Now that I’ve laid out my personal situation, let’s examine why the Church of Christ practices withdrawal the way that it does. Does every member of the church agree on how to apply it? Does the Bible even intend for withdrawal to be carried out the way the conservative Church of Christ does it? Does withdrawal even work?
The Church of Christ views withdrawal as the final effort to convince a wayward member of the church that he or she is in a sinful state and must make that right. I’ve most often seen this used with attendance issues. For instance, a member might begin missing services sporadically, eventually reaching a point where he just doesn’t come at all. Members of the congregation will try to contact this person to see what’s wrong. But after some time passes, if the person hasn’t corrected his behavior, the church will “withdraw fellowship” from him, and they’ll usually send him a letter notifying him of it. Their hope is that the person will realize the seriousness of his situation and come back to the congregation in repentance. As part of withdrawal, the members of the congregation are expected to cut off social ties with this individual. If they have contact, it’s expected to revolve around trying to bring him back.
The concept of withdrawal is pulled from several different passages, and you can see how typical Churches of Christ use them here and here. Let’s go through some of these passages and see what they say on the subject of withdrawal.
Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.
When this passage is used to talk about withdrawal, they usually just refer to verse 6. It’s easy to see why people would do that. Verse 6 taken alone, seems to support the idea of not associating with any Christian who isn’t toeing the line. However, when taken in context, it’s clear that this passage is talking about Christians who are lazy. It doesn’t have much to do with doctrinal matters.
If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain.
This passage certainly deals with people who teach against Christ, but it doesn’t tell Christians what to do about such a person. It’s hard to use this passage to support the practice of withdrawal.
Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.
Just like the example above, this passage doesn’t speak highly of those who aren’t Christians. But it doesn’t tell Christians what to do about it. In the end, not a very good passage for supporting the idea of withdrawal.
For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has spurned the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
This is just another example like the last two we looked at. It says some pretty awful things about those who aren’t Christians, but it doesn’t tell churches what to do about it.
But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not become partners with them; for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret.
Now this passage says that crude and immoral behavior should not be happening among Christians. This could imply that if someone in the group is behaving in that way, they should be kicked out. However, many of the people that are withdrawn from haven’t been withdrawn from because of moral issues. So can this passage really be used in those other cases?
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. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive.
Here, Christians are told to avoid people who cause divisions and create obstacles for their doctrine. Fair enough — that’s probably not bad advice. But is it specific enough to implement a doctrine like withdrawal? And what about those who have been withdrawn from but aren’t divisive? Is there really scriptural support to withdraw from people like that? Titus 3:10 is a similar passage, so I won’t quote the whole thing here, but you can check it out if you like.
“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. 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. 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.
For Jews of that time, treating someone as a Gentile or a tax collector meant that you had nothing to do with them. However, this passage is talking about personal disputes among brethren, not doctrinal issues. And does this instruction about treating the offending person as a Gentile or a tax collector apply to the congregation or just the individual that was offended?
If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works.
This passage is often used in talking about withdrawal, but that’s taking it out of context. The Church of Christ doesn’t think that people in denominations are true Christians. Therefore, if they followed this passage literally, they couldn’t be hospitable toward their friends and family unless they were also members of the Church of Christ. Of course, that’s not how they apply this passage. But it can’t be applied to withdrawal either because it talks about all “false teachers.” In the end, most members of the church view this as a general teaching that you shouldn’t encourage people in false religious beliefs.
I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people — 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. 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. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.”
This is probably the most important passage in relation to withdrawal. Verses 1 and 2 of this chapter tell us that the church in Corinth had a member that was openly involved in sexual immorality. In fact, he seemed rather proud of it. So the congregation was instructed to put him out of the church so he could see his error and repent. In 2 Cor we learn that this worked. So this is the standard that has been applied to virtually every problem Churches of Christ have faced.
But there’s more nuance to this passage. First of all, the offending member was still present in their congregation; he hadn’t left. He was still proclaiming himself to be a Christian and a member of that congregation, all while living an openly sinful lifestyle. But this is not the situation that many people are in when they are withdrawn from. Many people have been withdrawn from over attendance issues. In other words, the offending member has stopped associating with that congregation, yet they’re withdrawn from anyway. The Bible has no example of such a thing.
Also, verses 9, 10, 12, and 13 of this chapter make the point that Christians can’t withdraw from people who aren’t Christians. If they tried, they would have to withdraw themselves from the world around them (this is what the Amish do, by the way). For those of us who have left Christianity altogether, we have become part of the world. We don’t consider ourselves Christians, and we don’t claim to be Christians. So how can we be withdrawn from?
This brings me to the effectiveness of withdrawal. In 1 Cor 5, we see an example of withdrawal that works. It works because the person in question still believed he should be living the Christian lifestyle. When his fellow Christians reacted to his actions by withdrawing fellowship from him, it clearly showed him that they believed he was not living up to the Christian ideals. I can see why something like withdrawal would work in that kind of situation. It’s being administered to someone who already “knows better.”
However, the situation is very different for many others. My wife and I simply don’t believe Christianity is true. How could withdrawal convince us otherwise? We’ve laid out our reasons for leaving time and time again. We’ve given examples of the problems in the Bible that led us away from it. How does withdrawal offer answers to those issues? How does it provide additional evidence that could make the Bible believable? It doesn’t. There’s no way withdrawal could work with people like us because it in no way addresses the root causes of our leaving Christianity.
And if it could bring us back, it wouldn’t be true repentance. We would be coming back solely because we miss our families. Why would they even want such a “repentance”? It would be a lie, and our souls would be no better off.
But in the end, withdrawal has only made us less likely to come back. When you’re made an outcast by the people you love the most, it only creates resentment. The relationship we have with our families now is strained at best. So even though we miss them terribly, we miss the relationships we used to have — we don’t really miss them as they are now. The tension that’s been created by this situation has caused us to have less and less desire to be around them as time goes on. In other words, withdrawal has had the opposite effect on us. Instead of making us want to come back, it’s made us not feel so bad about leaving it behind.
But this hard line stance isn’t practiced by everyone in the church. There are some who think that while family ties may be changed by someone leaving the church, they shouldn’t be severed. This is the view that I wish my family took. In fact, some of my family members do take that view, but they’ve been afraid to say much since they’re in the minority. But as I’ve tried to lay out above, there’s good scriptural basis for taking the more moderate approach. While I was looking for Church of Christ articles about withdrawal, I actually came across one that articulates the moderate stance pretty well. If you’re interested, you can find it here.
I realize that most of my family will probably never leave Christianity, and that’s okay. I just hope that they’ll eventually find a way to keep their beliefs and have a relationship with me at the same time. I hope that they’ll ask themselves these questions: if it weren’t for their belief that God wants them to withdraw from us socially, would they do it? Would they view it as the best way to handle this situation? Do they really think that withdrawal could make us come back to Christianity? And finally, after going through these passages, are they sure that the Bible really teaches them to withdraw from people who no longer want to be Christians at all?