“And if any man obey not our word by this epistle, note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed. Yet count him not as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother.” 2 Thessalonians 3:14–15
Over the years, it has become a common practice among certain Christians to treat others as if they are wearing either black or white hats, like the main characters in the old cowboy shows. Some will remember that the ones with the white hats were “the good guys” and the ones wearing the black hats were “the bad guys.” Certain earnest believers will determine first if another person is a good guy or a bad guy, and then he will “fellowship” with the good guy, but will not touch the bad guy with the proverbial “ten-foot pole.”
Disobedience to God in the lives of those who profess to know Him always creates problems for the brethren. The Bible tells us to “have no company” (in 1 Corinthians 5 and 2 Thessalonians 3) with the disobedient brother for various reasons. The change in how the other Christians treat him will hopefully make the misbehaving believer ashamed of his behavior, and move him to repent. Disassociation with the disobedient will also insure that those committed to the truth do not seem to endorse the actions of those that are doing wrong.
Questions about the proper application of this teaching of Christian disassociation arise, of course, in cases of church discipline. They also come before preachers in regard to problems over the wrong doctrines or practices of others in the ministry. Men who care about doing the right and Biblical thing can often be overheard discussing whether a certain issue is one to “break fellowship over” or not. Complicating such questions is the confusion over what the Bible says to do about breaking fellowship with Christians.
Scripture clearly teaches that when a friend decides to live outside the bounds of God’s will, the faithful believer’s relationship with him must change. However, that change does not always mean a complete break with no communication or connection. Sometimes it means we admonish him as an erring brother. It is important to understand the three types of relationships that Christians often have.
The Binding Relationship
Second Corinthians 6:14–18 warns believers against being “yoked together with unbelievers.” This prohibition is against binding relationships between saved and unsaved people. The root of the Greek word translated “unequally yoked together” is the word for a yoke, and is sometimes used figuratively to mean a coupling, a joining together.
It is wrong for a Christian to enter into a binding relationship with an unbeliever because, as this passage notes, righteousness can have no fellowship with unrighteousness, and light has no communion with darkness. There will be problems when those who have been regenerated are somehow bound to people who have not.
Such a binding relationship is called being “unequally yoked together,” referring to yoking an ox with an ass (Deuteronomy 22:10), which will not work and was forbidden by the Mosaic Law. Certainly such relationships include marriage (see all the trouble spiritually-mixed marriages made in 1 Corinthians 7), lodge membership (where men are bound together by an oath, and call each other “brothers,” whether saved or not), many business partnerships (which involve joint decisions), religious associations (such as church memberships, church councils, and ministerial associations, where true Christians are expected to recognize heretics as orthodox Christians), and even some binding friendships.
God just says, “No,” to binding relationships with unbelievers. If you are married to an unsaved spouse, you cannot get out of that yoke, but any believer can and should refuse to marry an unbeliever before he gets into the yoke in the first place (1 Corinthians 7:12–16, 39).
This principle is important to a preacher because it forbids a Bible-believing, Gospel-preaching, and fundamentalist preacher from joining with ministers that deny the cardinal doctrines of the faith in associations, cooperative meetings, and ecumenical evangelism, when he by joining with them is recognizing them as Christians. This is also the principle that would cause a fundamental church to withdraw from a theologically inclusive denominational organization. It is sometimes called “primary separation,” and it is taught by command, symbolism, and illustration throughout Scripture.
The Social Relationship
First Corinthians 5:9–13 warns believers not to, “Keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one no not to eat.” The first application of this principle relates to corporate discipline in a local church.
If a church member, after being approached and rebuked in the manner prescribed by the Lord in Matthew 18, must be put out of the congregation (as taught in Matthew 18 and illustrated in 1 Corinthians 5 and 6), the members still in fellowship with the church are “not to keep company” and “not to eat” with him until he repents and seeks reconciliation both with the Lord and with his church.
Some assert that the command against eating with the disciplined person means refusing him admission to the Lord’s Table, and this should certainly be part of the discipline. However, refusing to company with him or to eat with him seems to imply much more than this.
Socializing in a normal way with somebody who refuses to respond to the entreaties and concerns of good Christians who love him has a way of undermining the intended effect of the discipline. When you eat with such a person, and don’t bring up the issue with the church, you indicate to him that everything is fine as far as you are concerned.
Abstaining from a social relationship is a means of bringing them to repentance and restoration, which is the goal of church discipline. Our prayer is that they will “repent” (Luke 17:3–4) and seek forgiveness. It is that such a person “may be ashamed.” Refusing to engage in purely social relationships with disciplined former members can have the desired effect.
This principle also applies to relationships with some professing believers who are not yet officially disciplined by the church. We are told not to have company with “any man that is a brother” who is living in public immorality and other unchristian behavior. If we see them, certainly we should be polite to them, greet them cordially, and express our love to them, but we can keep the situation right if we also bring up the issue by asking, “Why won’t you get this thing right?”
A providential contact can be made into an admonishment rather than a social visit, if we bring up the issue. It can help the restoration process instead of undermining it if we give a loving reproof.
Ephesians 5:11 tells us to, “Have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them.” Reproof (bringing up the issue) clarifies our position about their sin so that we are not mistaken for endorsing it. It changes the social relationship into the admonishing relationship.
The Admonishing Relationship
Second Thessalonians 3:14–15, as we have already seen, tells us to “have no company” (using the same Greek word for the phrase as is used in 1 Corinthians 5) with a Christian who does not obey the words of Paul’s epistle, “that he may be ashamed.” But then it cautions us not to “count” (from the Greek word for deem, esteem, or consider) that man “as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother.”
Even church discipline does not require that we break all contact with the erring brother. We do not extend to him the privileges of church membership, but also we are not to treat him exactly as we do folks who were never church members.
Our disassociation with the straying Christian leaves the door open for us to “admonish him.” The application of this principle is obvious in church discipline situations. We must bring up the issue. “I have been praying that you will straighten this matter out with the Lord and the church.” We might add, “I am burdened for you and would really like to see you back in fellowship with God,” remembering Galatians 6:1–3.
Godly preachers who have had to distance themselves from other preachers whose words and actions appear to be contrary to the Word of God ought to maintain an admonishing relationship with the mistaken brethren, at least for a while. Sometimes compromisers can be won back to the right stand.
When a Gospel-preaching brother is wrong about an important issue, we ought not to treat him as an enemy, getting rid of what connections or channels of influence we have with him, without first using those open doors to admonish him. We must bring up the issue to keep it an admonishing relationship, but we need not make a total break with him over any and every issue right away.
Make it clear that you don’t go along with the way he is wrong, but affirm him in the ways he is right, and admonish him in love about his error. If you really are right, and he is really wrong, in time you may have some success in persuading him. Don’t forget about the admonishing relationship.
In Christian fellowship, there are not only two options: full separation or full cooperation. There is a third: admonition.