By Jady W. Copeland
Possibly one of the chief reasons why effective withdrawal from the ungodly among God’s people has not been done is that brethren have convinced themselves that “it won’t work.” In this article, I refer especially to the final step in church discipline–that of the decision to withdraw from those who will not repent. This is really why we withdraw, in a sense, namely because they fail to come back. But we must not get bogged down in semantics.
I am afraid that the expression in our caption is indicative of an attitude–the attitude that says we are afraid of the consequences, or we are afraid of what the brethren will think (or do), or we will “lose them” if we withdraw. It seems ironic to me that this very fear of the brethren’s disapproval of the action is the very principle on which the effectiveness of withdrawal is based. The success of disciplinary action in any fellowship stems from the basic principle that man, being by nature a social being, desires the approval of his fellows. When he realizes that he does not have that approval, he is inclined to re-think his actions. So, for this same reason, many elders and others are reluctant to withdraw because they fear disapproval from the ones that should be withdrawn from their family. They may even fear disapproval from others in the church not in the family.
But again I am afraid that the refusal to withdraw expressed in the statement “it won’t work” is merely an excuse. We simply don’t like the unpleasant task and rationalize that “it won’t work anyway, so why should we withdraw?” Actually they are already “away” from God, else why would we be withdrawing? But should we not be concerned about disapproval from God? That must be our first concern.
If discipline doesn’t work, it is either the fault of God or man. Surely it is not God’s fault, so that leaves man. If man’s fault, it must be the fault of the person who is withdrawn from or the ones doing the withdrawing. If we are speaking of whether or not it works (meaning restoring them to the faith), it is often the “fault” of the sinner, as some can never be restored (Heb. 6:6). But in this article, we speak of the attitude of brethren who should do the withdrawing. And let me make this point before we go further. If “it doesn’t work” and if the sinner is not reclaimed, we should not be discouraged any more than if we fail to convert every alien we teach. Regardless of the sinner we are trying to reach (whether or not they have been baptized), they are still sinners and need converting. And we will not convert all in either group. In both cases, the Lord told us to teach and exhort them, and we must do it (2 Thess. 3:13). We have no choice in the matter if we ourselves want to be saved. In the words of the bumper sticker I saw (slightly rearranged), “God said it; that settles it; I believe it.”
Two extremes need to be avoided in withdrawal. First, under the excuse of “love and tolerance,” many brethren seldom if ever withdraw from the ungodly. But on the other hand, there are some that are withdrawal-happy. I was once told by a member of a certain congregation that the elders had decided to withdraw from members if they failed to come to three consecutive services (I assume without good cause). As other articles in this issue show, the purpose of church discipline is to save the lost and, while love and forbearance is truly the proper attitude in this process, the same characteristics will demand that withdrawal finally be done. One extreme may cause bitterness and frustration, while the other can allow sin with impunity. Let us not be extreme in either direction.
Why Withdrawing Hasn’t Worked
Brethren will point to many occasions where everything has gone wrong (seemingly) and say, “See, it doesn’t work,” and so they refuse to withdraw. And, of course, it doesn’t always bring the sinner back. But it may be the fault of those withdrawing. Let us suggest a few reasons why it may not, have worked.
(1) No faith in God’s plan. Could not denominational people point to the unpopularity of baptism and say, “See it doesn’t work” so why demand it? It may be compared to the repeal of prohibition when politicians were saying “it won’t work” (prohibition) when we understand drunkenness and other crimes rose sharply when the law was passed in the ’30s. Paul said, “Now we command you, brethren, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which they received of us” (2 Thess. 3:6). This passage and others show clearly that while it may be unpleasant, it is a command of the Spirit and must be done “in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” which is pretty plain and positive. Yes it will work (meaning bringing some back) just as preaching the gospel to the alien will work in some cases: All will not be converted – in either group, but shall we quit preaching, teaching, exhorting, reproving and rebuking simply because it does not covert all of them? As we say with reference to preaching to the lost, let’s do our part, believing in God’s plan and leave results to Him.
(2) We often begin with the wrong attitude. The second reason it hasn’t done more good is we go about it in the wrong way and with the wrong attitude. As other articles in the paper will show, disciplining begins long before withdrawal. The final step is preceded by long hours of loving, thoughtful and prayerful teaching, reproof and exhortation. A parent does a lot of the same kine of training before be resorts to spanking. He begins with teaching, prodding, correcting and warning. In too many cases, we have let brethren drift for months, even years, with little or nothing being done, and then suddenly we decide to withdraw. We go through the motion of withdrawing without teaching and admonishing and, of course, it doesn’t work. Let us keep in mind the goal of this procedure is the salvation of a soul; not condemnation.
(3) Little fellowship before withdrawal. When we withdraw from a brother, we are to keep no company with him (2 Thess. 3:14: 1 Cor. 5:9). God’s people are a ” family,” but often we don’t seem to have that attitude toward each other. Many go to worship once a week, then go home until the next week, never seeing anyone between times. They never see one another socially, and very little when they come to the building. I have known of brethren living in the same community for years not knowing even where each other lives. And occasionally, you will hear a brother ask who another brother is (at the services) when both are members of the same group. So they have “fellowship” but very little with each other and, therefore, if one is withdrawn from, there is no change, for they never had any association with them to begin with. Hence any value the matter of withdrawing may have is not realized. If they had nothing to do with each other to start with, what good is an announcement going to do?
(4) Only partially done. Another reason it hasn’t done the good it should have done is that all do not withdraw themselves. Withdrawing must be done on an individual basis. One time it is recorded that a public statement should be made (1 Cor. 5:4) but obviously each individual must withdraw himself if the desired good is to be realized. If relatives and close friends continue to associate with the person, it seems to have two effects. First, it encourages the sinner in his sin and, secondly, it often divides the congregation. One group sides with the sinner, saying others are not fair or they are being too harsh. The others side with the elders (or the ones taking the lead) and so you have a divided condition which causes harsh words, insinuations, impugning of motives and ugly attitudes that do the church no good.
It Will Work
Yes, God knows best and He told us to discipline ourselves. When done property, it will accomplish that which God desires. While it is true that the goal of withdrawal is to save the lost person, there are other reasons for doing so. There are other things which God wants accomplished that has to do with the church as well as the sinner. The church is to be kept pure (1 Cor. 5:6-7) and the good influence of brethren maintained (Rom. 16:18). The withdrawal causes others to fear (1 Tim. 5:20). How many have not been caused to examine their life when they heard elders ask brethren to withdraw from an ungodly person? Also if we fail to discipline the ungodly among us we are guilty of partaking of their evil (2 John 4-11). At the very heart of the process is the idea that we show our disapproval of the sin that has been committed and make an honest attempt to save the person from destruction. We withdraw to show the sinner the sinfulness of his sinful ways (2 Thess. 3:14). Even if we never get him to repent, the brother will surely know that we believe him to be living in sin. We have done out part, just as we can take some comfort in the fact that we hae done our best to convert an alien but he has not responded. It is my duty to discipline; it is his to respond and he will have to meet that in the judgment. I don’t want to face God not having done my duty to an erring brother.
I know discipline will work because it is His plan; it is His will. God doesn’t command us to do something that won’t work. If we have faith in His knowledge, and His wisdom, we cannot afford to question His judgment. Sure we must proceed with love, longsuffering and consideration for the condition of the one involved. But we must proceed. It worked with the case of the fornicator in Corinth (1 Cor. 5; 2 Cor. 2 6-8) and it will work with some today. We know it will work because we have seen cases in our lifetime where it has worked and done the good intended. But like bad news that travels farther than good news, maybe we just hear of the many cases where the brother or sister fails to repent.
Yes, brethren, like a loving parent disciplines a child with instruction, helping, reproving and more stern forms of discipline, let us with love and consideration of our own faults fulfill our responsibilities to the erring. God’s plan will work if we work the plan as He directed.
Guardian of Truth XXVIII: 19, pp. 586-587
October 4, 1984