The Mailbag: Second Degree Separation?

In your articles about false teachers you state as one of your reasons for recommending against a teacher: “The pastor or teacher cannot currently and unrepentantly be partnering with or frequently appearing with false teachers. This is a violation of Scripture.”

You seem to be advocating what our church calls, ‘Second Degree Separation’.  An example would be, “We separate from Joel Osteen because he is a false teacher and we separate from Bob because Bob often appears with Joel Osteen.” Are you advocating Second Degree Separation?

I’ve never received this question before, but I thought it was a really good one, not just for those who might be wondering the same thing, but to explain a doctrine the average Christian probably isn’t familiar with.

If you’re not familiar with “Secondary” or “Second Degree” separation, the person who asked the question gave a very clear example of the gist of it. Got Questions provides a similar example, goes into a little more detail, and makes some very good points. (We’re going to circle back to that article in just a minute.)

The short answer to the reader’s question is “No.” I neither subscribe to, nor apply, the law of secondary separation when considering whether or not to recommend a teacher. I do exactly what I’ve always encouraged all of you to do: compare a teacher’s teaching and behavior to rightly handled Scripture.

Here is why I recommend that you not follow “Bob” (teachers who yoke in ministry with false teachers like “Joel Osteen”):

1. When “Bob” yokes with people he knows or has been biblically warned are false teachers, he is willfully and unrepentantly disobeying Scripture. I would warn women not to follow any teacher who’s willfully and unrepentantly, despite biblical warning and correction from others, participating in any sin. If, for example, Joyce Meyer were 100% doctrinally sound and yoked with no other false teachers, but were living in unrepentant adultery or embezzling, I would still warn women away from her.

And, I’d like to emphasize regarding all the “Bobs” I recommend against:

  • Yoking with false teachers is not a one time “oopsie” for “Bob”. All of these “Bobs” frequently yoke with false teachers. (Alistair Begg spoke at a 2019 conference that Beth Moore also spoke at, either because he didn’t realize the depths of the issues with her, or he didn’t know she was going to be asked to speak at the time he agreed to speak, or because once he found out she was going to speak, he considered it too late to cancel. To my knowledge, he hasn’t done so since, and he’s on my list of recommended Bible teachers.) Doctrinally sound teachers make the occasional honest mistake. That’s not what we’re dealing with here. “Bob” doesn’t think yoking with these teachers is a mistake or a sin, and he keeps on doing it.
  • Even if “Bob” didn’t initially know “Joel Osteen” was a false teacher when he yoked with him the first time (which, as a responsible Bible teacher and Christian, he should have), he’s been informed, warned, and rebuked by multiple people. (When Alistair Begg decided to go through with speaking at the aforementioned conference, his followers came absolutely unglued, and he heard about it. I personally witnessed many people telling him he shouldn’t be appearing with her and why.)

2. On top of directly disobeying Scripture, habitually and unrepentantly yoking with false teachers demonstrates that “Bob” either does not understand Scripture and doctrine well enough, or does not care about Scripture and doctrine enough to be teaching it to anybody. Why? Because he either does not know or is ignoring the Scriptures that the false teachers he’s yoking with are violating. He is not doing his best to “present himself as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15), and he’s one of the “many” who should not become teachers because he can’t stand up to the stricter judgment James 3:1 talks about.

3. Particularly for pastors (but I see no biblical reason not to apply the same standard to other male and female Bible teachers), yoking with false teachers disqualifies him from the pastorate / eldership, and that’s not somebody I’m going to recommend that anyone follow. Titus 1:9, part of the biblical qualifications for pastors / elders, says: “He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.” When “Bob” partners with false teachers, he’s not rebuking those who contradict sound doctrine, he’s giving approval to them and their false teaching. He is committing pastoral malpractice and betraying the God-given duty of his office. That’s not the kind of person anybody should be looking up to, following, or receiving teaching from.

4. False teachers influence those who keep company with them. When “Bob” yokes with “Joel Osteen”, “Joel’s” false doctrine is influencing “Bob”: Do not be deceived: “Bad company ruins good morals.” 1 Corinthians 15:33 Birds of a feather flock together. When you lie down with the dogs, you get up with the fleas. I haven’t run across a single “Bob” who is doctrinally sound in all areas except for yoking with false teachers. All the “Bobs” I recommend against are biblically problematic in other areas of their theology as well.

And just to be clear, the “Bobs” I recommend against are not appearing at a conference with “Joel Osteen” or preaching at his “church” and rebuking him or correcting his false doctrine (see #3 above). “Bob” is either preaching basically the same thing as “Joel,” or his preaching is flying enough under the radar that “Joel” doesn’t think “Bob” is disagreeing with him. If “Joel” thought “Bob” was rebuking him, that would be the last time “Bob” was ever invited to speak at “Joel’s” conference or “church”.

And that’s what I want to circle back to in the Got Questions article linked above. The example of secondary separation they give is this:

Secondary separation works like this:
a) Mr. False is a heretic, teaching a false gospel.
b) We refuse to associate with Mr. False (and rightly so).
c) Mr. True, who is a sound, biblical teacher, speaks at a conference where Mr. False is also speaking.
d) We now refuse to associate with Mr. True, because of his association with Mr. False.

Point “c” is a false premise, because Secondary Separation assumes “Mr. True” is doctrinally sound. First of all, if “Mr. True” is known to be a doctrinally sound, Titus 1:9 preacher, he doesn’t get invited to speak at conferences that also invite heretics. Outside of debates (which are different from conferences), it just doesn’t happen. Second, I would challenge anyone to show me a “sound, biblical teacher” (“Mr. True”) who would knowingly (see #1 above) agree to speak at a conference with a heretic. Part of being a “sound, biblical teacher” is being discerning and obeying Titus 1:9 and all the other Scriptures that command us to rebuke, expose, and stay away from false teachers. In other words, if “Mr. True” is knowingly and non-rebukingly yoking with false teachers, he is, by definition, not a “sound, biblical teacher”.

5. Yoking with false teachers introduces “Bob’s” followers to those false teachers. When “Bob” yokes with “Joel Osteen,” his followers understand him to be saying, “I approve of Joel and agree (or at least don’t disagree much) with his teaching.”. “Bob” has just introduced his followers to a false teacher, and many of them will start following “Joel” and being deceived by him. This is one of the foundational reasons why Scripture tells us to stay away from false teachers – it’s confusing to others and can lead them astray.

So when I warn against “Bob” for yoking in ministry with “Joel,” I’m not making the statement, “I believe in and apply the law of Second Degree Separation.” It’s much more an issue of, “Is the type of person who habitually and unrepentantly yokes with false teachers really the type of person you should receive teaching from and be influenced by?”. I think the Bible’s answer to that question is a clear and resounding “No.”.

Additional Resources:

Popular False Teachers & Unbiblical Trends

Answering the Opposition- Responses to the Most Frequently Raised Discernment Objections

Is She a False Teacher? 7 Steps to Figuring It Out on Your Own

If you have a question about: a Bible passage, an aspect of theology, a current issue in Christianity, or how to biblically handle a family, life, or church situation, comment below (I’ll hold all questions in queue {unpublished} for a future edition of The Mailbag) or send me an e-mail or private message. If your question is chosen for publication, your anonymity will be protected.