Paul writes in 1 Cor. 5:11, “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” (NKJV). Contextually, is the injunction “not even to eat with such a person” limited to the eating of the Lord’s Supper or the congregational meals or does it also include common meals shared in more private settings?
While vv. 7-8 may be an allusion to the Lord’s Supper, Paul says that the erring brother is to “be taken away from among you” (v. 2), therefore the words “not even” in v. 11 would be unnecessary if the Lord’s Supper is all that is in view. Nevertheless, in the immediate context Paul’s primary concern seems to be focused on the church gatherings, i.e., “when you are gathered together” (v. 4). This letter was no doubt meant to be read to the assembly (cf. Col. 4:16; 1 Thess. 5:27), and Jesus had taught that a brother requiring discipline is to be announced “to the church” (Matt. 18:17). Furthermore, abuses notwithstanding, it appears to have been a common practice for the Corinthian brethren to “come together to eat” (1 Cor. 11:33). Christians are warned about ungodly men who “have crept in unnoticed” and “are spots [blemishes] in your love feasts” (Jude 4, 12; cf. 2 Pet. 2:13). If this is what Paul has in mind, the words “not even to eat with such a person” would be a prohibition against allowing the erring brother to share in the congregational meals.
An even broader application seems to be suggested by the fact that the phrase “not even to eat with” is appended to the injunction, “not to keep company with” (NKJV) or “not to associate with” (NASB). This is in contrast to associations one might have with non-Christians (vv. 9-10), which would include the sharing of common meals (10:27; cf. Luke 15:2). Therefore, it appears that Paul is saying that social interaction with people outside the church is not prohibited, while the same interaction must be withheld from the errant Christian who is being disciplined by the church. This is further highlighted by John’s statement concerning the evil doer: “do not receive him into your house nor greet him” (2 John 10).
Bear in mind, however, that the Greek sunanamígnumi (“keep company with”) suggests more than just casual interaction. This word actually means “to mix up together” and involves being intimate with, commingling, and having friendly engagements with someone (cf. Thayer 601; H. K. Moulton 386). The prohibition in 1 Cor. 5:11 is not necessarily against the mere act of eating together, but the enjoyment of warm camaraderie often associated with sharing meals (cf. Acts 2:46; 10:41). Hospitality, mutual acceptance and encouragement are included in the concepts of receiving someone into your house and greeting him (2 John 10; cf. Matt. 5:47; 10:12-14). These positive expressions of approval are to be withheld from the unfaithful Christian who has been disciplined by the church.
To further complicate the matter, note that the only times the phrase mē sunanamígnumi (“do not keep company with”) is used in the NT is in 1 Cor. 5:9, 11 and 2 Thess. 3:14, yet in the latter passage the idea of total segregation is not enjoined -- the faithful are still to “admonish him as a brother” (v. 15). The word “admonish” is translated from the Greek nouthetéō, and whenever this word is used elsewhere in the NT, except once when it was done in writing (1 Cor. 4:14), it applies to something done in person (Acts 20:31; Rom. 15:14; Col. 1:28; 3:16; 1 Thess. 5:12, 14). What, then, does “withdraw from” entail, and what is meant by “do not keep company with” in light of the injunction to “keep on admonishing” [present active imperative] (2 Thess. 3:6, 14, 15)?
This raises some questions that probably can’t be answered with certainty. Does 2 Thess. 3:15 amend the general principle of 1 Cor. 5:11, i.e., is it permissible to eat with an erring Christian as long as some type of admonishing is done? Does 1 Cor. 5:11 amend the injunction of 2 Thess. 3:15, i.e., may one have some degree of contact with an erring Christian as long as a meal is not shared? Do these two passages suggest that the level of association is determined by the nature of the sin involved, i.e., total disassociation for sins such as sexual immorality, covetousness, idolatry, reviling, drunkenness, and extortion (1 Cor. 5:11), while some form of association is permissible when the error involves matters such as laziness, meddling, and freeloading (2 Thess. 3:10-12)?
Another factor to consider is the difference between incidental and intentional interaction. For example, an unintentional encounter at the supermarket is much different than purposefully going to someone’s home or arranging a meeting with that person. If contact with a disciplined member is intentional, there ought to be some form of brotherly admonition. If, however, the contact is not intentional, the situation may or may not be conducive to a word of admonition, but whatever might be said or done, there is no place for being rude or unkind (cf. Gal. 6:1; 2 Tim. 2:23-26). If the NT provides a blueprint or pattern for church discipline, these passages must be harmonized and judgment calls will have to be made on a case-by-case basis.
--Kevin L. Moore