What does it mean to be in fellowship with someone? Can that fellowship ever be severed? If so, how and why would it be? Let's explore.
Let’s start with a definition of terms. Three different Greek-English lexicons define fellowship as a partnership, a close association involving mutual interests, communion. All very similar, each conveying the same idea – to be in fellowship with someone involves a close, mutual relationship.
Our English word fellowship is found 14 times in the NT, here are 4 of them. James, Cephas and John extended the right hand of fellowship to Paul and Barnabas in Gal 2. In their culture, to clasp the right hand of a person was to make a solemn vow of friendship and a mark of fellowship. “They shook hands with Barnabas and me as a sign we were all partners” is literally “they gave Barnabas and me the right hand of fellowship.” The whole action means entering into a covenant, a binding agreement between two parties, a pledge that they will abide by what is agreed upon. As our definitions show, this demonstrated the idea of a partnership.
Paul admonished the Ephesians to have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness – have no participation with, no close association with. The saints at Philippi were commended by Paul for their “fellowship in the gospel from the first day until now.” They participated together with Paul in the preaching of the gospel.
The apostle John reminds us that “if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin. We are in close association with God, in partnership with God, because we walk in the light as God is in the light.
So, we can rightly conclude then that it is impossible to be in fellowship with someone against their will, can we not? One person may desire fellowship with another but they cannot have it without mutual consent. verse 6 of 1 John 1: John says just that - if we say we have fellowship with Him – speaking of God – and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. If we no longer walk in the light, we no longer have a close association with God. It is impossible to be in fellowship with Him. Let me repeat – it is impossible to be in fellowship – partnership – with someone against their will. It HAS to be a mutual relationship.
Let me Ask you this question: Do we have to extend fellowship to every person who seeks it? If the answer is Yes, than we are at the mercy of factious brethren, troublemakers and hotheads. We are also subject to potentially offering fellowship to someone in a publicly sinful situation, if there are no boundaries. Wait a minute, you say, how can we deny fellowship to anyone seeking it? The brethren at Jerusalem refused to accept Paul, a former blasphemer, into their fellowship until Barnabas testified to Paul’s character. Acts 9:27. in verse 28, after receiving Barnabas report, Paul “was with them at Jerusalem coming in and going out. “ If a congregation could refuse to extend fellowship to Paul, who among us should be exempt from having brethren check on our character before receiving us into their fellowship?
Also, John told Gaius about a brother named Diotophes. Diotrophes was a malicious gossip who not only wanted to run the church, but run off faithful brethren as well. Supposed Diotrophes moved to Tomball and wanted to become a member at our church. I am sure he would tell us a very convincing story about his dedication to the Lord and stand for the truth. However, any congregation who would accept him would be asking for trouble. Diotrophes has been dead for nearly 2000 years but I have met some of his descendants, perhaps you have to - Brethren whose aim seems to be to stir up trouble and be divisive. Titus also tells us about the existence of such people: Tit 3:10 Reject a divisive man after the first and second admonition, 11 knowing that such a person is warped and sinning, being self-condemned. We do not need to invite trouble.
Let's look at the relevant verses relating to withdrawing fellowship. there are two that are most used:
2Th 3:6 But we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you withdraw from (NKJV) withdraw yourselves from (KJV) keep away from (NIV, ESV, NASB) every brother who walks disorderly and not according to the tradition which he received from us. 2Th 3:14 And if anyone does not obey our word in this epistle, note that person and do not keep company with him, that he may be ashamed.
1Co 5:1 It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and such sexual immorality as is not even named among the Gentiles--that a man has his father's wife! 2 And you are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he who has done this deed might be taken away from among you.
1Co 5:5 deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.
u1Co 5:11 But now I have written to you not to associate (NASB, NIV, ESV), keep company (NKJ), Not eat (KJV) with anyone named a brother, who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner--not even to eat with such a person.
The term withdrawing fellowship” is not found in the Bible. Does that mean it’s unscriptural to use it? . There are other terms not in the Bible that we use to describe what we do- we use the word Acapella to describe our music. We just have to be careful how we use the term withdrawing fellowship and be sure we use it correctly.
If a brother or sister indicates they no longer wish to be in fellowship with us, or that they will be attending elsewhere, why would we send a letter that we have withdrawn fellowship? You cannot remove something that does not exist. This also applies to people who simply stop attending. We reach out to them, try to get them to come back and are unsuccessful. They are not here any longer. There is no longer a partnership, there is no longer a close association, there is no longer any fellowship.
Consider it another way – when a Christian chooses to “walk in darkness” they are no longer in fellowship with God as we read in 1 John 1. When a man commits adultery, as an example, his relationship with God is severed. God has taken no action regarding his partnership with this man, he has done it himself, he has taken the action of severing the fellowship. Why would we as His church act any differently?
So what does the text say? The saints at Thessalonica were commanded to “withdraw from every brother” who walked disorderly. WHAT is it they were commanded to remove or withdraw? Most modern translations, as we just read – NIV, NAS, ESV and others – render “you withdraw from” as “you keep away from.” We are told in verse 14 of 2 Thess 3 not to keep company with an ungodly brother and not to associate with them. We are to withdraw OURSELVES – from ungodly brethren. So while the term WITHDRAW FELLOWSHIP is not found in the NT, does it not describe what we are doing when we withdraw ourselves? We are removing ourselves from the partnership.. We are saying we no longer want a close association with this person. We are ending our fellowship with that person.
Consider the fornicator of 1 Cor. 5. As most of us know, he was living in sin by cohabitating with his stepmother and the congregation was ignoring it. Such sin was forbidden by the law. Paul told them to “deliver such a one to Satan.” What does that mean?
One Greek scholar says this is not to be taken literally. What Paul means is that the person concerned should be put out of the church and forced to live in the world, which is ruled by Satan. This way he will learn to fear God and escape the greater punishment that is to come. Another says “when Paul says this man must be delivered to Satan, he does not mean that he should be handed over to the power of the evil one. Rather, he means that all the evils of this life, for example, diseases, sorrows, sufferings, and other circumstances, all are attributed to Satan, and it is in this sense that Paul uses the term here. What he means is that this man should be exposed to the hardships of life.
From a practical standpoint, how would we do that? I believe the only way, once we have made every effort to convince them of the error of their ways, is to make a public statement to the effect that this brother is under the influence of Satan that he/she is living in sin and showing no signs of repentance. We obviously cannot physically put him out in the world, unless we open the doors and toss him on his ear. So we have to let everyone know his actions are due to Satan’s influence in his life.
The reason they were to withdraw themselves from such a man is that a little leaven leavens the whole lump. It is impossible to avoid contact with all immoral people, 1 Cor. 5:9-10. However, we are not to have a common meal with a brother who is “a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard or an extortioner,” 1 Cor 5:11. One purpose of this is to avoid giving the appearance of approving of their sinful conduct and bringing reproach upon the church. This also calls to mind Paul’s admonition in 1 Cor 15:33 that evil company corrupts good habits.” Let’s look further at additional evidence regarding withdrawal. Are there any conditions? When is it scriptural and when is it not?
Let’ look at how the phrase “among you” is used in the NT. Paul told the Corinthians that there was sexual immorality “among you” in 1 Cor. 5. and that the fornicator must be taken away from “among you” in v 2. Paul wrote to the saints in Thessalonica in 2 Thess 3 that he was not disorderly “among you” but that he had heard that there “are some who walk among you in a disorderly manner.” Peter told the elders to “shepherd the flock of God that is among you” in 1 Pet 5.
All of us would no doubt agree that the Bible teaches that elders can only have oversight of those who are among them. We cannot scripturally shepherd another flock that worships elsewhere. Why would we also not agree that the Bible does NOT teach that we are to “withdraw fellowship” from those who are NOT among them. (how’s that for a triple negative?) i.e. it is the same principle is it not? If elders can only rule over those among them, we can all only have fellowship with those who are among us. We cannot withdraw from someone who is not “among us.” Instead, we are commanded to withdraw ourselves – or withdraw fellowship - from disorderly brethren who are among them i.e. in their midst. There is no passage that suggests we withdraw from someone who is not in our midst.
Also, there is no record of any congregation contacting another in the NT asking about their internal affairs. And yet today, that happens quite often – some elders have told me about receiving letters from other congregations once they found that a withdrawn from brother was worshipping with them. In 3 John 10, Diotrophes, a man who loved to have the preeminence among brethren, put some faithful brethren out of the church. No other congregation anywhere was bound to honor his evil actions. Every congregation is independent and autonomous, that is how God designed it. One congregation is not bound in any way by the actions of another.
So what do we do when a brother or sister has sinned, refuses to repent, but is still assembling with the saints? By apostolic command, we are to withdraw ourselves from that person i.e. no longer associate with them or even sit down for a common meal with them. We do not have to wait 30 days and send them a letter. When such a one who is “among you” he is “delivered to Satan” so that his soul might be saved from those actions, 1 Cor 5:5, which is the goal of those actions. He is delivered to Satan when we refuse to associate with him until he repents.
When you refuse to keep company with such a person you do not count him as an enemy but admonish him as a brother . That means we don’t ignore them, we don’t shun them, we aren’t nasty to them but we tell them directly – I am praying that you will repent and change your behavior. I still care about you but I cannot associate with you until you change. Our goal is to get them back to the Lord.
So what if they HAVE repented? Then we are not under that admonition, are we? We CAN eat with them. The key is repentance. How do we know they have truly repented? Luke 3:8 teaches us that we can determine their repentance by their fruits. Have they changed their habits and put those sinful habits behind them? If someone committed adultery, have they completely cut off that relationship? Are they truly full of godly sorrow – do they rue the day they ever decided to commit that sin? or are they blaming others? SAYING you repent is not repenting in and of itself. You have to have godly sorrow, you have to change. It has to be seen in your actions.
So what about family members who live in sin and refuse to repent? The family relationship is not severed because one sins. Parents still have moral and legal obligations to their children, even to those who might be living in sin. A spouse still has marital obligations to a sinning spouse. So, you may be forced to eat with them as a result, but you can still encourage them to repent.
Remember the goal: it worked at Corinth. The sinner came to repentance when faithful brethren ceased associating with him.
Erring Christians who leave a local congregation need to be reproved and exhorted. However, when they indicate they no longer want to be in fellowship with the congregation there is nothing else the brethren can scripturally do. We can announce that this person has broken the ties of fellowship but we cannot “withdraw fellowship” from one with whom fellowship no longer exists.
Withdrawal of fellowship should be a last resort. We need to continue to make every effort to help a wayward brother or sister repent and change their ways.