the weblog of Alan Knox

Separating the sheep from the sheep

Posted by on Feb 4, 2008 in unity | 24 comments

There are several interesting passages spoken by Jesus about his coming in the end times to separate from sheep from the goats (Matt. 25:33) or to separate from the wheat from the tares (Matt. 13:30). Most agree that these are eschatological (end times) images of those who are children of God being separated from those who are not children of God – or, believers being separated from non-believers.

Today, though, it seems that followers of Jesus Christ are often more interested in separating the sheep from other sheep. Of course, this desire to separate the “true” sheep from other sheep, didn’t start recently. If we look back at the early Christian writings, we will see that Christians were separating themselves from other Christians.

But, then again, we can look all the way back to the New Testament, and we see over and over again that believers were practicing sheep separation:

For before certain men came from James, he [Peter] was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. (Galatians 2:12-13 ESV)

I [Paul] appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” (1 Corinthians 1:10-12 ESV)

I [John] have written something to the church, but Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our authority. So if I come, I will bring up what he is doing, talking wicked nonsense against us. And not content with that, he refuses to welcome the brothers, and also stops those who want to and puts them out of the church. (3 John 1:9-10 ESV)

Each of these negative examples were corrected by Scripture. And, these negative examples are balanced by many positive encouragements to walk in unity, to fellowship with one another, to build one another up instead of attempting to destroy one another.

However, in spite of the many warnings and exhortations from Scripture, we continue to think that it is our duty to separate ourselves from other “sheep” who are not like us in some ways – and, of course, we get to choose which things are important and which things are not important. We pick which “doctrines” are necessary, which “doctrines” are important, and which “doctrines” are not as important, thereby separating ourselves from brothers and sisters in Christ.

Of course, if we were to allow ourselves to hang around with other Christians who are different than us, then it would mean that we would have to deal with them in love, peace, patience, humility, gentleness, kindness, perseverance… these sound familiar. I suppose that living in the unity that Scripture describes would require that we actually walk in the Spirit and not simply walk with those who are like us.

But, I wonder though… what would happen if we actually stopped trying to separate sheep from sheep? What would happen if we actually tried to live with other sheep – even those sheep who are different from us? I wonder what would happen…

I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. (John 17:20-23 ESV)


Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 2-4-2008

    Good insight Alan. I recently did a pretty in depth study of the wheat and the tares (likely too big for a blog) that unearthed great truths for me!

    My “job” is simply to make sure that I’m a mature, harvest-ready wheat. While it is good to discern the real from the imitation, the reaping is God’s business!

  2. 2-4-2008


    The title and content of this post is very insightful. I believe it is an angle that ought to cause a lot of people to think.

    Of course, what you say here must be tempered, though, by the obligation to separate from those who are truly infidels or heretics, and to exhort, rebuke, and correct other “sheep” who may have gone astray in one way or another.

  3. 2-4-2008

    Yep. Good post again Alan. I think you made a little typo when writing “Paul” instead of “John” for the 3 John reference.
    ~ Mike

  4. 2-4-2008


    I’d love to read some of your insights into the wheat and tares. In this post, I intentionally moved away from the “wheat/tares” imagery. I think too many times we apply that metaphor – and other similar metaphors – to other Christians.


    I don’t think “truly infidels” would be “sheep”. However, I agree that part of being “sheep” together is to exhort, rebuke, and correct other sheep, as well as to accept exhortation, rebuke, and correction from other sheep.


    Thanks for pointing out my typo. I’ve corrected it.


  5. 2-4-2008


    I agree about infidels not being “sheep.” Sometimes, it is impossible to distinguish between “sheep” and “goats.” But, when we can distinguish, we should separate from the “goats.”

    “The sins of some men are obvious, reaching the place of judgment ahead of them; the sins of others trail behind them.” 1 Tim. 5:24

  6. 2-4-2008

    Great post. It’s something that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately.

  7. 2-5-2008


    I think it depends on what you mean by separate from the goats. I think Scripture is clear that we should separate from anyone who claims to be a brother or sister, and yet is not. At the same time, Scripture is also clear that we are to spend time with unbelievers, perhaps even to the extent that Jesus did – that is, until some religious people may associate us with the unbelievers as “drunks and gluttons”.


    I’d love to hear what you have been thinking about this topic.


  8. 2-5-2008

    Alan. Actually, I both see where you are coming from, and I don´t understand. It seems that you are saying that the question of which are “inside” the kingdom is an obvious one. To me, it is definitely not so. Which are “the sheep” to you? Those confessing the name of Jesus? The baptized? The 1,5 billion “christians” of the world (70% or so of the population of the states?)? Please explain.
    /Jonas Lundström

  9. 2-5-2008

    Great post, and I’d like to know more about what David means.

  10. 2-5-2008


    The “sheep” are those who belong to Jesus, who hear his name, who are part of his fold. No, it is not always easy to differentiate the “sheep” from the “goats”. But, this was not my concern in this post. Instead, there are many who readily separate from others who they also recognize as “sheep”. I think this is the biblical definition of “heresy” (“division”).


    Perhaps David will reply. He usually does.


  11. 2-6-2008


    Paul made a clear division between deliberate deceivers who have crept into our midst and those who are in the flock who have been deceived. While some are willing to separate themselves from everyone who doesn’t believe as they do, we are not told to do that in scripture. True heretics who distort the faith that has been “once delivered to the saints” are to be expelled from the body while those who have been deceived are to be brought tighter into the flock so that they may be taught and nurtured by the church.

    When it comes to believers who are united in all the major doctrines but who differ in minor points of debatable doctrine, we should hold fast the unity of the body while seeing these differences as an opportunity to practice grace, patience and agape love. Christians these days are way too quick to cry “Heretic!” regarding differences in secondary level doctrines. The issue of women in ministry is just such a case where many have become so willing to separate that they have made it an issue of salvation. To them if you believe that women are allowed to teach the bible to men publicly, you are sinning against God and surely on your way to hell.

    Your article was very good and a good reminder for us that when we separate from other sheep we are hurting the shepherd who died for the sheep. We cannot forget that division hurts him even more than it hurts us.

  12. 2-6-2008


    Thank you for the comment. “Women in ministry” is a topic that often breeds heated debate and division from each side. As you said, this is not an issue of salvation, and should not be an issue for fellowship.


  13. 2-9-2008

    I was wondering if you could you clarify your last sentence in the previous comment, Alan. Are you stating that you believe that things that aren’t an issue of salvation also shouldn’t be an issue for fellowship?

    Just Wondering,

  14. 2-9-2008

    I won’t speak for Alan, but my thought is that I do not believe that any issues other than issues of actual salvation should be cause for breaking fellowship.

    Many seem to think this is impossible, but I believe it is more in line with the spirit of Christ.

    My impression from Paul’s writings about separating is that it was always issues of 1) salvation or 2) unrepentant sin. It was precisely the issues of following different leaders (perhaps different teachings about non-salvific issues) that Paul spoke against in 1 Corinthians.

  15. 2-9-2008


    From reading through the Scriptures, it seems that there are several reasons for separating from other people who claim to be believers: unrepentant sin, claiming that Jesus is not the Son of God, claiming that Jesus did not come in the flesh, refusal to work, and divisiveness. I do not find an instance where a believers separates from another believers because of disagreements concnering other issues. However, if you know of something, I’d be glad to hear you out.


  16. 2-9-2008


    I just remembered that I left out a reason for separating from someone who claims to be a believers: false teaching. However, “false teaching” in Scripture does not mean teaching that I disagree with, it means teaching that is contrary to the gospel.


  17. 2-9-2008

    Since I came across this site I have been doing some reading here and find a lot of what is written very thought provoking. On this particular subject I wanted to comment but I please understand that I write a lot from my own experiences. I don’t have a college degree in Theology, but I do have many life experiences.
    This subject really breaks my heart and this is why. Six years ago, I lost my 16 year old daughter in a house fire. It was the hardest thing I had to ever go through. My ex belonged to a church which I was not a member of. I went to another denomination at the time. My ex’s church held a service after her death. The church would not include me in any of the planning of the service. I was considered an outsider because I was not a part of their church. What they did at the service shocked many of us. They seperated us. My family and friends had to sit on one side of the church and my ex’s family and church members were told to sit on the other side. They seperated us. I found that very upsetting. I was never mentioned during the service, it was as if I never existed. I think the saddest thing about it all was that this should have been a time of coming together, not a time to hurt each other. It still breaks my heart when I think about it. I was treated like I was the enemy and I wasn’t. I love the same God that they do, and I am a child of God, like they are. So why was I treated so indifferently? It really makes no sense. This really affected a lot of people who went to the service. Some of them were unbelievers and left very bitter at what happened. My dad took it very hard. Sometimes, when others witness this kind of thing they think it is somehow God doing this. I had to tell everyone who was upset that this didn’t come from God. God did not make them treat me that way. We all make our own choices in how we treat others and we all have choices in how we respond to it.
    How did I respond? I didn’t do anything. I know that this is between them and God now. All God asks me to do is forgive and love those who hurt me. It’s hard though when the hurt comes from the family of God…the same family you belong to.

  18. 2-9-2008


    Yes. When God’s people are walking in his Spirit, they can be the most loving people in the world. When they are not walking in his Spirit, than can be very mean, petty, superficial, etc. Thank God that he is faithful even when his children are not.


  19. 2-9-2008

    Alan, were you responding to me or the other Steve?

    I forgot about “not working”, but most of the other stuff was included in what I was considering “salvation” issues. Maybe that’s too broad for me to lump together, though.

    Good thoughts.

  20. 2-10-2008

    Steve Sensenig,

    My two comments above were in response to the other Steve’s comment. Sorry for the confusion.


  21. 10-31-2011

    Stacy and I just went over Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 yesterday.

    This si some of what we came up with:

    In yet another agri-theological parable, Jesus likens the kingdom to good seed which has been sown into the field of the world. As both the “Son of Man” and the “Seed of Abraham” (Gal. 3:16), Jesus could be viewed as both the sower and the seed, the giver and the gift. Those identified with and related to Jesus Christ by the presence of His life and activity within them are Christ-ones, Christians, “sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:26), “sons of the kingdom” transferred into the kingdom of the Beloved Son (Col. 1:13). Only by the indwelling dynamic of His life are we His seed, sons, children, or offspring. Christians are identified as “good seed” only because the goodness of God is operative in them and such goodness can only be sown and grown by God.

    The kingdom has been planted in the world of mankind by the “finished work” (John 19:30) of Jesus Christ, and God continues to cause His life to grow in His people who are participants in the kingdom. Such growth and fruition is not threatened by birds, rocks, thorns or weeds. God’s good is not going to be overcome by evil. “The gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18). The kingdom and the seeds of the kingdom are not in danger of being destroyed by the Evil One and the seeds of the weeds, which serve only as interference and inconvenience. The kingdom, the crop, the harvest are not threatened. The danger of uprooting comes only when the activist servants start yanking out plants.

    While the farmer was getting his much needed sleep at night (no negligent napping is implied), an enemy came under the cover of darkness and sowed counterfeit seeds of weeds, tares, darnel or cheat. The diabolic Evil One, Satan, the devil, is the enemy and adversary of God’s work of grace in Jesus Christ. The weed seed that he plants are “sons of the Evil one.” Though John indicates that “the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious” (I John 3:10), the obviation is in the fruit that they bear rather than in the external foliage of bodily recognition. The wheat and the counterfeit cheat weed look very similar and are almost indistinguishable; their appearance is not so obviously different. But when the servants saw the plants growing in the field they were able to recognize that both wheat and cheat were growing side by side. They asked the owner of the field why the weeds were sown in the field, and he replied, “An enemy has done this.” Religious scholars have often been preoccupied with the problem of evil and why God allows terrible things to happen, the theological question of theodicy, but the Biblical answer is quite straightforward, “An enemy has done this,” and that enemy is the adversary, the Evil One, the diabolic devil, the sin-producing Satan. Though defeated by the “finished work” of Jesus Christ, the devil is still active in his hindrances and misrepresentations of God’s work. The context of the kingdom of God on earth contains an inevitable admixture of good and evil, genuine and counterfeit, Spirit and flesh (For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever[a] you want. -Gal. 5:17). The presence of these antithetical spiritual activities does not imply that God got caught napping, allowing the devil to sneak in and do his evil deeds. God is quite aware of the presence and necessity of these contrasting operations.

    The servants inquire of the landowner whether he would have them to tear out the weeds in order to leave the wheat to stand alone. Religion has often sought to create a community of the pure, holy and righteous by separating and casting out what they believe and perceive to be aberrations in order to develop an exclusivistic stand of elitists. The meaning of the word “Pharisee” is derived from the root of “separatism.” The Messianic expectation of the Jews of the first century was that the reign of God would come with a great separation between Jew and Gentile, expelling the pagan Gentiles and establishing a nationalistic racial and religious kingdom. Religious separatists have attempted to “play God” throughout the centuries of human history by exercising their own judgment in order to purge the community of God’s people from alleged unfit and unworthy members. Preoccupied with the problem of misrepresentation, they have engaged in programs and pogroms to extricate evil, sending forth heresy-hunters on witch-hunts of inquisitions demanding excommunication of all nonconformists.

    Religionists seem to think that God is rather impotent to preserve His own and needs their help, someone to “go to bat” for Him as His “designated hitter” in order to “mop up” opposition. They fail to recognize that “the battle is the Lord’s” (I Sam 17:47; II Chron. 20:15), and the war has already been won in the “finished work” of Christ. God does not need zealous activistic soldiers who go out to fight evil, redress the wrongs, and eliminate the dissidents in premature judgmentalism which endangers and expels true followers of Jesus Christ. God knows whose are His (II Tim. 2:19), and He only expects His people to “stand firm” in who they are in Christ (Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong. -I Cor. 16:13; Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. -Eph. 6:11, Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. -13, Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, -14; Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends! -Phil. 4:1; Epaphras, who is one of you and a servant of Christ Jesus, sends greetings. He is always wrestling in prayer for you, that you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured. -Col. 4:12; For now we really live, since you are standing firm in the Lord. -I Thess. 3:8; So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the teachings[a] we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter. -II Thess. 2:15), rather that attempting to fight His battles for Him. The divisive and destructive tactics of separatistic religion are the methods of the destroyer, as they engage in activistic attacks to avenge, abolish and annihilate with the militaristic strong-arm methods of political power-plays and violent vendettas. Satan loves to sucker God’s people into divisive judgmentalism and fighting, for they are then doing his destructive job for him and doing more harm than good.

    The landowner told the servants not to attempt to separate the wheat from the weeds, the sons of the kingdom from the sons of the evil one, for in so doing they were liable to uproot and oust genuine Christians. Religious men do not have sufficient knowledge, perception and perspective in order to differentiate between what is of God and what is of Satan, between absolute good and relative good, etc. Only God in His divine discernment “knows whose are His” (II Tim. 2:19), and what is derived from Him and what is not.

    So what is to be our response to the interferences and misrepresentations of Satan in the context of the kingdom? We are to forbear, “stand firm,” and allow God to bring forth the fruit of His character. “Let both grow together until the harvest,” Jesus said. The Greek word aphete means to “let, leave, allow, or permit,” and is the root of the word aphiemi which means “to forgive.” “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Lk. 23:34). Does this imply a passivism or pacifism of non-interference and non-resistance wherein we do nothing to stand up for the way of righteousness? Apparently so, when it comes to engaging in divisive separatistic endeavors that disrupt the participants of the kingdom.

    The separating will eventually come in the harvest of God’s judgment. The ultimate and inexorable victory of God’s kingdom will allow the sons of the kingdom to be eternally gathered into the unhindered heavenly presence of God, and the weeds will be bound in bundles and destroyed in the furnace of gehenna fire. Such separating will be absolutely just and in accord with each man’s reception or rejection of Jesus Christ.

  22. 10-31-2011

    Whenever you hear the “Pharisee-separatists” in the church announce that they are going to clean up the church or purify the church you can be sure that a bunch of evil is about to break loose and they will almost never realize or admit they were the cause of it being used of teh enemy to do his work.

  23. 6-24-2013

    I think I agree and disagree the the premise here. Agree that we’re to walk in love with all the saints and to live peaceably with all men. We know that diversity in giftedness, for instance, is a blessing and a catalyst for church health (1 Cor. 12). This type of diversity is so often confused with diversity of belief and practice. Diversity in what we believe about the bible and how we live it out can be dangerous and divisive. We’ve seen over the years that diversity in belief/practice divides (see Protestant denominations) and even worse, causes brothers to fall into major error (cults).

    To me, the question is, “Do we strive for oneness of belief and practice, or should we just concede we’re going to agree to disagree in certain areas?” I would answer ‘strive for oneness in belief and practice’ (based on passages such as Jn. 17:23, Phil. 2:2, 1 Cor. 1:10, and Rom. 15:6 1 Cor. 14:33 to name a few). The idea of agreeing to disagree is as foreign to scripture as are Robert’s rules of order. The goal is to draw closer to the Lord becoming more like His Son – and as we become more like Him, unity will follow as a blessed by-product. In Him, there is can only be one right answer to all questions of faith and life. But, rather than separating from sheep, we should be trying to help move certain sheep closer to Him in love and patience – and unity will follow.

  24. 6-24-2013


    I agree that we should seek to help one another “draw closer to the Lord becoming more like His Son.” When we do this, we must approach with humility, recognizing that we could be the ones who need move closer to Him. So, can we maintain our unity during that disagreement? I say that we can, if we our unity is in Jesus Christ instead of our interpretations, beliefs, and practices.