Several years ago, I attended the Evangelical Theological Society meeting in San Francisco, and in particular one session with a panel discussion on the book, Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism. Separation came up in the discussion, because that differentiates all other forms of evangelicalism from fundamentalism. I asked during the session where one book on biblical separation could be found anywhere in the mammoth book room for the ETS meeting. In general, evangelicals ignore what scripture says about separation, so when you do read something about it, it's worth taking note. How much will evangelicals rely on the Bible for their doctrine and practice? Is what Phil writes about it true? Does he represent what the Bible teaches about separation?
The James White and Michael Brown relationship and its interaction provide a case study for biblical separation. I'm not writing to get personal with Phil Johnson or James White. I see it as a great opportunity to think on God's Word about separation. Separation is found in every New Testament epistle and all over the Old Testament.
Phil Johnson divides his article into main points. First, he deals with the friendship of James White and Michael Brown. He is not troubled that James White and Michael Brown are friends, because, he says, Michael Brown needs better, more scriptural friends. It's worth considering. What is the relationship between fellowship and friendship? How are they different? Can you be friends and yet not be in fellowship with someone?
At the beginning of his second point, Phil says that he doesn't tell his friends who they should and shouldn't be friends with. Is that the biblical thing to do? Phil offers no scriptural guidance for his dogmatic statement. I would deal with friends over whom they're friends with, because they're my friends. Several passages all over the Bible forbid ungodly associations (cf. 2 Sam 13:3; Ps 1:1, 101:3, 139:21-22; Prov 22:24; 1 Cor 15:33; Eph 5:11; James 4:4). Friendship doesn't just relate to us, but it also relates to God. In 1 Corinthians 10:24, Paul writes, "Ye cannot drink the cup of the Lord, and the cup of devils." What or whom you associate with does matter to God.
Phil says second, "I deplore hyper-separatism almost as much as I hate ecumenism." Ecumenism is a technical term with a lot written about it, while hyper-separatism is not. Both terms need definition. I've found him to provide anecdotes of hyper-separatism, often hypotheticals and straw men. It would help to know what scripture says about separation and unity (like we have laid out in our book, A Pure Church). Phil's first reference to scripture is to justify friendship with sinners from Luke 7:34. Verses 33-34 say:
For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine; and ye say, He hath a devil. The Son of man is come eating and drinking; and ye say, Behold a gluttonous man, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners!The "ye" of these two verses, the commentators upon John and Jesus, were the Pharisees. The Pharisees called Jesus a "friend of sinners." That doesn't mean He was a friend of sinners. If Jesus was a friend of sinners, was He also a glutton, winebibber, and, did John the Baptist also have a devil? Because Jesus cared for unsaved people and evangelized them, the Pharisees attacked him as being sinner's friend. What we know is that He cared for and evangelized sinners. We don't have any actual examples of the Lord Jesus being friends with unsaved people. We should not justify friendship with all manner of doctrinal perversion and unbelievers by what the Pharisees said about Jesus -- that is a fallacious application of that passage. It also clashes with other teaching in the Bible, which cautions believers about their friendships.
If a Pharisee asked me to eat with him, like Jesus, I would, and, like Jesus, with a purpose to evangelize. That doesn't make the Pharisee and I friends. The Apostle Paul distinguishes between who we should and shouldn't socialize with in 1 Corinthians 5, treating professing believers different than unbelieving people. Scripture teaches us that we shouldn't socialize with everyone. We should try to help people follow what the Bible says about separation. 1 Corinthians 5 isn't talking about even friendship, but about socializing with someone. It matters even who you socialize with, let alone who you are friends with.
According to Phil, "Dr. White stated that critics have been telling him, 'You have to separate yourself from anybody that you have disagreements with when it comes to theology.'" I've heard James White enough, that I don't believe him. He's striking a straw man as he so often does, and also is treating his criticism like he's persecuted. I've never heard anyone say what he claims they have in my entire life. I think you've got to be about as gullible as you can be to believe that critics, plural, have been saying that to James White -- "anybody that you have disagreements with when it comes to theology."
I would happy for anyone to show me one person who separates over every theological disagreement, even among the mystery group, the "hyper-separatists," what Phil describes as those "who seem to relish conflict and treat every disagreement as an excuse to fire off anathemas." This doesn't exist as a problem. The word "seem" probably gives Phil a semi-truck of deniability. Who in the world treats every disagreement as an excuse to fire off anathemas? I've never met one, except that Phil would probably categorize me as one. Phil needs to do better than that for this to be a realistic discussion of fellowship and separation. Anathemas are in the Bible in Galatians 1 or in 1 Corinthians 16 and they are reserved for those who preach a false gospel and those who love not the Lord Jesus Christ.
Whatever type of friendships Phil Johnson has, his own experience can't serve as a basis for friendship. Is there any line to be drawn on friendship? The way Phil talks, there isn't any. That is dangerous teaching (which is different than saying anathema to the teaching). What are the limitations? Would a modern day Nadab and Abihu, offerers of strange fire, be fine friends? Cain, post murder of Abel? You might work with Korah, but should you be friends with him? At what point are you complicit with someone's false teaching or conduct? Maybe you're not offended with someone as a friend, but is God? Life is not all about you. If someone is your friend, couldn't he influence you, and you don't even know it? Are you not also subject to possible deceit? What does scripture say?
Phil Johnson focuses on a very narrow teaching and application of separation, that is, "we are forbidden by Scripture to partner with or promote someone who comes in Christ's name and perverts or rewrites the gospel (Galatians 1:8-9; 2 John 7-11)" [underlining his]. The Bible has far more to say about separation than that. It does teach that, but not in contradiction to the other several teachings about separation in the New Testament. That's how Johnson communicates this issue, as if the teaching in those two passages has drained all the Bible says on the subject. Phil knows of 2 Thessalonians 3:6, 14:
Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us. . . . And if any man obey not our word by this epistle, note that man, and have no company with him,, that he may be ashamed.Among others, why not list those verses and their teaching too? They apply to White and Brown and separation, and there are other passages too.
Hyper-separation seems to be any separation that is more than Phil's separation. For years, I've noticed that's how both Phil and James White roll on separation. Hyper should be something unscriptural, adding to scripture in some way. We know God separated from everyone on earth except for Noah and his family. Is that hyper separation? The concern should be over biblical separation. If someone obeys scripture on separation, he is not a hyper-separatist. If someone is not a biblical separatist, is he an ecumenist? What matters, what should matter, is that we are obedient to God and His Word.