Some Concerns with So Called “Secondary Separation”

Introduction

Let me start out by saying that this is a response to Dave Marriott’s blog post entitled Guarding What Is Primary: Second Degree Separation which was posted today on The Gospel Toolbox. But with that said, let me add that I say “response” for lack of betters words. “Response” makes it sound like I am arguing with him, which is not what I’m doing. (For all I know, he may agree with me!) I am more so continuing the conversation.

I appreciate Dave’s post for the fact that it begins to clarify what separation and “secondary separation” are in contrast to misconceptions. He defines these terms as follows:

Primary separation is separation from apostates (i.e. a denier of the [essentials or fundamentals of Historic] Christian Faith). Secondary separation is separation from those who fail to separate from apostates.[1]

Concerns

Now, technically “secondary separation,” at least as a term, is a Fundamentalist distinctive.[2] Therefore, my following comments and concerns pertain specifically to “secondary separation” as it exists in the Fundamentalist movement.

I am a conservative evangelical. And at the same time, in a very qualified sense, I believe in the concept of “secondary separation.” However, I disagree with what many (most?) Fundamentalists understand to be its implications and/or the way in which they practice “secondary separation.” I believe they err due to the follow reasons or in the following ways:

  • Separation, to actual mean anything, is an entirely practical reality; it is not hypothetical and abstract. Fundamentalists have a tendency to hypothetically separate, which practically just means bashing and slandering people. This is one of the ways “Fundamentalism” has become a negative and condescending term.
  • As separation is historically understood, it is separation over what is essential. Therefore, the concept of “secondary separation” immediately begs the question, “Is separation an essential?” In other words, is separation so essential that one must separate from people/organizations that don’t practice separation? “Secondary separation” assumes a positive answer to this question–yes. Now, in a sense I agree with this assumption; but my agreement depends on this issue–over what is one separating? But at the same time, in light of the fact that an assumption needs to be made to affirm the validity of “secondary separation” in any circumstance, I think we must be honest and admit that “secondary separation” is much harder to prove from scripture than “first degree separation.”
  • Fundamentalists often separate over secondary (non-essential) issues. I understand that this is not “secondary separation” itself; but it does affect Fundamentalists’ implementation of “secondary separation.” One could define the Fundamentalists’ typical practice of “secondary separation” as “separating from others who don’t separate over things which are not worth separating over.” (See the following points for further explanation of this claim.)
  • Fundamentalists have a tendency to miss the fact that separation (and conversely fellowship) exist on a continuum. This understanding is based on the idea that separation is the absence of fellowship, fellowship being described as having commonalty and being in partnership. Fellowship occurs in degrees; therefore, separation, the lack of fellowship, occurs in degrees. As a result, separation rightly practiced is frequently not in terms of “all” or “nothing.” However, Fundamentalists have a tendency to practice separation in these terms of “all” or “nothing,” when in fact degrees of separation ought to be practiced based on degrees of fellowship or lack thereof.
  • This point above affects “secondary separation” in significant ways. The effect(s) can be demonstrated by two rhetorical questions: 1) What degree of fellowship does the individual from whom I am separating have with the apostate/heretical individual or organization? And 2) In light of this, to what degree do I separate from this individual or organization? The answer to the first question must inform the answer to the second. Too often, for Fundamentalists, it doesn’t; the second question is answered with little or no thought given to the first question. This results in other errors I have mentioned, namely, the one directly above.
  • Therefore, in light of the point above, thinking in terms of “secondary separation,” is incorrect; and Biblically, it’s nonexistent. It is better to think of “secondary separation” from the vantage point of “first degree separation.” Thinking, why am I separating from this individual directly (“first degree separation”) helps one bypass many of the errors mentioned here. To leave the abstract and to enter the practical, often times “secondary separation” is an unneeded category. Why? I have a hard time believing that one who partners with apostates in inappropriate ways has sound theology himself. In other words, his fellowship  with apostates (at an improper level) is probably a manifestation of his or her own bad theology.
  • As more of an aside, the separation (and hence “secondary separation”) practiced by what I will call “mainline Fundamentalists” tends to be one directional; it tends to be geared towards liberals and evangelicals but not towards those within their own camp, those falling within Fundamentalism who have blatant and serious practical and theological errors. Sailing under the flag of “Fundamentalism” gives these individuals immunity from separation. This terrible inconsistency in Fundamentalism’s practice of separation has resulted in much damage to Fundamentalism as a whole. For this reason (among others), one could possibly say that I separate from Fundamentalism to a significant degree. I am practicing “secondary separation” due to their lack of separating from the “crazy Fundamentalists” (for lack of better words).

All of these errors are interdependent and impact/influence one another. Error in one area results in consequent errors in other areas. (Therefore, you may do well to re-read this list, paying careful attention to how these errors relate.)

Conclusion

So, again, I full-heartedly believe in the Biblical teaching of separation. I even believe in the concept of “secondary separation.” However, I believe its implications look a bit different than the way my Fundamentalist friends tend to practice it and talk about it. I guess I see the issue, on a practical level, as a bit more muddied and messy than the reductionism that Fundamentalists often propose and practice. And further, I don’t see degrees of fellowship and separation as incompatible; I see the two on a continuum, which I think is very important to do. You might safely call me a moderate, mild, balanced separatist or maybe even an ecumenically minded separatist (understanding both “separatist” and “ecumenical” in very qualified senses).

Notes

[1] For many of you, this idea of “secondary separation” as defined by Dave may seem odd and/or radical. If you are in that boat and this idea is quite unfamiliar to you, I recommend reading his article before you continue on from here, otherwise the rest of what I am about to say may not make much sense.

[2] However, I don’t think “secondary separation” in it’s proper implementation is distinctively Fundamentalist.

[3] This is one of the problem’s with Dave’s post;. He defines “separation” in terms of with whom one should separate; but he does not clearly define what “separation” actually is.

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