Should “Weak” Christians Be Disfellowshipped?
“Referencing your article, ‘Church Discipline – A Tragic Neglect’ (6/8/00), please send scriptures to support shunning or disfellowship of a weak brother/sister whose attendance is slipping, or who has completely fallen away.”
The article, “Church Discipline — A Tragic Neglect” was published in our “Archives”.
We have chosen this question to feature, because it contains a number of diverse facets which need to be addressed.
(1) No informed Bible student would advocate disfellowshipping a “weak” brother or sister whose sole problem is that his or her attendance “is slipping.”
Those who are merely weak, but who nonetheless evidence a sincere disposition and a teachable demeanor, ought to be borne with patiently. They should be taught Christian responsibility (cf. Heb. 10:24ff), and admonished to be more diligent, but no sensible church leader would suggest that such a one is worthy of the severest form of church discipline – withdrawal of fellowship.
(2) It is another matter when the case concerns one who is on the precipice of “completely fall[ing] away.” If one assumes that the party under consideration is a church member of at least relatively long-standing duration, that he or she understands the mechanism of church discipline, and that a surly, rebellious attitude is being exhibited by this individual, then fellowship removal might be appropriate.
Think about this. If disfellowship ultimately is for the purposes of: (a) saving the wayward person’s soul (1 Cor. 5:5); and, (b) protecting other saints from evil influences (1 Cor. 5:6), then a formal “putting away” (1 Cor. 5:13) may be the very procedure that is needed to restore the neglectful person, and to safeguard the church from a bad example. It must be recognized that disfellowship is more than just punishment (cf. 2 Cor. 2:6). It is an act of love designed to reclaim the rebellious (cf. Heb. 12:6), and enhance the welfare of others.
The decision as to when, and upon whom, to proceed with radical discipline is the judgment of the local church’s elders, or, if the congregation has no elders, the men who serve in the leadership capacity. They should exercise the greatest of affectionate care, being patient and giving the benefit of the doubt whenever possible. However, in appropriate cases, they surely may lead the church in a withdrawal procedure relative to one who has abandoned all church attendance.
We should note, however, that it is hardly effective, not to mention unwise, to “dig up” the names of those who have not been faithful for years, and attempt, in retrospect, to disfellowship them. Such a dramatic effort divorces the ultimate act of disfellowship from the kindly preliminary steps to which the unfaithful member is entitled.
(3) When the suggestion is made that one is not subject to disfellowship unless there is a passage associating his particular sin with discipline, and that “necessary inference” is not acceptable as a method of argumentation, such reveals a serious misunderstanding of the nature of “necessary inference.” Necessary inference is merely a logical process by which a sound conclusion is drawn irresistibly from known facts. When properly employed, it is as solid a reasoning technique as the explicit statement of a proposition.
While some passages associate disfellowship with specific sins (cf. 1 Cor. 5:9ff), there are also more generic phrases that are used in disciplinary contexts. Note the expressions “such a one” and “the wicked man” in the context under consideration (5:11,13; cf. “such like,” Gal. 5:21); “disorderly” (2 Thes. 3:6); “obey not” (2 Thes. 3:14).
If the church could withdraw fellowship from the drunkard (1 Cor. 5:11), might it not also withdraw from a drug addict? If the answer is yes, how might one arrive at that conclusion – except by necessary inference – since drug addiction is nowhere specifically mentioned in scripture?
(4) To restrict the disciplinary action ordered in 2 Thessalonians 3:6ff to those who refused to work, is a serious mistake. The error of this assertion is seen in Paul’s use of the phrase “every brother who walks disorderly,” which encompasses a broader scope of people than those to whom Paul subsequently refers in 3:7ff. Moreover, the remedy for the lazy brother was simply “neither let him eat,” i.e., do not subsidize him if he refuses to labor properly.
The term “disorderly” (used only here in the New Testament) is a generic designation which points to a rebellious, insubordinate attitude that warrants a severe response from the church.
And yes, the exercise of church discipline continues to be a tragically neglected obligation among the Lord’s people.