One of the sad truths of the ministry is that in our lifetimes, we will either have to change our convictions or our companions. The people, groups and institutions we start out with will not be those we end up with unless we compromise along with them. Examples of separation are given to us in the Scripture. Some are proper: David had no choice but to separate from Saul if he did not want to have a javelin placed perpendicular to – but coming out from both sides of – his body!
Other examples are less fortunate. Scripture tells us that the contention between Paul and Barnabas over the usefulness of John Mark was “so sharp” that they separated. While we learn no more of Barnabas’ ministry, we are informed that he was the one who was correct. Though Paul did not want to take another chance on John Mark, he later said that he was “profitable.”
My friend, Dr. Shelton Smith, the editor of the Sword of the Lord, found it necessary a while ago to separate from one who had been a part of his ministry. He went to see the brother four times and explained his concerns. After the decision was made, the brother was deliberately not discussed at a Sword board meeting. There was no gossip nor criticism. Dr. Smith has said to me about this situation, “every time I think about it, it makes me want to cry.” He then went on to talk about the good things in the ministry of the brother from whom he had felt compelled to separate.
Dr. Bob Gray of Florida had been tremendously helped by Dr. Jerry Falwell. When Bro. Gray was in trouble financially, Bro. Falwell brought a singing group down and spoke at a banquet to raise enough money to keep the ministry going. When Dr. Falwell assumed control of the charismatic PTL ministry, Dr. Gray got in an airplane, flew to Lynchburg, and explained to Dr. Falwell personally why, in spite of his appreciation for his help and his friendship with him, he no longer could be involved in ministry with his friend.
Recently, in going through some old files, I came across a letter I had written to my alma mater explaining my decision to end their support. I had made every effort to be kind in the letter. The man who had recently become the head of that institution wrote me a very gracious letter expressing sorrow for the fact that their decision had led to a parting of the ways and thanking me for the manner in which I had handled it.
Here are a few thoughts about separating spiritually, or parting properly.
1. Go to your brother. (Matthew 18:15 – “Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother.”) I have often wondered why people find it appropriate to excoriate someone in print without entreating them in person. I have heard all the reasons and explanations. But it seems to me that the courtesy of a phone call could save a lot of unnecessary strife. It also seems to me that Matthew 18:15 tells us to go to our brother.
2. Treat them with respect. (1 Timothy 5:1 – “Rebuke not an elder, but intreat him as a father; and the younger men as brethren; “) When I was in college, my pastor, one of Dr. John Rice’s sons-in-law, was kind and helpful to me. After I graduated and was in the ministry, he continued to give me instruction and encouragement. He was, however, beginning to move away from a Fundamental Baptist position. He had encouraged me to go to John MacArthur’s pastor’s school, to read books by Chuck Swindoll, etc.
In one conversation, he said, “I hope if you ever think I’m doing something stupid., you’ll tell me.” (I believe he knew that my stand was contrary to his in several areas.) I said to him, “Preacher, I think I already did.” I then proceeded to give him three times I had asked him particular questions about what he was doing. He thought for a moment and said, “Yes you did.” Because I had entreated him as a father, I did not appear to be challenging or fighting him. I had, however, raised the issues with him personally before I preached about them publicly (I did not mention this brother’s name in preaching.)
3. Give them the benefit of the doubt. (1 Corinthians 13:5 – “[Love] . . . thinketh no evil”) Some people who give themselves great credit for being discerning are really suspicious. If you’re suspicious of everybody and everything, you’ll be right once in a while. You’ll also have a tendency to run off some good people who could be helped with patient instruction.
When I was about 15 years old, my dad ran a camp for inner-city kids sponsored by the Detroit City Rescue Mission, where he was the superintendent. One Sunday night after church, before anybody came, I was sitting in the kitchen of the camp, talking to a young lady who had come to be a counselor. I liked her and was enjoying the conversation. I was as tall then as I am now and this young lady was under five feet tall, My dad came walking by a window and looked in. It looked, for all the world to him, like I was bending down every few moments and kissing this young lady. He walked around to another window to get a another view and saw that I was not kissing her, nor was I touching her. I was simply bending my head down to hear what she had to say. He did not tell me the story until some time after the event. I’ve always been impressed at his patience, his restraint and his discernment. He gave me the benefit of the doubt.
4. Be kind. A preacher asked me one time to speak at a big meeting he was planning. He said, “I want to have you one night, Tom Malone one night, and Clyde Box one night.” I agreed to come. Later, one of my friends called and said, “What are you doing preaching with So-and-So?” and named a man who was taking a softer position on ecclesiastical separation than I did. “I don’t know,” I said. “Where am I preaching with him?” He told me that this meeting had included several men with whom I would not normally want to appear on the same platform. Now, it might have been fair for me to say to the host of the meeting, “You changed the rules on me. You told me it would be Tom Malone and Clyde Box. And then you brought in these other men.” What the Lord helped me to do was to call him and say, “Is it true these men are coming?”
“Yes,” he said. “They are.”
“Well then,” I said, “I’d probably better not come. If I just said what I normally say, I might cause trouble, and I don’t want to come and cause trouble.”
My brother said to me, “Well I’ll take that as a Christian.”
I replied, “I hope I’m saying it as a Christian.” No harsh words were exchanged. No criticisms were made. And yet, my position was clear.
5. Stay friendly even when you can’t fellowship. I have run into those associated with the college from which I graduated. I spoke kindly to them, sent them copies of my books, and had cordial conversations. One of them later said to a pastor friend of mine that I was a “good guy.”
6. Admit it when you are wrong. When preaching about ecclesiastical separation some years ago, I made a wise crack about an individual. It was unplanned, off the cuff . . . and inappropriate. It was brought to my attention. I apologized. As I spoke with the man involved, he said to me, “I tell people you are one of the good guys.” Now, this brother and I now travel in entirely different circles, yet I believe he loves God, I believe we will spend eternity together, and though we could not have ministry fellowship, I certainly can be friendly towards him.
7. If necessary, document your discussion. I am not big on writing letters back and forth. There are times, though, when a record must be established so that those who question your stand, those whom we hope to instruct in truth, and those who come behind us, can see clearly what the issues were. I have found that there are, unfortunately, some people that I have to “Miranda-ize.” I realize that there are those with whom anything I say can, and will be, used against me. I am extremely cautious about what I say to them in personal conversation and to maintain careful records of official positions.
8. When you must separate, do so with regret, not with resentment. One of the most godly statements I ever heard regarding ecclesiastical separation was what I quoted earlier from Dr. Shelton Smith, “Every time I think about it, it makes me want to cry.”