The Matter of Withdrawal


     The New Testament church is unique and distinguishable in many ways. There is not a Pope or general overseeing, governing board that controls the local churches, for instance (denominational structure). Each local church is autonomous, superintended by elders, men who have met certain qualifications and are appointed by the church (I Pet. 5: 1-4, Acts 14: 23, I Tim. 3, Tit. 1: 5ff.). The Lord's church is essentially a spiritual institution that is designed to be the "pillar and ground of the truth" (I Tim. 3: 15). Involved in this support and foundation for and of the truth is the matter of teaching the pure gospel to the lost and edifying the saved (Eph. 4: 16, 2 Jn. 9-11). Jesus' church does not go by human names, such as Baptist (reference to baptism), Methodist (idea of order), or Lutheran (after the man, Martin Luther). Jesus' church is simply and descriptively mentioned as "the church of God," "the church," and "churches of Christ" (I Cor. 1: 2; Acts 9: 31; Rom. 16: 16). Another identifying feature of the First Century church was the practice of limited fellowship. This is seen, first of all, in the matter of the condition of fellowship, "walking in the light" and the act of withdrawal from any member "walking disorderly" (the opposite of "walking in the light," I Jn. 1: 3-10, 2 Thes. 3: 6). Please read a couple verses mostly unpracticed by the religious world:

     "6: Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us….14: 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. 15: Yet count him not as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother" (2 Thes. 3).

     The teaching of withdrawal is explicit. There is nothing esoteric or difficult to be understood about the foregoing teaching. The Greek word stello (withdraw) means to "shrink from a person" (W. E. Vine, Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words). It is rendered "avoided" in Second Corinthians 8: 20. "Walketh" is from the Greek peripateo and "signifies the whole round of the activities of the individual life" (Ibid.). The particular "form" of the word in 2 Thessalonians 3: 6 is peripatountos and it is genitive case, singular in number, masculine in gender, participle in verb form, and present tense (The Analytical Greek Lexicon, pg. 320). Hence, continuous action is being described in connection with "walketh," both words emphatically suggesting a steady course or lifestyle. "Disorderly" is from ataktos and has the basic meaning of, "with slackness (like soldiers not keeping rank)" (W. E. Vine). "Every" (pantos) shows there are no exceptions and "brother" (adelphou) is referring to the spiritual relationship. What Paul is teaching is a "command" and is being done by the authority or in the name of Jesus (cp. Col. 3: 17, Matt. 28: 18, Acts 4: 7-12).

     There is a prescribed course of conduct and it is the gospel of Jesus (cp. Gal. 2: 14). This is what is meant by "after the tradition which he received of us" (2 Thes. 3: 6, compare with "and if any man obey not our word by this espistle" in verse 14). The gospel is authoritative and must be obeyed by Christians or withdrawal action is required.

    The act of withdrawal in view of practiced sin is taught in many places. The teaching of 2 Thessalonians 3: 6 and 14 is found in different forms in many places. The impenitent brother who has sinned against another is to be "as an heathen man and a publican," Jesus said (Matt. 18: 17). Those who cause divisions contrary to "the doctrine" are to be "marked" and "avoided," said Paul (Rom. 16: 17). The factious man (one who forms a party) is to be "rejected" (Tit. 3: 10, 11). The immoral child of God is to be "delivered unto Satan," "taken away," and "purged out" and the teaching is, "not to company with fornicators" (I Cor. 5: 1-11). Hence, there is absolutely no doubt, indecision, or question about the matter of withdrawal. In the case of 2 Thessalonians 3: 6, 14, Paul is instructing the church (the collectivity) at Thessalonica (compare I Cor. 5: 4). The act of withdrawal or purging also applies to the individual (2 Tim. 2: 21, 16-20, I Cor. 5: 9). The church (collectivity) withdraws in that, in most cases, the elders make a formal statement to the church and the church makes the withdrawal action known to the member living in sin (often using a letter as an instrument of conveyance). The ungodly is not used in public worship or in any activities involving the local church. Individuals comprising the local church do not keep company with the withdrawn from in their social activities (I Cor. 5). They "admonish" him as a brother, though, and do not treat him antagonistically (2 Thes. 3: 15).

     The purpose of withdrawal. From the negative, withdrawal or church discipline is not an act of vengeance (2 Thes. 3: 15). It is not performed for corporal or physical punishment (the atrocious acts of historic Catholicism do not even resemble the teaching of the scriptures).

     Withdrawal is done to maintain honor and respect for Bible authority (Col. 3: 17 cp. 2 Thes. 3: 6). The act is designed to maintain the purity of the local church (I Cor. 5: 6, 7). The respect of the world should be achieved (cp. Acts 5: 1-11). The act is intended to also save the member living in sin (I Cor. 5: 5). Withdrawal is spiritually punitive in design and nature (2 Cor. 2: 6, reference is apparently made to the man of chapter five of the First Letter, the man who was living in fornication but has now repented as a result of the withdrawal taught and practiced, vs. 1-11. Notice how their withdrawal was "proof" of their obedience "in all things," vs. 9).

     The subjects of withdrawal action. As seen, those who break ranks and live in rebellion (ataktos, "disorderly," 2 Thes. 3: 6). There are specific cases mentioned of walking disorderly. Those who do not provide for their own, for instance, are considered to be walking disorderly (2 Thes. 3: 11, 12, cp. I Tim. 5: 8). Busybodies are also specifically mentioned in the context of 2 Thessalonians 3: 6 (see vs. 11, 12). The immoral person and those who cause division are given as examples (I Cor. 5; Rom. 16: 16, 17). The drunkard, covetous, idolater, extortioner, and railer are subjects of withdrawal (I Cor. 5: 9-11). Even an elder who refuses to repent is to be "rebuked before all, that others also may fear" (I Tim. 5: 20). Again, these are professing Christians who are practicing sin and refuse to repent. These are also people concerning whom there is proof of their sins (I Cor. 5: 1ff., I Tim. 5: 19).

     The responsibility of those who withdraw. There is the express obligation to "not keep company with" and "with such an one not to eat" (I Cor. 5: 11, "not to eat" I believes refers to the common practice in the East of sharing a common meal as an indication of union and acceptance). All contact is not forbidden, providing the contact be to "admonish" (2 Thes. 3: 15). The purpose of the withdrawal is, "note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed" (2 Thes. 3: 14). Withdrawal presupposes there is previous association. The early Christians were very close and often together (Acts 2: 42, 46).

     The circumstance of withdrawal. As already noticed, there is practiced sin and proof of the sin. There is also the lack of willingness to repent of the sin or sins. Out of love for the one in sin and a desire to remove any leavening influence in the church, there must be efforts made to teach, restore, and urge the erring to make correction. Even the factious man (one out to cause division and gain a following) is to be given the "first and second admonition" (Tit. 3: 10, 11, this shows that in some cases, there is a sense of urgency in the action). The teaching and warning should be practiced by all (I Cor. 5: 4, 5).

     Guarded fellowship and the souls of men are two matters involved in the impetus for withdrawal. When discipline (preventive teaching and withdrawal action when teaching is refused) is impartially practiced, the church should be kept pure and respect for God and his word should prevail. Too many churches, though, have simply become social clubs where the paramount goal is to placate the present members and increase numbers by gaining more people, regardless of the methods used or the violation of fellowship principles. Prospective fellowship was a matter carefully considered by the early church (cp. Acts 9: 26, 27). There were "letters of commendation" to introduce unknown Christians to a new church, provided by the church where they were previously a member (2 Cor. 3: 1, a practice often forgotten by even some churches of Christ today). Some churches today have stopped practicing withdrawal out of fear of lawsuits against them. There are churches, though, that continue being the Lord's church, by striving to do all things commanded, including withdrawal.  (To expand your study of withdrawal, I recommend you consider, "Questions and Answers about Withdrawal.")