October 23, 2017

“Rightly dividing the Word of Truth” (2 Tim. 2:15)

Mark Minnick

And if any man obey not our word by this epistle, note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed. Second Thessalonians 3:14

Disobedience to Paul’s word by this epistle is grounds for separation from another Christian. But what word is Paul referring to? Does he mean only his words about the specific kind of unacceptable behavior he has just discussed in verses 11 and 12, shirking gainful employment? Or does he mean any of his words in 2 Thessalonians, and by necessary extension (since one epistle cannot be elevated to sacred status above the others) any of his teaching anywhere?

These questions are being asked by those on both sides of the debate over the issue of separation from other Christians. Fundamentalists hold that the command of 3:14 is to be applied to any believer who persists in any disobedience to what Scripture clearly demands of all Christians. Many (though by no means all) in broader Evangelicalism insist that the command applies only to those who disobey Paul’s teaching about working to provide one’s own living. There are at least two reasons for assuming that the former view is Paul’s expectation.

The first reason that argues for a broader application of Paul’s commanded separation is contextual. Verse 14 is part of the conclusion to a paragraph that begins with verse 6. There, at the very outset of the discussion, Paul calls for separation from every brother that walketh disorderly and not after the tradition which he received of us. Notice the function of the final clause, not after the tradition which he received of us. It describes precisely what the Apostle means by walking disorderly. It’s walking contrary to Pauline tradition (what was “given over,” or “delivered” by him).

Now what did Paul consider to be his tradition? Only his requirement to be gainfully employed? That conclusion is obviated by the context. Just eight verses earlier he commands his readers to stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle (2:15). Connect 2:15 directly to 3:6. Stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught… . Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us. To argue that Paul then continues by singling out one tradition (the necessity of gainful employment) as alone being the grounds for his commanded withdrawal of fellowship, is to impose arbitrarily a limitation not demanded but actually precluded by the contextual sequence that clearly progresses from 2:15 to 3:6.

The other consideration that argues for a broader application of Paul’s commanded separation is simply logical. If Paul commands separation from a brother who will not work for his living, how much more so would he expect it from a brother guilty of some kind of immorality or unorthodoxy. In other words, if the lesser kind of disobedience is grounds for withdrawal of fellowship, by logical extension so is the greater kind of disobedience.

If these two contextual and logical considerations are valid, then failure to separate (in disobedience to verses 6 and 14) is itself grounds for separation. The command to separate from disobedient brethren is part of the tradition Paul was handing over to his readers. We command you, brethren … withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us (including the tradition of separation embodied in this very command). How would Paul expect the Lord’s people to respond to a man who refused to separate from an erring brother? The tradition he was handing over commands his expectation in this instance just as in any other. They are to withdraw fellowship from him.

This interpretation is sometimes dismissed as the illegitimate teaching of “secondary separation.” It is certainly true that some Biblical teachings are primary to the Faith, whereas others are secondary. Our Lord clearly taught this in Matthew 22:34–40 when He enunciated the “first and great commandment.” He did so again in Matthew 23:23 when He called some things the weightier matters of the law. But the demands for separation in 2 Thessalonians 3:6 and 14 do not differentiate between categories of disorderly conduct in this way. The grounds for separation is disobedience to the tradition, unqualified by considerations of whether it is of greater or lesser significance. And after all, we’re even commanded to separate from someone whose disorder is as minor as … not working for a living!


Dr. Mark Minnick is the pastor of Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Greenville, South Carolina, and serves as adjunct professor of preaching and exposition at Bob Jones Seminary.


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