In this final note on the doctrine of biblical separation, we will examine a practical example of its use in the early church. Writing to Timothy, Paul exhorts the young pastor to “war a good warfare; Holding faith, and a good conscience; which some having put away concerning the faith have made shipwreck: Of whom is Hymenaeus and Alexander; whom I have delivered unto Satan, that they may learn not to blaspheme” (I Tim. 1:18c-20). The Holy Spirit of God has seen fit to preserve this example for our learning, and in so doing has illustrated several trenchant truths, among which are the following.
1) Separation may be necessary in order to preserve the faith and conduct of the church. NASB translates the nineteenth verse thus: “keeping faith and a good conscience, which some have rejected and suffered shipwreck in regard to their faith.” A cancerous mass in the human body may appear to be small and innocuous. But a doctor knows that it must be removed in order to preserve the life of the patient. So it is within the church. If false teachers (whether they teach formally or informally) are permitted to continue, they will wreck the ship of faith and destroy the good consciences of believers.
2) Separation is both personal and individual. The apostle names two specific individuals in the Ephesian church, Hymenaeus and Alexander, whose faith was shipwrecked and who were endangering the spiritual well-being of the rest of the assembly. Clearly, it is both possible and essential to recognize error that can sully the conscience before God and to identify those who are propagating the error. Paul was specific and pointed. His warning identified the source of the unscriptural error because a vague sense of concern about some nebulous problem will not preserve a church. Just as a surgeon targets a specific cancerous mass for excision, rather than merely making a stab in the general area of the problem, so specific error must be defined and its purveyors named.
3) Separation may require putting individuals out of the church. “I have delivered [Hymenaeus and Alexander] unto Satan” is how Paul expressed his dealings with these two false teachers. Though the terminology is not perfectly defined, it appears that the miscreants were put out of the church, the realm where God protects His people, and were cast into the world, the realm dominated by Satan, the enemy of men’s souls. Other passages of Scripture explain how to deal with incipient sin or doctrinal error within the church in less drastic ways. But when such error has taken root, when someone is intransigent in his error and insistent upon spreading it, God requires the excise of those individuals in order to preserve the life of the rest of the body.
4) Separation is intended to be remedial. As drastic and final as the removal of individuals from membership may seem, Paul explained to Timothy that he did it in order “that they may learn not to blaspheme.” In other words, it was done not only with the intention of protecting the assembly from which they were removed but also with the hope that the judgment they would endure would turn their hearts that they might ultimately be redeemed.
As harsh as separation may sometimes feel, in some cases it is the only remedy offered by the God of love for the preservation of His church and the salvation of sinners. Those who love the Lord will sometimes be required to practice separation, not in a haughty or self-righteous spirit, but in a spirit of humility and love for the Lord, His truth, and the church.
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