By Larry A. Bunch
The terms “withdraw fellowship” and “disfellowship” are used by me in the same sense as “withdraw yourselves” (2 Thess. 3:6); “have no company with” (2 Thess. 3:14); “from such turn away” (2 Tim. 3:6); “not to company with . . . not to keep company .. . . with such a one no not to eat” (1 Cor. 5:9, 11).
Those who have been withdrawn from should not be used in the public services of the church as this would make a mockery of the action taken by the church. Nothing should be done that would imply approval by the church of the ones disfellowshipped. Instead, the church must “mark” him (Rom. 16:17) and treat him as a “Gentile” or “publican” (Matt. 18:17). He is not to be received into the fellowship of the church and the withdrawing must be publicized so that all the brethren will not fellowship that one.
Even private association is restricted; a faithful Christian cannot keep social engagements with such a person (1Cor. 5:11; 2 Thess. 3:14). This is in order to make him ashamed of his sins, thus increasing the possibility of his being restored to the Lord’s service. He is not to be treated as an enemy, but admonished as a brother (2 Thess. 3:14-15; 1 Thess. 5:14). We ought to pray for him, convert him if possible (James 5:19-20), and restore him (Gal. 6:1). When the disfellowshipped repents, brethren must forgive him (Lk. 17:3; 2 Cor. 2:411).
1. “Shouldn’t everyone who is a member of a local congregation visit those who are to be the subjects of withdrawing before the church withdraws?”
Answer: This would be the ideal situation. However, I fear that this question (like many others relative to this subject) is asked not to gain information, but to excuse a church from withdrawing from anyone! Just because everyone who is a member of the church does not visit those being considered for withdrawing does not excuse the church from doing her duty. Many times representatives of the congregation will be chosen (in the absence of elders) to go visit the delinquent brethren and express to them the sentiments of the whole congregation in agreement with God’s Word. Can we not parallel this to the preacher teaching the next-door neighbor of a member of the church, instead of that member doing the teaching himself? The job is done, and the church can scripturally work through representatives of the church. In fact, if you will stop and think about it, that is the only way the church can act! The church in Philippi had fellowship with Paul, but it was through their representative (“messenger”) Epaphroditus (Phil. 2:25). So the church may select some to go teach the brother in error and try to convert him, warning him that the church plans on withdrawing if he does not repent and serve God.
2. “Can the church withdraw from someone when it does not have elders?”
Answer: Yes. See my answer to question # 1.
3. “Is the withdrawing of fellowship a matter of individual responsibility, or is the whole church involved?”
Answer: It is a matter of individual responsibility AND the whole church is involved! Every Christian must be obedient to God in the matter of withdrawing fellowship. None can fellowship those withdrawn from, hence it is an “individual responsibility.” Yet, since all are involved in it, we have the “whole church” involved. Notice the phrase in 1 Cor. 5:4, “. . . ye being gathered together. . .,” hence in the assembly or involving the whole church. Notice that in the matter of a personal sin (Matt. 18:15-17) when the sinner does not repent the one sinned against does not “withdraw” but is to “. . . tell it unto the church . . .” and then when the sinner refuses to hear the church, he is withdrawn from.
4. “In ‘withdrawing of fellowship’ or ‘church discipline’ is anything involved other than teaching and prayer?”
Answer: Yes. We read in 1 Cor. 5:5, “To deliver such a one unto Satan. . .” Let us consider two phrases here:
(1) “to deliver” – “To give over to or alongside of” (Young’s Concordance). This same phrase is found in Matt. 5:25; 27:26; Acts 12:4; 1 Cor. 11:2; 15:3; 2 Cor. 4:11; 2 Pet. 2:4 and other passages. Hence to “deliver one to Satan” means we give him over to Satan, as an adversary might deliver one to a judge (Matt. 5:25) or as Paul delivered or gave over to the Corinthians that which he had received (1 Cor. 15:3). Notice that the Corinthians were not to deliver instruction to the one in sin (he had already received the teaching; he knew and the whole church knew that what he was doing was sin, 1 Cor. 5:1, 9), but were to deliver the individual himself unto Satan!
(2) “unto Satan” – This was simply an exclusion of the church’s fellowship from the individual in sin. Notice what was involved in ths:
a. “purge out the old leaven” (v. 7).
b. “have no company” (v. 9).
c. “not to keep company” (v. 11).
d. “with such a one, no, not to eat” (v. 11).
e. “put away the wicked man from among yourselves” (v. 13).
f. “sufficient to such a one is this punishment which was inflicted by the many” (2 Cor. 2:6).
g. When they did what Paul told them to do (1 Cor. 5), they proved their obedience to God (2 Cor. 2:9).
So we can see that more is involved than just teaching the individual in sin and praying for him when the church “withdraws fellowship” from the unfaithful.
5. “How can the church ‘withdraw’ from brethren who no longer attend services and so have ‘withdrawn’ themselves?”
Answer: This question is perhaps asked more than any other. It fails to take into consideration the fact that fellowship or “association” with brethren is possible at other times and places than in the assemblies (cf., 1 Cor. 5:11). If the church cannot “withdraw” from brethren who have quit assembling with the church, then the church could not withdraw from the brother who is an adulterer, idolater, drunkard, etc. (1 Cor. 5), if that brother has “quit the services of the church.” Is there any fault in the following logic?
1) Old Leaven is Sin (2 Cor. 5:8).
2) Old Leaven is to be Purged Out (1 Cor. 5:7).
3) Therefore, Sin is to be Purged Out.
1) Non-Attendance is Sin (Heb. 10:25).
2) Sin is to be Purged Out (1 Cor. 5:7-8).
3) Therefore, Non-Attendance is to be Purged Out (i.e., those who do not attend).
1) Purged Out equals Have No Company With (1 Cor. 5:11).
2) Purge Out Non-Attendance (i.e., those who do not attend, Heb. 10:25 with 1 Cor. 5:7-8).
3) Therefore, Have No Company With Non Attendance (e.i., those who do not attend).
Remember, the subjects of discipline are those who refuse to repent of sin – they are walking in sin. The question of “When to Withdraw?” would have to be answered by: “When it is evident that the sin of forsaking the assemblies is not going to be repented of without discipline or withdrawing of fellowship.”
6. “If the church withdraws from one brother living in sin, then it must withdraw from all of them that are living in sin.”
Answer: That depends. This question fails to take into consideration that discipline consists of more than withdrawing fellowship (see “The Means of (How To) Discipline” part II of this series). One brother may be living in sin, know it, and refuse to repent of it. Another brother may be living in sin and not know it, hence he would have to be worked with and taught until he learns the truth and quits the sin involved in or he manifests an attitude of “I know the Bible teaches that, but I’m going to do this anyway.” If such an attitude is evident, then he would become a subject of disfellowship. This question or statement almost always comes up when the subject of withdrawing is discussed. A failure to distinguish between the “kinds” of discipline usually results in trouble and heartbreak in the local congregation instead of accomplishing the Lord’s will. Brethren are alienated, churches split and souls are lost because someone is withdrawn from who should have been taught instead!
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS: Material used in this article did not wholly originate with me. As is usually the case in articles written and sermons preached, some of the material came from various sources. I want to express a special thanks for information gleaned from a tract by Cecil Willis entitled Church Discipline. The format I have used and in many cases the very words or sentences used came from that tract.
Truth Magazine XXI: 25, pp. 389-390
June 23, 1977