What are the examples in the Bible for disfellowshipping someone? What are the principles behind them, and what are valid reasons for doing so?
I want to cover some key verses in the Bible related to this topic and dig into them a bit.
The Case of the Corinthians and General Immorality
Perhaps the most detailed account of such an action in the NT is found in 1 Corinthians.
5 It is widely reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and the kind of sexual immorality that is not even tolerated[a] among the Gentiles—a man is living with his father’s wife.
~ 1Co 5:1 (HCSB, unless otherwise stated)
Interestingly enough, I had thought to write about the topic of tolerance this week. People talk a lot about tolerance, but it almost always ends up in a dead end. It ends up in a blocked alleyway with no means of escape. At that point, one must either admit they are intolerant or show themselves to be hypocrites.
Christianity is not really about tolerance. It is about patience, and it is about forgiveness. These two things might require a degree of tolerance, but it isn’t even the tolerance that the world speaks of. The world treats tolerance as though disapproval equates with intolerance. Either you agree, or you are branded a bigot. Standing outside that argument objectively makes it easier to see who is the real bigot in such an argument.
The Corinthians had this type of tolerance. Corinth was a sea port, and all sorts of wild things went on there. Sexual immorality was rampant. It was not considered abnormal. Sounds a lot like our day and age.
However, tolerance is not what Paul is advocating here! In fact, he is pointing out that even the Gentiles would not tolerate such an offense!
However, notice how he started this section. “It is widely reported…” he wrote. Word got back to Paul.
The key to the above is that rampant, open sin was being tolerated in the congregation. This was not even a secret sin, but one in which the blatant, open and severe nature if the sin was causing division, gossip and controversy. We know there was a gossip and controversy because Paul says, “It is actually reported”, which means someone told him these things.
This was a divisive issue! That’s important to note. The sin was so bad as to cause controversy. On top of that, no one seemed to be requiring repentance.
2 And you are inflated with pride, instead of filled with grief so that he who has committed this act might be removed from your congregation.
~ v 2
Paul’s solution? Remove the offender from the congregation! Those who try to say disfellowshipping, excommunication, whatever you want to call it, isn’t biblical needs to get some eyeglasses! Here is the same verse in the YLT as a sanity check:
2 and ye are having been puffed up, and did not rather mourn, that he may be removed out of the midst of you who did this work,
There can be little doubt the action that was to take place. Even as OT Israel was told to “cut off” people from the assembly, which some scholars believe meant put them out of the camp, so are there times when that is necessary in the Church.
3 For though I am absent in body but present in spirit, I have already decided about the one who has done this thing as though I were present. 4 When you are assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus with my spirit and with the power of our Lord Jesus, 5 turn that one over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the Day of the Lord.
It was to give the offender time to see the error of his ways. Paul’s instruction turned from the congregation who was caught up in divisiveness over the issue to the offender himself. Paul was saying to put him out, but to put him out for his own benefit.
6 Your boasting is not good. Don’t you know that a little yeast permeates the whole batch of dough?
What does leaven picture? Sin, right? We must put sin out of our lives during the Days of Unleavened Bread. The Church must also put sin out from its midst in the same way. The Church is a body. The Church must examine itself even as we are individually required to examine ourselves.
7 Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch. You are indeed unleavened, for Christ our Passover has been sacrificed.[b] 8 Therefore, let us observe the feast, not with old yeast or with the yeast of malice and evil but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
Paul says “let us” keep the feast, as a body. I should interject that this is only possible if people are observing the holy days on the same calendar.
Paul uses the plural here. The KJV uses “ye” in verse 7, which is the plural of “thou” (S. “The KJV’s Archaic Language Pros and Cons” at The KJV-Only Issue online). He is addressing the Church, not individuals. The Body is to put out leaven collectively.
However, just as we don’t put sin out of our own lives in a harmful manner, we must take care to not shut the door on the offender so that they can come back after repenting.
9 I wrote to you in a letter not to associate with sexually immoral people. 10 I did not mean the immoral people of this world or the greedy and swindlers or idolaters; otherwise you would have to leave the world.
Now, Paul turns back to the reason for the disfellowshipping with an eye upon the congregation. In context, the first thing he lists is sexual immorality. He emphasizes that he is not talking about associating with the world, but how to deal with fellow believers. However, he doesn’t stop there with sexual immorality, but he goes on to list more general habitual sins.
11 But now I am writing[c] you not to associate with anyone who claims to be a believer[d] who is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or verbally abusive, a drunkard or a swindler. Do not even eat with such a person. 12 For what business is it of mine to judge outsiders? Don’t you judge those who are inside? 13 But God judges outsiders. Put away the evil person from among yourselves.[e]
Paul is being pretty specific here. Don’t even sit down and have a meal with “the evil person”! One thing that should be obvious is that Paul is referencing things that take conscious decisions to do something. Sexual immorality isn’t something a person just falls into. It is a pattern of behavior. A drunkard isn’t someone who drank too much one night. It is someone with a pattern of abuse. To be a swindler means making a conscious decision to cheat someone. Paul is talking about habitual patterns of sin, and ones that affect others or show disrespect towards God at that.
Paul also presents a list of immoral behavior in chapter 6.
8 Instead, you act unjustly and cheat—and you do this to believers! 9 Don’t you know that the unrighteous will not inherit God’s kingdom? Do not be deceived: No sexually immoral people, idolaters, adulterers, or anyone practicing homosexuality,[d] 10 no thieves, greedy people, drunkards, verbally abusive people, or swindlers will inherit God’s kingdom. 11 And some of you used to be like this. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
Christians are expected to be beyond these behaviors (“used to be like this”). If these behaviors keep one out of the Kingdom, then unrepentant members who practice these things need to stay at home until they do repent. Again, Paul is talking about blatant, repetitive and unrepentant behavior. These are “works of the flesh” that are “obvious” (cf. Gal 5:19-21).
All of these could be lumped up in the category of immoral behavior, and it is something that even in the world would recognize as such, which is part of Paul’s point as well. In addition, these immoral behaviors are so controversial as to cause gossip, arguments and division within a congregation, especially if the offender is not repentant.
In the end, we know the offender did repent and in 2 Corinthians, Paul instructed the congregation to welcome him back. However, it should be noted that this probably would have never occurred if the Corinthians had continued to be tolerant and not do something to wake the offender up.
John’s Instructions About “That Teaching”
7 Many deceivers have gone out into the world; they do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. This is the deceiver and the antichrist. 8 Watch yourselves so you don’t lose what we have worked for, but that you may receive a full reward. 9 Anyone who does not remain in Christ’s teaching but goes beyond it, does not have God. The one who remains in that teaching, this one has both the Father and the Son. 10 If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your home, and don’t say, “Welcome,” to him; 11 for the one who says, “Welcome,” to him shares in his evil works.
John keeps speaking of “that teaching” or “this teaching”, but which teaching? The teaching that Jesus came in the flesh! He is talking about Gnosticism!
What is Gnosticism? According to Wikipedia, Gnosticism is “the thought and practice, especially of various cults of late pre-Christian and early Christian centuries, distinguished by the conviction that matter is evil and that emancipation comes through gnosis…. Some scholars have claimed that gnosticism pre-dated Christianity.”
We are talking about nothing less than mainstream Christianity with its syncretistic blend of pagan and Christian beliefs!
Just because someone professes to believe in Christ or worship Christ doesn’t mean they really do. It worries me at times when I read of Sabbatarians who would go to a local church on Sunday. Some people ostensibly do so to try to evangelize, but is that wise? Is it biblical?
14 Do not be mismatched with unbelievers. For what partnership is there between righteousness and lawlessness? Or what fellowship does light have with darkness? 15 What agreement does Christ have with Belial? Or what does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? 16 And what agreement does God’s sanctuary have with idols? For we are the sanctuary of the living God, as God said:
I will dwell among them
and walk among them,
and I will be their God,
and they will be My people.
People who go off denying the divinity of Christ, that He came in the flesh or want to engage in the rituals of “the mystery religion” need to be put out.
Technically, though, this actually was already covered under immoral behavior, as it is a form of blasphemy and idolatry.
The reality is that most marking or disfellowshipping occurs as the result of a charge of “causing division”.
17 Now I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause dissensions and obstacles contrary to the doctrine you have learned. Avoid them, 18 for such people do not serve our Lord Christ but their own appetites. They deceive the hearts of the unsuspecting with smooth talk and flattering words.
What is important is to see what it doesn’t say as well as what it says. It says “brothers” as in addressing everyone. It says “to watch out for” in the HCSB. In the KJV, it says to “mark” them, which sounds more severe. However, we aren’t talking about a brand here. Strong’s G4648, skopeo, says “to look at, observe, contemplate”. Another definition is “to fix one’s eyes upon”.
What is important here is that this verse isn’t so much about disfellowshipping as it is in keeping an eye on someone! This verse has been abused for far too long.
It is also just as important to note that it doesn’t say anyone is to judge motives or play thought police here. We humans cannot judge the heart; only God can (1Sa 16:7).
Should I remind everyone that this is why gossip is wrong?
It says to watch out for those who “cause” these things. How does one “cause dissensions”? How does one “cause obstacles”? Well, I can think of one way quite easily. What if I took it upon my shoulder to go around questioning people on their regular Sabbath activities and reported their answers back to the local minister? What if I pressured you about whether or not you ate out on the Sabbath, and if you don’t I complain to the minister about you? Would that be setting up obstacles for anyone? Cause dissensions?
The point is that there are some that zero in on the “doctrine” part of this passage but not the actions and the result of those actions. Disfellowshipping is to be done on a person’s actions, but this passage sadly is sometimes used to punish people for their beliefs! Yet, that is not what it says!
Even the previous section required someone to make a statement about their belief. They had to deny some teaching, and it had to be a basic teaching at that! After all, a real Christian is not a real Christian if they deny Jesus came in the flesh. A real Christian throws off the Gnostic teachings that bread miraculously becomes real flesh. A real Christian gets back to Bible basics and throws off the syncretistic teachings that pervade much of “Christianity”. However, unless someone is pushing that viewpoint, no one will probably ever know!
How would someone know these things?
6 Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from every brother who walks irresponsibly and not according to the tradition received from us.
~ 2Th 3:6
If someone is walking a different walk, then you’ll know! The KJV says those who walk “disorderly”, a military term that means “out of ranks” (Strong’s G814). It is only used twice in Scripture. It occurs again in verse 11.
11 We hear that some of you are leading a life of idleness — not busy working, just busybodies!
Notice how they are being disorderly. They are interfering in others’ lives! They are being “busybodies”! They are stirring people up! I’d wager there’s gossip involved as well!
We are to keep away from such people! It doesn’t matter if they are in our congregations or if they are false teachers trying to stir up dissent within the Church!
Why do you think I spend so much time addressing false teachings and those who promote them? To warn you to stay away from them before they poison you.
In the End, It’s About Stubborn Rebellion
Whether it is gross sexual misconduct or sowing discord everywhere, it boils down to an unrepentant attitude about some behavior. In short, it is rebellion. However, it needs to be about rebellion against God and not men.
It should be noted that people will hopefully be curious and ask questions. If there is no curiosity, does it even make sense to study? Jesus said to become like a little child, and who is more inquisitive than a little child?
As one studies and asks questions, however, there are likely going to be some more minor issues that any sensible person is going to come up with a different conclusion. Should a person really be punished for this? Isn’t it better that they continue to attend and grow in other areas within the loving community?
What if someone read about tassels (Nu 15:38-39) and decided they should sew some threads into some shirt corners? Should they be kicked out? Avoided during services? What if someone tries to explain to them it isn’t necessary, but they cannot be convinced?
7 However, not everyone has this knowledge. In fact, some have been so used to idolatry up until now that when they eat food offered to an idol, their conscience, being weak, is defiled.8 Food will not make us acceptable to God. We are not inferior if we don’t eat, and we are not better if we do eat. 9 But be careful that this right of yours in no way becomes a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if someone sees you, the one who has this knowledge, dining in an idol’s temple, won’t his weak conscience be encouraged to eat food offered to idols? 11 Then the weak person, the brother for whom Christ died, is ruined by your knowledge. 12 Now when you sin like this against the brothers and wound their weak conscience, you are sinning against Christ. 13 Therefore, if food causes my brother to fall, I will never again eat meat, so that I won’t cause my brother to fall.
Paul, who was often confrontational and sarcastic, says we are to be gentle in causing someone to go against their conscience! He would even be willing to give up all meat for his brother! How many fewer problems would the COG have if everyone had this attitude?
However, what if this tassel wearing individuals began to stir people up, accusing them of polluting the Sabbath because they do not wear tassels? What if this person every week was trying to convince people to wear tassels? That would be different, wouldn’t it? However, even then, should the first step be to kick him out? I hope not! I hope that Matthew 18 would be heeded first!
If Matthew 18 was followed and this person refused to quit trying to convince everyone to wear tassels, then they are unrepentant about causing division, and the Church actually has an obligation to put him out. However, the obligation is to put him out for stirring up dissension, not because he might do so. The latter is unbiblical and downright wrong.
To unlawfully put someone out is no better than what the Pharisees did.
13 “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You lock up the kingdom of heaven from people. For you don’t go in, and you don’t allow those entering to go in.
~ Mt 23:13
What if our tassel bearer came to his senses and stopped wearing tassels, wouldn’t he be allowed to attend services? I hope so! However, what if he still wanted to wear tassels but promised to not hound people about it? Is that really so divisive and contentious that he would still be put out? I hope not!
Should I be blunt? Would you expect any different? It seems to me that the COGs over the years have attracted so many “unique” individuals that one more unique person shouldn’t phase anyone.
Furthermore, we should be able to see that it is not rebellion to do what you believe to be right as long as it is not immoral, divisive or blasphemous/idolatrous. Blindness perhaps, but not rebellion.
In the end, disfellowshipping really should be seen as a severe move, and according to Matthew 18 it obviously needs to be the method of last resort.