1. When a person threatens the safety of the flock — either physical safety or spiritual safety.
2. When a person is guilty of sin that could lead to that person’s own damnation.
The first case might involve a thief or sexual predator, or a false teacher who teaches doctrine that jeopardizes the souls of the members.
What sorts of teachings might jeopardize the congregation’s souls? And what sins might lead to an individual’s damnation? Well, anything that contradicts the necessary elements of faith. Hence —
1. Belief. Denial that Jesus is the Messiah, that Jesus is Lord (YHWH), or that Jesus has been resurrected (Matt 16:16; Rom 10:9).
2. Faithfulness. Antinomianism, that is, any teaching that excuses violating the known will of God (Heb 10:26 ff). This might be taught in principle, or the teaching may apply to a particular sin — such as encouraging people to sin against their consciences or encouraging people who know better to divide the church or to rebel against church leaders.
In this category fit the several lists of sins that damn, such as —
(1Co 6:9-10 ESV) Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, 10 nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.
(Gal 5:19-21 ESV) 9 Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, 21 envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
(Rev 22:15 ESV) 15 Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and the sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.
The interpretive problem presented by these sorts of passages is that (a) they aren’t all the same and (b) they could be read as creating a class of “mortal” sins that damn, whereas other sins do not. I think a far more sensible reading is that these are sins that all in the church being written to know to be sinful (often thanks to earlier apostolic instruction) and so there is no way the church members could pretend that they didn’t know that these are sins.
Hence, if a Christian in that church wallows in these sins — not a momentary lapse but a decision to participate even though known to be contrary to God’s will — then a Heb 10:26 sort of sin has happened — deliberate continuing to sin.
Of course, the other interpretive problem is that some of these sins are actually encouraged by preachers in our denomination. I mean, “rivalries, dissensions, divisions” sounds just like the Churches of Christ in the county where I grew up — and the ringleaders were often the preachers.
That hardly excuses these sins, but it should also caution us against being too quick to judge. After all, what is obviously a sin to me might seem innocent, even commendable, to you. That doesn’t make it right, but it does impact whether God’s grace will cover your (or my) error.
All sin is sin and to be avoided and repented of. But the sins that damn are the ones we know to be sin and indulge in anyway in rebellion against God.
I need to include here these passages —
(1Jo 4:6 ESV) 6 We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error.
(1Co 14:37-38 ESV) If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord. 38 If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized.
The saved honor apostolic instruction. They may disagree as to what the apostles meant by what they said, but they agree to submit to apostolic instruction.
Still today we can recognize God’s Word because God’s people listen to it, just as we can recognize God’s people because they listen to God’s Word. Those who do not listen to apostolic teaching, but prefer to absorb the teaching of the world, not only pass judgment on themselves but thereby also on the message to which they do give attention.
John R. W. Stott, The Letter of John: An Introduction and Commentary (Tyndale NTC 19; IVP/Accordance electronic ed. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1988), n.p.
But this doesn’t mean that disagreeing about the meaning of this or that passage damns someone. The principle is one of listening — hearing in order to obey, even though neither the hearing nor the obedience will be perfect.
Thus, you and I may disagree about who is qualified to be a deacon, but if we are both attempting to seriously and prayerfully honor God’s word, we “listen” to the word and so remain saved. On the other hand, those among us who consider themselves smarter than the Bible and so who issue doctrinal proclamations that they know contradict the Bible are in serious jeopardy of losing their souls.
3. Trust. Reliance on works for salvation. This is the plain condemnation of Gal 5:2-7 and Peter’s condemnation referenced in Gal 2:11 — not because of what he believed but because of what he taught by his refusal to associate with uncircumcised Gentile believers.
Or teaching that the resurrection has already occurred, thereby denying the promises given by God of a future inheritance for the saved.
Now, that is likely not absolutely exact. For example, I’m sure there are other false teachings that we ought to consider as threatening the belief element in “faith.” For example, obviously, denying God would also result in denying Jesus and hence damnation.
On the other hand, I’m reluctant to go outside those teachings and examples I can find in scripture. Does denial of the Holy Spirit’s present work in the Christian damn? I think it’s plainly error, and it denies important promises made by God. But I don’t see it rising to the level of damning. After all, we are saved by faith in Jesus, not faith in the Spirit.
But we are told that dissensions and divisions damn (Gal 5:20), and so what should we make of brothers in Christ who damn even the other Churches of Christ in town? Inevitably, their condemnation is based on the other church’s failure to impose one rule or another as a condition of salvation in addition to faith — which would seem to plainly violate Gal 5:2-7, which teaches that conditioning salvation on anything other than “faith working through love” damns. Hence, they violate both Gal 5:2-7 and 5:20. It’s a deadly, dangerous place to find oneself.
We need to learn to distinguish sins that lead to death from those that do not —
(1Jo 5:16-17 ESV) 16 If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life — to those who commit sins that do not lead to death. There is sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for that. 17 All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that does not lead to death.
And so, we find three and only three categories of “false teacher.” A false teacher may be so dangerous and so bent on pushing his agenda that he must be asked to leave the congregation to protect the flock — not just because he is in error (We all err some of the time.), but because his error is the sort that damns.
On the other hand, often the person teaching such a serious error has a penitent, obedient heart and can be corrected by the leaders of the church — and so no longer be a danger to the church. In some cases, penitence only comes when the person is removed from the church — out of love and concern for his soul. And sometimes you have to remove him so he doesn’t bring others down with him — but that doesn’t mean you give up on him.