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Can The Church Withdraw Fellowship From Those Who Have Left The Church?

by Dennis Gresham

Acts 2:41 - “Then they that gladly received his word were baptised: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls.”

Congregations throughout the brotherhood now have one more excuse that can be added to their growing list of reasons for not practicing church discipline -- “we’ll be sued!”

The truth of the matter is that this excuse is similar to all other excuses for not obeying the Lord’s commands in that it is vain and futile.

The Guinn case, which was front page news a few years ago, has now seemed to slip into the background. During the height of this situation, brethren (even many of our liberal brethren) were eager to discuss the matter of church discipline. However, it seems that most of the talk has been just that -- TALK!

This is akin to the situation in Matthew 23:2-3 where Jesus said “...The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat: All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not.”

Despite good sermons and fine articles on church discipline, how many of us are at congregations which ACTUALLY practice church discipline? Let’s look at some Biblical principles regarding church discipline and then the legal aspects of the situation in order to eliminate the latest and “most promising” excuse.

WHAT IS DISCIPLINE?

Webster’s definition of discipline is “training that is expected to produce a specified character or pattern of behaviour.” Webster states that the term also includes “punishment intended to correct or train.”

No institution, including the church, can exist without discipline. Imagine what society would be like if everyone “did his own thing,” with no enforceable laws to set the boundaries. Our country would be shortly filled with a lawlessness unbelievable in scope and unable to be curtailed. This type of non-disciplined living is summed up in Judges 21:25 where it is stated that “...every man did that which was right in his own eyes.”

In order to function properly, the church must have discipline. We see the example of Paul when he stated in 1 Corinthians 9:27: “But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a cast away.” If we are doing as Paul, we will discipline ourselves and try our own selves, whether we are in the faith (2 Corinthians 13:5).

As part of this self disciplining process, we are to submit ourselves to the elders (Hebrews 13:17). So long as we practice self discipline, we will continue to walk in the light, maintain fellowship with God and other Christians and have the blood of Christ continuing to cleanse our sins (1 John 1:7).

When individual Christians fail to discipline themselves and their walk in the light becomes threatened, discipline must be exercised in a public way by the entire congregation. Withdrawal from a Christian (a public congregational act of discipline) is, in reality, the result of that individual Christian’s failure to discipline himself.

WHAT IS A WITHDRAWAL?

There are arguments which go something like this: “Fellowship means a joint participation or a sharing in common. Our congregations do not have the participation and sharing that the first century church had and thus a withdrawal of fellowship is futile because it involves a taking away of something one never had.”

Or perhaps they say: “There is no fellowship to withdraw when a member stops attending worship services.” Whether or not our fellowship is on a par with that of the Lord’s people in the first century is completely irrelevant. It also makes no difference whether the member is currently associating with the other members of the congregation. To adhere to this concept would be, in effect, to allow anyone to withdraw himself, cutting off fellowship and thus preventing the church from withdrawing from the person.

The phrases used in the New Testament to represent what is accomplished as a result of a public disciplinary action are as follows:

1. “HAVE no fellowship with” (Ephesians 5:11). This indicates a discontinuation of fellowship if applicable and a warning not to initiate fellowship should none exist.

2. “DELIVERED to Satan” (I Corinthians 5:5; I Timothy 1:20).

3. “Not to KEEP COMPANY WITH...” (I Corinthians 5:9; II Thessalonians 3:14).

4. “PURGED OUT” (I Corinthians 5:7).

5. “PUT AWAY” (I Corinthians 5:13).

6. “As a HEATHEN and a PUBLICAN” (Matthew 18:17).

7. “AVOID or refuse” (Romans 16:17; Titus 3:10).

8. “Receive him not...give no greeting” (II John 10).

Many have suggested that the withdrawn-from person is to be treated as though he was not a member of the church. This is not true in that, having no fellowship with a brother in Christ is a far more serious matter. This concept means minimising contacts (II Thessalonians 3:6; Romans 16:17; Titus 3:10) including not eating with him (I Corinthians 5:11), or keeping company with him (I Corinthians 5:11).

It would be ridiculous to believe that one could play golf with the withdrawn-from person and visit in his home as we would with a non-Christian so long as they avoid eating together. Some contact with the subject of discipline will oftentimes be unavoidable. In these instances we are guided by II Thessalonians 3:15 which tells us not to count (consider) the withdrawn-from person as an enemy (an object of hatred). Our contact with him, however, is limited to admonishing (warning) him. One should never have a conversation with a withdrawn-from brother in which he does not prominently mention repentance.

MAY ONE QUIT THE CHURCH?

The answer is a resounding NO! Yet many of us use the phrase to describe the actions of unfaithful members. How many times has an unfaithful member simply been “marked off the roll,” thus indicating that they have “quit” and that the church’s responsibility to that person has ended?

What does the Bible say regarding membership in the Lord’s body, and the concept of “quitting the church”? In Acts 2:41 we are told - “Then they that gladly received his word were baptised: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls.” Acts 2:47 goes on to say “...And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.”

In Acts 5:14 and 11:24 we read of those who were “added” to the Lord. The word “added” which appears in all of these verses is the word “prostithemi” which means to put or to place beside.

We are told in Acts 2:47 exactly WHO does this adding -- it is the LORD. Thus upon salvation, we are put in (added to) the church by the Lord himself. I Corinthians 12:13 we were “...all baptised into one body...”

It is appalling how many Christians speak freely today of one “joining” the church. A person may join and quit a secular organisation or religious denomination, but not the Lord’s church. Man joins, but God adds! Since God decides who is to be a member of His church (those who are saved), it is God and only God who can sever that individual from the body.

The question now becomes, “Does God sever a person from the church here and now, or is the severing to occur on the day of judgement?” I’m convinced that this final severance from the body done by the Lord will occur on the day of judgement.

In the parable of the net in Matthew 13:47-50, Christ compares the kingdom of heaven (the church) to a net that has in it sea creatures “of every kind.” The severance of the wicked from the righteous takes place at “the end of the world.”

Please understand this important point: this parable should be distinguished from the parable of the tares found earlier in the chapter (13:24-30). Christ, in his explanation of the parable, clearly explains that the field is the WORLD (vs. 38) and not the church.

This fact clearly counters any “unity in diversity” arguments based on this passage, as well as the argument that says “we cannot cut off fellowship from sinners in the church but must patiently endure them until the day of judgement.” The parable of the net, although referring to the kingdom of God (the church), gives no credence to the fellowship of sinners. The fact that all of the “fish” are in the same “net” does not mean that they are all fellowshipping one another.

During life here on earth we may, yea, must, withdraw from disorderly brethren (2 Thessalonians 3:6), and have no fellowship with unfruitful works of darkness (Ephesians 5:11), but we cannot sever one’s membership in the body of Christ. God, the original adder (Acts 2:47), will do that on the final day.

This concept of remaining a child of God until the final severance is confirmed by the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15:11-32. The son revolted and went into a far country, wasting his substance with riotous living. Despite these actions, the son remained a son throughout the entire episode. Upon repentance he was received back by his father.

Christians, likewise, are spiritually born into the family of God at baptism (John 3:3,5; 1 Peter 1:23) and remain children of God, though through disobedience they may be in a spiritually lost condition, just as those who are not children of God. Again note that simply because Christians are not keeping company with one does not mean that he ceases to be a brother (2 Thessalonians 3:14,15).

SOME OBJECTIONS CONSIDERED

Many elders and preachers disagree with the “once a member, always a member analysis” and raise objections to it. Here is a sampling of some of these objections:

1. Some ask, “What about John 15:1-6 (I am the vine, ye are the branches which speaks of casting forth a branch)? While this passage refers to taking the branch away (vs. 2) and being cast forth (vs. 6), it doesn’t tell us WHEN these actions take place. Indeed, comparing John 15:6 with Matthew 25:41 seems to imply that the casting forth is to be done on the final day.

2. Another objection is that if all, sinners and righteous alike, remain in the body, doesn’t Ephesians 5:23 imply that they will ALL be saved? NO! While it is true that Christ will save the body, the body that is to be ultimately saved is AFTER the severance of the unfaithful members.

3. What about references to falling away (2 Thessalonians 2:3) and departing from the faith (1 Timothy 4:1)? These verses do not refer to a severance of members from the body of Christ, but instead to a departure from the teaching of truth.

4. Doesn’t the Bible speak of being reprobate? This word which means “not standing the test” or “rejected” appears several times in the New Testament, sometimes as “reflected” or “castaway”. Many times it refers to the person’s relationship to something.

For example, “reprobate concerning the faith” (2 Timothy 3:8; 2 Corinthians 13:5-7) or “reprobate regarding good works (Titus 1:16). These do not refer to a severance from the body of Christ. Those Paul speaks of in Romans 1:28 as reprobate were not Christians. Paul’s possibility of rejection (1 Corinthians 9:27) would seem to be at the same time of the receiving of the prize (vs. 24), which will occur at the end of the world.

Here are some additional considerations: if God adds one to the church only upon baptism (Acts 2:47), but does the severing from the body upon unrepentance of disobedience as some contend, how does the penitent person become part of the body once again? Through another baptism?

Those who believe that one who “withdraws himself” from a congregation is not subject to discipline are mistaken in deeming church discipline as being confined to the local congregation. What about the false teacher who is not identified with the local congregation? Are we to just stand helplessly by while he wreaks havoc upon the church? I think not. (Romans 16:17; Ephesians 5:11; 2 John 9,10).

What if one who becomes a Christian never “identifies himself” with any particular congregation? Is it impossible to discipline him? The truth of the matter is that once God adds one to the church he is part of the universal body of Christ, regardless of congregational affiliation, until the severance done at the end of time.

There is no “resignation from” or “quitting” the church. 1 Corinthians 12:15-16 - “If the foot shall say, Because I am not the hand, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? And if the ear shall say, Because I am not the eye, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body?” Just because a member should say “I am not of the body;” it is NOT therefore not of the body.

May one “quit the Church”? The answer is a resounding NO!

* Edited from “The Current Digression II” - Neil Kucera.

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