Below is my first statement for the debate.
The thesis statement for this debate is “It is necessary for Christians to separate from false churches that do not proclaim the Gospel and the essentials of the Faith.” In my first statement, I would like to give a brief overview of the issue under debate, and address specifics and objections in my second statement. I would therefore briefly define my understanding of the thesis and then attempt to support my view with a brief look at both church history as well as the text of Scripture itself.
The understanding of the thesis statement that I will be working with is this: It is a biblical imperative that Christians, those who believe in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, should stop going to false churches and not to associate with them. False churches are to be defined as those who “do not proclaim the Gospel and the essentials of the Faith.” As a confessional Reformed Christian, I am using that phrase as shorthand for the classic Reformed doctrine of the true church as those possessing the three marks of the true church: the pure preaching of the Word of God, the right administration of the sacrament and the proper exercise of church discipline (Belgic Confession Article 29). False churches therefore are those that do not have one or more of these marks. It must be noted here that I am not arguing for perfect possession and practice of these marks, but that true churches must have these marks in varying degrees.
With this, let us do a brief overview of church history.
Throughout the history of the church, there have been conflicts and schisms. Probably the best known schismatic which threatened the unity of the early church was Novatius in the third century AD. The Donatists in the fourth and fifth centuries also split African Christianity into two. The call of Novatians and Donatists was for the purity of the church, although this is admittedly an oversimplification. Needless to say, the orthodox catholic response to the schismatics was to emphasize the unity of the catholic Church, best seen perhaps in the dictum by Cyprian of Alexandria: Extra Ecclesium Nulla Salus Est, or Outside the Church there is no salvation.
In the 16th century Reformation however, the Reformers split with the apostatizing Roman Catholic church over the issues of the Gospel and the authority of Scripture, a split which was sealed by the Roman Council of Trent. This separation from Rome forced the Reformers to dig deeper into Scripture and to re-evaluate the traditions of the Church. Out of this meditation upon the Word of God, the Reformers came up with a more mature doctrine of the Church as reflected in the Reformed Confessions. The magisterial Reformer John Calvin in his Institutes of the Christian Religion deals with this issue especially with reflection upon the understanding of the early church, which we look at later.
After the Reformation, the Puritans were notable for their split from the Church of England. The Puritans refused to be bounded by fixed liturgies and the use of clerical vestments, seeing their uses as being contrary to Scripture. The Puritans therefore founded separate congregations where they can practice their faith in a way that is pleasing to God.
Closer to our times we have the modernist controversies of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In Britain, the most notable proponent for the Gospel, Charles H Spurgeon, separated from the Baptist Union over charges of apostasy within her ranks in what became known as the Downgrade Controversy. In America, the Presbyterian scholar and theologian Dr. John G Machen separated from the apostate PC(USA) and founded both the OPC and Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.
All of these examples show us that separation from what all of these men would consider to be false churches is not a novel idea in Church history. Separation from false churches is taken by them to be a Gospel imperative, however painful it might be to them personally. What I am arguing for therefore is nothing more than the historic Protestant doctrine of the church and its corresponding doctrine of separation.
As previously stated, John Calvin addressed the doctrine of the church and its practical application for Christians in his Institutes. In Book IV Chapter 1 Section 9, Calvin mentioned that the true churches are to be discerned as having two marks: the pure preaching of the Word of God and the right administration of the sacraments. In section 11, Calvin leads us to the implication this has on how we treat any institution that calls itself a church:
… every congregation which claims the name [of a church] must be brought to that test [of the two marks] as to a Lydian stone. If it holds the order instituted by the Lord in word and sacraments there will be no deception; we may safely pay it the honour due to a church: on the other hand, if it exhibit itself without word and sacraments, we must in this case be no less careful to avoid the imposture than we were to shun pride and presumption in the other. (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV.1.11)
Later sections in this chapter of Calvin’s Institutes reveal his interpretation of this doctrine of the church with regards to the Novatians of the early church. According to Calvin, the Novatians erred because they separated from the true church. The Reformers were right in separating from the false church which Rome had become, but separation from a true church is a grievous sin.
Historically speaking therefore, the Reformed consensus is that believers are to judge the true churches from the false according to these three marks (the Belgic Confession among others added the third). Where these three marks are missing, believers are duty bound to separate from these institutions.
With this short overview done, let us turn to the biblical texts.
It is in my opinion that the biblical witness to the doctrine of separation permeates the entire Scriptures, seen in the motif of holiness especially in the Old Testament theocracy of Israel. Nevertheless, for brevity sake and granting Dispensational bias just for the sake of argument, I will choose the New Testament passages of 2 Cor. 6:14-18 and Rev. 2:9 to prove my point.
2 Cor. 6:14-18 contains the famous imperative to “Come out from among them and be separate” (2 Cor. 6:17b – NIV2011). The imperative by God to separate from unbelievers is extremely clear here. The exegetical issue has therefore not been whether separation is commanded by God, but rather on what this separation is and what does it entail. Does it mean separation from unbelievers in the church, separation from unbelievers in society or perhaps separation from unbelievers outside the church in terms of spiritual matters?
When we read the passage in context, we can see that Paul is giving an explicit command of how the Corinthians ought to live holy lives. Such can be summarized in 2 Cor. 7:1 whereby the idea of cleansing from “defilement of body and spirit” is mentioned. Having commanded church discipline in his first letter on the man with his father’s wife (1 Cor. 5:1-2) which was effective in bringing about his repentance (2 Cor. 2:5-11), Paul continued on with this motif of holiness and called the Corinthians to holiness of life and conduct.
Scripture in 1 Cor. 5:9-10 makes it clear that the separation from unbelievers must be spiritual in nature not social. This means that the separation is always from those who are unbelievers. While marriage is definitely an application of the teaching, the “yoke” in verse 14 shows us that ministry is what Paul had in mind, as Calvin said in his commentary on this passage. Christians are therefore not to be involved in ministry with those who do not confess the faith, of which false churches are one such example.
The second passage we would be looking at is found in the book of Revelations 2:9, which deals with one of the opponents of the Church in Smyrna. The Apostle John spoke of this group of people as “those who say they are Jews but are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” Whichever way we think of the “Jews” in this passage, they are considered the people of God. This expression of John therefore is the closest we have to a biblical mention of a false church since these people claimed to be Jews. While John does not mention separation from the false church, that he does not consider that assembly a church at all but a synagogue of Satan means that believers are obviously not supposed to be in that false church.
In conclusion, I have shown briefly how both church history and Scripture prove the thesis that Christians are to separate from false churches. I commend these arguments for our consideration, for the glory of our Lord. Amen.