In Luke 15 Pharisees are grumbling that Jesus is eating with sinners. We are commanded to follow Christ but then we remember that we are also commanded to “keep oneself unstained from the world” (Jas 1:27). Or again, James writes, “Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God” (Jas 4:4) and yet Jesus knew His actions caused people to say that He was “a friend of tax collectors and sinners” and He didn’t seem to think He needed to correct them on it. How are we to reconcile these commands?

John Owen, in his book Duties of Christian Fellowship: A Manual for Church Members, gives us some old-school wisdom that is still relevant today because it is based on eternal truth. One of his “rules” for church members is, “Believers are to separate and keep apart from the world, and from the men of the world in all their ways of false worship, so that we are seen to be different people.” He cites such passages as: 

“If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.” (John 15:19)

“Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, ‘I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Therefore go out from their midst, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch no unclean thing; then I will welcome you, and I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me, says the Lord Almighty.’” (2 Cor. 6:14-18)

“for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light…Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.” (Eph. 5:8-11)

“having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people.” (2 Tim. 3:5)

Owen goes on to explain that “The world does not sympathize much with those who separate from it”. Righteous deeds make unrighteous people squeamish. When the world declares evil to be good and you refuse to go along it’s only a matter of time before the world will turn on you. Even if you do it in a “nice” way.  On the other hand, God is even more clear, as Owen states, “Someone who will not separate from the world and false worship has separated himself from Christ” (italics original). 

In other words, there is no neutrality. God has drawn a clear line. If you side with the world then you are no friend of the King. Yet, we are given marching orders to proclaim the good news of our King’s victory and His grace for repentant rebels. That takes proximity!  What is meant by separation then? The marching orders actually help us understand. 

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,  teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”  (Mt 28:18–20)

Jesus has all authority. He is King. We are called to make disciples. We must “go” into the world to do so. But this making of disciples includes two aspects: 1) baptizing, that is marking people as belonging to our Trinitarian God, and 2) teaching them to obey Christ’s commands. Separation from the world and to God includes both allegiance to God and acting according to that allegiance. It is about fidelity rather than proximity.

Owen explains that this separation is not a ban on friendship, neighborliness, or interaction with unbelievers nor care for the good of their souls (Rom. 9:3; 1 Cor. 5:10; 1 Thess. 4:12). The child of an unbelieving parent does not need to swear off his family but should maintain a relationship in order to obey the command to honor your parents and to promote the gospel among them. However, if their parents tell them to renounce their faith or else be disowned then they should gladly accept their expulsion (Matt. 5:12).  You don’t have to quit your job to avoid interacting with non-Christian co-workers but if your job demands that you be disobedient to Christ then you should gladly quit (Lk 18:29-30).

This separation is also not against desiring or seeking the good of those in the world or living peaceably with them (1 Tim. 2:1-2; Gal. 6:10; Rom 12:18). We ought to gladly do that which is beneficial for our neighbors or our community. In fact, we ought to be the first to do so and to do it sacrificially. But our primary motivation is to please God, not our neighbor. Therefore, enhancing our neighborly reputation is not a good reason to do what Scripture does not call good. We also should strive to be at peace with others. But we do not value peace with one person so highly that we stand by while injustice is done to others, unwilling to do what is in our power, because it might be viewed as confrontational. Peace only comes when things are submitted to Christ as King and the world won’t always see that (Lk 19:38-41).

What then is it? Owen explains that this separation includes:

  • The way we walk and behave (Rom. 12:2; Eph. 4:17-20) 
  • Any delight of conversation and familiarity in situations where enmity and opposition to the gospel exist (Eph. 5:3-4, 6-8, 10-11). 
  • Ways of worship and acts of fellowship (Rev. 18:14).

It ought to be visibly clear that we live differently than those who are not Christians. We live, work, parent, budget, etc as Christ would have us do. We ought to talk differently. This includes everything from not participating in speech that is inappropriate or immoral to not lying or promoting false teaching. For example, we cannot use preferred pronouns. It is lying. It promotes false teaching about human nature and the image of God. It denies our Creator. We ought not to participate in the ways of worship that the world enjoys. We do not conform our church structures, interactions, and worship services to culture but to the command of Scripture.

In Luke 15:1, it is clear that Jesus was not conforming to the sinfulness of the world but these sinners “were all drawing near to hear” the gospel of the kingdom. He made his allegiance clear when He told them that His purpose was to call sinners to repentance (Luke 5:32).  As our culture pulls away from Christian morality and truth, we shouldn’t look for excuses to minimize the gap but rather we should stay firmly planted in our allegiance to God and His commands, allowing the gap to be whatever it is. If God commands us to be distinct in this way AND He purposes to call sinners to repentance, now through the church, then will we believe God that this distinction promotes, rather than hinders, that mission?