In our Lent series on contending for the faith, Lee Gatiss looks at the command to separate ourselves from the world. The whole series is also available as a video podcast on our YouTube channel.
In 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1, we have a passage that is often used to urge people to leave their churches or denominations. Paul writes,
“Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said,
‘I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them,
and I will be their God,
and they shall be my people.
Therefore go out from their midst,
and be separate from them, says the Lord,
and touch no unclean thing;
then I will welcome you,
and I will be a father to you,
and you shall be sons and daughters to me,
says the Lord Almighty.’
Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God.”
This is strong, binary language. It speaks to what our partnerships and associations ought to be, so one can see why some think it is about pursuing doctrinal purity and leaving apostate churches. However, as Paul Barnett rightly says, “There is no call here, as is often claimed, for Christian to separate from Christian for doctrinal or ethical reasons.” It is about “separation from paganism” and not “withdrawal from Christians with whom doctrinal differences exist.”
The distinction in verse 15 is between a believer and an unbeliever. The “going out from their midst” is not so much a physical departure, a ghettoisation, or a secession from a bad institutional affiliation as such, but a spiritual departure, i.e. “go out spiritually by not following their life” (as Thomas Aquinas put it). That’s why Paul himself concludes “Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God” (2 Corinthians 7:1). He does not conclude, “Start a new purer church.”
What Paul wants is for those who have imported aspects of a pagan worldview into their Christianity, to repent of this. He is not telling those who haven’t, to give up on “the church of God that is at Corinth” (1:1) and walk away to form “The Real Church of Corinth.” He calls for the Corinthians to realise they can’t be both believers and unbelievers at the same time; they must take a decisive step out of the world (the sphere of darkness, Belial, lawlessness) and throw their lot in with Christ, righteousness, and light. He is not talking about separating from false believers or errant Christians, but separating from Babylon, the world, the Gentile cults of Corinth and their corrosive morality.
This is not a call for secession from one denomination to another, or to some form of independent congregationalism. To misappropriate the allusion to Isaiah 52:11 — “Go out from their midst, and be separate from them” — in this way, is probably pushing it beyond what Paul intended. Although there is teaching on how to relate to Christians in other places, the New Testament doesn’t seem to have a developed doctrine of denominations. Besides, if Paul does have different groups of Christians in mind here, the application of this passage is not to the pure ones, worried about being contaminated by the more licentious, but to the worldly Christians themselves whose behaviour seems more in line with the surrounding culture than with biblical injunctions. That is, this is a text to preach to Christians who are “in love with this present world” (2 Timothy 4:10), not to godly potential seceders that you would like to join your group instead.
Later, Paul responds at length to so-called “super apostles” and their false teaching in 2 Corinthians 10-13. He particularly describes his approach in 2 Corinthians 10:1-6. He employs a martial metaphor to describe his activity for the gospel, with the word strateuomai (to engage in warfare). He speaks of the weapons we are to use in fighting valiantly:
“By the humility and gentleness of Christ, I appeal to you—I, Paul, who am “timid” when face to face with you, but “bold” toward you when away! I beg you that when I come I may not have to be as bold as I expect to be toward some people who think that we live by the standards of this world. For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. And we will be ready to punish every act of disobedience, once your obedience is complete.”
Paul subverts the martial imagery somewhat by beginning this passage with “humility and gentleness.” Yet humility and gentleness are not characteristics which usually mark the effective soldier in battle. That is the point: he does not wage war in a worldly way, with aggression, but in weakness and apparent defeat (cf. 2 Corinthians 2:14 and 12:9-10). Nor does he employ worldly weapons. Rather, he contends using words, God’s words, which have “divine power to demolish strongholds” and to refute arguments (just as the gospel brought light to darkness in 2 Corinthians 4:4-6).
Paul seeks not to capture and enslave people to his will, but to conquer and subdue their minds for Christ, to be his active allies. This is evangelical warfare: seeking victory through Christlike gentleness by the power of the gospel itself.
Presumably, the so-called “super-apostles” in Corinth were relying on seemingly more impressive techniques and strategies to attract and captivate followers. As Aquinas comments, “the weapons of those who fight according to the flesh, or wage war, are riches, pleasures, and worldly and temporal honours and power.” These can be very persuasive.
Questions for Reflection
1. Why would it be misusing 2 Corinthians 6 to use it as a call to leave the Church of England?
2. Who does need to hear the strong message of 2 Corinthians 6?
3. How can we fight the good fight with the humility and gentleness of Christ?
Lee Gatiss is Director of Church Society and the editor of Gospel Flourishing in a Time of Confusion, the latest book from Church Society.