The Weaponization of Fellowship: or Contra Secondary Separation

AVING grown up in an independent Baptist denomination, of the King James only variety, my “fundi” sniffer is pretty sensitive. To get historical for a moment, the term fundamentalist goes back to a positive assertion of the fundamental beliefs of biblical Christianity. It’s mostly used  in our day as a negative term to describe someone known more for what they are against instead of what they are for.

In an earlier article, “The Coming Identity Crisis,” I discuss ways of understanding fundamentalism in categories of conviction, what the term originally intended, in contrast to a cultural fundamentalism that is more of a baptism of extra-biblical preferences.  In recent days there seems to be a revival of one of these attitudes and applications of cultural fundamentalism that I remember from my youth and days in a fundamentalist Bible college. It’s called second-degree-separation.

Second-degree-separation means that you can have a dear Christian brother or sister whom you greatly respect and agree with, yet you break fellowship with them because of their affiliation with some other Christian brother or sister with whom you greatly disagree. It’s kind of a “I like you but not your friend” doctrine. If all this is new to you, then congratulations: You’ve avoided some of the baggage of conservative Christianity. If it is all-too-not-new-to-you, then, well, we’re in this together.

I think second-degree-separation is generally bad, just to cut to the chase. Here’s some thoughts that help me navigate these sticky fellowship boundaries.

First, it’s not necessary (usually).

I love what one church leader said many years ago, “In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” I say that secondary-separation isn’t necessary because most of the times I hear of it being deployed, it’s not really over essential biblical doctrines at the heart of the gospel. It’s generally applied to secondary issues, in which case, I think allowing your brother or sister to fellowship with others who differ on secondary issues should be encouraged. I love the theological triage model that Dr. R. Albert Mohler developed many years ago. I recommend it for thinking through these sorts of issues.

Second, it’s not good friendship. 

To tell a friend that you are severing fellowship with them because they have a friend who differs with you on secondary issues is bad friendship on two fronts. First, you’re not being a good friend to them. Second, you’re asking them not to be a good friend to someone else. I know in our age we can become overly sensitive to the public relations of how affiliations might appear to others, but aren’t our friendships more important than popular opinion?

Third, it’s not charitable. 

Cutting your friend off because they fellowship with someone you disagree with on secondary issues  doesn’t fit Paul’s description of Christian love: Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres (1 Corinthians 13:4-7). We need to assume and hope for the best for our friends and their friends. Our impulse to assume the worst of others says far more about us than anyone else.

Fourth, it’s not humble.

“I know better than you do about this situation. They’re wrong and you’re wrong for fellowshipping with them.” That kind of attitude can be called a lot of things, but humble isn’t one of them. I don’t think this passes the “esteem others as better than yourself” test (Philippians 2:3).

Fifth, it’s not good ecclesiology.

Second-degree-separation asserts a sort of hierarchy to organizations that places them above other individuals or even other churches. Even if we assumed the third party, the friend of the friend, was in real error by denying a fundamental doctrine, this would ultimately be a matter that should be handled in the context of their local church. If someone has this degree of concerns for a third party, they should go to them and plead with them. If the person won’t listen, they should seek to involve the elders of their church. The fact that I’ve never heard of this happening in situations of second-degree-separation tells me the issue at hand, the topic of the dispute, is usually of secondary importance (in which case refer to #1 in this list).

While I can conceive of a situation where second-degree-separation might be necessary, nearly all of the times I’ve heard of others doing this it is about non-essential issues. When that’s the case, it comes off as a self-serving, self-protecting, public relations stunt.

It’s not humble. It’s not good friendship. It’s not good ecclesiology. And it’s not what is best for the kingdom. We need each other. And we need each other’s friends too. Let’s unite around the gospel. Let’s afford liberty for issues that are non-essential. And in all things, let us be charitable.

“I give you a new command: Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you are also to love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35)

Photo by Franck V. on Unsplash