By Kevin Cauley
The Bible doctrine of fellowship is a difficult subject for many because of the strong emotions involved in personal relationships. No one wants to withdraw fellowship from anyone, especially their friends and family. Yet the Bible teaches clearly in such passages as Matthew 18, 1 Corinthians 5, 2 Thessalonians 3, and Romans 16:17 that sometimes we must. The Bible also teaches that failure to withdraw fellowship appropriately is equally offensive to God (2 Thessalonians 3:14). Such underscores the seriousness God has regarding the command.
Practicing this command is not easy to do either spiritually or emotionally. Because of this, some simply will not do what God desires: they will not withdraw fellowship when God’s word demands it. This kind of thinking places our love for men above our love for God and His word. These individuals need to be reminded that God comes first in our affections (Matthew 6:33, 22:37-38). We love God by keeping His commandments (1 John 5:2-3). Can we both love God and fellowship those who have left the faith? We cannot.
In contrast to the above attitude, there are those who abuse church discipline. These want to withdraw fellowship upon the slightest of indiscretions. To compound their error, they hold faithful brethren, who in patience and love continue to work with these individuals, in equal contempt. This view of fellowship is based upon the erroneous conclusion from 2 John 10-11 that mere personal appearances with certain people are enough to withdraw. In contrast, 2 John 10-11 teaches that we ought not to give aid and comfort to deliberate false teachers. If we do such, with support and encouragement, obviously we partake of their evil deeds.
2 John 10-11 does not suggest, however, that fellowship ought to be recursively withdrawn from anyone appearing with someone who is in error. Such a position would imply that faithful brethren would need to withdraw fellowship from themselves as there is always someone with whom we are in fellowship, who fellowships someone who fellowships someone (etc.) who is not in fellowship. Any doctrine of fellowship that implies that a faithful Christian need withdraw fellowship from himself is a false doctrine of fellowship!
On the other hand, we have those who say there are no boundaries of fellowship at all. “We can fellowship everyone regardless of who they are or what they believe.” Such is an equally repugnant and unbiblical position to hold.
How ought we to practice the Bible doctrine of fellowship? We ought, on a case by case basis, to judge according to righteous judgment and not according to appearance (John 7:24). We ought to accept each individuals person without partiality (1 Timothy 5:21, James 3:17) until such a point in time as they prove to us individually that they have left the faith (1 Timothy 1:19-20). Such proof may take the form of their public writings, speaking, or other actions. If their actions are private, we are obliged to follow the procedures set forth in Matthew 18:15-20 until such a time as it becomes public. We have no precedent, however, to withdraw from someone other than dealing with their actions individually and personally. Nevertheless, when such has been proven that they have left the faith, we must withdraw.
Such a view of withdrawal is biblical, balanced, loving, and consistent with the Bible’s complete teaching on the doctrine of fellowship. It thus seeks to love God first in obeying His commands, and also our fellow man in respecting his personal situation without judging inappropriately. Practicing the Bible’s teaching regarding fellowship is not easy one way or the other. Let us not, however, seek to make it easy by either not practicing it at all, or by throwing out the proverbial baby with the bathwater and not having fellowship with anyone but our own clique. Instead, let us seek to judge each individual fairly, on a case by case basis, without resorting to a cliquish or devilish mentality.