Practicing what we often call “church discipline” is a bold action on the part of a congregation. I say this because not every church of Christ is willing to withdraw from erring brethren, even though it is a command (2Thess. 3:6). For the ones that do follow through with the act of “disfellowship” from rebellious Christians, it is always emotional and heart breaking, because we essentially are cutting off a beloved brother from the rest of the family. These circumstances, along with potential others, can make a Christian wonder, “What’s the point?” Why should the Lord’s church follow the route of withdrawing from individuals when it is so unpleasant and sometimes seems fruitless (because those beloved brothers don’t always repent of their wrong)? Does it really matter if we follow the pattern established in Matthew 18:15-17?
I would like us to consider the prophet Jonah on this topic; particularly when he fled from God. His experiences in-between his flight and being swallowed by the fish can shed some light on these very questions that can challenge us at times. We see three thoughts or principles illustrated from this prophet concerning disfellowship:
One person’s sin can bring the whole boat down
When Jonah tried to flee from the presence of God to Tarshish by ship, a great storm was brought on by the Lord (Jonah 1:4). The men were confused as to the origin of the storm; they perceived that it was of a Divine source. They casted lots and found that Jonah was the cause of the violent tempest (Jonah 1:7). Jonah confessed that it was his fault, because he rebelled and fled from God (Jonah 1:10). Despite the fact the sailors had not sinned against God at that moment, their lives were in danger because of Jonah’s iniquity. Likewise, when one brother sins in the church, it affects the whole congregation, the whole boat; a little leaven leavens the whole lump (1Cor. 5:5-6). Disfellowship is not just about one fallen soul, it is necessary for the survival of the entire church.
We need to do all that we can before casting anyone out
When the sailors asked what they should do to ease God’s wrath, Jonah suggested casting him out of the boat (Jonah 1:12). The men were reluctant to throw Jonah out and tried everything else they could possibly do. So also, we need to have this attitude when approaching a fallen brother. There are other steps that should precede disfellowship. We should repent of our own sins first, like the sailors did with rejecting their false gods (Jonah 1:5, 14, Matt. 7:1-5, Acts 8:22). We should strive to reason with him before casting out a brother (Jonah 1:13, Matt. 18:15-17). We should also pray to God about the situation, regardless of the decision we make (Jonah 1:14, Phil. 4:6).
Withdrawal will always have fruits
When they finally did make the choice to cast out Jonah, it bore fruit. The storm was calmed and their lives were saved (Jonah 1:15). The men had rejected their gods, and worshiped the one true God (Jonah 1:16). And in chapter 2, Jonah eventually repents because he had been cast out and swallowed by the fish (Jonah 2:1-9). When we do take the course of disfellowship we will benefit from at least some of these same fruits. We keep the church pure from sin (1Cor. 5:7). We set a precedence for other brethren to remain faithful (1Tim. 5:20). We do the best that we can for an erring brother by casting him out, that the shame might stir his repentance (1Tim. 1:19-20).