so forth. God once threatened to wipe out the entire Jewish race because of their idolatry, but Moses interceded and God withheld His judgment (Dt. 9:12-20). He was willing to destroy His entire covenant people because of their egregious sin, and He would have been perfectly justified in doing so; but He was not willing for the faithful in the covenant community to abandon that community.
Likewise, in the New Testament, God did not endorse a general ecclesiastical separatism a commitment to jettison the church at the first signal of difficulties. Jesus Christ Himself ministered freely in the (generally apostate) Jewish synagogue, though He and His followers were subsequently cast out because of His forthright, authoritative teaching (Jn. 9). Christianity began in the Jewish synagogue; and these synagogues became the forerunners of the Gentile New Testament churches, when Jesus and His disciples were "excommunicated" from the apostate Jewish synagogues. This forced ecclesiastical "separatism" the Bible applauds!
Separation from Sin, Not the Church
When Paul drafted his epistles to a number of the Gentile congregations, he was often obliged to employ stern reprimands because of sin within the church. The Corinthian church tolerated a base form of immorality. The church at Colosse was embracing a kind of Gnostic mysticism. The churches in Galatia were plagued with a style of legalism which threatened to destroy the Old Testament teaching of justification by faith in Christ. Paul was not hesitant to use strong language in rebuking these grievous sins. Note well, however, that not once did he counsel faithful believers in the midst to separate from these churches. His view of separation was for the church to separate from sin, not for the faithful to separate from the church. This is equally true of John's message to the seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3. Ecclesiastical sanctification, not separation, is the program.
Yet it is equally true that Scripture demands separation from sin and from certain sinners. In Titus we read, "A man that is an heretick after the first and second admonition reject" (Tit. 3:10). There comes a time when we cannot remain in individual communion with even professed believers (1 Cor. 5:11), and we surely cannot maintain ecclesiastical fellowship with dominant, blatant unbelief (2 Cor. 6:14-18). We should infer from this that where formal, core orthodox belief is present in the covenant community, there is a legitimate, but perhaps profoundly erroneous, church. Ancient Israel was God's covenant community, because His presence and ordinances were there in spite of the severe sin of the majority of its members. The same is true of churches in the New Testament era. When a church formally abandons the core of Christian orthodoxy (summarized quite well in the early ecumenical creeds), it has not become an egregiously sinful church; it has become no church at all. Since Christians are to be members of the church, to be members of a community of individuals that does not constitute a church will not suffice. In that case, we have separation not from a church, but from a non-church. This fact applies just as much to independent churches as it does to denominational churches. A church can be immature, weak, misguided, and mistaken and still be a true church. It is no longer a church when it formally abandons what Christianity is all about the orthodox Trinity; Jesus Christ as the divine-human, eternal, Son of God; His sacrificial death on the cross; His victorious, bodily resurrection; His bodily second coming; the authority of the Bible; and so on.
When we labor together with our brethren in imperfect situations, we are imitating our Lord and Savior, Who labors with and suffers long with and forgives even the most sanctified of His own people (Col. 3:13). Strife, disagreement, criticism, "hurt feelings," and so on are truly sinful, but they are a realistic picture of even the best of churches. Whenever I hear a Christian say, "Our church doesn't have a problem in the world," I know that person is either seriously deceived, or that his church is a dead church. Real churches are composed of real Christians, and real Christians sin. The church's calling is to deal with that sin in a firm and admonitory, but loving and patient, manner (Gal. 6:1). It must not leap to excommunication as a deft ecclesiastical tool, but neither must it avoid excommunication as a last, painful action toward the unrepentant, with the constant prayer and hope that he will be restored (2 Cor. 2:1-8).
Sometimes, it is convenient and necessary to start new churches from existing churches. For example, issues of geography must be taken into account. As an increasing number of church members must drive long distances to local church meetings, it may be wise to start a new congregation. Sometimes cultural differences justify different congregations. This was the case in the New Testament era, when Jewish Christian congregations labored alongside Gentile Christian congregations, with neither being superior to the other (Acts 15). These churches disagreed on relatively secondary and minor issues, but equally affirmed the core elements of the Christian Faith. These differences today may justify separate churches, yet these churches should work together harmoniously to advance Christ's kingdom in the earth. In this case, organizational separateness need not imply schism or divisiveness. Individual Christians should covenant themselves with orthodox congregations, and labor in that congregation to bring glory to God.
In the Bible, church communion is the rule and separation is the exception. We would do well to remember and act on this vital fact.
- P. Andrew Sandlin
P. Andrew Sandlin is a Christian minister, theologian, and author. He is the founder and president of the Center for Cultural Leadership in Coulterville, California. He was formerly president of the National Reform Association and executive vice president of the Chalcedon Foundation. He is a minister in the Fellowship of Mere Christianity.. He was formerly a pastor at Church of the Word in Painesville, Ohio (1984-1995) and Cornerstone Bible Church in Scotts Valley, California (2004-2014).