Withdrawing From the Disorderly
The withdrawal of our unity and spiritual fellowship from an unfaithful Christian is a serious matter and involves the taking of drastic measures. In commanding and describing the action of withdrawing fellowship the New Testament uses language that implies urgency. Notice the following examples taken from 1Cor 5:1-13 and 2 Thess 3:14. “put out of your fellowship”; “hand over to Satan”; “get rid of the old yeast”; “not to associate with”; “with such a man do not even eat.”; “expel from among you.” “do not associate with.”
Question – At what point is our fellowship to be withdrawn from another Christian? Answer – after all other means have failed. There is to be love shown by correcting, rebuking and careful instruction (2 Timothy 4:2). Such measures as described in Matthew 18:15-18 are to be taken. There are to be warnings (Titus 3:10-11). If these do not work in bringing the erring child of God to repentance, then the withdrawing of fellowship is to be undertaken (1 Cor 5:6,7).
New Testament examples are given of those from whom fellowship must be withdrawn: those who refuse to help settle an offense with a brother (Matt18:15-18); those described as immoral or wicked (Eph 5:3-5;1Cor5:11); blasphemers (1Tim1:20); false teachers (Rom16:17; 2 John 9-11); a divisive person (Titus 3:10); those who are disorderly, i.e. those who are irregular, neglectful of duty, idol, lazy, out of rank, not at one’s post or duty (2 Thess 3:6,14).
The same passages that explain the action of withdrawing of fellowship also explain its purpose, i.e. “that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Cor 5:5). This is accomplished when the sinner is forced to recognize the reality and consequence of his sin, experiences shame, and comes back to the Lord through repentance – repentance being the only action that can remove the shame and guilt of sin. The repentant sinner is thus brought back into fellowship with God and His faithful people.
The purity of the church is another important consideration. (Eph 5:26,27).We must not maintain fellowship with an unfaithful Christian who refuses to repent of sin (1 Cor 5:13), for doing so would compromise the purity of the local church. Furthermore, a failure to take the appropriate scriptural action toward an unfaithful brother or sister in Christ will always be interpreted as an encouragement for them to continue living in a sinful manner. The church in Ephesus was commended for not putting up with those who were evil (Rev 2:2). On the other hand, the churches in Pergamos and Thyatira were chastised for tolerating those among their number who were evil (Rev 2:14,15).
How are we to treat those who have been withdrawn from? Withdrawal of fellowship is to be a congregational undertaking in the sense that every member participates. The church in Corinth was instructed to “deliver such a one to Satan when you are gathered together” (1 Cor 5:4,5). It is to be administered by “the brethren” (2 Thess 3:6), and is to be “inflicted by the majority” (2 Cor 2:6). After one is withdrawn from we are to: “avoid them” (Rom 16:17); “do not keep company with him” (2 Thess 3:14,15); “have no fellowship with” (Eph 5:11).
However, all personal contact with a person who has been withdrawn from is not forbidden. 2 Thess 3:15 instructs us “Yet do not count him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother.” It would be quite impossible to admonish one with whom we had absolutely no contact.
Throughout the entire process of dealing with an erring, unrepentant brother we are to exercise love (1Pet 4:8), unselfish concern (Phil 2:4), a willingness to bear the other’s burden (Gal 6:1,2), compassion (Jude 22), and an urgency in pulling them out of sin (Jude 23).
FELLOWSHIP A PREREQUISITE
The action and purpose of withdrawing fellowship from an unfaithful saint presupposes the existence of fellowship. This sounds absurdly simple, but I’ve seen it happen on more than one occasion that an unfaithful brother or sister was withdrawn from in a totally ineffective manner due to the fact that there was virtually no fellowship or sharing to withdraw. The idea of fellowship is a sharing in with reference to some spiritual attitude or activity. Sometimes individual Christians or the local church as a whole fails in the responsibility to share in this way with one another. What positive, soul saving effect will it have on an unfaithful person to go through the motions of withdrawing from them under such circumstances? How can we effectively withdraw that which has never been shared in the first place?
Having the “right hand of fellowship” proffered (i.e. being acknowledged as a faithful Christian) by another faithful individual or a church is certainly a great blessing. And, to be sure, that public acknowledgment of faithfulness is to be withdrawn from an unfaithful member of the church. But according to 1 Corinthians 5 and 2 Thessalonians 3 that is not all that is withdrawn. These passages clearly point out that our fellowship in specific actions (i.e. keeping company with, sharing meals with) must also be withdrawn. We must therefore see to it that under normal circumstances we are actually sharing in these specific areas. If we are not, then the process of withdrawal will seem empty and pointless. In my opinion this is a primary reason why many churches do not practice withdrawing from the unfaithful and when it is practiced why it is often ineffectual.
WITHDRAWING FROM THE CHURCH
Passages in the New Testament that discuss the subject seem to imply that the individuals from whom fellowship is being withdrawn still desire to maintain their fellowship with the church (as an example consider 1 Cor 5). If a person does not desire that fellowship then we do not have a situation that is parallel with those presented in scripture. If an unfaithful saint therefore has left the church and broken off association, communication and sharing (i.e. fellowship) with the other Christians, then what is there for the church to withdraw from them? All we can do as that point is to note or mark that person (Romans 16:17) as being unfaithful to the Lord if such is the case. There would be nothing more we could withdraw from them since they have already withdrawn themselves and thus their fellowship from the church.
THE ANNOUNCEMENT IS NOT ALL THAT IS INVOLVED
How many times has a statement been made such as: “Yes, we withdrew from brother so-an-so months ago”, the meaning being that a public statement had been read concerning one’s unfaithfulness and that he was being withdrawn from? The impression may be given (even intentionally in some cases) that the announcement was in itself the only dimension to the withdrawal. Certainly a public announcement must be made and the guilty party does need to be informed that such disciplinary action is being commenced, but the announcement alone is not all that needs to be done. The announcement may very well begin the process, but the withdrawal of fellowship must be carried out by the church and all the individual members of the church as they scripturally withdraw themselves from the unrepentant individual in all the areas in which thy previously enjoyed Christian fellowship.
Before we make a bad situation worse by unscripturally withdrawing from an erring brother or sister, we need to be certain that we understand the correct purpose and action of church discipline. Our fellowship in the Lord must be real and it must be meaningful, otherwise the withdrawing of it will be meaningless to the erring saint. Let us be sure that we have an understanding of church discipline and let us determine to practice it in the right spirit and in keeping with the Lord’s commands.