Withdrawal, in Cases of Family Members


     Paulís teaching to the church at Thessalonica is explicit and universal: "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" (2 Thes. 3). The command to "withdraw" is often a revealing command, revealing those willing to follow the teaching of Godís word and those whom we might describe as nominal. The command entails much heartache as faithful Christians have withdrawn from a member of the local church and also even from physical family members, such as a son or daughter or a husband or wife. Alas, the command or, rather, the misunderstanding of the command has resulted in needless division and extreme applications.

     First, allow me to suggest that while the command to withdraw involves the spiritual, it also entails the social; hence, physical matters. "11: But now I have written unto you 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," Paul instructed the church at Corinth, I Cor. 5). To "keep company," often involves the physical and "no not to eat" includes social activities. However, some err because they do not more closely examine the physical and spiritual. For instance, consider the command: "10: If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed:  11: For he that biddeth him God speed is partaker of his evil deeds" (2 John). "You sinned," say some brethren, "because you allowed the false teacher into your house in order to have a Bible study!" I do not believe John simply has the physical dwelling in mind in his prohibition. Commentator Albert Barnes thus wrote regarding "receiving him into your house": "Öwe are not to receive them into our houses, or to entertain them as religious teachers; we are not to commend them to others, or to give them any reason to use our names or influence in propagating errorÖ" (Barnes on the New Testament, Vol. 10, p. 365). I believe Johnís point is that the Christian is not to provide the lodging for a false teacher while he exerts his erroneous doctrinal influence and the Christian is not to "greet him" in the sense of leading him to believe that he has Godís approval for his error. "Öno not to eat" entails more that simply the social or physical, I am convinced. In the First Century, a physical meal often symbolically involved intimacy and acceptance. Commentator David Lipscomb wrote: "Then, too, to eat a common meal with a man was to acknowledge him as a worthy equal. The Jews would not eat with the publicans and sinners, and strongly condemned Jesus for doing so" (A Commentary on the New Testament Epistles, Vol. 13, p. 79, see addendum 1).

     What is my point relative to mentioning the spiritual and physical aspects of withdrawal, you might ask. I am simply endeavoring to stimulate the thinking of the Bible student and introduce a more serious examination of the biblical concept of withdrawal, especially moving toward the withdrawal of family members.

     As a preliminary matter, the student of the Bible must realize on a practical and functional level that the commands of God involve a number of command relationship points. For instance, if we reject one command, we are biblically labeled as outlaws, having rejected all of Godís commands (Jas. 2: 1-13). One law may take such priority over another command as to require the immediate stoppage of the first command and the executing of the more pressing command (cp. Matt. 5: 23, 24). Also and especially pertinent to our present study, there can be two commands that both simultaneously apply and regulate (cp. I Cor. 16: 1, 2; I Tim. 5: 8, see Matthew 15: 3-8). In the case of our study, two commands shall be seen governing the Christian, but in their simultaneity, addressing and regulating different areas. One condition that presents some challenge and thinking is that the scriptures do not provide explicit and detailed teaching that in so many words spells out what the conduct of the Christian is to be. However, I think we can determine based on inference, inference that is necessarily deduced.

     The case of the withdrawn from husband or wife. I do not know of any teaching, as conceded, that in detail addresses the withdrawal of a husband or wife in terms of the responsibilities of the mate who remains spiritually faithful to God. Paul does address the circumstances of the Christian married to an "unbeliever" and says, "13: And the woman which hath an husband that believeth not, and if he be pleased to dwell with her, let her not leave him" (I Cor. 7). Peter wrote about a husband who obeyed "not the word," but in the instruction to the wife indicated she was to remain his wife (I Pet. 3: 1, ff, see addendum 2).

     Godís teaching provides directives relative to both husband and wife and their marital duties and privileges one to another (Eph. 5: 22-33). Does the command to "withdraw" apply to either a husband or wife? I think so. Does withdrawal, then, allow or force the remaining mate into leaving the marriage and constitute another cause for divorce, this is our paramount study question.

     According to the teaching of a number of brethren, withdrawal demands the ceasing of all social contacts and intercourse. The only exception allowed by some is contact in order to rebuke and teach (cp. 2 Thes. 3:14). Some have espoused the concept that the withdrawn from are to be treated as "dead" (the old practice of actually having a burial for the "excommunicated") and all contact forbidden.

     Back in the seventies, I was brought into the problems of a local church regarding withdrawal. Their problem was a male member had been withdrawn from by the church and they were in the process of withdrawing from his spiritually faithful wife because she would not divorce her husband only based on his withdrawal. "She continues to live with him as his wife, having a number of social interactions with him," they explained. Some tried to make a list of things she could not do; such as but not limited to: share a meal with him; keep company with him; etc.

     She, the wife, continued to be governed by the scriptures that regulate marriage and, remember, there is no provision for divorce simply based on withdrawal of the mate. She also was regulated by "withdraw yourselves." How can both commands be at the same time applicable and binding? She could, as I explained to those brethren, continue to be a faithful Christian and also a faithful wife. However, there would be of necessity spiritual changes in their marriage. In the first place, she would have to make it plain to her husband that the relationship of being "heirs together of the grace of life" no longer applies (I Pet. 3: 7). Would even her domestic relationship at times be strained due to the withdrawal? Yes. However, in such a case, there are dual commands that both must be respected (see addendum 3).

     The case of the child and parents. As seen in the circumstance of the husband and wife, there are dual commands in place. Both children and parents have duties to God and to parents and children, respectively. Moreover, just as in the case of the husband and wife, this dual functional relationship is based first on their relationship to God. Hence, while our relationship to God constitutes one area, it also serves as the stimulus, foundation, and precipitation for the other (cp. Eph. 5: 22; 6: 1ff.). I recall having heard that the father of a certain friend was seriously ill; so, when I could, I asked my friend about his father. "Yes, my father is reportedly in serious condition, but I have not seen or talked with him in years." I asked him why he had not contacted his dying father. "My father was withdrawn from about ten years ago and I do not have any social contact with him, whatsoever!"

     Upon being told this, I asked my friend about the command to "honor thy father" (Eph. 6: 1). I further inquired as to the medical and financial needs of his father. "I must obey the command to "withdraw yourselves," therefore, I do not intend to inquire or go to assist my father, even though he is reportedly dying," he said.

     He viewed me as weak and disobedient because I urged him to immediately go to his father. I explained, "Go to your father and see to his needs and show your love for him, you can honor him without granting your spiritual endorsement and, so, fulfill both your responsibility as a son and as a Christian."

     Regarding a child, I recall the case of a minor child that the parents no longer viewed as a faithful Christian. In fact, he was withdrawn from by the local church. While heartbreaking to all parents who have gone through such, this is just the beginning of the case I recall. The minor son, I think he was fourteen, was expelled from the household and placed on the streets because the parents thought "withdraw yourselves" in their circumstance required this action (I have also heard of minor daughters being put out on the streets). It ended up a big mess with the law being brought into the matter with charges against the parents being filed.

     Again, parents can obey both commands, the duty to respond to the needs of their children and at the same time, respect the teaching of the scriptures in the matter of "withdraw yourselves." Would their spiritual relationship toward their child change? Yes. They would have to make it plain that they no longer had any spiritual endorsement or spiritual fellowship with him. While not harping on it, they would also seek opportunities to rebuke him, while continuing to demonstrate their parental love for him. Could such apply also to children who are adults and out of their fatherís house? Yes, I believe so. Again, there must be no fellowship with a spiritually wayward adult child, but the parent/child relationship continues! Can it be a difficult matter to do, such as resembling walking a tight rope? Yes, at times it can be (see addendum 4).

     I appreciate and commend all who have sought to, "withdraw yourselves." I know it can be hard and heart wrenching, especially in the case of physical family members. However, let us not become so intent and focused on doing one command that we exclude an equally binding command (as we have seen in the case of parents and children). Let us also avoid taking an extreme position and using it to judge all others. The dual commands, albeit at times a challenge to concurrently execute, can and must both be obeyed.  (To read more about biblical withdrawal in general, click on "The Matter of Withdrawal.") 

     Addendum 1: Please do not think that I am attempting to distinguish between the spiritual and physical to the point of necessarily excluding either the spiritual or physical (2 Thes. 3: 14). However, there is a difference in the physical and spiritual, especially on certain gradated levels. The command, "withdraw yourselves" (2 Thes. 3: 6) involves the physical, our person or presence. However, the basic milieu is spiritual. Withdrawing ourselves entails our joint participation with them in spiritual matters and our spiritual approval of them; in other words, our fellowship. It is not so much our physical presence (such is included, generally), but our approval and joint participation with them in spiritual matters (fellowship) that really matters and is meant (cp. 2 John 9-11, Eph. 5: 10, 11). A failure to appreciate this distinction and difference has encouraged the thinking of spiritual fellowship as simply physical. The expression, "We had fellowship last Sunday," has come to mean, we shared a common, physical meal, etc.

     Addendum 2: I do not mention the circumstance of Paul and Peterís teaching to ignore or exclude Jesusí provision of divorcement in the case of fornication (Matt. 19: 9). While definitive detail is not provided by Peter, Peterís scenario probably comes closer to the situation of our study.

     Addendum 3: As I recall, the wife respected both commands and their respective consequent requirements. However, some continued to force their position that she had to leave her husband or be herself withdrawn from to the point of dividing the whole church.

     Addendum 4: I have observed that in some cases, this failure to demarcate between the domestic and directly spiritual relationship has resulted in ancestry and family religion. By this I mean a son that primarily out of a sense of fear of being put out of the household or disowned as a family member continues to attend and possess a form of Christianity. Our first object is to be our relationship with God and putting Him first in all things (Matt. 6: 33).