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The doctrine of second-degree seperation states that we are to seperate from believers who compromise and are in a state of disobedience before God. It is the most controversial aspect of the doctrine of seperation since it calls for believers to seperate from other believers who compromise with the world
Now, since these errant believers are not immoral, nor do they hold on to serious doctrinal error, such seperation seemed strange and even sinful. After all, we as the body of Christ ought to be united, since Jesus did prayed for unity among believers, and that this unity is a testimony to the world that they may believe that Jesus is of God (Jn. 17:21). However, unity is not an absolute good, since unity with the world is an anathema before God. We are told in Rom. 12:18 to live peacefully with all, so far as it depends on us; or in other words, as much as we are able to. Unity is good, but unity is not something that we should work for, but something which we are to work towards. Put simply, unity is found in Christ, and we must be united to Christ, THEN united with each other, not the other way around.
The question is to be asked as to the rationale behind second-degree seperation from compromisers of the faith. The rationale behind second-degree seperation is the same behind that of first degree seperation — holiness. Second degree seperation is done because of holiness. As much as we should want unity within the body of Christ, unity is not to be purchased by compromising our obedience to God in holiness. When we collaborate with unbelievers in ministry, our witness for God is compromised, and that's why it is wrong to do so. Similarly, when we collaborate with compromisers in ministry, instead of reproving them, we are sharing in their sins. Our witness for God is sullied, as we are then associated with the heretics they work with. Furthermore, by not rebuking them for their sins, we actually hate them rather than love these compromisers (Prov. 27:5-6).
Now, there are a few concerns with regards to this doctrine. The first is the example of the present-day group of Fundamentalists, who have embraced the doctrine of seperation with an unnatural zeal, to the extant of distortion into seperatism. What, then is the difference between seperation and seperatism? Separatism is the promotion of the doctrine of seperation to the extant that we are to cut ourselves off and isolate ourselves off from any taint of evil and/or compromise. In other words, for the separatist, the principle stated in Jn. 17: 11-16 should read "Be not of this world nor in this world" instead of "Be not of this world though in the world". Yes, to a certain extent, we should 'isolate' ourselves from the world (Jude 1:20-23), but such isolation is only with regards to holiness, not that we are to 'let the world go to hell'. What is the difference, then? We are to be holy in the sense that we do not compromise our own walk with God nor our witness before God, but we should be actively reaching out to others for God (Mt. 28:18-20; Jude 1:22-23), and the latter makes the difference between the two. Another thing distinctive of seperatism is the fact that the doctrine of unity is neglected. Unity is important, and we are told to be united as much as we can (Jn. 17:21 ; Rom. 12:18). The working principle for all Christians is that we should be as united as much as it is possible to be so; not a unity at all costs, but we should desire unity if possible without compromise. Somehow, seperatism neglects this and in fact may even promote schism, instead of asking us to preserve the unity of the church where possible.
The second legimitate concern is with regards to its implementation. If second-degree seperation is practised, then wouldn't this cascade into third-degree, fourth-degree, or higher degree seperation, and if such, there would be no end and then wouldn't we have to seperate ourselves from almost all Christians? This question, however, betrays a misunderstanding of the doctrine of seperation in its implementation, which would be addressed here.
Remember earlier that the doctrine of second-degree seperation is due to a need for holiness and the need for an unsullied witness before God and the world. Therefore, conversely, if something does not cause one to sully his/her witness for Christ, then there is no need to seperate from the other person. How this works out is that we may need not separate from compromising believers in every situation, only in a situation whereby the compromise is made. For example, if a person compromise in the area of working with heretics in i.e. preaching ministry, then we should seperate from the person in all forms of public ministry. However, this does not preclude that we could not meet up privately and we should definitely urge the person to repent of his/her behavior. If a person compromise in the area of collaborating with an organisation which allows heretics in, in prayer events like the GDOP (Global Day of Prayer), then we should seperate from the event itself, as joining it would link our witness with the global GDOP event and the compromise that is associated with it. However, that does not mean that we seperate from them in other forms of ministry which does not involve the GDOP.
In all these things, it must be noted that our primary motive must be the glory of God in our witness for Him. This is what second degree seperation is about, not a seperation for seperation's sake but for the glory and honor of our Lord Jesus Christ. Note also that all these is related to compromising leaders, since they are the ones who are publicly related to the act of compromise. For ordinary followers, since they are not publicly related to the act of compromise, we should not separate from them as there is no need to. If they are in error, following the stand of their errant leaders, we should all the more desire that they also turn away and reject such compromise as a blemish on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, and thus teach and correct their errant ways, as obedience to Christ our Lord (Mt. 28:20; 2 Tim. 2:24-26), as an act of love for our brethren (Prov. 27:5-6), and all for the glory of God as His bride is edified and build up (Eph. 4:12-16)
Therefore, the question of third of higher degree seperation is a red herring which misses the entire focus of the doctrine of seperation. We should not focus on how many degrees of seperation is correct, but whether by being part of the event or by working together with a compromiser in this particular ministry, that our witness for Christ would be sullied. If so, we should seperate; otherwise, we should not. When we embrace such a principle, the name of Christ would be exalted through our actions, and our testmony would not be dragged through the mud by deluded ministers who have an unbiblical view of unity and work for it at all costs.