Some Reflections on the Issue of “Separation”


In October of this year it will be 450 years ago that Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on the door of the castle chapel at Wittenberg. Usually this act of Luther is regarded as the beginning of the soc. Reformation. As we all know, the Reformation was a very complex event, which can be viewed from many different angles. Tonight we are mainly interested in one aspect; it meant the separation of a large section of Western Christendom from the R. C. Church. It is of course, true that Luther and the other Reformers always rejected the charge of being schismatics. They maintained that they were the legitimate continuation of the true Christian Church. Not they but the Roman Catholics were the real schismatics. Luther, for example, wrote: “I say that the pope and all who knowingly abet him in this matter are heretics, schismatics, under the ban and accursed, because they teach differently from what is in the Gospel, and follow their own will, against the common usage of the whole Church. For heretics and schismatics are men who transgress the doctrine of their fathers, separate themselves from the common usage and practice of the whole Church, and causelessly, out of sheer wantonness, devise new usages and practices against the holy Gospel. That is what the Antichrist in Rome does…. He is himself the chief cause and sole author of all schisms and parties. This is plain as day, and all history proves it.”1 However true this may be theologically, it cannot be denied that in actual fact the Reformation also meant a separation from the existing church of that time.

Unfortunately the act of separation has been repeated again and again within Protestantism itself. All Protestant confessions have suffered from it, not in the least Reformed Protestantism. It is only in this century that serious attempts have been made to overcome this almost endless process of fission. In this respect all Christians, and evangelical Christians in particular, cannot but fully endorse the AIM of the Ecumenical Movement, namely, to bring all Christians in one and the same place together around the one communion table.2

And yet there is the remarkable fact that especially in recent years the word “separation” is heard time and again in evangelical circles. In some instances this may not be surprising, because in large sections of the evangelical world there is a strongly separatist mentality. But in our day it is even heard among those Evangelicals who, on the basis of their theology, always have been strongly opposed to the very idea of separation. There are several reasons for this fact. Some of the more important are the following. (1) Many Evangelicals are worried about the development of the Ecumenical Movement. They feel there is not enough emphasis on the pure Gospel, but a spirit of rather indiscriminate inclusivism seems to be dominant. (2) In recent years neo-liberalism has invaded many churches and in particular also many seminaries. Seventeen years ago the Evangelicals of the Church of England could write in their report to the Archbishop of Canterbury: “While the liberal element, at least within ‘protestantism’ has been vindicated, the rationalist influence of a negative-minded modernism has already receded, and seems unlikely to gain a place within either tradition save as an insignificant eccentricity on the part of a tolerated minority.”3 Since then Bultmann, Tillich and Robinson, not to speak of the God-is-dead theologians, have made their tremendous impact upon the thinking of many of the younger ministers and theologians. Even the R C. Church of today .is wrestling with Bultmannianism. (3) But even apart from the extremes of neo-liberalism, there is the fact that from many pulpits, especially in the larger denominations, a greatly reduced or even diluted Gospel is being preached. Admittedly, few outright heresies are heard. The sting is not so much in what is said as in what is left unsaid. It reminds one of C. S. Lewis’ reply to a RC. priest, who wrote him an enthusiastic letter about the Hindus in India. Lewis’ rejoinder was: “Your Hindus sound delightful, but what do they DENY?”4 The same criticism must be made of many modem confessional statements prepared for church union. They are so general that no one is “hurt” any longer.

Considering these and many other similar facts it is no wonder that the issue of “separation” is being raised. Yet we should be very careful, lest we fall into serious sin. We are not dealing with a merely human association or club, but with the Church of Jesus Christ. In this paper we shall endeavour to make some comments on it. In a short paper it is impossible to deal with the whole issue from all angles. We are particularly sorry that we have to leave out the historical angle. For this reason we shall, after some terminological observations, concentrate on the theological and practical aspects.


What do we mean by the term “separation” as used in this paper? To clarify this matter we must distinguish it from some other terms, often used in close connection with it or even interchangeably. The first term is schism. In the early church this term was quite common and it was often used in close relation to the word heresy. In fact, at first the two were almost idcntical, as we see in I Corinthians 11:18, 19, where divisions (schismata) and factions (haireseis) are almost used as synonyms.5 Gradually, however, in the ancient church the two were distinguished as follows: heresy means false doctrine and schism an orthodox sect. In other words, schism in its original meaning always refers to a division in the church which is due to causeless differences and contentions among its members. The separating party leaves a church that is itself still faithful to the Gospel. For this reason schism is always sinful.

Under separation, as used in this paper, we understand quite a different situation. Here a group of believers separates itself from the main body, because the latter has become unfaithful to the Word of God. It is unfortunate that too often every separation is simply termed a “schism.” This confuses the issue and obliterates the real difference between the two concepts and the two situations or events indicated by these concepts. To mention an example. the breach between the Churches of the East and of the West in 1054 was clearly a schism. There were no real doctrinal differences (apart from the “fllioque” question). The Reformation of the 16th century was not a schism (at least not from the point of view of the Reformers!), but rather a matter of separation. The same can be said of several secessions in the 19th century (for example, in 1834 and 1886 in the Netherlands). Often, in the case of separation, those who leave the church are forced out by the parent body.

Separation again has to be distinguished clearly from separatism. By this term we mean the ecciesiology (theological aspect!) and attitude (practical aspect!) of those who leave their church, prompted by a wrong spirit. No attempt is made to reform the church from within, nor is there any understanding of or concern for the visible unity of the church, but motivated by some form of ecclesiological perfectionism the existing church is abandoned and a new one is established.7 In a way it is a mixture of schism and separation. The mentality of the schismatic is applied to the problems underlying the issue of separation. We wish to state at the outset that we have no appreciation whatever for any form of separatism, even if we share its concern for the purity of the church.

Our problem in this paper solely concerns separation. Is it ever permitted? If so, under which circumstances? Are there any objective norms?


The only way to answer these questions is to study the Bible. We are not dealing with a merely practical matter, which can be decided on its own practical merits, but with a purely theological issue, and the only form for all our theological problems is Holy Scripture, the “principium unicum theologiae.”

Naturally we must concentrate on the New Testament. Yet we cannot completely bypass the Old Testament. Those who condemn all separation often

appeal to the O.T. on two points. (a) They point to the attitude of the prophets who, in spite of the terrible corruption of the Church of their days, never separated from it in order to establish a new people of God with a separate cult. Even Calvin used this argument’-In our opinion, however, it is completely untenable, for it loses sight of the peculiar situation of Israel as the theocratic nation of God. The application of the national-church (Volkskirche) idea to the N.T. Church by the Reformers of the 16th century and by many defenders of the established church concept in our own day, is not only without any scriptural warrant, but it also has done untold harm to the church itself and of necessity leads to an externalization of the church. (b) A second argument against separation is at times derived from the O.T. concept of the “remnant.” As the O.T. Church was preserved in the faithful remnant, so the true believers have to preserve the church of today in the midst of all its corruption by staying in it as the faithful remnant. However plausible this argument may seem to be at first glance, it is based on a complete misunderstanding of the O.T. concept. A. Lelievre rightly states: “After the resurrection, the culmination of the history of salvation precludes the principle of the remnant. In this respect the Acts is especially clear and significant in its allusions to ever-increasing numbers…. There can no longer be this movement of reduction in the ease of the new covenant, for it is a movement which is entirely characteristic of the O.T.: it is a pattern inherent in the process by which the coming of Christ is prepared. The Christian Church is not the remnant, but rather the new humanity of the future springing from the remnant which Jesus Christ embodied in his own person.”9 It is evident that every application of the concept to the N.T. Church and in particular to the true believers in a corrupted church, shows the same lack of historical understanding which we observed under (a). The “heilsgeschichtliche” difference between the O.T. and the N.T. is overlooked.

When we tum to the New Testament, we first of all see that it condemns all unnecessary schism in no uncertain terms. We only need to mention I Corinthians 1:101ff., 11:18, 19 and also Galatians 2:12 (here the verb “to separate” is used!). All such schisms are “works of the flesh” (Gal. 5:20). Throughout the whole NT. there is a tremendous emphasis on the unity of the church (see the next section). Yet there are also other aspects which may not be ignored. First, there is the fact that gradually the N.T. Church separates itself from the jews. It is a rather slow process, but it is inevitable, because Israel as a nation refuses to accept Jesus as the Messiah. Yes, because of its opposition to Christ is the “synagogue of satan” (Rev. 2:9), while the Church is seen as the true “Israel of God” (Gal. 6:16). Secondly, there is II Corinthians 6:14–17. This passage is often used by separatists as a direct commandment of the Lord to separate from a church that has become unfaithful. I believe that this application is not warranted by the text itself. Paul is not speaking of the church but of the world. Hodge, in his commentary, rightly says: “Hoi apistoi are the heathen.” Yet he also pOints out that the principle has a wider application too. “The principle applies to all the enemies of God and children of darkness.” But how it has to be applied in the case of an unfaithful church is not stated here. This must be decided by the teaching of the whole N.T. A straightforward appeal to v. 17 (“Therefore, come out from them and be separate from them”) in defense of separatism is a over simplification of the issue. Of much more importance for our subject is the third aspect of N.T. teaching, viz., the clear commandment that heresy is not to be tolerated in the church. Throughout the N.T. heresy is condemned in the strongest of terms and the believers are told to separate themselves from the heretics. This separation, however, does not take place by the believers’ withdrawal from the church, but by the expulsion of the heretic (of Gal. 1:8, 9; II Tim. 3:5; Tit. 3:10, 11; I John 4:1ff.; II John 7–11; Rev. 2:14).

This, I believe, is all the direct teaching of the N.T. regarding our subject. The results are rather meagre, but this is not surprising, for the N.T. does not know our situation! Although W. Elert is right when he says of the false teachers in Paul’s days: “From the apostle’s warning we must conclude that the false apostles had established themselves in the congregation”10, he is equally right when he adds that Paul disposed of them, making his decision “on the basis of his apostolic authority.”11 It is only after the days of the N.T. that heresy receives a legitimate place in the church. This was, for instance, the situation at the time of the Reformation. The church itself, in its dogma and leadership, had become corrupt, to such an extent that the believers could no longer stay in it. A similar situation is confronting us again in our day.

Does the foregoing mean that we have no biblical norm for our present-day problems? Definitely not! We do believe that the N.T. remains normative also for our subject. For although it does not deal directly with our questions, indirectly it gives us the final answer by what it says about the true nature of the church and its unity. We should never make the mistake of isolating the problem of “separation.” It is an aspect of a much wider question: What is the true nature of the church and of its unity?, and this question is decisively answered in the N.T. What Dr. M. Lloyd Jones says about schism in his article on “John Owen on Schism” equally applies to separation: “You cannot decide what schism is until you have decided what the Church is.”12


What is the real nature of the church? One of the most basic notions in both the O.T. and the N.T. is that the church is the people of God. Tn their great struggle for the rediscovery and restoration or the true nature of the church this was strongly emphasized by Luther and the other Reformers. The church is not primarily the organization (still less, the building ), but “the holy believers and the lambs that hear their Shepherd’s voice” (Smalkald Art., Part III, xii ). The church is essentially a spiritual reality: “A holy congregation of true Christian believers, expecting all their salvation in Jesus Christ, being washed by his blood, sanctified and sealed by the Holy Spirit” (Belgic Conf., art. 27). In other words, it can only be seen in faith: Credo sanctam ecclesiam catholicam. This does not mean that this church is purely invisible. The Augsburg Confession clearly states: “The Church is the congregation of saints in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the sacraments rightly administered” (art. 7). The Belgic Confession (as many other Reformation confessions) speaks of the Notae (marks), by which the true church is known! The church, although in essence spiritual and therefore hidden (Luther rightly preferred to speak of “abscondita” rather than “invisibilis”), is also visible in the offices and their administrations. There is no contrast between the two. The one church is hidden and visible at the same time. Cf. Ephesians 4: “one body and one Spirit,” but also “one baptism” and the gift of the offices, verse 11. Unfortunately in evangelical circles the two have time and again been divorced. To many of them THE church is the invisible church. The visible church is almost a necessary evil. At best it is seen as the external hull.

What does the N.T. say of the unity of the church? There are two aspects which are found alongside each other throughout the whole N.T. On the one hand, it speaks of the given, existing unity, founded upon and realized in Jesus Christ (cf. John 10:16; 17:20, 21; Eph. 2:14–16; 4:4–6; Col. 3:11; I Cor. 12:12, 13, 27). On the other hand, there is the constant call to realize this unity in the actual life of the church (cf. Eph. 4:3, 13). These two aspects do not contradict each other, but belong together and complement each other. Because the believers are one in Christ, being members of the one body, they have always to strive for the manifestation of this unity in the world (cf. the parallel with the doctrine of sanctification: we are holy in Christ, I Cor. 1:30; therefore we arc continually called to sanctify ourselves). Such a can to unity is necessary, because the manifestation of the unity is constantly threatened. On the one hand, there is the danger of unnecessary schism (1 Cor.); on the other, there is danger of heresy. The N.T. emphasizes the latter in particular, because the unity-in-Christ is not an indifferent, colourless unity, but always a unity-in-the-truth . Especially in John 17 this comes clearly to the fore. The unity-in-Christ is immediately linked up with “keeping the word,” which Jesus received from the Father and transmitted to his disciples (vv. 6, 8, 14, 17). H. Berkhof rightly says: “This being one as ‘being-in-us’ is concretely accomplished in this, that they are one with the apostles, through whose work they come to faith in Christ. Essentially we find here the same as what is said in I John 1:3, ‘That which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you may have fellowship with us; and our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.’ The unity of the congregation, therefore, is perceived very concretely as a being-in-agreement with the apostles. A different unity is of no significance for the Bible writers….The unity is a very definite unity. The N.T. is not interested in unity ‘as such.’ Unity can be of all sorts: it can be purely human, even satanic. All depends on the centre around which it is being formed…The unity of the Church consists in the fact that together we conform to the apostles’ witness about Jesus Christ, as this has been transmitted to us in the N.T.”14 Does this mean that divergent views can never be allowed to co-exist side by side in the one church? I do not think so. There is indeed place for a variety of views, just as we see a wide variety of approaches and expressions in the N.T. itself. Yet there are definite limits. When the truth of the apostolic witness is gainsaid or rejected in its central affirmations, the N.T itself speaks the “anathema” (Gal. 1:8, 9) or it uses the qualification “antichrist” (I John 2:18; cf.4:1ff.)15

All this means, of course, that there is an enormous tension in the New Testament’s speaking of the unity of the Church. The relation between unity and truth can become so full of tension that a rupture is unavoidable. In the N.T. itself, as we have seen before, this rupture means the expulsion of the heretics. It does not know the situation of a church, in which error has obtained a legitimate place. And yet it speaks to our situation, for it makes it abundantly clear that not all unity is naturally scriptural and that not all separatedness is automatically sinful. It all depends on the vital questions: Is it a unity-in-the-truth?, and: Is it a separatedness for the sake of the c1car testimony of the Word of God? At this point every Evangelical cannot but agree· with the following statement: “Hateful as schism is, we are not prepared out of hand to condemn all past divisions in the Church as wholly sinful. In our judgement, for instance, the subsequent history of the R. C. Church has vindicated the action of the fathers of our Reformation in separating themselves from it, as it became clear that the Church of Rome was unwilling to be thoroughly reformed. If it be said that schism is always evil, it may be answered that unfaithfulness to the truth of God is yet more evil, and that men, if they are faced by two evils, must humbly and courageously choose that which seems to them the less.”16 Even the World Council of Churches admits that separation may be necessary in certain circumstances. The Final Report of Lund declared: “We arc all agreed that ‘tragic’ is not too strong a word to express the effect of these divisions; that they sometimes become necessary is sign of the presence of sin in the world.”17 18

1. Works of Martin Luther, Philadelphia. 1943, 111, 72, Cf. H. T. Kerr, A Compend of Luther’s Theology, 133/4.

2. Cf. The Report on Unity, New Delhi, Section 2.

3. The Fulness of Christ, 1950, 49.

4. Cf. Christianity Today, Vol. X, No. 24, p. 54.

5. Cf, e.g., Loon Morris, I Corinthians (Tyndale N.T. Comm.), 158. It is the same kind of thing as the divisions of verse 18.”

6. S. L. Greenslade, Schism in the Early Church, 1964 28. See the whole first chapter for the gradual fixation 01 the terms.

7. For a description of Separatist theology, see e.g., Geddes MacGregor, Corpus Christi, 1959, 14f.

8. Cf. Instit., IV, i. 18. Bullinger, however, saw a clear difference at this point between the O.T. and the N.T.

9. A. Lelievre, in Von Allmen’s Vocabulary of the Bible, 1961, 356. Cf. also G. Henton Davies, in A. Richardson’s A Theological Wordbook 01 the Bible. 1951, 191. “Strictly speaking, the Resurrection of our Lord is the end of the remnant idea…. The very paucity of references to the remnant in the N.T. shows that the resurrection has put the remnant into reverse.”

10. W. Elert, Eucharist and Church Fellowship in the First Four Centuries, 1966, 48.

11. Op. cit., 49.

12. In “Diversity in Unity,” Puritan Papers, 1963, 65.

13. Cf. for this section mr. article, “The Unity of the Church according to the N.T.,” The Reformed Theol. Review, Vol. XXII, No.3, Oct. 1963.

14. H. Berkhof. God, erie kerk en onze oete kerken (God’s one Church and our many churches), 1953, 18/ 19.

15. Cf. The Fulness of Christ, 8f.

16. Op. cit., 9.

17. Lukas Vischer. A Documentary History of the Faith and Order Movement (1927–1963), 1963, 97. —Underlining by us. We ourselves would prefer to speak of “presence of sin the church”!

18. In this section we have dealt with the Protestant view of division. The R. C. Church has a different view, because it has a different ecclesiology. It believes the infallibility and indefectibility of the church. Even after Vaticanum II this is still maintained by the “new theology,” although it has been slightly modified and lost some of its sharp edges. Cf. G. C. Derkouwer, The Vatican Council and the New Theology, 1965, 20l fF.; Hans Kueng, Structures of the Church, ]966, Ch. VIII; E. Schillebeeckx, O. P., Ecclesia semper purificanda, in Ex Auditu Verbi, Festschrift for G. C. Berkouwer, 1965,216ff.