By Clinton D. Hamilton
Withdrawal of fellowship from brethren is an issue about which there have developed diverse views. In some communities, the issue is a burning one and in other communities, it is hardly, if ever, practiced. When it does occur, there are varigated reactions to it. Some close to the one withdrawn from often find some flaw about the process or some obscure fact that in their opinion did not receive appropriate attention. Others believe that it is presumptuous to withdraw from another and that such an act is, in fact, an act of arrogance of the first degree.
Some congregations are so concerned about the behavior in other congregations that they feel that those congregations are not withdrawing as they should. In this context, they proceed to withdraw from those congregations because they are considered to be unsound. It is in this context, no doubt, that the question being considered in the article was asked.
Question: Can one congregation withdraw fellowship from another congregation?
Response: A definition of terms is needed for clarity and communication in the response. Withdraw is a commonly used term among the brethren. And in like manner, so is the term fellowship. Both of these terms need consideration so that each of us will be able to interact. One needs to know what I mean when I use the terms in order to have a benchmark against which to compare my comments, observations, and arguments in relation to the teaching of the Bible. Otherwise, there could be gross misinterpretation and misunderstanding about what is said.
Several words in the New Testament are used in relation to not keeping company with sinful brethren or avoiding them. It will be most fruitful for us to consider these terms with their specific meanings in given contexts. One word stello is translated withdraw in 2 Thessalonians 3:6. It originally had the sense of bringing together the sails of a ship or boat. Vine points out that in the middle voice it “signifies to shrink from a person or thing.” In this sense it means to avoid. It is used one other time in the New Testament (2 Cor. 8:20) in which passage it had reference to Paul’s conduct by which he wanted to avoid blame in the way in which the contribution to poor saints was handled.
Another term used is sunanamignumi which literally means “to mix up with or to have . . . signifies to have, company with” (Vine). Thayer basically gives the same sense. He also states in the reflexive and metaphorical sense it means “to keep company with, be intimate with, one.” This term is used in the following passages: 1 Corinthians 5:9,11; 2 Thessalonians 3:14.
Another term that needs consideration in this context is fellowship. Probably, there are senses given to this term which are unwarranted and, no doubt, lead to erroneous inferences about relationships. A commonly used term in the English translations, this term is actually from three different Greek nouns. Koinonia means to share in common and is translated sometimes as communion, fellowship, and communication. Another term in the original text is metoche which means partnership and is translated fellow-ship. A third term is koinonos which means a partaker or partner. It is translated partner, partaker, fellowship, and companion. The verbs having this sense are koinoneo, to have fellowship or to communicate, and sunkoinoneo, to have fellowship with or to communicate with. According to Thayer the verbs convey the idea of joint participation, jointly sharing, being a partner, a companion, or an associate.
Basically, fellowship is to be in communion, partner-ship, joint sharing, close association, and sharing in common. When two practice the same things, and share the same things, they can be said to have fellowship. Sometimes, the notion of fellowship is used to mean something like a mist that surrounds or envelops people who are together or in close proximity. One fellowships when one participates jointly. On one occasion, I was accused of fellowshipping error when I went to hear a preacher whom I believed taught error when he spoke at a neighboring congregation. After the services, I engaged the preacher in discussion trying to point out to him his error; this discussion lasted almost two hours. He did not believe I came to support him in his teaching; in fact, he asked me why I was there and my discussion with him sharpened why I took the occasion to hear him. However, a fellow preacher of the gospel said that I had fellowshipped error. He admitted that nothing I had participated in was error, except my being in attendance. From the meaning of the term fellowship in the scriptures, it is obvious that I had done nothing wrong.
One fellowships that with which one agrees or in which one participates as a partner or sharer. Light has no fellowship with darkness (2 Cor. 6:14) because what one is the other is not. There is nothing in common, no sharing. To have fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness is to participate in doing them (Eph. 5:11). To have communion or fellowship with an idol is to worship an idol (1 Cor. 10:20). To have communion with the body and blood of Christ is to partake properly of the Lord’s supper, consisting of bread and fruit of the vine. To believe and practice what is taught is to have fellowship with the teacher who taught (Gal. 6:6). When the Philippians sent to assist Paul in his work, they had fellowship or partner-ship with him in that work (Phil. 4:15). If one were to engage in the sinful deeds that another does, then he is in fellowship or partnership with him and his sins (1 Tim. 5:22). When one shares flesh and blood such as another has, they are partakers or fellows in that respect (Heb. 2;14). Through fiery trials that bring sufferings to Christians because they so suffer because doing right as did Christ, they become partakers or have fellowship with his sufferings (1 Pet. 4:13). One is the partaker of the evil deeds of another when one encourages or aids that person in the doing of the evil work (2 In. 11). A person distributing to the necessity of saints is sharing with them, fellowshipping (Rom. 14:23). When Gentiles obeyed the gospel, they became partakers with Jews in their spiritual things because they had obeyed the gospel and when Gentiles shared with Jewish brethren their means, they were partakers with them in carnal things (Rom. 15:26,27). These passages are especially instructive and informative in relation to the meaning of fellowship.
One fellowships that which he believes and does, as well as those who do likewise. God intends for his people to be separated from the practice of sin and unrighteousness. In fact, saints are told, “Come ye out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, And touch no unclean thing; And I will receive you, And will be to you a Father, And ye shall be to me sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty. Having therefore these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Cor. 6:17-7:1). To do otherwise is to fellowship defilement of the flesh and the spirit.
“Right hands of fellowship” is an expression Paul used to indicate that when he laid before James, Peter, and John his ministry to the Gentiles, which they accepted and were convinced that the gospel was for the Gentiles also, they signified their participating in the gospel’s proclamation by extending a token of their agreement, their right hands (Gal. 2:9). “Right hands of fellowship” is a metaphor indicating that they were engaged in the same gospel work, one to the Jews and the other to the Gentiles. The extending of the right hands was not the fellowship but the sign of what they shared together, the proclamation of the gospel.
It should be most obvious that one fellowships that in which he shares or jointly participates. If a person is a thief and another does not steal, they have no fellowship in that deed. If one were to endorse another’s thievery, he would become a partaker in his evil deed. One who teaches error fellowships all those who so teach or if one endorses error taught, he becomes a partaker of the false doctrine (2 In. 9-11). If one by physical assistance or means aids another in the preaching of the gospel, he fellowships the gospel (Phil. 1:5). One who obeys the Christ by that obedience is in fellowship with the Son and if in fellowship with him, then one is also in fellowship with the Father and the Holy Spirit (1 In. 1:1-3). But if one walks in darkness, he cannot say that he is in fellowship with Christ because he is light and in him is no darkness at all (1 Jn. 1:6-7).
Understanding what fellowship is will be most helpful in understanding the withdrawal talked about in the scriptures. If one has not participated in the sin, he cannot withdraw from it because he is not in it. However, he can avoid doing the sin and endorsing those who practice it. He can refrain from mixing up with, or being intimately associated with sinners such as adulterers and false teachers.
A study of passages in context that deal with the concept of withdrawing or not keeping company with should be most helpful and informative in arriving at what the scriptures really teach on the subject. The objects of such withdrawal should be carefully noted also.
Paul instructed the Corinthians not to company with those brethren who were fornicators, covetous, idolaters, revilers, drunkards, or extortioners; they were not even to eat with them. This latter activity would indicate an intimate association which they were not to have with such brethren. He did not exclude company with non-believers guilty of similar sins (1 Cor. 5:10). The relation between brethren is such that having company with those who practice such sins as detailed above would indicate some approval and not condemnation of their behavior.
The Corinthians were instructed to “put away the wicked man from among yourselves” (1 Cor. 5:13). Put away is translated from exairo which is derived from ek from, and airo, to take up or remove. It is used also in Ephesians 4:31 in reference to putting away bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, railing, and malice. One is to remove from close, intimate association and company those who are willful, continuous sinners lest one appear to endorse their behavior or demonstrate that they are not concerned about the aberrant behavior.
A case of gross fornication was practiced among the Corinthians and they had tolerated it, not doing anything to indicate their disapproval of such behavior. Paul instructed them that in the assembly they were to deliver such a person to Satan “for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Cor. 5:5). Coming face to face with the withdrawal of their association with the sinner was designed to have the effect metaphorically of his subduing the flesh in order that his spirit might be saved. By this means, they would put him away from among them (1 Cor. 5:2). If he later attended an assembly, there would be no fellowshipping of him unless some one endorsed him. But this having been publicly delivered to Satan at an assembly was visible evidence that they in no way endorsed him in this sin.
That brother or brethren who walked not after the teaching of the gospel as delivered by Paul were those from whom the Thessalonians should shrink or whom they should avoid (2 Thess. 3:6). They were not in any way to give the appearance of approving or being undisturbed by disorderly behavior of brethren. Accordingly, they were to have no company with such an individual to the end that he might be ashamed (2 Thess. 3:14). But, on the other hand, they were not to count him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother (2 Thess. 3:15). To admonish him there would have to be some means of contact but the context in which this occurs makes clear the disapproval of the behavior. There was to be no association or company that would leave an impression of unconcern or endorsement.
It should be observed that there is instruction for both the individual and the assembly of brethren. Whatever may or may not be done in assembly, the individual Christian has a responsibility in relation to brethren in sin.
It is appropriate to point out that individuals are the ones to be withdrawn from or with whom no company is to be kept. There is no instance in the New Testament teaching or practice for one congregation to withdraw from another congregation. In fact, let us observe what such action might bring about in relation to God. Generally, Sardis was a congregation that did not perfect works before God. However, there were a few who did not defile their garments and accordingly “shall walk with me in white; for they are worthy” (Rev. 3:4). Suppose the congregation at Sardis had been withdrawn from and, therefore, one would have no company with a member of that congregation, in that event one would have condemned one whom God praised. Certainly, one ought to want to fellowship one whom God fellowships.
The congregation at Thyatira had certain sinners within such as fornicators and false teachers (Rev. 2:20-24). But there were some there that did not engage in or practice such teaching as is condemned; they “know not the deep things of Satan” as some were wont to say (Rev. 2:24). If the congregation at Thyatira had been withdrawn from, then one would find himself condemning some whom God commended. It is clear that individuals are to be withdrawn from and not congregations.
Guardian of Truth XXXVII, No. 23, p. 5-7
December 2, 1993