The Bible makes it clear that Christians should avoid close fellowship with professing Christians, i.e., people who call themselves Christians, who are unrepentant of serious sin, including the sin of teaching heresy.
Here are some biblical texts on this subject:
In Matthew 18:15-17 Jesus teaches His followers:
“15 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. 16 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. 17 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.”
(Scripture readings in this article are from the English Standard Version.)
In this passage Jesus tells His followers during the time of His earthly ministry to treat an unrepentant sinner within the community of His followers like a Gentile and tax collector.
It is true that today we can’t follow this teaching without any modification. We live in a different era now, when Gentiles are included within God’s people, on an equal footing with Jews. So the command to treat someone like a Gentile no longer directly applies.
Nevertheless, there is no doubt that this passage contains a principle that is relevant for the whole Christian era. If it didn’t, there would seem to be no good reason why Matthew – or the Holy Spirit – decided to include the passage within this Gospel.
And this principle is surely that if a professing Christian obstinately refuses to repent, that person should be expelled from the church they are part of, and other Christians should avoid close fellowship with them.
In Romans 16:17 Paul says to the Roman Christians:
“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.”
Paul is clearly referring here to troublemakers within the visible Christian community.
And note how he tells his readers to keep away from such people.
1 Corinthians 5
In 1 Corinthians 5:1-2 Paul writes to the church in Corinth:
“1 It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. 2 And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you.”
Here Paul tells his readers to expel from the church a man who is unrepentant of serious sexual sin.
In verses 3-10 Paul continues to speak on the same general theme. And then in verses 11-13 he states:
“11 . . . 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. 12 For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? 13God judges those outside. ‘Purge the evil person from among you.’”
In this passage Paul instructs the Corinthians not to associate with any professing Christian who is unrepentant of any of the sins he mentions.
2 Thessalonians 3
In 2 Thessalonians 3:6 Paul tells the Christians in Thessalonica:
“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.”
And then in v. 14 he says:
“If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed.”
In these verses Paul directs his readers to keep away from any professing Christian who is living an undisciplined life or who doesn’t obey Paul’s instructions.
2 Timothy 3
In 2 Timothy 3:1-5 Paul writes to Timothy:
“1 But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. 2 For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, 3 heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, 4 treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, 5 having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people.”
Note Paul’s reference in v. 5 to “having the appearance of godliness.” It seems that the people Paul has in view in this passage are professing Christians. Or, at the very least, they must include professing Christians.
And Paul is clear that Timothy should avoid people who commit the sins he mentions.
In Titus 3:10 Paul tells Titus:
“As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him,”
The wrongdoer Paul has in mind here is obviously someone within the visible Christian community.
In 2 John 1:9-11 John instructs his readers:
“9 Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. 10If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, 11 for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works.”
In v. 10, when John says, “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching,” he is referring to professing Christians who teach heresy.
And note that John tells his readers not to welcome such people into their houses or even greet them.
In Revelation 2:14-15 the risen Jesus rebukes the church in Pergamon with these words:
“14 But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality. 15 So also you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans.”
It is clear that those in this church who held the teaching of Balaam were unrepentant of eating food sacrificed to idols and of practicing sexual immorality.
We don’t know exactly what the teaching of the Nicolaitans was. Nevertheless, in view of Jesus’ reference to “the works of the Nicolaitans” (Revelation 2:6) in his message to the church in Ephesus, this teaching must have involved sinful practice of some sort.
And note how Jesus criticizes the church in Pergamon for allowing among its number people who did such things. He is clearly implying that they should have been expelled.
The Bible teaches us, then, to avoid associating closely with people who call themselves Christians but who are unrepentant of serious sin, including the sin of teaching heresy.
WHY SHOULD WE DO THIS?
This raises a question, however. Why should we avoid close association with such people? What are the dangers of having close fellowship with them?
There are two big dangers.
First, there is the likelihood that we will be badly influenced.
Paul refers to this danger in 1 Corinthians 5:6. In this verse, in the context of telling his readers to expel a sinning brother from fellowship, he asks:
“Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?”
Later in the same letter, at 1 Corinthians 15:33, he makes essentially the same point when he states:
“Do not be deceived: ‘Bad company ruins good morals.’”
We should also remember Solomon, who started off so well as king, but whose idol-worshiping wives led him astray (especially 1 Kings 11:1-13).
Secondly, if we join forces for Christian work with people who are unrepentant of serious sin, it will very probably weaken the effectiveness of what we are trying to achieve. Sin and the Holy Spirit don’t mix, and in all likelihood the power of the Spirit in our ministry will be hindered.
Despite all the biblical teaching on avoiding close fellowship with professing Christians who are unrepentant of serious sin, you will often hear Christians giving reasons why we shouldn’t in fact avoid this.
The church’s reputation
Firstly, it is often said that we shouldn’t distance ourselves from any professing Christians, even if they are unrepentant of grave sins, in order to avoid visible disunity that would damage the church’s reputation in the non-Christian world.
Of course, it is good to avoid visible disunity where reasonably possible. In relatively minor matters, there is a place for agreeing to disagree with other Christians and for overlooking things.
However, in important matters, as we have seen, the Bible makes it very clear that we should separate from those who are in serious sin. It is not that we are unaware of the harm to the church’s reputation that this might cause. It is just that the harm caused by closely associating with such people is so much greater.
Trying to change people
There are also believers who say that it is good to have close fellowship with professing Christians who are in serious sin so that we can try to change them.
Again, the priority here is wrong.
It is true that it is sometimes right for us to discuss things with such people to try to get them to change their views and practices.
However, we shouldn’t associate closely with them. The Bible is clear about this, and the dangers are too great.
Another reason given for closely associating with professing Christians in sin is so that we will have more people to do Christian work.
Once again, the priority is wrong. The problems caused by closely associating with unrepentant professing Christians far outweigh what we gain by the increase in numbers.
We must bear in mind too that in God’s economy it is not always the case that more people means better results. Remember Gideon’s army. At 10,000 strong it was not fit for God’s purposes. However, when its number had reduced to 300, He was ready to use it (Judges 7:1-22).
It is the quality of our relationship with God that is most important, not how many of us there are.
There are also believers who approve of close fellowship with unrepentant professing Christians, when this will solve financial problems.
For example, sometimes the following sort of situation arises:
A church of devout Christians has financial difficulties. There is another, wealthier church in the neighborhood that is not true to the Bible in all important matters. This wealthier church is willing to join forces in some ways with the devout church and help with its financial problems. The devout church agrees to this arrangement.
Yet again, the priority here is all wrong. What is most important is for God’s people to remain close to Him and to move forward spiritually, even if financial difficulties arise. There are many wealthy churches in the world where spirituality is weak and little is achieved. On the other hand, there are many materially poor churches, where much is accomplished.
We would do well to consider the words of the risen Jesus to the church in Smyrna:
“I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich)” (Revelation 2:9).
Here Jesus is contrasting the material poverty of this church with their spiritual riches.
It is also worth bearing in mind that once a church has decided to put spiritual matters first, God might choose to solve its financial problems.
None of the above arguments, then, is at all convincing. Instead of making excuses for not following biblical teaching, we should do our best to put it into practice.
Despite all that I have said, it does make sense to think that there may occasionally be exceptional situations when it would be right to associate closely with professing Christians who are unrepentant of serious sin:
First, there may be rare occasions when those in a church who are unrepentant are the majority, and the faithful minority is not really in circumstances that allow separation. This could be the situation of the church in Sardis in Revelation 3:1-6.
Second, I think God may occasionally call Christians to work within a compromised church, to try to change things from within. This, however, would only be a task for strong, mature believers.
Third, there may be rare occasions when joining forces with those in serious sin is right because it would open an important door that would otherwise remain closed.
Even if there are rare exceptions to the rule, however, we must not allow these to obscure the rule. As a general principle we should avoid close fellowship with professing Christians who are unrepentant of serious sins, including those who teach heresy.
Christians in Western countries today often closely associate with anyone who claims to be a Christian, even when they know that that person is unrepentant of serious sin. Similarly, close fellowship is often offered to churches that teach heresy or condone sinful behavior.
However, this willingness to welcome and put our arms around every professing Christian is far from being a biblical attitude. The first century believers were taught not to do this, and the same principle applies to us today.
It is true that there may occasionally be exceptions to this principle. But unless we are sure that an exceptional situation has arisen, we should aim to follow biblical teaching in this area.
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I have been a Christian for over 30 years. I have a Ph.D. in New Testament from the University of Edinburgh. I am a UK national and I currently live in the south of Scotland. Check out my blog, The Orthotometist, at maxaplin.blogspot.com