READ : 2 Corinthians 6:6-18
What does it mean for us to be separated and set apart for service to God?
I remember my first exposure to Christian separatism. I was a new pastor, serving in a small rural community. There were several other churches in town, and we decided to try to hold a community-wide service involving all the churches. Another minister and I went to visit a little church on the edge of town to invite them to participate. The pastor of this church was a young man whom I had never met before, nor, for that matter, could I ever recall having run into anyone from his church. As we extended our invitation, the man quickly made it clear that he had no intention of having anything to do with us, our churches, our community, or our attempts at Christian unity. It didn’t really matter to him what we believed personally; the fact that we belonged to larger denominations was enough to compromise and taint us. This man was a separatist; his justification for his attitude was a passage from 2 Corinthians 6: “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? . . . Therefore go out from their midst, and be separate from them, says the Lord . . .” (vv. 14, 17).
The Temple of God
What does the apostle Paul mean by these commands to the Christians in Corinth to separate themselves from the world, to avoid contamination by contact with unbelievers? All of his injunctions are based upon a truth about our identity that Paul expresses through yet another image or metaphor of what we are as servants of Jesus Christ. What are we? Here, says Paul in 2 Corinthians 6:16, “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.'”
All biblical religion begins with the idea that God has chosen a people for himself. It starts with the election of Israel:”The Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession,” writes Moses in Deuteronomy 7:6. “He has chosen you out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth.” The great privilege of God’s chosen people is to know and experience his presence among them. “I will make my dwelling among you, and my soul shall not abhor you. And I will walk among you and will be your God, and you shall be my people.” That’s the wonderful promise of Leviticus 26:11-12, a promise Paul quotes here in 2 Corinthians 6. But the promise and privilege of God’s presence among his chosen people carries a correspondingly great demand for their holiness. “I am the Lord your God . . . You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy” (Leviticus 11:45).
The New Testament applies these ideas to the Christian church with a radical new understanding. In Jesus Christ God truly has come in person, to dwell among us. Jesus is the divine Word made flesh, who pitched his tent in our midst, and we, says the apostle John, beheld his glory – just as the children of Israel saw the cloud of God’s glory cover the tabernacle in the wilderness. But more even than that, the apostolic witness to the gospel is that we are now the temple of God. The ascended Christ has sent his Spirit into the world to come into our lives. God doesn’t just dwell among us here on earth; as believers and followers of Jesus Christ, God dwells within us as well. “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God?” as Paul asked the believers in Corinth (1 Corinthians 6:19).
The Call to Holiness
This truth that we are the temple of God, the people within whom the Spirit of God makes his home, has one tremendous implication for our lives. It makes us holy. If we are Christians, then we are holy whether we like it or not, at least in the Old Testament sense of being set apart for God, separated from the world and dedicated to the worship and service of the Lord. “You are not your own,” Paul has written earlier in 1 Corinthians, “for you were bought with a price.” But we must also become holy in the New Testament sense of doing right, living well, pursuing the good, seeking purity in thought, and word and deed. “So glorify God in your body,” Paul concludes.
So the commands for Christians to be separated from the world and its contamination are based on the truth that we are the temple, the dwelling place, of God the Holy Spirit, and that therefore we are called to lives of distinctive holiness. But what does this mean in practical terms?
Let me start by saying what it cannot mean. Separation for Christians cannot mean that we are to abandon the world. After all, we are called to live in the world and to serve the world. Jesus described his followers as the light of the world and the salt of the earth. Nor can it mean we are to reject all association with other people. After all, Jesus told us to love even our enemies. And how can we love people if we won’t have anything to do with them? Finally, it cannot mean that we are to refuse to have fellowship with other Christians who differ from us in some way. After all, Jesus prayed on his last night on earth that his followers would be one (John 17:22). Must we agree on every last point of doctrine before we commit ourselves to fulfilling our Lord’s final prayer for his church?
But what then do these commands mean for us in plain, everyday terms? Christians have historically applied this command to be separated from the world in three areas of life. The first is internally: to come out from the world and be separated from it applies to our own interior life of mind and heart. When we are commanded to touch nothing unclean, to separate ourselves from corruption, we no longer understand this in a ritual sense, as applying to other people.
In the Old Testament, contamination came from touching a dead body, or from touching certain diseased persons or unclean animals. But Jesus touched even lepers, and he declared all food to be clean. It isn’t contact with other sinners that corrupts us; it’s the sin inside all of us. As the great Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn famously said, the line between good and evil does not run between one person and another, but right down the middle of each human heart.
So the gospel demand to separate ourselves from evil does not mean keeping away from other people, although clearly there will be some situations or environments which Christians must avoid, but rather it means purifying our minds and hearts from unclean thoughts and images (see Philippians 4:8-9) and avoiding whatever is corrupt or degrading in the culture around us.
The other areas in which Christians have applied this call to separation are marriage and worship. In the deepest and most significant relationships of our lives there must be an essential spiritual unity. Marriage is the deepest relationship we can have with another person, and here, the apostle says, we must not be mismatched: “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers.” That figure of speech conjures up an image of two different animals attempting to pull together side by side. It just won’t work. If you and your spouse are not agreed that living for Jesus Christ is your supreme purpose in life, how can you find unity in your home and family? You will be pulling in different directions, working toward conflicting goals, headed for opposite destinations.
Worship is the deepest relationship we have with God. In this area too Christians must gracefully but firmly insist on unity. Listen again to the apostle Paul: “How can Christ and the Devil agree? What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? How can God’s temple come to terms with pagan idols?” (2 Corinthians 6:15-16, The Good News Translation.) From the context, we understand that Paul is referring here specifically to worship. He does not mean that Christians have nothing whatsoever in common with non-Christians. As John Calvin comments, “when Paul says that the Christian has no portion with the unbeliever he is not referring to food, clothing, estates, the sun, and the air . . . . but to those things which are peculiar to unbelievers, from which the Lord has separated us.”
When it comes to ultimate questions, Christians must confess that Jesus is Lord. I do not believe in a generic god. The only God there is has revealed himself in the incarnation of Jesus Christ, and those who worship him now must worship in spirit and in truth, that is, in the Spirit and through the One who is the Truth, and the Way and the Life. I can’t worship a vague deity, in company with a host of others who all define God in their own ways, because there is no such thing. I can only worship Jesus Christ; more precisely, I can only worship God the Father, through God the Son, by God the Holy Spirit. There is a fine old saying that dates back many centuries and has been variously attributed: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”
If we make this our motto, we may be sure that God’s promise will come true.
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 Corinthians 6:18