Salvation 2.0: Part 8.3: Disfellowship

grace5As I see it, there are essentially two kinds of excommunication or disfellowshipping in the NT.

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.

Consider —

(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.

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  1. “Call Bible things by Bible names.” This Restoration slogan falls flat on its face with the unbiblical word “Disfellowship.” Do a word search of the KJV, it is not there. However, I have witnessed those who cry this slogan toss around “Disfellowship.” like beads at a Madi Gras parade.

    “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.” Is such an important reminder to the Elders. Elders how can you watch over those you do not know? Or is it only on Sundays & Wednesdays that you see the sheep is when you count them while they are sitting in their pews? As a sheep this seems to be the only time when I see my shepherds.

  2. George, It is because attending is really all that is required.

    Most people likely don’t know who the elders are. Another question is why do elders generally say nothing when preachers and speakers rail against certain (groups of) people? Is it because they quietly agree or don’t want to start an argument? Things like this have run off a lot of younger people who are just missing from the pews. I have heard that is becoming obvious which generation is no longer present.

    Some elders need to pay more attention to what is going on.

  3. I think “disfellowship” is an apt word, but we don’t understand the concept in the scripture. In the scriptures we don’t “kick some one out”, we just simply withdraw our fellowship with them. In some cultures they would call it shunning, but the results are the same. To the degree you socialized with them before, you no longer do that…eat with them, drink with them, etc.
    One of the ironic thing is that many call Christian fellowship that which we do when we go to assembly, not what we do otherwise and yet when it comes to sin we are to withdraw ourselves or our fellowship as a Christian.
    Elders are to watch over the flock, but not control it, beyond what God has given the people to do. The saints were to handle things among themselves first, then two or three witnesses, then before the church according to Jesus, but the elders are not mentioned in Jesus statement unless it is implied. But even when it came down to the question of circumcision the apostles, the elders and the church or people were involved. The elders don’t withdraw, the people withdraw themselves.

  4. “Some elders need to pay more attention to what is going on.”

    In my opinion, the eldership was not meant to be filled with young working men. A job, and a family ( if done right) does not leave enough time for the job of elder appointed by Paul , read his requirements and you can see the job was not meant for a young man. The leaders of the church should be able to devote full time to that endeavor. as you might notice Jesus had neither a wife and family, nor a job, except the one given him by God. An elder should be able to devote his life to the church, just as Jesus did. Even the giving of his personal life, not “IF” it is necessary, but because it “IS” necessary to do the job.

  5. Dwight, does that include refusing them participation in the Lord’s supper. I bet that would bring them to repentance, don’t you? (sarcasm) yes I can be as sarcastic as the next fellow. I don’t see where Jesus refused to eat with sinners, actually I believe you can learn more about a person over a meal, than over the bible.

  6. I cor. 5 “I wrote to you in my epistle not to keep company with sexually immoral people. 10 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.”

  7. I’ve been reading, “Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes” and I’m struggling with the concept of honor/shame culture. Our culture sees peer pressure as a negative and the Bible itself encourages us to be counter-cultural and not people pleasers. How did they reconcile these views?

  8. This is why “disfellowshipping”, or “withdrawing”, “shunning”, whatever you want to call it has never made sense to me.

  9. Ellen, when things go on as usual, then things don’t change and people see no reason to change. Christ puts into a fellowship with others in Christ, but sin (that is sin that is sin and not an implied sin) separates us from God and this should be reflected in the people as well. The concept of the leaven leavening the whole lump is to keep the influence of sin out of the realm of the saints to the extent they can. And also it encourages the one to take a hard look at themselves in relation to God and the people of God. The people of God should always make it clear that reconciliation is accessable and forgiveness as well. We don’t do to good a job of this or we make it harder than it should be.

  10. Laymond,
    it would not matter if all elders were retired guys with nothing else to do. You are supposed to care about the people and what is going on. Also, elders should be represent everyone and read the blogs and message boards to find out what people are saying and address the problems.

  11. One of the things I find in the scriptures OT and NT is that the elders oversee the people, but are not aggressive in doing it, after all God had and has given people the prime directives of what they must do or what is sin. The elders are overseers for the master and are not to over ride the master in matters of where the people are to go and what they are to do and how they are to behave. the sheep are to be led, minimally by the elders and maximally by the word of God, Jesus, in example and in deed and in word. It kind of comes down to the elders being busy in directing the people even though the people are doing fine in the way they are going and then they spend time directing and the people spend time being directed and not a lot gets done in the matter of the Prime Directives of giving, teaching, etc. Programs get in the way of action.
    In regards to the elders hanging out on the blogs and Facebook and etc. is not a good idea, as they are sporadic and many parts are often missing in context. I have written something on Facebook and been called down by an elder and then he had to back up as I explained the context of what was going on. What we would have are people on to correct other people instead of people on to converse and discuss. This is what is wrong with many of the coC now…shoot first, then sort out the dead later.

  12. Dwight, I never intended to suggest they police the blogs but just find out what is going on. There are many good ideas and suggestions on the blogs that die there because those in power don’t read them. Mere mortals can discuss all the problems and have great solutions but unless they can ascend Mt. Olympus, it is likely all for naught.

  13. Mark, I guess I missed where Paul’s recommendations included being a good spy. Or a busybody.

    I don’t know your age, but if you haven’t gained knowledge with age, you must be doing something wrong. or born smarter than most. Even Jesus gained knowledge.
    I don’t know of anybody in their older years that clung to their younger beliefs. Many who post on this blog admit their earlier beliefs were wrong, so if they had been selected to teach then, what do you think they would have taught.?
    Some who were respected leaders and had many followers, admitted before they died that what they were teaching was wrong, it is harder to “un-teach ” something than it is to teach it wrong.
    An elder has a lot of weight to carry, their cross is heavy. And sometimes it needs to be pointed out that even they need help. Some think that being selected to the eldership is a promotion, but instead it is a call to be a servant. and as Jesus said you can’t serve two masters. you can’t place your worldly job ahead of your spiritual job. When a younger man has the burden of supporting a family, he does not have either the time or knowledge needed to be an elder of the church.

  14. Sorry, Mark, but from my experience most of the ideas are often outside of what many of the church leaders want to hear. I do wish they would mine the blogs for conceptual thinking, rather than for things they feel they must confront.
    Laymond, The qualifications for elders include a wife and imply a family in that they must “know how to rule their own house”. And I have known many older Elders that while old, lack the maturity of some of the younger ones. Now the older is admittedly better, but not always, but they must be old enough to be raising or have raised children.
    And many of the things that elders concern themselves with are not of a spiritual nature, so they often tie themselves up on many things that should be in the hands of others or shouldn’t be in the hands of anybody at all.

  15. My experience is the elders focus on how to use the money and the preachers are the pastoral care givers. But don’t dare call the preacher a pastor.

  16. Dwight, I never said all older men should be elders , but what I did say was all elders should be older men. there is a distinct difference.

  17. In the 1st century it was be a Jew(under Law), be a Gentile(idol worshiper), or be a Christian(follow Jesus). When you were a Jew or a Gentile and became a Christian it affected your whole lifestyle. Often times you were ostracized from the culture you came out of. Doors were often closed behind you. So, to be in community with a new batch of people and then have that community threatened to be taken away from you left you with little options. Go back to being an idol worshiper, go back to being a law keeping Jew, or be in no man’s land. Today there are just way to many options for the unrepentant, and so some of the bite in disfellowshipping or shunning, has been taken out.

  18. But then again there are many avenues that open up that may be good that a bad disfellowshipping leads to. From what I have seen and may one day encounter, many are disfellowshipped over things that are marked as sin, even without a command for or against by God. One door closing can also be another door opening up. I know many people that have been disfellowshipped from to be happier when they found those that are less judgmental and less likely to disfellowship over dubious things. But this all spurred from the fact that we must disfellowship over obvious sin and not over unwritten law.

  19. It seems that disfellowshipping made sense in the honor/shame culture because it was that kind of culture. Our culture is not. We value our individuality. It’s difficult to be fair in situations that include all sin, or even “serious” sins in the list of things that cannot be tolerated. That’s why it hasn’t been done right and isn’t very effective. My understanding (even saying that is an acknowledgement of our individualistic culture [It’s also my attempt at being humble]) is that legalism is a very serious heresy. Also, that loving the Lord with all your heart, soul, strength and mind and loving your neighbor as yourself is extremely important. Yet, legalism and unloving attitudes are tolerated and other things are not. When those other things include sincere differences in beliefs, it cannot work in our cultural setting. To change one’s beliefs because other people won’t talk to you and are snubbing you is unthinkable to any self respecting American. I know we all need to feel we belong. It’s ingrained in our survival instinct. To be outcast is to be abandoned. That’s universal, but one can always find a new group of friends who will accept him or her regardless of which side of an issue he/she is on.

  20. Um, Titus and Timothy give a list of qualifications and I’m not sure I gave the list, but one which called for marriage and family. But anywho, from what I understand “blameless” means to be without blame or cannot be blamed for something and this is a present tense, not a past tense otherwise there is no one that cannot be blamed for something. And this blameless must be from a Christian perspective of sin, due to the fact that blame can be allied to most anything. The Jews and Gentiles blamed the saints for many things from a Jewish and gentile perspective. But blameless also requires what others think of us and sometimes this is more telling than what we think of ourselves.

    Ellen, the fact that we are not in a “honor/shame” society doesn’t mean that the Christian culture doesn’t have “honor/shame” built into it. We give God honor and we are ashamed when we sin or should be…this is often called guilt. We need to feel guilt when we are guilty.
    In some ways Jesus was legalistic in that he followed the law strictly as written, because he was with God an writer of the law and knew it inside and out. But he didn’t let the law undermine who it was written for…man. The law wasn’t about law, but man in relation to God. The overall problem that was in the Jewish culture they weren’t following law, but following traditions of men and placing them before the law. If we followed the law we would have fewer problems than when we follow our own thinking.

  21. “George, It is because attending is really all that is required.” Mark. Makes one wonder why there are so may qualifications for the “Eldership” when all you gotta do is count heads.

  22. Maybe Jay will get around to another major problem with Elders. Elders should not be seen by the membership as the authority. Let me qualify that statement as to the position I believe that the Elders should seen. I am not an authority on Shepherding a flock of Sheep but there are some comparisons that I believe will convey the concepts I believe should exist. A Shepherd for those Sheep never drives the Sheep, he does not whip them into obedience to his commands, he does not send his Sheep Dog to drive them into areas where they are so afraid to go that they cannot be lead. A Shepherd becomes a so attached to the Sheep that the Sheep are totally comfortable following him wherever he leads them. Would one of the Sheep question his judgment? Why because the shepherd is so wise he will be able to sense the fears or uncomfortable-ness within any of his Sheep. He anticipates which one is having problems conforming to the places he is leading them, and then he takes the necessary precautions to remove the fears. He does not have to make a disciplinary example out of one of the animals in the flock in order to create a fear in others in the flock to not be rebellious of his leading (that is the opposite of leading).
    I am drawing you to these conclusions in an attempt to explain, that if the members of a congregation are taught or even sense that the Elders are there to serve as administers of God’s discipline, as representatives of God to insure the proper conduct of worship in the assembly, to be placed upon a pedestal above the other members of the congregation, or to be the men to whom the members are to bring their complaints about other members so they can straighten them out.

    Elders should be capable to anticipate a members needs and be able to address those as they affect the individual’s relationship with Christ (teachings) or with other members (brothers and sisters) within the congregation prior to becoming a problem visible to the congregation. Elders should be such a best friend to any member within the congregation that any member should feel totally comfortable to confide to an Elder any of their innermost feelings, questions that they have about scriptures which are very different to what is being taught publicly without any fear of being placed into a position of being reprimanded only because they dared to state their concerns. Elders are definitely to be knowledgeable to refute (false doctrine). But, if he has to do that publicly then that only proves that he has neglected to see the problem developing and counsel (teach) the proper understanding. Elders are required by God to avoid teaching (tradition) as authority above God’s Word; they are required to be able to identify the difference between tradition and God’s Word.
    I believe that most or maybe all disfellowshipping within the congregation has been a result that has identified a failed leadership problem.

  23. George wrote,

    “Call Bible things by Bible names.” This Restoration slogan falls flat on its face with the unbiblical word “Disfellowship.”

    Do you have a suggestion for a better word? Paul said he turned people over to Satan, but I find that language leads to more confusion than help. There are those in the Churches of Christ who take that as meaning “Evict that person from the church so that they become damned.” I disagree, but the language is far from unambiguous.

    Jesus said, “Treat them as you would a Gentile or publican.” I’m not sure that’s a good term for today’s church. I mean, do we really want to ask our members to treat disfellowshipped individuals like a non-Jew or a tax collector?

    In John, 9:34, the Pharisees cast Bartimaeus out of the synagogue. “Cast out” is never used in the Christian context, however.

    “Disfellowship” seems to accurately communicate the idea as well as one word could. But I’m open to suggestions for a better word.

  24. Ellen,

    The honor/shame culture is very foreign to Americans. Nearly inconceivable. The fact is that most of the world is this way, and the parts that are not — that have a guilt culture — were influenced by Christianity to be that way. Christianity has a way of changing honor/shame to innocence/guilt. I think the Sermon on the Mount and many other passages were written to free us from honor-culture thinking.

    Jesus and Paul and other NT writers tried to redefine honor/shame by redefining in whose eyes honor and shame should be determined. Rather than seeking honor from earthly families and neighbors, seek honor from God. Rather than fearing shame from families and neighbors, fear being shamed in the eyes of God. And this eventually leads to escaping the honor culture altogether, I think.

    (Rom. 2:9-11 ESV) 9 There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, 10 but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. 11 For God shows no partiality.

    (2 Cor. 8:20-21 ESV) 20 We take this course so that no one should blame us about this generous gift that is being administered by us, 21 for we aim at what is honorable not only in the Lord’s sight but also in the sight of man.

  25. laymond wrote,

    An elder has a lot of weight to carry, their cross is heavy. And sometimes it needs to be pointed out that even they need help. Some think that being selected to the eldership is a promotion, but instead it is a call to be a servant. and as Jesus said you can’t serve two masters. you can’t place your worldly job ahead of your spiritual job. When a younger man has the burden of supporting a family, he does not have either the time or knowledge needed to be an elder of the church.

    I couldn’t agree more. Men with young children won’t have time for family, work, church, and elder responsibilities. Optimally, the children are all at least well into their teen years if not adults.

  26. Ellen,

    I agree with much of what you say. Doctrinal disagreements can be grounds for being disfelllowshipped, but only on matters that threaten salvation or require division (not mere disagreement). Deny that Jesus is the Messiah, and you are not even a Christian. Push that belief on others, and you are danger to their souls. Disagreement over what is and isn’t authorized in worship doesn’t even come close to being a salvation issue because it has nothing to do with faith or rebellion.

    Hence, our leaders often capitulate to the most legalistic among us, when they should be rebuking their lack of trust in God to save based on faith in Jesus. Teaching is far preferable to disfellowship, but sometimes the legalists refuse to even listen — and so it’s legalism joined with arrogance — a closed mind — that is so dangerous that someone might have to expelled as a wolf among sheep.