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Ecclesiastical Separation, Is It Scriptural?

W. J. Missen

From time to time the question is raised as to what is the correct interpretation of 2 Timothy 2:21. That brethren may have different thoughts as to the meaning of various passages of Scripture we readily admit, and where nothing of a fundamental nature is involved, Philippians 3:15-16 shows the attitude we should take.

We do not believe, however, that this passage falls within that category. It admits of only one interpretation and one which, as we shall see, has been agreed upon by all translators and commentators of repute among the children of God. Moreover, it is a passage of importance where Church truth is involved. It is one of the key passages giving scriptural authority for separating under given conditions from other Christians, and for occupying the place we do in relation to others in Christendom. It is very noticeable that those who oppose the scripturalness of the position taken by those known as "exclusive brethren" consistently attempt to undermine the authority of this passage by endeavoring to make it refer to "condition" and not to "position." That a right condition is most necessary among the people of God, all will agree, and there are many scriptures which teach this, but it is not good exegesis to take portions of the Word that refer to the position that the saints should occupy, and apply them to their condition.

This epistle [2 Timothy] gives special instructions for these last days (3:1) when Christendom has become a "great house" with vessels to honor and to dishonor. The Holy Spirit, through the apostle Paul, gives instructions to Timothy (and so to us) as to his (and our) conduct in these difficult times. In chapter 2:15 (KJV) we have instruction of a positive nature: "Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the Word of Truth." Exhortations are then given where the following words are used: "shun" (v.16), "depart from" (v.19), "purge from" (v.21), "flee" (v.22), "avoid" (v.23), "turn away" (3:5). At least three of these express positional separation - "depart from," "purge from" and "turn away." Taken all together, all of the passages show that there must be a cleansing from the evil in our own lives, and also complete separation from it as to our associations.

In the JND Translation, verses 20-21 read as follows, "But in a great house there are not only gold and silver vessels, but also wooden and earthen: and some to honor and some to dishonor. If therefore one shall have purified himself from these in separating himself from them, he shall be a vessel to honor, sanctified, serviceable to the Master, prepared for every good work." In a footnote to the words "shall have purified himself from these in separating himself from them," we read: "ekkathare apo." Ekkathare is only found in 1 Corinthians 5:7. There it was getting rid of it out of the lump; here he has to purge himself from among them (the vessels). Hence we have apo, which, with ek, is rendered by 'separating from.'

As all know, our brother John Nelson Darby was one of the ablest Greek scholars of his day. He has given us a translation , not a paraphrase. It is permissible to paraphrase in exposition, but never in translation, and to call our brother JND's rendering of this verse a paraphrase is to impugn his reliability as a translator. The connection with the similar use of the word translated "purge out" in 1 Corinthians 5:7 and the added apo , "away from," show plainly to any unbiased mind the true force of the passage, that is, "purge out away from," rightly rendered "purify from in separating from." Anyone wishing to study this matter further may consult the "Graphic Scheme of the Greek Prepositions" as given in the Newberry Bible, where the force of ek and apo is plainly seen.

We may well ask, however, whether other translators of note understood this to be the true force of the expressions in Greek. We note a few. Tyndale's 1526 translation reads, "But if a man purge himself from such fellows ." Rotherhain's translation gives, "If therefore anyone will for pureness sever himself from these." In Weymouth 's translation we read, "If therefore a man keeps himself clear of these."

F.W. Grant translates in the Numerical Bible , "If therefore one shall have purified himself from these," and his notes show that he understood the force of the words to be separation . Here, then, at once, comes the application of the rule that we must separate ourselves from iniquity. One must have purified himself from these, the "vessels to dishonor."

William Kelly's translation reads thus, "If one therefore purge himself from these," and his comment also shows what he understood to be import of the words translated, "purge himself from." "At bottom it is evidently the same principle of separation from evil, which in 1 Corinthians 5 is applied to put the evil-doer out. In 2 Timothy "it is a far more developed case where the well-doer, having striven without effect to correct the evils sustained within, is bound to purge himself out .... A godly man has no option, but is bound to hear the divine word and to purge himself from these vessels to dishonor." (Bible Treasury, Vol. 16, pp. 169-171)

Thus there is agreement all around as to the meaning of the passage.

Some years ago, when we were under deep exercise as to whether our ecclesiastical position was of God and could be sustained from Scripture, it was this passage that finally settled us. We looked it up in all the versions possible, and studied the meanings of the words used in the Greek, and came to the conclusion that the passage means exactly what our brethren from whom we learned the truth of God said it meant - separation from vessels to dishonor. We believe there is thus a divine warrant for our position of separation.

If this and other passages, such as Hebrews 13:13 do not speak of separation, then "brethren" (so-called) had no authority to come out of the systems [the denominations] over 170 years ago, for it was on such scriptures as these that they acted. If they were wrong in coming out in that day, we are wrong in maintaining the position today. But they were not wrong. They stood for God and He used them as "His mouth" because they "took forth the precious from the vile." See Jeremiah 15:19-20. We who have inherited this spiritual legacy still have a scriptural basis for our position. Let us see that our condition corresponds to it so we may be found walking in separation to Christ and from that which is displeasing to Him in our lives and associations.

"But youthful lusts flee, and pursue righteousness, faith, love, peace, with those that call upon the Lord out of a pure heart" (2 Timothy 2:22 JND).

Available in tract form from Chapter Two