Can The Church Withdraw Fellowship From Those Who Have Left The
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 --
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”
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
May one “quit the Church”? The answer is a resounding NO!
* Edited from “The Current Digression II” - Neil Kucera.