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NT Separation Texts Are Exemplary, Not Exhaustive

I agree with Bob Bixby’s recent post on the exemplary nature of 2 Thessalonians 3 and 1 Corinthians 5. Each of the passages calls for Christians to separate from other Christians who are perpetually disobedient, and each of them uses a specific instance of sin (disorderliness/laziness and immorality, respectively) to teach general principles regarding how the church should deal with unrepentant sin of whatever sort. There are other NT passages that concur with these to form a veritable chorus requiring separation from disobedient Christians, not just for wrong doctrine but for sinful practices. Though separation should be carried out carefully and with grief and though the application of these passages is admittedly somewhat subjective, there is no question that the NT teaches separation from fellow Christians for unrepentant sin. It certainly doesn’t limit such disciplinary measures to immorality or laziness.

I’ve found it helpful to present the biblical data on discipline and separation in a table format. You can download a pdf of the table here.

For those who would prefer to read the data in text form, here it is:

Matthew 18:15-17

The Offender: “your brother”

The Offense: “sins.” It is crucial to note that the specific offense is intentionally unnamed, therefore providing a principle that is to be applied generally. However, it is also crucial to note that the cause of separation is not the offense itself, but the refusal to repent of the offense. Note also that the offense is sinful conduct, not false doctrine.

The Response: ultimately, treat him as “a Gentile and a tax collector” (an unbeliever—separation, denial of “family” privileges)

Romans 16:17

The Offender: those within the Roman church

The Offense: “cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you learned.” Thus, the offense is again conduct, though it also includes bad doctrine (v. 18)

The Response: “mark and avoid” (KJV; separation)

1 Corinthians 5

The Offender: “any so-called brother” (v. 11)

The Offense: the list is significant; like Matthew 18, it is not specific…Paul is addressing immorality in the immediate situation, but he uses it as a springboard to teach a broader principle of separation; thus, the sin of immorality and even the two lists of sins which follow (which also include coveting, idolatry, slander, drunkenness, and extortion) are exemplary, not exhaustive. (Note: the use of the toioutos, “such a one” in verses 5 and 11 seems to reinforce this point by showing that Paul is teaching the Corinthian church how to deal not only with this man, but with similar situations which may arise in the future.) The offenses are obviously related to conduct, not false doctrine.

The Response: “remove” (v. 2), “deliver to Satan for destruction of his flesh” (v. 5), “clean out” (v. 7), “don’t associate…don’t even eat” with such a one (v. 9 & 11), “judge” (v. 12), “remove” (v. 13); (separation, church discipline)

Notice that failure to act is a poor testimony with the lost (v. 1), pride (v. 2), coddling of the sinner’s flesh (v. 5), and a danger to the rest of the body (v. 6).

1 Timothy 6:3-5 is another text that deserves consideration. However, because of textual questions, I’ll not include it in the discussion.

2 Thessalonians 3:6-15

The Offender: “every brother who leads an unruly life” that is not according to apostolic tradition (v. 6); lazy busybodies (v. 11)

The Offense: v. 6 begins by listing a general principle: disobedience to Scripture; vv. 7-9 compare such conduct with Paul’s exemplary behavior; vv. 10-11 address the immediate need: failure to work; v. 11 expands the discussion beyond that specific instance by including “walk disorderly” (of course, walk is used throughout Scripture to describe conduct, living, etc.); v. 12-13 again address failure to work; v. 14 again broadens the discussion to disobedience of apostolic instruction; thus, the offense is disobedience (conduct), caused by wrong doctrine

The Response: “keep away” from him (v. 6); stop enabling sin (v. 10b); “take special note…do not associate…put to shame” (v. 14); “do not regard him as an enemy, but admonish him as brother” (v. 15) (separation and admonition)

Titus 3:10-11

The Offender: a “factious man” withing the church

The Offense: divisive; not a false teacher, for a genuine “heretic” (KJV) in a doctrinal sense would not be treated with such patience within the church; thus, again the issue is conduct, though it may be based on bad doctrine; summarized as being “perverse” and “sinning” (v. 11)

The Response: warn, and if unrepentant, reject (similar to Matthew 18; separation)

Conclusion:

To summarize, there can be no question that these passages are dealing with Christians. The offenses are varied, from unnamed (Matthew) to an exemplary list of bad conduct (1 Corinthians) to divisiveness (Romans, Titus) to bad teaching resulting in disorderly living (2 Thessalonians). Thus, the attempt to limit the disobedience to a particular event (e.g. not working) is without support. The response of the church in each of these situations is very clear, though various terms are used; the basic response is warning and marking, then rejecting if necessary.

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12 Responses

  1. Very well laid out. That’s a lesson to all of us. I can’t ever say I’ve heard laziness exposited as a potential reason to place someone under church discipline but it makes a fair amount of sense. I, with the Spirit’s help, need to honestly look at my life and choices and be open to those “wicked ways” that need to be dealt with. I suppose any honest believer would.

  2. Very helpful. Appreciated.

    JIm

  3. You should start charging for this stuff :).

    Very helpful.

    I’ve always wondered how we mesh forgiving “70 times 7” with the Titus passage that says warn 2 times and reject. Believe me, there are times (one right now) where I am tempted to use the Titus passage and be done with some folks. I’m curious what others would say regarding meshing these two principles.

  4. Mark,

    I don’t think the man in Titus 3 has asked for forgiveness. I think the point is that he hasn’t repented after multiple warnings. The forgiveness in Matt 18 is dependent on the man’s repentance (cf., Luke 17).

  5. I agree, Andy.

    It’s just frustrating when somebody repeatedly “repents” (seemingly sincere) and yet eventually ends up back at the same place.

    That’s where things get a bit foggy for me. I know the sinfulness of my own heart and things that I need to continually repent of before the Lord.

    Thanks for your thoughts. I agree with you. This Titus passage just seems to be one of the more difficult separation passages for me to totally comprehend. The “book knowledge” seems pretty straight forward. The application is not so easy.

  6. When I look at the sinfulness of my own heart that’s when I realize…well…just how exceedingly sinful and corrupt I am. All the more reason to walk in the Spirit so we’re not gratifying the lusts of the flesh.

    Here’s the 64 million dollar question: what does walking in the Spirit look like? Of course, it starts with a relationship with Jesus Christ but then there’s regular time in the Word, time on one’s knees, and fellowship with other Believers. Where does it go from there?

    In today’s most immoral times Believers need all the encouragement and instruction they can get to have a close and intimate walk with the Savior.

  7. Mark,

    I can certainly identify with your frustration. One thing I have found helpful is communicating the scope of repentance in the opening stages of counseling as well as how progressive sanctification works. Helping them to understand that genuine repentance is necessary for sanctification but that sanctification isn’t perfection but gradual growth and that there should be fruits of repentance. Their fruits are revealing their sincerity, not their emotions or intentions,

    Steve J

  8. I have a tough enough time living up to the commandments of Christ to love God with all my heart, mind, and soul, and to love my neighbor as I love myself. I guess when we fully answer the question, “What does this love look like?”, we will probably be in the presence of Christ himself.

  9. Friends,

    I think it looks like Christ, and particularly like the fruit of the Spirit. It looks like Christian virtue, as described in the sermon linked to from this post.

    (That’s the quick “I need to get to prayer meeting” answer.)

  10. Does Scripture talking about blogging and linking?

    Case in point: Over at SI someone made a post about Ron Wyatt, a total scam artist and fraud who claims to have found Noah’s Ark, The Ark of the Covenenat and makes all sorts of other wild, over the top, too incredible to be true claims. He is a pretty slick guy who appears legitimate and if you don’t look very much below the surface you might be taken in by him. Another poster made some excellent links to point out what a scam Mr. Wyatt is. The links are great. The only problem is, the same people who rightly refute Wyatt have some pretty questionable beilefs of their own and I’m not sure I’d want to be associated with them. To their credit, I don’t think they are purposefully scamming people, I think they are just deceived, in my opinion. Where do we draw the line? It can get pretty hairy trying to figure out all the links (no pun intended) and where and whom to separate to and from.

  11. MJ,

    First, I think there is a growing reasonableness that recognizes that citing a source is very different than endorsing it.

    And second, since that reasonableness isn’t yet universal, I think giving a disclaimer (or “duh-ism”) in which you explain that “although this guy is generally an idiot, he makes a good point here” can be helpful.

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