July 22, 2017

A renewed review: The Dividing Line

Layton Talbert

Mark Sidwell, The Dividing Line: Understanding and Applying Biblical Separation (Greenville, SC: Bob Jones University Press, 1998). 200 pages.

Why another book on separation? Author Mark Sidwell (who also edited Fred Moritz’s Be Ye Holy) anticipates this question. His goal is “to supplement, not to supplant, other studies.” The author’s aim and spirit is perhaps best expressed when he professes,

I wholeheartedly believe that of all contemporary religious movements, Fundamentalism most closely follows the biblical pattern for separation. But I am more concerned that readers practice separation in a biblical manner than I am whether they bear the label “Fundamentalist.”

The Dividing Line is, in the very best sense of the term, a primer for understanding and applying the Biblical doctrine of separation.

At its roots, the essence of Biblical separation “is that Christians should strive to be free from sin.” Christ died to free us from sin, and His purpose in sanctifying and ultimately glorifying us is to deliver us from sin. Understanding separation as a theological manifestation and practical outworking of our salvation and sanctification throws the whole discussion into an entirely different light. Suddenly, “the issues involved in Biblical separation are not minor ones.” Separation is not a matter of petty disputes over external practices and associations; it is about the divine intention of the ages to present to Himself a spotless bride and to conform a race of redeemed men and women to the image of Jesus Christ. Since sanctification is theologically rooted in soteriology, and “since separation is a part of the doctrine of sanctification, then the goal of separation is to become more like Christ.”

Chapter 2 (“Separation in Theological Context”) constitutes the book’s theological heart—and one of its most distinctive contributions to the discussion of separation. Critics of separation frequently define the terms of the debate as holiness versus love. As long as we enter the debate on those terms and allow that dichotomy to stand unchallenged, we will never rightly understand nor properly practice Biblical separation: “Do holiness and love ‘moderate’ one another so that we do not go to an extreme in either direction? In other words, does love require us to be less holy than we might like and holiness require us to be less loving than we might like?”

Holiness and love are not antithetical ideals that we must balance against each other, or between which we must choose. When we rightly understand the Biblical concept of both holiness and love, “then we can see that we must place no limit on either.” Too often, Christians on both sides of the debate react to a misconception, a caricature, of either holiness or love: “Just as holiness is often misperceived as a fastidious preoccupation with external details to the neglect of inner character, love is often misperceived as a feeling of goodwill and an unconditional affirmative attitude toward all people as they are.”

Holiness is, by definition, separateness, “uniqueness, ‘differentness.’” Biblical “holiness begins in the heart . . . but . . . never ends in the heart.” Likewise, Biblical “love is a disposition to act in the highest interest of the loved one, regardless of the cost to the one who loves.” Contrary to popular notions, “emotion is a negotiable component” of Biblical love, but “self-sacrificial commitment is not.”

Chapters 3–5 mark the expositional heart of the book, as the author unfolds the Biblical passages that counsel and command separation from the world (chapter 3), from false teachers (chapter 4), and from disobedient brethren (chapter 5). According to these passages, “separation is not optional but absolutely necessary when circumstances demand it. It is simply a matter of obeying the Word of God.” In addition, they demonstrate that separation is not a second-class dogma fabricated by pugnacious Fundamentalists. “Separation . . . is not an obscure teaching dragged out of some forgotten corner. It runs through the whole of God’s Word.”

Chapters 6–11 unveil the historical heart of the book, as the author traces the development of Fundamentalism, liberalism, neo-orthodoxy, New Evangelicalism, the Charismatic movement, and Roman Catholicism— and relates each of these to the issue and practice of separation. His chapters on Fundamentalism and New Evangelicalism in particular are sterling, striking a balance of careful (but not tedious) historical documentation, even-keeled evaluation, and kind but candid observations. These final six chapters effectively, fairly, and sensibly put the whole debate over separatism into very clear 20th-century perspective.

Sidwell does not speak in a vacuum. Church historian that he is, he is widely and well-read, and has done his homework thoroughly. He frequently and thoughtfully engages critics of separatism, and his work is profusely documented.

The Dividing Line is both an instructive presentation and a persuasive apologetic for the doctrine of separation. Sidwell explains the Biblical basis of separation without being either technical or condescending, defends the doctrine without being defensive, and addresses the topic in a fair-minded and measured style. The author’s content, tone, and even-handed approach to the sensitive but Scriptural issue of separation make The Dividing Line not only a valuable addition for the Fundamentalist, but a helpful and informative volume particularly suitable for those on the fringes of Fundamentalism and beyond who may be uninformed or curious but open to considering the Biblical roots of separation.


Dr. Layton Talbert is a Frontline Contributing Editor and teaches theology and apologetics at Bob Jones Seminary, Greenville, SC.

(Originally published in FrontLine • March/April 1999. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)


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