From the Archives – Church Discipline: The Correction of a Believer or the Excommunication of an Unbeliever? (Part 3)

Harmonizing Matthew 18:15–17, 1 Corinthians 5:1–13, and 2 Thessalonians 3:6–15

(From Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal (DBSJ), Volume 20: 2015. Used with permission. Read the series.)

2 Thessalonians 3:6–15

Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from every brother who leads an unruly life and not according to the tradition which you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example, because we did not act in an undisciplined manner among you, nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with labor and hardship we kept working night and day so that we would not be a burden to any of you; not because we do not have the right to this, but in order to offer ourselves as a model for you, so that you would follow our example. For even when we were with you, we used to give you this order: if anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat, either. For we hear that some among you are leading an undisciplined life, doing no work at all, but acting like busybodies. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to work in quiet fashion and eat their own bread. But as for you, brethren, do not grow weary of doing good. If anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take special note of that person and do not associate with him, so that he will be put to shame. Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother.

Literary Context

The last key text on church discipline is found in Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians. Paul begins the letter with an epistolary introduction (1:1–12), continues with the body of the letter (2:1–3:15), and ends with an epistolary conclusion (3:16–18).1 The body itself is roughly divided into two sections. The first, 2:1–17, essentially corrects the readers’ misunderstanding regarding end-time events and, in particular, whether the readers were experiencing the onset of the Day of the Lord. The second section, 3:1–15, gives a series of exhortations, targeting primarily a problem that had taken root in the congregation, where certain members were willfully unemployed and not responding to apostolic correctives.2

The text under consideration is found in the second section. Following his request for prayer (3:1‒5), Paul begins by laying down the principle that the congregation is to withdraw from any member who continues to live in conflict with apostolic instruction (3:6). Next, Paul applies the principle to the specific problem within the Thessalonian church. Certain members were refusing to work and were relying on the financial support of others.3 Addressing the problem directly, Paul uses his own example of industry (3:7–9) and his previous instruction while with them (3:10–11) as authoritative guidelines to be followed.

Following this, Paul commands the disobedient to find gainful employment so that they can provide for their own needs (3:12). He then exhorts the congregation not to grow weary of supporting those who are truly needy (3:13). Paul concludes with a final exhortation, restating the principle from 3:6 that the congregation is to follow in disciplining the disobedient. The members are to mark those who continue to disobey Paul’s directives and not associate with them (3:14). Paul ends with a caution that, in complying with his directives, the congregation is to regard the disobedient not as an enemy, but as a brother (3:15).4

The Spiritual Status of the Disobedient

Paul clearly views the disobedient minority in this passage as fellow believers. In 3:6 Paul uses the term “brother” to describe the disobedient. As previously discussed, the expression is commonly used in similar contexts as a metaphor for someone who shares a common set of beliefs as a member of the Christian community and who is part of God’s household or family.5 He also places the disobedient in 3:11 among the members of the Thessalonian congregation—“we hear that some among you”—and, thus, as those who have made a profession of faith. He concludes the section in 3:15 by cautioning the congregation that, when disciplining the disobedient man, they are to regard him “as a brother.”

Having said that, the same question is raised here that was raised in the discussion of the disobedient in Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5. Paul describes the disobedient individuals in 3:6 as “leading” or “living” unruly lives in conflict with apostolic tradition. He repeats his description in 3:13, portraying the disobedient as “leading” undisciplined lives.

In both verses, Paul’s description depicts these individuals as engaged in persistent, ongoing disobedience.6 Thus, how can someone who continues to disobey God’s word and who refuses to repent be considered a brother or fellow believer, a member of God’s spiritual family? In other words, does not the fact that these are persisting in unrepentant disobedience bring into question their status as true brothers?

These questions notwithstanding, the evidence in 2 Thessalonians 3 for the unrepentant man to be viewed as an unbeliever is not as clear. True, the willfully unemployed are persisting in disobedience and refusing to repent. But their sin does not seem to be of the same stripe as, for example, the sin in 1 Corinthians 5. Disobedience is still disobedience, but the combination of willful unemployment, freeloading, and meddling in the affairs of others does not seem to rise to the same level of sin as sexual immorality. In short, the sins of the incestuous man in 1 Corinthians 5 and the willfully unemployed in 2 Thessalonians 3 simply do not appear to be on the same scale.7

Some who recognize the tension still want to see Paul (and Jesus) speaking with one voice on church discipline of the unrepentant. Their solution is to heighten the sin in 2 Thessalonians 3 by associating it with the sin Paul harshly condemns in 1 Timothy 5. In 1 Timothy 5:8, Paul declares that those in the church who fail to care for the needy among their own family members are, in effect, denying the faith. Paul adds that such failure to care for one’s own family makes the guilty worse than an unbeliever. Thus, by linking willful unemployment with failure to care for one’s family, proponents heighten the sin in 2 Thessalonians 3 to an inflammatory transgression. As such, they argue that Paul calls for the willfully unemployed to be treated as unbelievers, not as believers.8

The problem with heightening the sin in 1 Thessalonians 3 in this way is that such heightening must be read into the text. The text says nothing about the willfully unemployed failing to care for the members of their families. Paul does describe other sins the unemployed are committing—leading undisciplined lives, doing no work, acting like busybodies (3:11)—but failure to care for family members is not mentioned among these. If such failure involves a heinous sin, it is strange that Paul does not mention this, were the disobedient in 1 Thessalonians 3 also guilty of this sin.

Furthermore, Paul says nothing in the 1 Timothy 5 passage about those who fail to care for their families as shirking their responsibility because they are willfully unemployed. In fact, the context points in the opposite direction. Those who fail to care for their families are condemned precisely because it is assumed they have the means to do so. Theirs is not a lack of means, as though unemployed, but the failure to use the means they have to care for their own. In short, the two passages offer no common denominators that suggest the sin in the one is related to the sin in the other.

Returning to the question, then, what is the spiritual status of the disobedient in 2 Thessalonians 3? Is the church to view the disobedient as believers or as unbelievers? The evidence from the context argues that the readers are to view the disobedient as believers.9 As mentioned above, Paul specifically directs the church in 3:15 to regard the disobedient as brothers, that is, as fellow believers. The one issue that remains is to identify the nature of the discipline the church is to exercise toward the disobedient. Does the discipline itself counter the above evidence and argue in favor of treating the disobedient as unbelievers?

The Nature and Purpose of the Discipline

The question that needs to be answered is whether Paul’s directive for the church to “keep away” from the unrepentant refers to excommunication. In other words, if Paul is calling for the church to excommunicate the unrepentant, that argues effectively for treating the disobedient as unbelievers. As in Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5, the unrepentant man may be called a brother, but if the church is being directed to remove him from membership, it must be because his actions are viewed as those of an unbeliever, not those of a believer.10

The chief argument in support of excommunication is that Paul gives the church the same directive for disciplining the disobedient in 3:14 as he does the disobedient in 1 Corinthians 5:11. After directing the readers in 3:14 to identify the disobedient man—“take special note of that person”—Paul then adds, “and do not associate with him, so that he will be put to shame.”11 The expression “do not associate” is identical to the directive Paul gives to the Corinthian church concerning the incestuous man (1 Cor 5:11).12

As argued earlier, Paul calls on the Corinthian believers not to associate with the incestuous man by removing him from membership and by limiting their contact to efforts to bring him to repentance. Thus, Paul’s use of the identical expression in 2 Thessalonians 3:14 in a similar context of church discipline favors interpreting the expression in the same way.13 Paul is calling on the Thessalonians not to associate with the disobedient man by removing him from their membership and limiting their contact to efforts to bring him to repentance.14

These similarities notwithstanding, there are difficulties with this reading of the text. Certainly, the action the church is to take against the unrepentant in Matthew 18 and the unrepentant in 1 Corinthians 5 is essentially identical. In both passages, the church is to view the unrepentant as unbelievers and remove them from membership. As well, the removal of the unrepentant is understood in both passages as the final step in church discipline. In short, the directives for the church in both Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5 represent the final step in church discipline, and it is at this step that the church is to view the unrepentant as unbelievers.

The tension comes in that Paul specifically cautions the Thessalonians in 3:15 to treat the unrepentant man as a “brother,” as a fellow believer.15 Using the Matthew 18 passage for comparison, the problem in equating the discipline in Matthew 18 with the that in 2 Thessalonians 3 is that the respective designations of the unrepentant are not synonymous. The semantic ranges of “Gentile” (Matt 18:17) and “brother” (2 Thess 3:15) simply do not overlap. In fact, in these contexts, the two expressions are antithetical. In the Matthew passage, “Gentile” refers to someone outside the community of believers, an unbeliever, while in the 2 Thessalonians passage, “brother” refers to someone inside the community, a fellow believer.16

So, what is the nature and purpose of the discipline in 2 Thessalonians 3? When taken together, the evidence argues for seeing Paul’s directives in this context as pointing to a level of discipline short of excommunication.17 In effect, the disobedient person is given notice that his conduct is in violation of apostolic standards and told he must repent. To drive home the seriousness of the breach caused by unrepentant sin, the members are to withdraw normal fellowship, to include withholding the Lord’s Supper.18 In addition, they are to give notice that, if he does not repent and find gainful employment within a reasonable time as determined by the church, he will be viewed as an unbeliever and, thus, excommunicated from membership.19

Two questions remain. The first question is, if there is a step of church discipline short of excommunication, why is the disobedient man in 1 Corinthians 5 not given a similar opportunity to repent before he is excommunicated? Perhaps the simplest answer is the best. The sin of the incestuous man is such that his failure to repent left only one option for the church. Because he is persisting in flagrant immorality, the church has no choice but to view him as an unbeliever and remove him from their midst.20 While a true believer can get caught up in sin (Gal 6:1) and even persist in a given sin (1 Cor 11:30), his life cannot be characterized by the habit and pattern of sin or by a lack of repentance.21 Furthermore, the evidence from 1 Corinthians 5 indicates that there are some sins a church member simply cannot persist in and be considered a true believer.22

The second question is, if there is a step of church discipline short of excommunication, why does the Lord not include this in Matthew 18:17? The answer is that the Lord’s statement in 18:17, “if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector,” allows for an intermediate step.23 In other words, at what point does his refusal to listen to the church take place? Does it take place immediately following his confrontation by the church or at some point after that? With the disobedient man in 1 Corinthians 5, that point comes when the incestuous man fails to repent right after the church confronts him. With the disobedient in 1 Thessalonians 3, that point comes when the willfully unemployed fail to repent and find work in the time determined by the church.

Conclusion

Returning to the questions raised at the outset, the initial question was over the spiritual status of those disciplined. When exercising church discipline, is the church to view the disobedient as believers or as unbelievers? Two of the key texts, Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5, identify the disobedient as unbelievers. This is directly stated in Matthew 18 through the description of the unrepentant man as a Gentile and tax collector. And, it is clearly implied in 1 Corinthians 5 with the church’s removal or excommunication of the incestuous man.

The third key text, however, identifies the disobedient as believers. In calling for the church to exercise church discipline, Paul warns the congregation in 2 Thessalonians 3 not to treat the disobedient man as an enemy, but to admonish him as a brother, as a fellow believer. This means that, when the church disciplines its members, its discipline can take the form of correcting a brother or fellow believer, but it can also take the form of excommunicating one who is viewed as an unbeliever.

The second question was over the nature of church discipline. Must church discipline involve excommunication or does the New Testament allow for a level that stops short of that? Again, two of the key texts call for excommunication. This is clearly implied in Matthew 18 when the Lord says that the disobedient man is to be viewed as a Gentile and tax collector. As discussed earlier, the combination describes metaphorically those regarded as unbelievers who are to be placed outside the membership of the church. In the 1 Corinthians 5 passage, Paul specifically commands the Corinthian congregation to remove the disobedient member from among them, that is, to excommunicate him.

In contrast, the third key text calls for discipline that falls short of excommunication. The disobedient man in 2 Thessalonians 3 is viewed specifically as a brother or fellow believer, to be disciplined within the church, not as an unbeliever, to be placed outside the church. Paul directs the readers to “withdraw” from him and “not to associate” with him. As with the 1 Corinthian 5 passage, this means the members are to withhold normal fellowship from the disobedient man in an effort to bring him to repentance. But this level of separation does not entail excommunication in that the disobedient man is still considered a brother in Christ. Thus, depending on how the church views the disobedient, church discipline can involve excommunication, but it can also involve a level short of excommunication.

This raises the final question about the number of steps in church discipline. The Lord lays the foundation for church discipline in Matthew 18. The steps begin with private confrontation of one caught up in sin and end with excommunication if he persists in unrepentance. At the point where the church collectively takes action, the Lord mentions only one step, that of excommunication. However, as mentioned above the Lord’s statement, “if he refuses to listen to the church,” allows for an intermediate step. Furthermore, 2 Thessalonians 3 expressly identifies a step in church discipline that comes short of excommunication. Consequently, the Scriptures teach that there are in fact four steps involved in reclaiming the disobedient.24

The first step is when a member of the congregation sees another member caught up in sin and he goes alone to the one sinning to convict him and bring him to repentance. If the first step fails, the second step is where the concerned member takes two or three others to assist him in confronting the sinner. If the second step fails, the third step is where the matter is brought before the congregation. Assuming the specific sin allows for a step other than excommunication, the congregation directs the sinner to repent and initiates discipline to bring about repentance. If that step fails—he refuses to listen to the church—the final step is where the church views the unrepentant person as an unbeliever and excommunicates him.

Notes

1 Gene L. Green, The Letters to the Thessalonians, Pillar New Testament Com­mentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 73‒74.

2 Similarly, Carson and Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament, 534; Andreas J. Köstenberger, L. Scott Kellum, and Charles L. Quarles, The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown: An Introduction to the New Testament (Nashville: B&H, 2009), 448, 451‒52.

3 Questions about the relationship between willful unemployment and patron-client relationships or the readers’ misunderstanding of eschatology are significant for a proper interpretation of the passage. At the same time, these issues do not materially affect the concerns addressed here. On the background and cause of the problem, see the discussion in D. Michael Martin, 1, 2 Thessalonians, New American Commentary (Nashville: B&H, 1995), 274–77; Abraham J. Malherbe, The Letters to the Thess­alonians, Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 2000), 454‒57. For a rhetorical analysis of the passage, see Ben Witherington III, 1 and 2 Thessalonians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 245‒57.

4 For a similar development of the argument, see D. Edmond Hiebert, The Thessalonian Epistles: A Call to Readiness (Chicago: Moody Press, 1971), 337‒51; Martin, 1, 2 Thessalonians, 271‒87; Gordon D. Fee, The First and Second Letters to the Thessalonians, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 324‒39.

5 TDNT, s.v. “ἀδελφός,” by H. F. von Sodon, 1:144–46; NIDNTT, s.v. “Brother, Neighbor, Friend,” by W. Günther, 1:256–58; NIDNTTE, s.v. “ἀδελφός,” 1:149–52; BDAG, 18.

6 Paul uses identical attributive participles in the present tense to describe the conduct of the disobedient in 3:6 and 3:11. On the force of the present tense with the attributive participle indicating an action in progress or ongoing, see Buist M. Fanning, Verbal Aspect in New Testament Greek, Oxford Theological Monographs (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), 408‒11. Fanning labels the construction in 3:11 as customary or habitual (411). See also Stanley E. Porter, Idioms of the Greek New Testament, 2nd ed., Biblical Languages: Greek (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1994), 21, 29; Constantine R. Campbell, Advances in the Study of Greek: New Insights for Reading the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015), 107.

7 Similarly, Ernest Best, The First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians, Black’s New Testament Commentary (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1972), 344‒45.

8 See, for example, Charles J. Bumgardner, “‘As a Brother’: 2 Thessalonians 3:6‒15 and Ecclesiastical Separation,” Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal 14 (2009), 67‒76, 93.

9 See, among others, Green, Letters to the Thessalonians, 344–45, 356; Jeffrey A. D. Weima, 1–2 Thessalonians, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2014), 605, 627–28.

10 G. K. Beale, 1–2 Thessalonians, IVP New Testament Commentary (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 262‒63. Beale lays out several options on the nature of the discipline and argues for excommunication.

11 The context points to the church identifying the disobedient by name during a service when the church is gathered for worship (Hiebert, Thessalonian Epistles, 350; Malherbe, Letters to the Thessalonians, 458, 460; Witherington, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 255).

12 µὴ συναναμίγνυσθαι.

13 Bumgardner, “‘As a Brother’: 2 Thessalonians 3:6‒15 and Ecclesiastical Sepa­ration,” 77‒79.

14 Charles A. Wanamaker, The Epistles to the Thessalonians: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 289.

15 Bumgardner, “‘As a Brother’: 2 Thessalonians 3:6‒15 and Ecclesiastical Sepa­ration,” 80‒81, takes the infinitive “do not associate with him” here and in 1 Cor 5:11 as referring to excommunication, where the unrepentant are viewed as unbelievers. To counter the force of Paul’s admonition in 3:15 about treating the unrepentant “as a brother,” Bumgardner links Paul’s admonition in 3:15 with the command “take special note of that person” in the middle of 3:14 rather than with the infinitive “do not associate with him” at the end of 3:14. Thus, according to Bumgardner, once the congregation “takes note” of the unrepentant man as a “brother,” he is then expelled and viewed as an unbeliever.

While innovative, this handling of the text appears counterintuitive. With the directive “admonish him as a brother,” Paul is cautioning the readers against over­reacting in their disciplining the unrepentant. It seems much more likely that Paul’s caution qualifies the readers’ action of not associating with the unrepentant man at the end of 3:14 rather than with their action of “taking special note of him” in the middle of 3:14. Furthermore, the readers’ taking note of the unrepentant has as its intended goal or outcome their not associating with him. It is difficult to see how the readers could view the unrepentant man as a brother when taking note of him, but as an unbeliever when not associating with him. The two actions have a cause and effect relationship that takes place virtually at the same time.

16 I. Howard Marshall, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, New Century Bible (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), 229; F. F. Bruce, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, Word Biblical Commentary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1982), 211; Green, Letters to the Thessalonians, 356.

17 Hiebert, Thessalonian Epistles, 350; Bruce, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 210; Green, Letters to the Thessalonians, 344-45, 354-55; Witherington, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 253. See the discussion in Jay E. Adams, Handbook of Church Discipline (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986), 27-37.

18 TDNT, s.v. “στέλλω,” by K. Ringstorf, 7:589–90 (who allows for “table fellowship”); Hiebert, Thessalonian Epistles, 341; Leon Morris, The First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians, rev. ed., New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 253; Green, Letters to the Thessalonians, 355.

19 Green lists Rom 16:17-18, Titus 3:10-11, and 2 John 10-11, in addition to Matt 18:17 and 1 Cor 5:9-11, as passages where the unrepentant are to be viewed as unbelievers and excommunicated (Letters to the Thessalonians, 354).

20 Similarly, Schreiner, “Biblical Basis for Church Discipline,” 129.

21 R. Bruce Compton, “Can a Christian Sin unto Death?”

22 Jonathan Leeman, Church Discipline: How the Church Protects the Name of Jesus, Building Healthy Churches (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 55‒63.

23 Thomas White, “The Why, How, and When of Church Discipline,” in Baptist Foundations: Church Government for an Anti-Institutional Age, ed. Mark Dever and Jonathan Leeman (Nashville: B&H, 2015), 209–12.

24 R. Stanton Norman, “The Reestablishment of Proper Church Discipline,” in Restoring Integrity in Baptist Churches, ed. Thomas White, Jason G Duesing, and Malcolm B. Yarnell III (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2008), 214‒17; Eric J. Bargerhuff, Love That Rescues: God’s Fatherly Love in the Practice of Church Discipline (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2010), 139‒55.

Bruce Compton Bio


Dr. Bruce Compton is professor of Biblical Languages and Literature at Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, where he has taught since 1984. He received his A.B. in political science from UCLA, his M.Div. and Th.M. from Denver Baptist Theological Seminary, and his Th.D. in Greek and New Testament with a minor in Hebrew and Old Testament from Grace Theological Seminary in Winona Lake, IN.

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