By Edgar J. Dye
My assignment is indicated by the question: Washing our hands or attempting to save a soul? And my ultimate purpose is to discuss what seems to be a tendency in some churches to simply wash their hands of a wayward member without making any genuine effort to reclaim their soul, with a view to trying to get those who may be guilty to repent and begin to practice the Lord’s will in this matter. To do this we shall strive to lay some foundation work showing its absolute need before we deal with evidence that it is occurring and some of the reasons why it is occurring.
The Greatest Work
Seeking to convert and save souls is the greatest work which can be done by God’s people, either individually or collectively. And there are many reasons why this is true. Obviously the Lord placed more importance upon saving the soul than in saving the physical body. This is taught by Jesus in Matthew 4:4, when, during His temptation by the devil in the wilderness, He said “. . . man shall not live by bread alone He also taught it in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6:19-34, and where in v.33, He sums it up by saying, “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness Again in Matthew 10:16-39, He cautions and encourages His disciples to faithfulness in duty in the face of great physical danger by warning them of what men will do to them, by urging them to endure to the end in spite of the danger of suffering physical harm, by calling upon them to fear God who “is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” rather than to fear man who can only “kill the body,” and by warning, “He that findest his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it.” Note also Matthew 16:24, 25. In His efforts to instruct, prepare and strengthen His apostles that they may be faithful in their work as His witnesses the world over, Jesus tells them in John 15:18-16:4, they must be prepared to suffer and endure the same treatment He suffered at the hands of unbelievers – hatred and even death. And that those who will do such things to them will do it thinking “that he doeth God service.” This same emphasis on saving the soul rather than the physical body when danger and death are faced is taught in Revelation 2:10 and applied to all saints. It is “be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life,” not until death!
Seeking to save the soul, our own and others, is of the greatest importance because of the value of even one soul, which is more than the whole world (Mt. 16:26); because of the blessings received, joy experienced and hope entertained when one is converted from sin and saved from condemnation; such as, remission of past sins (Acts 2:38), spiritual fellowship with Deity (Mt. 28:19; 1 Jn. 1:1-3), peace that passeth understanding (Phil. 4:7), all spiritual blessings in Christ (Eph. 1:3), and hope of eternal life (Tit. 1:2; Heb. 6:19, 20; 1 Pet. 1:3-5, 9); because of escaping the horrible punishment one will experience in hell if and when he dies in his sins (Mt. 10:28; 25:46; Mk. 9:43-48; 2 Thess. 1:7-10).
Do I need to argue at length in order to prove to you that our seeking to save souls, our own and others, is the primary obligation of God’s people both individually and collectively? Do not all of us know and understand the Bible well enough to know this is the first and foremost obligation God has placed upon us? Does not Jesus’ coming for that express purpose (Lk. 19:10; Mt. 1:21; Phil. 2:5-11; 1 Tim. 1:15; 2:3-6), rather than to provide for our physical well-being and physical safety, make this obvious? Does not the commission He gave His apostles and the price they paid in physical and mental suffering to carry out that commission (1 Cor. 4:9-14; 1 Cor. 9; 2 Cor. 11) impress this fact upon our minds and cause us to accept this truth? Do I need to cite the many passages which place this obligation upon us and emphasize its importance to convince us of our God-ordained duty to be busily engaged in doing it.
Efforts At Prevention Required
In view of this obvious obligation, we ought to be putting forth every scriptural and God-glorifying effort at our command to fulfill our duty of seeking to save the lost. But, also, to recognize the God-given duty to diligently work at trying to prevent these souls from falling from grace once they have been converted, to keep them saved once they have been converted, is of the utmost importance.
The Danger of Falling is great and the Bible declared it time and time again; let us be mindful of it. Paul taught it in Acts 20:28-32; 1 Corinthians 10:1-13; Hebrews 3:12-19 12:14, 15. Peter taught it in 2 Peter 2:20-22. Satan’s success in seducing disciples and of the fact of falling is often spoken of in the Bible; let us recognize it. Peter says the devil is actively “seeking whom he may devour” (1 Pet. 5:8b). James necessarily implies it in James 4:7. Paul declares the fact of it in Galatians 1:6 and 5:4. Our duty is evident; let us do it. The means to affect it are placed in our hands; let us use them. Elders are admonished “to feed the church” or “feed the flock of God which is among you,” and to “watch” in view of the possibility that “grievous wolves enter in among you not sparing the flock,” and “also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them” (Acts 20:28-32; 1 Pet. 5:14; Heb. 13:17).
Timothy was left at Ephesus “to teach” and “to charge” (1 Tim. 1:3; 6:17-19)’ to “put the brethren in remembrance” (1 Tim. 4:6); to “be an example of the brethren,” to “take heed to thyself, and unto the doctrine” (1 Tim. 4:11-16); to “preach the word . . . reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine” (2 Tim. 4:1-5); to try to prevent this from happening and that the brethren might be strong, faithful, and “lay hold on eternal life.” So was Titus left in Crete (Tit. 1:5, 2:1,15; 3:1,2). We are admonished not to sin (1 Cor. 15:34; 1 Jn. 2: 1); to “examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves” (2 Cor. 13:5); to “stand fast … and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage” (Gal. 5: 1); to “warn the unruly, comfort the feebleminded, support the weak, be patient toward all men” (1 Thess. 5:14); “to give the more earnest heed . . . lest at any time we should … slip” or “neglect so great salvation” (Heb. 2:1-3); to take great care lest we cause a weak brother to perish (1 Cor. 8:11-13); and we are to “consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works” (Heb. 10:24). Thus it is quite evident that we are to faithfully and continually teach, lovingly and diligently admonish and patiently encourage one another to edification and to the salvation of our souls. Moreover, the means whereby this can be done is placed in our hands, which is God’s written word (Acts 20:32). Let us use it.
Reclaim and Restore
In addition to all of this, the Bible lays upon us the duty to strive to reclaim and to restore those overtaken in a fault (Gal. 6: 1); to publicly discipline and withdraw from those who can’t be brought to repentance any other way (1 Cor. 5; 2 Thess. 3:6-15). The danger of being overtaken in a fault, of falling from grace and of refusing brotherly admonition to repent, is real; the duty to do the proper thing about it when it occurs is emphatically commanded and easily understood as necessary. James tells us what a great work is done when we reclaim and restore by converting “the sinner from the error of his way”; it is saving “a soul from death” and hiding “a multitude of sins” (Jas. 5:19,20).
Are We Washing Our Hands?
All this should make us aware, or remind us, of how terrible it is if we be guilty of simply washing our hands of a wayward member, any wayward member, through ignorance, weakness, indifference or willful neglect. In spite of all this, it is quite possible we are guilty of making this tragic mistake. From the evidence available by observation and by the unwitting comments of some, it seems some churches of Christ have been and are guilty of it – perhaps even the one of which I am a member or which you are a member. And no doubt various reasons are offered for doing it.
Objections which I have encountered and refusals or proneness to neglect to honestly and fairly consider scriptural answers to these objections constitutes evidence that some have been and continue to be guilty. The mere making of objections does not, of course, in and of itself, indicate there is an effort to wash one’s hands of a member. But a refusal to consider or a neglect to honestly and fairly consider Bible evidence to the contrary seems to me to do so. It is to such that I refer in this paper.
Some have said to me, “The Parable of the Tares (Mt. 13:24-30, 36-43) opposes public withdrawal or disfellowshipping of a member by teaching us to let the saint and the sinner grow together in the church, lest while we gather up the tares, we root up also the wheat with them.” My reply has been, “If it does, then Jesus contradictes Himself and His apostles are false teachers; for Jesus commanded it and His apostles taught and practiced it (2 Thess. 3:6; 1 Cor. 5).” The fact is, this parable doesn’t refer to church discipline, for “the field is the world,” not the church (v. 38). In human society, in the world, the wicked and the righteous do dwell together in the field, with the churches limited as to what they can or ought to do about it (1 Cor. 5:9-13).
I have been told, “Matthew 7:1 says we are not supposed to judge anyone. And this is what we are doing if we disfellowship anyone.” But a study of Matthew 7:1 in context reveals that the kind of judging involved in v. I is forbidden because it is harsh, unkind, hypocritical and unrighteous judgment, which is never right (vv. 3-5). While vv. 6,15-20 require another kind of judging which is always right and often demanded, which is “righteous judgment” (compare Jn. 7:24; Mt. 18:15-17; 1 Cor. 6:5; 1 Jn. 4:1; 2 Jn. 9-11).
Some have been known to say, “Withdrawal of fellowship will tear up the church or make trouble in the church and do more harm than good.” But it did not tear up the church at Corinth (2 Cor. 2:6-11; 7:6-16). If it will tear up the church, God did not know it and made the mistake of commanding something which would tear up the church doing more harm than good; if it will, the apostles, guided by the Holy Spirit, preached and practiced that which will tear up the church. Who can honestly believe it? If disfellowship is needed, the trouble is already in the church, with the withdrawal required in order to help both the individual and the church, not to harm them. The fact is, the church where such exists will be torn up or ruined if we don’t withdraw.
“It may harden them so they will never return.” It is strange that God didn’t know this. Let us talk about and emphasize what the Bible says it did and is for the purpose of doing, instead of what men think it may or may not do. “None of us is without sin, therefore we cannot mark others; for the Bible says, ‘Let him that is without sin cast the first stone.”‘ Though the professed Christian does sin, he does not live in or practice sin; but he does repent of and confess his sin; and the Bible does not call him a “sinner” (1 Jn. 1:7-9; 3:3-10; Eph. 2:1). Abraham, for example, lied (Gen. 12:10-19), But Abraham was not a “liar.” Furthermore, we are to “have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them” (Eph. 5:11; 2 Cor. 6:14-7:1).
“People will leave the church and go to the denominations if we do that.” One who would leave the Lord’s church and “go to the denominations” because purity of life and faithfulness are required would do great injury to the church if allowed to go undisciplined. I have known of the reverse being the case, of people being taught and converted from the denominations because they respected a local church for its stand on purity of life. “Discipline will ‘make trouble’ in the community and the families involved if we take this action.” No, the trouble is already there and is deep-seated by the time the church is required to take public action. Proper discipline by a local church will not “make trouble”; it will aid in seeking to correct it with God’s blessings.
Many years ago one group of elders said to me, “Well, I never heard the old-time perachers say anything about this, and we have been doing it like this for over thirty years.” If that be true, it would only mean the “old-time preachers” failed to do their duty as preachers.
I pray no one will use the recent court decision handed down in Oklahoma against the elders of a church just outside Tulsa as an excuse to wash their hands of a wayward member instead of making a genuine effort to reclaim his soul. Neglect, unscriptural objections and flimsy excuses are but tools of Satan used to deny the plain word of God and the duty of saints led by faithful elders to keep the church pure.
Perhaps plain Bible teaching on discipline is neglected or excused for some of the following reasons. It may be because so little is taught about it and so few people have seen it practiced. Years ago it was said that “Many local churches can hardly lay claim to even believing New Testament teaching on public discipline,” and that “Many local churches are not even a forty-second cousin to New Testament ch~rches when it comes to the matter of discipline.” How long since you have heard anything more than reference to church disipline? As long as this is the case, many will continue to misunderstand the real need and the God-honoring, soul-saving purposes of it and will continue to offer objections to it or refuse to practice it just as some people do to baptism for the remission of sins. When more is taught on it and more of it practiced, more Christians will believe in it and be ready to practice it.
It may be neglected because our faith is weak and our spiritual barometer is falling. It may be because of fear of what the guilty party will do when disciplined; of what the guilty party’s family and friends will do; fear of sin and guilt in our own lives; fear of hurting someone’s feelings; fear of tearing up the church and driving people away; or fear of suffering some kind of persecution if we do it.
It may be neglected because we don’t want to get involved. But we are already involved if we are members of the church, and it is high time we realized it. Could it be the case that sometimes it has been neglected so long and, as a result, there is so much sin in the local church where we are that we don’t know where to start or can’t find enough faithful ones to start it? Remember this: sin begets sin; neglect begets more neglect. Neglect of sin can tie our hands and even render us incapable of any constructive action in reclaiming souls from sin.
It can be because of incompetence in the eldership of a church (not qualified); because of unfaithfulness in an eldership (winking at sin); or because of pressure from unbelieving and unruly members who will not follow the lead of Godfearing elders in administering it.
Discipline often becomes one of the most difficult things an eldership has to do – which makes it easier to neglect and convenient to offer excuses for not doing it and thus to wash their hands of a wayward member without making full and complete effort to reclaim his soul.
New Testament teaching on discipline must be obeyed if we are to please God, keep the church pure, and reclaim and restore those overtaken in sin, which we do not do by ignoring it or by having “good intentions,” or by talking it to death without doing anything about it. It is too easy to simply “talk a good game” on church discipline.
It is wholly inconsistent to insist on the law of admission into fellowship and then discard the law of exclusion from fellowship; both are divinely enjoined; both are to be respected and obeyed. How many have drifted away from Christ which we could have saved had we cared enough to dare to discipline? Only God knows. But let us delay no longer (Heb. 12:1-3; 2:1-3; 12:25).
Guardian of Truth XXVIII: 19, pp. 584-585, 598
October 4, 1984