Key New Testament Texts
I Corinthians 5:1-13. The apostle Paul seriously rebukes the Corinthians for failing to discipline one of their number who was involved in incest. Paul writes sternly to them, commanding that the guilty person "be taken away from among you" (I Corinthians 5:2). Paul does not encourage believers to leave the world by walling themselves up in a monastery (5:10). But he does warn that believers must not keep company with one whose doctrine or practice fails to reflect scriptural standards (5:11). He concludes the chapter by commanding, "Therefore put away from among yourselves that wicked person" (5:13). The disobedient brother is not to be allowed to continue his downward course but rather is to be admonished and corrected that he may be turned from his ruinous pathway. Until he repents, believers are not to have fellowship with him.
II Thessalonians 3:6, 14-15. The apostle commands believers to withdraw from every brother who behaves disorderly and not after the apostolic traditions. Paul does not leave the reader to wonder what those traditions are. The apostle clearly declares the traditions to be his own teaching whether by word or by epistle (II Thessalonians 2:15). If any brother's practice or teaching does not agree with the teaching of Scripture, believers are to withdraw from him. Lest any believer fail to realize the importance of this discipline, the apostle repeats the command in the same chapter. If any man will not obey the teaching in Paul's epistles, Christians should "note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed" (II Thessalonians 3:14). To allow him to continue in his error without trying to get him to repent would be wrong and unkind to the man himself. Other Christian brethren are not to treat him as an enemy but to admonish him as a brother (II Thessalonians 3:15).
Additional Verses. "Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church; but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican. Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven" (Matthew 18:15-18). "But avoid foolish questions, and genealogies, and contentions, and strivings about the law; for they are unprofitable and vain. A man that is an heretick after the first and second admonition reject" (Titus 3:9-10).
Old Testament Parallel
In the Law, God required an Israelite to rebuke one who had fallen into sin. "Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thine heart: thou shalt in any wise rebuke they neighbour, and not suffer sin upon him" (Leviticus 19:17). The Israelites who entered the Promised Land understood the principle that when some of God's people became disobedient, their brethren must first reprove and then take such action against them as might be necessary (Joshua 22:11-20). The book of Proverbs has much to say about the principle of rebuke (25:12; 27:5). Ezra understood the seriousness of the sin of the brethren and the necessity for action (Ezra 9-10). Nehemiah recognized the importance of disciplinary action, including separation (Nehemiah 13:13-29).
Disobedient brother: a professing Christian who deliberately refuses to modify some aspect of his conduct to conform to the clear teaching of Scripture, although claiming to have faith in Christ's saving work.
Discipline in the church: action taken by the body of believers to correct the disobedience of one of its members. Anyone who loves the brethren desires to see them do right (I Corinthians 13:6). Proper church discipline results in the building up of the church, not in its destruction (II Corinthians 13:10).
Explanation and Application
While many people see the necessity of separation from the world system and from teachers of false doctrine, the necessity of separation from a Christian brother is hard for them to accept. The early Church was of one accord, and ideally there should be a spiritual unity, a oneness which pervades the entire body of Christ. If believers act as they should, there will be unity in the Church. The Church, however, does not always live up to the ideal. She has not yet been presented without spot or wrinkle. Believers are not yet all that they should be or will be. In the present everyday life of the church, therefore, it is sometimes necessary to break fellowship with a Christian brother.
Separation from a disobedient brother is only a part of discipline in the church. Any time a brother is disobedient in regard to a clear command of God's Word, it becomes necessary first to rebuke him (Matthew 18:15-17; II Timothy 2:25). Matthew 18 makes it clear that if this brother fails to respond to the initial rebuke, then various other efforts should be made in order to correct his errant life-style, beliefs, or practice. Only as a last resort is it necessary to separate from this brother, but not in a spirit of glee or self-righteousness. Concerned Christians have to break fellowship with heavy hearts, and even then there is still the hope that true repentance will be the result. Furthermore, the act of separating from a Christian brother may vary in extent and nature from one case to another according to the severity and persistence of his disobedience.
Because of so much confusion concerning this last type of separation, it is necessary to present some examples of situations that are likely to arise in our time. (1) When a Christian chooses to live like the world in open sin or adopts a worldly life-style, he becomes a danger to other Christians. The church is obligated by Scripture to deal with him. Depending on the extent of his backsliding, he may be counseled with, excluded from positions of leadership, forbidden to take part in the public programs of the church, and even excluded from membership. (2) If a brother becomes enamored with some false teacher of a false doctrine, lends support to him, and gives him Christian recognition, then he is "partaking of his evil deeds" and may thereby deceive and lead astray other Christians. He must, therefore, be dealt with. (3) A Christian leader who refuses to take action against those who have been disobedient, but is instead an encouragement to them, is himself disobedient to the clear commands of the Bible. It is the responsibility of other Christian leaders to rebuke this man and eventually to separate from him if there is no repentance. (4) A brother who causes divisions in the church must also come under discipline. The word "heresy" meant in New Testament times a sect, party, or division, and the Bible condemns schisms. The local assembly must, therefore, deal with any Christian who by his conduct or teaching disrupts the unity of the church.
Separation from a disobedient brother is not based upon merely personal conflicts or differences of opinion on minor matters of interpretation or church polity. Denominational differences on matters of church government or mode of baptism should not preclude fellowship and cooperation with spiritual Christians of other denominations (I Corinthians 1-3). Furthermore, this separation is not a total rejection which allows no place for repentance; but every effort should be made to restore the brother, making full allowance for possible ignorance, errors of judgment, and momentary weakness. Time should be allowed for those young in the faith to achieve a degree of spiritual maturity which enables them to understand these truths. The brother who has just realized his responsibility and is moving away from compromise may be treated in a different light from one who is abandoning a separated position and moving into compromise. For example, a brother or pastor who is still in an apostate denomination but who has begun to see the problems of fellowship with these people should be taught and encouraged to make a complete break with his past associations.
Christians, therefore, separate from false teachers and their teaching for the following reasons:
- To preserve the testimony of God's people in the eyes of the world (I Peter 2:12).
- To prevent a disobedient brother from influencing others to do wrong (I Corinthians 5:6-7; Galatians 5:9).
- To set an example which will encourage others to be obedient (I Timothy 5:20).
- To bring about repentance in the one who has been disobedient (II Timothy 2:25; Hebrews 10:24; Revelation 3:19).