The Place of Laity in Missions (4): The Danger of Separatism

Rev. Bruinsma is Eastern Home Missionary of the Protestant Reformed Churches, stationed in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Previous article in this series: March 1, 2009, p. 255.

Having now laid the groundwork for the place of the members of Christ's church in missions, we move along to various legitimate ways members can become involved in missions. To be sure, the place of the laity in missions begins at home. We must live a godly life in our families, in our schools, in our places of employment, and in our recreation. This has a direct impact on the work of missions. But in order for churches to thrive spiritually, their members must take an active interest in missions. They must be involved as much as they are able in the outreach of the church, whether that be by means of activity in their own congregation's evangelism work or in mission work itself.

There are those who argue that active participation in mission work is not all that important in order for churches to thrive spiritually. In fact, they claim that history reveals that mission work is detrimental to the faithfulness of a church. Has not history proved that when churches embark on full-fledged mission work they begin to falter spiritually? All kinds of new ideas are allowed into the churches in order to accommodate those who are not one with us doctrinally or in their world and life view. Too much emphasis on mission work will require compromise. That, in turn, spells disaster for the truth of God's word. It has been said that the day our churches seriously give themselves over to mission work is the day that their spiritual decline begins. The only way to preserve the church's precious heritage is to dwell in safety alone!

If this accusation against missions is true, then why has Christ commanded His church to go into all the world and preach the gospel? If the Lord of the church knew that involvement in missions would lead to the spiritual demise of His church rather than to its spiritual growth and health, then why must the sound of the gospel go forth into all the earth and God's word unto the ends of the world (
Rom. 10:18)? According to the command of Christ, the church must give herself to missions. And to do this necessarily implies active support and participation in the mission work of the church.

If there is no conscious support of and participation in missions, the church is doomed spiritually. The work of missions must be woven into the very fabric of the life of the church. God's people must always have this work before their hearts and minds. This begins with the support of this work by means of our prayers and money. It is true, as families in our denomination we freely give a large part of our synodical assessments to the work of missions. I am deeply grateful as a missionary for the generous giving of our people toward missions. But how conscious of this giving are we? Throwing our checks in the collection plate for the budget can become merely a matter of paying a bill, without much thought about mission work (or about any other of the causes we are giving to, for that matter). Likewise, the cause of missions is a part of congregational prayers. We are thankful that our ministers keep the need of missions before the hearts of God's saints in prayer. But how frequent are our family and individual prayers for our mission labors? Not only must we offer our petitions for personal and congregational needs, but requests must continually be raised on behalf of our mission work too.

Yet, the cause of missions is so easily forgotten! The saying, "out of sight, out of mind," can hold so true regarding mission work. Since many do not (or cannot) actually participate in or experience the work of our churches in missions, God's people have a tendency to think of missions as a secondary work of the church—a work of lesser importance than the labors being performed within the churches themselves.

I received from a well-intentioned saint a letter exemplifying what I mean. She wrote to encourage me in my labors, but had to admit that she did not give all that much to missions. She instead felt that she had to give the bulk of her charity to our Christian schools. Certainly, there is nothing wrong with that! But she explained that the reason she felt she should give more to our schools was that, in her mind, the most important way God gathered His church from one generation to the next was by means of our Christian schools.

No doubt God continues the line of His covenant among those who take seriously their calling to see to it that their children are solidly instructed in the fear of God's name. Many denominations, in their zeal to reach out to others with the gospel, have sorely neglected to emphasize this all important work of the home and church—to their detriment. They continue to bring others into the church, but the generations of those who are brought in depart rapidly because they are not soundly instructed in the doctrines of the church. This is the horrible weakness of much of evangelicalism today. God by His grace has used our Christian schools as an important means to assist in the instruction of our children. We ought surely to be grateful to Him for that.

But maintaining the home front by means of serious instruction of our children is not the only way that God gathers His covenant from one generation to the next. Of equal importance is the truth that God, with each new generation, continues to graft into the vine of His church others who are brought to faith by means of the call of the gospel through missions. We must not be so zealous in maintaining what we have within our churches that we neglect to reach out with the gospel to others. If we do, that will be to our detriment. It will lead to a very narrow concept of the church of Jesus Christ in this world and ultimately to the sin of separatism.

Separatism is a sin.

When we say this, of course, we must not confuse this sin with the truth of the antithesis. God has called His people out of the darkness and unbelief of this world into the light of salvation (
I Pet. 2:9). Believers are light as opposed to darkness (Eph. 5:8). Salvation, therefore, sets the church apart from those who are yet lost in their unbelief and sin. Believers become pilgrims (foreigners) and strangers (outsiders) in this world (I Pet. 2:11). The calling of believers is to live in spiritual separation from the wicked. "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..." (II Cor. 6:14-18). In Ephesians, God's word instructs believers that the wrath of God comes upon the children of disobedience. With this instruction we are given the command, "Be ye not therefore partakers with them.... And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them" (vv. 7-12). Certainly, it is our calling to be a distinct people, different from the unbelieving world, unashamed to show others by our actions and words that we represent the cause of Christ. But this calling to be a spiritually separate people is not the same as the sin of separatism.

Separatism is the sin of pride. It is the sinful attitude of theological arrogance and conceit that can characterize individuals and churches as a whole. When a separatist carries on a theological discussion with others, he is condescending and even snobbish, as if the end of all truth lies in his own words of wisdom. Others begin to look at such individuals and churches as being unapproachable. Even if these people and churches bear witness to the truth, others will turn a deaf ear to them because they conduct themselves as the standard of right and wrong. No one is willing even to listen to them anymore. Separatism is evidenced in such comments as, "They know where to find the truth." Or, "If they cannot find the truth where they are, then they should move to where it is." Even though these statements may be true in certain cases, they reveal the smug attitude that shows no kindness or understanding of the hard situations of life through which God leads people in the spiritual wasteland of our country. And although the words are never spoken, people begin to pick up by various comments made that "the members of my denomination are going to be the only ones in heaven."

Separatists do not like to share the gospel with others. If they do, it is only with the intention to make others exact replicas of themselves. Such stay in their little sphere of safety, most often with blinders on, because they are afraid of anyone who might challenge what they say. Others are ready for the fight and feel that the only effective witness is to win the argument. For that reason, mission work is the farthest thing from their minds. They see no real value in mission work. And their interest in mission work is at best lackluster. Separatists in practice approach—come very close to—the sin of hyper-Calvinism. They would loudly denounce such an accusation, but they leave the impression, by their conversation, that God will providentially bring to the church those whom He has chosen with but little effort on the part of the church to do missions.

This is why separatism is a sin. It is a sin that can change a faithful church into a church filled with self-righteous, legalistic people who stand under the same condemnation as the Pharisees.

By being active in mission work, believers and their churches are guarded from this sin of separatism. When a person as much as visits a mission field, unless he is already callous in his arrogance and pride, he will not return home untouched. When members of the church help out on a mission field, they witness what God has in His grace done in the lives of many who did not have the privilege of being born and raised in covenant homes and families or in faithful churches (if in any church at all). Visitors are able to talk with saints who have been drawn by the Spirit to the truth and who therefore reveal a newfound love and zeal for the truth and for the church—a zeal that at times can wane in us as members of the church who can take for granted what God has given to us. We are taught by their example that the truths God has entrusted into our care as churches should mean as much to us who are born and raised in the church as it does to these new saints that Christ has grafted into His church.

Besides, when members of the church step outside of their "bubble," their concept of the church becomes much broader. They begin to understand that Christ's church does not revolve around their own little world and its disagreements, but is far beyond them, extending to the ends of the earth! The vine of the church is not limited to a few people in a small, confined area of the world, but extends from sea to utmost sea. When members of the church witness the work in missions, they become much more aware of what they are confessing when they make the confession, "I believe an holy, catholic church." Certainly this does not mean that a person who does not visit a mission field is not able to make this confession from the heart. But an active interest in missions does make a person more cognizant of the scope of Christ's church in this world.

Bearing this in mind, we indeed encourage a visit to the mission field, or even some volunteer work for a mission field. We will address these in our next article.