The Sin of Secondary Separation



God desires His people to be holy.

We read repeatedly in Scripture we are to be holy because God is holy (Lev. 11:44; 20:26; Matt. 5:48; 1 Pet. 1:16).  We are “a people for His own possession” (Titus 2:14; 1 Pet. 2:9) and because we are God’s, we are not of the world (John 15:19; 17:14). Because we are not of the world, we are to reject worldliness (Jas. 1:27; 1 John 2:15-17).

But, to what lengths do we go to reject worldliness?

Certainly, we are to be willing to pluck out eyes and cut off hands if they cause us to stumble! The apostle Paul says “if you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Rom. 8:13). Our warfare against our own sinful flesh must be constant, aggressive, and murderous.

But, what about our interactions with others?

Historically, the Fundamentalist movement did many good things for conservative Christianity. In an age when modernism and liberalism were rampant in culture and gaining ground in the church, biblical stalwarts like B.B. Warfield, A.C. Dixon, R.A. Torrey, and J. Gresham Machen contended earnestly for the Faith, holding fast to the fundamentals of Christianity.

However, as the movement progressed into the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, Fundamentalism began to turn in on itself. Christians who were accustomed to fighting with liberals and modernists soon began fighting with one another.

According to historian David O. Beale, Fundamentalism entered into an era of “separatism” by 1930. The rationale for separation was Fundamentalism’s striving “to achieve ecclesiastical purity by attempting to force the modernists out of the mainline denominations.”[1] When that endeavor failed, “Fundamentalists began… to practice holiness by separating themselves from their denominations, which they now regarded as beyond salvaging because they were controlled by liberals and tolerant conservatives.”[2]

The push for separation became so strong, that Fundamentalists were soon starting to practice “‘second-degree separationism’: separation from other Fundamentalists who would not separate, even though they might agree on all else.”[3] They built their lives on separationism, claiming that “God wants good separators.”[4] There is even a story told,

“How in 1978 Fundamentalist Wendell Mullen condemned John R. Rice because Rice had supported Jerry Falwell, who had sinned by standing next to Warren Wiersbe, who had approvingly quoted Helmut Thielicke, who was not an inerrantist.”[5]

Separation became such a part of Fundamentalism, that, for new conservative denominations, “segregation from modernism was required; for them it became a critical test of orthodoxy.”[6]

While unique situations like that of Charles Spurgeon and J. Gresham Machen led to an act of separation from their erring denominations, Fundamentalism as a whole seemed to make separatism a requirement for the Christian life. Bob Jones III has said “To be a Fundamentalist one must be a complete separatist, fully in compliance with scriptural standards, and an example of obedience to the commands of God.”[7]

The extreme practice of “second-degree separation”—separation from other Fundamentalists who are unwilling to separate from non-Fundamentalists—demonstrates not only a spirit of rampant divisiveness, but also a profound lack of love. Instead of seeking to be “salt” and “light” in the world, Fundamentalism rejected, not only the world, but other Christian brothers and sisters with whom they did not agree, labeling them as “enemies.”

There are many Christians today who engage in secondary separation with other Christian believers. In some cases, they may even practice tertiary, quaternary, or even quinary separation! At times, it can feel like Christians are playing “Six Degrees of Separation”—separating from friends of friends of friends of friends of people who they deem to be less-than-godly.

Is this right?

When Paul heard word of the rampant sin taking place in the Corinthian church, he quickly fired off a letter, denouncing their sinful practices. In First Corinthians 5:9, he tells the church, “I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people”. However, he immediately clarifies the sentiment with, “I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters; for then you would have to go out of the world.”

For the Corinthian believers to seclude themselves from all interactions with those who were immoral, it would be a foolish impossibility. Further, no one inside the church had any business condemning unbelievers, since it was God’s job (v. 13).

Even the Lord Jesus spent most of His time with sinful, immoral, and worldly people (Matt. 9:10-13; Mark 2:13-17; Luke 5:30; 15:2). In fact, Jesus spent so much time with sinners, He was actually accused of being “a gluttonous man and a drunkard, a friend of tax-gatherers and sinners” (Matt. 11:19; cf. Luke 7:34). If the Christian life was meant to be marked by secondary separation from sinners, Jesus failed to do it.

In fact, Jesus told His followers:

“You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do men light a lamp, and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand; and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” (Matt. 5:13-16)

We are to be light and love in the Lord (Eph. 5:2, 8), bearing the fruit of “goodness and righteousness and truth” (v. 9)—all for the purpose of winning others to Jesus Christ (see 1 Cor. 9:19-22). In fact, by our conduct and deeds, we are to make the gospel beautiful to unbelievers (Titus 2:10).

Immoral, worldly people are not to be avoided, but engaged. They are our mission.

If we are not to withhold ourselves from engaging with immoral unbelievers, what about believers? Paul’s exhortation to the Corinthians was “not to associate with any so-called brother if he should be an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler—not even to eat with such a one.” (1 Cor. 5:11) It seems clear here, then, that he is referring to those who claim to be believers, yet live in open rebellion to God.

Further, it must also be assumed that the church has gone through the process outlined for us by our Lord in Matthew 18:15-17 to deal with a person caught in sin. Notice that after the church has gone to the erring brother, the command is given to treat them “as a Gentile and a tax-gatherer.” (v. 17) But this all precludes the notion that actual sin has been committed and the so-called believer is stubbornly unrepentant.

What about engaging with Christians who are simply less-moral, less-godly, or immature?


Again, Paul tells the Roman church to, “Accept the one who is weak in faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgment on his opinions” (Rom. 14:1). It is the mark of maturity to bear with weaker believers in hopes of helping them grow in Christlikeness (Rom. 15:1; Gal. 6:2; 1 Thess. 5:14). Instead of pushing less-than-sanctified believers away from us in contempt, we are to come alongside them and seek to sharpen them (Prov. 27:17). Paul even rebukes would-be separators, “But you, why do you judge your brother? Or you again, why do you regard your brother with contempt?” (Rom. 14:10).

We even see a flesh-and-blood example of such a rebuke for separationism from Paul in Galatians 2:11-21. Peter is withholding himself from fellowship with Gentile believers, out of fear of the uber-religious Jews from Jerusalem, and Paul “opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned” (11) Paul actually condemns such Judaistic legalism, in essence, calling it anti-gospel (see v. 16). The Gentiles were not sinning in any way, but Peter was treating them as second-class believers because they didn’t adhere to his standard of religiosity.

The real error in secondary separation is that it lacks love for others. It skimps on compassion. It hinders fellowship and stunts true spiritual growth. In the same way the Pharisees sought to “build a fence around the law” by creating extraneous man-made laws, separationist commit the same error by attempting to build a fence around themselves—an imaginary fence of “holy people” who act as a human shield against sinful people.

But the problem is: there’s no such thing as “holy people” apart from the grace of God in Christ Jesus. There isn’t a special class of super-Christians who are better than everyone else. All of us are growing, seeking spiritual maturity. All of us need to exist in a constant state of humility, repentance, and faith. All of us need mercy.

Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for their mercilessness. Matthew 23 records His scathing rebuke of their savage and loveless behavior toward the people of Israel. Jesus indicted them on many counts, of which was that they would “tie up heavy loads, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger” (v. 4). In their religious elitism, they had “neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness” (v. 23). For the religious leaders of Israel, who saddled people with man-made standards of righteousness, our Lord had nothing for them but condemnation.

Beloved, let us never fall into the same sin of saddling others with our own standard of righteousness. If a brother or sister sins, “you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness” (Gal. 6:1). Instead of getting angry and heaping judgment on another believer, step forward and minister to them in gentleness, in hopes of winning them over.

But secondary separation, while assuming sin can somehow be imputed from one person to another through osmosis, is not the spirit in which we are to handle ourselves as Christians. After all, Christ was adamant that we cannot be defiled by things (and people) outside ourselves; it is “out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders. These are the things which defile a man” (Matt. 15:19-20), but to associate with a person who associates with another person who knows a heretic; that is nothing.


[1] David O. Beale, In Pursuit of Purity. (Greenville: Unusual Publications, 1986), 7.

[2] Ibid., 8.

[3] George M. Marsden, Reforming Fundamentalism. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 286. E.J. Carnell smartly remarked, “When there are no modernists from which to withdraw, fundamentalists compensate by withdrawing from one another.” (Edward John Carnell, The Case for Orthodox Theology. CreateSpace Independent Publ., 117)

[4] Joel A. Carpenter, Revive Us Again: The Reawakening of American Fundamentalism. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 59.

[5] George W. Dollar, The Fight for Fundamentalism: American Fundamentalism, 1973-1983 (Sarasota FL: self-published, 1983), 133.

[6] Carpenter, Revive Us Again, 46.

[7] Fisher Humphreys and Philip Wise, Fundamentalism. (Macon: Smyth & Helwys, 2004), 25.