The calling of the child of God to live a holy and a spiritually separate life is very difficult. There are the extremes on either side that must be avoided. On the one hand there is the extreme of living along with the world in its lusts. On the other hand there is the extreme of seeking to flee the world in the physical and local sense of the word. After we have identified the two extremes we still have the rugged and toilsome way in which most of our battles are fought. The way to which God calls us is blessed, but not easy. Let us consider this subject, following the division mentioned above, first looking at the extremes, and then considering the way of our calling.
The extreme of living along with the world in its lust is a very attractive way. Let’s be honest about it. But can we justify such a course? The Word of God is very clear: “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world” (I John 2:15-16); “Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers, for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? And what communion hath light with darkness? Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing, and I will receive you” (II Cor. 6:14, 17); “And be not conformed to this world but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God” (Rom. 12:2).
One may say that all this is true, but don’t we have a calling to let our lights shine, and to be witnesses of God in the world. We ought to be strong enough to stand against the temptations of the world. A true and wise soldier of Christ, however, will not reason that way. A true and wise soldier knows himself and the enemy. He knows that even the holiest men, while in this life, have only a small beginning of the new obedience. He therefore prays for God’s help in temptation because he knows that he is so weak in himself that he cannot stand for a moment. He will not pretend to be wiser than God Who has prepared a place for His people so that they can be in the world without being of the world. That God-ordained place for His people is Zion, the church. There is the safety of God’s people. That is the camp of the saints; the place from which God’s people wage war against the enemy.
A true and wise soldier does not believe himself so strong that he can leave the camp of God’s people and go right into the camp of the enemy to fight against them. What would happen to such a soldier? Quickly he would be overtaken and be bound in the enemies’ camp. Then what would become of his boast of strength and of his light and witness? A true and wise soldier of Christ will soon learn how important the church is to him in the spiritual battle. It is for him food for his soul. It is the repository of all the spiritual armament that he needs. The church is the source of his strength both from the defensive and the offensive point of view. If the Christian soldier forgets this or becomes enamored with his own strength, immediately he is in a very weak and vulnerable position. When I am strong (in myself), then am I weak is the converse of what God’s Word teaches in II Corinthians 12:10.
The opposite extreme of living along with the world in its lusts is world-flight, in a local and physical sense of the word. World-flight is the attempt to achieve a holy life by isolating oneself from the world. For the child of God there is a strong attraction to such an idea. The principle behind the “isolation for holiness” idea is that if one puts himself far enough away from the influences and temptations of the world, that one can escape them. There are many variations of the world-flight mentality, yet all of them hold the possibility of escaping sin and temptation through isolation. Others may not seek to escape sin through isolation yet are seeking an easy and simple way to a holy life. The hard fact is that there is no easy way to holiness.
In the Middle Ages and before, there were the monasteries and other places of seclusion. These were vain attempts to flee the world and achieve a higher holiness. The experiences that Martin Luther records of his time in monasteries shows the futility of that way of life in the pursuit of holiness.
Later came the various Anabaptistic world-flight movements such as the Amish, Hutterites, Mennonites, and others. These movements have continued up until the present with little modification of their basic presuppositions.
The fundamental flaw in all these systems is a wrong view of sin. Sin is viewed by the isolationists as being in the outward act almost exclusively. They fail to understand the effect of the fall and of sin upon the very nature of man. What Martin Luther came to realize in the monastery was that the world was in him.
We must emphasize that the way of holiness for God’s church in the world is not in isolation. Jesus, in John 17prays not that the church be taken out of the world, but that God would keep her from the evil one. It is clearly God’s will that the church be in the world, but not of the world. This truth emphasizes the spiritual character of the church’s separation from the world. The antithetical difference between the church and the world is not local and physical, but spiritual.
The way of spiritual separation rather than isolation must be chosen as the way of working out holiness for God’s people. Isolationism is an attempt to achieve holiness by human strength and therefore carries with it a false sense of security. It engenders a “holier than thou” attitude toward all others. Isolationism takes what truth it has and buries it. It tends therefore to be negative, defensive, and critical. Because isolationism has not the proper understanding of God’s truth, it becomes fearful to move forward with the truth. Thus its vigor withers and becomes unhealthy and unproductive. It is as salt that has lost its savor and is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out and trodden under foot of men.
On the other hand, spiritual separation finds its strength in God; and although it is not ignorant of the power of the enemy, yet it has true security. Spiritual separation has a realistic view of itself before God and man and conducts itself in a humble manner before all. Understanding the great treasure of truth God has given, spiritual separation holds up that truth for all to see. Spiritual separation is open and undefensive because it trusts the power of the truth to silence its enemies. Because spiritual separation is grounded in the Word it has a lively optimism in the promised victory in Jesus Christ. Since spiritual separation has its roots in the truth, it continues to grow and be healthy, and therefore flourishes in the fruit of the spirit which is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, and temperance (Gal. 5:22-23).
One may raise the point that the Bible in many places commands the child of God to flee sin. I grant that it is so. God says, “flee fornication” (I Cor. 6:18); “flee from idolatry” (I Cor. 10:14); “O man of God, flee these things,” i.e., many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition (I Tim. 6:11); and “flee also youthful lusts” (II Tim. 2:22).
Do these commands of God disprove our emphasis that the character of the church’s separation from the world is spiritual and not local? Not at all. If you look at these passages in their context you will see that the flight commanded is spiritual and not local. I Timothy 6:11is a good example to make the point. “But thou, O man of God, flee these things, and follow after righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, meekness.” God doesn’t say that we should follow the way of isolation, but the way of spiritual separation. All of the virtues listed as the way to follow are eminently spiritual. In fact, they are nearly identical to the fruit of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5.
The reason why we must approach the battle in the way of spiritual separation and not isolation is threefold. First we have the enemy within us through the old man of sin in our evil natures. We cannot flee the world in the local and physical sense of the word, for wherever we go we carry a world of iniquity within us. Secondly, our enemy is not physical and local. Ephesians 6:12 tells us, for we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. Thirdly, the weapons that we use are not physical and local. “For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war after the flesh, for the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strongholds” (II Cor. 10:3-4). The implication here is that if our weapons are carnal then we are weak and can never gain the victory. But the victory in this warfare is ours, as Ephesians 6:10, 13 shows us. “Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord, and in the power of His might. Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.”