The fellowship of the local church is a joint partnership that is more precious than fine gold and sweeter than honey. It is a privilege that is too often taken for granted. Outside of the family, fellowship in the local church is the nearest of human ties. Fellowship is the mantle of strength, the beauty of holiness, the means of spiritual refreshment and contentment, the reality of working with those of like precious faith. It is something extremely important to Christians.
There are things which disrupt the fellowship of the church and disturb the peace of God's people. Sometimes it becomes the unpleasant task of the church to discipline those who are guilty of disrupting the sacred fellowship of the church. This is often called "discipline" or "withdrawing fellowship" or "excommunication." In many places it is almost a forgotten art. The only reason given in the New Testament for such an extreme act is to save the offender and purify the church (1 Cor. 5:6,7). A side effect of excommunicating an ungodly member is fear of the consequences of sinful behavior in the church (Acts 5:1-11). It is not designed to create an atmosphere of fear; it just does.
There is a punitive aspect of withdrawing from ungodly members. Punitive means punishment. Church discipline is to punish the offender so that he may see the error of his way and repent. Contrary to the belief that discipline is designed only to purge out undesirable members of the church or to remove trouble makers, the real purpose of punitive discipline is to win the souls of those who make trouble. It is to get them to be desirable, to turn them from trouble makers into peace makers.
The expressions withdraw fellowship and church discipline are not in the Bible. There are, however, several things said which teach that faithful Christians are to "withdraw" themselves from those who walk disorderly (2 Thess. 3:6). The factionist is to be "refused" (fellowship) and to be avoided after the first and second admonition (Titus 3:10). Those who cause divisions and offenses contrary to the teaching of Christ are to be marked and avoided (Rom. 16:17). Paul used the expression twice "deliver such an one unto Satan" to describe a withdrawal (1 Cor. 5:5; 1 Tim. 1:20).
It is not easy to fully grasp the meaning of delivering an erring child of God to Satan. Several views have been expressed by respected scholars. Some think it was a special apostolic power that allowed them to inflict some bodily punishment, even including death. They cite cases like Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:5) and Elymas, the sorcerer (Acts 13:8). J.B. Lightfoot says, "That physical suffering of some kind is implied, the purpose being remedial, appears from 2 Cor. 1:6,7; 1 Tim. 1:20; 2 Cor. 13:10." He adds, "Thus the instrumentality of Satan is used for a divine end." One more thought from Lightfoot is that he thought the phrase, "destruction of the flesh" was "not merely a crushing of fleshly lusts, though this is involved, but physical suffering also." (J.B. Lightfoot, Notes on the Epistles of Paul, Zondervan.)
Others look at this in a way more in keeping with truth. While there was physical suffering inflicted by the apostles at times, no such power is given to anyone in the church today. No one has the power to call down death on sinful members of the church who merit excommunication. This doesn't prohibit the church from inflicting punishment on offenders who must be withdrawn from and avoided. Being cast out of fellowship is certainly a hardship to anyone who entertains the thought of going to heaven. The grace of salvation has been withdrawn from all who are expelled from the fellowship of the Lord's church. Such a person is no longer a child of light (Eph. 5:8) but walks in darkness until he fully repents (1 John 1:6-10).
Withdrawing from others is a sin under some circumstances. Jude condemned some by saying, "These be they who separate themselves, sensual, having not the Spirit" (Jude 1:19). Paul said Peter was to be blamed for unwarranted withholding of fellowship (Gal. 2:11-12). Paul called it hypocrisy (verse 13). Many years ago, in a class taught by brother James Bales, I first heard the expression, "It is as sinful to be in fellowship with those who should be scripturally disfellowshipped as it is to not be in fellowship with those who cannot be scripturally disfellowshipped." Bales was right.
Some specific sins, when practiced and of which one will not repent, that require the church to take the extreme action of withdrawal of fellowship are:
Once the church is forced to expel a member on scriptural terms all social contact with the withdrawn from member is to be avoided (1 Cor. 5:11). Faithful Christians cannot bid them Godspeed, extend to them the comforts of their homes, or associate with them socially (2 John 1:9-11). Whatever contact a faithful child of God has with a withdrawn from brother should be an occasion to admonish him to repent, seeking to bring him back to the fold of safety.
It is a very serious matter to excommunicate a brother. It is the last resort in efforts to get him to quit sin and be restored. You might compare it to the worst possible punishment that can be meted out for a crime. It should never be taken lightly.
By Dudley Ross Spears
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