It is the most heart-wrenching, gut-churning, hand-wringing, tear-filled process a congregation of the Lord’s church will endure. One should not be left to wonder why so few leaders of the church will fail to go to the lengths of withdrawing fellowship from a wayward Christian. The truth of the matter: This is tough!
With that being said, elders and leaders of the Lord’s church are without excuse for not obeying one of the clearest commands in all of Scripture. “But 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 traditions which he received from us” (2 Thess. 3:6, emp. mine). The apostle Paul made it clear this was a direct command, not from himself, but from the Lord Jesus Christ. It is important in approach of this subject, as with all others, that we remove the emotions attached and simply strive to obey the Lord. Let’s allow the New Testament to be our guide on this specific issue.
The problem can only be understood after some underlying words are given their definition and certain issues are clearly understood. For example, for one to understand what it means to withdrawal fellowship, one must first understand what it means to be in fellowship. Spiritual fellowship can be best defined with the words, association, joint participation, partnership, or sharing. It is seen on display in the very infancy of the Lord’s church in Acts 2:42-46 with the words of Luke describing the fellowship of those who “gladly received his word” and were baptized. The nearly 3,000 souls added to the church that day were said to “be together” and “have all things in common,” “continue daily with one accord,” and “break bread from house to house.” This is the picture of fellowship. However, this fellowship is not only between people as brothers and sisters in Christ – it is fellowship between God and those who are His people. “He who abides in the doctrine of Christ has both the Father and Son” (2 John 9).
When fellowship needs to be withdrawn from a Christian brother or sister in Christ, it is because fellowship has first been broken with God. This is the problem that needs to be addressed. Because one has chosen to go beyond the doctrine of Christ, they do not have God (2 John 9). If they are not in fellowship with God, their brethren have the responsibility to withdrawal from them. What needs to be made very clear is withdrawal of fellowship is not to be mean or unloving. It is simply to demonstrate to an erring brother or sister that they are no longer in fellowship with God and this is a problem that must be corrected before it is eternally too late!
“This is the message which we have heard from Him and declare to you, that God is light and in Him is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with Him and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth” (1 John 1:5-6). This is not an issue that we can fail to address or take too lightly. The problem is that one is outside of Christ. If not corrected it will keep them from going to heaven.
Withdrawal of fellowship is a command to be obeyed for the purpose of helping a brother or sister realize they are not in fellowship with God or with His people and that repentance must take place. Because there has been a lack of teaching or practice of withdrawal of fellowship, some are tempted to say that this practice is cold-hearted and may only serve to drive someone further from the Lord and His people. Before undergoing the process in withdrawing from an erring brother or sister, it is needful to state that this process is driven only by love for the Lord and the soul of the wanderer. Parents discipline their children not to drive them away or to be cold-hearted, but because of the love they have for them. The same is true with God and His children. “For whom the Lord loves He chastens” (Heb. 12:4).
In a healthy church family, the desire must be for what is best for each member. The loving thing to do for those who are walking disorderly is to help them to see the error of their choice. This is done not to separate the family, but actually to keep it together. The purpose of going through the process that might lead to withdrawing fellowship is to get the attention of the impenitent sinner. Their best interests out of love for their soul is the primary motivation in going through the process that was put in place by the Lord.
Please be reminded that the withdrawal of fellowship by a congregation toward a wayward Christian is a process. Jesus gives the first step in Matthew 18:15: “Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother” (emp. mine). Go first and try to get the attention of the one who has sinned – alone. If your brother or sister is in sin, let them know of their sin and give the one you love the opportunity to repent. If they are willing to repent, there will not be a need to withdraw fellowship!
However, Jesus continues with the second step in the process if the erring brother or sister is unwilling to repent: “But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established” (Matt. 18:16). This step in the process is for the same result as the first step – to get the attention of the one who has sinned and to strive to keep the family together and not separate. If the one in error is now willing to repent after this step, there will be no need to withdraw fellowship!
The third step in the process outlined by Jesus is to take the matter before the church if the first two steps are unsuccessful in turning the erring one from their sinful behavior. “And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church” (Matt. 18:17a). Can you imagine if all brethren would call, write, or show up on the doorstep of their brother or sister to beg for their repentance? All too often the focus is on the final step of the process and not enough given to the first three steps. Withdrawal of fellowship should be painful to the impenitent! If the brother or sister is willing to repent after their brethren are informed, there will be no need to withdrawal fellowship from this Christian.
Jesus takes it one more step. “But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector” (Matt. 18:17b). This final step is to help the erring to again see the very serious nature of their sin. Jesus makes it clear that because spiritual fellowship is broken physical fellowship is broken as well. This means we are no longer going to invite them into our homes for common meals (2 Thess. 3:14), out to eat, to go hunting, fishing, shopping, out to ball games or over for game nights. Social media status is going to change. Does the New Testament say this final step is for the purpose of being hateful and unloving? The purpose of following the prescribed process is to help rescue a soul from eternal destruction (James 5:19-20). Paul would make it clear the one withdrawn from should not be treated as an enemy, but admonished as a brother (2 Thess. 3:15). Continued admonishment comes in conversation that must always center on the sinner repenting.
In addressing an impenitent sinner in the congregation at Corinth, Paul scolded the Christians for allowing the sin to persist in the church. The sin was very open and “in your face.” Paul said that it was time to “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).
The church plainly understands the problem, purpose, and process of the withdrawal of fellowship from an erring brother or sister. It all boils down to the desired product or result of withdrawing. The Lord has made this command to keep the church pure (1 Cor. 5:6-7) and ultimately help all family members get to our heavenly home. It seems that the brother withdrawn from in Corinth was willing to repent, to which Paul said, “This punishment which was inflicted by the majority is sufficient for such a man, so that, on the contrary, you ought rather to forgive and comfort him…I urge you to reaffirm your love to him” (2 Cor. 2:6-8). May God help us to properly practice this command to help members of the church stay home! This will help the church to be closer to one another and ultimately closer to God.
Adam works with the Westside Church of Christ in Midland, TX.