In our series on spiritual warfare we have recently transitioned from identifying various enemies to how Scripture instructs us on confronting and countering them. First, we returned to the danger within Christian gatherings, ministries, or other areas of influence that have been infiltrated by false prophets/teachers. With this, we saw that God in His wisdom has described how believers are to deal with such enemies, specifically through those whom God has gifted and called to teach His people. Good shepherds are to confront false shepherds with the truths of God’s Word in order to confront doctrinal and practical errors. Christians generally are to resist the false teaching and counter it with spiritual growth. In this post we want to turn our attention from the shepherds to the sheep, specifically those among us who have made false profession that have become evident either through their doctrinal beliefs or practical living.
Recall that previously we identified several passages of Scripture that are meant to alert us to the danger of a false profession via Scriptural tests and warnings. These of course apply first to us, as we seek to remove the log from our own eys, and then as an outworking to others as we view their beliefs and how their lives align with Scripture. In other words, we are to observe in others the evidence for the fruits of salvation. Should we find inconsistency, as with 1 John’s tests of doctrine, obedience, and love, God has given instruction to His people on how they are to deal with this nominalism, hypocrisy, and fraudulent witness. Again, we ought to remind ourselves that in our study thus far, we have not observed any emphasis on a declaration of spiritual war against unbelievers using weapons of any kind, nor have we looked at any engagement with spiritual beings such as demons, apart from noting the twin devices of Satan for temptation and deception.
In opening our study on this particular aspect of spiritual warfare where believers are called to confront nominalism, we return to the gospels for our foundational framework where we find three primary principles: confrontation, disfellowship, and reconciliation.
15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed[f] in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”Matthew 18:15-20
In the passage above from Matthew, we find our first principle in verse 15 wherein our Lord describes the process of confronting a brother sinning against another brother. In this initial confrontation, the offended brother informs the offending brother of the sin that has occurred. If the confrontation is successful and the brother listens by recognizing his sin and asking forgiveness, our Lord says we have gained a brother. If he does not listen, the second step of confrontation is initiated by taking along 2-3 witnesses. This follows the Old Covenant pattern of witnesses to establish support for testifying against the offending brother (Num. 35:30; Deut. 17:6; 19:15). Failure at this point initiates the third step in confrontation, this time much more public as the offense is announced to the ekklesia or the entire body of believers in a given location.
At the rejection of this final confrontation, we reach our second principle, that of disfellowship. Failure to listen to the confrontation of the church results in removal from fellowship, sometimes called excommunication. This is far more than simply not allowing someone to attend a gathering and in application it is more meaningful than removing someone from “membership roles”. The Lord says that they are to be treated as a “Gentile and a tax collector”. In other words, the offender is to be removed from fellowship and considered as a pagan, unbeliever, and with the contempt by which a dishonest tax collector was viewed. Today, if confrontation even makes it this far, the offender normally moves to the next church building down the street or the original church removes them from membership. But the weight in this passage is far more that deleting a name from a list; it’s reputational. The offender should be now labeled as a deceitful pagan and considered as such by all believers in a given geographical area. The pattern here is instructive and we ought to note how the confrontation progresses from a personal encounter to a public encounter, with the inclusion of 2-3 witnesses as an intervening step. However, if the confrontation reaches a public level, being told to the church, and the brother still refuses to listen, he is to be excommunicated and treated as a “Gentile and a tax collector”. How does this relate to our subject? Does the actual spiritual warfare begin with the unbeliever? No, we are to not have fellowship with the unrepentant, professing believer and are to cast them outside because again, the danger is within.
A practical outworking of this process is also provided for us, as found in 1 Corinthians 5:1-13. In this passage, addressed to the believers in Corinth, Paul gets word of a man that is having a sexual affair with his stepmother (father’s wife, vs. 9). The Corinthians were guilty of exercising tolerance towards this particular sin and in doing so boasted in arrogance that they were being so liberal in their love. Following the pattern of Matthew 18 that we just saw, Paul instructs them in how to deal with the sinner
When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, 5 you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.1 Corinthians 5:4-5
With this, we gain even more insight into how the process of confrontation is elevated publicly resulting in removing the person from fellowship (excommunication) and handing them over outside to Satan for the purpose of saving his spirit. In other words, the goal of the excommunication through disfellowship, declaring them an unbeliever, and handing them over to Satan is for the purpose of bringing the sinner to repentance thereby proving the validity of their original profession of faith in Christ. Ultimately this brings forgiveness and reconciliation back into fellowship. Unfortunately, because of the lack of geographic association among churches today and a general failure to follow the ecclesial patterns of Scripture, this rarely gets implemented effectively. Nevertheless, the instruction is clear.
Before we move from the example passage in 1 Corinthians 5, the end of the chapter is relevant not only to the context of the believers in Corinth exercising discipline in excommunicating the unrepentant sinner from fellowship, but it provides clarity for our theme thus far of how the response is to the danger from within, not from without. Note the passage, beginning in verse 9.
9 I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— 10 not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. 11 But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. 12 For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? 13 God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.”1 Corinthians 5:9-13
The immediate context is of course a commentary on the previous verses dealing with the man having an incestuous relationship with his stepmother, while the church tolerates the behavior. After laying out the analogy of purging leaven, in keeping with Old Testament typology, which of course was to be applied to the unrepentant sinner (vs. 5), the passage returns to the principle of disfellowship, disassociation, or excommunication. Paul reminds them of this principle to specifically disassociate with sexually immoral people. This of course is a common refrain for the apostle, derived from the Jerusalem council and delivered throughout the Gentile world instructing them to avoid sexually immorality, food offered to idols, and animals strangled in their blood (Acts 15:20). The principle is extended to cover such sins as greed, swindling, and idolatry. Here, clarity is added for the first prohibition of sexual immorality stating that disassociation wasn’t to be applied to the world, for how can one go out of the world, rather it applies to anyone who bears the name of brother, and again is extended to include reviler and drunkard to the previously unexhausted list. The dissociation is placed at the basic level to not even eat with the offending brother or sister. Then, in verses 12-13, we reach a foundational principle for our subject of dealing with danger from within. The apostle asks two very pointed questions, “what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge?” These two questions serve not only to highlight the internal focus for the Corinthians to deal with the unrepentant sinner, and not only does it properly frame the significance of Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 18, but it also frames for us the emphasis of believer’s spiritual warfare as being primarily internally focused, in this case those who bear the name of brother, especially those within our Christian gatherings. In case one was to read this and throw their hands up in exasperation claiming, “What about…so and so, or wicked political leaders, etc.”, the apostle answers with a very pointed statement, “God judges those outside.”
The primary response that we have seen thus far is removal, through dissociation, disfellowship, or excommunication, of those who have are found in unrepentant sin, whether doctrinally or practically. As Paul states, purge the leaven from your midst. But there is a secondary response that is related, and it is also found in the 1 Corinthians 5 passage from above. In verse 11, we read that not only is the offending person to be removed from fellowship, but other believers are instructed not to associate with them, even at the basic level of sharing a meal together. The entire treatment of the individual is supposed to leave them entirely cutoff from Christian fellowship, this in essence is a handing over to Satan for the hope of saving the soul. This same principle is touched on in Romans 16:17
I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them.Romans 16:17
As mentioned above with the phrase, avoid them, i.e. those who cause doctrinal divisions and obstacles, are likewise to be ostracized. Before we jump to their defense and consider it an unloving response, we have to consider just how infectious false doctrine and practice is. It’s literally gangrenes and can infect the entire body of believers. Paul uses this same analogy in his second letter to Timothy.
16 But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness, 17 and their talk will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, 18 who have swerved from the truth, saying that the resurrection has already happened. They are upsetting the faith of some.2 Timothy 2:16-17
In a similar vein, 2 John extends the same kind of warning to a base level of communication as well as prohibiting the welcoming into the home or even greeting someone who does not hold to the clear teaching on the doctrine of Christ and the nature of God.
9 Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. 10 If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, 11 for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works.2 John 9-11
As we’ve seen from this addition to our study on the dangers within, believers have a responsibility to confront professing believers in matters of doctrine and practice. In this way, bodies or gatherings of believers are self-regulating, having been given the keys of the kingdom to bind and loose (see Matthew 18:18 above). If by escalating this confrontation from the individual, to additional witnesses, and finally the entire church, the offending person has still not repented, then as we have learned the next step is disfellowship. Not only is the person removed from the fellowship of the gathering, but there is to be no right-hand of fellowship extended to them outside of the gathering all for the purpose of handing them over to Satan in the hopes that it will lead to repentance (and the saving of their soul).
With this, it brings up one final point, restoration. If we were to follow up on the events from 1 Corinthians 5 into Paul’s second divinely inspired letter to the believers at Corinth, we would see that they had indeed followed his earlier instructions to purge the leaven from among them but had taken it too far in failing to forgive and reconcile the fellowship at his repentance.
5 Now if anyone has caused pain, he has caused it not to me, but in some measure—not to put it too severely—to all of you. 6 For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough, 7 so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. 8 So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him. 9 For this is why I wrote, that I might test you and know whether you are obedient in everything. 10 Anyone whom you forgive, I also forgive. Indeed, what I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ, 11 so that we would not be outwitted by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his designs.2 Corinthians 2:5-11
As a follow up to the events from earlier and the discipline that was enacted, here we see Paul pulling back the reigns as the efforts of disfellowship appear to have brought about repentance. Now, the believers in Corinth are to extend forgiveness, comfort, and love. The warning here is of course to avoid extremes, as on the one hand tolerance for sin is not allowed and on the other hand withholding forgiveness is equally harmful. Both are an abuse of love and grace. As excommunication is the use of the key’s binding authority, so too is restoration the use of the key’s loosing authority. We ought to also note that as Paul’s instructions for excommunication were for a handing over to Satan, here forgiveness is pulling the penitent back from the devices of Satan. This restorative act of forgiveness corresponds well with Jesus’ instructions on forgiveness in Matthew 18:21-35, following right upon our subject passage of confrontation cited above. An additional passage, found in James 5:19-20 summarizes well the possibility of restoring a sinner to fellowship and the inherent benefits of saving the soul and covering the sins. Finally, in a much-debated passage from 1 John 5:16-17, it appears the apostle is encouraging believers towards intercessory prayer for the brother in sin, except if it is a “sin leading to death”. Possibly, he has in mind here apostasy, from which there is no return (Hebrews 6:4-6), otherwise we are to pray that God would bring repentance to the person living in sin.
With this particular aspect of spiritual warfare, we have seen how in God’s wisdom He has instructed His people on how to confront and address inconsistent or nominal Christians for the purpose of disciplining the sinner, saving their soul, and purifying our gatherings. Failure to follow through on this always leads to a watered-down, inconsistent witness of both the individual and those who associate with them, as well as generally those who claim the name of Christ. How often have we encountered someone who has had a negative experience with hypocritical or nominal professing Christian? The effects are most certainly akin to the spreading of gangrene. In our next post we will begin to transition the discussion into the areas that are most often considered spiritual warfare, but as we have seen garner less emphasis than the internal dangers.