A Brief Look at So-Called “Secondary Separation”



The concept and practice of secondary separation is a divisive issue within fundamentalism. It is appropriate now, more than ever, to examine the matter in light of Scripture. What follows is an all-too brief survey of several respected fundamentalist leaders of the past 50 years on this very matter. Their views are briefly presented and analyzed, and some conclusions will be drawn at the end. Hopefully, this modest study will edify the body and exhort fundamentalists to be captive to the Scriptures, wherever it may lead.

At the outset, a brief definition of fellowship must be offered so we’re all on the same page going forward. Loosely, “fellowship” is defined as a union for spiritual purposes. More precisely, a partnering of individuals, churches, organizations or any other group for the purpose of promoting Biblical truth, based on a common spiritual foundation. Therefore, when we discuss a separation among brethren, we are really pondering the question, “With whom or what can I legitimately enter into a spiritual partnership with?” (Oats)

What in the World is “Secondary Separation?”

Ernest Pickering

“A secondary separatist would be one who will not cooperate with (1) apostates; or (2) evangelical believers who aid and abet the apostates by their continued organizational or cooperative alignment with them; or, as employed by some (3) fundamentalists who fellowship with those in the previous category,” (1979, 217).

Rolland McCune:

“Secondary separation” is the refusal to cooperate with erring and disobedient Christians who do not adhere to primary separation and other vital doctrines,” (2004, 146).

Douglas McLachlan:

“Familial separation is the unfortunate necessity of functional severance from members of the family who are true Christians, when doctrinal or ethical compromise creeps into their lives or ministries,” (1993, 132).

John R. Rice:

“Do you see that since this secondary separation is an artificial, man-made doctrine, in every case it must depend on one’s personal, variable judgment? How much better to follow the simple rules in the Bible. Since there is no clear-cut Bible teaching on the question, secondary separation is a manufactured doctrine that leads to great confusion. And, sad to say, it also leads to passing judgment on Christian brethren, judging people’s motives, and this leads to division and strife among people who really are serving the same Saviour, who believe the same Bible, who preach the same Gospel, and both seek to win souls. That is unfortunate and, I think, unscriptural,” (1974, 228).

After seeing what respected fundamentalist leaders have had to say on the matter, my own working definition of so-called “secondary separation” is therefore offered:

“A secondary separatist is a Christian who will not cooperate with apostates, (2) true Christians who aid and abet the apostates by their continued organizational or cooperative alignment with them, or (3) true Christians, when a Scripturally defensible claim of doctrinal or ethical compromise creeps into their lives or ministries.”

This is a very concise definition, and one all fundamentalists would do well to adopt. Many would disagree, and I believe they are wrong. John R. Rice, as we will see, draws his circle of fellowship around the fundamentals of the faith and allows very wide latitude within this boundary. His views will surprise many, especially fundamentalists of the Sword of the Lord vintage. 

John R. Rice

Rice was strongly against secondary separation. His primary focus was revivals and soul-winning, and his theology on separation reflects this. For Rice, the threshold of orthodoxy was the fundamentals of the faith – period. Rice would accept any Christian so long as he espoused (182, 224):

1. Faith and salvation in Christ

2. The Bible

3. The virgin birth

4. Blood atonement

5. The deity, and

6. Bodily resurrection of Christ

I have chosen to spend a great deal of time on Rice because I believe he speaks for a great many frustrated fundamentalists on this matter.

“The important thing is, is a man for Christ and the Bible? If he is, and he makes no divisive issues and strife, then fellowship with him. So the Scripture teaches. That means I can fellowship with some who fellowship with some they ought not to fellowship with,” (182).

“[W]e have an obligation to have brotherly love and kindness and charity toward those who are weak in the faith, but just so they are ‘in the faith,’ ” (224).

Rice would likely separate from fundamentalists who were in favor of secondary separation, citing Rom 14:1 as support.

“Listen, you are not to run with anybody if it means quarreling and strife and division and hair pulling and hell raising. Say to that one, ‘God bless you, but go your way, and I will go mine.’ If there is going to be strife and no real unity and no real heartfelt joy and results for God, then sometimes we cannot cooperate with Christians who make strife over minor issues. They are weak in the faith and they make an insistent division over it,” (184).

Rice decried undue obsession with division at the expense of evangelism. Fighting modernism was not Rice’s main priority – evangelism was.

“The tendency to go to extremes appears in the matter of defending the faith and standing up for Christ and the Bible. Those of us who would defend the faith and expose false prophets are constantly urged to attack good Christians, to spend our time and energy in fighting good Christians who may not agree with us on some matters or may be wrong on lesser matters but are born-again, Bible-believing, soul-winning Christians. We have followed a simple course down through the years. We are against infidels and false teachers. We are for good Christians,” (196).

Rice’s most passionate plea was for Christians to have perspective. The great division, he warned, is between those who are saved and those who are lost. “Let us face it honestly: Are we going to fight for God’s people and against Satan’s people? That is what we ought to be,” (197).

 Rice’s Critique of Secondary Separation

riceRice’s guiding verses on this matter were Ps 119:63 and Rom 14:1 (221). He outright denied that Scripture teaches separation from brethren. “No, there is nothing in the Bible like that,” (224). He saw separation as an “all or nothing” proposition. He did not allow for the different “levels” of separation that Ernest Pickering wrote about, which we will examine shortly. Rice defined the doctrine as follows:

“But what is called ‘secondary separation’ means not only must the Christian be separated from liberals, modernists, unbelievers, but he is to separate from anybody who does not separate enough from unbelievers,” (218).

Rice charged that Christians are commanded to fellowship and love other Christians (Jn 13:34-35), and this very love, not division, should guide Christians in this matter. Fractious, subjective battles among real Christians divide the body and hinder the cause of Christ.

“But still the weight of the Scripture here is tremendous. We should love other Christians as Christ loved us. Our love for others ought to be such an obvious fact that people will know Christians are different. So only a very serious matter ought ever hinder the fellowship of good Christians who love each other,” (222).

Most fundamentalists who uphold separation from brethren point to 2 Thess 3:6-15 as support. Their arguments will be presented shortly, but I ask Christians to examine the passage for themselves and reach their own conclusions. Rice expressly denied that 2 Thess 3:6-15 teaches secondary separation, labeling this “a clearly biased interpretation,” (226). He maintained it merely taught that the disorder in question was eating without working (224-225).

Going back to his call for unity for the sake of evangelism, Rice protested that secondary separation resulted in arbitrary decisions. “Where can one draw the line? Unless he takes the plain Bible position of separation from the unsaved and the restrained fellowship with Christians who live in gross sin, one will make subjective decisions according to his own preference,” (226-228). Fred Moritz (1994) dismisses such objections as a “smokescreen,” and calls for biblical discernment on the matter (84).

Finally, Rice appealed to examples of other Godly fundamentalists to bolster his case, men who did participate in inter-denominational fellowship for the sake of the Gospel, including Moody, Billy Sunday, R.A. Torrey, Bob Jones, Sr., H.A. Ironside, W.B. Riley, Bob Schuler and J. Frank Norris (228-234).

Rice’s work on separation was published in the midst of his very public falling out with Bob Jones, Jr. Any honest Christian will admit that views change with perspective, as hard-won knowledge, wisdom and experience are brought to bear upon tough issues. Perhaps Rice would have taken a harder line on separation earlier in his ministry. Regardless, a position must be evaluated in light of Scripture.

Rice’s plea for unity is appealing, but incorrect. He errs by failing to acknowledge different levels of fellowship and ignores Scripture which clearly teach separation from brethren. In this respect, Rice epitomized a particular fundamentalist mindset which is antithetical to militant separatism. George Marsden (1991) remarked;

“Antedating fundamentalist antimodernism was the evangelical revivalist tradition out of which fundamentalism had grown. The overriding preoccupation of this tradition was the saving of souls. Any responsible means to promote this end was approved,” (67).

Rice’s was a “big tent” fundamentalism, and given the nature of his revivalist ministry, perhaps it is understandable Rice was so inclusive about doctrine. He was still mistaken.

 Is There Such Thing as “Secondary Separation?”

 There is a remarkable consensus that the phrase “secondary separation” is un-Biblical. Moritz maintains the grounds of any separation are principles based upon the holiness of God (72). McCune (2004) likewise repudiates the concept of “degrees” of separation (147). Charles Woodbridge (1971) was particularly offended by the term; he called any distinction of degrees of separation a “deadly menace,” (12).[1]  To him, separation extended to any relationship in which disobedience to God is involved (10).

“The Bible knows nothing whatever about “degrees” of separation from evil! The Christian is to remove himself as far as it is humanly possible from all forms of evil, whether they be peripheral, pivotal or relatively ancillary. To hate evil means to hate it in all its forms–its ancestry, its immediate presence and its progeny!” (11). 

What is a Disobedient Brother?

This is the very heart of the matter, isn’t it? Woodbridge (15) declared, “churches or schools which have become “theologically unclean” must be separated from! (2 Cor 6:17). Well, what is the definition of a disobedient brother? McCune, following Mark Sidwell (1998, 56) has perhaps the best definition:

“A professing Christian who deliberately refuses to change some aspect of his conduct to the clear teaching of Scripture is a disobedient brother,” (148).[2]

moritzMcLachlan (132-133) echoes this point, noting we can differ over matters of preference, but not divide. Issues must not be superficial. “If there is no clear cut, ‘Thus saith the Lord,’ we shouldn’t judge and neither should we separate (Rom 14:10-13).” Fred Moritz has produced perhaps the most compact, yet comprehensive analysis of this matter from Scripture. All Christians should examine the texts below for themselves to reach their own conclusions. Moritz’s broad categories of disobedient brethren are as follows:

The Sinning Brother – Mt 18:15-17 (74-75):

The grounds for any separation is sin, not some trite issue. Christ does not differentiate between classes of sin. Separation is a last resort, and only then when reconciliation has failed. Moritz also cites Gal 5:19-21, specifically separation from brethren who indulge in doctrinal or moral heresy (81).

The Immoral & Unequally Yoked Brother – 1 Cor 5:1-11 (75-77):

Paul instructed the Corinthian church to separate from Christian brethren engaged in specific classes of sin (1 Cor 5:10). “[T]his passage commands separation from a disobedient brother on both theological and moral grounds,” (76-77).

The principle of separation from Christian brethren is precisely the same as it is with unbelievers. “Should a fellow Christian insist on remaining unequally yoked in such a way, the local church or believer must separate from him,” (77). Sin is the threshold, and God’s holiness the principle, of separation from brethren. “The local church is to be holy in doctrine and lifestyle,” (77).

The Lazy and Disobedient Brother – 2 Thess 3:6-15 (77-80):

The “tradition received” from Paul included the body of faith, specifically the entire contents of 1 Thess, of which “work” is only one issue (79). Moritz appeals to the example of 1 Cor 5, where Paul uses the pressing issue of sexual immorality to expand the application of separation to all manner of sins. 

The disobedient brother’s lifestyle reflects poorly on the holiness of God (80). “This passage clearly teaches separation from brethren in Christ who are openly and willfully disobedient to the written, revealed Word of God and is not limited in its application to the lazy brother only,” (79). McLachlan agrees; “The passage does not restrict us to such a narrow or limited application. The particular event in this chapter may be indolence in view of Christ’s coming, but the general principle is disobedience to the whole of the Christian message as revealed in Scripture,” (135-136).

McLachlan is quick to emphasize that reconciliation is the goal of this separation. It is disgraceful in flavor (2 Thess 3:6, 14). Christians must withdraw from a disobedient brother, but never with a spirit of superiority. “This kind of shaming is designed to humble him, disgrace him, and hopefully alert him to the catastrophic consequences of refusal to pay heed to the Word of God . . . So while the immediate flavor is disgraceful the ultimate objective is beneficial,” (135). 

The separation is gentle in its spirit. Christians must be relentless to defend the Word, but never heartless. “There are always those who are overly zealous to point out the faults of others and who seem to relish drastic responses,” (135).

The Divisive Brother – Titus 3:9-11 (Moritz, 80).

This includes separation from brethren who promote division. Moritz explained that the Greek behind the KJV translation “heretick” in Titus 3:10 refers to a self-willed opinion which is substituted for submission to the power of the truth. “Paul identifies the divisive man who, after the pattern of Acts 20:30 and 3 Jn 9, seeks for prominence in order to gain a following.” A heretic promotes a peculiar doctrine and is divisive in doing it. William Mounce (2000) referring to this divisive doctrine as “vacuous,” (453).

 Parameters of Fellowship

Moritz remarked, “All ecclesiastical separation in the NT is on the local church level.  It involves the church not working with unbelievers (2 Jn 8, 9) or separating from professing believers in sin (1 Cor 5).  It must extend to personal fellowship between professing believers and application on the inter-church and interdenominational levels,” (personal communication, 15MAY13). In this vein, Ernest Pickering’s concept of different “levels” of fellowship is simply excellent, and a great help to any separatist (218). They are: pickering

  1. Personal Christian fellowship between individual believers
  2. Local church fellowship
  3. Inter-church fellowship
  4. Interdenominational fellowship

We each engage in these types of fellowship regularly, but there are obvious limits to cooperative fellowship depending who we’re talking to. “It is impossible to have harmonious, working fellowship with all believers at all of these levels. Doctrinal considerations govern certain types of fellowship,” (219).

McLachlan asks us to consider whether a brother’s deviation is an isolated event or a continual pattern. “All of us, I think, would prefer to be judged by the ebb and flow of our lives and ministries rather than by the eddies, which seem at times to move against the main current,” (133).

McLachlan poses numerous questions for the separatist to consider (133):

  1. Is the position shift permanent or transient?
  2. Is the shift a major change in direction or a fleeing moment of experimentation?
  3. Is it an appeal for a new and un-Biblical theology, or merely an attempt at discovering a new and functional methodology, which might on the surface appear unconventional but is not unnecessarily un-Biblical?

Separation is a necessary complement to evangelism. Christians are commanded to be holy (Lev 19:2; 1 Pet 1:16) in order to show Christ to a lost world. It is this concern which informs Scriptural principles of separation from brethren.

“If the purity of the bride of Christ is not at stake, then we shall have to discipline ourselves against judgmental or pharisaical attitudes and actions toward our brothers with whom we disagree. On the other hand, if a specific behavioral pattern or belief system has the potential to defile the bride, then we shall have to love our brother enough to confront him Biblically . . . so that Christ’s cause does not suffer loss before the watching world,” (McLachlan, 133).

 A Subjective Sinkhole?

Critics frequently charge so-called “secondary separation” with being little more than a subjective sinkhole. Moritz is quite correct to dismiss this as a smokescreen. Pickering’s words are particularly relevant here:

“First of all, it is very clear that no direct scriptural teaching will cover every problem we face. As in so many areas of Christian thought and life, we must determine our practice by the application of doctrines, principles and emphases that are found in the Bible. The exercise of personal judgment, in the light of known divine truths, is required. It is this element of separatism which non-separatists often attack . . . Yes, it is dangerous in the sense that not all will come up with the right answers and make the right judgments. Some will go to extremes. Nevertheless, it is a privilege given by God to each believer – the right of private judgment and soul liberty in things divine,” (222-223).

There is indeed an element of subjectivism at work. How could there not be? However, it is not nearly the sinkhole critics like John Rice claim it is. The chart below may assist brethren in making some practical applications in this regard (Oats):

categories of separation chart

The Bottom Line

 Edward Hiscox (1893), in his enduring work on Baptist polity, had this to say:

“Nothing can be considered a just and reasonable cause for the withdrawal of fellowship, and exclusion of the Church, except it be clearly forbidden in, or manifestly contrary to, the Scriptures, and what would have prevented the reception of the individual into the Church had it existed at the time and been persisted in,” (180).

Hiscox’s was writing about ecclesiastical separation in the context of local church discipline, but his words are perfectly applicable here. A faithful, Biblical separatist considering separation from a Christian brother must subject an issue to the following litmus tests:

1. Is the Christian brother aiding or abetting apostates by continued organizational or cooperative alignment with them? If so, the faithful Christian must separate.

2. Is there a Scripturally defensible claim of doctrinal or ethical compromise in the life or ministry of the Christian brother? Let the honest separatist consider the following:

3. Is the issue at hand an explicit teaching, an implicit teaching, a principle or a mere personal preference from Scripture?

Separation complements evangelism; it is done to glorify God and obey His command to imitate His holiness in our lives (Eph 5:1; 1 Pet 1:14-16). The faithful Christian must prayerfully consider whether separation is truly warranted if the issue is not an explicit or implicit teaching of Scripture. Christians will inevitably differ on application of certain issues; some may even shift positions upon reflection. It is never easy to re-evaluate heretofore sacred “flash point” issues, particularly in light of Scripture. It occasionally goes against ingrained expectations. A fundamentalist, however, cannot forsake this responsibility and remain a Biblical separatist.


Hiscox, Edward. Principles and Practices for Baptist Churches. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1893. Reprinted with no date.

Marsden George M. Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991.

McCune, Rolland. Promise Unfulfilled: The Failed Strategy of Modern Evangelicalism.Greenville: Ambassador International, 2004.

McLachlan, Douglas. Reclaiming Authentic Fundamentalism. Independence: AACS, 1993.

Moritz, Fred. Be Ye Holy: The Call to Christian Separation. Greenville: BJU, 1994.

Mounce, William D. “Pastoral Epistles,” vol. 46, Word Biblical Commentary, ed. Bruce M. Metzger. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2000.

Oats, Larry. American Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism. Watertown: Maranatha Baptist Seminary, 2012.

Pickering, Ernest. Biblical Separation: The Struggle for a Pure Church. Schaumberg: Regular Baptist Press, 1979.

Rice, John R. Come Out or Stay In?Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1974.

Woodbridge, Charles. Biblical Separation. Halifax, Canada: People’s Gospel Hour, 1971.

[1] Charles Woodbridge, Biblical Separation (Halifax, Canada: People’s Gospel Hour, 1971), 12. Retrieved electronically without page numbers – the pagination here is mine.

[2] McCune’s quotation from Sidwell is longer than the one I included here.