The Pathway of Separation - A.A. Elliott
THE PATHWAY OF SEPARATION
Exodus 33 : 7-10 ; Hebrews 13 : 10-16 ; 2 Corinthians 6 : 12-18 ; 2 Timothy 2 : 19-22
There may be many young Christians who have professedly taken a path of separation, who are not very clear as to why they are in the position they are in, and I thought it might be helpful if we could look into the reasons that certain believers have for not going with other Christians, for instance, to their churches. They act thus not because they are a sect and think themselves better than others ; if that were so, they would be the worst sect in the world. But they have spiritual and godly reasons for the action taken, and I think it is certainly right that such should be able to give an account of the position occupied and be convinced in their own minds as to it, so that they may not be diverted. This should not be for self-vindication, but to show that the path is one of obedience.
We might look at it from two standpoints : first from the standpoint of what one might call spiritual instinct, and secondly from the point of obedience. In the first scripture we read, where Moses pitched the tabernacle outside the camp, we find that his action was not one of obedience to a word from the Lord, but it came from spiritual instinct. He felt it was the right thing to do under the circumstances. But in the last three scriptures read we get a definite commandment. For us the two things must go together : there must be, on the one hand, spiritual instinct to know the right thing to do and, on the other hand, as we cannot always prove to others that a spiritual instinct is right, we must be able to demonstrate that the pathway is right because we act in obedience to a definite commandment of the Lord. The two go together and supplement each other. I have felt more and more that any who seek to occupy a position of separation from that which is organised in Christendom, should be able to show that it is obedience to the definite commandment of the Lord. Otherwise it would be just a question of opinion. Spiritual instinct is right from our individual standpoint, for our own satisfaction in the Lord's presence, but it is not what you can bring to bear upon people when your position is questioned. You must be able to show from Scripture that it is one of obedience.
Spiritual instinct in a way comes first. It is found even in a young Christian, so that such a one will often turn away from, say, a place of worldly amusement because he feels the atmosphere of the place is wrong, without being able, perhaps, to give a reason why the thing itself is wrong. It is interesting to see the action taken here by Moses, and the setting in which it stands. Aaron had been persuaded to make the golden calf in the absence of Moses. Idolatry had come into the camp, and there was the noise of singing. In the New Testament it says : Neither be ye idolaters, as were some of them; as it is written : The people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play," 1 Cor. 10: 7. That was the outward result of idolatry. We see this in an extreme form in some parts of Christendom, where there has been a return to definite idolatry. If you asked a Jew in Russia why he was not a Christian, he might say, Because a Christian is an idolater. There is the worship of images and other things, too, in Romanism [i.e., in Roman Catholicism - Editor]. There are extreme forms, but everything that displaces God or Christ is a form of idolatry. Much of the system of Christendom today is based upon the displacement of God, of Christ and of the Holy Spirit. The Lord in His address to Pergamos speaks of those who held the doctrine of Balaam, who taught eating of idol sacrifices—that is, the displacement of God—and to commit fornication —the displacement of Christ. Then there is the displacement of the Spirit: a gifted gospel preacher has no opportunity to preach in the established Church unless he gets a theological training and is " ordained." That is the displacement of the Spirit.
Now in the type in Exodus 33, God indicates that He is not going to give up His truth, although the people had fallen into idolatry. He says, Get up out of this place and get you into the land which I spoke to you of. God had proposed to consume the whole nation and make of Moses a great nation, and He might have destroyed an apostate Christendom. The Lord will indeed spue it out of His mouth, but He might have done it at the start, when things first went wrong. But He has not. After the idolatry had come in, He said, Get up into the land. In spite of the idolatrous system of Christendom and the departure from the acknowledgment of the lordship and headship of Christ, He will have what is for Himself, and will bring His people into the land to enjoy its privileges.
Moses felt that God's presence could not be enjoyed amongst them in those circumstances and he took the tent and pitched it outside the camp, far outside. There was an unclean atmosphere in the camp, and Moses had the spiritual instinct to come out. Then those that sought the Lord came out there. Moses did not attempt to put things right in the camp, he took the tabernacle outside, and the Lord showed His approval by coming to the tent in the cloud. The action was vindicated by the appearing of the cloud. Then the people bowed down and worshipped. That is what everything should end in : out of the trouble and difficulty should come praise and worship to God, if things are adjusted rightly.
Now that was Moses' spiritual instinct; he felt God could not go on with idolatry. I do believe, too, that in the recovery of a hundred years ago, many believers felt that the systems to which they were attached were really not of God. They were purer in those days than they are now, but they felt instinctively that they could not go on with them. But could they act on that instinct ? Then they turned to the word of God for direction. If a move is of God, Scripture will confirm it, and those who remained inside the camp worshipped, that is, they vindicated Moses' action, even though they did not go to the full extent of going out to the tent. A return to true worship is one of the first results of recovery, of release from the idolatrous elements in which it may have been inveigled. It was so in the recovery of Ezra's days, when the people returned from Babylon. The first thing they did was to restore the altar. In the recovery that the Lord has granted these last hundred years [this paper written in the early 20th century - Editor], there has not been a restoration of the church to what it was before as a single unit, but there have been those who seek to follow righteousness, faith, love and peace and call upon the Lord out of a pure heart, and one of the distinctive features of those who follow this path is that there is worship. It has always been a comfort to me to think that there are Christians, the conduct and order of whose meetings do not exclude Christ from having His place as Head, or that would exclude the Spirit. There is spiritual weakness, alas, and failure ; that is a matter of spiritual state. But in the organised systems of men the ritual is such that the Spirit of God has no place : He cannot take up whom He wants to give thanks or minister His word. If a believer in such a system were moved by the Spirit to speak in that way he would be put out as disorderly. In some instances man is made the head of the church ; in some the church is a national institution. Do we find a national church in the word of God ? " There is neither Greek, nor Jew . . . Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free," Col. 3:11. So a national church is not according to Scripture. Then there are church organisations named after a certain person. Paul condemns the beginnings of such sectarian feeling root and branch in 1 Corinthians 3. So that cannot be according to God. Then there are organisations that take up a particular line of truth and make that the main doctrine which binds them together. That is not according to Scripture. All these things are not what we find in Scripture, whether it is the largest church or the smallest sect. None of them is based upon what God's thought is of the church according to Scripture. We have no need to go amongst them to discover this. The position of separation from what is contrary to God can stand the closest investigation according to the word of God. Natural reason will land us nowhere.
Thus far we have looked at the instructive action of Moses in pitching the tent of meeting outside the camp. We next might look at the other scriptures read. When we see godly Christians in these systems of men, many of whom put the writer to shame in their devotedness and service, giving up position and riches and comfort to go out for instance as missionaries to the heathen, it is in a way quite natural for some to say, Must they not be right ? There are real lovers of Christ even in Rome. The Lord speaks in the address to Thyatira of those who had not known the depths of Satan. But if I am converted in the church of Rome, am I bound to stay there because there are other Christians there ? That is no spiritual reason at all. But are we justified in leaving what is much better than Rome, a sect containing a very godly set of Christians, for instance ? We have the scripture for it here in Hebrews 13. What Moses did in spiritual instinct is converted into a commandment of the Lord. " Let us go forth therefore unto him without the camp." That is a commandment, we cannot get out of that. Instinct has become supplemented for us by a commandment. " If any man think himself to be a prophet, or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things that I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord," says Paul in 1 Corinthians 14 : 37. Now that is most important. There are many real Christians who are most particular about the commandments of the Lord in their individual lives : they seek to obey these commandments in every respect, but when it comes to what is collective they think they can do what they like. Are there commandments of the Lord in regard to what is collective ? The whole of the first epistle to the Corinthians is the Lord's commandment in connection with that. We find for instance that the apostle writes about women not speaking or teaching. Yet many apparently godly women in Christendom today speak and preach in public. They do not listen to the commandment of the Lord. So it is not only our private individual pathway that we have to look to, but our collective pathway as well. In the first epistle to the Corinthians we get church teaching in a special way. I remember one saying that when he was exercised about his church position and the path of separation, he would not read 1 Corinthians 10-14, because he knew that the religious denomination with which he was connected did not attempt to carry out the commandments contained in those chapters.
The systems in Christendom would therefore typify the camp, no matter what they may be. They can all be classed as the camp that we have to be outside of, not to return to it. It is not our business to attack people, but I do think it is our duty to point out the evil of these principles when challenged. The apostle says, " We have an altar," and that is important: there is a system of Christian privileges that we have, as over against Judaism on the one hand and heathenism on the other. We have an altar, not a lot of altars. There is only one Christianity and we should not seek to aim at anything special, although it is true that the confused state of Christendom, in which we have our part, creates positions which are different from what were seen in the earliest days. Those who meet together in separation from evil should not have any peculiarities of their own : Christianity is enough and nothing else, no special customs. A good test is to ask ourselves, Was this or that a custom amongst the early brethren as taught by Paul ? If so, good; if not, we should give it up. I believe it is possible to-day to carry out the order commanded in the word of God. There is suffering outside the camp. We might bring reproach upon ourselves by our foolish actions, but that is not the reproach spoken of here. This is the reproach of Christ. He suffered without the camp and we must be prepared to suffer with Him.
Here again the separation outside the camp leads to praise (v. 15). The conditions are such that God can come in : there is an obedient people and they can offer praise. Obedience is better than sacrifice, but when we are obedient there is the sacrifice of praise. God vouchsafes His presence to those who are obedient, and such would be extremely careful about boasting ; but I think the Lord has shown His approval by the abundance of ministry He has given and the freedom for worship and praise that exists. It is a question of liberty really. You are brought into liberty and are thus free to praise. " Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty."
In 2 Corinthians 6 there is the same thought: good and evil cannot go on together. " Be ye separate," it says, " and touch not the unclean thing." Do not go back to it, not even in mind. We find the thought in Jeremiah, " let them return unto thee; but return not thou unto them." There must be no conference on the plain of Ono. Nehemiah 6:2.
Some people may say, But Hebrews 13 is written to Jews, to come out of Judaism, and the epistle to the Corinthians to Gentiles, to come out of heathenism and idolatry. Well, but what about 2 Timothy, which is written for professing Christians ? " Let him that nameth the name of the Lord withdraw from iniquity." That is a commandment, a definite instruction. We have to do it. It is not moral evil that is in question here, it is religious evil. Iniquity had arisen in the church of God. Must we go on with evil teaching ? People stay to try and make things better. But here is a definite command : if it is iniquity we have to depart from it, and surely it is iniquity that Christ should not have His place as Head of the church, and that the Spirit should not have His place. That is the crying sin of Christendom today, religious iniquity. I do not mean that there are not godly people amongst them, but that is not the point. " The Lord knoweth them that are his," He will look after them, but " Let everyone who names the name of the Lord withdraw from iniquity." One main feature of the iniquity is that the whole clerical system sets aside Christ as Head of the church, and the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. And wherever we see religious iniquity we have not only spiritual instinct to guide us, but this definite commandment. As departing from iniquity we have to be prepared to stand alone, but actually we shall find those who follow righteousness, faith, love and peace, and that call upon the Lord out of a pure heart, and we can walk with them. Righteousness comes first here, not love.
We all form part of Christendom, and are not called upon to leave that, but we are called upon to depart from its iniquity, that is, its evil principles ; and to separate ourselves from vessels to dishonour who are contaminated by contact with those evil principles. This obligation rests upon all who call on the name of the Lord.
The only ground to take is that of obedience; not to assume to be better than Christians in the systems of men ; it is a matter of obedience to the word of God. When there is such a state in the assembly that it cannot or will not deal with evil, then the individual has to depart from the evil, and follow righteousness with those that do the same. In that path there is power to deal with any evil that may show itself. This is not forming a new sect. We know from Scripture that sects are wrong; if we carry out the command of God in the Scriptures we are doing what is right and are therefore not forming a new sect. When partaking of the Lord's supper every Lord's day we have one loaf: that is, we include all Christians everywhere in our thoughts and affections.
A. A. Elliott