the weblog of Alan Knox

Is unity important?

Posted by on Aug 14, 2009 in community, discipline, unity | 25 comments

In light of my post yesterday called “Convictions without Separation,” I thought I would re-publish this post that I wrote about two and a half years ago called “Is unity important?” There is a very important discussion going on among the church right now considering unity. I’m hoping that this idea of unity moves out of the discussion phase and into the living phase soon.

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Is unity important?

A few days ago, I posted a blog called “Unity in Christ…” For hundreds of years – perhaps over a thousand years – the church was (more or less) united through hierarchy and doctrine. During the reformation, something incredible happened. Though believers sought to return to Scripture, they also began dividing. Today, the institutional church looks like a jigsaw puzzle with very few matching pieces. Why?

According to Scripture, there are various reasons that believers should separate from one another. (When I say “separate”, I mean refusing to fellowship, teach, and gather together.) However, in each of those instances, one group of believers is separate from an individual believer. This separation only happens after attempts to reconcile have failed. Also, there are only a few reasons given for dividing. More importantly, though, it seems that in Scripture, when a group of believers separates from someone, they begin to treat that person as if he or she is an unbeliever. We never see an example of believers separating from one another, while continuing to treat each other as believers.

What are some reasons for separating from someone who calls himself or herself a believer? I’ve found these reasons:

  • Unrepentant Sin (Matt 18:15-20; 1 Cor 5:1-5)
  • Disorderliness (2 Thess 3:6)
  • Refusal to Work (2 Thess 3:7-10)
  • False Teaching (contrary to the Gospel) (2 Thess 3:14-15; 1 Tim 1:20; 2 John 10-11)

In the last case, this always seems to be false teaching related to the gospel. In other words, believers should separate from someone who is teaching salvation through someone or something other than Jesus Christ. This kind of “false teaching” does not mean that someone teaches a different brand of eschatology from someone else. Teaching ideas contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ was considered “false teaching” – not teaching differently.

Scripture gives us one more reason for separating from another person who calls himself or herself a believer: divisiveness. Consider these passages of Scripture:

I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive. (Romans 16:17-18 ESV)

As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned. (Titus 3:10-11 ESV)

In both of these passages, believers are urged to separate from someone who is attempting to divide the church. And, thinking about the other passages on discipline (i.e. Matt 18:15-20), this means that believers are to treat a divisive person as an unbeliever. This only works if there is true community/fellowship between believers. Only then will discipline affect the person being divisive. If the church has little community or fellowship, then the divisive person will not care if he or she is being disciplined. He will not care if other people are separating themselves from him, because he will not be missing anything.

When I put these thoughts together, something occurs to me. Unity is necessary if discipline is going to be a deterrent from divisiveness (or any other unrepentant sin). Think about that for a moment. In order for discipline to be effective, there must be unity. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that we rarely see discipline today: discipline doesn’t work because there is no unity to begin with. Of course, this is just one reason that the church should live in unity. There are many, many more reasons.

May we begin to live in unity with brothers and sisters in Christ, even if we disagree with them.


25 Comments

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  1. 8-14-2009

    Alan,

    How does this work practically in a society that is predominately christian. Here is what I mean.

    Scenario1: I am meeting with a group but my theology changes lets use for instance soteriologically. Would it be wrong to leave this group of believers because you can’t freely express this new found teaching without being labeled a threat (lets see that it is gentle….) to the current theology of the church and go to the church around the corner that agrees with you, even though it isn’t an ugly break?

    Scenario 2 (real one): This one is a bit more personal. I believe the meeting should be open and paticaptory. I believe the pulpit should be removed and teaching given amongst the body. I also believe in congregational consensus versus “elder ruled”. Not to mention I also believe that women can teach (this is more a pulpit/authoratative teaching argument) and be deacons. Was it wrong for me to talk with my leadership team (I was one of the leaders) and decide to leave to meet with a group who expresses more what I believe? Not to mention I disagreed with the paid staff model also.

    Scenario 3: I have been meeting with a group. This group beleives one can lose their salvation, not to mention I am not sure if I agree that a group should start with entrenced “shepherds/leaders” but should rather start people with a committment to pursue Christ while walking in our giftedness and then let leaders be set aside and birthed through experience and example. Is it wrong to decide not to committ to that group or since I am in some type of fellowship already, do I just stay in order not to be divisive.

  2. 8-14-2009

    Just thinking out loud a bit about this…

    It seems to me there are two different types of convictions: personal convictions, and group (or congregational) convictions.

    Personal convictions would include such matters as options in soteriology (i.e. Calvinist vis-a-vis Arminian issues), eschatology, continuationism vis-a-vis cessationism, etc.

    Group convictions include matters that, by their nature, affect the functioning of an entire congregation, such as the possibility of women elders, baptism, elder vs. congregational rule, etc.

    I suppose that what is permitted to be taught before the group on matters of personal convictions ends up becoming a question of group conviction as well (which further complicates the matter).

    Although there are models, such as that proposed by Eric, in which you can practice both believers baptism and infant baptism in the same congregation, it is awkward, and, in many cases, close to impossible for differing positions on group convictions to peacefully coexist within the same congregation. By default, it seems to me, you must, with varying degrees of enforcement, take sides with one view or another in the way you carry out the day to day functioning of a congregation. You can’t, for example, allow for women elders, and not allow for women elders, all at the same time.

    Yet, just because one congregation decides that (for example), in their day-to-day functioning they will not allow for women elders does not mean that they necessarily have to anathematize all the other groups that choose to allow for women elders.

    Now, when it comes to inter-congregational cooperation for ministry projects, we have other issues to consider. Is it biblically valid to align with other like-minded congregations (and not with other non-like-minded congregations) for the purpose of carrying out certain ministry projects. Does this relatively exclusive cooperation necessarily impinge on the degree of true Christian koinonia our congregation shares with other Christian congregations?

    In practical terms, it seems to me that, more often than not, it does.

    However, I wonder (still thinking out loud) if it is possible to promote a model of unity that distinguishes between inter-congregational cooperation for ministry projects, and true Christian koinonia; and that openly manifests an abhorence of any exclusive cooperation that gets in the way of open koinonia among all true believers.

    Exactly how this would work, I am not totally sure.

    Does any of this make sense? Any further suggestions?

  3. 8-14-2009

    Lionel,

    If you’re asking about particular situations in your own life (whether in the past or something currently happening), I’d prefer not to deal with right/wrong actions or motives. However, as far as I can tell, the only reasons for separation between believers is what I mentioned in this post. (BTW… it is possible that 3 John indicates it is valid to separate from someone who is attempting to usurp Jesus’ headship of the church.)

    David,

    Thank you for the comment. I’ve appreciated your work in the area of unity. I wonder… what is the real difference between personal convictions and group convictions? Aren’t group convictions simply personal convictions held by a group because we tend to congregate with people who agree with us?

    -Alan

  4. 8-14-2009

    I think my readers my also be interested in this link to a church in Wake County, NC who is attempting to live in unity with others who hold differing views of baptism:

    http://swcassembly.org/principles#faqDoctrinalPosition

    -Alan

  5. 8-14-2009

    Alan,

    I am not really talking motives, I guess I am asking based off of the post is that being divisive?

  6. 8-14-2009

    Alan,

    As I am seeing it (at least, for now) group convictions are those types of things in which, for pragmatic reasons, it is very awkward, or close to impossible, to hold differing views, and still maintain normal functioning of the group.

    Or to put it another way, group convictions are those matters on which it is practically impossible (or at least, very awkward) for a group, as a group, to remain officially neutral. On these matters, even the decision not to take a position is a decision to take a position of neutrality, which eliminates all non-neutral positions from being official group positions.

    For example, someone may have a personal conviction that local church membership should be limited to only those who have been baptized by immersion as believers. Someone else may have a personal conviction that infant sprinkling plus a profession of faith are valid for local church membership. Once a local congregation makes a joint decision to allow members who have not been baptized by immersion as believers, though, they have expressed a group conviction that believers baptism is not absolutely essential for local church membership.

    I suppose it is possible for an individual with certain personal convictions to decide to congregate regularly with a group of believers of which the majority each held other personal convictions. This, no doubt, happens on occasion. But, as you observe, human tendency (perhaps sinful human tendency?) is that “birds of a feather flock together.”

  7. 8-14-2009

    Alan,

    One thing I’ve learned is that if anyone aspires to walk a road that resembles anything close to a biblical ecclesiology, it is the road less traveled. I also don’t expect to find 100% agreement between any two individuals regarding theology in general and ecclesiology in particular.

    As a result, some degree of compromise will always be in order. Sometimes that compromise will be over an issue that is trivial to me, but huge to someone else in the congregation; other times it will be just the reverse.

    I believe accepting compromise, especially over issues that are important to us requires humility and putting others first. This can really be challenging sometime.

    The alternative is to change churches to suit whatever personal views we hold on theology at that point in time

  8. 8-14-2009

    Lionel,

    I don’t know. I know that I’ve made decisions to separate from believers before (choosing not to meet with them) based on reasons that I do not (now) think are biblical reasons.

    David,

    I think it would be difficult to find non-organizational functioning that cannot be carried out between people of differing beliefs. In other words, if we talking about the relational nature of the church (and not the structural/institutional nature of church organizations), then people with differing beliefs can certainly function very well together. Its only when we begin to enforce our beliefs on others (i.e. you must be baptized like us to be part of our group… i.e. “church membership”) that I think we run into problems.

    Jeff,

    I agree with your comment. I can also confirm by my own experience that it is difficult to humble myself (admitting that I might actually be wrong?) in order to accept someone whose beliefs are different from my own, yet who is obviously a brother or sister in Christ.

    -Alan

  9. 8-14-2009

    So, Alan, if I am understanding you correctly, you would say that all those who have strong personal convictions about “church membership” and the “office of elder,” etc. are automatically causing division by their strong personal convictions on these matters?

  10. 8-14-2009

    David,

    Are the people using their convictions about “church membership” and “office of elder” to divide from other believers? If so, then, yes, they are being divisive.

    This is one my main concerns with “church membership”. By definition, “church membership” assumes that some are in and some are out, regardless of their relationship with and acceptance by Christ. That seems like a good definition of “divisive” as well.

    -Alan

  11. 8-14-2009

    Alan,

    You are dividing with me over being divisive :o)!!!! Thanks for the insight.

  12. 8-14-2009

    Alan,

    I’m not trying to be difficult–just trying to understand your position better. But… how do you imagine you would handle it at Messiah if a believing couple with paedobaptist convictions began to attend the meetings, and after a while, requested that you have a public meeting in order to “baptize” their newborn baby?

  13. 8-14-2009

    Lionel,

    I hope I’m not being divisive… I’m certainly not separating from you. :)

    David,

    I can tell you that the couple would be welcomed, loved, and allowed to fellowship and even teach, just as are all believers. I think if they taught about paedobaptism, people would listen to them and discuss the issues with them. If they decided to baptize their infant, many people would probably attend the baptism in order to support them, just as many people attend baptisms now to support those families. Since we are primarily a baptist group (although several do not come from a baptist background), I’m sure that several would raise their eyebrows at this and wonder why something wasn’t being done about it. Of course, these same people are probably now used to me and others say something like, “Have you talked with them about it yet?” Somehow, when we actually talk to the people instead of talking to other about them, the relationships usually take first place over the differences.

    In other words, everyone would not be happy about the infant baptism. However, I’m certain that everyone (or at least almost everyone) would treat this family as brothers and sisters in Christ.

    That said, organizationally, we will not accept “members” unless they are baptized by immersion after a profession of faith. But, then again, we don’t confuse organizational membership with church membership.

    -Alan

  14. 8-14-2009

    Alan,

    Thanks for your answer. It gives me a little more insight into your view. But, actually, my question was even a little more difficult than that. I asked (or at least meant to ask), what if the couple requested that the brothers and sisters at Messiah organize, sponsor, and perform the infant “baptism” yourselves?

    Also, that is a very interesting point about organizational membership vs. church membership. It would be helpful for me if you could explain a bit futher about the distinction you make between the two.

    Do you, for instance, consider the entity called Messiah Baptist Church to be an organization, a church, or both?

    And, what is the biblical basis for organizational membership as something separate and different from church membership?

  15. 8-14-2009

    Alan,

    I’m not sure if you read the following post of mine or not. But, in case not, it should give you a little more background to some of the thoughts behind my comments here.

    http://www.sbcimpact.net/2009/07/28/local-church-membership-and-city-church/

  16. 8-14-2009

    Consider the importance Jesus attached to unity in His prayer for us, and unity’s role in achieving what we are sent to do:

    Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth. As thou hast sent me into the world, even so have I also sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, that they also might be sanctified through the truth. Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. -John17:17-21

    The RSV and NIV emphasize, “so that the world may believe . . .” It would seem that demonstrable unity is a critical precondition for the Church to succeed in her mission to evangelize the world.

    Unity can be likened to one of the key ingredients for a plant to grow: seed, soil, water, sun. In that we are to be a light, we might liken unity to the sun. Without sunlight, you have only a marginal chance of growing mushrooms.

    Unity can also be likened to the second witness in a trial, who confirms the testimony given that Jesus is the Son of God. Without the confirmation of the truth, the jury will disregard the allegations.

    If we were to consider unity of critical importance to fulfilling our mission to reach a lost world with the gospel, then we can work out the mechanics. We can agree that unity must be possible (or God cannot plan wisely), and we can then place the blame not on God’s plan, but on our hard hearts, stiff necks, and, well, sin.

    Once admitting sin is the root cause of division, and that division is not godly (not even division in Jesus’ name), then we can examine our hearts, back up, and find a way forward together.

    The great difficulty is, this unity is not confined to a congregation, but to all of us who believe. In America alone there are today 215 denominational headquarters listed in the Handbook of Denominations in the United States, 10th edition.

    We have to stop excusing our competitiveness, find shame in our ability to turn against our family members in Christ, and drop our pride and desire to be esteemed more highly, letting go of our natural drive to achieve a higher place.

    In its place, we might take up not only our cross, not only our staff (for disciplining sin among us), but take up our mission, and our place in His work building His church.

    Only let your conversation be as it becometh the gospel of Christ: that whether I come and see you, or else be absent, I may hear of your affairs, that ye stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel -Philippians 1:27

    Striving not with each other, but together for the faith of the gospel.

  17. 8-14-2009

    David,

    You asked, “What if the couple requested that the brothers and sisters at Messiah organize, sponsor, and perform the infant ‘baptism’ yourselves?” The only thing that we organize or sponsor corporately is our Sunday morning meeting. Even baptisms are held separately. The person who is being baptized chooses the place and asks someone to baptize him/her. We encourage the person to be baptized by a person instrumental in their discipleship. So, I’m assuming the parents would make these arrangements and invite others in the church to take part.

    (We do other things corporately, but these things are normally organized by one of the brothers or sisters who is concerned about the specific issue involved.)

    “Messiah Baptist Church, Inc.” is an organization. In fact, when we have our annual business meeting, we make sure that people know we’re discussing organizational issues. Of course, as believers, we’re still concerned with how we interact with one another during those times as well. We continue to have membership, primarily because of our student population… i.e. the seminary requires some type of formal membership.

    The believers who meet together, live together, disciple one another, serve one another and the community, etc. are the church and are members of the body of Christ and members of one another whether or not they share organizational membership. In fact, most people find that nothing changes when they join “Messiah Baptist Church, Inc.”

    By the way, as far as I’m concerned, “Messiah Baptist Church, Inc.” is completely unnecessary and can become a hindrance. The necessary part is the “meet together, live together, disciple one another, serve one another and the community, etc.”

    Art,

    Thanks for the comment. I can tell that you’ve put alot of thought into unity in Christ as well. I like this especially: “Once admitting sin is the root cause of division, and that division is not godly (not even division in Jesus’ name), then we can examine our hearts, back up, and find a way forward together.”

    When I desire to separate from another brother or sister in Christ, I must recognize that the problem is with me. Even in those instances mentioned in Scripture (unrepentant sin, divisiveness, false teaching, etc.), it should not be my desire to separate, even though it may be necessary.

    -Alan

  18. 8-14-2009

    Alan,

    Thanks again for your frank and informative answers to my questions. I will drop my “interrogation” about Messiah for the time being, since that is not really the point anyway. I am just curious as to how the ideas you are expressing here might play out in actual real-life situations.

    You will admit, I imagine, that the way you and the other good folks at Messiah deal with these issues is quite a bit different than the vast majority of local congregations out there.

    Teasing this out a little more, do you think your way of handling these matters at Messiah is more biblical than the way most churches handle them? Also, do you think unity in the Body of Christ at large would be furthered and facilitated if other congregations were to deal with these issues the same way that Messiah deals with them? (I’m talking about things like the person getting baptized choosing the place and the person to baptize them, and the only thing organized or sponsored corporately being the Sunday morning meeting.) If so, do you think there is a good way to help them to do so? That could get pretty hairy if most congregations out there were to attempt to transition to a model more like Messiah, don’t you think?

  19. 8-15-2009

    It seems to me that unity is the one indicator that Jesus is dwelling amongst us. Without unity, the church is a willynilly, chaotic group of nut jobs. With it, God works miracles and people leave with hope and joy. Without it there is jockeying for power and in fighting for the soul of the people. With it, there is a group of people who are trying to outdo each in serving and dependence upon God.

    I’ve seen both. One is ugly, the other is beautiful.

  20. 8-15-2009

    David,

    We try to follow Scripture as best we can. We obviously err in many places. Also, there are many places where Scripture does not tell us exactly what to do. In those times and places, we try to do things in such a way as to maintain our identity as family in Christ. I think we have a long way to go (doesn’t every group?), but I’m happy with the direction that we’re heading.

    I would not be comfortable doing things the way that I’ve seen most churches doing them. That’s as far as I’ll go in answering your questions, because I prefer to deal with specifics and to deal with them in relationships.

    Dusty Chris,

    I agree. In fact, this is the comment that I left on one of the posts on Eric’s blog concerning the sacraments/ordinances:

    “If we’re honest with ourselves and with one another, our decision to divide over the sacraments/ordinances demonstrates that Christ is not the focus or center of these sacraments/ordinances.”

    -Alan

  21. 8-15-2009

    Alan,

    Thanks again. I can certainly say that, based upon my experience during the time I have spent with the brothers and sisters there at Messiah, you do indeed seem to be heading in a good direction, putting into practice your family identity and unity with the Body of Christ.

  22. 8-15-2009

    David,

    Thank you. That means alot.

    -Alan

  23. 8-16-2009

    Unity. Hmmm?

    Sometimes good and some times, er, not so good?

    I was just wondering? Don’t know for sure?

    What if God is the author of
    our disagreements and separations?

    Didn’t he confuse man’s language once before?

    Aren’t those things that happened to others,
    written for us to learn from?

    Now all these things happened unto them for
    ensamples: and they are written for our admonition,
    upon whom the ends of the world are come.
    1Co 10:11

    For whatsoever things were written aforetime
    were written for our learning, that we through
    patience and comfort of the scriptures
    might have hope.
    Ro 15:4

    Didn’t God intervene when “man was in unity”
    with their own devices, their own plans,
    trying to build something themselves,
    to reach heaven and
    make a name for themselves?

    Could that be our problem also?

    Man trying to build something?
    And make a name for themselves?
    And being in unity they could accomplish anything?

    …let us build us a city and a tower,
    whose top may reach unto heaven;
    and let us make us a name…
    Gen 11:4

    And the LORD said, Behold,
    the people is one, (unity?)(this dosn’t sound good?)
    and they have all one language; (unity?)(sound alike?)
    and this they begin to do: (work together?)
    and now nothing will be restrained from them,
    (we can do anything, working together?)
    which they have imagined to do. (work of man?)
    Go to, let us go down,
    and there confound their language,
    that they may not understand one another’s speech.
    So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence
    upon the face of all the earth:
    and they left off to build the city.
    Gen 11:6-8

    Read this someplace.
    Don’t no how to check it out.

    I think there are over 2,000 denominations
    in the USA started by man?

    Hmmm? Seperation?
    Languages being confused?
    Not able to understand one anothers speech?

    What about titles? Don’t titles seperate bretheran?

    Let me not, I pray you, accept any man’s person,
    neither let me give flattering titles unto man.
    For I know not to give flattering titles;
    in so doing my maker would soon take me away.
    Job 32:21

    Don’t titles become idols?
    Don’t titles make us a name?
    Don’t titles cause walls of seperation.

    Don’t titles say, I am, you’re not?
    Don’t titles say, we are, they’re not?

    Baptist, Lutheran, Assemblies of God —- separation.

    Reformed, Evangelical, Charismatic —- separation.

    Clergy – Laity —- Leaders – Followers,
    Shepherds – Sheep —– separation.

    Apostle, prophet, pastor, teacher —- separation.

    And some will lord it over others, yes?
    Isn’t that the beginning of spiritual abuse?
    Someone coming between me and my Lord?

    If someone says their title is not an idol,
    just ask them, well if it’s not an idol
    then just get rid of it,
    lay your title down,
    lay your power and prestige down,
    walk away from your reputation,
    become a bretheran,
    become a servant,
    become one with me,
    become a disciple of Christ.

    Didn’t Jesus make himself of no reputation,
    and take upon himself the form of a servant
    and humble himself? Php 2:7

    Don’t titles make a reputation
    whether you want it or not?

    Didn’t Jesus say I receive not honor from men?

    Don’t titles create honor whether you want it or not?

    And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold:
    them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice;
    and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd.
    John 10:16

    One Fold – One Shepherd – One Voice.

    If Not Now, When?

    In His Service. By His Grace.

  24. 8-16-2009

    A. Amos Love,

    Humans can unite around many different things. Christians often unite around a location, a leader, a set of beliefs, etc. But, our should be found only in the person and presence of Jesus Christ.

    -Alan

  25. 8-17-2009

    Alan

    I’ve appreciated your writings on how you meet.

    How the church, the ekklesia, is people.

    How all are to participate.

    It sounds very inviting. I believe I would enjoy
    fellowshipping with you and the brethren,
    as you meet, bless “the least of these” with food and love,
    and search out the truth that seems to be hidden.

    Hmmm? How much more – don’t we know?

    I have also experienced
    and been a part of groups attempting
    to live this way in Christ. It Is Awesome!!!

    But alas, separation, division, church splits,
    (and when you and I split, isn’t that an ekklesia split?)
    seem to be away of life in christiandumb.

    You pour out your heart, your soul, your wallet,
    and the next thing you have is separation. Ouch!!!
    Time and time again. No one seems to escape.

    Broken relationships, broken hearts and lots of tears.

    How long O Lord? Till we are one in you?
    And we can truly love one another
    As you have loved us? How long O Lord?

    We try and try and nothing seems to work, Why Lord?

    How many separations O Lord? Im tired of all
    the separations Lord, the pain and the tears.
    How many separations O Lord?

    And He answered, and He said,

    “I’m not separating you from people.”

    “I’m separating you unto myself.”

    And we know that all things
    work together for good
    to them that love God,
    to them who are the called
    according to his purpose.
    Rom 8:28

    Think not that I am come to send peace on earth:
    I came not to send peace, but a sword.
    For I am come to set a man at variance
    against his father,
    and the daughter against her mother,
    and the daughter in law against her mother in law.
    And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household.
    He that loveth father or mother more than me
    is not worthy of me:
    and he that loveth son or daughter more than me
    is not worthy of me.
    And he that taketh not his cross,
    and followeth after me,
    is not worthy of me.
    Mat 10:34-38

    Suppose ye that I am come to give peace on earth?
    I tell you, Nay; but rather division…
    Luke 12:51

    So there was a division among the people
    because of him.
    John 7:43

    Therefore said some of the Pharisees,
    This man is not of God,
    because he keepeth not the sabbath day.
    Others said, How can a man that is a sinner
    do such miracles?
    And there was a division among them.
    John 9:16

    Hmmm? God wants unity, Yes?
    And God wants division, Yes?

    How could both be truth? Hmmm?

    “I’m not separating you from people.”

    “I’m separating you unto myself.”

    Thank you Jesus.

    Be blessed.

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