People often have the mistaken belief that disfellowshipment is merely a decision made by a minister to throw someone out of a church organization, usually for reasons of ‘attitude’ (which usually means someone is not sufficiently respectful of the powers-that-be). In reality, disfellowshipment is an aspect of congregational discipline that involves the private behavior of Christians, and is itself based on the congregational discipline that God commanded for ancient Israel. This aspect of the responsibility of ordinary members in ceasing to fellowship with people guilty of certain sins without showing the fruits of repentance is one that is not often explored, and so therefore it is my purpose to write a little bit about that today.
1 Corinthians 5:9-13 gives Paul’s very clear instructions about the role of the ordinary membership in disfellowshipping brethren guilty of certain sins: “I wrote to you in my epistle not to keep company with sexually immoral people. Yet I certainly did not mean with the sexually immoral people of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner–not even to eat with such a person. For what have I to do with judging those who are outside? Do you not judge those who are inside? But those who are outside God judges. Therefore “put away from yourselves the evil person.” ”
This is a fierce message, no doubt. (Many people underestimate just how fierce Paul’s writing was.) Yet this short passage manages to say a lot rather economically. For one, this passage reveals that Paul had written another letter to the Corinthians before what is now known as First Corinthians. We do not have that letter, as it has not been preserved, but the letter did provide Paul’s command not to keep company (that is, Christian fellowship) with those who are sexually immoral. Since Paul has to discuss this matter again in 1 Corinthians, it would appear as if the Corinthians ignored his first message and did not pay attention to it. This reflects rather poorly on the Corinthians, and accounts for Paul’s severity in 1 Corinthians, as he is having to deal with issues for at least the second time in many cases.
Additionally, we note that this passage clearly explains what shunning (which is what disfellowshipment boils down to) is all about. If we engage in commerce and a public life, hold a job, buy and sell goods, we cannot help but associate with people who are idolaters (worship false gods), or are immoral or otherwise. We ought not to make them our bosom buddies, but we have to associate with them at arm’s length in order to live in this world, given the small amount of true believers in God by His scriptural standard and the large amount of heretics and wicked people of all stripes. We are commanded to be in the world without being of it, and that requires dealing with evildoers on a fairly frequent basis, without being close to them and while showing an example of godliness to them as a witness.
But Paul explicitly condemns fellowshipping with a Christian, a brother (or sister) who is named as sexually immoral, a drunkard, an extortioner, a reviler (someone who is hostile to legitimate authority), covetous (with a lust for money), or an idolater (a heretic with false beliefs). Shunning and disfellowshipping are not our behaviors to the outside world as a whole, to whom our lives are to be a witness of obedience to God’s laws, but are rather a tool of congregational discipline so that brethren know when they have crossed the line, and so that they are encouraged to repent. If a brother has lapsed into sin and is not showing a repentant heart, they are to be excluded from conversation, from going to church, and from even eating with brethren, until they realize the error of their ways.
This requires as well that such sanctions be given for legitimate reasons. To shun someone on legitimate biblical grounds (as Paul gives here) requires that we know and enforce the biblical standard fairly for ourselves and others. Far too often such behavior is done on merely political grounds, and equally far too often overly tolerant behavior is shown to people based on their political power. If a minister is an alcoholic, he should be defrocked. If someone has spread lies and slander about a godly leader, they are to be disfellowshipped and shunned, not even to be welcome at a church get-together or function. Church discipline does not only depend on the ordained ministry but on the behavior of ordinary members. The behavior we tolerate in our close friends is the sort of behavior we will be judged as approving (see Romans 1:28-32). If we approve of false ministers who engage in ungodly acts, we share in their sins and in God’s judgment of those sins.
I am aware that these are responsibilities that can be unpleasant to carry out, but no one ever claimed that being a genuine Christian was necessary. Part of congregational discipline to be enforced by ordinary members is the understanding that unrepented sin makes one unacceptable as a brother or sister in Christ and that shunning can serve as an effective means of prompting a believer to recognize the seriousness of their actions. The church is not merely to be a place where people go for a couple of hours a week, but is rather to be a community of brethren who share a worldview and belief system, who encourage and support each other, and who may even be neighbors and co-workers as well. We have lost sight of this community mindset, and as a result our bonds with brethren are less tight, and shunning and disfellowshipment have lost some of their bite as a result. Too often we are weak against those who are unrepentant sinners, boasting in being loving and tolerant Christians rather than sometimes harshly (and necessarily) pointing out the godly standard. We will not be given the authority and responsibility to judge the world until we have shown we can judge ourselves first.
Let us also note in passing that this is not a strictly Christian standard either. This passage closes with a quotation from the law, “Put away from yourselves the evil person.” This passage appears numerous times in Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 13:5, 17:7, 17:12, 19:19, 21:21, 22:21, 22:24, 24:7, to give a few examples) dealing with such sins as preaching false doctrines, idolatry, disobedience to godly authority, false and lying witnesses, rebellion, sexual immorality, adultery, and kidnapping. If a Christian commits these sins, they too should be shunned and disfellowshipped, which is seen by Paul as a type of “death” symbolic of the eternal judgment that would be meted out should repentance not follow. Are we prepared to judge as Paul commands, and to put away from ourselves the evil people guilty of such sins as rebellion and reviling and bearing false witness and rejecting godly authority? Let us show we our through our actions.