I’ve been part of congregations which practiced church discipline and withdrew fellowship from individuals. Sometimes the excommunication, if you will, took place over false doctrine and other times the disfellowship took place over unrepentant sin. I’ve sin those disfellowshiped come back to the fold almost immediately, and I’ve seen feelings get hurt and whole families leave congregations.
Were you part of a congregation that withdrew from a disorderly brother or sister? Did you bump into that person at Wal-Mart, and you weren’t sure how to handle the situation? Did a congregation ever withdraw from your family? How did you handle that? How did you show love but still uphold God’s standards?
Were you part of a congregation that buried its head in the sand when it came to sin? Maybe it was some sin — adultery or greed or arrogance — and the congregation went right along with it. Maybe it was the fact that the church was not willing to discipline a huge financial donor.
I know that this post will offend some, but it’s biblical. Paul had not “not shunned to declare to [the Ephesians] the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). Paul told Timothy, “Preach the word!” (2 Tim 4:2).
We need to have this discussion because heaven and hell hang in the balance. Those who are persisting in sin have nothing but hell to anticipate. If one persists in sin, he has nothing to anticipate but “a certain fearful expectation of judgment, and fiery indignation which will devour the adversaries” (Heb 10:27).
To help wayward Christians avoid that “fiery indignation,” we must use church discipline. Yesterday, I wrote about how disfellowship is a manifestation of love to those caught up in sin. Today, I want to think about the truth that disfellowship severs relationships.
Some would think I was cruel for saying that sometimes relationships needs to be severed. However, Jesus Himself says relationships are severed because of Him. “I have come to ‘set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law'” (Matt 10:35). In the same passage, Jesus says that if we love family more than Him we cannot be His disciples (Matt 10:37).
Let’s think about how disfellowshiping severs relationships.
When disfellowship occurs, Jesus says that you must “let [the one disfellowshiped] be to you like a heathen and a tax collector” (Matt 18:17). Since Jesus, in this context, is talking about sinning against a brother (v. 15), some might say that I cannot use this to speak about disfellowship, but I would disagree. Immediately before Jesus starts talking about someone sinning against you, the Lord speaks of seeking a wandering sheep (vv. 11-14). Jesus calls the behavior “sin.” Notice the fullness of what Jesus says at verse 17. If he refuses to hear [the two or three witnesses], tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.” Those being disfellowshiped have clearly not listened to the church.
In many cases, the one being disfellowshiped has sinned against other Christians. “I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner–not even to eat with such a person” (1 Cor 5:11). You can readily see how many of those sins could be a direct sin against brethren: Sexual immorality, greed, reviling (being abusive), alcohol abuse, and extortion.
When disfellowship takes place, I, according to Jesus, must treat that individual “like a heathen and a tax collector.” What does the Lord mean? Tax collectors were not very popular in Jesus’ day (Matt 9:9-13). Notice two things about Matthew 9:9-13: The Pharisees did not keep company with tax collectors, and Jesus Himself equates tax collectors with sinners. We are also to treat the sinful brother like “a heathen.” The Jews were forbidden to have contact with the heathen (Deut 7:1-5).
Paul, with the Spirit of God directing him, says that we can have no company with a brother or sister who has been disfellowshiped (1 Cor 5:9-13). Eating was very close fellowship in the ancient world, and Paul, with inspiration’s pen, tells us that we cannot have that close fellowship with those who have been excommunicated.
Even though the sins and circumstances were different from case to case, the practical aspect of disfellowship is the same throughout the New Testament (Rom 16:17-18; 2 Thess 3:6). Paul delivered Hymenaeus and Alexander over to Satan that they might learn not to blaspheme (1 Tim 1:20). “Reject a divisive man after the first and second admonition” (Tit 3:10).
How do we practically go about severing the relationships disfellowship brings?
One: You judge the sinner.
I know what some might object to that wording. We’re not to judge; that’s from Jesus (Matt 7:1-5). However, Jesus speaks of hypocritical judging — that’s obvious: Jesus mentions hypocrites and says we ought not judge when we have worse problems ourselves. That passage has absolutely nothing to do with calling sin sin.
Some have said, “You can’t judge me. You don’t know what I’m going through.” With all due respect, Paul calls upon us to judge. “What have I to do with judging those also who are outside? Do you not judge those who are inside?” (1 Cor 5:12). How do we judge those on the inside? You carry out the discipline the elders put before the congregation; when you cut off fellowship, you are judging. When you judge: You are not saying that you are better than anyone else. You aren’t saying that you have all the answers. You are not condemning a soul to hell. Instead, you say habitual sin cannot be tolerated among God’s people. You say Jesus’ blood is too precious to be treated with contempt. You demonstrate that God’s Word is the standard by which you live your life.
Two: You cut off contact with the sinner.
The severing of all contact is extremely clear as you look at the Scriptures. “If he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector” (Matt 18:17). “Avoid them” (Rom 16:17). “I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner–not even to eat with such a person” (1 Cor 5:11). “We command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you withdraw from every brother who walks disorderly and not according to the tradition which he received from us” (2 Thess 3:6).
When a congregation disfellowships those living in sin, you can have no contact whatsoever. There can be no phone calls, no visits, no Facebook. The Bible makes very clear that we can have no fellowship with them whatsoever. To be honest, however, I would urge some contact with that brother or sister. I would urge you to lift him or her up in prayer before the throne of Almighty God. Personally I’d even suggest that you send a card or an email or a phone call every now and then to let it be known you’re praying for the salvation of that soul.
Have you ever felt alone in this world? Have you ever needed a friend? Have you ever wondered how you would make it through the day? When someone is disfellowshiped, that is precisely how we want that person to feel. Why would we want someone to feel so alone? Remember the Prodigal Son! What happened when he felt so alone? He returned to his father! That father welcomed his wayward son with arms wide open. God wants to welcome sinners with arms wide open. We want to welcome sinners with arms wide open.
What would happen if the church universal came to understand that disfellowship severs relationships? I believe we would become a church moving closer and closer to heaven; we would hold each other accountable in ways we otherwise cannot. I believe we’d be seeking to remove sin from our lives in new and different ways; we’d see what happens when brethren persist in sin, and we’d want no part of it. I believe we’d see hearts being changed and souls on the way to heaven.
Some might ask, “Does disfellowship really work?” Why would you think that God in His infinite wisdom would tell us to do something that wouldn’t work? We have evidence in Scripture that disfellowship works. The man who was living with his father’s wife in 1 Corinthians 5 was restored (2 Cor 2:6-11). As churches move to disfellowship erring brethren, would it not be wonderful to see these precious souls come home?
Do you need to come home?