Withdrawing Fellowship from Non-Attenders
A dedicated Christian widow is disturbed because a church member who “just quit going to church (no bad conduct)” was “withdrawn from.” Indeed, those who “quit going to church” are “walking disorderly” (2 Thessalonians 3:6), but the New Testament remedy for saving those who “quit going to church” is not a withdrawal of fellowship.
What is the New Testament remedy? When one sheep, out of a hundred, is absent from the fold (the assembly), the shepherd (church elders) is to leave the ninety-nine “and go after the lost one until” he is found and restored (Luke 15:4; 1 Thessalonians 5:11; Hebrews 3:12-14; 10:24-25).
Similarly, Christians who are not daily Bible readers (Psalm 1:2; 119:97), who do not give as they are prospered (1 Corinthians 16:2), who do not “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17), who do not “visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction” (James 1:27), who do not “shine as lights in he world, holding forth the word of life” to the unsaved (Philippians 2:15-16), who are “tattlers and busybodies, speaking things which they ought not” (1 Timothy 5:13), all of these are “walking disorderly.” But the New Testament remedy is not a withdrawal of fellowship. On the contrary, the elders and all the members will “encourage one another, and build each other up” (1 Thessalonians 5:11).
As a family, they will “exhort one another daily” lest anyone becomes “hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:13). The shepherds (the elders, 1 Peter 5:1-2) and all the sheep “think of one another, motivating to love and good works” (Hebrews 10:24). They urge every Christian never to forsake the assembly,” and to that end they “exhort one another, and so much the more as” they see the Lord’s day “approaching” (Hebrews 10:25). The father of the prodigal son did not disown or withdraw from his wayward boy. And the tender way the father received him back home shows that the father had prayed every day for his son’s return (Luke 15:11-32).
The elders of an Oklahoma City congregation, with holy intentions, made a horrible mistake. In their weekly bulletin and publicly they named some non-attenders from whom fellowship was being withdrawn. However, their choice of words went beyond the sin of missing church services. In addition to their use of Matthew 5:16; Romans 16:17; Hebrews 10:225, they cited I Timothy 4:12 and James 1:27, saying that “Christians must keep themselves pure and unspotted from the world.” They cited Revelation 21:8, 27, saying that “those who are unclean shall not enter the kingdom of God.” They cited 1 Corinthians 5:5, saying “those who sin must be delivered to Satan that their appetites of the flesh might be destroyed, and their souls saved.”
But the good intentions of the elders stirred resentment on the part of the non-attenders, who filed a lawsuit charging the elders with libelous statements. The trial judge was convinced of the “good faith” of the elders and ruled in their favor. But the judges of the appellate court reversed the trial judge’s verdict, saying that since the named church members were “‘good, clean, honest, truthful, and moral,’ according to the testimony of the elders in the trial, the elders were guilty of libel.” The elders were guilty, affirmed the appellate judges, because “both directly and by innuendo and insinuation” the named people were “stigmatized as impure, spotted, unclean, disorderly, untruthful, and sinful with the ‘appetites of the flesh.’” The judges held that “it seems rather superfluous to expel those who have stopped attending, but if it must be done then a simple notification of the excommunication would seem sufficient.”
The elders of another Oklahoma City congregation, after personal and prayerful visits in the homes of non-attenders, write to them a letter of love, and expressing the hope that the non-attenders will return to services. If that letter is ignored, they write another. If that is ignored, then the elders with regret read the names of the non-attenders, saying that “we are not withdrawing fellowship from them, but they have withdrawn fellowship from us, and we will continue to pray for their return.”
Not Eating with a Withdrawn Member
The dedicated Christian widow is also disturbed because an elder said that the church members should not “eat” with any withdrawn member (1 Corinthians 5:11). He remembered that at Corinth a church member’s fornication caused him to be expelled (1 Corinthians 5:1-13).
Indeed, as the widow writes, Christ “gave his life to save sinners, which was his mission on earth,” and all of us are sinners (Romans 3:23). But Christ’s love will not save impenitent sinners (Luke 13:3). Truly, God does not want anyone to be lost (2 Peter 3:9), but those guilty of “fornication,” unless they repent (Luke 13:3), “shall not inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:19-21).
Furthermore, because God loved the fornicator, through Paul he commanded the church at Corinth to “put away from among yourselves that wicked person” and “do not eat with him” (1 Corinthians 5:11, 13). This was God’s plan to bring the man to repentance, that his “spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Corinthians 5:5).
When Lois and I were in Dallas, we were invited to a “42” domino party in the home of two members of the Edgefield Church, where I was the local preacher. When we arrived, we saw two people from whom fellowship had been withdrawn. Our consciences told us to leave, which we did. If we had thought that our eating sandwiches and drinking punch with the two people would have been some help in restoring the two, we would have been criticizing God. God thought that (1) asking a fornicator not to come back to the assembly any more, and (2) breaking social relations with him, might cause the erring brother to repent.
And even after those two God appointed acts of discipline, the church members were not to turn their backs on the sinner. Though they were told to “have no company with him,” Christian love and prayers for him would continue (John 13:34-35; 1 Thessalonians 5:17), and when they saw him, they were not to “count him as an enemy,” but they were to “admonish him as a brother” (2 Thessalonians 3:15).
In this case, God’s two pronged discipline apparently was effective, causing him to repent. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, not only to “forgive,” but also to “comfort him, lest such a one be engulfed by even more grief” (2 Corinthians 2:7).
After Lois and I were married, living in Indianapolis, the elders of the West End Church in Atlanta were compelled to withdraw fellowship from my alcoholic father, with my mother sitting in the audience.
Not only was that bitter experience heart-wrenching to the loving elders, but also for my mother. She was mindful of the clear teaching not to “eat” with a disfellowshiped person (1 Corinthians 5:11), and she was also mindful of her marriage vow to my father to be a loving wife until death. She was in a bind. She decided to continue being a good wife to my father, including eating with him, with the clear understanding between them that she approved of what the elders had done, and that she loved him, and wanted him to repent and be restored. Thank God, he did.