The Painful Command
Preliminary Studies in Withdrawal of Fellowship
A friend of mine went out to cut his lawn and after completing the task found that his leg was in pain. This ache in his leg continued to such an extent that he consulted his physician about the problem. Soon medical tests discovered that my friend had cancer. In spite of all that could be done, the leg cancer spread to other portions of his body and he eventually died. If you had leg cancer and the doctor explained that your life could be easily preserved if they would amputate your lower leg at the knee, what would you do? Surely you would allow the lower leg to be lostto save your life.
Imagine peacefully and securely living in a country and the governmental authorities discovered that there was an enemy spy in the land. The spy is apprehended and comes to trial. During the trial it comes to light that the national traitor has been responsible for dozens of deaths and also guilty of betraying critical information to the enemy. Would the government release the criminal so he could pursue his damaging and traitorous activity? Not at all. The criminal would be sent to prison or even put to death.
Consider also the case of the child who is allowed to get his own way. When the child wants something, the parents freely give it. When the child doesnt want to go to bed, he is allowed to stay up until very late. When the child hurts his brother or sister, he is never disciplined. He doesnt know what a spanking is. He is permitted to do whatever he chooseswithout a threat of punishment. What would happen to such a child?
In these three cases, we can learn something very important that will illustrate an important Biblical teaching. In the first case, the cancer must be removed if a life is to be saved. In the second case, a national criminal must be removed and punished, or the nation itself stands in jeopardy. In the third case, a child must be disciplined and punished if he is to grow into a responsible adult. How do these cases illustrate Scriptural principles? As we continue in this study, you will be able to see the relevance of these illustrations.
A Neglected, Compromised, and Perverted Teaching
In the religious world today, some teachings of Scripture are fairly well kept although even some of these are distorted and changed to accommodate sinful behavior and false teaching. Peter says that the untaught and unstable people distort or twist Biblical teaching to their own destruction (2 Peter 3:16). In light of this, the apostle says that we are to be on our guard that we may not be carried away by the error or unprincipled men and fall from [our] own steadfastness (v. 17).
The apostolic teaching that we must briefly examine at this time has indeed been neglected by the majority of churches, avoided by many, and perverted by vast numbers. When I was growing up in one mainline Protestant denomination, I had no idea that this teaching was even found on the pages of Scripture! After that, I was part of a church that knew it was found in the Bible but they never practiced it! Since that time, Ive discovered that very few churches and congregations practice this teaching. While some do have some reference to it on the pages of their church discipline or statement of faith, for some strange reason they seldom actually carry the teaching out. Yet it is found plainly revealed on the pages of the Word of God and, if we are to be faithful to God Himself, we must make an honest and sincere attempt to understand it and practice it, however difficult it may be.
The Teaching Briefly Stated
The withdrawal of fellowship may be defined in the following way. God intends that a person who has come to Christ and forsaken the world and false religion be established in the truth and live a holy, devoted, and righteous life. The Lord intends that such a person live in love and harmony with all others who submit to the Lordship of Christ, who live righteous lives, who know and love the truth, and who live in fellowship with each other. However, when a truly saved person allows sin in his life and refuses to repent of such sin and rejects all attempts by brothers to correct such sin, the body of Christ must withdraw fellowship from such a person until such a time as the person does repent of the sin, confess the sin, and agrees to walk in holiness once again. If a saved person embraces false teaching, false practice, or false ways and refuses to repent, the body of Christ must remove fellowship from this sinful brother or sister. If a saved person refuses to repent of sin and be reconciled to a brother from whom he has become alienated because of sin, that person must be excluded from Christian fellowship. If such a person does come to his senses and repents, fully confessing the sin or false teaching, that person must be accepted in love and fully received back into the body of Christ.
That, in substance, is the meaning of the teaching that we wish to examine in this study. Various terms are used to describe this teaching, some more Scriptural than others. Here is a sampling:
· Withdrawal of fellowship
· Church discipline
· Public rebuke and removal
As we continue our study, we shall examine different aspects of this teaching and see how all the passages of Scripture may harmonize with each other.
A Short Examination of the Scriptures
Obviously a lengthy study of 300 pages could be made on this subject but we must necessarily be brief. For some years I did want to make a more exhaustive study on the topic and have dozens of books on the theme, along with dozens of tracts and perhaps hundreds of articles on it. If I wait until I can produce such a lengthy volume, I fear that nothing will ever be written! This is why we must be brief, while at the same time cover the main passages bearing on the topic. With this in mind, notice the following Scriptural passages.
Please read this passage carefully. Jesus describes a situation in which a person observes his brother committing a sin. This is probably a serious sin of some kind and it may refer to a sin of a personal nature, although the passage may also have application to general sins of a private nature. (Since the section immediately following, vv. 21-35, pertains to personal sins [see especially vv. 21 and 35], this may be the primary thrust of vv. 15-20 as well. The KJV, in fact, has, trespass against thee, in verse 15 [see Bruce Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament for the possible authenticity of eis se].)
The person who observes the sin or is sinned against, must go to the offender in private. If the person repents, reconciliation is effected (v. 15). If the person does not repent, one or two more should be taken to the offender to serve as witnesses (v. 16; cf. 2 Cor. 13:1). Again, if the person repents at this point, reconciliation is effected. However, if the person still refuses to repent, the sin should be taken to the assembly of believers. The Christians as a whole should seek to bring the person to repentance. If he yet refuses to repent, the sinful brother should be treated as a Gentile and a tax collectoras one who is not in the congregation of the saved (v. 17). Jesus promises to be in the midst of a congregation of brothers who take His words seriously in this and act upon them (cf. vv. 18-20). He says, I am there in their midst (v. 20).
Jesus said, Be on your guard! If you brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, I repent, forgive him (vv. 3-4). This shows that the contemporary false teaching of unconditional forgiveness is unscriptural. Gods forgiveness is very conditional (cf. Acts 2:38; 3:19; 1 John 1:7, 9) and our forgiveness is also to be conditional. It is conditioned on the sinners repentance (v. 3) and confession of sin (v. 4).
This passage describes the account of Ananias and Sapphira. These two members of the body in Jerusalem lied publicly before Peter and others (vv. 1-4, 7-9) and immediately they died, apparently brought about by the Lords direct intervention (vv. 5-6, 10). The result was that great fear came over the whole church, and over all who heard of these things (v. 11). The results of this strong measure seemed to be far-reaching (vv. 13-14). Although this is not especially dealing with the withdrawal of fellowship, it does illustrate how God looks upon public, unrepentant sin in the assembly and it illustrates how punishment may affect other people.
Although some may question whether Simon of Samaria was genuinely saved, apparently he experienced a faith and baptism as authentic as the others at Samaria (cf. Acts 8:12-13). This is also indicated by the fact that Simon was urged to repent of specific sin and not of a life of sin in generalwhich would have been essential had he never been born again (vv. 20-24). When he expressed an envious and fleshly attitude by desiring the same power that Peter and John had (in being able to lay hands on believers for the bestowal of the Holy Spirit), Peter said that his heart was not right before God (v. 21). The apostle rebuked Simon with these words: Repent of this wickedness of yours, and pray the Lord that, if possible, the intention of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bondage of iniquity (vv. 22-23). This would illustrate the need for public rebuke when someone sins publicly, especially of a major nature.
Sometimes it is difficult to know for sure whether a given passage is speaking of true Christians who have allowed false teaching to lead them astray, or only professing Christians who have never been genuinely saved. They may have claimed to be brethren but Paul refers to men who were false brethren (2 Cor. 11:26; Gal. 2:4). In the present passage, Paul writes, Now I urge you, brethren, keep your eye on those who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you learned, and turn away from them. For such men are slaves, not of our Lord Christ but of their own appetites; and by their smooth and flattering speech they deceive the hearts of the unsuspecting. We are to keep our eye on or watch out for (NIV) these men who apparently were teachers, and are to turn away from them or keep away from them (NIV). Instead of allowing them to teach in the assembly or even be in the assembly, the Christians must separate themselves from such men who bring teachings and practices contrary to the teaching of the apostles. The body of Christ must be kept free from this wrongful influence.
1 Corinthians 5:1-13
This is the longest passage in the New Testament dealing with the withdrawal of fellowship. Apparently a brother in the Corinthian assembly was having sexual relations with a stepmother (the text says that he [had] his fathers wife, v. 1). Nothing is said of the father in the passage (whether he was a Christian or not). The saints should have mourned about this sin and the fornicator (adulterer?) should have been removed from [their] midst (v. 2). Instead, the assembly must have been proud of having an unconditional love and acceptance for the brother and must have exercised a wrongful tolerance of his sin, for Paul says that they had become arrogant in the matter (v. 2, cf. v. 6).
Pauls response was strong and direct! The body of believers was to assemble and take action in the name of our Lord Jesus and with the power of our Lord Jesus (v. 4). The fornicator was to be delivered to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus (v. 5). The brother was to be taken from the Lords realm (the body of the Lord) and placed back into the realm of Satanwhere he was before salvation.
This passage shows that the action is not to be vindictive or unloving but it is to be remedialit is meant to bring the person to repentance so that the person will be saved when Christ returns and not eternally condemned because of his sexual immorality (notice that 1 Cor. 6:9-10 says that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God). How unlike the contemporary practice of allowing practicing fornicators and (especially) adulterers to remain in the fellowship of denominational churches! The passage also shows that the action is meant to keep sin away from the saints in the body. Paul asks, Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough? (v. 6). He then says, Clean out the old leaven so that you may be a new lump (v. 7). Sin must be removed from the body lest the sin affect others and they too fall into the same or related sins!
The passage uses various phrases to show our response to those who sin in the body of Christ:
· removed from your midst (v. 2)
· deliver such a one to Satan (v. 5)
· clean out the old leaven that you may be a new lump (v. 7)
· not to associate with (v. 9)
· not to associate with (v. 11)
· not even to eat with such a one (v. 12)
· judge those who are within (v. 13)
· remove the wicked man from among yourselves (v. 13)
This teaching of Paul does not just pertain to those guilty of fornication but also to other sins: covetousness (greed), idolatry, reviling (slander, evil speaking), drunkenness, and swindling (vv. 10-11). A comparison of 5:10-11 with 6:9-10 would lead us to think that brothers or sisters guilty of certain other sins must also be removed from the body: adultery, effeminacy, homosexuality, and theft. Surely these two lists were not meant to be exhaustive but simply representative of serious sins that must be excluded from the faithful assembly.
2 Corinthians 2:1-11
In this section Paul may be discussing the repentance of the fornicator who was delivered to Satan in 1 Corinthians 5:1-13, although some suggest that it is referring to the sin of someone entirely different (cf. 2:5). Whatever the identification of the person, we may learn something of sin and repentance from this section. The action of the Corinthian assembly was considered punishment (v. 6), something that is frowned upon in our day. Apparently the person, whoever he was, repented of his sin. Notice what Paul says should be the response of the body: they should forgive and comfort the repentant brother that he might not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow (v. 7). This indicates that correct withdrawal of fellowship should bring a deep sorrow in the life of the sinnera sorrow that leads to repentance (see 7:8-10). Furthermore, the believers should reaffirm [their] love for him (v. 8). When deep repentance occurs, Christians should express their love and acceptance of the person. Notice also that when they had withdrawn fellowship from the person and punished the sinner, this was an indication of the assemblys obedience to the Lord and to Pauls instruction. Paul had put [them] to the test to see if they would be obedient in all things (v. 9). The believers removal of sin from the body is an expression of faith and obedience!
2 Corinthians 7:8-13
We can learn something of the meaning of sorrow and repentance for sin by examining this section. The Corinthians had exercised a sorrow that was according to the will of God that brought repentance (v. 10). Notice also the attitude that they manifested: earnestness, vindication of themselves, indignation, fear, longing, zeal, avenging of wrong (v. 11). This is what must be seen in our midst today!
2 Corinthians 12:20-21; 13:1-3, 7, 10
Paul is concerned that there might be some in Corinth who had not repented of various sinful attitudes and actions (12:20-21). He says that when he comes to them, he will not spare anyone who had sinned and refused to repent (13:2). Every fact about the case will be confirmed by witnesses (v. 1). He wants his letter to correct the wrong so that when he comes in person he might not be forced to use severity according to his authority as an apostle (v. 10). This is similar to his statement in 1 Cor. 4:21: What do you desire? Shall I come to you with a rod, or with love and a spirit of gentleness?
This is a severe section that shows how much peril the Galatian Christians were in because of a distorted gospel. If one should accept a different gospel, Paul says that such a person is actually deserting God who had called them by the grace of Christ (v. 7). One who would preach a different gospel is to be accursed (vv. 8, 9). By implication, one who would also accept a different gospel is to be accursed.
Paul publicly rebuked Peter for his hypocrisy (v. 14). Apparently Peter had been influenced by certain false brethren who refused to accept the full implications of the gospel of Christ (vv. 4-5).
Paul instructs us how to relate to one whom we discover in a given sin. He says, Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted. Bear one anothers burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ. If a brother is caught in any trespass, trapped in some sin (NIV), or caught in the very act of doing something wrong (Williams), we are to restore such a person. The term for restore is katartizete, from katartizo, with the meaning to mend or furnish completely (W.E. Vine, Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words). It was employed to refer to restoring a broken bone. We are to gently mend the persons spiritual problem so that he can be a whole and healed believer once again.
Notice the attitude that we should have in this. We are to be spiritual and have the Spirit (cf. 5:16, 18, 22-26). We are to have an attitude of gentleness (6:1). We are to look to ourselves and be cautious that we do not fall into the same sin (v. 1). And we are to have an attitude of love as we seek to bear our brothers burdens (v. 2).
We formerly walked in darkness but now are to be children of Light (v. 8) and produce the fruit of the Light (v. 9). We are to learn what is pleasing to the Lord (v. 10), and expose the unfruitful deeds of darkness (v. 11). We are to be careful how we walk and understand the will of the Lord (vv. 15-17). These instructions should help us to avoid the various sins Paul mentions and help other believers to avoid them for those who do fall into such sins and remain in them will face the wrath of God (vv. 3-7).
2 Thessalonians 3:6-15
This also is a lengthy section dealing with withdrawal of fellowship from sinful brothers and sisters. Paul issues this command (notice that it was not merely a suggestion): Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from every brother who leads an unruly life and not according to the tradition which you received from us (v. 6). The specific tradition he has in mind is that of living in a disciplined and responsible manner, earning a living, and keeping oneself from laziness and being a busybody (vv. 7-11; cf. 1 Thess. 4:11-12).
Paul says that this pertains to the tradition that he brought to them. Earlier, the apostle commanded, Stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us (2 Thess. 2:15). In another place, Paul had commended the Corinthians in this way: Now I praise you because you remember me in everything and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you (1 Cor. 11:2). The term tradition is from the Greek paradosis and means a handing down or on (W.E. Vine), handing down or over (Arndt and Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament). The verb is paradidomi, meaning hand down, pass on, transmit, relate, teach (Arndt and Gingrich), or to hand over, deliver (W.E. Vine). That which is handed over or handed down may be the tradition of men (Mark 7:8; cf. vv. 3, 7, 9). Jesus accused the Pharisees of invalidating the word of God by their traditions (Mark 7:13), and Paul warned of those who would be taken captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men (Col. 2:8). Pauls reference to tradition in 2 Thessalonians 2:15 and 3:6 is to apostolic tradition and not false tradition that conflicts with the will of God.
In this section, Paul says that they should keep away from (NASB, RSV, NIV, JB), hold aloof from (NEB), or withdraw from (NKJV, cf. KJV) every brother who leads an unruly life and not in accordance to the traditions he brought (v. 6). He further says, Take special note of that person and do not associate with him, so that he will be put to shame (v. 14). Take special note (NASB, NIV) or note (NJKV) is taken from semeiousthe, from semeioo, and is second person plural, present imperative middle, indicating that all of his readers are to participate in this action. It is not just a command to the elders or evangelists, although they may take the lead (cf. 1 Thess. 5:12-13). The believers are not to associate with the unruly sinner. Notice two additional points. First, the action is to be remedial or restorative: so that he will be put to shame (2 Thess. 3:14). Further, the disassociated brother is not to be regarded as an enemy but is still to be regarded as a brother (v. 15). Christians should continue to admonish (NASB, NKJV) or warn (NIV, RSV, NRSV) the sinful brother so that he might repent.
1 Timothy 1:19-20
Paul urges Timothy to keep faith and a good conscience but also laments that some have rejected this and suffered shipwreck in regard to their faith (v. 19). Such people surely are out of fellowship with the Lord and living in sin. The apostle then mentions two examples: Hymenaeus and Alexander (v. 20a). How did Paul respond to these fallen brothers? I have handed [them] over to Satan, so that they will be taught not to blaspheme (v. 20b). Like the brother in fornication at Corinth (1 Cor. 5:5), these brothers were delivered over to Satan and this was done with the hope that they might repent of their sin and be restored to the Lord and to the body.
1 Timothy 4:1-7
The apostle tells Timothy that in later times some will fall away from the faith (v. 1). These ones will be influential teachers or leaders, ones who are hypocrites with seared consciences (v. 2)apparently leaders who held to an incipient Jewish gnosticism (cf. vv. 3, 7). Timothy, in contrast, is encouraged to teach the truth (v. 6), be a good example (v. 12), and fulfill his work for the Lord (vv. 13-16).
1 Timothy 5:17-22, 24-25
Paul gives instructions about the elders in this section (see also 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9). Accusations should not be brought before these overseers apart from two or three witnesses (v. 19; cf. Matt. 18:16). Paul then writes, Those who continue in sin, rebuke in the presence of all, so that the rest also will be fearful of sinning (v. 20). There definitely is the need to confront and deal with sin on the part of the shepherds of the flock (cf. Acts 20:28-31).
2 Timothy 2:14-18
Paul warns Timothy against becoming embroiled in false teachings that lead to further ungodliness (v. 16). He gives the example of Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have gone astray from the truth saying that the resurrection has already taken place, and they upset the faith of some (v. 18). We must beware of erroneous views and teachings that turn people from the truth and from the faith of Christ.
2 Timothy 2:23-26
Timothy is to refuse to become involved in foolish and ignorant speculations, perhaps of a Jewish and gnostic nature (v. 23; cf. 1 Timothy 1:3-7; 4:1-7; 6:3-5, 20-21). He is told how to deal with those who have departed from the truth, or perhaps those who have never come to Christ initially: The Lords bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive to do his will (vv. 24-26). We must realize that those who depart from the sound teaching of Scripture and embrace false teaching are actually not in their right senses and are held captive by Satan himself!
2 Timothy 3:1-9
In this section, Paul speaks of the difficult times that will characterize the last days (v. 1). These terrible (NIV), distressing (NRSV), or difficult times (JB) will be found during these last times which actually extend from the first coming of Christ to His second coming (cf. Acts 2:17; Heb. 1:1-2; James 5:3; 1 Peter 1:20; 2 Peter 3:3; 1 John 2:18; Jude 18; cf. 1 Tim. 4:1). William Hendriksen gives the sense: Timothy, constantly realize that in these last daysthis lengthy dispensationin which we are now living there will be grievous seasons (Exposition of the Pastoral Epistles). The apostle gives a graphic list of those who commit sin during this agelovers of self, lovers of money, lovers of pleasure, and many others who commit a wide range of sin (vv. 2-5). Paul then says, Avoid such men as these (v. 5b).
Paul then describes such men in vv. 6-9. They influence or captivate women with their false teachings (vv. 6-7), they oppose the truth, have a depraved mind, and are rejected in regard to the faith (v. 8). Were they at one time genuine Christians? This is not stated, but apparently they constituted a serious threat to the believers, thus Paul warns Timothy to be on guard for them. If indeed they were saved but later fell into the false teaching, it would be warning to us to turn from any teacher or anyone else who professes to be a Christian but who is characterized by the sinful behavior of vv. 2-5.
2 Timothy 4:3-5
Paul encourages Timothy to preach the word and to reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction (v. 2). However, he also informs his son in the faith that many Christians will fall away from the truth. These brothers will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths (vv. 3-4). This apostasy will call for the firm resolve of Timothy to be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of a proclaimer, and fulfill his service (v. 5).
The elder (or overseer) must be capable of dealing with the truth and falsehood. He must be able to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict (v. 9). This teaching requirement was, in part, necessitated by the spiritual threat to the faith that Paul proceeds to describe (vv. 10-15). It is somewhat difficult to identify the people about whom Paul writes. They were rebellious men, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision (v. 10). Hendriksen surmises that they were Jewish church-members of the Pharisaic type and tinged with incipient gnosticism. . . . [They were] false teachers inside the churches of Crete [who] were trying to reconcile Jewish bondage (ceremonialism) with Christian freedom. He goes on to suggest that the description found in vv. 14b-16 is of Jews, the Pharisaic leaders who, though outsiders, are exerting a sinister influence upon the false leaders within the churches of Crete (The Pastoral Epistles). A.T. Hanson believes that the rebellious men were Christians, particularly Jews who had accepted Christianity (The Pastoral Epistles). J.N.D. Kelly (A Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles), Gordon D. Fee (1 and 2 Timothy, Titus), and C. Michael Moss (1, 2 Timothy & Titus) think that the men were actual Jewish Christians. Edmond Hiebert, on the other hand, claims that they were gnosticizing Judaists who as professed Christians sought to infiltrate the churches with their misguided teaching (The Expositors Bible Commentary, Vol. 11).
If these were Judaizing men who were indeed true converts, we can see why Paul instructs Titus and the elders to deal with them with such severity. Titus was to reprove them severely so that they may be sound in the faith (v. 13). They are not to give attention to the myths and commandments of Judaizers from the outside (as described in vv. 14-16). There are some parallels between the false teaching and teachers in Crete and those found in Ephesus (see 1 Timothy 1:3-11).
Paul again mentions the Jewish nature of the false teaching that Titus is confronting in Crete (3:9; see also 1:10, 14). The apostle then instructs, Reject a factious man after a first and second warning, knowing that such a man is perverted and is sinning, being self-condemned (vv. 10-11). The adjective factious (hairetikon, hence the KJV, heretic) means divisive (NIV), or one who causes divisions (NRSV). W. E. Vine says that the noun, hairesis, is a choosing, choice . . . that which is chosen, and hence, an opinion, especially a self-willed opinion, which is substituted for submission to the power of truth, and leads to division and the formation of sects, Gal. 5:20 (Expository Dictionary). The opinions in this case would involve the foolish controversies and genealogies and strife and disputes about the Law that he has just mentioned (v. 9).
Such a factious and divisive teacher is to be warned once, probably with the hope of bringing him to repentance. He is then to be warned again if he refuses to cease his teaching. If he refuses, Titus (and those with him) is to reject him, have nothing more to do with him (NRSV, cf. NIV, JB), or have done with him (NEB). Such a man continues to sin (hamartanei is present tense) and is self-condemned since he refuses to repent of his teaching and his behavior.
This passage encourages us by showing that there is hope for one who departs from the truth into error. James writes, If any among you strays from the truth and one turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins. Notice that it is possible for a genuine Christian (if any among you) to stray from the truth and thereby become a sinner in need of salvation again! Faithful Christians are to reach out in love to such a fallen believer and turn him back from the error of his way. Just as one may be rescued from sin and false teaching before coming to Christ, so one may later need to come back to the truth after falling for such a deadly message and teaching. The Christian who does rescue such a person will save the sinners soul from death and will cover his sinsevidently a reference to the forgiveness of his sins.
2 Peter 2:1-22
This long section describes false teachers who will have a great influence upon the body of Christ. False prophets also arose among the people, just as there will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing swift destruction upon themselves. Many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be maligned; and in their greed they will exploit you with false words (vv. 1-3a). Notice that Peter, perhaps writing in the AD 60s, says that false teachers will have a great influence upon his readersand, by implication, upon us today. They will not introduce their false teachings openly but secretly and they will have disastrous effectsthere will be sects and divisions (heresies). The false teachers may be of a Gnostic character, particularly those with a libertine aspect to their teaching and behavior. Peter points out that they will entice others to follow them by promising them freedom (vv. 18-19). If verses 20-22 describe these false teachers (they may apply to those who depart from the truth to follow these errorists), we can see that their last state of condemnation is worse than their state before coming to Christ. The entire passage is a graphic warning to us to not be carried away by the error of unprincipled men and fall from [our] own steadfastness (3:17).
1 John 2:18-19
John says that certain antichrists went out from us, but they were not really of us. Apparently these were ones who denied that Jesus is the Christ (v. 22), denied the Father and the Son (v. 22), and denied that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh (4:2-3). Although such people may have been in the visible assembly of saints, they may not have been genuinely saved. This is a reminder that not all of those who profess to be Christians are actual Christians.
1 John 5:16-17
The Christian who observes his brother committing a sin not leading to death is encouraged to pray to God who will give life to such a person. Various interpretations have been given for this teaching. One view says that if we see a true, sensitive fellow-believer commit sin, we are to pray for his or her repentance and restoration. God will bring such a person back through his repentance (cf. Acts 8:22-24) and confession of sin to God (1 John 1:9) and to others (James 5:16). On the other hand, the sin leading to death may refer to known, deliberate, and unrepentant sin committed by a rebellious brother whose conscience is seared and hardened (cf. Hebrews 10:26-31; Titus 1:15; 1 Timothy 4:2). Whatever the exact interpretation, we can see value in prayer as we observe sin in the life of a brother and sister.
2 John 7-11
John is discussing certain ones, perhaps teachers, who denied that Jesus came in the flesh (v. 7). They did not abide in the teaching of Christ (v. 9), which implies that they formerly did accept the teaching of Christ. There are two ways of interpreting the phrase, teaching of Christ. First, it could be an objective genitive, thus teaching about Christ (see Marshall, Bultmann, Burdick). Verse 7 suggests this view, as does 1 John 4:1-6. In this case, the false teachers did not abide in the correct teaching about the person of Jesus Christ. Second, it could be subjective genitive, Christs teaching (Brooke, Stott, Westcott, Schackenburg, Ryrie). This could be supported by the fact that John says we are to walk in the truth (v. 4), are to love one another (vv. 5-6), and are to walk according to the Lords commands (v. 6). It might be observed that very often those who reject a Biblical understanding of the person of Christ also reject some of His commands and teachings.
John then says that if anyone comes and does not bring this teaching (either correct teaching about Christ or certain of Christs teachings), we are not to receive him into our house or give him a greeting (v. 10). Why? The one who welcomes him in this manner participates in his evil deeds (v. 11). This may mean that we should not welcome a false teacher into our assemblies, particularly to teach (early believers met in homes), or it may mean that we should not welcome such a teacher into our individual homes and offer him hospitality (food and shelter). In either case, we must not in any way support or give encouragement to one who teaches error or we, ourselves, will become participants in the evil deeds and teachings of the false teacher.
3 John 9-11
The apostle John cites the case of Diotrephes, who must have been a leading member (perhaps an evangelist or overseer) in an assembly of Christians in Asia Minor. Apparently John wrote a letter to the body in this location but Diotrephes, who loved to be first among them, did not accept what John wrote (v. 9). Not only this, but John sent brethren to the assembly and this prideful leader did not receive the brethren. He went so far as to forbid others from receiving these faithful brothers and put them out of the assembly (ekklesias). How did John deal with this autocratic leader who went so far as to oppose an apostle of Christ? I. Howard Marshall thinks that I will call attention to his deeds is too mild. He writes, The elder intends to take up the matter with him and to seek satisfaction about it. . . . The elder was prepared to exercise his authority in the matter (The Epistles of John). Perhaps the words immediately following indicate that John views the situation very seriously: the one who does evil has not seen God (v. 11b).
In a section similar to 2 Peter 2:1-22, Jude writes, Certain persons have crept in unnoticed, those who were long beforehand marked out for this condemnation, ungodly persons who turn the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ (v. 4). Perhaps Judes primary reference is to an antinomian Gnosticism (rather than an ascetic form of Gnosticism), a system that allowed for a licentious, immoral, libertarian lifestyle that twisted the meaning of the grace of God and that, in effect, denied the Lordship and authority of Jesus Christ. Jude further describes these false teachers as the ones who cause divisions, worldly-minded, devoid of the Spirit (v. 19). The surprising thing is that they had apparently crept into the assembly unnoticed and even participated in the Christian love feasts (vv. 4, 12). This section reminds us that on occasion even a false teacher may seek to gain entry into a true congregation and they must be strongly opposed and rejected.
Jude gives us sound counsel as we deal with different classes of Christians who are showing signs of unfaithfulness. He writes, Have mercy on some, who are doubting; save others, snatching them out of the fire; and on some have mercy with fear, hating even the garment polluted by the flesh. There is no room for indifference in the life we have in Christ. Rather, we each have a responsibility to reach out in love and fear to those who are straying from the truth, giving heed to false teaching, or falling into moral compromise.
The Lord Jesus sends seven messages to seven assemblies in Asia Minor and much could be noticed in this correspondence. The first letter was directed to the assembly in Ephesus. Jesus begins with commendation: I know your deeds and your toil and perseverance and that you cannot tolerate evil men, and you put to the test those who call themselves apostles, and they are not, and you found them to be false (v. 2). These people had endured for Christs said, had not grown weary, and hated the deeds of the Nicolaitans (vv. 3, 6). However, Christ goes on to say that they had left their first love (v. 4). He then warns, Remember from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first; or else I am coming to you and will remove your lampstand out of its placeunless you repent (v. 5). Although they had much to commend them, Jesus knew that they needed to repent, to revive their lost love, and to do the deeds of love once again.
In this section, written to the assembly in Pergamum, we see that some held the teaching of Balaam (v. 14) and others held the teaching of the Nicolaitans (v. 15). Christs call to them is the same call He utters to some of the other assemblies: Repent (v. 16).
The main concern in the assembly at Thyatira was the woman Jezebel, who called herself a prophetess (v. 20). Christ describes her in these words: She teaches and leads My bond-servants astray so that they commit acts of immorality and eat things sacrificed to idols (v. 20b). He gave her time to repent (v. 21) and then speaks of serious judgements awaiting her and her followers (vv. 22-23). The Lord placed no other burden on the faithful (v. 24) but calls on them to hold fast (v. 25) and to overcome and keep His deeds (v. 26).
The assembly at Sardis was spiritually dead (v. 1) and their deeds were not completed in the sight of God (v. 2). They too are called upon to repent or face serious judgment (v. 3). There were a few who remained faithful to the Lord: You have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their garments; and they will walk with Me in white, for they are worthy (v. 4). Blessing is promised for those who overcome (v. 5).
The Laodicean assembly has the reputation of being the lukewarm one. Jesus says, I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot; I wish that you were cold or hot. So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth (vv. 15-16). Evidently the Laodiceans were wealthy, self-satisfied and unspiritual (vv. 17-18). The Lord said that He would discipline them and He calls on them to be zealous and repent (v. 19). He calls on them to hear His voice, open the door, and allow Him to gain entrance into their lives (v. 20) and overcome so as to receive the reward (v. 21).
We have examined a number of passages in Scripture that deal with sin in the life of the individual Christian and sin in the life of the congregation as a whole. We have seen how false teaching, false belief, false practices, immoral behavior, compromising attitudes, and apostasy had an effect on brothers and sisters in the family of God. We have also examined what the Lord commands us to do to deal with such sin and false teaching.
What Categories of People
Must be Removed from the Body?
Let us summarize the results of the survey of New Testament passages we have examined above. It is clear that God wants us to separate ourselves from certain people who at one time come to Christ and become members of His body but who have allowed false ways and immorality to gain entrance into their life. Notice these categories of people:
(1) The Immoral Brother or Sister
We use the term immoral to include a variety of sins. It is clear that brothers guilty of sexual immorality (fornication, adultery, homosexuality, etc.), covetousness (greed), idolatry, reviling (slander), drunkenness, and swindling must be removed from the body (1 Cor. 5:1-13; cf. 6:9-11; Eph. 5:3-7; Col. 3:5-9). Those who refuse to repent of the various sins mentioned in 2 Tim. 3:1-5) should also be removed from fellowship (cf. v. 5).
(2) The Unruly and Disobedient
A brother who refuses to repent of an unruly life and who refuses to walk according to the tradition of the apostles must also be removed from fellowship in the body (2 Thess. 2:15; 3:6-15). Those who do not obey apostolic teaching must be noted and made ashamed by an exclusion from fellowship (3:14-15).
(3) Those who do not Repent and Reconcile
Jesus says that a person who refuses to repent of sin and reconcile with a brother, even through the urging of other brothers and the entire congregation, must be excluded from the assembly (Matthew 18:15-20; cf. Luke 17:1-4). This action takes place since God has already ruled on this from heaven (cf. Matt. 18:18-20).
(4) False Teachers
Those who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching must be turned away from (Rom. 16:17-18). Those who reject the faith and a good conscience must be delivered to Satan so that they may be taught not to blaspheme (speak against) the Lords word (1 Tim. 1:19-20). Particularly serious would be false teaching relating to the gospel (Gal. 1:7-10), the resurrection (2 Tim. 2:16-18), the person and saving work of Christ (1 John 2:18-23; 4:1-6; 2 John 7-11), and other fundamental truths.
(5) The Factious
Those who would cause conflict, confusion, disturbances, dissensions, and factions by promoting false teachings, speculative theology, human traditions, and denominational tenets, must be excluded from fellowship (cf. Titus 3:9-11; Rom. 16:17-18; Gal. 5:19-21).
The Process of Withdrawing Fellowship
It is very difficult to create an entirely consistent and progressive series of stages in withdrawing fellowship. Some have tried this by forcing certain passages to conform to an existing denominational process or traditional system. For example, there is a difference between the treatment of the fornicator in 1 Cor. 5 (an immediate delivery to Satan), the factious man in Titus 3:9-11 (two warnings), and the sinful brother who does not reconcile in Matt. 18:15-20 (a four-step procedure). We err if we try to combine all of these into one workable and changeless procedure. Yet we cannot be like the vast majority of religionists who simply disregard nearly all of the Scriptural teachings on the subject!
In light of the various instructions in the Scriptures, it might be best to give a general outline of the basic teachings and then apply them to a given situation as we encounter it in the real world of workable fellowship. With this in mind, consider these general principles:
(1) The need for public teaching of the saints.
When a person comes to Christ Jesus, he is saved from his past sins and becomes part of the body of Christ (Matthew 28:19; Acts 2:38-41, 47; 2 Peter 1:9; 1 Cor. 12:12-13). The Lord then provides for the new Christians continued nurture. Jesus said that when one becomes His disciple by being baptized into the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:18-19), he is then to be taught to observe or obey all that Christ had commanded (v. 20; NASB, NIV). Much of this initial teaching is to be done in the public gatherings of the saints. Luke tells us that after the initial response on the day of Pentecost, they [the baptized believers] were continually devoting themselves to the apostles teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer (Acts 2:42).
As we read through the New Covenant writings, we see the importance of public instruction, admonition, and edification:
· I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you publicly and from house to house (Acts 20:20).
· Let all things be done for edification (1 Cor. 14:26b).
· The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also (2 Tim. 2:2).
· Till I come, give attention to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine (1 Tim. 4:13, NKJV).
· Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction (2 Tim. 4:2).
We personally can look back with some disappointment as we remember how various ones have embraced false doctrines, fallen into fornication and adultery, entered compromising occupations, or become part of sectarian religious groups. Probably some of this occurred because there was not sufficient public teaching from Scripture that would fortify the saints to withstand the temptations that would come their way.
(2) The Need for Private Instruction, Exhortation, and Admonition.
Not only is public instruction needed, but also private teaching and admonition. Paul told the Ephesian elders that during his long stay there (Acts 19), he had taught them from house to house (20:20). He described to the Thessalonians the loving and tender care he had toward them during his stay in that city: We were exhorting and encouraging and imploring each one of you as a father would his own children (1 Thess. 2:11). He further said, We proved to be gentle among you, as a nursing mother tenderly cares for her own children (v. 7). Notice his intimate regard for these new believers: Having so fond an affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us (v. 8). If we were to have this kind of face-to-face interaction with each one who comes to Christ, surely some of the sins and false teaching could be prevented.
This private and personal teaching may not be convenient and easy. It will take much effort and commitment to the spiritual growth and wellbeing of each saint. Paul writes, We urge you, brethren, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with everyone (1 Thess. 5:14). It is during the personal discussions and teaching sessions that one may learn of the specific problems that need watching and correction. This is not just a work for elders and proclaimers but for each faithful Christian: Encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called Today, so that none of you will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin (Heb. 3:13). The denominational and church world may be content with church services and sermonettes, and perhaps Sunday School, but this is hardly sufficient to deal with personal problems, private difficulties, and underlying false teachings held by a new convert.
(3) Private Confrontation, Admonition, and Warning
Even with the public edification and the private instruction, sometimes there will be the need to deal with sinful behavior and false teachings. A number of passages we earlier examined speak to this aspect of Gods will. Notice the personal nature of some of these instructions:
· Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him and if he repents, forgive him (Luke 17:3). Notice that the rebuke is a private one. If the brother repents of his sin, there is no need to go beyond this loving but bold interaction.
· If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother (Matt. 18:15). Again we see that there is the need for personal confrontation, however difficult, embarrassing, and awkward this may be.
· Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted (Gal. 6:1). A private visit seems to be in view here and an effort to rescue a sinful brother before anything public is done.
· . . . with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will (2 Tim. 2:25-26).
The object of this private and personal confrontation is to bring the offender to repentance, restoration, and reconciliation so that nothing more public needs to be done.
(4) Public Warning or Censure
Depending on the nature of the offense, sometimes there needs to be a public warning to the sinful brother. Paul even found it necessary to confront Peter the apostle in public: When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. . . . But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in the presence of all. . . (Gal. 2:11, 14). As he was discussing the problem of sinful elders, Paul stated, Those who continue in sin, rebuke in the presence of all, so that the rest also will be fearful of sinning (1 Tim. 5:20). Notice a further instruction. Whether this would be private or public is not clear, but Paul tells Titus to deal with certain Judaistic teachers: Reprove them severely so that they may be sound in the faith (Titus 1:13). The procedure that Jesus gives in Matthew 18:15-20 also has a public aspect. After one person cannot bring a sinful brother to repentance, and the efforts of one or two witnesses cannot avail, Jesus said to tell it to the church (v. 17). This public announcement is meant to bring additional pressure on the unresponsive brother and lead to his repentance.
(5) Withdrawal of Fellowship
We noticed that in some cases of sin, the assembly must immediately and openly deliver one to Satan and cease all social and spiritual fellowship (cf. 1 Cor. 5:1-13). On other occasions, there is the need to go more slowly (perhaps weeks may be involved in some cases) before anything public is done. Notice some of the expressions that are employed in Scripture in reference to the withdrawal of fellowship:
· Keep away from every brother who leads an unruly life (2 Thess. 3:6).
· Take special note of that person and do not associate with him (2 Thess. 3:14).
· Let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector (Matt. 18:17).
· Keep your eye on . . . and turn away from them (Rom. 16:17).
· Reject a factious man after a first and second warning (Titus 3:10).
· I have delivered over to Satan (1 Tim. 1:20).
· Do not receive him into your house and do not give him a greeting (2 John 10).
· The one who had done this deed would be removed from your midst (1 Cor. 5:2).
· Deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh (1 Cor. 5:5).
· Clean out the old leaven so that you may be a new lump (1 Cor. 5:7).
· Not to associate with (1 Cor. 5:9).
· Not to associate with . . . not even to eat with such a one (1 Cor. 5:11).
· Do you not judge those who are within [the church] (1 Cor. 5:12).
· Remove the wicked man from among yourselves (1 Cor. 5:13).
· . . . this punishment which was inflicted by the majority (2 Cor. 2:6).
Qualities and Attitudes Needed
Why doesnt correction of error and withdrawal of fellowship frequently have the desired effect? Why is it that many attempts to correct error or bring repentance for moral compromises fail? Why does a withdrawal of fellowship from the offender sometimes have a very poor result? There are many reasons. Probably a leading reason is the problem of personal pride that refuses to admit wrong and sin. But let us notice a reason on the part of the one or ones involved in the outreach to the sinful brother. We refer to the personal spiritual qualities and attitudes necessary to carry out this Scriptural procedure. Let us once again examine a few of the passages we have already noticed earlier.
· Privacy. Jesus tells us that if a brother sins, the Christian is to show him his fault in private (Matt. 18:15). The purpose of the confrontation is to bring the brother to repentance. This first visit should be in private and if the person repents, it can be kept private. If private sins are shared publicly, we can see that there might be a reaction and the desired repentance may not come.
· Love and Gentleness. Paul says that if one is caught in a sin, we who are spiritual (those with the Spirit) are to restore the sinner in a spirit of gentleness. Further, we are to bear one anothers burdens and thus fulfill the law of Christ (Gal. 6:1-2). This may be a reference to the law of love (cf. John 13:34-35; 15:12, 17; 2 Cor. 2:8). If we have genuine love (not an uncaring attitude) and true gentleness (not harshness), we may be able to restore one who has been caught in an offense.
· Sincerity and not Hypocrisy. Jesus warns of a hypocritical judgmentalism in our relationship with brothers and sisters (cf. Matthew 7:1-5). We are not to be harsh but kind even in our judgment. The Lord warns against judging others of lesser sins when we ourselves are guilty of greater ones (vv. 3-4). Jesus commands us to remove our own sins so that we can see clearly to remove our brothers sins (v. 5). If we are inconsistent in our Christian walk, if we are hypocritical, if we compromise with the world, our effectiveness in dealing with sinful brothers will be minimized or nullified.
· Humility and Sorrow. When Paul discusses the Corinthian fornicator, he accuses them of arrogance (1 Cor. 5:1, 6). They should have humbly dealt with the problem. He says that they should have mourned because of the problem (v. 2). They had malice and wickedness, but they should have had sincerity and truth (v. 8). One should correct the sinful brother with a heart that is broken because of his sin or false teaching.
· Earnestness, Fear, Zeal. Paul commends the Corinthians for their attitude in avenging of wrong (2 Cor. 7:11). This attitude included sorrow, indignation, fear, longing, and zeal. We must become involved in this serious and sober matter with all of our heart (cf. vv. 8-13).
· Obedience. As we carry out the apostles instructions in this matter, we are being obedient to the will of the Lord (2 Thess. 3:6). Paul indicates that it was vital that one obey his instruction in the matter of withdrawing fellowship from the sinful brother (v. 14). See also 2 Cor. 2:9.
· Kindness, Patience, Teaching. Paul instructed Timothy how to deal with sinful opponents who had accepted false views: The Lords bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth (2 Tim. 2:24-25). The Christian must not become embroiled in quarrels when he seeks to rescue a fallen brother. Instead of lashing out in anger, the Christian must be patient when wronged. He must be a knowledgeable and skillful teacher. All of this will help one to reach the brother who has become a captive of Satan.
· Knowledge of the Word. Every phase of working to rescue the fallen saint requires a knowledge of Scripture. Paul says that the elder (or overseer) must [hold] fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, so that he will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict (Titus 1:9). He proceeds to show how this exhortation and refutation (with Scripture) is needed when false teaching arises (vv. 10-15). Nothing can substitute for a firm grasp of Gods will in the process of dealing with sin and false teaching in an assembly.
· Courage and Firmness. We have noticed that gentleness, kindness, and patience are qualities needed. But courage in the face of strong opposition, entrenched false teaching, and harsh and belligerent attitudes is also needed. The Christian must be firm and unyielding when it comes to Scriptural truth. He must not compromise. Paul commands, Reprove them severely so that they may be sound in the faith (Titus 1:13). This may be rendered, Rebuke them sharply (NIV, NKJV, NRSV), or You will have to be severe in correcting them (JB). Both love and firmness is needed.
Reasons for Withdrawal of Fellowship
Obviously God does not want us to have wrong or unworthy motives as we withdraw fellowship from a sinful brother or brother in error. Before we examine Scriptural reasons for excluding a person from fellowship, let us notice two wrong purposes in such action.
First, we do not withdraw fellowship because we dislike or hate a person. No one would admit such a motivation but we must examine our hearts to determine whether there is any unkind and unloving reasons underlying the action.
Second, we do not withdraw fellowship because someone has refused to submit to a denominational discipline or confession of faith. In the sectarian world, this sometimes happens. A member may choose not to comply with a denominational requirement or sectarian tradition, and the church responds by excommunicating or shunning the person. One person comes to my mind. He chose to come to Christ and be baptized, and his former sect placed a ban on him, began to shun him, and even his wife refused to eat with him. Sadly, this brother later acquiesced to such pressure and fell away from the Lord. Others have had their names removed from the membership role because they would not submit to denominational standards. Scriptural instruction, of course, would show the fallacy of such procedures.
If these are unworthy and wrong motives in withdrawing fellowship (and there would be many others), what are the Scriptural reasons for withdrawing fellowship from an unrepentant, sinful brother or sister? They may be summarized as follows:
(1) To save the sinful member of the body through repentance.
Scripture says that often the reason for withdrawing fellowship is intended to be remedial or restorative. In other words, the action is meant to bring the offender to repentance for his sin and subsequent restoration to fellowship in the body of Christ. Lets notice how this is found in Gods Word.
Notice the case of the Corinthian man who was guilty of fornication. Paul says that this man must be delivered to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus (1 Cor. 5:5). The ultimate purpose in the withdrawal of fellowship of this immoral brother was that he might be saved when Christ comes back. The implication is that he would be brought to repentance and renounce his fornication and adultery. (In a similar way, God brings discipline on certain brothers who offend Him by partaking of the bread and cup wrongly, and He does this so that so that they will repent and not be condemned along with the world, 11:29-32.)
The situation at Thessalonica was similar. Paul said that the congregation should withdraw fellowship from the unruly and disobedient members (2 Thess. 3:6) so that the offenders might be put to shame (v. 14). Faithful saints should admonish the sinful brothers (v. 15) so that they might repent and come back to a responsible living pattern.
Although withdrawal of fellowship is not specified in the context, Pauls directives to Timothy (2 Tim. 2:23-26) show the purpose of confrontation with fallen Christians to be corrective in nature. The purpose is that God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil (vv. 25-26). In some sense, every openly sinful brother is not in his right senses and is a captive in Satans snare. The object is to convince him of this and pray that God might bring him to full repentance and restoration.
Notice several other passages of Scripture. Spiritual brothers should reach out to one caught in a trespass and restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness (Gal. 6:1). The purpose is restorative! When Peter confronted Simon of Samaria (Acts 8:18-24), he called on this sinful brother to repent and pray so that the intention of [his] heart may be forgiven (v. 22). He sought Simons repentance and forgiveness. Remember the case of Hymenaeus and Alexander who were handed over to Satan. What was the purpose of this judgment? . . . so that they will be taught not to blaspheme (1 Timothy 1:20). Paul hoped that the judgment would result in their repentance and recommitment to holy living. The instruction of James was that the sinner who strays from the truth might be turned from the error of his way and might be saved from death (James 5:19-20). Why was Titus to reprove severely some men? . . . so that they may be sound in the faith (Titus 1:13). Apparently the unnamed sinner at Corinth did repent because of the punishment that was inflicted on him (2 Cor. 2:6-8).
All of this instruction shows that God commands us to confront sin and withdraw fellowship from sinful brothers and sisters for their own good! It is not done to just get rid of a problem person (although this can be a legitimate aspect, as we shall soon see), but this action of judgment is to be for the sinners own good. The person is sinning and this sin places him in a worse condition than he was in before coming to Christ (cf. 2 Peter 2:20-22). It is for his own good that the body of Christ does something that will wake him up to the utter seriousness of his lost condition!
In taking this extreme action, the body is saying, We love you so much that we cannot see you sinning and not do something! Scripture tells us of Gods own attitude toward discipline: Those whom the Lord loves He disciplines, and He scourges every son whom He receives (Heb. 12:6; cf. 1 Cor. 11:31-32). Jesus says, Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline; therefore be zealous and repent (Rev. 3:19). Just and God the Father and Jesus Christ reprove and discipline sinful brothers and sisters, so the body of Christ must adopt the same attitude. They reprove and discipline their fellow-brothers so that they might repent and come back to holy living and sound teaching.
(2) To Save the Body of Believers from Sinful Contamination and False Teaching
The body of Christ is to be a holy and pure body, separate from all sin. Paul explains, Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her, so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless (Eph. 5:25-27). This is the Saviors plan for His bride or body. These people who have been cleansed or washed from their sins (1 Cor. 6:11; Acts 22:16; 2 Peter 1:9) must continue to remain free from sinful compromises in life. They must pursue holiness for without such holiness they will not see God (Heb. 12:14).
The holiness of the body of Christ is so vital that when a brother or sister allows sin in his life and refuses to repent of the sin, that person must be excluded from the body. Saints must withdraw fellowship from him. As Paul put it, The one who had done this deed would be removed from your midst (1 Cor. 5:2). The apostle explains this principle by using the illustration of leaven. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough? Clean out the old leaven so that you may be a new lump, just as you are in fact unleavened. For Christ our Passover also has been sacrificed (vv. 6b-7). The body of Christ is like a lump of dough that is unleavened. The leaven of malice and wickedness (and every other sin) must be kept from the unleavened bread of this body (v. 8). Therefore, Paul insists that the assembly of God in Corinth is to be preserved from those who would fall into the habitual sins of fornication (including adultery), covetousness or greed, and other sins (cf. vv. 10-11; 6:9-11).
As we have noticed earlier, a number of passages show that a chief purpose in withdrawing fellowship from certain brothers and sisters is to keep sin from influencing others in the body. For instance, Paul says that becoming involved in false teachings (about words), leads to the ruin of the hearers (2 Tim. 2:14). He says that Timothy is to avoid such empty chatter for it will lead to further ungodliness (v. 16). He then shows the consequence of this false teaching: their talk will spread like gangrene (v. 17). A case in point was that of Hymenaeus and Philetus, who had gone astray from the truth, and they had upset the faith of some (v. 18). This illustrates the sad fact that if erroneous teaching is permitted to circulate in the body of Christ, some will fall into the error and go astray from the truth. Those who believe and propagate such error must be decisively excluded from the faithful assembly of saints.
Paul the apostle said that the false teachers in Crete must be silenced because they are upsetting whole families, teaching things they should not teach for the sake of sordid gain (Titus 1:10-11). False teachers must be silenced and reproved severely so that their influence will be cut off and families in Christ will be protected from their negative influence (cf. vv. 11, 13).
When Paul and Barnabas were in Antioch, Cephas (Peter) arrived and acted hypocritically by keeping himself from the Gentile believers and not eating with them. Paul could see the tragic consequences of this action: The rest of the Jews joined him [Peter] in hypocrisy, with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy (Gal. 2:13). There was a widespread defection from the truth of the gospel at Antioch (v. 14)! Because of this influence on the body as a whole, Paul confronted Peter directly with the truth of the Lord (vv. 11, 14-21). Although this did not involve exclusion from fellowship, presumably because Peter repented, this illustrates again that public sin must be dealt with publicly for the welfare of the body as a whole.
Further teachings reinforce this general truth about the need of withdrawal to keep the congregation free from open sin and false teaching. False teachers who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching of the Lord must be turned away from (Rom. 16:17) because they deceive the hearts of the unsuspecting (v. 18). John speaks of the deceivers who must be rejected and gives this as one of the reasons: Watch yourselves, that you do not lose what we have accomplished, but that you may receive a full reward (2 John 8; cf. vv. 7-11).
There can be a purifying effect when the saints observe the process of reproof, rebuke, and eventual withdrawal of fellowship. The example of Achan the Israelite illustrates this principle (read all of Joshua 7). Achan acted unfaithfully and because of this the anger of the LORD burned against the sons of Israel (v. 1). The Israelites confronted Achan and eventually punished him by stoning, and only then the LORD turned from the fierceness of His anger (v. 26). The sin of this covetous man brought trouble on the entire nation. When the sin was openly dealt with, surely there was a purifying effect on the entire nation.
One of the results of a rebuke in the presence of all, was that the rest [of the Christians] also will be fearful of sinning (1 Tim. 5:20). When both Ananias was killed in the presence of Peter and the people, what was the immediate response? Great fear came over all who heard of it (Acts 5:5). A few hours later, Sapphira appeared and lied to the apostle; she also immediately fell down dead and was buried. What was the result of this? Great fear came over the whole church, and over all who heard of these things (v. 11). A healthy fear of sinning and fear of the Lord may be engendered when sinful, unrepentant brothers and sisters are excluded from fellowship.
(3) To Promote Unity of Spirit, Life, and Teaching
Although this principle seems so foreign to contemporary churchianity, it is found on the pages of Scripture. Paul writes these amazing words: Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment (1 Cor. 1:10). Ideally, believers are to all agree and be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment! He commands believers to be of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose (Phil. 2:2). They are to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Eph. 4:3) by a common devotion to the seven principles of one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God (vv. 4-6).
True believersbrothers and sisters in the family of Godare to believe the same truths! They are to manifest the same fruit of the Spirit! They are to be committed to the same gospel or good news of Christ! They are to share a common life and lifestyle! They are to observe the same apostolic traditions! They have experienced the same birth of water and Spirit! Although brothers and sisters are of different nationalities, different genders, different social classes, different colors, different educational backgrounds, different languages, and different origins before coming to Christ, they have been made oneunited to God through Christ Jesus their Lord (cf. 1 Cor. 12:12-13; Gal. 3:28; Col. 3:11).
The body of believers must maintain this unity of faith, teaching, and life by excluding from their fellowship those members who insist on living in sin, who insist on believing and propagating false teachings, who insist on maintaining immoral relationships, and who cause dissensions and trouble in the assembly. Sometimes peace and tranquility can only be maintained in the body by removing those who would disturb the peace and chose a sinful lifestyle. Drive out the scoffer, and contention will go out, even strife and dishonor will cease (Prov. 22:10). Unity must be maintained. Not unity in churchly traditions, unity in erroneous teachings, or unity in worldly practicesbut unity in the Spirit, unity in the truth, and unity in the way of holiness!
(4) To Respect God, His Word, and His Holiness
We should see that the underlying principle in carrying out Scriptural reproof and eventual withdrawal of fellowship is to honor God, honor His Word, and honor His holiness. Why do we do everything in our life in Christ? To demonstrate our love, honor, and commitment toward Him. When we obey Gods will, God is glorified! His authority is exalted, uplifted, and honored with His children willingly and joyfully submit to this authority.
If God commands that we withdraw intimate fellowship from a sinful brother, and we willingly comply with this difficult command, God is honored. Jesus said, Whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven (Matt. 18:18). Adams suggests this interpretation: Christ is saying: your act on earth is but a reflection and outworking of what has already been judged by God in heaven. The words binding and loosing were terms familiar to Jewish ears and were used roughly equivalent of our terms prohibit and permit. Thus, one was prohibited or permitted communion with the Lords people (The Christian Counselors Manual, pp. 56-57). God has already judged who should be excluded from fellowship and who should be within the fellowship of the body; when we comply with His will, we honor the Supreme Judge, the Lord of heaven and earth.
Withdrawal of fellowship is not merely a human decision and action. Faithful saints obey this difficult teaching because of what God requires of us. When a body of saints are gathered together to exercise this extreme step, they do so in the name of our Lord Jesus and with the power of our Lord Jesus (1 Cor. 5:5). Thus, Paul is able to command compliance with the teaching of withdrawal in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ (2 Thess. 3:6). In all things God is to be glorified through Jesus Christ (1 Peter 4:11), and submission to Scriptural teaching on withdrawal of fellowship is included in this.
Withdrawal of Fellowship?
We have been discussing the withdrawal of fellowship from certain unrepentant brothers and sisters. Let us discuss the meaning of fellowship itself. The term fellowship comes from the Greek koinonia, meaning association, communion, fellowship, close relationship (Arndt and Gingrich), fellowship, partnership, . . . participation, communion (Perschbacher, The New Analytical Greek Lexicon), fellowship, participation, sharing, contribution (Kohlenberger, et. al., The Greek English Concordance to the New Testament). True Christians are in fellowship with each other because all have been called into fellowship with [Gods] Son, Jesus Christ our Lord (1 Cor. 1:9). We have mutual fellowship because our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ (1 John 1:3). Therefore, we are to have fellowship with one another (v. 7).
How is fellowship manifested in the body of Christ? Christians have fellowship when they participate with each other, share with each other, have intimate communion with each other. They have fellowship when they have close association with each other and enjoy a common partnership in the things of God. Denominational and churchly fellowship is misleading for sometimes the term is applied to church suppers and recreational activities! Actually, whatever believers do together is fellowship as it is done in the name of Christ Jesus.
The New Covenant writings frequently describe the reciprocal relationship that brothers and sisters are to have with each other. Notice several examples:
· Give preference to one another in honor (Rom. 12:10).
· Be of the same mind toward one another (Rom. 12:16).
· Pursue . . . the building up of one another (Rom. 15:19).
· Admonish one another (Rom. 15:14).
· Greet one another (Rom. 16:16; 1 Cor. 16:20).
· Have the same care for one another (1 Cor. 12:25).
· Through love serve one another (Gal. 5:13).
· Bear one anothers burdens (Gal. 6:2).
· Showing forbearance to one another in love (Eph. 4:2).
· Be kind to one another (Eph. 4:32).
· Forgiving each other (Eph. 4:32; cf. Col. 3:13).
· Regard one another as more important (Phil. 2:3).
· Teaching . . . one another (Col. 3:16).
· Encourage one another day after day (Heb. 3:13).
· Build up one another (1 Thess. 5:11).
· Live in peace with one another (1 Thess. 5:13).
· Seek after that which is good for one another (1 Thess. 5:15).
· Stimulate one another to love and good deeds (Heb. 10:24).
· Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another (James 5:16).
· Be hospitable to one another without complaint (1 Pet. 4:9).
· Clothe yourselves with humility toward one another (1 Pet. 5:5).
These one another attitudes and actions manifest the fellowship that we have with each other in the body of Christ. All of this helps us to understand the fellowship God wants us to have and the fellowship we must withhold from unfaithful brothers and sisters.
A related term is the Greek sunanamignumi which means to mix up with and denotes to have, to keep, company with (W.E. Vine, Expository Dictionary). Arndt and Gingrich state that the term means to mix up together and denotes mingle or associate with (A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament). Thayer says that it not only means to keep company with but also to be intimate with (Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament). Paul says that we are not to associate with immoral people (1 Cor. 5:9) and not to associate with so-called brothers who commit various other sins (v. 11). In other words, we are not to mix up with such brothers, keep company with them, be intimate with them, or mingle or associate with them. He also says that we are not to associate with or keep company with the unruly and disobedient brother (2 Thess. 3:14). We are to disfellowship or withdraw fellowship with unrepentant brothers and sisters.
One of the reasons why this subject is so confusing and ineffective is because the subject of fellowship is so misunderstood and the nature of the body of Christ is so misconceived. How can a congregation withdraw fellowship when they do not even practice fellowship or know what they are to withhold from unrepentant sinners? Unless the Lords body has genuine fellowship, how can they withdraw and withhold it? This is one reason among many why true Christians, members of Christs body, must stimulate, encourage, promote, and teach the meaning of authentic fellowship in the Lord and do all they can to become involved in the lives of each other. They need to begin participating in all of the one another attitudes and activities mentioned earliernot as an artificial extra added to self-centered lives but as the expression of genuine love and regard toward others who have been born into Gods spiritual family. (See our booklet, What God Wants in the Community of Christ.)
If intimacy of fellowship is fostered in an assembly of Gods people and if each person participates in this fellowship, there will be the context in which withdrawal of fellowship will have some effect. Fellow brothers and sisters definitely should be our closest friends and companions, our most intimate associates. We should share activities with them, share our hopes and dreams with them, share prayer and worship with them, share meals with themshare our very life with them. Paul writes, We, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another (Romans 12:5). He also says, Even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ (1 Cor. 12:12). He continued by writing, The members may have the same care for one another. And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it. Now you are Christs body, and individually members of it (vv. 25b-27). If we have this conceptthis true conceptof the body, we will understand what fellowship means.
When the body of believers does understand the intimacy of fellowship that God wants and actually participates in this closeness of relationship, there probably will not be the problem with sin and false teaching that seems to prevail today. If a false teaching comes up and begins to circulate, brothers will immediately know of it and be able to address it privately and teach on it publicly. If the suggestion of looseness or compromise arises in the moral realm, brothers and sisters will be more aware of this and be able to confront the problem immediately and directly. If some expression of worldliness is detected in a family, others will know of this and be able to deal with it before it spreads to other families. When the saints all agree on standards of holiness and behavior, and are made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment on the teachings of the Lord (1 Cor. 1:10), they will be able to deal more directly and unitedly with intrusions of sin, worldliness, immorality, and false beliefs and practices!
What are some of the elements of fellowship that should be encouraged in a Scriptural assembly? Consider the following:
1. Extensive hospitality (Acts 12:12; 16:15, 40).
2. Sharing meals with each other (Acts 2:44-46).
3. Sharing life in general with each other (Acts 2:42-47; 4:32).
4. Frequent teaching and worship meetings (Acts 2:42; 6:4; 12:5, 12; Heb. 3:13; 10:24-25).
5. Needy cared for (Acts 4:34-35; 6:1-6; Rom. 12:13).
6. Accountability (Gal. 6:1-2; Matt. 18:15-17; Luke 17:1-4).
7. Care and concern for each other (Rom. 12:15; 1 Cor. 12:25-27; Phil. 2:2-4; 2 Cor. 12:15).
8. Frequent contact (Acts 2:46; 5:42; 20:20, 31; Heb. 3:13).
9. Family relationships as brothers and sisters (1 Tim. 3:15; 5:1-2; 2 Cor. 6:16-18; 1 John 3:1-2; 4:19-5:2).
10. Counter-cultural perspective (Acts 2:40; 1 Peter 2:11; Phil. 2:15; 3:20).
11. Mutual edification, exhortation, and admonition (Rom. 15:14; Col. 3:16; Heb. 3:13; 10:24).
12. Loving service toward each other (Matt. 20:25-28; Gal. 5:13-14).
A body that practices this kind of fellowship will be much better equipped to maintain holiness and sound teaching. It will also be better able to exercise effective withdrawal of fellowship.
Two Reasons That Make Withdrawal Ineffective
There are many reasons why withdrawal of fellowship fails to have a desired effect. Let us examine two of the chief reasons at this point.
An Unscriptural View of the Body of Christ
First, many people do not have a Scriptural view of the body of Christ. This is a complex subject and can only be briefly mentioned at this place. (Read our book, What God Desires in the Community of Christ, and the larger volume, The Community of Christ vs the Churches of Men for a more extensive treatment.) When a person comes to Christ and is saved from sin, he automatically and immediately is added to the community of Christ. The term ekklesia means an assembly, congregation, or gathering. Thayer says that it can refer to an assembly of Christians gathered for worship but the chief use would be a company of Christians (Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament; cf. W.E. Vine, Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words).
In the New Testament, the assembly of Christ, the congregation of God, or the company of Christians would refer to the body of the Lord Jesus (cf. Eph. 1:22-23; 5:23; Col. 1:18, 24). Paul tells us how we become members of the body: By one Spirit we were all baptized into one body . . . and we were all made to drink of one Spirit (1 Cor. 12:13). As early as the day of Pentecost, we read that the Lord was adding to their number [the number of the disciples] day by day those who were being saved (Acts 2:47).
In New Testament thought, the ekklesia (generally translated church) consists of the saved. The ekklesia is the saved! Paul tells the Ephesian elders, Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood (Acts 20:28). It can be said that the congregation of Christ has been purchased by the blood of Christ since each member has been redeemed by this blood (cf. Eph. 1:7; 1 Peter 1:18-19). Paul also wrote, Christ also is head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body (Eph. 5:23). Then the apostle adds, Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her (v. 25). The body of Christ has been saved by Christ. It is by one Spirit and we were all baptized into one body (1 Cor. 12:13).
These are weighty statements! Christ gave Himself for the company of Christ, saves the company of Christ, and had redeemed the company of Christ! The company or body of Christ contains the saved, is comprised of the saved, and is the saved! We cannot be saved eternally unless we are members of the body of Christ. We cannot be received by the Lord unless we are part of His bride or wifewhich is another way of referring to His spiritual body of believers (2 Cor. 11:2-3; Eph. 5:23-32; Rev. 19:7-9; cf. 21:9). The body of Christ consists of individual Christians who generally are found in local expressions of the body or local assemblies of believers. Scripture also uses ekklesia to refer to the local company or assembly of Christians in local towns and cities such as Corinth (1 Cor. 1:2), Thessalonica (1 Thess. 1:1), and Colossae (Phile. 2), or districts such as Galatia (Gal. 1:2) and Judea (Gal. 1:22). While individual Christians, because of unusual circumstances, may be without fellowship for a time this should be rarefor Gods ideal will is that each saint be a member of a local body of believers. (Sadly, in this world of religious confusion, worldliness, and false doctrines, some of Gods children do find themselves alone.)
False sectarian and denominational concepts have nearly universally pervaded and dominated the world of Christendom. Such a concept may look upon a local church as a helpful social entity that encourages personal growth and community service, but it does not see the church as absolutely vital in Gods plan. Millions of professing Christians drift from local church to local church (whether denominational in character or the independent church that is increasingly popular) in an effort to find something helpful, pleasing, stimulating, exciting, or entertaining. Popular preachers, opportunity for amusements, activities and organizations for children, social activities, educational options are all means of drawing the professing Christian. In our culture, there is little concept of the Scriptural meaning and importance of the ekklesia or company of believers.
We can immediately see why this defective religious concept engenders a false view of both fellowship and withdrawal of fellowship. Suppose that John Smith comes to Christ through personal faith in the crucified and risen Savior (John 3:15-18, 36; 5:24). Suppose that he repents of all his sins and renounces his past self-oriented life (Acts 3:19; 26:18, 20). He confesses Jesus as Lord and calls on Him to be saved (Acts 2:21; Rom. 10:9-13) and is baptized into Him and His death and rises to walk in newness of life (Rom. 6:3-11; Acts 2:38-41; 22:16). He becomes a new creature in Christ Jesus and begins to live in fellowship with other true believers (2 Cor. 5:17; Acts 2:44-47). John would be where God wants him to be. He is in the body of Christ or the community of the saved. He is growing in the Lord and his life is changing day by day.
Now suppose that John falls into an immoral relationship. It begins slowly but he eventually finds himself in an actual adulterous relationship. His adultery has become so captivating to him that he struggles with several factors. He remembers the joy that he had when he came to Christ. He remembers how he wanted to please the Lord throughout his life. He remembers the sweet fellowship that he experienced with true brothers and sisters in the faith. But he also is captivated with a very desirable woman, the one with whom he is committing adultery. He knows the inconsistency of this arrangement. Soon several brothers learn of his adultery and immediately seek to turn him away from this adulterous woman. They point out that one cannot be an adulterer and inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:9-10; cf. Gal. 5:19-21). They show him that all adulterers (or fornicators) will suffer the wrath of God (Eph. 5:3-6) and be consigned to the lake of fire in hell (Rev. 21:8). They stress that he is grieving the Spirit of God and is offending the God who loves him (Eph. 4:30; Heb. 10:31; 12:29). They also point out that they love him deeply (Gal. 6:1-2) and want to see him repent of this sin (Acts 8:22-24).
If John Smith actually had come to Christ and enjoyed full fellowship with other believers, all of these factors may be sufficient to turn him from the error of his way and restore him to Gods favor and fellowship once again. If it is not sufficient, God commands His people to withdraw fellowship from him and deliver him to Satan for the destruction of the flesh so that he will be ashamed and return to the community of saved ones (1 Cor. 5:5; 2 Thess. 3:14-15; James 5:19-20). This is exactly what God has in mind in His provision for withdrawal of fellowship! This is what Scripture is saying when it says to separate ourselves from a brother or sister who willfully chooses to remain in unrepentant sin, to remain in an immoral relationship, or to continue to hold and teach unsound doctrine.
But let us continue looking at this example. Suppose that John Smith has never experienced genuine, intimate, and meaningful fellowship. Let us imagine that he has a faulty view of fellowship and withdrawal of fellowship. He doesnt know the Scriptures well for he was never taught them. He doesnt know Gods plan in creating the body of Christ and has never had deep relationships in the assembly. If John falls into this adulterous alliance and chooses to pursue it, let us say that the community does remove him. What could John now do? He will not miss the fellowship of brothers and sisters since he never really experienced such fellowship! Moreover, if he has never comprehended the real significance of the body of Christ, he will not understand its uniqueness and the need to be part of it to be saved. He will just look upon it as a religious organization or church among other churches.
John could very easily drive down the street until he comes to First Church or Community Church or Popular Church and visit. Many churches freely accept adulterers (particularly of the remarried adultery version) and would welcome him as a hurting man in need of a place to worship. John may feel at home in such an environment. There will be social activities for him and his companion, opportunities to sing rousing praise songs with the accompaniment of a full band, regular exposure to sermonettes by a professional pulpiteer, and opportunities to go to barbecues and ball games. Will John feel unsaved and separated from God and the saints? Tragically, perhaps not. The pastor of this compromising and false church will not bring conviction to him from the Word of God. The members will not bring up the subject of adultery, particularly if he marries his companion, thus he will not be convicted by them. Since he is accepted by others, he will not feel the lack of fellowship that God wants to bring to bear upon him. Because of these factors, John Smith will continue in self-deception, unaware of his tragic spiritual state and his lostness, and perhaps go to his grave in such a condition.
Do we now see one reason why withdrawal of fellowship is ineffective? To summarize, some people do not realize that to belong to Christ is to belong to His body. Further, they have never experienced genuine fellowship, thus the removal of what may be called fellowship is not that shocking or meaningful. What can we do? We can begin to apply all that we have discussed in the earlier portion of this booklet. We can also stress that when a person sins or embraces false teaching, he separates himself from the Lord Jesus (cf. John 15:2, 6; Gal. 1:6; 5:4; Heb. 3:12; 10:26-31; 2 Peter 2:20-22). Then we can show that what the body of Christ is doing (separating themselves from him) is only reflecting what Christ has done with him because of his sin (cf. Matt. 18:18). To be out of the body of Christ is to be separated from Christ Himself.
Christ and His body are so closely related that to be united to Him is to be united to His body; to be separated from His body is to be separated from Him. Surely this is a truth that first century apostles and other Christians understood but it has been lost in our day of sectarianism and denominationalism. We can also point out that since Christ redeems the body and saves the body, we must remain in the body to experience redemption and salvation. We must begin to emphasize the Scriptural view of the body of Christ if we expect withdrawal of fellowship to be effective.
(We do not doubt that sometimes there are genuine Christians meeting in compromising assemblies and such people may welcome a brother or sister who has been excluded from a more Scriptural assembly. This is a reality that must be faced. To prevent this sinful and compromising situation from happening, each person who has been truly saved must immerse himself in Gods word so that he will be able to discern good and evil [Heb. 5:14].)
A Weak and Compromising View of Sin
A second reason why the withdrawal of fellowship may be difficult to implement and use effectively is the weak and compromising view of sin that is prevalent in our day. Sin is much more serious and dreadful than we may imagine! Yet so many assume that tolerance should be extended in nearly all circumstances and for nearly all forms of wrong. Consider what is generally accepted in our day, without question:
(1) Worldly lifestyles. Professing Christians watch the same worldly television programs, delight in the same worldly music, read the same worldly magazines, participate in the same sports mania, go to the car races, as their neighbors who make little pretence of religion. Those who would object to running with the world are castigated as legalists or radical fundamentalists!
(2) Compromising occupations. Professing Christians also enter occupations and professions that require the compromising of Christian principles. They justify it as simply being part of the nature of the job. But if Biblical teaching is not to be applied on the job, why was it given in the first place?
(3) Sexual looseness. Surveys indicate that those in their teens and twenties who belong to Evangelical churches participate in and even assume that premarital sexual activity is permissible. They have adopted the permissive views they have read about, watched in movies, and been taught in school. Divorce and remarriage is increasingly accepted in the churches and the rate of remarriage is nearly as high as that in society as a whole. Adultery through remarriage generally is overlooked and accepted.
(4) Subjectivism. There is the tendency in the churches to emphasize emotionalism, an attitude that tends to discredit careful obedience to the Word of God. They believe that if something feels good, sounds good, looks good, and gives the impression of spirituality, it must be pleasing to God. Yet, in Gods sight, it may be sinful and contrary to His Word.
(5) Ignorance of the Word of God. Although people may be more sophisticated today because of advanced education and the media (computers, Internet, television), they have become more and more ignorant of the Scriptures. The Bible is the way of truth (John 17:17) and those who would be ignorant of it make themselves vulnerable to disobedience of Gods will.
(6) Ecumenical emphasis. A century or two ago, denominationalism was prominent and members were concerned about their own beliefs and those of their neighbors. Today denominational and doctrinal distinctives are largely overlooked. People assume that others who wear the name Christian are Christians! They are willing to visit their churches, participate with them in preaching efforts and ecumenical services, and belong to parachurch organizations with them. This is an amazing phenomenon of our contemporary world. It seems to make no difference whether one is a Catholic, a Lutheran, an Orthodox, a Baptist, a Charismatic, a Methodist, or anything else. Some even are willing to embrace Mormons and other cultists as fellow-brothers!
(7) Doctrinal indifference. As we noted above, most people are indifferent about what a person or church believes and teaches. Whether one baptizes babies or only baptizes adults, whether he sprinkles water or immerses people, whether he believes that Jesus is deity or was merely an exalted creature, whether he believes in the inerrancy and authority of Scripture or just believes the Bible is good advice, whether he believes that a woman may become a pastor and teacher or must remain silent in publicall of these issues and a hundred more are matters of indifference to many professing Christians.
The foregoing items are only part of the problem. Withdrawal of fellowship becomes a matter of indifference when there is a weak view of sin. The Scriptures are clear that the wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23) and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death (James 1:15). Paul refers to those sinful things that characterize the unbeliever in this way: the outcome of those things is death (Rom. 6:21). After he delineates the lifestyle of sin that unbelieving Gentiles have, Paul said, Those who practice such things are worthy of death (Rom. 1:32). Are we to think that sin only brings death to the unbeliever, but the believer may freely participate in sin without consequence? No, for Paul writes, To those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life; but to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, wrath and indignation (Rom. 2:7-8). Those who would look upon sin with an attitude of indifference are in serious spiritual peril! Scripture says, The complacency of fools shall destroy them (Prov. 1:32b).
The Word of God is clear that willful, deliberate, unrepentant sin will have consequences even in the life of one who has come to Christ for forgiveness in the past. It is possible to stray from the truth (James 5:19) and become entangled in the defilements of the world (2 Peter 2:20). It is possible to become hardened by the deceitfulness of sin (Heb. 3:13) and to go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth (Heb. 10:26). Paul reminds us that the wrath of God will come upon the sons of disobedience (Col. 3:6; Eph. 5:6). Those who continue to commit sin will not inherit the kingdom of God (Eph. 5:5; 1 Cor. 6:9-10; Gal. 5:19-21), but will be judged by a righteous God (Heb. 13:4) who will consign the sinner to the lake of fire (Rev. 21:8). This shows how vital it is that we rid ourselves from known, willful, deliberate, unrepentant, and unconfessed sin!
There is a theology circulated in the religious world that says that after a person comes to Christ and is born again, it is impossible for him to lose his salvation. One branch of this theology says that the Christian will inevitably persevere to the end and be saved; if he falls into gross sin and remains there, this is evidence that he was not saved in the beginning. Sadly, it yet allows for a large amount of known sin in ones life. The other branch of this theology is more extreme. Sometimes called once saved, always saved (although the former sometimes takes that label as well), or unconditional eternal security, this branch allows for much sin in the life of the so-called Christian. Some go so far as to say that a Christian may become an unbeliever or atheist, or become an unrepentant adulterer or murderer or blasphemer, and still be saved!
Even those who have not embraced this theology sometimes behave as though they believed it! In other words, some who think that a Christian can fall away and be lost, live their own life as though they think they cannot be lost. They may live a careless, indifferent, apathetic, compromising, unspiritual, carnal, and sinful life and not be in terror of a holy God! Our God is a consuming fire (Heb. 12:29; cf. Deut. 4:24), and because of this, it is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Heb. 10:31)! It is time that we wake up to the dreadfulness of sin and the need to repent before our righteous God who will render to each person according to his deeds (Rom. 2:6).
These are two of the reasons why withdrawal of fellowship may be ineffective for the reclamation of the sinful brother or sister. First, many have a faulty view of the body of Christ. Second, many have a defective and watered down view of sin. If these unscriptural views can be corrected, withdrawal of fellowship may effectively bring one to repentance and to restoration to the family of God.
Additional Reasons for the Ineffectiveness
of Withdrawal of Fellowship
Many other reasons may be suggested why withdrawing from an errant brother may not effectively bring him back to repentance. We must remember that God does not promise that the sinner will return. There is no record that either Hymenaeus or Alexander repented (1 Tim. 1:20). There is no indication that either Hymenaeus or Philetus came back to sound teaching (2 Tim. 2:17-18). We know nothing of whether Demas gave up his love of this present world and returned to Christ (2 Tim. 4:10). There is a possibility (but this is not known) that the fornicator of 1 Cor. 5 repented and came back to the body of Christ (cf. 2 Cor. 2:5-11).
Consider several reasons why withdrawal of fellowship may not effectively reclaim a sinful brother or sister:
1. The sinful brother may realize that the leaders of the congregation or the members are living hypocritical lives, thus he sees no real difference between him and them.
2. The sinful brother may be offended by the prideful, unkind, and unspiritual way that the withdrawal of fellowship was carried out.
3. The sinful brother may realize that others in the assembly are guilty of the same offence but they have not been approached by the body.
4. The sinful brother may not fully comprehend the sound teaching of Scripture, thus he is not convinced that he is guilty of perpetuating false teaching.
5. The sinful brother may not have been sufficiently instructed on the difference between the body of Christ and the apostate religious bodies in the world, thus he may not know of the gravity of exclusion from Gods earthly family.
These are some of the areas that faithful saints need to consider as they sincerely approach the matter of exclusion from the fellowship and seek to reclaim a sinful, apostate, or immoral brother or sister.
In short, true believersand especially those who lead (such as elders, teachers, and evangelists)need to spend much time studying the materials we have covered in this little booklet. All of this must become familiar to brothers and sisters who want to be used of God to bless the lives of their fellow-believers.
Cautions to Bear in Mind
in this Secular and Humanistic Age
From time to time, in the national news, we read or hear of reports of churches that have encountered serious legal problems as they attempted to carry out some form of exclusion from fellowship. One of the widely publicized cases involved a church in Collinsville, Oklahoma. It was reported that a congregations elders attempted to bring an unfaithful member to repentance, without success. The woman continued to engage in adulterous activities. In order to escape excommunication, the immoral woman claimed to withdraw her membership (as though one could simply cease being a member as one would resign from a social club or charitable organization). On a given date, the leaders announced that the church would exclude this woman from Christian fellowship. The immoral member, in turn, took this situation to her lawyers who brought a legal suit against the church. It went as far as the Oklahoma Supreme Courtand the adulterous woman won her case. The congregation was required to pay a large sum of money. (See No. 62154; 775 P.2d 766; 1989 OK 8; Decided: January 17, 1989; Rehearing Denied May 9, 1989; Supreme Court of Oklahoma.)
A number of religious authorities advise churches to carefully and clearly place their denominational rules of discipline and withdrawal into their church disciplines or manuals. They further state that it is wise to have every person who applies for membership to sign a statement that he or she understands the need for this discipline and an agreement with it. In this way, it is alleged that a church can avoid the legal ramifications of excluding a sinful person from the church membership. This, however, poses a problem for those who want to follow the New Testament alone. As we know, the early Christians were not a denomination or religious institution. They had no extra-biblical sources of authority. A person became a member of the body of Christ automatically and instantaneouslyas soon as he was born again and became a child of God in the family of God (cf. Acts 2:47; 1 Cor. 12:13). He did not join the church, in the way one simply joins a denominational or sectarian body.
Perhaps the best procedure would be to emphasize to the newly-converted member that every believer is subject to the will of God as found in Scripture and every fellowship of believers is accountable to Jesus Christ, the Lord and Head of the body. It must be stressed that if one begins to propagate false teaching, begins to live in an immoral way, begins to live in an openly worldly manner, or begins to cause strife and discord through false ways, then that person will need to be removed from the body and excluded from Christian fellowship (cf. 1 Cor. 5:1-13; 2 Thess. 3:6-15; Matt. 18:15-20). Further, it could be helpful to use this very booklet to help establish the new believer in the ways of the Lord.
A Special and Difficult Problem
(The following section is taken from another of our booklets dealing with a serious theme: The Sword that Divides!pages 40-47. Since it directly applies to the present subject, we include it here.)
Let us briefly discuss one of the more difficult problems that the Christian may encounter. It is appropriately found in a booklet such as this that deals with family conflict, difficulty, and division. We can readily understand the plight of the Christian who is living in a home where there is a totally unbelieving and carnal unbeliever. We can also understand the problem of the Christian who is in a professing Christian home composed of family members who are part of certain churches or denominations that teach unscriptural doctrines and practices. These provide a challenge in and of themselves. But what about the case in which a family member (perhaps a parent, spouse, son or daughter) actually comes to Christ and begins to live for Himand then at a later date falls away!
Few experiences can be as excruciatingly painful as the apostasy of a brother or sister in Christ. When a dear fellow-saint, with whom you have prayed, sung hymns, and shared sweet fellowship, falls away from Christ and the faith, our hearts cry out in pain and sorrow. This anguish is deepened when the one who proves unfaithful is a marriage partner, a parent, or a son or daughter. Yet this has happened again and againand it may be something you as the reader are now facing. Jesus clearly warned, Many will fall away and will betray one another and hate one another . . . . And because lawlessness is increased, most peoples love will grow cold (Matt. 24:10,12).
If indeed your loved one has grown spiritually cold and has turned away from the Lord and His will, you probably will be filled with different thoughts and emotions. You so much longed for a truly Christian marriageand now your wife has turned her back on Jesus, your dearest Friend. Or your husband has become involved with another woman or fallen into drugs or drunkenness, thus he has turned away from the Lord. Or perhaps your son or daughter, whom you love so deeply, drifts away from the faith and moves in with a girlfriend or boyfriend. Maybe a parent who raised you to serve God becomes involved in false doctrine or a false church, and thus becomes an apostate. Regardless of your prayers, your pleas, and your efforts to share the truth with your spouse or family member, this loved one falls away from Christ and returns to the world and Satan (cf. 2 Peter 2:20-22).
This presents a unique situation with various difficulties. We must realize that the unfaithful Christian or child of God (if it is even correct to call him or her that) has actually turned away from Christ (and not just turned away from you). Scripture describes a person like this in a variety of ways: He has deserted God (Gal. 1:6), has been severed from Christ (5:4), and has fallen from grace (5:4). He has wandered away from the faith (1 Tim. 6:10), moved away from the hope of the gospel (Col. 1:23), strayed from the truth (James 5:19-20), become entangled in the defilements of the world and overcome (2 Peter 2:20), turned away from the holy commandment handed on to [him] (v. 21), and fallen away (Heb. 6:6), or fallen away from the faith (1 Tim. 4:1). Obviously, there are many different ways that Scripture refers to those who have been saved from sin but then fall away through false teaching, indifference, immoral living and other sin.
The word of God is clear that Christians who do fall away in this way are to be separated from the believing community. True and faithful Christians are not to associate with such a person (2 Thess. 3:6,14-15) and are to reject such a person (Titus 3:10-11). They are to judge this disobedient or unfaithful brother or sister (1 Cor. 5:12), remove the person from the assembly (v. 13), deliver such a person to Satan (v. 5; cf. 1 Tim. 1:19-20), and treat the person as a non-Christian (Matt. 18:15-17). The Christian is even to refrain from eating with or having any social contact with him or her (1 Cor. 5:11). Many passages deal with this issue and we have made passing reference to some of them.
Even though this teaching is very seldom obeyed in our day, the faithful Christian community will do everything possible to understand Gods will in the matter and faithfully carry it out. In the midst of this withdrawal of fellowship and exclusion from the assembly and even after it has been carried out in a public way (cf. 1 Cor. 5:4-5; 1 Tim. 5:20), Christians are to do all they can to win the fallen brother or sister and turn the person back to the Lord (see Gal. 6:1-2; James 5:19-20; 2 Thess. 3:14-15; 1 Tim. 1:20). This action is intended to be both preventative and remedial. In other words, not only does the withdrawal protect the saints from the evil influence of the sinful member but it is also meant to bring the member to repentance and restoration to the Lord.
Some of those who come to Christ do not remain with Him but fall away from the faith. This may be true of our family members. A Christian husband may rejoice to see his wife come to Christ and begin a wonderfully new life in Him. Or a Christian wife may find that her many prayers are answered when her unsaved husband finally repents and turns to the Lord. Or it may be that another family member responds to the gospel and is saved from sina father, a mother, a brother or sister, or children. All seems to go well for several weeks or even months. However, in time, the person may eventually turn away from Jesus because of falling into some sin (Gal. 6:1), falling into some immoral relationship (1 Cor. 6:1), acceptance of some false teaching (1 John 4:1-2), or turning to some apostate church (Col. 2:8). Rightfully, the community of saints (hagios, literally, holy ones) must withdraw their fellowship from this dear spouse or other family member. Without question, your heart will be crushed and your joy brought to dismay as you ponder the dreadful condition of this dear one whom you so rejoiced to see come to Christ some time earlier.
There is a minority view of the Scriptural instructions on this matter of exclusion from fellowship that we must briefly mention. The idea is as follows. Not only is the family of God or the body of Christ (your brothers and sisters in the Lord) to withdraw their fellowship from the fallen brother, but this view says that the family member who remains true to the Lord must also withdraw fellowship from the offender (this would be the Christians partner, parent, child, brother, or sister)!
There are two forms of this view. The first form says that the believing mate should actually separate from the fallen, sinful spouse to keep from being pulled down by the apostate. Some in the Radical Reformation held to this position. This is the reasoning: None can more easily infect us than our own fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, or children, if they are corrupted, especially because of the daily association with them and the natural love for them, and what is more still, since husband and wife are one flesh. . . . deliberately, purely, and plainly teach and maintain the ordinance of the ban, as well between parents and children, man and wife, as among others. . . . Ponder too whether in the whole Scriptures any exception of man or wife, parents or children, is made in this matter? Ponder whether spiritual love has to yield to carnal love? (Menno Simons, The Complete Writings, pp. 970-972; see pp. 960-998). He said that he knew of 300 spouses who had failed to heed this counsel and had so run together into perdition (p. 972). Later Simons softened his view slightly (Ibid., pp. 1058-1061). Dirk Philips also held this rather strict position: Because God is no respecter of persons, shunning must be applied to all human relationships, including marriage and the family circle. After all, judgment on the apostate is given by the entire congregation, and the wife or the husband, the father and mother or the child are all involved. Therefore the innocent partner must honour the sentence and shun the banned person. It is done in the best interest of the shunned person (Jacobus Koolman, Dirk Philips, p. 44).
This view would state that since an apostate or immoral person may lead to the Christians own departure from the faith, the believer must depart and honor the withdrawal of fellowship exercised by the body of Christ. The example at Corinth may be cited. In the assembly there, a so-called brother had his fathers wife (1 Cor. 5:1,11). If the father in the case was a Christian, surely he would have honored the assemblys withdrawal by also withdrawing from his immoral son (evidently the mother was not a Christian or she also would have been removed from the assembly).
The second variety of this rather extreme minority view is that the Christian should continue to dwell with the spouse, the parent, or the child who has fallen away from the faith and into sin, but there should be a measure of withholding of fellowship in that home context. While the Christian may carry on some of the regular duties of family living (earning a living, preparing meals, cleaning house, washing clothes, etc.), he or she should not actually have fellowship (the Greek word koinonia denotes association, participation, fellowship, sharing) with the offender. This would include eating, going places together, having pleasant conversations, and similar expressions of sharing and approval. Some would go so far as to say that sexual relations must be withheld in order to carry out Scriptural withdrawal of koinoniasince this is surely the most intimate form of sharing or fellowship (but see 1 Cor. 7:1-5 is a problem for this viewpoint). As we indicated, this is one form in a very minority view on the subject.
Most students of the Bible hold to a less extreme view as the Scriptural intention. This position says that the withdrawal of fellowship must be carried out by the believing community as a whole and by every Christian in the communitybut family members who are actually living with the offender should not seek to carry out the withdrawal themselves. Thus, a family member or a spouse is an exception to the general instruction on withdrawal of fellowship. In other words, a Christian parent should prepare meals and may even eat with a sinful son or daughter who has fallen away from the Lord. A Christian son or daughter may have meals with and have normal conversations with a father or mother who turned to the Lord but has subsequently turned away from the faith. A Christian husband may continue to live with, speak to, eat with, and sleep with a wife who has fallen into unrepentant sin; and a believing wife may continue to perform her wifely duties toward her sinful husband. This view creates much less stress in the relationship and arouses much less resentmentwhich generally would occur in the more restricted view discussed above.
Even if one takes this more open and less restrictive view, surely the Christian will want to convey the idea that things cannot just continue with a business as usual approach. There will be some stress, some awkwardness, some uncomfortable feelings, some difficulties relating. Think of the reasons for this. If the family member actually did come to Christ (and in some cases probably the person actually was not genuinely born again) but has turned away, what is the condition of that person? The family member is now in sin, in guilt, back in the world, under condemnation, under Gods judgment, separated from God and Christ, grieving the Holy Spirit, under Gods wrath, in a state of hardness and rebellion, captivated by his lusts, perhaps involved in immorality, given over to false teaching, and so much more. The dear father or mother, husband or wife, son or daughter, brother or sister whom you so much love and want to see in the presence of God for all eternity, is now cut off from the believing community. And we must remember that Christ only has promised to save His body or community of saints (Eph. 5:23,25-27; cf. Acts 20:28) and your loved one has been separated from the community of saved ones. When all of this is taken into consideration, the Christian who continues to be faithful to the Lord will inevitably find this situation very difficult.
As noted above, one of the major reasons some few have taken the strict minority view is the matter of influence and the possibility that the faithful Christian himself and herself may succumb to the sinful influence of the excluded family member. Sin is very deceptive and one can be hardened by it (Heb. 3:13). Just as an outsider may influence a faithful Christian and lead him or her into sin, so an excluded spouse, parent, son or daughter is able to lead the faithful one back into sin and the world. This sinful, immoral, or apostate family member may offer a constant and insidious influence, a persistent argumentation, continual slander against the other Christians, any may offer deceptive but persuasive pleas for mercy from the Christian family member. All of this may result in the Christian himself or herself falling into sin, unbelief, and false teachings. Therefore, even if the extreme position above is not embraced and followed, the believer must be utterly aware of this temptation and possibilityfor the sake of his or her own relationship with God!
Several further points must be kept in mind when a family member falls away from the Lord. Let us direct this to you, if you happen to be in this very situation. You will want to keep in mind the ten points that we looked at earlier that pertain to living with unsaved family members. Why? Because many of those same instructions are now applicable in some measure to you in your situation. As for further suggestions, consider the following:
· First, be very careful about taking sides with your sinful parent, spouse, or family member against your brothers and sisters in Christ. This may be the natural temptation but resist yielding to it. Remember that the community of Christ (if it is composed of faithful saints) is destined for the kingdom of God whereas your loved one, since he is in sin, is not. You must side with your fellow-saints.
· Second, if there are problems that arise or if you believe that your family member is sincerely seeking to repent, be open and honest about this with the overseers of the community or the more spiritually mature brothers among the saints (cf. 1 Thess. 5:12-14; Acts 20:28; Heb. 13:17)
· Third, in the midst of the difficulties of relating to a fallen child of God (your family member), do not allow troubling and disquieting thoughts to arise in your heart. Allow the Lord to draw near to you, care for you, and bear your burdens (cf. James 4:8; 1 Peter 5:6-7; Matt. 11:28-30). Also, share your concerns and burdens with your fellow-saints for they too can help bear your load in love and help you in your needs (Gal. 6:2; 1 Cor. 12:25; Rom. 12:10,15).
· Fourth, receive your needed spiritual nourishment by resorting to the word of God continually. The Scriptures will sustain you in the midst of this family conflict and trial (Acts 20:32; 2 Tim. 3:16-17; 1 Tim. 4:6).
· Fifth, be diligent in prayer. Let your requests be known to God and open your heart to Him. Tell Him of your hurts, your disappointments in the loved one who has turned away, your confusion, and your struggles to understand. Call upon Him to sustain you and keep you faithful in the midst of this difficult circumstance (cf. Phil. 4:6-7; Eph. 6:18; 1 Thess. 5:16-18).
· Sixth, do not allow the unfaithful family member to move you from your own commitment to the Lord. Often there can be deep resentment, a great feeling of offence, or an attitude of retaliation in the person who has been censured for his sin and has been withdrawn from by the believing community. Be aware that the person may very well seek to draw you away from the Lord and His body too. Instead of succumbing to this temptation, redouble your efforts to live for the Lord and be committed to Him. Let this be an opportunity to prove your sincerity and devotion rather than an occasion for your own stumbling into sin, unfaithfulness, and bitterness (Matt. 26:41; Luke 17:1-2; 1 Cor. 10:13).
(Conclusion of the added section above)
A Further Consideration
We must necessarily be brief as we consider one further matter. In our study thus far, we have noticed that the body of Christ must remain pure and clean. This means that sinful, immoral, and worldly members as well as those who share false teachings must be excluded from fellowshipeven to the point of not eating with them (cf. 1 Cor. 5:11). Since the truly saved are few in number (Matt. 7:13-14; 22:14; Luke 13:23-24), this withdrawal of fellowship may not involve very many people. While it may pose some difficulties (e.g., when a Christian works closely with a sinful brother who is a fellow-employee, or when he lives with a family member who has fallen away from the Lord), still the number will probably be relatively few.
The question arises: How should we look upon the tens of millions of professing Christians who are living immoral lives? How do we relate to the millions of people to claim to be Christians and good church members but who live very worldly lives, who believe and teach a plethora of false doctrines, and who support popular false teachers and prophets? When asked, these people profess to be Christians in the widest possible definition of the word. Some are merely nominal in their commitment, while others are ardent promoters of certain cults, members of mainline liberal denominations, or members of Charismatic or Evangelical churches.
If these people had actually been saved in the past, the true Christian would have a monumental problem to face! Since millions of these people are living in fornication or adultery, are living sinful lives, are promoting false teachings, and are living radically compromising lives, the genuine Christian would need to exclude tens of millions of people from his or her fellowship! There are some two billion (2,000,000,000) professing Christians in the world, and how would one exclude the vast majority of them from Christian fellowship? The problem would be serious indeed!
One may reply by saying that since nearly all of these professing Christians are not really saved, we need not be concerned about withdrawing fellowship from all of these people. The Lords instructions on exclusion from fellowship are meant only for those who have been truly born again and saved from sin. This is trueand it must be part of the answer. However, we must also admit that most of these professing Christians assume that they are Gods children and have a hope of heaven. If they think that you and I do accept them as heirs of the Kingdom, they continue to perpetuate the false idea that those in known and unrepentant sin (including themselves) are not subject to the many scriptures requiring an exclusion from fellowship. Are we giving a wrong impression? Are we leading professing Christians into the mistaken assumption that we accept them as they areliving compromising lives and living in known sin?
These are questions that we need to face and consider. There is much work and study for the follower of Christ to do in his attempt to understand and apply the Scriptures to these perplexing situations. Let each member of the body of Christ be diligent in seeking the way of the Lord in these matters. Let us pray that God will give us more light, fuller understanding, and great wisdom that we may walk in His perfect way.
A Final Word
Anyone who seriously and sincerely studies the Word of God on this troublesome topic must admit that some aspects are not altogether clear. Particularly troublesome would be the questions of how to apply the teachings of the New Testament to specific cases in our day. I, personally, must admit that I dont have all of the answers to perplexing questions regarding withdrawing fellowship. I dont know how to apply some of the Biblical passages to contemporary situations. We doubt that anyone really has all of the answers. Consider the following:
· Do we always know who is genuinely savedand in Christian fellowship?
· How far can one be from Biblical standards and still be within this fellowship?
· Among the hundreds of sins that can be committed, which ones are serious enough that the unrepentant should be excluded from the body?
· What teachings are so major that they would necessitate exclusion from fellowship?
· How long should a body of Christians endure a compromising situation before action must be taken?
· How can one be removed from fellowship when this person is a family member?
· How does one respond to a sinful brother who is part of another congregation that fails to withdraw their fellowship from him?
· How does the Christian deal with such a sinful brother when the Christian visits the assembly that is compromising with this matter?
· How does a community of believers handle the withdrawal of fellowship when there are no congregational overseers (elders, shepherds)?
These and other difficult issues must be addressed. We can only read, study, and seek to apply the instructions of the Bible, with the help of God through the Holy Spirit.
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