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Shunning is the English translation of the German word the Amish use for disfellowship. It sounds harsh — and the way the Amish do it can be very, very harsh — but there is a reason a church body might consider it. The New Testament teaches that certain spiritual conditions can require a limitation of fellowship as a part of church discipline. The collective teaching of the New Testament regarding church discipline clearly make the case for what I’m talking about.

First, “discipline” covers a wide range — from simple “teaching” to the ultimate “withdrawal of fellowship.” This means it may be administered by degrees, in keeping with the needs of the individual.

Examples are always nice, right?

An impenitent drunk, abusive to his family, disruptive of social fellowship, quickly sliding toward rock bottom may need to be disfellowshipped formally (1 Corinthians 5:11). I know someone this happened to and it made the bottom come a lot quicker and probably saved his life. Conversely, another person with a drinking problem who is sincerely struggling to conquer it, may not need withdrawal but may need to be restricted in class teaching or serving in a public capacity. Both are a form of disfellowship, but they vary in degrees.

It’s not, nor should it be, one size fits all. Church discipline can take various forms. Most Christians, and most churches, understand this. My objection is that we don’t do this very often anymore and we don’t do the withdrawal method at all.

The act of withdrawal is a congregational process which takes place in the public assembly of the local church (1 Corinthians 5:4). This bothers a lot of people. How dare you air someone’s “private business” in public!

I beg to differ. There is a reason baptism is done in public. Jesus said “If you are ashamed of Me before men, I will be ashamed of you in Heaven” Our Christian lives start with a public acknowledgment of our faith through the act of profession and faith. Why do we assume that our struggles are thereafter private?

Beyond that, it needs to be understood that fellowship certainly can extend beyond the borders of a local congregation. The notion that a rogue brother may not be chastised beyond the boundaries of the local church without that church’s “autonomy” being violated is foreign to Biblical truth. Paul “judged” the fornicating brother at Corinth from Ephesus, hundreds of miles away (1 Corinthians 5:3; 16:8). How did Paul know about it? Someone from Corinth communicated it to him.

Disfellowship should not be taken lightly and because we don’t like someone in the congregation. The New Testament provides guidelines for who may be restricted and why.

In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul clearly stated that unrepentant immoral persons (fornicators, drunkards, and extortionists) are worthy of church discipline. Such characters are to be “delivered unto Satan” (5:5), or “put away” (5:13), for their own soul’s sake (5:5), and for the protection of the church (5:6-7). The church of today is woefully remiss in this duty.

Those who “fall away” (Luke 8:13) or who “depart from the faith” (1 Timothy 4:1) were subject to some degree of discipline in the early churches. Formal withdrawal of fellowship may not be appropriate for a  newborn Christian who almost immediately leaves the faith, because that person may not even understand the significance of the act, but for those who have matured somewhat, and then depart, discipline surely should be exercised (2 Thessalonians 3:6,14-15).

The New Testament instructs us to “turn away from” those who teach divisive doctrines contrary to apostolic truth (Romans 16:17). A heretic, after proper admonition, should be rejected (Titus 3:10).

Hymenaeus and Alexander made “shipwreck of the faith,” and Paul “delivered them unto Satan”, meaning he severed fellowship with them (1 Corinthians 5:5) that they might be taught not to blaspheme (1 Timothy 1:19-20).

But how do we, who are not Jesus and who are so far from the 1st century Christian experience, to determine which teachings are significantly erroneous to warrant disciplinary action? When brethren hold opposite viewpoints on various points of Bible interpretation, quite obviously someone is in error, but a simple question is —

Does that error pose a threat to the eternal welfare of others.


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