Bulletin Articles

Bulletin Articles


Categories: Iron sharpens iron

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. (1 Corinthians 5.9-11)

The withdrawal of fellowship is a touchy subject.  One reason is that conflict between brothers is ugly and unbecoming.  Another is that obeying this instruction is difficult—we just don’t like doing it.  Never mind what God says about it, there are people we love, for whom we’re tempted to disobey God’s clear instructions.  That’s not often acknowledged, of course.  Instead, Christians propose all kinds of exceptions and workarounds, much like the Pharisees had done.  Jesus said,

“For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,” he need not honor his father.’” (Matthew 15.4-6)

It was dressed up to look like devotion to God, and it seemed plausible enough, because there really are times when the letter of one commandment gets in the way of the letter of another.  Usually this happens when something has already gone wrong, and those left picking up the pieces are torn between obeying a prohibition, and fulfilling a responsibility.  In such cases, we’re supposed to do our best to adhere to the spirit behind both, and Jesus gives us multiple examples to guide us in this pursuit (e.g. Mt 12.1-14).  Instead, this tension is often used as a license to do what we want, picking and choosing from God’s word to justify our selfishness.  Continuing the passage above, Jesus told the Pharisees guilty of doing this,

“you have made void the word of God. You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me…’” (Matthew 15.6-8)

There are, in fact, difficult situations in which a brother is rightly disciplined by the church, through the removal of fellowship and refusal to associate with him—but certain members have competing obligations to the erring brother, which were also handed down by God.  Does such a withdrawal permit the wayward man’s believing wife to leave him and file for divorce?  What about his faithful children, who are also members of the congregation that has reached the decision to “take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed” (2Th 3.14)?  Does the aforementioned commandment to honor their father no longer apply?  Of course it doesn’t work that way.  Instead, it means those closest to the erring brother will face a tougher job than everyone else—figuring out how to adhere to the spirit of all God has said on the matter, rather than elevating the letter of one commandment above another, and gutting God’s word in the process.

Most of the time, the supposed carveouts don’t relate to fulfilling another God-given responsibility.  Instead, they stem from simply not wanting to obey.  The objection goes like this: “but brother so-and-so is one of my closest friends!  The rest of you can withdraw fellowship, and I’ll understand—let’s face it, he’s been leading a sinful life lately—but I have such a close relationship with him, I can’t do that to him.  Besides, I think I’ll be more effective by continuing to hang out with him.  Do you expect him to turn his life around, without any positive influences?”  It all seems plausible, but is it grounded in God’s instructions?  Not at all!

That approach is a misrepresentation of God’s pattern for discipline in the church, as if he meant that the people who sit in the same church auditorium once or twice a week, but otherwise have no relationship with the erring brother, should break off their imagined association; but those Christians with closer relationships to the sinner can maintain their association, because it would be unreasonable and unhelpful to expect them to participate in this discipline!  How ridiculous!  Setting aside the considerable problem of finding no support in the Bible, this reasoning implies that our relationships through Christ are less significant than our relationships to family and friends, and so these win out over the comparatively minor disagreements on religious matters.  Can you claim to believe that Jesus is Lord of heaven and earth, and yet disobey the instructions he left for his church?

What is the goal of discipline?  There are three essential components.  The first is justice—evil conduct deserves punishment.  The second is to protect the innocent from harm, and from evil influence, since “A little leaven leavens the whole lump” (Ga 5.9).  The third is to rehabilitate, that is, to correct the disordered behavior and restore the repentant sinner back into the group.  All three are at play in the church’s discipline, and especially the third one!  Concerning the openly incestuous brother at Corinth, Paul instructed, “you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (1Co 5.5).  What good is it, if the people with the most influence over the sinner, refuse to use it for his good?  Which is more important to you: your ability to enjoy a relationship with your loved one for a few years on earth, or for eternity in heaven?  Which matters more: hurt feelings, or eternal damnation?  Which is more loving: to snatch an erring brother out of the fire (Jd 23), or to remain by his side while he burns?

Jeremy Nettles