Tag Archives: church discipline

Withdrawal of Fellowship — Adam Orr

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

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When fellowship needs to be withdrawn from a Christian brother or sister in Christ, it is because fellowship has first been broken with God.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.

The Purpose

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.

The Process

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 Product

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.

The Signs of an Apostle – J. Terry Wheeler

I have become a fool in boasting.  You have compelled me, for I ought to have been commended by you; for in nothing was I behind the most eminent apostles, though I am nothing.  Truly the signs of an apostle were accomplished among you with all perseverance, in signs and wonders and mighty deeds  (2 Cor. 12:11f).

The second letter to the Corinthians is one of the most fascinating books in the Bible.  It is as clear a picture of the heart of the great apostle Paul as one can find (2 Cor. 6:11).

In that letter he is answering many concerns:  “Where has he been?  Why hasn’t he come back as he said he would?  Does his apostleship really compare to the other apostles?  He acts crazy, takes no money, has a pathetic ‘pulpit’ presence; why do we even listen to him?”

Titus, who had recently visited the church at Corinth, has his own questions for the apostle which the second letter answers:  “Are you sure they are going to have their contribution ready?  It sure didn’t look like it when I was there.”  Corinth was forever questioning Paul’s authority (1 Cor. 9:2, 3).  There were differences with him that the other apostles did not seem to share: he was not married nor did it seem he ever intended to be (1 Cor. 7:7; 9:5); he did not take a dime from Corinth to help in his ministry (2 Cor. 12:13); in fact, he worked as hard in secular labor as he did in ministry (1 Cor. 9:6); he was much more active than the rest (1 Cor. 15:10); he was much more at home with the Gentiles than the others (1 Cor. 9:21); he was the last apostle commissioned (1 Cor. 15:8), which meant no personal contact with Jesus (so far as anyone knew).  And of course, his history was blotted with the innocent blood of Christians (1 Cor. 15:9).

To a congregation that prided itself in preachers and in impressing the surrounding area and community with its sophistication, Paul was, for some, the last guy they wanted to depend on for spiritual guidance (1 Cor. 1:12; 4:10).  Add to that the obvious fact that some had designs on the church.  They wanted to make it their hang-out, their little nest-egg.  Paul’s influence threatened their machinations (1 Cor. 15:33, 34).  The quicker they could dispose themselves and the church of that, the better for them.

It is to this last bunch of brethren that Paul speaks so frankly in the last four chapters of 2 Corinthians.  He is confronting these fellows, who even presume to put upon themselves the designation of “apostle of Christ” (2 Cor. 11:13).  His love for even these false teachers is plain.  The pain in his heart is obvious and saddening (2 Cor. 12:15).  But he has had enough of their interference with the Corinthian brethren (2 Cor. 13:2).

The first time he came was to start the church and introduce them to the Savior (Acts 18:1-18).  The second time, he was so disappointed in them, he had to leave lest he “cut loose” on them, to their destruction (2 Cor. 1:23-2:4).  But now, after Titus returns to them with this letter, and they have had a chance to meditate on its contents, he will be at their doorstep (2 Cor. 13:1).  And he will not leave till this whole mess is settled one way or another.

It is exactly in this context that Paul speaks to them of his apostolic credentials.  These would be the validation of all Paul has done in Jesus’ name (Mark 16:20).  He reminds them of what they have already seen from him, and strongly indicates that, if they want it, there is much more to come (2 Cor. 13:3).

What he designates as “signs of an apostle” are the miracles, wonders, and mighty acts of power that fill the New Testament and so fire our imaginations today.  it is a demonstration of control over nature (John 2:7-11), over the hidden “nether” world (John 11:43, 44), and over future events (John 13:38).  It involves what man has dreamed over for eons but what has always seemed elusive to him: the ability to corral and harness all the threatening forces that surround us daily, a power reserved, apparently, only for Deity.

It is this power that the Son of God came to us with and demonstrated so freely for our benefit.  It is the same type of power that his authoritative representatives continued to demonstrate (Acts 2:43; 3:6, 7; 4:33; 5:12).

But before he goes into these sensational aspects of his ministry, Paul stresses the humble parts of his service: his deprivations, his sacrifices, the dangers he was constantly facing, his emotional turmoil – the things that no one would count as valuable or helpful, and what his antagonists in the church were struggling so hard to avoid (2 Cor. 11:1-12:11).  But it was his use of these things to establish legitimacy that, to use Paul’s phrasing, “cut the ground out from under” the false teachers (2 Cor. 11:10-12).  They were into comfort, privilege, prominence, monetary satisfaction, and worldly sophistication, even to the point of lasciviousness, uncleanness, and fornication (2 Cor. 11:19-21; 12:21).  Paul was showing the church that, between him and them, there was no comparison.

It is intriguing to consider just what Paul might have had on his mind to discipline the members.  It is also interesting that Paul is somewhat afraid of further humiliation in their eyes, as if what would discipline them would humble him (2 Cor. 12:21).  But come what may, if they needed sharpness, as Paul put it, to get the point (that “rod” he referred to in the first letter – 1 Cor. 4:21), he was ready to supply it (2 Cor. 13:10).

Discipline is a principle in the Scriptures that, for our day and age, seems absolutely tasteless, if not downright mean.  We can hardly stand the idea of someone speaking so directly as to hurt our feelings (2 Cor. 2:2).  To contemplate actual physical discomfort as something good someone might truly deliver upon us is insulting and oppressive.  And to consider that God would be happy with that outrages us and throws us into total confusion.  Such things cannot be love at all, right?

But God would “beg” to differ.  Since we are so given to fleshly pleasure and comfort, stress and even pain are necessary tools to discipline our thinking and therefore our behavior (Rom. 8:5-13).  Paul disciplined himself as an athlete would, so he could win his “race” (1 Cor. 9:26-27).  But when one cannot (or will not) exercise such effort over themselves, the church must care enough to exact enough discomfort to bring the brother back to serious attention to spiritual matters (1 Cor. 5:5).  And if the church won’t, then God will (1 Cor. 11:31, 32; Heb. 12:4-11; Rev. 2:14-16).

Generally, discipline is not considered a miraculous manifestation as the Bible puts it forth.  It is a social and personal concern that Christians exercise toward each other as the need reveals itself (Heb. 10:24; 2 Thess. 3:14, 15; 2 Tim. 3:1-5).  Or it is a matter of providential care, God working within nature to provide us the necessary discipline for our sakes (Amos 4:7-10; Hab. 3:17-19; Rev. 2:22, 23; 9:20, 21).  But in the early years of the church’s development, the miraculous powers that declared God’s presence and power were called on to not only convey the truth of God, not only bless and heal in the context of that message, but would also be used to bring discomfort on the enemies of Christ and of righteousness, to discipline the church.

So what exactly would these signs be? It would be the impressive stuff, even the deadly stuff, that apostles could do to glorify Christ (John 14:12).  It brings to mind the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira at the feet of the apostle Peter, which had a marvelous salutary effect on the church at that time (Acts 5:1-11).  It brings to mind Paul striking Elymas the Magician with temporary blindness, which certainly impressed Sergius Paulus (Acts 13:6-12).  These wonders would be likened to what Paul did at Ephesus, when simple articles of clothing like handkerchiefs that Paul had touched could be brought into the presence of the demon-possessed and the demon would be forced out that instant (Acts 19:11, 12).  But ultimately, as Paul implies, it would be whatever it took to get the church’s attention to either withdraw from the false teachers or to help reclaim them after their repentance (Rom. 16:17, 18; Gal. 5:12; 6:1).

To speak directly to the point, the signs of an apostle would be the miraculous works that only an apostle could do to underscore the authority of Christ, which the apostle represented (Matt. 10:8, 40).  It would be of a broader sweep than the spiritual gifts obtained by the laying on of the apostles’ hands (1 Cor. 14:18).  It would also mean a certain depth in the demonstration of power unique to them (2 Cor. 12:12).

It should be pointed out that, since Paul is the last apostle commissioned, and since there is no apostolic succession as far as the New Testament is concerned, it must follow that when the last apostle passed away, then the signs of an apostle died with him.  On the other hand, those who would claim latter day apostolic commission from Christ must be ready to defend the claim with the same sort of signs (raising the dead comes to mind here – 1 John 4:1).  Since God, like the truth, is perfectly consistent, we can expect no more apostles today.  The completed New Testament serves in their place (2 Tim. 3:16, 17).

It is worth noting that the book of Romans was written by Paul immediately after this third visit (or even during), while Paul was in the same locality (Rom. 15:22-25).  Most scholars are convinced that Paul wrote the book from Corinth itself.  That being the case, the book of Romans strongly implies that the problems of Corinth were truly settled to Paul’s satisfaction.  The secular history of the Corinthian church definitely bears that out.

If so, then we must take note that “the signs of an apostle” most certainly got their attention.  Perhaps simply the referencing of them in the second letter so put the “terror of the Lord” in them, that that was all that was needed.  We would hope so.

It is also worthy of note that the referencing of the signs is indeed all we do have in our day, the Lord obviously thinking that that is sufficient for us.  May such a reference to the Lord’s authority be effective with us.