Part 1 Preview: Should people be put out of their church for disagreeing on the meaning of a Biblical verse or a policy of administration? Does Elohim (God) allow people to think for themselves without the threat of excommunication? What did Yeshua (Jesus) mean when He said: “... If they fail to listen to the assembly (church), then you should consider them to be as heathens and tax collectors?” Why should someone be disfellowshipped? If someone is excommunicated, are the ministers and other Church members NEVER to talk to that person again? All these questions and others will be answered in this in-depth study article. The truth about the subject that most don’t want to talk about—DISFELLOWSHIPPING, may not be what you have thought or been taught. But the Bible makes the truth PLAIN!
Regrettably, there may be a time when a person has to be disfellowshipped from having fellowship with the members of the Church.
Paul speaking to the Church at Corinth wrote: “... and you are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he that has done this deed might to TAKEN AWAY FROM AMONG YOU.... But now I have written unto you NOT TO KEEP COMPANY, if any man that is called a BROTHER be a ... WITH SUCH A ONE NO NOT TO EAT” (1 Cor.5:2,11).
He goes on to say in verse 13, “... Therefore PUT AWAY from among yourselves that wicked person.”
Writing to the Thessalonians Paul said: “Now we command you, brethren, that you WITHDRAW YOURSELVES from every BROTHER that walketh disorderly and if any man obey not our word by this epistle, note that man, and have NO COMPANY with him....” (2 Thes.3:6,14).
Writing to Titus, Paul said: “A man that is an heretic after the first and second admonition REJECT” (Titus 3:10).
Then we have the words of Christ on this matter of putting someone outside the fellowship of the Church. Speaking about the person who is obviously walking or living in an unrepentant manner, Jesus said: “... If he neglect to hear the Church, let him be unto you as an heathen man and a publican”(Mat.18:17).
What Christ meant by that statement in specifics we shall look at in more detail later. Suffice to say now, it does mean that a person may have to be excommunicated from fellowship with the Church.
Christ did not leave His Church in any doubt about HOW to disfellowship someone if it was necessary. Anything Paul wrote on this matter would not have contradicted the outline given by Jesus.
Paul was taught by Christ (Gal.l:11-12). When Paul wrote on disfellowshipping of a brother/sister he gave the overview of the subject NOT the specific details of how it was to be accomplished.
The one, two, three steps that were to be taken leading up to disfellowshipping, if the person would not listen to the Church, was laid down by the Lord Jesus, in Matthew 18. Starting in verse 15, we read: “Moreover, if thy brother shall trespass against you ...” (a one to one, member to member, or minister to minister, or minister to member, or member to minister), continuing, “go and tell him his fault between YOU and HIM alone: IF he shall hear you, you have gained your brother.”
When a serious matter, let me emphasize the word serious (Jesus is not talking about getting upset with your brother because they do not open the car door for you when you have your arms full of parcels), when a serious matter arises between BROTHERS in Christ, it is FIRST of all to be a one to one meeting to discuss the problem. As God is love (John 4:8) and brothers in Christ are to love each other (John 4:7), this meeting should be carried out in deep Godly love, with humility and prayer, and remembering the words of Paul, “... lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway” (1 Cor.9:27).
There can be no lynch mob action, no going behind a person’s back to some supposed higher Church authority to have this or that other person disfellowshipped-no three or four getting together to see if someone else will do what you PERSONALLY should be doing; that is, discussing the matter with the particular individual involved with you and the problem.
It must first be ONE TO ONE. Any other way is not scriptural and is not following the way Christ gave us. It is therefore contrary to the way of the Lord.
In most cases the problem will be solved this way. If it is not, Christ went on to instruct us: “But if he will NOT hear you, THEN take with you one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established” (verse 16).
If the person in the wrong, AFTER OBEYING THE ABOVE INSTRUCTIONS, still will not listen, Jesus said: “tell it unto the Church....” Bring it before the Church as a whole, the ministers as a whole, the members, and let them give their decision on the matter. Christ did not say tell it to the ONE individual (if there indeed was ever to be one) who is head of the Church and let him disfellowship this person. Christ said, “... But if he neglect to hear the CHURCH, let him be unto you as an heathen man and a publican” (verses 15-17).
Paul said to the CHURCH, not just the ministers at Corinth (the book of 1 Corinthians was written to the Church - verse 2) “... Do not YOU judge them that are within” (1 Cor.5:12).
Paul was writing concerning the case of open incest being done within the Church, and he tells them THEY-the CHURCH-had the right to decide and disfellowship that person so sinning. As Christ said, if the sinner will not hear on a one to one basis, then it must be two or three to one. If he/she still refuses to hear, then the CHURCH as a whole have the right to speak, and if he will not hear the Church, then and ONLY THEN can they be disfellowshipped.
ANY OTHER METHOD IS CONTRARY TO THE TEACHING OF CHRIST. And remember, all of this is to be done in LOVE.
Disfellowshipping of a person must come finally from the CHURCH-not from an individual-and only after the correct procedure given by Jesus has been carried out.
One minister is not the Church. The ministers as a whole are not the Church. They are only PART OF the Church. The CHURCH (all called out ones. Every member constitutes the Church of that particular congregation) must have the case presented before it, and judgment then made. If the person involved will not listen to the Church, then he or she can be put out of its fellowship.
How simple it is when one will just BELIEVE and OBEY the words of Christ. I have known and talked to some leaders of various religious organizations that follow the instructions of Jesus regards this subject, for the most part, when done in love, it brings about the desired repentant attitude from the person overtaken in a sin.
Did Christ give the Church the right to put a PERSON out of its fellowship so the Church could delight in so doing, so it could have an “holier than thou” attitude?
No! Indeed NO!
For the Church to have to disfellowship someone it should be a VERY SAD occasion. Deep sorrow should be felt by all.
Why then is it sometimes necessary?
Paul gives us the answer: “To deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh”—to put them outside the spiritual protection of the Church—“that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Cor.5:5).
Hopefully, they will repent and turn again to God and walk in the right path.
The second reason for disfellowshipping is to keep the Church from corrupting into OPEN SIN against God: “... Know you not that a little leaven (type of sin) leaveneth the,whole lump” (1 Cor.5:6).
In the case in which Paul was talking about in 1 Cor.5, a member was having sexual intercourse with his father’s wife (verse 1). This was directly breaking the law of God. The Church knew about this man’s activity, and by doing or saying nothing they were then condoning it (verse 2,6). Paul could see that if something was not done, soon others in the Church would be practicing open sin, until the whole Church would be corrupted.
The example in 1 Corinthians 5 leads us to our next question. What would the reasons be for having to disfellowship someone?
Has the Church the right to disfellowship someone because he/she humbly disagrees with a point of doctrine or understanding of a verse of scripture? Should a person be put out of the Church for not agreeing fully with certain policies or ways of administration?
When you become part of the Church, do you give up the right to “think for yourself”? Is your thinking to be all done for you by the ministers?
Your Bible says you are to be servants of God. You are to give yourself as a living sacrifice to God (Rom.12:1). You are to have Christ’s MIND in you (Phil.2:5), not the mind of some other man. You are bought with Christ’s blood and are not to become the servants of MEN (1 Cor.7:23). Your salvation is only answerable to God (Rom.14:4,10-12).
You do not stop “thinking for yourself” when you become a Christian. Nobody should ever be disfellowshipped for what he SINCERELY believes or because he wants to “think.” If he has a genuine disagreement over doctrine, policies, or ideas, he should always feel that he can, in the right attitude, air his thoughts and be heard, listened to and considered.
We have already seen an example in 1 Corinthians 5:1-7, an example of incest in the Church that was not just a private personal sin (we all have those-Rom.7:13-15; 1 John 1:8-10) but a sin that could effect the whole Church and lead people into outright disobedience towards God.
Paul gives us other reasons for having to disfellowship someone in verse 11. “But now I have written unto you not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a FORNICATOR, or COVETOUS, or an IDOLATER, or a RAILER, or a DRUNKARD, or an EXTORTIONER, with such a one no not to eat.”
Let’s apply the principle of the case of incest we’ve already noted to these other sins that Paul mentions.
A young man or woman in the Church starts having sexual relations with another young person of the Church. This relationship is regular. Word gets out in the manner that such things do become known by many in the Church, but nobody says anything to them. Soon the offenders could have set the example for others to do the same. If the instructions of Mat.18 were not followed, open practice of sexual immorality would spread through the Church.
If the couple would not repent of “sleeping around” as we call it today, then the Church as a whole could make the decision to disfellowship them.
An individual starts to covet say the “office” held by another in the Church. He does not have any office, or not the one he wants to have. The office of deacon, board member, or minister that HE WANTS is held by another. So he starts to gossip and slander the person holding that office. He says ugly lies about them, starts assassinating their character. He gets others to listen and poisons their minds. This kind of talk becomes his life style.
This covetous manner could effect the whole Church, unless the instructions of Mat.18 were followed.
Let’s put ourselves back with Paul and the Church at Corinth. The members had just recently come out of pagan worship to serve the true God in “spirit and in truth.”
One Sabbath in walks someone with a statue of say, DIANA (a false pagan god, that was really no god) and sets it up in the meeting place and proceeds to pray before it.
The following Sabbath the original member is joined by another member in praying before this idol. As the weeks go by more and more join in with the idol worship.
Can you see where all this would lead? Paul says the Church does have the right and the authority to judge such a person who would want to start such idolatry in the Church.
Do you see the principle? Can you understand what Paul is saying here in 1 Cor.5?
Would be someone who openly wants to stand up in the Church meetings and argue the word of God in an unbecoming attitude, shouting at or against other members or the ministry, maybe using a foul tongue or slander (see the Amplified Bible).
Would be a member who turns up at Church functions drunk, and does it often as a habit. Maybe they are living as a drunkard around their home and causing all kinds of trouble.
Would be a person who is a swindler or robber or siphoner of Church funds, or money from his place of employment. It is a way of life with him, possibly encouraging others to do the same.
Paul is here, in these verses of 1 Cor.5, talking about persons who LIVE/PRACTICE a lifestyle that is contrary to the commandments of God, and want to bring it into the Church, wanting all to allow them to so live. They are not repentant of their actions.
Paul is NOT talking about people who love God with all their mind and heart, who are wanting to obey God’s law, who are fighting sin within themselves, but honestly and sincerely do not agree with the Church’s teaching on a given doctrine or verse. Paul is not talking about people who disagree on certain Church policy or ways of administration, but have the true spirit of God within them. He is NOT talking about one minister disagreeing with another minister on how things should be done.
Paul IS talking about a lifestyle—the WAY a person LIVES contrary to the plain easy to understand COMMANDMENTS of God, and HOW THAT WAY could effect the whole Church by leading many others into open sin.
Did Paul ever have any differences of ‘administration’ opinions with other ministers?
Oh, indeed he did! If you turn to Acts 15:36-41 you will read how Paul and Barnabas had a difference of opinion, and, “... the contention was so sharp between them that they departed asunder one from the other...” (verse 39).
Now, did Paul try to have Barnabas disfellowshipped? Did Paul run off to the apostles at Jerusalem to get them to put Barnabas “out of the Church”? Or, did Barnabas run to Peter with a few other ministers and try to have Paul excommunicated? NO! There is not one word anywhere that even suggests they tried to do any of that.
Both men knew they were called to do the work of the Lord. This heated difference was not over basic fundamental doctrines of God, or the practice of unrepentant sins on someone’s part. It was a difference of opinion on “who should go with them to do the work”—a difference in the area of Church Administration in which there is no “thus says the Lord.”
On another occasion Paul DISAGREED with what Peter was DOING —PRACTICING in his life. Paul had the God given right and freedom to stand up to Peter and tell him he was WRONG (Gal.2:11-14)!
Notice two things about this incident:
FIRST-Paul obeyed Mat.18:15. He went to Peter directly and withstood him in his wrong way. He did not “gang up” on him and go to someone else to have him corrected or put out of fellowship.
SECOND-Peter did not condemn Paul for doing what he did. Peter knew it was Paul’s given right to exercise correction when needed. Peter did not try to have Paul disfellowshipped over what he did.
It is also interesting to note and remember that Peter was with the Church from its beginning. Peter was one of the Church’s founding members and prominent persons. And here was Paul, a relative newcomer to the ministry, standing up to Peter’s face and declaring he was wrong-and he WAS!
None claimed that anyone got in a “bad attitude” or had “disrespect for authority,” or “disrespect for one of the original apostles” and so should be disfellowshipped.
Putting someone out of the Church because an INDIVIDUAL claims that some member is in a “wrong attitude” (when they are probably not), or is reading literature from another church group, or not “agreeing” with all the fine print of administration, is not following the teachings of the head of the Church-Jesus Christ.
This kind of disfellowshipping is from the doctrines of demons. It is Satanic-it is not of God.
There are churches that teach and practice this cultic dictatorial way of correction and disfellowshipping.
Further, the idea that when someone has been disfellowshipped, the ministers/elders and congregational members are NEVER to speak to or have any communication whatsoever with that person, is also just as Satanic, as we shall now proceed to see.
Some groups take the words of Christ and Paul, such as: “... if he neglect to hear the Church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican ... that he that has done this deed must be taken away from among you ... with such a one no not to eat ... that you withdraw yourselves from every brother that walks disorderly ... and have no company with him...” to mean that the Church members are not only to not keep company in ANY WAY with the disfellowshipped, but they are not even to SPEAK to or have any communication at any time with that person.
Members of such groups that teach this form of excommunication will even avoid meeting former members on the street by quickly walking the other way, or crossing the street. Disfellowshipped members are treated as if they were carrying the death plague itself, a plague that would kill instantly upon coming within twenty feet of the one time member.
Is this how you should treat the disfellowshipped member? Was this the way Christ and Paul wanted you to act towards those the Church had to correct and discipline?
God says to us, “Come let us reason together”(Isa.1:18). So, let’s first use our logical reasoning powers God gave us to apply this teaching of some to everyday circumstances.
A wife finds herself married to a disfellowshipped husband one day. Her church teaches that you are not to eat with, keep company with, or speak to such a person any more. God still says you are one flesh and his wife. What a dilemma! What a PARADOX!
I have known of instances where this has happened. The church group involved will usually allow their teaching at this point to change. Yet the same allowance may, or may not, be applied to a father-son, or mother-daughter SITUATION.
Let’s take another example. Two families live next door to each other. One family is “put out of the church” (we shall assume in this example it is for correct and just reasons). The other family now finds itself in the most uncomfortable situation of avoiding, not speaking to the other family. Maybe they have children who play together, or to make it a little more complicated, a son and daughter of each family are engaged to be married. Still add another twist-only the husband of one family is disfellowshipped. The church will allow his wife to communicate with him but the church neighbors cannot. They must avoid and not speak to the one, while showing brotherly fellowship with the other.
Two men work alongside each other in a factory, shop, or what have you. They are members of the same church, until one is disfellowshipped. For the job to be done both men have to work as a team and communicate together. According to the teaching of the church, the man in good standing is not to have company with, or talk to, or eat meals together in the lunch room, with the disfellowshipped man. You figure that one out!
Maybe the one disfellowshipped is the owner or foreman of the company the other member works for, or the church member is the right-hand man of the man excommunicated. Maybe the man “put out” is the right-hand man of the church member.
The situations are endless! Reason and logic should tell you that such understanding of Christ’s statement “let him be unto you as a heathen” is erroneous.
But God’s word leaves us in no doubt about how to treat the disfellowshipped.
The groups that preach the “avoiding, not speaking to” doctrine have THREE scriptures they find very hard to explain, if not impossible. Here they are from the AMPLIFIED BIBLE.
“Brethren, if any person is overtaken in misconduct or sin of any sort, you who are spiritual-who are responsive to and controlled by the spirit-should set him right and restore and reinstate him, without any sense of superiority and with all gentleness, keeping an attentive eye on yourself, lest you should be tempted also” (Gal.6:1).
Paul is NOT here talking about brethren going about prying into each other’s misconduct or personal sins, so we can set each other right. The word of God nowhere teaches that idea. The “faults” we are to confess to each other spoken about in James 5:16 are physical faults-sickness or physical infirmities-so we can pray for each other and be healed (v.13-15). Our spiritual sins we confess to God (Heb.4:15-16; 1 John 1:8-9; Mat. 6:9-12).
Sins, errors, offenses, we commit against each other should be dealt with personally and individually as Jesus gave us instruction in Matthew 18:15.
We are certainly not to “go looking for” the speck of dirt in our brother’s eye, as there could very well be a huge plank in our own. ( Mat.7:3.)
Paul IS here teaching about a brother who is overtaken (becomes taken over by a life of misconduct)—as the person practicing incest in 1 Cor.5, which may lead to the Church having to put them out of its fellowship, or his voluntary leaving the Church, and what WE (ministers and/or members) should then try to do to restore them to repentance and the Church.
The compilers of the AMPLIFIED Bible understood what Paul was saying. The CHURCH’S responsibility is, with humility and gentleness, to try to set him right and RESTORE and REINSTATE him to the fellowship again. This then requires that the Church WORK WITH and still COMMUNICATE WITH such an individual.
The idea to “avoid and never speak to” a disfellowshipped or former brother/sister is the complete antithesis of Paul’s teaching to the Christians in Galatia.
The noted MATTHEW HENRY’S COMMENTARY on the Bible has this to say on Galatians 6:1.
“We here are taught to deal tenderly with those who are overtaken in a fault. THEY WHO ARE SPIRITUAL; by whom is meant, not only the ministers (as if none but they were to be called spiritual persons), but other Christians too; especially those of the higher form in Christianity. These must RESTORE SUCH AN ONE WITH THE SPIRIT OF MEEKNESS. Here observe:
1. The duty we are directed to-to restore such. We should labor, by faithful reproofs and pertinent and seasonable counsels, to bring them to repentance. The original word ’katarizo’ signifies TO SET IN JOINT-as a dislocated bone is. Accordingly, we should endeavor to set them in joint again, to bring them to themselves, by convincing them of their sin and error, persuading them to return to their duty, comforting them in a sense of pardoning mercy thereupon, and-having thus recovered them-confirming our love to them.
2. The manner wherein this is to be done-WITH THE SPIRIT OF MEEKNESS; not in wrath and passion, as those who triumph in a brother’s fall, but with meekness-as those who rather mourn for them. Many needful reproofs lose their efficacy by being given in wrath; but when they are managed with calmness and tenderness, and appear to proceed from a sincere affection for them (and concern for their welfare) they are likely to make due impression.
3. A very good reason why this should be done with meekness- CONSIDERING THYSELF, LEST THOU ALSO BE TEMPTED. We ought to deal very tenderly with those who are overtaken in sin, because none of us knows whether or not next time it may be our own case.”
The SECOND TEXT we need to study and understand is 2 Thessalonians 3: 6,14-15. The Amplified Bible translates these verses as:
“Now we charge you, brethren, in the name and on the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Messiah, that you withdraw and keep away from every brother (fellow believer) who is slack in the PERFORMANCE OF DUTY and is DISORDERLY, LIVING as a shirker and not walking in accord with the traditions and instructions that you have received from us But if anyone (in the church) refuses to obey what we say in this letter, take NOTE of that person, and do not associate with him; that he may be ashamed. DO NOT REGARD HIM AS AN ENEMY, but simply ADMONISH and WARN him as (being still) a brother” (emphasis mine).
Now there are possibly TWO explanations of what Paul is here Now there are possibly TWO explanations of what Paul is here saying to the Church at Thessalonia:
1. A self-imposed censorship by the people of the Church towards those whom Paul says to note-a censorship then WITHIN the Church.
2. A censorship by the Church-a DISFELLOWSHIP.
Possibly BOTH views are here meant to be understood, BUT whichever we want to side with, the CONCLUSION as to what the Church must DO is the SAME for either case.
Let us note what KIND of individual Paul is telling us to censure.
The Matthew Henry’s Commentary says: “There were some who walked disorderly, not after the traditions they received from the apostles (v.6). Note, the King James version says ’received of US’-not just Paul, but others also. Paul did not set himself up as chief apostle or pope of the Church of God. They did not live regularly, or govern themselves according to the rules of Christianity in particular, there were among them IDLE PERSONS AND BUSYBODIES (v.11). This the apostle was so credibly informed of that he had sufficient reason to give commands and directions with relation to such persons, how they ought to behave, and how the Church should act towards them. There were some among them who were IDLE, NOT WORKING AT ALL, or doing nothing. It is a great error, or abuse of religion to make it a cloak for idleness, or any other sin. There were BUSYBODIES among them: and it would seem, by the connection, that the same persons who were idle were busybodies also, most commonly, those persons who have no business of their own to do, or neglect that and busy themselves in other men’s matters....Busybodies are disorderly walkers. The apostle warns Timothy (1 Tim.5:13) ’to beware of such as learn to be idle, wandering about from house to house, and are not only idle, but tattlers also, and busybodies, speaking things which they ought not.’”
The persons Paul was telling the Church to censor were LIVING, PRACTICING, a life style WITHIN the Church that would have a profoundly bad influence on the membership. It was a corrupt way of LIVING they were promulgating. It was a lifestyle that could be put alongside the fornication, covetous, idolater, drunkard, extortioner, of 1 Corinthians 5.
1. Censorship within the Church
This view is taken from verse 14 as to be understood that what is said does not necessarily mean to disfellowship. The language used by Paul is not as strong as he used in 1 Cor.5:1-13. The words “note that man” is NOT synonymous with “disfellowship that man” or “put him away.” The Greek word here used for “note” means simply to DISTINGUISH, become acquainted, recognize who the idle busybodies are, and once you have recognized them-STAY OUT OF THEIR WAY-do not be a “buddy-buddy” with them, do not have them as close friends.
2. Censorship with-out the Church-disfellowship
If verse 14 is taken to mean Paul is here saying to disfellowship these persons, there is still NO CONTRADICTION with the rest of God’s word and Christ’s instruction of Matthew 18. Paul is writing to the brethren (v.6) -the CHURCH, not to a man or men as head of the Church. The brethren as a WHOLE-the CHURCH at Thessalonia would have to follow Jesus’ instructions of Matthew 18 to disfellowship such as noted here by Paul.
At times point number 1 above is often naturally taken by the members of a congregation, until the outline of Matthew 18 is followed in dealing with the offender. Most of the time an offender such as here described will repent upon one or more persons lovingly correcting them for their lifestyle sin. If they do not repent after the first and second admonition, then the Church as a whole would have to take corrective action, even to the point of disfellowshipping them until repentance was forthcoming.
Whichever of the above views you want to take, Paul has only ONE conclusion: “Yet count him not as an ENEMY, but ADMONISH HIM AS A BROTHER.”
He is not to be shunned as you would an enemy-as you would someone who is out to kill you. The Greek word here used for enemy is echthros. Strong’s Concordance says on this word: “from the prim. echtho (to hate); hateful (pass. odidus, or act. hostile); usually as a noun, an adversary (especially Satan): enemy, foe.”
This Greek word is used as referring to the Devil in Mat.13:39. Christians are to get as far away from Satan-our enemy-and his works as possible. The brothers here noted by Paul are NOT to be counted as ENEMIES, but they are to be admonished-be worked with as BEING STILL (as the Amplified Bible puts it) a BROTHER!
Now, those who hold that Paul is telling the Thessalonians to disfellowship such persons, and that excommunication means to avoid and never speak to that person, can hardly reconcile verse 15 with verse 14. It would then be plainly a contradiction.
Again, we quote some pertinent passages from the Matthew Henry’s Bible Commentary:
“His commands and directions to the WHOLE CHURCH-regard, their behavior toward the disorderly persons who were among them.... The directions of the apostle are carefully to be observed in this matter. We must be very cautious in Church censures and Church discipline. We must, FIRST, NOTE that man who is ... charged ... this is, we must have sufficient PROOF of his fault before we proceed further. We must, SECONDLY, admonish him in a friendly manner ... and this should be DONE PRIVATELY (Mat.18:15). Then, if he will not hear, we must, THIRDLY, WITHDRAW from him. That is, we must avoid FAMILIAR CONVERSE and society with such; for two reasons-namely, that we may not learn his evil ways (for he who follows vain and idle persons, and keeps company with such, is in danger of becoming like them). Another reason is-for the shaming and so the reforming, of them that offend: that when idle and disorderly persons see how their loose practices are disliked by all wise and good people, they may be ashamed of them, and walk more orderly. Love, therefore, to the persons of our offending brethren ... should be the motive of our withdrawing from them; and yet those who are under the censure of the Church must not be ACCOUNTED AS ENEMIES (v.15)” (emphasis his and mine).
There is, I venture to say, a great deal of truth in those comments of Matthew Henry.
The THIRD TEXT as to what our attitude and work should be towards those who have either left the Church because of sin in their lives, or have been put out of its fellowship by the Church for their open unrepentant practice of sin, is found in James 5:19,20.
The Amplified Bible reads: “(My) brethren, if anyone among you strays from the truth and falls into error, and another (person) BRINGS HIM BACK (to God), let the (latter) one be sure that whoever turns a sinner from his evil course will save (that one’s) soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins (that is, procure the pardon of many sins committed by the convert)” (emphasis mine).
Note carefully verse 19: “BRETHREN, if any of YOU....” James is writing to converted Christians. He says that if any true Christian “err from the truth”-God’s word is truth (John 17:17) and one who converts him brings him back to God’s truth, many sins will have been forgiven.
What kind of a person is James talking about? Is it just someone who has “slipped’’ along life’s Christian road? Or is it not someone who has known the truth, has lived in it, walked in it, practiced the true way as a lifestyle, but has now in the present TURNED AWAY, turned to living a life that is contrary to the commandments of the Lord?
This person has rejected the truth. They had to know it before they could turn from it. They have chosen to practice a life of sin, living as the unconverted. The passage talks about the sinner being again converted from the error of his way-his life, his living, and being saved from death because he will again find mercy and his sins forgiven.
Once you have become a truly converted person, your sins forgiven by the blood of Christ-once you have received God’s Spirit and your heart and mind is wanting to do God’s will, living by His every word, once you are in a constant attitude of humility and repentance, not wanting to sin but to live as God and Christ live, you are not under the death sentence but under the grace of God. Your mind set is to obey God, to say as Jesus said: “not my will be done but your (the Father’s) will be done.” You may slip up and fall at times, miss the mark and sin, but you are not deliberately and willfully rebelling against the way of the Lord, so you have passed from death to life, the second death can not touch you.
The only way you can come under the sentence of death again is to set your mind to knowingly, deliberately, with clear intent and purpose, turn your back on the truths revealed to you, set your course to walk away from the pathway of righteousness, leave holding the hand of God, and walk in the lifestyle of Satan, the unconverted world and carnal human nature.
This basic truth is what Paul spent so much time explaining to the Church at Rome in his letter to them (see Romans chapters three to eight).
James is saying that if a Christian BRINGS BACK to God a brother, who has again become a slave to sin (has come under the sentence of death), he does a great work. He will be partly responsible for saving a sinner from death.
The type of sinner here understood must be someone who has turned his back on God-left the Church and truths of the Lord; or someone whose life in the Church was such that the membership had no choice but to impose correction and censorship from their fellowship.
Whichever the case, to CONVERT someone back to God requires a certain amount of contact!
You will never bring a person back to the way of the Lord if you avoid them at all costs, never write or speak to them again.
THE KIND OF DISFELLOWSHIPPING TAUGHT BY SOME RELIGIOUS ORGANIZATIONS CANNOT BE RECONCILED WITH THESE VERSES IN THE BOOK OF JAMES!
“... but if he neglect to hear the Church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.” This is what Jesus said in Mat.18:17. The RSV translates the last phrase as... “let him be to you as a gentile and a tax collector.”
A footnote in the LIVING BIBLE says: “Literally, ’let him be to you as the gentile and publican.’”
In the Zondervan Pictorial Bible Dictionary (page 835) we read this:
“Entering the temple area one came to four successive walled courts, which surrounded the temple, each more exclusive than the one outside it. The first was the court of the GENTILES. It was not holy ground and non-Jews were permitted there. Here buying and selling went on; it was here that Jesus cleansed the temple (John 2:14-17).
Within the court of the Gentiles were situated the Temple and Inner Courts, built on a platform 22 feet above the floor of the outer court. Stairways led up to this platform. A stone wall surrounded it, on which wall were placed stones with inscriptions in Greek and Latin FORBIDDING NON-JEWS FROM ENTERING ON PAIN OF DEATH. Several of these stones have been found.”
Most Bible Commentaries have taken Matthew 18:17, together with how the temple was constructed, regarding the keeping of Gentiles OUT of the temple area proper, to say that the Church does have the right to excommunicate undesirable persons (we have already seen what types of sins they would be openly practicing and promulgating) that would not repent of living in open sin.
AND THIS IS TRUE-the CHURCH as a congregation, does have this power. Paul makes that plain in 1 Cor.5 regarding the man practicing incest. He told them, THEY, had the right to judge that matter (v.l-2) and put that person out of their fellowship (v.5-13).
This they apparently did, as most commentators agree is thus stated in 2 Cor.2:5-8 (see the Amplified Bible). The punishment of disfellowshipping that person was of MANY, not just a few or of one man.
The FIRST truth Jesus is giving is that the Church does have the authority to exercise excommunication as warranted.
The SECOND truth is that only the CHURCH has this right. It was never given to only ONE man. The CHURCH as a collective local congregation of members is the only authority that can impose disfellowshipment on any person. Here we see checks and balances, and the acting out of the proverb that says, “in the multitude of counselors there is safety.”
Here is what the Interpreter’s Bible Commentary has to say in part on this:
“This is one of the two passages in the gospels where the word CHURCH is used, and here it denotes the local congregation ... It is also clear that as yet in the average congregation there is NO OFFICIAL who wields FULL DISCIPLINARY POWER” (emphasis mine).
Commenting as a whole on this passage in Matthew 18, the same commentary says:
“... Robert Louis Stevenson has written of our quarrels - ’ With a little more patience and a little less temper, a gentler and wiser method might be found in almost every case.’ Here Christian patience is described in gentleness and wisdom. A friend is to go to the offender, thus making the first advance. He is to point out the fault, but PRIVATELY and in lowly friendship. His purpose is not to humiliate or condemn, but to GAIN A BROTHER-to gain him for friendship and for the Church of Christ. Even if the private plea fails, the culprit is not to be branded publicly; but two or three men, chosen for Christian grace, are to be told of the failure, in order that their urgings may be added. Only if they fail is the WHOLE congregation to know; and even then they must not thrust the sinner from their comradeship except in his continued obduracy. We gain thus a glimpse into the problems of the early Church. There were, even then, careless and wayward members; and sometimes there was OPEN SCANDAL. The epistles confirm this picture” (emphasis mine).
Now, let us ask ourselves: How did Jesus treat GENTILES and PUBLICANS? Did He completely avoid them? Did He never speak to a gentile or publican? Did Christ look upon them as enemies—to avoid at all costs?
Jesus Christ is our EXAMPLE. We are to follow His steps (1 Peter 2:21). We can do no better than to see how He regarded the Gentile and tax collector.
Jesus TALKED about salvation to a Samaritan woman (John 4:3-26). He SPOKE to, did good to a Gentile centurion (Matthew 8:5-13). He CONVERSED with a Gentile woman and healed her daughter (Mat.15:21-28). One of Jesus’ 12 disciples was a tax collector-a publican (Mark 2:13). He at times ATE MEALS with publicans and sinners (Luke 5:29-32).
Christ did NOT AVOID AT ALL COSTS the Gentile. He did at times have CONVERSATIONS with and do GOOD to the Gentile and publicans. Why, it is recorded that He was a FRIEND of publicans and sinners. He was not their ENEMY!
This same Jesus said we were to LOVE and DO GOOD to even our enemies.
Oh, how could we read these accounts of Jesus’ friendship, conversing with and helping Gentiles and publicans, and then use Christ’s own statement in Matthew 18:17 to say that He is there teaching a doctrine of “avoid completely, never talk or speak to a disfellowshipped member of the Church of God.”
HOW MISUNDERSTOOD HAS THAT STATEMENT BY JESUS BECOME TO SOME RELIGIOUS ORGANIZATIONS!
The Gentiles in Christ’s day were, as Paul put it: “At that time you were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenant of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world” (Eph.2:12).
In today’s Christian language the Gentiles would have been called the “unconverted of the world.”
How are Christians to treat the unconverted? Are they to avoid them? Are they to shun them, never speak to them, never write to them?
Paul gives us the answer: “I wrote unto you in an epistle not to company with fornicators: yet NOT ALTOGETHER with the fornicators of THIS WORLD, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or with idolaters; for then must you needs go out of this world” (1 Cor.5:9,10).
A Christian must not COMPLETELY cut himself off to the people of this world-to the unconverted-or he would have to become a hermit dwelling in some cave in the earth.
Jesus said that those who would not listen to the Church and repent, should be treated as the unconverted Gentile and publican. Paul was inspired to say that we should not cut ourselves off completely to the unconverted world.
Obviously the company we should not keep with open rebellious sinners within the context of the Church of God, is a “buddy-buddy” relationship, where you spend hours with them just “shooting the breez” or going to social functions with them, thus giving the impression to all that you allow their life-style of sin as no “big deal” and okay with God.
This “company” keeping was going on by the members of the Church at Corinth towards the man guilty of practicing incest, so his open sin was not being rebuked. Maybe they thought that by showing grace to him, he would be redeemed out of his sin, but Paul was inspired to instruct that was not the way to handle the situation.
Christ taught we were to be the LIGHT to the world. We were to do good to those who did us evil, to pray for those who despitefully used us, to LOVE our enemies. And those whom the Church had to discipline were to be looked upon as the Gentile- the unconverted.
And the unconverted are prospective members of the family of God, if and when they repent; SO HOW MUCH MORE someone who has known the truth and way of God, but is for the moment taken by the wiles of Satan and sin.
Are we just to forget about them, hang them out to dry and wither up to die? Some would teach so. Is that what Paul taught?
He answers us with words concerning the man put out of the Church for incest: “But if someone (the one among you who committed incest) has caused (all this) grief and pain, he has caused it not to me, but in some measure, not to put it too severely (has distressed) all of you. For such a one this censure by the majority (which he has received is) sufficient (punishment). So, (instead of further rebuke now) you should rather turn and (graciously) forgive and comfort and encourage (him), to keep him from being overwhelmed by excessive sorrow and despair. I therefore beg you to reinstate him in your affections and assure him by your love for him” (2 Cor. 2:5-8 Amplified Bible).
This does not sound like Paul is teaching any “avoid and never speak to” doctrine of disfellowshipping. It certainly does not sound like Paul had the attitude of “let him hang out, shrivel up and die.”
But it does show that AFTER the censorship by the MAJORITY has been applied to someone, the Church should do all it can to show him affection, encouragement, and assure him of their love.
Oh, indeed, the teachings of Paul are not at variance with the greatest of all teachers, the one who said: “... you pay tithe of mint and anise and cumin, and have OMITTED the WEIGHTIER matter of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith; THESE OUGHT YOU TO HAVE DONE, and not to leave the other undone” (Mat.23:23).
Some have seen that the Church has the power and authority to exercise censorship at times (though most do not understand for what and how it should be done) and do so, but OMIT the most important part of this law-LOVE! Love when applying it and the assurance of love after it is applied.
You cannot show love if you NEVER speak or write to the disfellowshipped; or if you avoid them at all costs.
The Spirit of the Lord inspired Paul to write: “If a man be overtaken in a fault, you which are spiritual, restore such an one ... count him not as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother.”
The Spirit of the Lord inspired James to say: “... he which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death....”
Jesus taught us the parable of the lost sheep-Luke 15:4-7. I will give you an explanation of this parable that is not the common one usually given, but an explanation that is backed up by an Old Testament prophecy.
Sheep are often used as a type and representation of the righteous children of God, and goats as a type of the wicked or unconverted, see Matthew 25:31-46. The “sheep” then in Luke 15:4-6 are the righteous-the children of God, ones already filled with the Spirit of God. But some along the way get lost, wander away from the truth and the fold of the Church, they are overcome by Satan, and sin. Does the shepherd just forget about them or say he’ll leave them alone until they find THEIR way back to the fold and THEN receive them?
No! The shepherd goes to SEEK for them! So the Church is to patiently seek for those who have wandered away into open sin, to find and try to bring them back into the fold of God. The Church must speak to and communicate with the lost sheep. And what great rejoicing there is in heaven when just one sinner repents and returns to the fold.
There is no teaching in this parable of letting the disfellowshipped or those who have turned again back into the world of habitual sin, just “wither up and die.” But there is the example of LOVE, CONCERN, and a desire to FIND and SEEK the lost sheep.
There is a prophecy in Ezekiel 34 that the Church of God needs to heed, needs to apply to the Church, needs to listen to and be correct by.
The Church of God has not always in its history, understood correctly the doctrine of “Church Disfellowshipping” and so much harm as been the result. Some at times have been excommunicated when they should not have been, for the wrong reasons, performed in the wrong manner, with a hateful or holier than thou attitude. Many were left to dry up and die spiritually, without any thought given to restoring them. Shame on the Church of God!
It is time to REPENT of such wrong doings and heed the warning of God from the mouth of Ezekiel.
“Son of man, prophecy against the shepherds of Israel (the leaders of the Church of God, for our lesson) prophecy, and say unto them, thus says the Lord God unto the shepherds; woe be to the shepherds of Israel that do FEED THEMSELVES! Should not the shepherds feed the flock? The DISEASED have you not strengthened, neither have you HEALED that which was SICK, neither have you BOUND UP that which was BROKEN, neither have you BROUGHT AGAIN that which was DRIVEN AWAY, neither have you SOUGHT that which was LOST; but with force and with cruelty have you ruled them” (Ezekiel 34:2-4, emphasis mine).
Truly, on this topic we have studied, the time is now when “he that has an ear to hear with, should hear.”
May all ministers and members of the Church work together to ensure that this doctrine of the word of the Lord is correctly taught and is not abused, so the Church of God can go forward in holiness unto the coming of our Savior Christ Jesus, Amen. Written first in 1980. Slightly revised in 1995
[Part 2 continues with more in-depth study from the writings of Paul. Many of the same topics are covered in greater detail.]
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