The Doctrine of Separation

Few Christians have had a greater reputation for unworldliness than have those from assemblies.  They have abstained from this, been separated from that and been uncooperative in the next worldly activity.  There is little doubt that some have found this approach too narrow and have left us in order to find greater freedom for indulgence in worldliness.

The question therefore arises, “Are we too strict in such matters?  Need we be so full of self denial?  Can we not have a little wordly pleasure?  Need I be the odd person out in the office, the class or the workshop?  Can I not participate a little in the their pursuits and pastimes?”  If it is merely a “brethren” tradition that dictates this attitude to life then we can discard it, but if it is God’s book that causes it then we are adopting a healthy approach from the spiritual point of view.

The writer is often amazed at how nominal Christian colleagues can behave in view of 1 Peter 4:3-4: “For the time past of our life may suffice us to have wrought the will of the Gentiles, when we walked in lasciviousness, lusts, excess of wine, revelling, banquetings... Wherein they think it strange that ye run not with them to the same excess of riot.”

The New Testament gives four simple rules to regulate the Christian’s relationships with the world.  (The word, ‘world’ is used with three meanings in the New Testament.  It means ‘the earth’ in John 1:10: “He was in the world, and the world was made by Him.”  It means ‘the world of men’ in John 3:16.  It means the ‘world-system’ as Dr. Schofield calls it or civilisation, and it is this sense in which it is being used in this article.)

First, the Christian is not expected by the Lord Jesus to be “of the world” (John 17.:14).  Second, the apostle Paul commands him not to to be conformed to this world (Romans 12:2).  Third, the same writer urges the believer not to abuse this world, i.e. not to use it to the full (1Corinthians 7:31).  Fourthly, the apostle John says, “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world”  (1 John 2:15).

The New Testament undoubtedly teaches that God and the world are opposites, and it is impossible to love both at the same time.  Equally it teaches that the former is fleeting and so it must be a tremendous mistake to love what is not going to last.

Anyone who is tempted to indulge in worldliness should read the book of Ecclesiastes.  The writer was a man with every opportunity to sample wordiness and his findings were utter disillusionment.  “Vanity of vanities,” as a summing up, simply means that wordiness leads nowhere.  The classic New Testament illustration of the same truth is the parable of the prodigal son.  It is the story of a young fellow who did not like the restraints of home.  He soon discovered the hard way that life in the far country was poverty-stricken and parched compared with life at home.  The Bible does not shunt us into a manner of life that suffers from the restrictions it seems to impose.  Rather does James call that tremendous boom “the perfect law of liberty” (James 1:25).  The truth is that it liberates us from the debasement, depravity and debauchery of earth leaving us free to soar to such heights that we can life the life of God.

The greatest exemplars of this truth are those choice Christians who have lived and died among us and whom we are inclined to call saintly.  They were noted for the light way in which they regarded the world.  There was never any question of them asking “What’s the harm in this?” but rather they inclined to lose desire for everything worldly because of the surpassing beauty of the Saviour which mad the thins of earth grow strangely dim.

It is related about the late Harold St. John that when converted he smoked a pipe and was fond of opera.  On conversation he continued his practices, not regarding them as harmful. Immediately he became a student of scripture.  Rising early each morning he would enjoy a quiet time with his Bible before setting out for the bank.  Heading for the station one morning his hand went instinctively to his pocket for his pipe when suddenly the thought entered his mind, “How can I enjoy a dirty old pipe after spending such a precious time with my Lord”  The pipe was thrown over the hedge and that was the end of the habit.

The first time an opera was staged in the city after Harold’s conversion he attended it as formerly, but did not enjoy it.  He dismissed the performance as being “off”  When this happened  second time Harold St. John began to wonder if it were opera or St. John that had changed.  He went a third time with no more enjoyment and concluded that it was not the opera that had changed but Harold St. John.  How fitting are the poet’s words:

“The joys of earth can never fill,  The heart that’s tasted of thy love.”

An extract from his diary quoted by his daughter in her biography of her father, says, “Read rubbish till 2 a.m.  Could I believe such animal folly when I am waiting for him?”

A missionary friend has a taped message in Mr. St. John’s voice telling of the occasion when he was encouraged to and hear “the Messiah”.  Having bought his ticket he thought he would slip along early to meet the cast before the performance.  Harold St. John’s saintly mind could only think of one way in which preparation could be made and that was by prayer.  When instead he found the moment in the cast making themselves up, the men smoking and telling doubtful jokes he tore his ticket up and went home.

In the same tape he says that if a Christian has finished his day’s work and performed his devotions he would not condemn him for a little relaxation but suggested this should always be in homeopathic dozes.

I suggest that this is how spiritual people would feel about worldly matters.

But this separation does not necessarily imply isolation  Admittedly it is so easy to the separated person to fall into such a trap.  “Not of the world” has been well illlustrated from the hospital ward.  The medical and nursing staff dare not become like their patients in their afflictions, but they ought to move among them for their benefit.  We can never help by joining them in their ploys but we can be by being available when needed.

The Newberry Bible inserts a marginal reading agains Exodus 33:16.  It suggests that the separated nature of God’s people made them distinguished.  This distilnction consisted on the one hand of the presence of God and on the other of the absence of things which characterised others.  How does freedom from corruption and vanity ever harm anybody


© Douglas Carr 2021