Our associations matter: Biblical study on when to stay and when to separate

By Elizabeth Prata

We live in the age of "tolerance". It's not the tolerance you and I might have grown up with. The Merriam Webster dictionary defines tolerance as
sympathy or indulgence for beliefs or practices differing from or conflicting with one's own, or : the allowable deviation from a standard
The issue in this decade is that in the secular world, liberals set the standard - and don't allow any deviation from it. They also do not display any sympathy for those who differ. (Not all of them, I'm not speaking of an absolute, but a generality common to many people). Sadly of late the same is happening in the Christian world. Liberal Christians, some truly saved and others who aren't, display the same attitude.

There are many reasons for this latter unfortunate circumstance. One of them, in my opinion, is that there is a throng of false teachers whose fetish in teaching is grace only, usually focusing on "love" to an extreme and never mentioning sin/repentance/wrath. After a decade or more of love-love-love, people have just as twisted understanding of what love is as they do the new version of tolerance.

That, in combination with a lack of ability or willingness to study and understand scripture, has brought forth a horde and a herd of folks ready to squash anyone whose understanding on these matters is biblically based on scripture.

This effect of the false teachers' teaching was brought home to me yesterday as I was having conversations on social media about the need to separate from some professing believers  at prescribed times is a matter of command and prescription. When you look at the myriad scriptures, there are actually quite a few situations when brethren are supposed to divide from other brethren, and even in some cases, the lost.

This fact was met with incredulity, horror, and anger as one after another of these women, and some men, pushed back against this notion. Sharing the scriptures does not resolve anything. It often actually makes them angrier. Many simply ignore the shared scriptures and resort to calling names.

So I thought I'd do a study on what the Bible says about our associations with other people, when to leave a brother alone. This is hopefully to show that as with many other circumstances in our earthly life as humans, the Holy Spirit has given us wisdom and understanding about our associations, friendships, and fellowship.

While it seems "unloving" or dare I say "intolerant" to separate from a brother, there are sometimes good reasons for it, as we'll see.

In many cases, when discerning brethren warn about this or that false teacher, the person will say, "Did you go to him?" meaning, did you have a private conversation with that public teacher before you said anything negative about his or her teaching? This refers back to Matthew 18. Going to a false teacher prior to critiquing his or her lessons is not necessary, because they are public teachers. The Matthew 18 verses are concerned with sinners in church.

It's baffling to think that they will cling to Matthew 18:15-17 in the first place but avoid the end result of that process just 3 verses later, which is separation. Her is the process for dealing with a sinning brother in church-

Step 1: If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother.

Step 2: But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed.

Step 3: If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church;

Step 4: and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.

The separation in this last step to treat them "as a Gentile and a tax collector" means-
In the narrative’s Jewish context, Gentiles and tax collectors would be regarded as outsiders. This instruction to cut ties with the unrepentant sinner is intended to remove sin from the local group of believers. Faithlife Study Bible (Mt 18:17), Barry, J. D.,
The individual person's involvement in this scenario is in step 1 and 2. When it gets to steps 3 and 4, it is the pastor's duty to make this judgment call, and the individual sister's onus to submit to the assessment of her leaders in church. You see the reason for this called-for separation; to prevent sin from spreading.

A little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough. (Galatians 5:9).

In another case of called-for separation, we see in 1 Corinthians 5:9, 11 of Paul that,

I wrote you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people;

But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one.

Paul expected them to disassociate with all who said they were brothers but had a consistent pattern of sin, particularly sexual sin. In the culture of the day eating with someone was a sign of acceptance. Therefore if breaking bread with a homosexual, an adulterer, fornicator etc it was a sign that their behavior was accepted by Christians, who otherwise called for holy living.

Paul said that sexual sin was a sin that brethren were not to tolerate, even to the point of breaking fellowship, because as he explains the verses in 1 Corinthians 6:15-19,
The believer's body is not only for the Lord here and now (v. 14), but is of the Lord, a part of His body, the church (Eph 1:22,23). The Christian's body is a spiritual temple in which the Spirit of Christ lives, therefore when a believer commits a sexual sin, it involves Christ with a harlot. All sexual sin is harlotry. (John MacArthur Study Bible note.)
So, that's pretty obvious why we are to separate.

Here is another example regarding the limits of Christian fellowship.

So when you are assembled and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, 5 hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord. (1 Corinthians 5:4-5).

This is the famous case of a man sleeping with his father's wife. The Corinthians were tolerating it. In today's parlance, were they trying to "be loving"? Would they think it "mean-spirited" to ostracize this man from their fellowship? Paul pulled no punches with what they were to do.

Satan is the ruler of this world, while Jesus is head of the Church. (Not that he isn't the ultimate Ruler). Since it was known that the man was engaged in sexual immorality to the point of incest, the Corinthians were to put him out where satan reigns. Turning a believer over to satan puts him back into the cold world to be on his own, apart from the care and support of Christian fellowship inside the warmth of the church, as John MacArthur explains in his commentary.
That person has forfeited the right to participation in the church of Jesus Christ, which He intends to keep pure at all costs. MacArthur, Commentary
As always, the goal is reconciliation. Making this shocking move would let the believing sinner know the limits of tolerance.

We have another example of separation in 2 John 1:8-11

Watch yourselves, that you do not lose what we have accomplished, but that you may receive a full reward. 9Anyone who goes too far and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God; the one who abides in the teaching, he has both the Father and the Son.if anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house, and do not give him a greeting; 11for the one who gives him a greeting participates in his evil deeds.

Here in this epistle John is giving limits to Christian hospitality. We are to separate from people who go beyond the teaching of Jesus. Do not even greet those who teach beyond what is written. Back then hospitality was important because there were no hotels, so traveling teachers lodged with believers.

John isn't prohibiting people from sharing the Gospel with unbelievers or the ignorant, or even those in cults and false religions. We always want to evangelize. But remain apart from and do not even welcome those false teachers, because welcoming them to your home affirms their teaching and gives them credibility. What we say is important but also what we do is equally important. Housing and welcoming false teachers who labor in the faith (to deceive followers) would confuse people and offer a massive stumbling block.

It might seem "unloving" to say that there comes a point where we don't offer the Gospel to a lost person but there are even limits to associating with the unsaved.

Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces. (Matthew 7:6)
Jesus' point is that certain truths and blessings of our faith are not to be shared with people who are totally antagonistic to the things of God. ... Jesus did not give all of his teaching to everyone who happened to be listening. (Matthew 11:25, 11:11-13). ... There will be times when the Gospel we present is absolutely rejected and ridiculed and we make the judgment to turn away and speak no more. JMac Commentary

We are given the same admonition in Matthew 10:14 where we are told to shake the dust off our feet and move on.

One commenter gives a word of caution though,
But while the indiscriminately zealous have need of this caution, let us be on our guard against too readily setting our neighbors down as dogs and swine, and excusing ourselves from endeavoring to do them good on this poor plea. Jamieson Faucett

Even Jesus closed His public ministry at a certain point, after He had given sign after sign and miracle after miracle and taught all the days long, and many were still questioning, demanding, and rejecting. So He closed it down and privately taught only the believers and eventual apostles. After His resurrection He only appeared to believers.

We have seen that with love and discernment, there are times to make a judgment call and separate from people who profess Christ but persist in unrepentant sin. Against the backdrop of the lovey tolerance of today, doing so seems harsh and cruel. But do we today care more about the feelings of the unrepentant professing believing rebel than the Savior who died to give us power by the Spirit to slay those sins?

Look at Acts 5:13,

But none of the rest dared to associate with them; however, the people held them in high esteem.

The watching pagans respected the followers of Jesus, but feared to join them. Why? Were they scary No, they were respected, not feared. The fear came because it was obvious that the followers were serious about sin and hypocrisy in the church. Ananias and Sapphira had just been smote. The followers were obviously part of something that was holy and pure. Bystanders respected their witness and were counting the cost of joining. Only serious sin-slayers need apply.

Nowadays people are encouraged to follow Jesus and bring their sin with them.

We love our neighbor in the next pew, yes, but loving that believer doesn't mean overlooking their sin. Sadly there are times and cases when separation from the believers we associate with is called for. With everything, do so cautiously, in love, and after study and prayer. Some of these situations are pretty clear and others are more gray. Err on the side of love, but remain strong in respecting biblical limits of associations and fellowship. We strive to be strong in both doctrine and life.