Where to draw the line: the command to break fellowship

Pentecostals, like most Evangelicals, regard unity as of primary importance, reflecting an entire theme that runs through the Scriptures: unity is where God bestows his blessing (Psalm 133); Christian unity testifies to Christ’s identity and his love for his Church (John 17:23); unity in the Church glorifies God (Romans 15:5-6); we are commanded to be united because there is one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all (Ephesians 4:3-6); it is the goal of Christian ministry and edification in the Church (Ephesians 4:11-16).
Against the backdrop of this mountain of teaching on unity in the Bible, including an enormous emphasis in the Bible on oneness, agreeing with one another and putting aside differences, etc, the following verse should zap our attention like static electricity:
“If anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take special note of him. Do not associate with him, in order that he may feel ashamed. Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.” (2 Thessalonians 3:14-15)
Association / unity / partnership
Association is tied to unity. We associate with somebody when we spending time in friendship with that person; it is the very basis of fellowship; it is a mark of a relationship. More formally, we might call ‘associates’ those whom we are in partnership with, the people we work with.
Associate (verb used without object):
  1. to enter into union; unite.
  2. to keep company, as a friend, companion or ally.
  3. to join together as partners or colleagues.
Christian ‘disassociation’ / Christian disunity
We are accustomed to thinking of the instances when the Bible rebukes Christians for not associating with one another. As already described, the New Testament is very clear on the importance of Christians ‘fellowshipping’ with other Christians regardless or culture, gender, age, class, opinion on disputable matters etc. (Some examples include Acts 10:28; Romans 12:16; 14:1 ff). As a result Christians typically ‘hate’ disunity.
It may be for this reason we think less about, even sidestep, passages such as 2 Thessalonians 3:14-15. However such clear commands are given in Scripture for very good reason. 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 imperative and vital that Christians withdraw fellowship or partnership from other Christians.
So it’s well worth treating the subject of Christian disunity a little more seriously.  Paul’s command in 2 Thessalonians 3:14-15 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’
1 Corinthians 5:11 is a command for Christians to stop associating with hypocritical ‘Christians’; that is, with anyone who calls himself a Christian but is not living as a Christian. This is to be a judgment on those inside the church whose fruit of wickedness necessitates they be either shipwrecked Christians or otherwise, even false Christians.
Any of a whole list of ungodly lifestyles applies. In 1 Corinthians 5 and others like it Paul specifically lists:
  1. Sexual immorality, including impurity, debauchery and orgies, adulterers, male prostitutes, homosexual offenders;
  2. Idolatry, including witchcraft;
  3. Hatred, including discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions, envy and slanderers;
  4. Greed, including thieves and swindlers;
  5. Drunkenness.
It should be confronting to us that hatred and the like, along with greed and the like, are listed along side drunkenness, idolatry and sexual immorality. We also see elsewhere that the same model of discipline as in 1 Corinthians 5 applies, for example, to divisiveness:
Warn a divisive person once, and then warn him a second time. After that, have nothing to do with him. You may be sure that such a man is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned. (Titus 3:10-11)
In 1 Corinthians 5 Paul commands that with such a one as this in the church, the church should put him out of their fellowship (1 Corinthians 5:2, 13). This expulsion is in reality ‘handing him over to Satan’, but the purpose it at least encouraging. Rather than an ultimate sign of condemnation, this discipline is a last resort attempt at rescue: it is in order that his “sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved.”
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 and continuing in such habitual sin – was not regarded by Paul as a true Christian.
For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person--such a man is an idolater--has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God's wrath comes on those who are disobedient. Therefore do not be partners with them. (Ephesians 5:5-7)
Or in the words of the ESV: ‘do not associate with them’ (Ephesians 5:7, ESV).
In fact, about the Corinthians specifically he writes:
And that is what some of you were. 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… [Therefore] flee from sexual immorality… (1 Corinthians 6:11, 18)
It is vital 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, not only for the sake of the gospel, but also because: 1. their judgment is not our business, and 2. nor is their judgment practically possible by us (1 Corinthians 5:10, 12).
2. With False teachers
Paul and the Apostles apply a similar logic to false teachers as 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 6:14-18: “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers…Therefore come out from them and be separate, says the Lord…”
Also in similar vein Paul names Hymenaeus, one whom he had “handed over to Satan,” (exact same phrase as applied to the sexually immoral man of 1 Corinthians 5), this time though so that Hymenaeus will be “taught not to blaspheme.” (1 Timothy 1:20) Later in 2 Timothy 2:17 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.’
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 take him into your house or welcome him. Anyone who welcomes him shares in his wicked work.
The New Testament actually promises that such false prophets, and 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 skim over:
But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them--bringing swift destruction on themselves. Many will follow their shameful ways and will bring the way of truth into disrepute. In their greed these teachers will exploit you with stories they have made up… (2 Peter 2:1-3)
What such commands indicate is that it is never ‘Christian’ to put unity above purity in the Church. We may ‘hate’ disunity, but we must hate ungodliness and falsehood more. Otherwise such unity jeopardizes the health the church and individual Christians, and thus by trying to save the unity of the church, we will kill it with sin and corruption. Unity for the sake of unity is not unity at all. Unity for the sake of purity is what the Bible commands; that meaning our unity should be applied in an exclusive way in order to preserve oneself and others as a true and faithful Church.
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 the Dark Ages of Catholicism is a well-known example. Thus, Church division (or ‘splits’) are in truth often a God-given grace to preserve true and authentic groups of believers from compromising groups that, backsliding into error or ungodliness, refuse to conform to the 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 our instruction in this letter, take special note of him. Do not associate with him, in order that he may feel ashamed. Yet 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 with regard to gross wickedness, but with regard to a matter such as idleness.
In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers, to keep away from every brother who is idle and does not live according to the teaching you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example… Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the bread they eat. And as for you, brothers, never tire of doing what is right. (2 Thessalonians 3:6-13)
This is a simple matter of submission to authority of the Apostle, by following both his direct instruction and his example in the model he laid down for Christian life and godliness. Again, this is clearly a brother in the Lord, though disobedient and in need of warning. The reason for refusing to associate with him is so that he will feel ashamed, and by God’s grace, come to repentance.
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13 is no isolated text in this train of teaching. 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 (Acts 5:1-11). This precedent from God in the Early Church is analogous to the lesson for Israel in Joshua 7 following Achan’s sin following their first steps of entry into the Land promised to Abraham.
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 sense in their church meetings. There are divisions, there is self-serving, there is indulgence:
In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you…When you come together, it is not the Lord's Supper you eat, for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else. One remains hungry, another gets drunk. (1 Corinthians 11:18-21)
Again, these are Christians. These are brothers and sisters in the Lord. But again too the Lord’s discipline is no light matter: “many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 11:30). Revelation 2:23 is an even more serious example.
Paul’s advice and encouragement are very significant:
But if we judged ourselves, we would not come under judgment. When the Lord judges us, we are being disciplined so that we will not be condemned with the world. (1 Corinthians 11:30-32)
  1. We ought to judge ourselves. This includes Christians judging other Christians. The church ought to judge the church.
  2. Such 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.
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: “treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector” (Matthew 18:17).
When to leave a church?
All of the above applies similarly to the question of church attendance. In the same way as for an individual Christian, if a so-called ‘church’ is characterised by leaders and members whose Christianity is only 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 whatever true leader may not exist to exercise some level of church discipline: ‘do not associate with them’ (Ephesians 5:7).
If a church continues in false teaching, or if the leadership of a church continues to tolerate false teaching – teaching that is contrary to the sound doctrine of the New Testament and according to godliness, or if they teach a gospel that is different to the gospel of the Apostles of the New Testament (cf. Gal 1:6-10) – don’t follow them or continue in that church and in so doing bring the truth into disrepute: “come out from them and be separate” (2 Corinthians 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 also. Perhaps an individual Christian, but perhaps even a whole church, if they or their leadership are characterised 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 the whole example laid down for us in the godliness and ministry of the Apostle’s model—the point is that such brothers – dearly loved family – in their disobedient, ignorance, or gross immaturity need the warning of your obedience to this command of Scripture:
“If anyone does not obey our instruction...
Do not associate with him, in order that he may feel ashamed.
Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.”
(2 Thessalonians 3:14-15)
By leaving such a church your action may just 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 bring with you.

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