Sermons on the Church: Tough Love | A Look at Disfellowship | Part One

One great love

Tough Love—A Look at Disfellowship (Part One)

I’m going to share something with you I desperately wish I could forget: Tammy and I had a very rocky start to our marriage. Some of it was, in all candor, the age difference: Tammy had been out on her own for some time. She had worked full-time for six years or so; she had bought her own home (something I have still never done); and she wasn’t accustomed to telling someone when she wanted to go to Wal-Mart at 10:00 on a Friday evening. She had made several of the mistakes people make when they first start adulthood, and she had learned from those mistakes. Yet, she had to stand by and watch me make those same mistakes because I refused to take her advice.

Far and away the most serious issues in the first days of our marriage were my fault. I was arrogant, I thought I had all the answers, and I thought Tammy should do whatever I thought (whether I had told her or not). It came to a point, that after only a few weeks of marriage, Tammy threw me out. She said we weren’t going to live our lives that way and there would be no further discussion. If I wanted to come back home, I had to agree to go to marriage counseling. I agreed to those terms, and so, after only 4 and a half months of marriage, Tammy and I started marriage counseling on my 23rd birthday.

I sometimes wonder if Tammy hadn’t kicked me out then, what would have become of our marriage? I really don’t think it would have lasted but a few more months. Tammy fortunately loved me enough to use “tough love” and encourage me to change.

Some of you, no doubt, have experience with “tough love.” Some of you have needed to exercise “tough love.” Maybe you had to do so with a child; maybe you had to let your child reach “rock bottom” before he or she could be helped. Maybe you had to do so with a parent; I’ve known several adult children who have needed to exercise “tough love” with a parent. Some of you have been in supervisory roles; did you ever need to practice “tough love” with an employee?

Maybe you’ve had to exercise “tough love” in a church setting. Did you ever have someone whom you love deeply be disfellowshiped? Some of you men have served as elders here and elsewhere; did you ever need to practice “tough love” and withdraw from someone?

This morning, we want to think about the act of disfellowship as an act of “tough love.” In my limited experience, I have seen people gravitate to one side or another. Some brethren were so “tough” that I almost got the feeling they were enjoying destroying friendships. It was almost an egocentric way of saying, “I’m better than you are.” Some brethren have erred because they went too far to the loving part; they would overlook sin they had no right to overlook.

This morning, we need to understand this truth about disfellowshiping: “Disfellowship is an act of great love. This morning, we’re going to think about the love part of disfellowshiping someone. If the Lord wills, next Lord’s Day, we’ll think about the “tough” part.


I have no doubt that many in this world would view any use of church discipline as an exercise in cruelty. Many of you will remember the case of Marian Guinn who sued the church in Collinsville, Oklahoma, after the elders disfellowshiped her for adultery. When the jury returned a verdict in her favor, the jurors said they wanted it clear that churches couldn’t be that cruel to church members. Disfellowshiping, however, is an act of great love.

Disfellowship shows a love for a soul.

“Deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Cor 5:5). You understand that those who have come to Jesus can forsake Him and be eternally lost. Those who turn back from following Jesus face hell: Luke 12:47-48. Hebrews 10:26-17—the Greek construction refers to continual sinning; it’s a persistent behavior; the author of Hebrews isn’t talking about those of us who try to do the right thing and sin from time to time. “If, after they have escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the latter end is worse for them than the beginning” (2 Pet 2:20).

How can it be considered loving or kind to allow people to lose their souls and stand by and idly do nothing? Want to understand how disfellowship is an act of great love? Do two things:

One: Contemplate the reality of hell.

If you want to understand the love of a soul disfellowship shows, think about the eternal destiny of those who live in sin.

Go through Scriptures where we learn the reality of hell:

  • Hell is a place of darkness: “The sons of the kingdom will be cast out into outer darkness” (Matt 8:12).
  • Hell is a place of fire: Matthew 13:40-42.
  • Hell is a place where God is not: “These shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power” (2 Thess 1:9). Those in hell may very well call upon God for mercy, but He will not hear. He will not be in hell!
  • Hell is an eternal place. “Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt 25:41). When Tammy was carrying RJ, her blood pressure was getting dangerously high. About three weeks before the due date, the ob/gyn sent Tammy for an ultrasound, and then Tammy and I were to go to her office after the sonogram. If the sonogram were okay, we were having a baby soon. I will never forget, Tammy and I were the only ones in the waiting room. Dr. Eastham opened the door, and she said, “The ultrasound is great. I’m putting you in the hospital, we’re going to induce you, and you’re having a baby tomorrow.” I’m not sure what expression Dr. Eastham saw on my face, but she came over, put her arm around me, and said, “Justin, this too shall pass.” That is not true of hell; it shall never pass!
  • Hell is a place of pain: “The sons of the kingdom will be cast out into outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt 8:12).

Get off to yourself at one point during the week and just think about hell. Think about the pain. Think about the hopelessness. Think about the eternity. Do that, and you’ll never question the process of disfellowship again!

Two: Pray for the unrepentant sinner.

“Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they may be saved” (Rom 10:1). If disfellowship is an act of love, we will pour out our hearts “that they may be saved.” How often do you pray for those caught up in sin?

Look around you and see who is not here this morning. Don’t think of those who cannot get out or who are traveling. Who is not here who is able to be here? Who is caught up in the things of this world instead of things of the next? Who has wandered away from the Lord and is, therefore, bound to a devil’s hell unless there is repentance? Pray. Pray. Pray for them. Pray for the sick and traveling, too, of course. But, spend great time in prayer for the lost because you love them.

Disfellowship shows a love of a Savior.

When we disfellowship, we demonstrate to that sinning soul the love that God loves him or her. We must never forget that God deeply loves those who are in sin. That is why He sent Jesus into this world: “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (Jn 3:16). God doesn’t want anyone to be lost: God is “not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Pet 3:9).

How does disfellowshiping someone demonstrate the love of God? I’m sure many would say, “That makes no sense whatsoever. . . . You have nothing to do with someone and you’re showing God’s love?”

Think with me: One purpose of disfellowship is to see a person’s soul saved (1 Cor 5:5). Who guided Paul to write that we should withdraw fellowship when someone refuses to repent? God (2 Tim 3:16-17). God gave us guidelines to disfellowship because he loves those in sin!

When someone repents, God, like the father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, runs to wrap His loving arms around that penitent soul. When did that prodigal son go home to his father? Was it not when he was in a distant country, without family, without friends, and without support? God knows what He’s doing when He commands His children to act in a certain way.

Not only does disfellowship demonstrate God’s love to the unrepentant sinner, but disfellowship shows the world that we love the Lord. “If you love Me, keep My commandments” (Jn 14:15). If someone needs to be disfellowshiped and we do nothing, how can we claim to love the Lord who instructed us to act?

What do you do to demonstrate the love of a Savior? You carry out disfellowship. Disfellowship is a congregational activity: “In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when you are gathered together, along with my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh” (1 Cor 5:4-5). The elders guide, lead, and take care of the souls in their charge. However, if the elders publicly announce that we’re withdrawing from someone, and I continue to have fellowship, I’m sinning. We must sever fellowship with such people–no Facebook, no phone calls, no going out to eat.

Next Lord’s Day, if the Lord wills, we’ll think specifically of things we must do when the church disfellowships, but for now, let us understand that we must obey and carry out that disfellowship.

Disfellowship shows the love of a saint.

We’ve mentioned that one purpose of disfellowship is to save a soul on that last, great Day.

Another purpose is to keep sin from spreading in a congregation. “Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened. For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us” (1 Cor 5:6-7).

When people see that a church winks at sin, they’ll be far more likely to wink at sin. “Those who are sinning rebuke in the presence of all, that the rest also may fear” (1 Tim 5:20). When we see that the Lord, the elders, and the church mean business about correcting sin, we’ll be far less likely to sin. Joe says that when a car is repossessed, people start lining up to pay their bills. When you see someone means business, you’ll act.

Our elders are very serious about bringing some names before the congregation so that we might all disfellowship them together.

Because disfellowship shows the love of a saint, you need to:

Pray for the elders.

There is no power trip with these two; they fully understand the awesome responsibility they have. “Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you” (Heb 13:17). Would you really want to stand before God as an elder who simply looked the other way when people persisted in sin?

Honor these men by lifting their names in prayer that they might keep this church from sin. Pray that they might have wisdom: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him” (Js 1:5). Pray that they can take heed to all flock, among which God has made them overseers (Acts 20:28).

Search the Scriptures.

How do we know who needs to be disfellowshiped? I can only know that through the Word of God. “I would not have known sin except through the law. For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, ‘You shall not covet’” (Rom 7:7). Scripture “is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16).

When the elders announce someone is about to be disfellowshiped, search the Scriptures about that sin. What does holy writ have to say? What does Scripture say you need to do to avoid that sin in your life?


Fellowship is so important. When God saw that it was not good for man to be alone, He created the woman from Adam’s side. When the church in Jerusalem did not believe Saul of Tarsus was truly a disciple, Barnabas took him to the apostles. When we have burdens, we can help one another bear them and so fulfill the law of Christ.

As important as our fellowship with one another is, our fellowship with God is immensely more important. “Enoch walked with God; and he was not, for God took him” (Gen 5:24). I can only surmise the special fellowship God and Enoch shared. God calls us to fellowship: “God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Cor 1:9). One day, I will have great fellowship with my God: “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God” (Rev 21:3).

Do you have fellowship with God this morning? Can you anticipate the fellowship you will have one sweet day?

This sermon was originally preached by Dr. Justin Imel, Sr., at the Dale Ridge church of Christ in Roanoke, Virginia.

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