Often elders overseeing congregations are confronted with the problem of how to handle members that are causing problems, or who have ventured away from the truth.  As I sit at my computer writing this article I know of two such instances that have come to my attention over the past couple of days.  It can be said, I am sure, of all elderships that the “last thing they want to do” is withdraw fellowship from someone but, in the end, the decision is really not in their hands.  This is so, first, due to the actions of those under consideration and, secondly, what the New Testament has said on the subject.  If the erring church member accepts the encouragement offered to them to stop their divisiveness or the proclamation of doctrines contrary to the teachings of the New Testament, then further disciplinary actions will not need to be taken.  On the other hand, though, if they persist in their actions, godly shepherds have no choice but to act accordingly!

There is no sense of which it can be claimed that the New Testament is ambiguous about the matter of fellowship.  The simple truth is, the extending of fellowship and the withdrawing of such is a Biblical subject (2 Corinthians 6:14-18; 2 Thessalonians 3:6).  Fellowship is scriptural communion with God and with fellow Christians (1 John 1:5-7).  To withdraw fellowship means a separation from God and from others that are faithfully walking with Him (2 John 9-11).  In the end, it is the final action through which the erring member may be restored to God, and to fellow Christians, if the act is successful (Galatians 6:1; 1 Corinthians 5:5; 2 Corinthians 2:4-10).  With this article we want to give some thought to several matters pertaining to what the New Testament teaches on the withdrawal of fellowship.

First, we need to acknowledge the fact that withdrawal of fellowship is a command of God and not an option (1 Corinthians 5:13; 1 Timothy 5:20; 6:5; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15; 2 Timothy 3:5).  From the inspired words of the Apostle Paul, we see that such actions are by the authority of God (1 Corinthians 5:4). When the purity of the church is considered, the “line” must be drawn between sin and the child of God (2 John 9-11; Ephesians 5:11).  Those that are unwilling to repent of actions contrary to God’s will must be seen as one in contradiction to His will and marked accordingly (Matthew 18:15-17; Romans 16:17).

Secondly, let us address the question of from whom must fellowship be withdrawn.  The New Testament provides us with all the information we need on this subject.  We are to withdraw fellowship from brethren that sin against other Christians and refuse to repent of their actions (Matthew 18:15-17).  We must withdraw fellowship from those that cause division and offenses contrary to sound doctrine (Romans 16:17).  Contrary to what some would suggest, there is such a thing as “sound doctrine” which must be protected (1Timothy 1:10; 2 Timothy 4:3; Titus 1:9; 2:1).  In association with this, we must withdraw fellowship from those that walk disorderly (2 Thessalonians 3:6-15) and those that consent not to wholesome words (1Timothy 6:1-10).  We may, also, note that we must be willing to withdraw fellowship from those that practice the sins of the flesh as seen in 1 Corinthians 5:10, 11 and Galatians 5:19-21, along with those guilty of the sins listed in 2 Timothy 3:1-9.  In the end, it can be said that those who “sin willfully, trod underfoot the Son of God, and count the blood of the covenant unholy” (Hebrews 10:25-29) and those that “walk in darkness” (Ephesians 4:25; 5:11) must be properly disciplined.

Third, having come to the understanding of from whom we must be willing to withdraw fellowship, let us now note by whom and how the withdrawal process should be administered.  For such an action to be successful, it must be practiced by the entire church, as seen in a number of passages in the New Testament (Matthew 18:17; 1 Corinthians 5:4; Romans 16:17;   2 Thessalonians 3:6, 14; 2 John 10).  The reason for this is crystal clear.  There must be solidarity among the members of the local congregation, or the withdrawal of fellowship would not be taken seriously by the erring member.  We could think of a home where there is a lack agreement by the parents as to how to discipline the children.  When there is division among the parents, the children quickly pick up on that and play one parent against the other.  The same thing will happen at the congregational level if there is not a consistency across the board.  The congregation that will not “step up” and completely support these efforts, first, contradicts the Scriptures and, secondly, stands in the way of that which might save the erring one “in the day of the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 5:5).  Surely, we would not want to be found guilty of either, would we?

Fourth, all our exhortation and admonishing the disorderly must be done in love and consideration of self (Galatians 6:1; 1 Corinthians 5:5; 2 Corinthians 2:4; 2 Thessalonians 3:15).  This is where a problem often arises.  If not done correctly, and consistently, a congregation will often not understand that the real motive behind such actions is love for the one who has put himself in spiritual danger.  As God chastens those He loves (Hebrews 12:6), so must fellow Christians do so with love (1 Corinthians 4:21).  Proper discipline serves to “confirm” our love for our erring brethren (2 Corinthians 2:8).

Since, in those congregations that have elders, they are to take “the oversight thereof” (1 Peter 5:2), the elders should take the lead (Acts 20:28; Hebrews 13:7, 17).  In doing so, they should prepare the congregation for such an action by “feeding the flock” with God’s Word on this matter, just as they would do on any other matter.  Problems often arise in congregations due to their failure to understand what God has said about such matters.  There is no excuse for this when elders fulfill their “oversight” responsibilities when it comes to teaching the congregation what it needs.

In those congregations where there are no elders, the same responsibilities should be carried out by the faithful men of the congregation.  There is no excuse to allow “sin in the camp” just because there is no eldership. There is nothing that would indicate that the Corinthian church had elders, but they were, never-the-less, given instruction as to what to do about the situation seen in 1 Corinthians 1:2; 5:1-5. That same principle should be practiced today to eliminate similar problems in those congregations that have yet to mature to the state where men may be installed as shepherds.

Fifth, we need to recognize the fact that we are to mark false teachers so as to properly indicate what they are (Romans 16:17).  We are able to discern between a sheep and a fox because of the distinctive markings found on both.  Although there are many similarities, there are also numerous differences.  The same is true of those among us that may be teaching things “contrary to sound doctrine” (1 Timothy 1:10).  In many ways, false teachers may, at first, look very much like the faithful but when their teachings are laid up against the truth (Proverbs 18:17), we soon have the error exposed.  This is the reason behind John’s words concerning the need to “try the spirits whether they are of God” (1 John 4:1).  Paul’s words to Titus (Titus 1:9) provide elders with the exhortation to “exhort and convince the gainsayers” (those who teach other than sound doctrine). You will notice that Paul went so far as to say that such persons “mouths must be stopped” (Titus 1:11).  In the end, it can be said without equivocation, that doctrinal purity demands that false teachers be marked (2 Peter 2:1; 3:17; Colossians 2:8, 18; Titus 1:9-12; 1 Timothy 1:20; Matthew 7:15).

Although we wish there would never be a time when withdrawal of fellowship must be practiced, we recognize the likelihood of it happening.  Because of this, we must follow through on what God commands.  We can no more set aside this command and be right with God than we can with any other.  We have to stop treating God’s command on this subject as a forgotten commandment, if we are to be true to the “whole counsel of God”.