First, as mentioned in the last post, sometimes you remove someone to protect the flock from that person. The driving concern is protection of the flock from a wolf.
Second, sometimes you remove someone in order to shame that person into repentance. In this case, the health of the church is a concern — because sin undealt with can spread — but the primary concern is the spiritual health of the person being removed.
We in the Churches of Christ tend to refer to both as “disfellowship,” which leads to confusion. The NT doesn’t give us a particularly helpful vocabulary, even though the differences in motivation are often clear from the text.
We know that the Jewish synagogues had similar practices, but the practices we know about likely date well after the apostolic era. That is, during apostolic times, the synagogues likely could remove someone as a disciplinary matter, but the rules were likely much less formal than what we read about in the Talmud. See, for example, John 9:22, 34, when the Pharisees cast Bartimaeus out of the synagogue for acknowledging Jesus as the Messiah after he was healed of his blindness.
Let’s start in 2 Thes —
(2Th 3:14-15 ESV) If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. 15 Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.
Notice the clear contrast in this passage from the false teacher passages. When the church is threatened, the language is harsh and the protection of the church is the first order of business.
But here, the believer is to be warned “as a brother.” He may not be following Paul’s instructions, but he’s not damned. Not yet.
Moreover, the goal is to “warn” him and to make him “ashamed” — in an honor/shame culture. That is, the goal is to bring him to repentance by refusing to let him enjoy the benefits of Christian fellowship until he changes.
The lesson is that the blessings of the Christian community are only for those willing to follow apostolic instruction.
Next we consider 1 Cor 5 —
(1Co 5:1-2 ESV) It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. 2 And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you.
“His father’s wife” is a quotation from Lev 18, in which God lists several sexual sins, especially various forms of incest. Evidently, the Corinthians had developed a false sense of grace that allowed them to be proud that incest was permitted among them.
Now, Paul makes the point that everyone there knew this to be immoral — both Jews and Gentiles. This was rebellion against a known law of God — and so it threatened the soul of the believer who had his father’s wife (presumably his step-mother). This was a Heb 10:26 sort of violation that could damn.
(1Co 5:3-5 ESV) For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing. 4 When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, 5 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.
Some take “deliver this man to Satan” as meaning “declare him damned until he repents.” I don’t see it. Rather, the thought seems to be that he will be shunned or disfellowshipped and hence left to live among the perishing, the damned, in Satan’s realm, outside the Kingdom.
The goal is the man’s salvation — and that can only happen by repentance. As in the preceding passage, the goal is to shame the man into changing his heart and his behavior.
(1Co 5:6-8 ESV) Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? 7 Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. 8 Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
In Jewish practice, the week before the Passover meal, the family was required to cleanse the house of all leaven. The idea is that allowing willful, rebellious sin in the church will tempt others to sin. The problem must be dealt with! Not because it’s sin. We all sin. But because it’s the sort of sin that can damn.
(1Co 5:9-11 ESV) I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people — 10 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. 11 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.
Paul now makes plain what was implied in 2 Thes. Believers guilty of known, rebellious sin must not be associated with at all — we should not even eat with such a person. This bans him not only from the Lord’s Supper but also any other form of social contact.
The follow up to this passage is —
(2Co 2:5-11 ESV) Now if anyone has caused pain, he has caused it not to me, but in some measure– not to put it too severely– to all of you. 6 For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough, 7 so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. 8 So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him. 9 For this is why I wrote, that I might test you and know whether you are obedient in everything. 10 Anyone whom you forgive, I also forgive. Indeed, what I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ, 11 so that we would not be outwitted by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his designs.
Some commentators believe this passages speaks to another event, but it fits 1 Cor 5 very well, to my thinking.
The disfellowship of the incestuous brother caused pain not only to him but to the entire congregation (v. 5). And this is how it should be. Removing a beloved brother or sister from the community should always be painful.
But when the brother repents, forgiveness should be quickly and easily given (vv. 7-8). The fact that he is loved by the church despite his sin should be undoubted (v. 8).
Now, a few observations —
* This method of church discipline only works if the brothers and sisters love each other before this all begins. If the person to be disciplined can easily leave and feel no pain, the system won’t work — and the church isn’t really much of a church.
* Obviously, before discipline is attempted, the person should be warned and counseled and prayed for and prayed with. Disfellowship is a last resort.
* On the other hand, if you wait too long, the person will withdraw from the church and make new friendships somewhere else. And if the elders wait until the situation is desperate, their motivation will appear to be pressure from the church rather than love for the sinner. Timing matters.
* Having the church back the decision is no easy matter in the modern church. We really don’t know what the early church’s procedures were. Was there a trial? A confrontation in the church and opportunity for response? It’s hard to see a modern church wanting to deal with that sort of thing.
On the other hand, in many churches, the elders don’t carry the relational authority to disfellowship someone and have the church honor their decision. They may have the positional authority, but many in the church may refuse to honor their decision. Indeed, more than one church has been split over just such a decision.
Therefore, it’s essential that the leadership handle the matter in a way that encourages the full congregation to support the decision. In a large church, this will be difficult. As a result, we don’t see a lot of church discipline in the contemporary church. Our individualism and our struggles to respect the authority of the elders get in the way.
I grant that none of these passages give this authority specifically to the elders. But I don’t know another way to do this that makes any sense at all. I mean, any organization of any size must have a leadership structure to function.
(Act 20:28 ESV) 28 Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.
How are the overseers (elders) to “care for” the church if they don’t have authority to deal with rebellious sin that can damn the church? The Greek translated “care for” means “preserve.” It’s the elders’ job to preserve the church against those things that can destroy it.
(Heb 13:17 ESV) Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.
Just so, if the leaders of the church “have to give an account” for “keeping watch over your souls,” well, there can be no accountability without authority.
So I think the NT is clear that these sorts of decisions are to be led by the elders. The challenge is in having the church follow the elders’ lead. And perhaps part of the problem is that we have such a vague doctrine of what sins damn and what sins do not.