One of the many epidemics among Christianity in the Western world is the problem of those who claim to be Christian but in reality aren’t: “these people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” Sadly far too many people claim to be followers of Jesus, yet their lives do not reflect their claim. As Christians we are told to flee from sin and to be holy, but what are we to do with those who claim to be Christian but are not? Is it Christian to “cut off” those who continue in sin? Or is it Biblical for churches to excommunicate unrepentant sinners from the congregation?
By simply looking in our Bibles, as well as the writings of the Church fathers, these questions can be answered rather easily. We see that sinful actions among those who claim to be believers in Christ were not tolerated by the Christian community. One who sinned willfully and continued in their sins after being rebuked by others would be cut off or excommunicated.
In Matthew, Jesus instructed His followers what to do with one who would not turn from their sins:
And if your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have won your brother. But if he does not hear, take along with you one or two more, so that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’ But if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the assembly. But if he refuses even to hear the assembly, let him be to you as a heathen and a tax collector. (Matthew 18:15–17)
I would say that is very straightforward. You try and help your brother by explaining to him his fault through three different means: individually, with a few others, and within the assembly (church). If the brother fails to change his ways or repent, then you are to treat him as “a heathen and a tax collector.”
John Wesley covered this very topic in his New Testament Notes:
If all this avail not, have no farther intercourse with him, only such as thou hast with heathens. Can any thing be plainer? Christ does here as expressly command all Christians who see a brother do evil, to take this way, not another, and to take these steps, in this order, as he does to honour their father and mother. But if so, in what land do the Christians live? If we proceed from the private carriage of man to man, to proceedings of a more public nature, in what Christian nation are Church censures conformed to this rule? Is this the form in which ecclesiastical judgments appear, in the popish, or even the Protestant world? Are these the methods used even by those who boast the most loudly of the authority of Christ to confirm their sentences? Let us earnestly pray, that this dishonour to the Christian name may be wiped away, and that common humanity may not, with such solemn mockery, be destroyed in the name of the Lord! Let him be to thee as the heathen – To whom thou still owest earnest good will, and all the offices of humanity. (John Wesley’s New Testament Notes)
Christ wasn’t the only one giving us warnings and advice on what to do with these types of brothers. Paul also teaches us in 1 Corinthians what to do:
I wrote to you in my epistle not to associate with fornicators. Yet I certainly did not mean with the fornicators of this world, or with the covetous, or swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world! But now I write to you not to associate with anyone named a brother, who is a fornicator, or covetous person, or an idolater, or abusive person, or a drunkard, or a swindler—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 will judge. Therefore “put away from yourselves the evil person.” (1 Corinthians 5:9–13)
In the above passage from Corinthians, Paul makes it very clear that we aren’t to associate with anyone “named a brother” who remains in sin. He even goes so far as to say “not even to eat with such a person.” He finishes by saying to “put away from yourselves the evil person” (NIV reads “Expel the wicked person from among you”) meaning to remove them from your lives, or for church congregations this would include removing them from the congregation.
You see, it is these types of “believers” that infect the rest of the congregation, or affect the potential future congregation. These “lukewarm” (or even cold) Christians tend to, and do, infect other Christians with their sins. John Wesley and George Whitefield termed these types as “Almost Christians,” which George Whitefield also stated were wolves in sheep’s clothing:
An almost Christian is one of the most hurtful creatures in the world; he is a wolf in sheep’s clothing: he is one of those false prophets, our blessed Lord bids us beware of in his sermon on the mount, who would persuade men, that the way to heaven is broader than it really is; and thereby, as it was observed before, “enter not into the kingdom of God themselves, and those that are entering in they hinder.” These, these are the men that turn the world into a luke-warm Laodicean spirit; that hang out false lights, and so shipwreck unthinking benighted souls in their voyage to the haven of eternity. These are they who are greater enemies to the cross of Christ, than infidels themselves: for of an unbeliever every one will be aware; but an almost Christian, through his subtle hypocrisy, draws away many after him; and therefore must expect to receive the greater damnation. (George Whitefield)
If we allow people such as this to remain in the churches or remain in our lives without rebuking and eventually removing them, we are allowing ourselves to become complacent and even partakers of their sin: “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching [of Christ], do not take them into your house or welcome them. Anyone who welcomes them shares in their wicked work” (2 John 1:10-11). You can’t accept it or otherwise you are agreeing with it; you have become a partaker of the wickedness.
Unfortunately this is what is occurring throughout western Christianity today. We willfully stand by afraid to say anything because we aren’t allowed to “judge” others (which is a terrible Christian misconception in itself). Or by disagreeing, people assume we aren’t showing the love of Christ towards others. Sadly this mentality is allowing the cancer of lukewarm (or ice cold) Christianity to further contaminate the body of Christ.
I would also like to point out the fact that the Bible doesn’t stop with those who continue in their sins, but it continues with those who carry false doctrines:
Now I urge you, brothers, to look out for those who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine which you learned, and turn away from them. For such [people] do not serve our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly, and through smooth speech and flattering, they deceive the hearts of the innocent. (Romans 16:17-18)
If we, as true Christians, believe that Paul was an apostle of Jesus and his words are part of Scripture, then we are not to associate with those who teach false doctrines (I am referring to the main foundational doctrines; there was even disagreement in the early Church about non-salvific doctrines or theories). This would include, in our opinion, anyone who has strayed from true Biblical doctrine as well as those who believe in late additions to Christianity such as Zionism, teachings of hyper-Calvinism, elements of Modern Roman Catholicism, etc.
The early Church had writings on the subject as well:
And reprove one another, not in anger, but in peace, as you have it in the Gospel. But to anyone that acts amiss against another, let no one speak, nor let him hear anything from you until he repents. Didache (A.D. 80–140) ch.15
From all such persons, therefore, it behooves us to keep aloof, but to adhere to those who, as I have already observed, do hold the doctrine of the apostles, and who, together with the order of priesthood (presbyterii ordine), display sound speech and blameless conduct for the confirmation and correction of others. Irenaeus (A.D. 180) Ante-Nicene Fathers vol.1 pg. 497
But it will be said that some of us, too, depart from the rules of our discipline. In that case, however, we count such persons no longer as Christians. Tertullian (A.D. 198) Ante-Nicene Fathers vol.3 pg.51
We must separate from a believer who lives irregularly and contrary to discipline. Paul [said] to the Thessalonians: “But we have commanded you, in the name of Jesus Christ, that you depart from all brethren who walk disorderly and not according to the tradition that you have received from us.” Cyprian (A.D. 250) Ante-Nicene Fathers vol.5 pg. 551
In our modern world of lukewarm Christianity we are told to not judge sinners, and if we excommunicate them or cut off people in our lives who continue in sin we are not loving them as Jesus does. However, by cutting off or excommunicating a so-called believer due to their sins, they are hopefully taught that sin is unacceptable for a follower of Jesus: “hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh,so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 5:5).
It is, therefore, not an act of evil or of hatred but an act of love and care for the person that you do not approve of their sins, nor does God. Not only this, but it is also for your own benefit and that of other Christians so that they will not be persuaded to partake in the sins of others. If congregations today would practice the Biblical way of excommunicating and the body of Christ itself would be more discerning of who they associate with and were more willing to rebuke others of their sins, there would be far less lukewarm Christians in the churches today.
The Church today may see the practice of excommunicating or cutting off sinners as cruel, unloving and not Christian, however, it is really the most Christian thing you can do. Not to mention the instruction of Christ and His apostles. After all, as Christians we are to spread the Gospel and warn others of sin, not sit by idly and watch them commit them. We want them to turn from Satan and the wickedness of the world and towards Christ. It’s all or nothing. There is no lukewarm Christianity. As John Wesley once stated “a half-hearted Christian is not a Christian at all.”