Church discipline is intended to be a congregational rather than an individual exercise (cf. Matt. 18:17; 1 Cor. 5:4-5, 13; 2 Thess. 3:6), and obviously something is wrong when one or a few members are practicing something different from the rest. But if withdrawing from an erring Christian is necessary, whether it is done by the whole congregation or by only one person, it remains a biblical requirement and those refusing to do so are neglecting a divine mandate.
Paul, as an individual, made judgments and took action against those in error, even when others did not (1 Cor. 5:3-4; 2 Cor. 13:2-3; 1 Tim. 1:20). Granted, as a divinely-appointed apostle he was in a position to do so and had the authority to command others to do the same (cf. 2 Thess. 3:6). But one always has divine authority to do what is right. Timothy, as an individual, was instructed to “turn away from” [apotrepou - 2nd person singular] certain ungodly people (2 Tim. 3:5) and Titus, as an individual, was told to “reject” [paraitrou - 2nd person singular] a divisive man (Titus 3:10). And while a textual variant makes it less than conclusive, in 1 Tim. 6:5 (KJV) Timothy, as an individual, was admonished to “withdraw from” [aphistaso - 2nd person singular] certain trouble-makers. It must be understood, however, that both Timothy and Titus were commissioned to impart to the brethren the instructions they had received (1 Tim. 4:6, 11; 6:2; 2 Tim. 2:2, 14; 4:2; Titus 1:5, 9; 2:1-10; 3:8). Surely Paul did not expect Timothy and Titus to withdraw from wayward people without expecting the rest of the brethren to do the same. But what would have been required of Timothy and Titus if the brethren at Ephesus and Crete had been unwilling to comply with the apostle’s instructions? Surely these men would have had to individually turn away from those in error.
At this point it may be helpful to make an important distinction. No one today has the authority to single-handedly discipline another Christian or group of Christians. One may teach, caution, warn, and instruct (2 Tim. 4:2), but no individual has the power to put anyone out of the church (cf. 3 John 10). The disciplining of an errant member is a congregational responsibility and when everyone participates it is much more effective. However, when an individual (like Timothy or Titus) takes action alone, it is more for the purpose of self-protection and obedience to God than it is for disciplinary purposes. Certainly the congregation must be informed of the situation and given an opportunity to take a stand (cf. Matt. 18:15-17), but when an individual disassociates himself from another, without the participation of other Christians, the disciplinary impact is significantly weakened. Yet every Christian is under obligation to protect himself (and his family) from evil influences and to obey the Lord, whether others join him or not.
A word of caution is in order. Sometimes a person suffers from the Elijah complex, thinking he is the only faithful one, when in reality Jehovah has thousands who have not yet bowed their knees to Baal (1 Kings 19:14-18). Before hasty decisions are made, one should seek the wise counsel of mature, biblically-knowledgeable Christians. “Without counsel, plans go awry, but in the multitude of counsellors they are established” (Prov. 15:22). This is probably one of the reasons the Lord requires a plurality of witnesses before action is taken against an accused brother (Matt. 18:16; 2 Cor. 13:1; 1 Tim. 5:19; Heb. 10:28). While we need more individuals like Paul, Timothy and Titus, who are willing to stand for the truth even if it means standing alone, the church is not benefited by those like Diotrephes, who go overboard and withdraw from brethren illegitimately (3 John 9-10).
--Kevin L. Moore
Related Posts: Church Discipline, Biblical Reasons for Withdrawing, When the whole congregation doesn't consent