Withdrawing Fellowship

Question or Topic

Could withdrawing fellowship from a brother or sister work to their hurt by driving them further away? Might it not be better to overlook their offence in order to keep them connected to the ecclesia?


2 Thessalonians 3:6


When weighing decisions affecting fellowship, it is helpful to keep in mind the teaching of Proverbs 17:15 "He that justifieth the wicked, and he that condemneth the just, even they both are abomination to the LORD." It is not pleasing to our Father in heaven to act in rejecting one from the ecclesia who is acceptable in His sight, such as in the case of the apostle John being cast out by Diotrephes (3 John 10). Neither is it pleasing to Him to bear with one who is engaged in evil behaviour or unsound teaching. (See 2 Corinthians 11:4.) In these matters, a scriptural balance is needed.

The elements of a godly balance are reflected in the way in which our Father has dealt with the nation of Israel: "For if God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest he also spare not thee. Behold therefore the goodness and severity of God: on them which fell, severity; but toward thee, goodness, if thou continue in his goodness: otherwise thou also shalt be cut off." (Romans 11:21-22) Frequently God reminds Israel how he sent the prophets to plead with them to reform and return to Him. "For I earnestly protested unto your fathers in the day that I brought them up out of the land of Egypt, even unto this day, rising early and protesting, saying, Obey my voice." (Jeremiah 11:7) It was only as a last resort, that the exercise of His severity was brought to bear, when every other remedy was exhausted. Even in this case, the judgment that was brought to bear on Israel was intended to have a positive result: "They have moved me to jealousy with that which is not God; they have provoked me to anger with their vanities: and I will move them to jealousy with those which are not a people; I will provoke them to anger with a foolish nation." (Deut. 32: 21) The Gentiles were the "foolish nation" that was brought in, in order that Israel might be moved to return to God.

There is a time to execute judgment. There are cases in the Scriptures where our Father dealt severely with evil, such as the cutting off of Ananias and Sapphira for lying to the Holy Spirit over the purchase price of their land. While no one would dispute that it is God's prerogative to bring such swift judgment to bear against evil in the congregation of the righteous, where do the Scriptures extend the prerogative to us to execute judgment, as fallible, erring mortal beings? In the Old Testament, there is the case of Phinehas, who was commended for his action in stopping the flagrant display of iniquity in the midst of the camp of Israel: "Then stood up Phinehas, and executed judgment: and so the plague was stayed. And that was counted unto him for righteousness unto all generations for evermore."(Numbers 25:6-15; Psalm 106:30,31) The weapons of our warfare are not carnal. There is no literal javelin in our hand. Yet there are times when it is necessary to execute judgment and the failure to do so is cited as reason for displeasing God. (See Isaiah 59:15.)

Apostolic commands ought to be obeyed. The greatest and most severe judgment that we can exercise in this life is to withdraw association from those who walk disorderly. "Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us". (2 Thessalonians 3:6) This requirement for withdrawal is not presented in the Scriptures as an option but as a commandment." But now I have written unto you not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolator, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one no not to eat. For what have I to do to judge them also that are without? do not ye judge them that are within? But them that are without God judgeth. Therefore put away from among yourselves that wicked person." (1 Corinthians 5:11-13) This testimony shows that there is an obligation for the ecclesia to judge those within, when they practice the specific described sins without remorse or repentance.

An application of loving discipline: The application of this commandment is sometimes viewed as harsh and therefore unloving. This view stems from a misunderstanding of the reason why spiritual association must be ended with the wicked person. It is not done out of a mean-spirited desire to inflict hurt on the offending party. The best analogy that might be possible to consider is that of a parent when confronted with the decision whether to discipline a child. If a child whom we deeply loved and cared about, at an early stage of his development, darted out on the highway in front of the house, which he had been warned not to do on account of the danger of being struck by traffic, would it be an act of a mean-spirited father who brought discipline to bear for the child's sake? On the contrary, we might view a father in that situation that failed to discipline his child as exceedingly negligent and uncaring, for not emphasizing the danger to his child. There are certain sins in the Scriptures that are listed under the warning, "Be not deceived: (such) shall not inherit the kingdom of God." When a brother or sister is overtaken in such a sin, how is the love of Christ shown by their continuance in the ecclesia when the Lord teaches us that doers of such evil will not inherit the Kingdom of God? A purpose of withdrawing fellowship from those that walk disorderly is to urge them to come to their senses in the hope that they might realize their unwise moral choices have caused them to receive the grace of God in vain. It is always done with the desire to recover the offender for Christ's sake and help the brother in the race for the kingdom of God. "And if any man obey not our word by this epistle, note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed. Yet count him not as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother." (2 Thessalonians 3:14-15) Those from whom company has been severed do not become enemies of the ecclesia and they do not cease to be brethren, for whom Christ died. The door must always be open in the hope of repentance and prayers offered for their behalf.

Loving discipline is an example for others. There is a second reason why it is according to the wisdom that is from above to withdraw fellowship from those who walk disorderly: the effect that their example might have on others. This point is made by the apostle Paul, in his instruction to Timothy: "Them that sin rebuke before all, that others also may fear." (1 Timothy 5:20) If the ecclesia takes no action towards the sin, what message does it send to others who may be tempted after the same weakness?

The last step in a process of recovery: After the pattern of our Father in dealing with the children of Israel, we understand that the withdrawal of fellowship association is the last resort, after every other course has been exhausted. The offending brother must be confronted and pleaded with privately to confess and forsake his error for godly repentance. (Galatians 6:1, Jude 22,23). Our Lord set out the right way to approach a case of suspected offence against the law of Christ in Matthew 18:15-17. It begins with an individual approach to the offender, seeking reconciliation. If that does not resolve the problem, the next step is a party of two or three seeking to bring about repentance. Only if those two steps fail, does the ecclesia become involved in an appeal to persuade the offender to modify his behaviour. Only then, if he does not respect or respond to the entreaties of the ecclesia, is the extreme step of withdrawal to be considered. There are times, when all appeals have failed and been rebuffed, that judgment must be executed in order to fulfill the law and love of Christ. As one who has been present in an ecclesia where a decision concerning the withdrawal of fellowship for disorderly walk has been made, he can attest to the anguish, the sorrow, and the tears that are shed over taking such a serious measure of loving discipline.