Israel, the Church, and Separation

Does the Lord’s patience with apostate Israel, Babylon, Nineveh, etc., give evidence that faithful believers should stay in “troubled”  denominations? Many professing believers point out that Jesus still frequented the temple despite its being controlled by those who eventually killed him. In other words, shouldn’t someone stay in a bad church until he is kicked out?

These are typical arguments set forth by evangelicals for staying in fellowships, denominations, or even local churches that have left the faith or are in compromising positions.

It’s always been amazing to me that clear prescriptive biblical statements, such as 2 Cor 6:14-7:1, are somehow trumped by a skewed interpretation or application of narrative passages of Scripture. My point: clear teaching is set aside in favor of questionable experience; in these cases, one’s interpretation of the experiences of Israel and Jesus are set forth as providing clear teaching for current situations.

Israel and the church are two different entities, with different “memberships” (if you will) and purposes. Concerning their “memberships,” Israel consisted of believers and unbelievers; in fact, the vast majority of Israelites were undoubtedly unbelievers. The church on the other hand consists of believers. Concerning their purposes, Israel was a theocracy with no division between the formal expression of their religion and the state. The church is exclusively spiritual in nature and purposes—the Great Commission.

In view of this, the attempted comparison between Israel and the church is one of apples and oranges—it doesn’t hold. In fact, no prophet or Israelite ever sounded the call to get out of Israel because of sin or compromise. They were to repent. When they didn’t, God removed “Israel” from the land because of their sin! While God did show patience with Babylon and Nineveh, eventually they were destroyed (cf. Isa 46-47; Nahum 1-3).

The only legitimate parallel we should find regarding “ecclesiastical” separation from the OT is that between Israel and the nations. From its inception, Israel was to be separate from the surrounding nations on every level (cf. Lev 11:44-47; 20:23-26). Those Israelites who disobeyed the OT separation regulations faced serious “excommunication”: death! Additionally, we can gain an illustration of “separation from disobedient brethren” from Jehoshaphat (1 Kings 22; 2 Chron 18-19). Jehoshaphat should never have allied himself with his Jewish brother Ahab, which the text clearly states.

Thus, the OT provides no real grounds for the “stay in” approach due to the difference in character between Israel and the church. Furthermore, Israel consistently was called to be separate from the nations, and compromise with such was always condemned.

The appeal to Jesus in the temple is also an apples and oranges comparison. Jesus as an Israelite naturally and rightly worshiped where Jews worshiped, and that was the temple. Jesus did not have the right to set up a rival place of worship—to have done so would have been unlawful and would have brought terrible consequences!

Furthermore, those who use Jesus’ presence in the temple as justification for remaining in “troubled” denominations more often than not are selective in their alleged “imitation” of Jesus’ example. Where are the imitations of Jesus’ fiery denunciations of religious leaders (e.g. Matt 23:13-33)? Where’s the whip in the temple courts?

From a Christian standpoint, we have to consider the milieu or religious environment of our day. In NT times there weren’t any “troubled” denominations. For that matter there weren’t any denominations! There were, however, false religions (called idolatry) and false teachers under the guise of Christianity, and the command for believers was clear (2 Cor 6:14ff). There were also genuine believers who lived in blatant disobedience to apostolic teaching, and the command for believers with regard to such disobedient believer was clear as well (2 Thess 3:6, 14).

In the case of fellowships or denominations, consideration must be given to the overall direction and tone of the organization. The same could be said of a single local church. If it’s clear one way or the other, that should settle the case. The difficulty comes when there are allegiances and fond memories; personal experiences are powerful motivations to disregard the clear path that should be taken.

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