2 Corinthians 6:17 (ESV) … “Therefore go out from their midst, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch no unclean thing; then I will welcome you…”
(v. 17). The major part of this quotation is from Isaiah 52:11, but there are also echoes in it of Ezekiel 20:34, 41. The reference in Isaiah is to the captive nation leaving Babylon and returning to their own land, but the spiritual application is to the separation of the people of God today.
God commands His people to “come out,” which implies a definite act on their part. “Be ye separate” suggests devotion to God for a special purpose. Separation is not just a negative act of departure; it is also a positive act of dedication to God. We must separate from sin and unto God. “Touch not the unclean thing” is a warning against defilement. The Old Testament Jew was defiled if he touched a dead body or the issue from a festering sore. Of course, Christians today do not contract spiritual defilement by touch, but the principle is the same: we must not associate with that which will compromise our testimony or lead us into disobedience.
God’s command of separation is found throughout Scripture. He warned Israel not to mingle with the pagan nations in the land of Canaan (Num. 33:50–56); yet they repeatedly disobeyed His Word and were punished because of it. The prophets repeatedly pled with the people to forsake their heathen idols and devote themselves wholly to the Lord. Finally, God had to send Israel into Assyrian captivity and Judah into Babylonian Captivity. Our Lord rejected the false “separation” of the Pharisees, but He did warn His disciples against the leaven (false doctrine) of the Pharisees and Sadducees, and He prayed that they would be kept from the defilement of the world (Matt. 16:6, 11; John 17:14–17).
The apostles in their letters to the churches also emphasized doctrinal and personal purity. The believer was in the world, but he must be careful not to become like the world. The church must also separate itself from those who reject the doctrine given by Christ and the apostles (Rom. 12:1–2; 16:17–20; Col. 3:1–2; 1 Tim. 6:10–11; Titus 2:14; 1 Peter 4:3–6; 1 John 4:6). Even in the Book of Revelation, there is an emphasis on God’s people being separated from that which is false and contrary to holy living (Rev. 2:14–16, 20–24; 18:4ff).
In our desire for doctrinal and personal purity, we must not become so self-centered that we ignore the needy world around us. Our Lord was “holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners” (Heb. 7:26), and yet He was “a friend of publicans and sinners” (Luke 7:34). Like a skillful physician, we must practice “contact without contamination.” Otherwise, we will isolate ourselves from the people who need our ministry the most.