The shock of disunity

Christians regard unity as being of primary importance, reflecting a theme that runs through the Scriptures: unity is where God bestows his blessing (Ps 133); Christian unity testifies to Christ’s identity and his love for his church (John 17:23); unity in the church glorifies God (Rom 15:5-6); and we are commanded to be united because there is one body and one Spirit (Eph 4:3-6). In fact, unity in the faith is the goal of Christian ministry and edification in the church (Eph 4:11-16).

Against the backdrop of this mountain of teaching in the Bible, the follow­ing statement from the Apostle Paul to the church in Thessalonica should grab our attention:

If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.
(2 Thess 3:14-15)

Christian ‘disassociation’

The command to disassociate and to ‘have nothing to do with him’ should probably shock us. Association is tied to unity. We associate with somebody when we spend time in friendship with them. It is the very basis of unity; it is a mark of a relationship involving some form of partnership. How should we understand being told to have nothing to do with someone? We think of all the instances when the Bible commands Christians to associate with one another, regardless of culture, gender, age, class or even differences on disputable matters (e.g. Rom 12:16, 14:1; Gal 2:14). Naturally, then, we ‘hate’ disunity.

It may be for these reasons we think less about, even sidestep, passages such as 2 Thessalonians 3:14-15. However, clear commands are given in Scripture for a purpose. There are important and crucial reasons why Christians should, in certain situations, leave churches. So too there are situations in which it is not only good and right but also vital that Christians withdraw fellowship or partnership from other Christians.

It’s well worth treating the subject of what we may call ‘biblically authorized disunity’ a little more seriously. Paul’s command in 2 Thessalonians is a central verse to consider, but it comes in the context of a whole series of similar commands that run through the New Testament.

The command to break fellowship:

1. With questionable ‘Christians’

A command for Christians to stop associating with hypocritical ‘Christians’ comes in 1 Corinthians 5:11. As a judgment on those inside the church whose wickedness necessitates that they be considered either ‘shipwrecked’ or false Christians, we’re commanded to break fellowship with anyone who calls himself a Christian but is not living as one. Any of a whole list of ungodly lifestyles would apply.

In this passage in 1 Corinthians 5, and others like it, Paul specifically lists:

  • sexual immorality, including impurity, debauchery and orgies, adulterers, male prostitutes, and homosexual offenders
  • idolatry, including witchcraft
  • hatred, including discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions, envy and slanderers
  • greed, including thieves and swindlers
  • drunkenness.

It should be confronting to us that hatred and greed, sins that we might think less serious, are listed alongside drunkenness, idolatry and sexual immorality. We also see elsewhere that the same model of discipline in 1 Corinthians 5 applies, for example, to divisiveness:

As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned. (Titus 3:10-11)

In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul commands that if a person in the church is living such a lifestyle, the church should put him out of their fellowship. This expulsion is in reality “deliver[ing] this man to Satan”, but the purpose is encouraging. Rather than being the ultimate sign of condemnation, this discipline is a last resort attempt at rescue; it is for the purpose of the “destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (1 Cor 5:5).

It is not only for the good of the church, but also for the salvation of the person concerned, that Christians should terminate fellowship with such a professing ‘Christian’ who nonetheless continues to walk in wickedness.

We know from Ephesians 5:5 and other statements like it that somebody with such a lifestyle—if characterized by continuing in such habitual sin—was not regarded by Paul as a true Christian.

For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not become partners with them … (Eph 5:5-7)

In fact, about the Corinthians specifically he writes:

And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God … Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. (1 Cor 6:11, 18)

It is very important to realize that in relation to unbelievers, those who make no profession to be Christians, the Bible clearly teaches that Christians should (of course!) continue to associate with them regardless, not only for the sake of the gospel, but also because their judgment is not our business, and nor is their judgment by us practically possible (1 Cor 5:10, 12).

2. With false teachers

Paul and the apostles apply a similar logic to false teachers as they do to ‘wicked Christians’. It was in the context of false teachers in Corinth influencing the church there that Paul gave his famous command in 2 Corinthians 6:14, 17: “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers … Therefore go out from their midst, and be separate from them, says the Lord …”.

Also, in a similar vein, Paul names Hymenaeus as one whom he had “handed over to Satan”, (the exact same phrase as applied to the sexually immoral man of 1 Corinthians 5), so that Hymenaeus will “learn not to blaspheme” (1 Tim 1:20). Later in 2 Timothy 2:17-18 we find out that Hymenaeus had wandered from the truth and was teaching a message that would spread like gangrene, saying that the resurrection had already taken place, and in so doing destroying the faith of some. In contrast Paul commands Timothy to “fight the good fight” by “holding [onto] faith and a good conscience” (1 Tim 1:19).

2 John 1:10-11 is an example of an even stronger command in this regard:

If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching [they do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh], do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works.

The New Testament actually promises that such false teachers will come into the church, secretly introducing heresies and exploiting the church in their greed with made-up stories. Worse still, many will follow them and bring Christianity into question. These are warnings we should not quickly skim over.

But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. (2 Pet 2:1-3)

What such commands indicate is that it is never ‘Christian’ to put unity above doctrinal purity in the church. We may hate disunity, but we should loathe more ungodliness and falsehood in the body of Christ. Such unity jeopardizes the health of the church and, by trying to save the unity of Christians, we will kill it with sin and corruption.

Unity for the sake of unity is not Biblical unity at all. Unity for the sake of purity is what the Bible commands. That is, our unity should be applied in an exclusive way—in order to preserve others and ourselves as a true and faithful body.

As a result, obedience to the call of the New Testament to ‘disassociate’ with false or corrupt believers has actually been a God-glorifying trend in church history that again and again has saved and preserved the true church from oppression and extinction, the Reformation from Catholicism being the well-known example. Thus, church divisions (or ‘splits’) can in truth often be a God-given grace to preserve true and authentic groups of believers from compromising groups who, backsliding into error or ungodliness, refuse to conform to truth or holiness (2 Tim 4:3).

3. With true but disobedient Christians

But in 2 Thessalonians 3:14-15 we have something different to wicked ‘Christians’ or false teachers:

If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.

This is a brother. This is not somebody to be regarded as an enemy, as we should a false teacher or a false Christian walking in unashamed wickedness within the church. This is a loved member: someone part of the family.

However, they are disobedient. They are not following the instructions of the New Testament, not because of gross wickedness such as immorality (that would bring into question their Christianity), but with simple disobedience to a clear command such as the one against idleness:

Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us … Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. As for you, brothers, do not grow weary in doing good. (2 Thess 3:6-7, 12-13)

This is a clear matter of submission to the authority of Paul by following both his direct instruction and his example in the model he laid down for Christian life and godliness. Again, this is clearly speaking about a brother in the Lord, though they are disobedient and in need of serious warning. The reason for refusing to associate with him is so that he will feel ashamed and, by God’s grace, come to repentance.

This passage in 2 Thessalonians is no isolated text in its teaching. Jesus himself instructed that the discipline of a sinful brother in the church should ultimately end, after a process, in disassociating from him by withdrawal of fellowship: “let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matt 18:17).

Acts 5:1-11 is a monumental example of how seriously God wants us to treat holiness among Christians, his church. Here God himself acts to bring his discipline by striking down Ananias and his wife, following an enormous gift of money that they had contributed to the church. They sold their property, giving part of the proceeds to the church, but deceitfully acting as though the money they were giving was the full amount received for the land.

1 Corinthians 11:17-34 is another significant passage for this subject. Here we have immature, unspiritual Christians who are failing to love one another in the most basic ways in their church meetings. There are divisions, there is self-service, there is indulgence:

For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized. When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk. (1 Cor 11:18-21)

According to the Apostle Paul in verse 19, this type of disunity in the church is unavoidable. Factions must occur in order to separate out from genuine Christianity those who are not walking authentically; that is, those not living in obedience. Again, these are Christians. These are brothers and sisters in the Lord. But again, too, the Lord’s discipline is no light matter: “That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died” (1 Cor 11:30).

Paul’s advice and encouragement is very significant:

But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world. (1 Cor 11:31-32)

We ought to judge ourselves. This includes Christians judging other Christians. The church ought to judge the church, as this discipline is for our salvation, so that we will not fall under condemnation. There is a big difference between judgment and condemnation here. One is discipline for the sake of salvation; the other is final punishment without salvation.

When to leave a church?

All of the above apply similarly to the question of church membership. In the same way as for an individual Christian, if a so-called ‘church’ is characterized by leaders and members whose Christianity is self-professed but not self-evident, whose lifestyles are marked by the same sin as the unbelieving world, then true Christians are called to withdraw fellowship from such Christians—they should leave that church. Don’t wait indefinitely for a true leader who may not exist to exercise some level of church discipline: “do not become partners with them” (Eph 5:7).

If a church continues in false teach­ing, or if the leadership of a church continues to tolerate false teaching, contrary to the sound doctrine of the New Testament and according to godliness (cf. Gal 1:6-10)—don’t follow them or continue in that church, and in so doing bring the truth into disrepute: “go out from their midst, and be separate from them” (2 Cor 6:17).

Those instances of course call for drastic action. But the challenge here is that much of this teaching may also apply in part to some of our dearly loved believers in the Lord. Perhaps an individual Christian, but perhaps even a whole church, if they or their leadership are characterized by the type of immaturity and lack of obedience to the Scriptures that we see in 2 Thessalonians 3.

Whether there be a direct instruction they ignore, or simply an indifference to the clear Christian lifestyle laid down for us in the godliness and ministry of the apostles, the point is that such brothers—dearly loved family—in their disobedient, ignorance, or gross immaturity, need the warning of your obedience to the command of 2 Thessalonians 3:14-15.

By leaving such a church, your action may shame some into repenting, with God’s mercy. If not, by his grace, you will have at least saved yourself and any of those whom God may also be kind enough to bring with you.

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