A Christian is under the constant tension of being a citizen of two worlds. Paul said our citizenship is in heaven; yet had practical things to say about earthly rulers and our relationships to them. He counseled the Christians of Corinth not to marry because the persecutions ahead would make family living difficult, yet told another Greek church at Ephesus that wives should reverence their husbands, and husbands should love their wives. He practiced and preached an “other worldliness” in which one finds his satisfaction in the spiritual life, yet he illustrated that life in his letters by many references to the athletic events of his day, indicating a familiarity with them on his part and on the part of his readers.

The whole Christian movement shows this same tension. When our Lord taught about the kingdom of God, his opponents tried to impale him upon the horns of the dilemma of paying or not paying taxes to Rome, whereupon he asked for a coin. He asked whose image was on it, and they answered, “Caesar’s.” Then he who was the express image of God said, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and unto God what is God’s.” Keeping a proper relationship between the two has always been difficult for those who bear the family name of Heaven, yet whose Lord prayed, “I do not pray that thou shouldst take them out of the world, but that thou shouldst keep them from the evil one … as thou didst send me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” (John 17:15, 18). Keep this last statement in mind, as we shall endeavor to see some of its significance later.

The Ideal And The Relative

And so the tension has always been with us, caused by the ideal in a relative situation. For example, ideally a Christian would be an absolute pacifist, yet Cornelius the Centurion was not required to give up his soldier’s career to become a Christian. In any generation, war has been against the Christian conscience and yet the very paying of taxes to Caesar’s budget, or to Eisenhower’s, involves the Christian in a substantial support of the machinery of war.

In all of this, what is Christian separation? How can the Christian be in the world and not of it? The tension has found expression in various ways within the body of Christ. There have been those devoted souls who have gone to prison and death because they believed in “friendly persuasion” and would not fight, yet no objective observer would deny the sincere Christian faith of a General Montgomery or a General Sir Wm. Dobbie, or a General Douglas MacArthur. And General Eisenhower as a Christian President prepares for any eventuality, but becomes one of the greatest influences in our generation toward removing the causes of war.

Article continues below

Surely there is sincerity in the sacrifice of a St. Francis of Assisi who, for Christ’s sake, remains unmarried. But it is equally certain that more of the Christian faith has been passed on through Godly homes than through Godly monasteries.

On Worldly Pleasures

But this tension of Christian separation finds most of us run-of-the-mill Christians at the point of our participation in what some have called “worldly pleasures.” Here again there have been extremes in the church of Christ. On the one hand there have been those who have emphasized their “separateness” from the world by extreme asceticism in dress and manner, and a refusal to participate in anything which by their definition was “worldly.” On the other hand, men like Spurgeon, one of the greatest preachers of all time, and G. Campbell Morgan, one of the greatest Bible expositors of all time, each smoked “to the glory of God.” (Of course, the relation of smoking and lung cancer was unknown to them.)

Furthermore, many times those who are most rigid in their rules regarding separation are quite un-Christ-like in their attitudes toward people. And the monk finds that worldliness pursues him even in the rigors of his severely simple cell and in the disciplines of his holy orders.

What is Christian separation, then, in the realm of actual living—especially in matters of fellowship and fun? Is everything that gives pleasure wicked? Is it true, as one cynic remarked, that everything that is fun is either sinful, expensive, or fattening? Where can the lines be drawn? Let us lay aside our family or church mores for the moment. Let us set aside our personal prejudices, and examine the bases upon which the question can be decided objectively: What is Christian separation? What are the principles involved?

Specific Commands

First, we know that there are some things which are always right for an individual Christian or for the church of Christ. It is always right to tell the truth, to love God, and to love one’s neighbor. These are specific commands of God, and it is always right to fulfill them.

Second, there are some things that are always wrong for a Christian. It is always wrong to take the name of our Lord in vain, to bear false witness, to sow dissension or a party spirit. There are specific commands of God against such things, and therefore it is always sinful to do them.

Article continues below

However, in between what is commanded as always right and what is forbidden as always wrong there is a “no-man’s land” which is not governed by law, but guided by principle. This is a nonmoral realm where there is no clear command of God, and where the conscience of one sincere Christian may differ from that of another sincere Christian. Shall a Christian go to a show, or play cards, or dance? There is no clear command of God saying “Thou shalt” or “Thou shalt not.”

It is in this realm that we must be led by the Holy Spirit, not according to specific rules, but according to general principles.

In Romans 14:1–15:6 Paul sets forth those principles as:

1) Do not judge another in this realm (14:1–12). Until one abides by this first principle, he has not the humility to discover God’s will at all. “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another?” (v. 4). It is not for us to say that another is either “worldly” or “narrow.” “It is before his own Master that he stands or falls” (v. 4).

2) Do not endanger another (14:13–21). A Christian has liberty in this non-moral realm. But liberty is not license. Christian love limits Christian liberty. “If your brother is being injured by what you eat (or do) you are no longer walking in love” (v. 15). Good judgment is required here, of course, or the narrowest view of the most immature Christian would become the standard for the whole church.

3) Whatever is against your own conscience is sin to you (14:22–23). “He who doubts is condemned, if he eats, because he does not act from faith; for whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (v. 23). The Holy Spirit as the direction points, and the conscience as the needle, make the only compass we have in this realm. One must be careful that the needle is not deflected by his own willfulness, or by the conditioning of an unenlightened background.

4) Do everything to the glory of God (15:1–6), “… that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 6). The Christian is the temple of the Holy Spirit. Within that temple should be a perpetual paean of praise to God.

Use Of Proof-Texts

This brings us closer to the answer to the question: What is Christian separation?

At this point, caution is needed in the familiar practice of quoting “proof-texts” one way or another. A limb of Scripture cut off from the tree of its context can become a handy club to use on those who differ with us, but in the process loses its life and its ability to provide fruit and shade for a weary pilgrim. And it does violence to the tree of God’s revelation as a whole. For example, the writer has heard the text, “Come ye out and be ye separate. Touch not the unclean thing” (2 Cor. 6:17) used as an admonition against “things of the world,” or against remaining in a given denomination, or against being a part of the ecumenical church. Actually, the context (2 Cor. 6:14–18) reveals that Paul is referring to the Christian’s relation to the immoral pagan worship of Corinth. It is interesting to note here that in spite of all that was wrong with the Corinthian church, Paul nowhere urges the Christians of Corinth to be “come-outers.”

Article continues below

Another proof-text one hears in connection with Christian separation is “Love not the world, or the things that are in the world” (1 John 2:15). Surely it is an important admonition, but the context (vs. 16–17) reveals John is talking about attitudes within us rather than atmosphere around us. Because the Bible says that the love of money is the root of evil does not indicate that we are to have nothing to do with money.

Life Situations

Thus Biblical truth is best unfolded not in proof-texts, but in life situations. In the New Testament we see two illustrations of separation. First, there was the separation of John the Baptist, which one may designate as physical separation. He lived apart from people, ate different food, and wore different clothes. His only contact with people was to condemn them. Second, there was the separation of Jesus Christ, who, we must admit, was at least as holy as John the Baptist. Yet Christ’s first miracle was turning water into actual wine (better than the host had served) at a wedding feast which lasted several days and which had its share of fun and frolic. Later, He attended a banquet given by Matthew in his honor with some unsavory characters as fellow guests whose language and humor were probably not too sanctified. He did not physically separate himself from them, but his separation was spiritual. He could participate in the activities and the fun, but was not thereby lowered in his spiritual life.

He was what he was, wherever he was. His spiritual life was positive, and contagious, rather than negative and defensive.

Surely Christians are to be followers of Christ, rather than the Baptist. We are to be thermostats, rather than thermometers. We are not to be lowered by the temperature around us, nor kept in a hothouse where the temperature is just right. But we are given the Holy Spirit, so that when we are in contact with the world we draw upon God’s power to raise the temperature of our environment. If we do not have adequate resources for this, then we must resort to physical separation; but this is an evidence of spiritual impotence, rather than spiritual sanctification.

Article continues below
Danger Of Legalism

Remember, we are speaking of the nonmoral realm—the area in which God has given no clear command. Certainly we should not go beyond God in our zeal in these matters, and begin laying down rules for others. Yet it is a strange fact in the Christian church that often evangelicalism in doctrine has been associated with legalism in practice. As soon as an individual Christian or a church moves into the realm of legalism, there is no limit nor consistency possible. The following examples are taken from the experiences of the writer: Shall it be consistent with spirituality to wear a red tie? or lipstick, or jewelry? or to listen to popular music; or see a motion picture? or look at television, or use oblong pieces of pasteboard that have one pattern on them and are called rook cards, but not another pattern and are called bridge cards, although the principle of the two games is the same? Or for a group of young people to play “Birdie on the Perch” because it is called a game, but not the Virginia reel because it is called a “dance,” although both are done with music, and the former has far more physical contact than the latter? Or to go on a hayride, but not a hoe-down, because the first is a ride and the second is a “dance,” although any chaperone will be quick to declare that the ride is far more apt to lead to undesirable consequences than the wholesome activity of folk games.

Questions Of Conscience

Or is it the location of a pastime that makes it sanctified or unsanctified? (Remember, we are still in the realm of questions of conscience—not of morals.) Is the square dance (or folk game) wrong because it is under secular auspices, and held outside of the social hall of a church building? Or does that make it right?

Or is the activity wrong because it is worldly? Then who shall decide what is or is not worldly? Is it worldly to go to a show, but not to go to a basketball or football game? Yet there is often drinking, smoking, and betting going on at such athletic contests. Are those things worldly? Is it worldly to eat Sunday dinner during the summer on one’s own patio? Then does it become worldly when one doesn’t have a patio, so eats in a park—because that becomes a picnic?

Article continues below

It should be obvious by now that to become legalistic in questions of conscience is to become as hopelessly enmeshed in the net of private judgment as the Pharisees of Christ’s day—who interpreted the law of the Sabbath by their own regulations and thus destroyed its spirit. Because of their preconceived prejudices, they missed the meaning of the ministry of the Messiah. (Read carefully John’s Gospel, chapter seven.)

Instead of legalism, God gives his Holy Spirit (John 7:37–39) that we should make all of life an expression of his life. And the fruit of the Spirit is love—against such there is no law (Gal. 5:22, 23).

In other words, the Christian life is the expression of the law of love and humility. It was Pharisaical legalism that put Christ upon the cross and it crucifies him afresh today.

On the other hand, love limits Christian liberty (1 Cor. 8). My liberty as a Christian is not a license to hurt the Body of Christ. Although all things in this nonmoral realm are lawful unto me, not all things are expedient. Christian maturity seeks to build up, rather than destroy the church. But both legalism and license destroy rather than build.

Thus, Christian separation is to be like Christ, who was what he was, wherever he was, and who epitomized attractiveness, understanding, kindness and good fellowship, consistent with a beauty of holiness which made God real in every situation.

L. David Cowie is minister of University Presbyterian Church, Seattle, Washington. He is a member of the Board of Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.