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God, who loves us with an everlasting love and knows us so much better than we know ourselves, tells us in no uncertain terms that we, as His chosen and greatly beloved children, need to reside in the right kind of environment. We are very different from unbelievers and must separate ourselves from them and become His unique and godly people.

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. (2 Thess. 3:6)

Here we are commanded to withdraw ourselves from brothers, supposed fellow believers, that are behaving like unbelievers. There are two reasons for this: first, we must protect ourselves from their ungodly influence; and second, for his own benefit, the supposed “brother” must be shown his true condition and his need to repent.

If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed: For he that biddeth him God speed is partaker of his evil deeds. (2 John 1:10-11)

Here we are told that there is to be no fellowship with openly professing unbelievers. They should not be welcome into our homes and we should not encourage them in any way. When we do, their evil rubs off on us.

But now I have written unto you not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner;  with such an one no not to eat. (1 Cor. 5:11)

Sharing a meal has a great deal of sociological significance. It approaches that of being members of the same family. To not eat, to not keep company with someone is to exclude that person from one’s circle of friendship.

Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers:  for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness?  and what communion hath light with darkness?  And what concord hath Christ with Belial?  or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel? And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols?  for ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you, And will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty.  (2 Cor. 6:14-18)

Here we see the great stress God places on the need for believers and unbelievers to be separate. The argument rests on the great and fundamental differences between true believers and the rest of mankind. Notice the contrasts God identifies between the two:

  • righteousness with unrighteousness
  • light with darkness
  • Christ with Belial
  • he that believeth with an infidel
  • the temple of God with idols

They are absolute opposites! Believers have been so changed and have something within them that makes them so different from what they were before, and from unbelievers in general, that it’s expression taxes the limits of our vocabulary.

God’s word tells us that unbelievers are in bondage to Satan. When Adam rejected God’s rule over him, choosing to follow Satan’s advice instead of God, he and all his descendants with him became Satan’s slaves. Their ability to even see God’s kingdom (John 3:3) was lost and there was no possible way for man to escape this absolute bondage. Only in Christ’s sacrifice and His sending the Holy Spirit to indwell His chosen people is this condition of satanic bondage relieved (Isa. 14:12; Matt. 16:23; Mark 4:15; 2 Cor. 4:4; Eph. 2:2; Heb. 2:15).

Because both believers and unbelievers are created in God’s image and are externally alike in many ways, their natural tendency is to minimize the significance of their differences and try to find some common ground on which they can agree. But this is just the danger, the thing that must be resisted. Believers are not just the same as unbelievers but with some minor differences. They are new creatures, very different internally; the Holy Spirit indwells them; they are His sons and daughters whom He calls-out from among the unbelievers of this world.

It is typically assumed that one is converted when he is born-again, that is, at the point that the Holy Spirit first indwells him. Conversion, though, is more than rebirth, great as that is! Rebirth is, after all, a birth, a beginning; with growth and development to follow. Conversion is a process that begins with the new birth, and goes on from there to produce significant changes deep within the individual.

The internal differences between believers and unbelievers are real and huge, but to begin with they are not clearly evident. There is usually an immediate recognition of a change within the new believer. He feels and knows he is somehow different from what he was before. The magnitude, though, of the changes that have taken place and that can continue to take place within the new believer is not immediately grasped. There is a potential for more, much more to follow. The new birth is a real change internally but it is also the beginning of a learning process, one that requires time and effort as the differences gradually become evident, first to the believer himself and then to others.

The born-again believer has a renewed outlook on life and is developing a new mind-set that is very different from the typical mindset of an unbeliever. In principle, it is God-centered as opposed to the self-centered outlook of the unbeliever. In practice, as he matures in the faith, the believer’s mind-set is becoming more and more conformed to God’s original and ultimate plan for His special creature, mankind.

The rate at which this change progresses is strongly dependent on the environment to which the new believer is exposed. Fellowship with unbelievers retards this development process; fellowship with other believers enhances it. Without the kind of protective and nurturing environment, such as is provided within an ecclesia community, the residual sin nature present in every believer will so impede personal development and motivation that progress will be slow and very few will grow to anything near the full potential they initially possessed.

The internal differences between Christians and unbelievers are huge and God is telling us here that the distance that separates them must also be great. How though, is this distance to be measured?  God gives us fellowship, communion, concord, etc. as the sort of units we should use to measure inter-personal distances. We can take as an example God’s servants such as Moses, Daniel, David, the prophets, Paul and the Apostles. These men were set apart; they separated their lives to God’s service and are remembered in God’s word as His true and faithful servants. God does not call all to these extremes but He does call all His people to His service and this requires a degree of separation.

The Lord is not telling us in this passage to isolate ourselves from the world. We are told to make disciples and baptize them into the faith. Our charter is to teach the nations God’s truth and this entails example, contact and confrontation with unbelievers.

What God precludes is not communication but community, community with unbelief and unbelievers; we are instructed to not permit ourselves to remain immersed in the polluted environment of this sin-filled world. We know in our hearts that we are new creatures in Christ, very different on the inside, from what we were before, and from the unregenerate world around us. This is a precious gift, one that should be appreciated and employed in the service of the Giver. To obey Him: while not precluding a level of contact with the world around us, we also need to separate from our old surroundings and enter into a new and pure environment, one in which we can grow and mature in our new faith.

This need for separation may at first seem to be too difficult to bear and unreasonable as well, but we must remember that God’s wisdom is far greater than we can com. When without full comprehension, we place our trust in Him and take these difficult steps of faith He places before us, we may be uneasy and troubled with doubt. As we continue in faith, though, and grow in our knowledge of God and His word, this all changes. We gradually come to appreciate how the depth of His love and care for us is fulfilled in these, that appear to be, His more difficult and seemingly unreasonable requirements.