While unity between Christians is a divine doctrine and principle, so is separation from evil. In attempting to apply these two principles, we need balance. Sad to say, churches that concentrate on unity usually neglect separation from evil; and churches that concentrate on separation from evil rarely attempt to apply unity beyond their own walls. While we discuss separation from evil, we need to remember that we are talking about evil, not error. We are all in error. None of us understands the word of God perfectly. If we were to separate from everyone who is in error, none of us could have fellowship with anyone. 2 Timothy 2:22 tells us to "pursue righteousness, faith, love, peace with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart." If I judge a man's heart to be pure, I am to walk with him. It is not my place to call him to task for every incorrect idea he may have. This is discussed in detail in Romans 14.
As we examine the scriptural instructions concerning separation from evil, we notice three distinct levels of exclusion. The most extreme of these applies to false teachers:
"Whoever transgresses and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God. He who abides in the doctrine of Christ has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into your house nor greet him; for he who greets him shares in his evil deeds." (2 John 1:9-11)
This does not mean someone who is teaching ideas that are not completely correct. It refers to someone who is teaching doctrine that destroys the foundations of Christianity. Such a person is an enemy of the gospel of Christ. Many modern teachers say we should be kind to such people and try to win them for the Lord. But the word of God plainly says, "do not receive him into your house nor greet him." Anyone who ignores this instruction is disobeying a direct command of God. We must remember that we are at war. Anyone who gives aid and comfort to the enemy is a traitor. Some will say, but what of his soul? We must leave that with God. God can reach him if He decides to. Our instructions are clear. If we do not obey them, we share in the evil teacher's sin. "He who greets him shares in his evil deeds."
A second level of exclusion applies to those who claim to be Christians, but are living wicked lives. Our instruction in this case could not be more clear:
"It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and such sexual immorality as is not even named among the Gentiles; that a man has his father's wife! And you are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he who has done this deed might be taken away from among you. For I indeed, as absent in body but present in spirit, have already judged (as though I were present) him who has so done this deed. In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when you are gathered together, along with my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. Your glorying is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened. For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
"I wrote to you in my epistle not to keep company with sexually immoral people. Yet I certainly did not mean with the sexually immoral people of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; not even to eat with such a person. For what have I to do with judging those also who are outside? Do you not judge those who are inside? But those who are outside God judges. Therefore 'put away from yourselves the evil person'." (1 Corinthians 5:1-13)
Anyone claiming to be a Christian, but living a wicked life, is to be excluded from the company of the believers. We are "not even to eat with such a person." But it does not end there. The church is to take a formal action with awful consequences. The offender is to be formally turned over to Satan. "In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when you are gathered together, along with my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh"
Many churches think this is too severe. They think that we should be loving and kind to everyone. This action is often condemned with the saying that "the church is the only army that buries its wounded." But God is wiser than men. The action, though severe in the extreme, is for the offender's own good. The point is "that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus." I personally know some that have been brought to repentance in this way.
But this action is not only for the good of the offender, it is also for the protection of the rest. "Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?" The leaven represents "malice and wickedness." Leaven is just another word for yeast. Anyone who bakes bread knows what yeast will do. A very small piece of yeast will grow and fill an entire batch of dough. We see this symbolic meaning for leaven in our Lord's parable in Matthew 13:33 "The kingdom of heaven is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal till it was all leavened." Evil is like this. If allowed to remain, it will grow and spread till if fills the whole group. Failure to obey these Scriptures is direct disobedience to God, and it will have disastrous consequences on the church. I personally known of several churches that dealt softly with fornication in their midst; only to find themselves full of it a few years later.
This exclusion also applies to other kinds of offenders. It applies to anyone who is "covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner." This is clearly not an a complete list, for it does not include a murderer. It is rather the type of behavior to be so judged.
While gross wickedness is to be dealt with very harshly, those guilty of less serious offenses are to receive a third and less extreme form of exclusion. One of these is freeloaders:
"But we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you withdraw from every brother who walks disorderly and not according to the tradition which he received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to follow us, for we were not disorderly among you; nor did we eat anyone's bread free of charge, but worked with labor and toil night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, not because we do not have authority, but to make ourselves an example of how you should follow us. For even when we were with you, we commanded you this: If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat. For we hear that there are some who walk among you in a disorderly manner, not working at all, but are busybodies. Now those who are such we command and exhort through our Lord Jesus Christ that they work in quietness and eat their own bread. But as for you, brethren, do not grow weary in doing good. And if anyone does not obey our word in this epistle, note that person and do not keep company with him, that he may be ashamed. Yet do not count him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother." (2 Thessalonians 3:6-15)
We are not to keep company with such people. This is not simply a matter of politely stepping the other way when they come near. The offender is to be made to feel his exclusion. "Those who are sinning rebuke in the presence of all, that the rest also may fear." (1 Timothy 5:20) The goal of this action is the same as in the case of gross wickedness. It is twofold. It is intended to bring the sinful one to repentance and to make others afraid to sin. Fear may be a very poor reason for avoiding evil, but it is far better than no reason.
This level of exclusion applies not only to freeloaders, but to "every brother who walks disorderly and not according to the tradition which he received from us." While disorderly conduct is not defined in this passage, we find it in other places:
"Now I urge you, brethren, note those who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine which you learned, and avoid them. For those who are such do not serve our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly, and by smooth words and flattering speech deceive the hearts of the simple." (Romans 16:17-18)
"For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having a form of godliness but denying its power. And from such people turn away!" (2 Timothy 3:2-5)
In each of these places we find the withdrawal of 2 Thessalonians 3, but not the formal exclusion and consignment to Satan of 1 Corinthians 5.
But while this doctrine of separation from evil is plainly taught in Scripture, it has been grossly abused. Many churches apply it to anyone who is not a part of their own group. This kind of self-righteousness makes our Lord very angry, for in speaking of those who say, "Keep to yourself, Do not come near me, For I am holier than you!" He said: "These are smoke in My nostrils, A fire that burns all the day." (Isaiah 65:5)
Other churches develop a code of behavior, and anyone who does not comply is considered disorderly. Those who do this should carefully read the last part of Colossians 2:
"Therefore, if you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations; Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle,' which all concern things which perish with the using; according to the commandments and doctrines of men? These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh." (Colossians 2:20-23)
It is a sin to impose such restrictions upon the people of God. Peter said, "Now therefore, why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?" (Acts 15:10)
The exclusion of evil from the company of Christians is a commandment of our God. But it is a commandment to be obeyed with fear and trembling. If separation from evil is required, it should be done in accordance with Galatians 6:1: "Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted." There are those who wield excommunication like a sword. This is sin. Those tempted to do this should give careful heed to the warnings:
"Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you." (Matthew 7:1-2)
"Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows,that he will also reap. For he who sows to his flesh will of the flesh reap corruption, but he who sows to the Spirit will of the Spirit reap everlasting life." (Galatians 6:7-8)
"For our God is a consuming fire." (Hebrews 12:29)
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