By Robert W. Goodman
Every group that stands for anything has a problem of what to do when. those identified with it violate its established standards. In the church, we have come to use two phrases to describe this: “church discipline” and “withdrawing fellowship.” It is interesting to note that these expressions are not found in the Bible. It is not surprising then that we have problems since these expressions may mean different things to different people.
There are some basic ideas we need to observe:
1. Those who become members of the church do so by their own free will. The local church is composed of those professing to be in Divine fellowship who have voluntarily agreed to fellowship one another.
2. When those who have voluntarily joined in fellowship with others no longer live according to the Lord’s rule which they have agreed to accept, the church has a right and an obligation to the one that is out of step with the Lord. There is no one formal name given for this action. Several terms are used and in the context of these passages we see how to proceed.,Matthew 18:15-17 – “. . . But if he refuses , to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.” Romans 16:17 – “note (mark) . . . and avoid them.” 1 Corinthians 5:5 – “deliver such a one to Satan,” v. 7 -“purge out the old leaven,” v. 11 “not to keep company,” v. 13 – “put away from yourselves that wicked person.” 2 Thessalonians 3:6 “withdraw from every brother who walks disorderly,” v. 14 – “note that person and do not keep company with him.”
3. These passages, with a possible exception of Romans 16:17, have to do with those professing to be members in fellowship yet living contrary fives. Obviously the church has a right to teach, correct or discipline them with the idea of correcting them. It is like a family seeking to correct a wayward member.
4. What these passages do not address, except maybe Romans 16:17, is what to do with one who publicly makes known to the church the idea he no longer wants to be considered a part of the congregation – he withdraws his membership or fellowship and wants it publicly known. Here is an area that brethren often overlook. They proceed with such a one in the same way they would against one claiming to be a member yet living in sin. This is usually the area where hard feelings are caused and lawsuits are filed – some may have been successful against local churches in this areal
5. If people can publicly and voluntarily agree to become a member, they can also decide not to be a member (the Lord may decide such things long before man). Suppose some one withdraws from us and wants it publicly stated he is no longer a part of the congregation. What are we to do? Can we correct as a family member one who does not want to be a part of the family? If he is unwilling to meet with faithful brethren to discuss his wayward ways, why further irritate him by forced visits or registered letters? The Lord does not obligate us to cast our pearls before swine. He urged the disciples to shake off the dust of their feet against some. We are not to judge those “outside” (1 Cor. 5:12).
6. Here is where we should “mark” or “note” and “avoid” or “do not keep company.” Why call it “withdrawing fellowship”? Those whose names have connected with a congregation should not have their names privately dropped. If they wish to withdraw, even because of sin, why not let them and state this publicly so they can be noted and avoided?
7. Legal counsel by those familiar with the Scriptures and the law is that, in dealing with factious and contentious people and those claiming to have withdrawn from the church; action against them not be written out and sent to them. This will not likely help them and may provide material for some lawyer to help them sue.
8. Problems in this area should not cause the church to sin by doing nothing. We should act in harmony with the Scriptures, good judgment and legal counsel.
Guardian of Truth XXXIII: 10, p. 299
May 18, 1989