FELLOWSHIP AND DISFELLOWSHIP
T. Pierce Brown
Many are aware that the word “fellowship” may come from the Greek word “koinonia” or from “metoche.” Although Thayer defines it in various ways, including association and joint participation, it is clear from an examination of all the Bible has to say on the subject that it does not mean merely associate with, but joint participation in such a fashion as to indicate approval or partnership in the activity. When Jesus ate with publicans and sinners (Mt.9:10-11; MK.2:15-16, LK5:29-30) He was associating with them, but since He commands us to have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness (EPH.5:11), we know that the kind of fellowship He had, we can have. The idea is very similar to the admonition of 2 John 10, where we are not to bid godspeed to a false teacher. We may associate with him in order to teach him better, but not associate with him in such a fashion that indicates approval of his actions.
A related idea is found in 1 COR. 5:9-11 where Paul tells them not to keep company with fornicators and other wicked persons. He knew we had to keep company with ungodly people of the world, but to have that kind of fellowship with ungodly church members that would show that you condone their behavior is forbidden.
Although the word “disfellowship” is not used in the Bible, Romans16:17shows that we are to mark and avoid those who cause divisions and offenses. 1 COR. 5:9-11 shows that a person with whom they had been keeping company was to be refused that kind of company, so it had to involve what we call “disfellowship.”
Also, in 1 Tim. 6:15 and 2 Thes.3:6 where we are told to withdraw ourselves from perverse disputing of corrupt minds and from every brother that walketh disorderly, it indicates that there were brethren with whom they were having fellowship, but were to withdraw from them, which is what is involved in “disfellowship.”
These scriptures must cause a serious Bible student to raise some questions, such as: 1. How long can we properly tolerate a heretic (Titus3:10) which must be rejected after the first and second admonition? 2. What is involved in walking disorderly, and how long can it be tolerated? 3. Hebrews10:25warns us not to forsake the assembly. If we deliberately miss an assembly is that the same as forsaking, and is that walking disorderly? If so, how long can it be tolerated, and how often must one miss before he forsakes? 4. Is there a difference in disfellowship of a person and simply not having fellowship with him? 5. What is the exact procedure for withdrawing fellowship, and how do you know? 6. Can a person withdraw fellowship for one with whom he has had no fellowship? That is, if a person has already withdrawn from a congregation and considers himself not a member of it, is it proper to “withdraw fellowship” from him? 7. Is there any example in the Bible of one congregation “withdrawing fellowship” from another congregation? If so, where is it, and how is it to be done? If not, should it be done, and how?
I will comment on these and related questions, attempting to give a scripture reference when I can think of any that might apply, and giving the best reasoning I can when I find no scripture that directly deals with the principles discussed.
1. There is no specific time limit for tolerating a person who is teaching a fatally false or unsound doctrine. There must be time to determine whether he is actually teaching it, or simply expressing his ignorance of truth. It should be evident that there is a difference in a person who asks, “Why is it not proper to use a mechanical instrument of music in worship?” and a person who says, “We should use mechanical instruments of music in worship.” Then there must be time to give him a first and second admonition (Titus3:10). It is probable that in most cases we go to one extreme or the other. We either have a “knee-jerk” reaction, in which we withdraw fellowship at the first suspicion of immature thinking or what we think is false doctrine, or we wait without making any effort to check or admonish until the heresy has had time to be full blown and sweep away a large part of the congregation. A qualified eldership should have the ability to convict the gainsayer (Tit. 1:9), but no one has a right to specify the exact time limit that must be involved in doing it.
2. The word “disorderly” in 2 THES. 3:6 is a word that was used of a soldier who was out of step or broke ranks or deserted. In some versions it is translated “idle,” and in Paul’s explanation of it would seem to involve any persistent activity contrary to what he had taught them to do. No doubt that it would involve gossip and busybodies (1 Tim.5:13, 2 THES.3:11), forsaking the assembly (HEB.10:25), and any other activity which would destroy the peace, tranquillity or effectiveness of the work of a congregation.
3. Sometimes the question is raised, “How many times can one miss the assembly without it being forsaken?” If one does not ask the right question, he need not expect the right answer, and that is not the right question. The relevant criterion is not “how often” but the attitude and motive involved. An illustration may help. A man may “leave his wife” every day for several hours, even for days at a time without “forsaking her.” However, if he leaves only once with no intention of coming back or fulfilling his duties to her, he has forsaken her. The one time that is ordained of God for the assembly is the first day of the week. A congregation may decide to meet every day for some good and specific purpose, but it may be improper to expect every member to attend all those meetings. It may be a fair gauge of a person’s maturity or spirituality, but we know of no scripture that authorizes withdrawal from one who simply is not as mature or spiritual as he should be. We therefore conclude that if a person misses ONE Lord’s day meeting and reveals that he is not concerned and will stay away if/as/when he chooses, he should be admonished, and if he does not repent, should be withdrawn from. However, he may miss many days for various reasons without being classified as walking disorderly or having forsaken the assembly.
4. There is a vast difference in disfellowship of a person and simply not having fellowship with him. If a congregation or an individual does not jointly participate in an activity with another, he has no fellowship in that activity. This does not suggest any sin or bad relationship. However, if a person is in fellowship with a congregation, and that fellowship is stopped by withdrawing a spiritual relationship, that is a different question. That also relates to another situation. In 2 COR. 8:4 and PHIL. 1:5, Paul mentions that others had fellowship with him in the preaching of the gospel. Some did not in that same way. There was no sin involved in not having fellowship in that sense, and when one withdrew fellowship in that sense, it does not involve the kind of thing of which we write. When Paul and Barnabas parted company, they broke fellowship in the sense of not any longer jointly participating in that activity. They did not break fellowship in the sense of ceasing their spiritual relationship with each other. This involves another question which is sometimes raised: May we have “limited fellowship” with another? It seems apparent that we can, and must. We must allow the context and situation to determine what is involved there, and not allow our mentality to be locked into one concept of fellowship as being the only aspect of the question. In addition to the “limited fellowship” of Paul and Barnabas, we may have “limited fellowship” in a local congregation. Not everyone has “joint participation” in the teaching activity or on the teaching staff. If you ask for a fellowship of all the teachers, you limit it, but that does not imply that the person who is not included is “out of fellowship” with the congregation in the sense of spiritual destitution. Not everyone is asked to jointly participate in “waiting on the Lord’s table.” Thus, there is limited fellowship in that activity. It does not necessarily involve “withdrawing” from the member, but may included “withdrawing the member” from certain activities.
5. There is no “exact procedure” but some general guidelines that are suggested by the scriptures. First, there should be an effort to “restore such a one in a spirit of meekness” (Gal. 6:1) and a first and second admonition (Titus3:10). When one has failed to make any progress, then such a one is to be delivered unto Satan (1 COR. 5:5) in such a fashion as to demonstrate love, forbearance, steadfastness, soundness in the faith, Christ likeness and an unwillingness to tolerate open sin and rebellion that the world may see the difference in the church and the world.
6. If a person is not a member of a congregation, the Bible is silent about any “withdrawal” of fellowship from him. You cannot withdraw that which you did not have. Note carefully: As we have indicated in (4. above), one may have “fellowship” in an activity such as persons in one congregation helping a person in another, but this is a different kind of fellowship than that of one member of a congregation with another member of the same congregation. A person has a right to “place membership” in a congregation and thus indicate that he is under the oversight of the elders. He has a right to “withdraw his membership” or move to another congregation without any suggestion that he is in sin by so doing. When he has done that, the elders of the congregation of which he was a member do not have the responsibility to shepherd him. They only have the kind of responsibility that all Christians everywhere have with any person they know–teach, warn, admonish, bear burdens, help in any possible way to be a better Christian. When a person has indicated that he no longer wants to be considered a member of a congregation, the elders should let him know, and anyone else who needs to know, that he is no longer a member of the congregation. If he has been unfaithful while he was a member of that group, it is appropriate to let others know that he was unfaithful, and they did not approve of it. But as far as a formal statement of “withdrawal of fellowship” the Bible is silent on that, and I find none of the reasons that apply to the purpose of withdrawing from a member of the congregation applying in this case. You do not “withdraw fellowship” from a denominational preacher; you simply indicate, if the need arise, that you are not in fellowship with him, nor approve of his doctrine and practice. So it is in this case.
7. There is nothing in the Bible about one congregation “withdrawing fellowship” from another congregation in the sense we are talking about of withdrawing from an individual member. Note carefully: When persons or congregations had fellowship with Paul or other congregations in the preaching of the gospel (2 Cor.8:4 and PHIL. 1:5), they could cease that fellowship, and in that sense “withdraw fellowship”, but that would not necessarily imply that the congregation was unfaithful or lost. As a congregation is not saved or lost congregationally, but persons are saved individually, so “fellowship” in the sense of which we speak, is an individual matter. Of course we are not to participate with a group or an individual in any activity that will cause a person to be lost, or that will compromise the truth of the gospel or the nature of the church, such as having a joint meeting with some denomination. But one does not make a formal statement of “withdrawing fellowship” from them. One simply does not have fellowship with any group, Christian or non-Christian, that compromises the gospel or the purity of the church.
An illustration may help: Suppose I were asked to participate in a commencement exercise in which I made the address, the Baptist preacher led the prayer, and the Methodist had the “benediction.” I could have “fellowship”–joint participation–in such an effort, for it is recognized as being a civic activity. I could not properly have “fellowship” — joint participation — in a “revival” or “gospel meeting” with the same preachers, for it would imply that I had no problem with their doctrine and practice.
Perhaps the attached Parable of the Preacher’s Son which I just wrote will help to explain how such “withdrawal procedures” should or should not be handled.
A PARABLE OF THE PREACHER’S SON
The preacher had a teen-age son who had just learned to drive. Having promised to drive carefully, he was allowed to take the car out on a country road by himself. He decided to try a quick burst of speed and smashed the front fender into a fence post. Fearful of his father’s wrath he said that he had swerved to miss a dog that ran out in front of him.
His father suspected he was lying, but had no way of proving it. But being a loving, considerate father, sound in the faith, he remember 1 Timothy 5:20, “Those that sin, rebuke before all, that others may fear.” So, in deep consideration for his teen age son, his other younger son, and all the children in the county, he took out a full page ad in the local paper and told of the mishap, accused his son of lying and warned that the Scriptures said that all lairs would have their part in the lake of fire (Rev. 21:8). The same scripture said that the fearful would also be there, so he was not fearful to consign everyone else to hell who refused to rebuke their children and all others before the whole world.
Does anyone have to be a Greek scholar to know that he disregarded Mt. 7:12, Gal 6:2, James 4:11, Titus 3:2 (read them) and many other such passages, as well as perverting the meaning of 1 Timothy 5:20? If a person did know Greek, he would know that “those that sin” is a present active participle, indicating a continuous and persistent sin, and if he understood English reasonably well, would know that “all” in this context does not mean “all the world.”
If you knew a preacher who would treat his son or a member of his family the way the preacher in this parable treated his son, would you think he was “sound in the faith?” If he would not treat his own physical family that way, but taught by word and example that we should treat our spiritual family that way, would you think he might be a hypocrite, besides not being sound in the faith?