The principle or practice of separation has never been popular. It was not popular in ancient Israel, and it certainly is not popular for many Christians today, yet it is a crucial factor in living for God. Moreover, separation is critical in how our children turn out after us. There are several thoughts regarding separation that every Christian should consider.
1. The Foundational Principle
The Bible says in 1 Peter 1:15–16, “But as he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation; Because it is written, Be ye holy; for I am holy.” Peter was quoting from Leviticus 11:45–46. The Hebrew word for holy essentially meant to be set apart or separated from that which is impure. Therefore, the concept of separation is inherent in the greater principle of holiness. We have been called to be holy in our lives even as our heavenly Father is holy. That requires a separated life.
2. The Scriptural Precepts
The concept of separation is found throughout God’s Word. It is the practical outworking of being holy. Consider these four passages of Scripture:
Psalm 1:1 says, “Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.” The magnificent book of Psalms begins with three negatives: walking not in the counsel of the ungodly, standing not in the way of sinners, and sitting not in the seat of the scornful. In essence, God has promised blessing for those who get out of the world. This can be simply summarized in the word separation.
Romans 12:2 also says, “And be not conformed to this world.” The thought is to not allow the world to shape our thoughts, values, philosophies, morals, entertainment, or lifestyle. Separation from the world is clearly in view. Moreover, it is a New Testament mandate. This directive is in the imperative mode. If there is one area of life which Christians are often in violation of New Testament commands, it is in allowing themselves to be conformed to this world.
Second Corinthians 6:17 says, “Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you.” Once again, here is a New Testament imperative—a command, orders from headquarters. The word them in the immediate context refers to unbelievers. Unbelievers are the essence of the world system. Notice further that it is the Lord Himself who so ordered this. We are directly commanded by our Lord Himself to be separate from the world and all its impurity.
First John 2:15–16 says, “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world.” Once again we find a clear imperative to distance ourselves from the world. Where Christian people have problems not so much in loving the world itself as they do in loving the things of the world. Those things often are the entertainments of the world, the music of the world, and the “cool” factor of the world.
The principle and imperative of separation are thus clearly and forcefully set forth in Scripture. Separation from the world, therefore, becomes an issue of obedience to Christ. God has clearly ordered us to separate from the world. Our duty is to obey that commandment.
3. Israel’s Precedent
From the perspective of hindsight, the Old Testament is one long history of Israel ignoring God’s command to separate from the culture and influence of the world of that day. In Exodus 33:16, Moses said to God, “For wherein shall it be known here that I and thy people have found grace in thy sight? is it not in that thou goest with us? so shall we be separated, I and thy people, from all the people that are upon the face of the earth.” From day one, Israel was to be a people who were separated from their ungodly neighbors.
Sadly, Israel ignored God’s mandate to separate. For centuries they rubbed shoulders with the Moabites, Amorites, Hittites, assorted Canaanites, Ammonites, Zidonians, and other people groups of the world in that era.
We know that God ultimately dispersed Israel and Judah out of their land for idolatry. But where did they pick up the idolatry of Baal or Ashtoreth worship, not to mention the abomination of Molech? They picked it up because of their lack of separation from their idolatrous neighbors. The history of Israel across the Old Testament era is that of their compromise of separation and the idolatry which followed. God then pled, warned, and threatened judgment for their sin. But it all started when Israel compromised the principle and command to separate from the world of their day. There is a profound example left for us in their precedent.
4. Day-to-Day Practice
My father was a pastor for approximately fifty years. Over the years, I heard him use the illustration of a stagecoach company in the American West advertising for drivers.
Men came from everywhere to apply for the job. The foreman asked the first man, “How close to the edge of the cliff can you drive the stagecoach as you go around the mountain?
The applicant replied, “I believe I can drive the stagecoach within three feet of the edge of the cliff and still be in control of the horses.” The foreman said he would consider his application.
The next man replied, “I can drive within eighteen inches of the cliff without losing control.”
The third man replied, “I would drive as far from the edge of the cliff as I could.”
He got the job.
The application is obvious. We ought to keep as far from the world as we can in our everyday life. Separation is very practical.
The world’s allure is enticing. Romans 12:2 directs us not to be “conformed to this world.” As a pastor for forty-eight years, I have watched numerous parents have one foot in the world and the other foot in the church. They allowed the entertainments, attractions, and dress of the world to influence their family. Sadly, in most cases, their children wound up actively pursuing the world by the time they were young adults. In some cases, the adolescent or young-adult children from these families became involved in deep moral sin and some even in trouble with the law.
On the other hand, I have observed Christian families who were very consistent in seeking to be separated from the world and keeping it as far as possible from their children. Their children tended to grow up to serve the Lord and were godly examples. There are practical considerations for living a separated life.
The world’s music is alluring. Music is spiritual in nature; it is the universal language of the human spirit. The music of the world “syncs” with our old nature. Nothing will keep a born-again Christian in the flesh more than listening to the world’s music. And as a Christian walks in the flesh, the gateway for any kind of sin is open. But it feeds our sin nature—the flesh. It does not really matter if we happen to like music in the world. What does matter is doing what is right rather than doing what we want. That is the essence of Christian character. “Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:19).
5. The Way of Sinners
Carnal Christians like to look the way people in the world do. Years ago when it was the style for men to wear long hair, many Christian young men let their hair grow long, ignoring the instruction of 1 Corinthians 11:14. They wanted to look the way popular characters in the world looked.
Some Christians condone social drinking; the neo-reformed movement even encourages it. I can think of nothing which is more quintessential of the world than drinking alcoholic beverages. “Wine is a mocker, strong drink is raging: and whosoever is deceived thereby is not wise” (Proverbs 20:1). “And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18).
I began my college career in a secular university. One day in a college-level chemistry class, the professor was discussing various types of alcohol, strictly on their chemical properties. He discussed the chemical property of methyl alcohol versus ethyl alcohol. Ethyl alcohol is the type found in beverage alcohol, but methyl alcohol (or wood alcohol) is a deadly poison. Should one drink methyl alcohol, he will be dead or blind by morning. A student raised his hand and asked the professor why methyl alcohol was a poison and ethyl alcohol was not. The professor replied, “They are both poisons. One just works faster than the other.”
More crime, accidents, immorality, and sin in general take place when someone is “under the influence.” “Who hath woe? who hath sorrow? who hath contentions? who hath babbling? who hath wounds without cause? who hath redness of eyes? They that tarry long at the wine” (Proverbs 23:29–30a) But apart from this, there is an even more basic principle of separation from the world. With whom do you want to identify?
Perhaps the most subtle influence upon Christians is the way we think. Many Christians know better than to drink alcohol or commit adultery, but few consider their mind as a portal for worldliness. What we allow to enter our minds will determine the decisions we make.
Are we more like the world or less like it? Separation has never been popular. The injunction of 1 Peter 1:16 still remains: “Be ye holy; for I am holy.” A major avenue toward that end is separation from the world and from its influences.