What is separation from unbelievers?

Separation is a fundamental Christian doctrine that runs through the Bible from the beginning to the end. God not only “created” light but He also “separated” it from darkness. This is recorded on the very first page of the Bible (Gen 1:4). The very first Chapter of the longest book in the Bible mentions the necessity of separation from “the ungodly… sinners… and the scornful” (Psa 1:1). The inaugural sermon on the Birthday of the Church called the listeners to “be saved from this crooked generation” (Acts 2:40). The last page of the Bible differentiates between the indwellers and the outsiders of the Heavenly City (Rev 22:14,15). There is therefore no argument against the call for separation. The problem however is in the outworking of it in practice. As in the other issues, Christians go to extremes in this matter also, causing confusion to the younger generation. How does God expect us to relate to the ungodly?

By virtue of creation, all men and women, godly or ungodly, belong to God the Creator. He loves them all equally and grants them “sunshine and shower” without any partiality (Mt 5:45). As God’s “offspring” the entire humanity “lives, moves and has its being in Him.” He is not far from any man or woman (Acts 17:27,28). Without understanding this truth the religionists of Jesus’ day were practising exclusivism. But when He freely moved with the irreligious and sinful people He was nicknamed as a “friend of sinners” (Lk 7:34). He had no problem partying with “sinners” in their dinners and celebrations (Mt 9:10-12). We too must maintain normal social relationship with people. True spirituality is not anti-sociality. We should only be cautious lest we learn the corrupt and evil ways of the world.

Born-again youngsters must not despise their parents if they have not yet become believers. There must be no reservation in marital relationship with an unbelieving spouse (1 Pet 3:1,2). Christians must cooperate wholeheartedly with their non-Christian colleagues as long as no moral principle is violated. Obedience to non-Christian bosses must be hearty (1 Pet 2:18). But one must think twice before entering into a business partnership with an unbeliever. However, more often than we think, non-Christians are smarter than Christians in industry and commerce. Jesus Himself acknowledged, “The sons of this world are more shrewd in their generation than the sons of light” (Lk 16:8b). Therefore as long as there is no succumbing to fraudulent means, corrupt practices and tax-evasion, there’s nothing wrong in having unbelievers as business partners.

Some youth ministers, especially those who work in colleges and universities, lead young believing students into seclusion in the name of separation. These boys and girls then stop going to the common reading rooms, sports fields, games, variety entertainments, etc. This paints a negative picture before non-Christians about Christian discipleship. Making friendship is the first step in campus and neighbourhood evangelism. It is usually from the circle of friendship we bring people into the sphere of Christian fellowship. Fishers of men must be friends of men. Sin must be hated but not the sinner.

When I got converted as a college student at the age of sixteen (1962), I did not leave my old friends. I still loved them and met with them. I made clear to them my new commitment and change of life. They would not use filthy language or crack vulgar jokes in my presence any longer. An isolated and insulated Church will not influence and impact the society. Besides being strong in worship, the early Church had “favour with all the people.” That was the secret of their daily growth (Acts 2:47).

No local Church is of 100% believers or 100% unbelievers. It’s always a mixture, but the percentage varies! In the strict sense, worship of the Lord’s Name and fellowship around the Lord’s Table are meaningful only if all the participants and partakers are born-again folks (2 Tim 2:22b; 1 Cor 10:16.17). One can perhaps restrict breadbreaking to believers, but who can restrain un-believers from joining worship? (1 Cor 14:24,25). All the baptized may not be grains; so also all those not baptized are tares. Acute differentiation is difficult (Mt 13:24-30). Let’s therefore avoid hairsplitting but become a caring community.

Here are some of the favourite texts of separationists—

  • “Friendship with the world is enmity with God” (Js 4:4). This refers to “lust… murder… covetousness… fight… (sinful) pleasures” (vv 1-3).
  • “Come out from among them and be separate” (2 Cor 6:17). This is a call for a clean break-away from idolatry (v 16).
  • “Evil company corrupts good habits” (1 Cor 15:33). This is a warning against materialism and rationalism which denies resurrection (v 32).

Christ’s prayer to the Father for us sums it all: “I do not pray that You should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one” (Jn 17:15).

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