In this short series I'd like to look at the Scriptures quoted by the religious purists of our own day to support their practice of "withdrawing fellowship" from people who disagree with them. We will see that these Scriptures have been "wrested" in order to make them mean something quite different from what they actually say.
The expression "withdraw fellowship" is often regarded by Christadelphians as preferable to "disfellowship" (although that is still a very common term) or "excommunicate", because it is claimed to be a Biblical expression. Christadelphians almost certainly adopted this practice from the Disciples/Churches of Christ (sometimes called "Campbellites" by Christadelphians, but more accurately described as the Stone-Campbell Movement) who also use the term "withdraw fellowship" in some circles. Robert Roberts' Guide to the Formation and Conduct of Christadelphian ecclesias (1883, aka "The Ecclesial Guide") in referring to an "offender" says it is an ecclesia's "duty to separate him from their fellowship by withdrawal".
The expression "withdraw fellowship" does not occur in the Bible. However, religious purists usually quote 2 Thessalonians 3:6 from the King James Version in support of their fellowship practices.
"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."
To understand this verse we first need to understand the context. Thessalonica was a free city (urbs libera) within the Roman Empire. One of the privileges of being a free city was that freedom from taxation (libertas cum immunitate) was granted, and direct descendants of original families, as well as retired soldiers, were supported by the dole if they registered and requested it.
This status as a free city provided a lot of opportunity for leisure. Being devoid of scholastic opportunities, the tendency was for many of the men to degenerate into lazy and irresponsible louts and loungers, ready for any excitement which might be aroused to offset the monotony (and Acts 17:5 provides a hint as to how easy it was to find people of that type in Thessalonica).
This explains why Paul emphasised to the Thessalonian believers the necessity of securing honest employment, holding it, and earning one's own livelihood. He mentioned this in his first letter:
- Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody. (1 Th 4:11-12).
- Surely you remember, brothers, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you. (1 Th 2:9)
We should especially note the immediate context. Paul's makes it clear in the words that follow that he is referring to the problem of laziness which was rife in the Thessalonian community.
- For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example. We were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone's food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you. We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to make ourselves a model for you to follow. For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: "If a man will not work, he shall not eat." (2 Th 3:7-10).
The KJV expression "walketh disorderly" has been used by religious purists to expel anyone who doesn't measure up to their standards, doctrinal or behavioural. In the Thessalonian context we can see that the NIV's translation "every brother who is idle" is a reference to the problem of idleness in Thessalonica. Other translations render it similarly:
- "Keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness" (RSV)
- "Refuse to have anything to do with those among you who are lazy and refuse to work the way we taught you. Don't permit them to freeload on the rest." (The Message)
- "Withdraw and keep away from every brother (fellow believer) who is slack in the performance of duty and is disorderly, living as a shirker" (Amplified Bible)
- "Keep away from all brothers who are living a lazy life." (TEV)
- "Hold aloof from every Christian brother who falls into idle habits." (NEB)
The word "withdraw" is from the Greek stello which means "to avoid, to hold aloof." There is not the slightest hint of congregational, ecclesial or corporate action. There is no public or formal discipline. Nothing is done to the idle person. He is simply left where he is while the brethren step back from him. To "withdraw yourselves" means to step back, to retreat, or to retire from the scene. It does not mean to expel or remove. The phrase "have no company with him" (v. 14) is intended to forbid the extending of hospitality. It would preclude invitations to social gatherings to which the idle might flock and at which they would eat at the expense of others.
We should also note that the one from whom the brethren are to step back or hold themselves aloof is referred to as a brother, although a lazy one who is living in idleness. Paul twice refers to the lazy individual as a brother. There is absolutely no justification for the practice amongst religious purists of refusing to call a disfellowshipped person a brother. This practice in the Christadelphian community began with John Thomas and Robert Roberts who, after they had fallen out with a brother, thereafter referred to him as "Mr". But there is no Scriptural justification for it - a brother does not cease to be a brother just because you disagree with him, or even if you "withdraw" from him.
It is almost impossible to imagine how the tangled maze of disciplinary action - accusation, boycott, disfellowship, and congregational exclusivism - has grown out of this passage. When authoritarians seek justification for their bullying attitudes they undoubtedly find that the words "withdraw yourselves" provide a handy tool to satisfy their divisiveness and they appropriate them as a weapon in the arsenal of factionalism.