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Anabaptists have historically been separatists. The position was nearly required by the circumstances of their 16th century origins. The ecclesiastical cousins of the Anabaptists (Baptists) across the Channel were called English Separatists because of like circumstances. In order to practice a believers’ church, adult baptism, and separation of church and state, both streams were disenfranchised from the state church. The separatism tended to morph into isolationism as the early Anabaptists fled for their lives and often were required to worship in secret.

The isolationism necessitated by the early Anabaptists’ context has not served the movement well in modern times. While Biblical separation is a basic doctrine of the Christian faith, isolation from others is a violation of the Lord’s prayerful intent that disciples be in the world but not of it. It would appear that to isolate one’s self from one’s neighbor and practice the faith in secret, is a sin unless such is motivated by persecution. Both the early church and the early Anabaptists met in secret when such was required in order to obediently worship the Lord. In a society where there is freedom of worship, it is imperative that disciples openly practice their faith in the world. To build imaginary walls of isolation around the church and the community is not the purpose of Biblical separation.

Biblical separation has to do with fellowship, which is defined simply as joint participation. This means that we withdraw ourselves from those who walk in disobedience to the Scriptures as far as church is concerned (1 Timothy 6:5). It further means that we do not engage in the Lord’s work with a mixed company of unbelievers or disobedient believers (2 Corinthians 6:14–7:1). This understanding of separation has been a clear distinctive of true Christianity from the beginning, particularly Biblical Anabaptists. Believers are expected to go out into the world for work and for witness. In many cases there has been disobedience to this concept, wherein it has become possible in some Anabaptist communities to live one’s whole life with barely any contact with the outside world. While this may be comfortable, it is reprehensible in view of Christ’s commands and His life model.

Individual separation from worldly practices must be maintained. Distinctive lifestyles are a part of the Biblical commands. When it becomes impossible to distinguish disciples from the world via manner of life the witness has been lost. The world dances to the beat of the god of this world and his crowd. When disciples follow suit, Biblical distinctives are lost. This may be one of the more difficult aspects of Christ’s call to be a living sacrifice.

It is important that Anabaptists retain their historic distinctive of separatism, both individually and ecclesiastically on the one hand and avoid isolationism on the other hand.

Written by: Paul Emerson

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